Radioactive Reflections – A Radiochemist’s Take on Nuclear Power, Frog Legs, and Cigarettes

radioactive-svgWhen Eerika Häkkinen was young, she used to carry a “Nuclear, No Thanks” -badge with her wherever she went. Later she began to study chemistry at the University of Helsinki, and thought that majoring in radiochemistry would be a great way to come up with more informed arguments against the technology – but by the time she finished her studies, her outlook on nuclear power, and radioactivity in general, had quite changed.

Eerika is a good friend of mine, and her story was influential in making me view nuclear power and radiation risks in a more nuanced way. I wished to share some of those perspectives with you, and Eerika kindly agreed for me to interview her. Continue reading

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On the Nature of ‘Natural’


Rocket flower for my breakfast sandwich from my balcony garden. Eating beautiful things from nature is the epitome of ‘natural’.

Is something good because it’s natural? The word natural is often used when we want to convey something good, and imply that the object of discussion is not, in some way, the product of a humans-only process. To note, this common definition of the word makes the assumption that humans are something unnatural, which is an interesting starting point for reflection on its own right. The term natural, however, is rarely used when describing something with unwanted consequences – no matter how clearly they may also not be the result of any human intervention – instead it comes into the picture when talking of something that is wholesome, normal, healthful, or acceptable. You don’t hear people referring to a ‘natural food poisoning,’ say, or a ‘natural contamination with mold.’

This gives the word a skewed presentation, making ‘natural’ seem rosier than it may be.

For a contrast, consider this quote from the Daily Beast:

It is the natural course of type-1 diabetes for the patient to waste slowly to death, but nobody questions the benefits of exogenous insulin.

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IARC Under Fire from Scientists: Mission Outdated, Methods Lacking

Considering recently published scientific reviews on the International Agency on Cancer Research (IARC) concerning their methods and overall mission, as well as their specific conclusion on glyphosate, I thought the topic deserved an update of its own. I have written about glyphosate, cancer, and the IARC earlier, in my series 17 Questions on Glyphosate.

Much media and public attention has followed after World Health Organisation subgroup IARC has declared things like processed meat to be in the same class of cancer hazard as plutonium and tobacco, and red meat and glyphosate in the class 2A, “probably carcinogenic,” same slot where also fall “work as a hairdresser” or “manufacturing glass”. Apart from many sensationalist headlines, there has also been a fair amount of media criticism, like this in-depth piece from Reuters. What is confusing to many, is that IARC does not actually look at risk: how big is the risk for said carcinogenic effects? What levels are safe and what aren’t?

Many expert toxicologists have weighed in on the lack of scientific justification for the simplistic division of substances (and a wide array of other circumstances, such as occupations) into non-carcinogenic and carcinogenic, without consideration for drastically different levels of potency and modes of action. On top of that, there are also several concerning aspects about how the IARC handled the specifics around the review of several cases, such as meat, or cellphone radiation, as brought up in the Reuters piece, and particularly concerning glyphosate: they excluded much available evidence from the review, and misinterpreted results of some of the studies they did include.

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The Perils of Science Speak

What would you say if you were worried about chemical X in your environment, and to reassure you, someone told you:

Scientists finished their devious plot called project ABC, which looks at chemicals in our homes to see if they are drastically toxic. After careful tampering of the data, they present their hunch about what they think is mostly responsible for making things toxic. […]

They end by saying that if they made no mistakes, X and Y should not have important visible toxic effects, and these chemicals are probably not harmful to us.

Does that sound very encouraging? Well, that ‘information’ is my tongue-in-cheek translation to laymen-terms of a hypothetical sample of ‘science speak’ which I wrote based on bits and pieces which you well might find in scientific papers, and with the help of this little ‘conversion table’ from the feature article Communicating the science of climate change, in Physics Today in 2011:


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Mothers for Nuclear – My story

screen-shot-2016-10-02-at-21-12-25Mothers for Nuclear is a new environmental organization started by two mothers, Heather Matteson and Kristin Zaitz, to organize pro-nuclear mothers to speak out and begin an international dialogue about nuclear power and environmental protection. Like them, I used to be skeptical of nuclear power – I am Finnish, and I grew up very aware of the Chernobyl nuclear accident. After learning more, however, my perspective has changed. My story about how I came to support nuclear power was published originally as one among their many eye-opening Nuclear Narratives over at the Mothers for Nuclear blog. 

I grew up in Finland, where I was never far from a forest. Nature and animals were my first love, and books the second. It was not an uncommon thing for me to go out in the forest with our dogs and climb up a tree to find a good place to read.

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Research On Infant Feeding Favours Having Options: Breast and Bottle


Fresh new parents are a on a roller-coaster ride of emotions. Exhausted, happy, uncertain, afraid, panicking. Every decision seems like life and death. I vote for giving them the best evidence-based support we can, while holding the judgement.

After the introduction of modern formula in the mid-20th century, for a time in the developed world, breastfeeding was almost shunned upon. Today the balance is well shifted and breastfeeding is recommended to all mothers who are able to do so. But just how pronounced are the benefits of breastfeeding compared to formula?

I was recently prompted into taking a closer look at the science of breast vs formula feeding once more by a good friend who works as a consultant to mothers with breastfeeding issues, manages breastfeeding forums, gives talks on the topic and also blogs over at Milk and Motherhood. She is the most compassionate and supportive person I know, and she is uncomfortable with the political pressure to strongly promote breastfeeding, while all she would like to do is to allow women to fulfil their personal dreams of motherhood, whatever they might be. I find this to be a great sentiment, especially in the light of the available evidence: it is in the best interest of mothers and their babies that we are allowed to use both methods of infant feeding. Depending on the situation, breast and bottle-feeding both have their own set of benefits. Babies as well as mothers are worse off if the access to either of the options is culturally sabotaged. Continue reading

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Some times

Time-traveling through life. A short story added to my online Fiction folder. Sometimes I need to leave the world of science behind, shake things up, and let those loose associations run wild. It’s funny how I appreciate the systematic rigorous nature of the scientific endeavour, but when I get to be creative, it’s mostly about mad worlds, magic, and metaphysical somersaults of logic.

If you, like me, enjoy playful ramblings about time, bizarre remarks about the metric system, and strange sensations of multiple personalities, here you go: Some times.

The great sci-fi author Kurt Vonnegut once wrote: ‘Billy Pilgrim has become adrift in time’.

This sentence has remained etched in my mind, popping up in my thoughts at the most curious moments. I feel I have developed a bond with dear Billy over the years, and with his help, in this particular point in time, I would like to make another point about time, if Mr. Vonnegut would allow me to borrow him a little. I am convinced that Mr. Vonnegut is, or at the moment, was, a person filled with sympathy for his struggling fellow writer, and would look kindly upon my loan. I promise to return Billy in the best of conditions, at most a little rattled by the additional experiments with time which we plan to put him through, but frankly that would be nothing new to Billy.


Riding on the emergent arrow of now

I hope that Billy, being an experienced time traveler, like most of us, will be up to the challenge. So, Vonnegut wrote ‘Billy Pilgrim has become adrift in time’, when in fact I would like to argue that Billy, like most of us, is tightly entwined to the only time that anybody has: the now.

But we humans, one could say, are very promiscuous creatures when it comes to time—we are not satisfied with the now that we have. We brazenly keep flirting with any number of moments in the past and present all the while having the particular one with whom we are mostly intimately involved. Continue reading

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