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My New Adventure

By A. G. Moore


A little less than a year ago I embarked on a new endeavor.  This undertaking was less about ambition than it was about awareness of fleeting opportunity.

Readers of this site know I’ve had lupus for about twenty-five years.  Like most people who negotiate a bout of serious illness, I gained valuable insight from the experience: time is a gift of the present, not the future. At any moment the future may be snatched away. So I use the present, every moment of it, as fully as ability and physical setting allow.

My latest adventure is a joint project with my daughter.  This collaboration is enormously satisfying, as is the work itself.  I volunteered to write books for my daughter’s fledgling business.  Her company, Rhythm Prism Publishing, produces books that enrich and educate people of various ages. The ideas for the books are mine; there are no other writers on staff.

So far, we’ve put out ten books; six of these are educational books for children.  Topics are chosen very carefully. These are not narrow in focus but lend context to world events.  There are biographies of Marie Curie, Florence Nightingale, Jonas Salk and Rabindranath Tagore.  There is a book on radioactivity and one remarkably brief discussion of the modern British Empire. Two writing manuals and a companion teacher’s guide are also available.

I love to write, so it is not surprising that I share this love.  Not only are there writing manuals for children, but there are two guides to writing designed for adults who would like to put together a record of their lives.

My only compensation for all this writing is the benefit it may give my daughter and the great pleasure I get from the activity itself.  I don’t know when I will write my last blog, or my last book.  Whenever that is, I won’t be taken by surprise.  My future will not be snatched from me because I’m living it right now.


Photo credit: Hiromichi Matsuda (松田 弘道) August 9, 1945: Atomic cloud over Nagasaki.

Cancer Risk and Exposure to Radioactive Material


Ever since the first atomic bombs were detonated in 1945 there has been an ongoing  debate about the  hazards of exposure to radioactive material.  On one side it is argued that any exposure presents a risk to health.  On the other side it is argued that the risk of exposure is exaggerated by an anti-nuclear lobby. However, both sides agree on this point:  at very high doses radioactive material can sicken and even kill.

Below the acute level, the debate usually centers around the link between exposure and cancer. Research on the nature of this link has been a global endeavor since 1945.  In order to interpret the results of the research, a basic understanding of cancer genesis is necessary.

Simply put, cancer is the consequence of abnormal cell reproduction.  Tissue–such as skin, lungs, gut–are comprised of cells, which are themselves made up of molecules. The basic building block of a molecule is the atom.

Ionizing radiation–radioactive energy–damages cells on the atomic level (that is, it damages the atom). What this means is that the very structure of an atom–and therefore of a cell–can be altered when it is exposed to radioactive material.

Routine cell death is essential to healthy tissue. It happens all the time. There are two kinds of cell death: programmed (expected)  and traumatic (unexpected).  In either scenario, dead cells must be cleared from the bloodstream and replaced if an organism is to continue to function well. It is in the replacement of dead cells that the risk of cancer lies.

Replacement is supposed to be an orderly process. The directions for this process are contained in the cell’s DNA. But what if the DNA has been damaged and the directions for replication are garbled?  What if a replicating cell receives the wrong message and doesn’t reproduce properly?  In that event, a cell may form something that is like the original but is in some way ‘strange’.

Let’s take the liver as an example.  Liver cells replace themselves through replication.  If, however, the DNA of the replicating cells is somehow damaged, the new cells don’t come out exactly right.  These ‘strange’ cells may then survive and replicate, creating more imperfect cells, like themselves.  These ‘strange’ cells do not perform the functions of the liver, because they’re not designed to do that. And yet, they  remain in the liver, replicating, forming tissue–‘strange’, invasive tissue. That would be a cancer.

Of course there’s a lot more to cancer than this simple description suggests. But essentially, this outline describes how cancers may begin. Inherent in this process is the potential for metastasis.

In the case of metastasis (cancer has spread to another part of the body) the ‘strange’ cells hitch a ride in the bloodstream and travel to other sites in the body.  There they take root, replicate and once again become invasive. Metastatic liver cells metastasize most commonly in lymph nodes, bones and lungs.

Back to the debate about the link between radioactive material and cancer: Radioactive material interferes with cell replication because it has the ability to change the structure of an atom: it does this through ionization.  Ionization involves stripping electrons from the outer shell of an atom.  When that happens, electrons become free agents. These electrons can travel around doing mischief.  They may link with other electrons and break chemical bonds. This breakage can occur inside DNA, the critical reservoir of information for cell replication.   Damaged DNA will give the wrong instructions to a replicating cell. The consequence of this error may be the production of a cancer cell.

Of course, cancers develop in the absence of ionizing radiation. Cells make mistakes all the time. They reproduce so often that mistakes are inevitable. Sometimes the mistakes, or mutations, benefit an organism. These mutations may be kept because they may enhance the chance that a species will survive.  Sometimes, however, a mutated cell is not cast off and does not benefit an organism. The cell may take root in tissue and begin to propagate right alongside normal cells.

To be sure, the fact that ionizing radiation can cause cancer doesn’t mean it does cause cancer. This link must be proven if it is to be accepted as established fact. The proof, evidence strongly suggests, may be found in experience and data derived from that experience.

Ever since the atomic bombs were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki researchers have been collecting health statistics on survivors of the blasts. About 200,000 of these have been tracked. This is a disparate group: dose levels varied greatly. There were both male and female, young and old victims.   All of the information collected on survivors–dose level, age, gender–was analyzed.  By comparing the health profiles of these individuals with profiles of those who were not exposed to the blasts, scientists believe they’re able to approximate the health risks of exposure to radioactive material.

A few things appear to be certain: there is a link between exposure to ionizing radiation and cancer.  Existence and severity of effects are dose-dependent: those who receive the highest doses are most likely to develop a cancer at some point. Age at the time of exposure is also important. The younger the person at time of exposure, the more likely  that cancer will someday develop. Gender plays a role: women experience more adverse health consequences than men.

Although the discussion in this essay is about the link between cancer and exposure to radioactive material, data from survivor studies reveals that health consequences were not limited to cancer. Among the conditions noted to occur at elevated levels in the survivors are: cardiovascular, digestive, neurological and thyroid diseases.

“Safe” dose guidelines that exist today have been derived from A-Bomb survivor studies.   It is these “guidelines” around which so much of the current debate revolves. This is a debate usually left to ‘experts’.  Perhaps, though, given the stake that everyone has in the establishment of safe guidelines, more of us should get involved in this debate. Perhaps it is time for a little self-education, because everyone is potentially affected by the decisions of the ‘experts’.  This is a conversation in which we should all take part.

For more information on radioactivity, an easy-to read book: What is Radioactivity?The Basics

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 Niels Bohr and the Atomic Bomb


bohr einstein

(This article was adapted from the book What is Radioactivity? The Basics)

It would be difficult–perhaps impossible–to write about the development of atomic science without mentioning the contributions of Niels Bohr.
While Ernest Rutherford is credited with describing the nucleus of an atom, it’s Bohr who gave him the clue as to how electrons are arranged on the outer shell of the atom.
Niels Bohr collaborated with many of the most important physicists of the 20th century. In the picture above, he is shown with Albert Einstein. Not only did the work of both men contribute to the development of the atomic bomb, but both were refugees from Nazi ideology.  In fact, if it hadn’t been for the Nazis in Germany and Hitler’s genocidal policies, these two scientists probably never would have added their voices to the chorus that urged the bomb be built.
Bohr was born in Denmark. When Germany invaded Denmark, Bohr fled to Sweden and, when Sweden became unsafe he fled with his family to England.  In the race to unlock the power of the atom, Niels Bohr played a critical role, but he was only one of several people who were responsible for understanding how nuclear fission worked. Energy derived from nuclear fission–splitting the atom–powered the atomic bomb.
It was a colleague of Bohr’s, Otto Frisch, who came up with the term ‘nuclear fission’.  Before 1938, the two words ‘nuclear’ and ‘fission’ had never been put together.
Frisch worked in Bohr’s Copenhagen laboratory.  Frisch’s, aunt, Lise Meitner, was  a remarkable physicist. Before 1938, she had been working with German scientists. These physicists and chemists were trying to split the atom and unlock the enormous energy contained within.  However, Meitner was forced to flee from Germany and leave her research in ’38.  It was then that she met up with her nephew, Otto, in Stockholm and told him about the work  her German colleagues were doing.
Frisch was excited. He and his aunt discussed the issues that prevented the Germans from making progress.  Together, Frisch and Meitner came up with a solution. They discovered a way to unleash the power of the atom.
Frisch contacted Bohr, who was in the US at the time.  Bohr told American scientists about the German efforts to make a bomb and about the progress Frisch and Meitner had made toward splitting the atom.  This information was the final push that led to the American and British determination to build a bomb. The feeling was,  if Germany was so close to owning the weapon, the world was in danger.  The scientists, and the governments who hired them, believed the US and Britain needed to get the bomb before Germany did.
Ironically, Germany never did make an atomic bomb, despite the progress Meitner had witnessed when she worked there. Germany’s failure, many believe, was the result of Nazi ideology.  All the Jewish scientists, including Meitner, Einstein and Frisch, had to leave the country. And, many excellent scientists who might have helped to build the bomb were ordered instead to join the military.  This ‘brain drain’ likely resulted in the failure of Germany’s nuclear program.
Once the US and British governments made the commitment to build a bomb most of the brightest nuclear scientists aided in the effort.  One who did not, who refused to build such a weapon, was Lise Meitner.  As a matter of fact, to the end of her life she expressed regret for the contribution she made to physics which enabled the bomb to be built.

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