The New York Times website has published an alarming interactive map that shows a massive plume of radiation moving across the Pacific and reaching Southern California tomorrow. The map was created by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization, an arm of the United Nations. The text around the map explains—in bold type—that the map does not indicate levels of radiation, and that the plume would be so dilute by the time it reaches the U.S. that it would have “extremely minor health consequences.” But unfortunately, the picture is going to be far more powerful than the words. For a dispassionate look at the health impacts of radiation, see our story today.
Here’s what’s wrong with the map. First, is uses a logarithmic scale: parts of the plume indicate radiation levels that are several orders of magnitude lower than others. The yellow parts of the map show levels that are one thousand times higher than the purple ones. But just looking at the map, you wouldn’t notice this at first. The levels all seem pretty close to each other, in part because of the gradual differences in color between them. Second, the map uses “arbitrary units.” We have no idea whether even the highest concentration parts are dangerous, let alone the dilute parts. But given data from Japan, even the highest concentrations shown are at levels that are not dangerous to human health. The levels that reach the U.S. would be far lower. They might be just barely detectable above natural background radiation.
Yesterday in Japan, at the gate of the severely damaged Fukushima plant, radiation levels were at a few millisieverts per hour. The levels rapidly drop to a few microsieverts moving away from the plant. Judging by the scale of the map, the yellow sections—the most intense—would likely correspond to microsieverts. Radiation sickness doesn’t set in until a person has received a dose of about 1 sievert—a million times more than a microsievert. But, of course, this is all a guess, because the map doesn’t provide the data. All it gives is relative concentrations, and those are misleading.
The gene-edited pig heart given to a dying patient was infected with a pig virus
The first transplant of a genetically-modified pig heart into a human may have ended prematurely because of a well-known—and avoidable—risk.
Saudi Arabia plans to spend $1 billion a year discovering treatments to slow aging
The oil kingdom fears that its population is aging at an accelerated rate and hopes to test drugs to reverse the problem. First up might be the diabetes drug metformin.
Yann LeCun has a bold new vision for the future of AI
One of the godfathers of deep learning pulls together old ideas to sketch out a fresh path for AI, but raises as many questions as he answers.
The dark secret behind those cute AI-generated animal images
Google Brain has revealed its own image-making AI, called Imagen. But don't expect to see anything that isn't wholesome.
Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review
Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.