Sunburn and bowling balls

This is a roundabout post in memory of Dr. John Gofman, the ‘father of the anti-nuclear movement’.

A nanosecond is one billionth of a second.

In a billionth of a second, light travels one foot.

A picosecond is a trillionth of a second.
One millionth of one millionth of a second.
A billion times faster than a second. [wiki]

That’s the time taken for light to move one millimeter.

Our cells can be damaged in a trillionth of a second.
By scanning DNA molecules, by looking over the molecules using equipment that can “see” the position of the parts of us that are rapidly vibrating at these incredible speeds, scientists have seen DNA get ‘sunburned’.

The damage happens with astounding speed — in less than one picosecond, or one millionth of one millionth of a second. The journal Science, reported that the damage depends greatly on the position of the DNA at the moment the UV strikes the molecule.

Striking a molecule?
That’s what Dr. John Gofman was warning us about.

A pioneer at Lawrence Livermore and the Stanford Linear Accelerator, a pioneer on the health effects of radiation, a co-discoverer of uranium-233, and an articulate and effective critic of the safety aspects of the U.S. atomic energy programs, Dr. Gofman traveled the world with this warning,

“Most particles go right through us. But we truly need to worry about the occasional ‘bowling ball’ that can wreak havoc as it collides with one of the molecules in our body.”

Dr. Gofman passed away this week at the age of 88.

His obituary in the LATimes says that John Gofman was “Often called the father of the antinuclear movement, Gofman and his colleague at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Arthur R. Tamplin, developed data in 1969 showing that the risk from low doses of radiation was 20 times higher than stated by the government.

“Most of their conclusions have subsequently been validated, but critics say the risks have been ignored by an electric power industry that sees nuclear energy as a pollution-free alternative to fossil fuels and by a medical industry that continues to use much larger amounts of radiation for medical tests than are required.”

Dr. John GofmanDr. John Gofman (second from left), the first Associate Director for the Biomedical Program at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, is shown discussing an abnormal chromosome pattern in malignant cells.

“He always stood up for the integrity of science,” said Charles Weiner, professor emeritus of the history of science at MIT.

“He was really an original voice” in the debate over the risks of nuclear power, Weiner said, “someone who was an insider in nuclear weapons production who was very highly regarded by leaders in the field . . . and who brought credential, credibility and authority.”

Until his death, Gofman’s position continued to be that there is no safe level of exposure to ionizing radiation.

“Licensing a nuclear power plant is, in my view, licensing random premeditated murder.”

Dr. Gofman was familiar with atomic radiation. He created some of the first plutonium, the raw material used by Robert Oppenheimer for the atomic bomb under the Manhattan Project

John Gofman was a strong and gregarious man that I very much enjoyed as a friend. I distinctly recall our conversation about random particle ‘bowling balls’ that can destroy a cell or propel it into accelerated growth as cancer.

As a craft builder in the early 70s, I spent much of a year creating interior trim and custom furnishings for his San Francisco home. The extensive interior was hand built of almost 100% coastal heart redwood which ironically ended my construction career because of sequoiosis, a pulmonary disease caused by long term exposure to particles of redwood dust.

The space inside an atom
Here’s more about atoms and particles. It’s true that most cosmic particles and atomic radiation will pass through us, as well as natural background radiation from the earth.

Proportionately, there is more empty space between an atom’s nucleus and its first electron than between the Sun and Pluto!

When you figure out how to use this awkward page at Phrenopolis, you’ll see an atom from the inside. You’ll gain an elementary sense of the space inside an atom. The author says,

“I used to think that things like rocks and buildings and my own skeleton were fairly solid. But they’re made up of atoms, and atoms, as you can see here, contain so little actual material that they can barely be said to exist. We are all phantoms.

Here’s a YouTube exploration of the space inside an atom and why particles go through us, most often.

This video segment adapted from A Science Odyssey uses models, vivid descriptions, and analogies to explain the structural integrity of matter at the atomic level.