Sigourney Weaver, Ocean Acidification, Avatar, and the Belo Monte dam

January 4th, 2011

Sigourney Weaver is one of my favourite actresses. I first saw her as Ellen Ripley in Alien, when I was at college, and have enjoyed most of the films I’ve seen her in since.

I don’t know if it was “Gorillas in the Mist: The Story of Dian Fossey” that set her on the road to environmental awareness, but whatever got her started, she is definitely a powerful voice for the protection of our world.

Her most recent blockbuster movie, Avatar, has certainly helped throw her into the spotlight in this role, together with its director, James Cameron. Even before that film came out, she was using the publicity it was attracting to divert attention to another film, for which she is the narrator. “Acid Test: The global challenge of ocean acidification” is a Natural Resources Defence Council documentary about what has been called “global warmings’ ugly sister”, the chemical changes in the ocean that are being caused by all that CO2 we are adding to the atmosphere.

Fox News wanted to interview Sigourney about her role in Avatar, even starting the interview with some trailers from the film. But she wanted to talk about Acid Test instead, and completely took control of the interview! It’s worth watching, she was clearly not going to be put off her stride by the hosts. One could almost feel sorry for them, but me, I enjoy seeing Sigourney in those ‘Ripley’ moments!

Now, she’s turning her attention to the Belo Monte dam. This is a hydroelectricity generation project which is planned to be built on the Xingu river, in the Brazilian Amazon. She has narrated a video which describes the impact of the dam (also shown here), and invites us to sign a petition to the Brazilian government to encourage them to cancel the project.

Dams which provide hydroelectric power are widely considered to be ecologically friendly things, so why does she think this one is bad?

Well, there are several reasons. One is that this will become the third-largest dam in the world, and the environmental impacts will be correspondingly huge. Building this dam will require moving more earth than was moved to create the Panama canal, and will block almost the entire flow of the river. An area equivalent to a circle 29 km across (18 miles) will be inundated.

Native peoples will have their way of life destroyed, obviously. It’s not surprising they rely heavily on the river for transport and fish, and that they farm much of the land that will be flooded by the dam. Ecosystems will be totally destroyed too, with several species that live only there doomed to extinction.

Of course, not all species will suffer, malaria mosquitos are expected to thrive in the new expanses of still water.

The dam is also destined to be one of the least efficient in the world. During the dry season, it will produce only one tenth of its maximum capacity. The annual average output will be less than 40% of the nominal capacity. In order to raise the efficiency, the Brazilian government needs to construct more dams upstream, to control and regulate the flow of water all year round. In fact, there are more than 60 large dams planned for the amazon basin over the next 60 years. That’s a staggering number!

Many people are hoping for a sequel to Avatar. For the people of the Xingu river, if the Belo Monte dam gets built, there will be no sequel, their world will be gone. So if you can spare 10 minutes, take a look at the video. Then, if you agree with me that this dam is a bad idea, please sign that petition!

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Rescuing birds

September 23rd, 2010

great tit recovering on my hand

great tit recovering on my hand

A few days ago, a great tit collided with our living room window. It’s always heart-wrenching to hear the thud of a bird against the window, fortunately it doesn’t happen often. This poor fellow was on his back for a while, moving only slightly, and we weren’t sure if he would make it or not. But what do you do when this happens? Should you leave the bird to recover on its own, or try to help it?

Michelle, at Rambling Woods – The Road Less Travelled, is a great source of practical advice in such matters. She posted an article earlier this summer about a study by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on why birds hit windows, and what you can do to prevent it. Just last week she posted a detailed guide on how to help an injured bird, covering everything from songbirds to raptors!

There’s a lot more to it than meets the eye, if you really want to maximise the chance that a bird will survive you need to know what you are doing with it. Bookmark that page if you think you may ever need to help a bird! Michelle herself seems to be quite a dab hand at helping wildlife, just a day after posting the guide, she and her husband managed to rescue a great blue heron. That’s a 4-foot high bird with a wickedly pointed beak and lightening reactions. Definitely not something I would want to tackle. Well done, Michelle!

I hadn’t read her bird-rescue article when our great tit had his collision, it came out just a day or two after I needed it. But Dweezeljazz and I do know the importance of making sure the bird is safe and warm, while not adding to its stress by handling it if that can be at all avoided. We have cats in our neighbourhood that have been known to come into our terrace, and a stunned bird would be easy pickings for them. It was also a cool day with a fresh breeze, and since the bird wasn’t showing much sign of recovery, we decided we had to try to help it.

I went out and picked him up to keep him warm in my hand. He was conscious, and responded by looking at me, but was happy to stay in my hand. After some time, we decided to bring him indoors and put him in a box so he could recover there. As Michelle points out in her rescue-guide, bringing a bird indoors is perhaps not the best thing to do. If it panics indoors it could injure itself again trying to escape. That’s why we kept the box right by the door, ready to open the door the moment he showed signs of wanting to leave.

He was actually so relaxed on my hand that I didn’t want to force him off, so I stayed there, letting him sit as he wished. I was worried he might have broken a bone because he sat with one leg forwards and one backwards for some time, so I didn’t want to force him to move in case I injured him even more.

Eventually he righted himself on my hand, then a few minutes later he hopped onto the rim of the box. We opened the door, and he flew away. We were both very relieved that he seemed to be OK.

I think we saw him again an hour later. The great tits like to take sunflower seeds and perch on the bamboo canes in the garden, holding them between their toes while they hammer at them with their beaks. We saw one who was a little unsteady on his feet, using his wings to stop himself wobbling from time to time, as if he was having trouble using a hurt foot. Other than that, he seemed fine, taking several seeds one after the other. My guess is he’s going to be OK, and that makes us both very happy.

great tit on bamboo cane

great tit on bamboo cane

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My new friend

August 28th, 2010

Rover looking at me

Rover looking at me

This is my newest friend, a pigeon I call ‘Rover’. Why do I call him that? Because of the way we met.

Standing in the food bowl

Standing in the food bowl

Dweezeljazz and I go for a walk most mornings. About a week ago, we met Rover. We’d not been walking long, and had only gone about 200 metres, when a pigeon came flying out of nowhere, right past my face, and landed on the ground at our feet. He didn’t seem to be fussed by suddenly being so close to two humans, so we exchanged pleasantries, and went on our way.

He started to follow us. I thought it was just a coincidence, but then he flew to catch up, landing just behind us, and walking determinedly in our direction. This happened a couple of times until we got the message, he wanted to be with us.

Why he chose to follow us, we don’t know, but we figured there must be something not right for that to happen. So we turned round and headed back home, to see if Rover would follow us. He did! He kept pace with us back along the road, into our car park, past two cats that were not sure what to make of it all, and onto our terrace. I felt like I’d just taken a dog for a walk, so I decided to call him Rover.

Rover stayed for some time, happy to be near us and avail himself of some of the birdseed we put out in the mornings. When we came indoors to leave him in peace, he made a point of looking up to see if we were still there every few minutes, as you can see in the photos.

Looking at me again

Looking at me again

We could see that Rover had a small injury on his right foot, and what looked like a bump on the head. He also seems to be very young, many of his feathers are not fully developed yet.

I guess he’s recently fledged and finding his way in the world, and has had a near-miss of some sort. Why he should turn to us for help I do not know, maybe word has gotten round that birds are welcome in our garden.

Rover made himself at home, even settling down on the ground to sleep right next to us. Eventually, he decided to move on, and flew away. We wondered if we’d see him again, and sure enough, he came back that evening.

He’s become a regular visitor now, morning and evening. A couple of days ago we met him on the street again, when he tried to land on my hat as we were returning from our walk. I think he likes us.

Taking a drink

Taking a drink

He shows no fear of us, though he is still wary of sudden movements and noises. He is quite happy to stay on the terrace while I put out fresh seed for him if there’s none there when he arrives.

Rover indoors

Rover indoors

A few days ago he even flew in through the open terrace doors, landed on the coffee table, and proceeded to make himself at home! You can see him here, perched on a painting on top of an easel, calmly looking at me standing right next to him (sorry for the grainy photo, the light was dim and we didn’t want to turn on more light in case it scared him).

He proceeded to investigate much of the living room, flying from one place to another. We had some difficulty persuading him to leave, I’m sure he would have happily spent the night if we’d let him. Eventually we coaxed him outside, where, after a decent meal, he flew off into the trees.

He’s been back since, and I hope he continues to visit. I don’t want him to become tame, that wouldn’t be fair to him, but I do want him to know that he’s safe and welcome here, and that we’re happy to see him.

Pigeons have something of a bad reputation, but once you’ve met one in person, you realise that they’re every bit as pretty and elegant as other birds.

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Good Morning Deer!

August 18th, 2010

Deer in the undergrowth

Deer in the undergrowth

Every morning I open the shutters and take a look at what the world has to offer for the day. We have a good view of the Jura, and often have beautiful sunrises or sunsets. Early in the morning, before people are up and about much, there’s also a good chance of spotting some interesting wildlife.

Deer close-up

Deer close-up

I’ve seen squirrels in the trees, and foxes nearby, especially in winter. We saw a weasel at the edge of our car-park just a week or so ago, that was a first. We also get to see a large variety of birds throughout the day, the magpies are especially bold early in the morning.

Just occasionally, off in the distance, we’ll see a deer making his or her way slowly back up the hill, leaving us humans to our noise and bustle. We don’t often see them, and they don’t tend to stay long.

This fellow, however, has become something of a regular. He’s been here several mornings of the last two weeks, ambling around slowly in the bushes right next to our terrace. He’s nowhere near as shy as other deer, and doesn’t run away at the sight of people. He takes his time, wandering back to the trees and away into the forest as if he owns the place.

Maybe he does.

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Neighbourhood Watch

August 6th, 2010

magpie on nearby barn roof

magpie on nearby barn roof


This spring, we had the inescapable feeling that we were being watched. Somewhere nearby, we felt, someone was keeping their eye on us.

magpie coming for peanuts

magpie coming for peanuts

Sure enough, we were being spied on by this magpie. He’s watching us to see when we put out peanuts on the garden wall. As soon as we do, the moment we turn our backs to walk back indoors, he comes down, takes one, and flies off with it. He has to be quick, because he is not the only one who knows about the peanuts. Someone else knew about them first.

We first put out peanuts for a crow that started visiting us in late winter. He took an interest in our garden when he saw the peanuts we were putting out for the birds. He would perch on the fence, looking in, trying to summon up the courage to come into the small, enclosed space. Sometimes he would come down and take one. Often, he was too wary to actually come down, so missed out on a treat.

magpie departing with a peanut

magpie departing with a peanut

We noticed that the crow has a damaged leg. He hobbles on it and is clearly somewhat handicapped, which we think may have made him more shy and cautious than he would otherwise be. So to make things easier for him, we put the peanuts on the corner of the garden wall, a more exposed place where he would feel safer coming to get them. He would fly to the fence, take a look around, then hop down to the wall and take some nuts.

crow sitting on the fence

crow sitting on the fence

He soon learned that if there weren’t any peanuts there, we could be trained to put some out for him. All he had to do was come to the fence, make sure that we knew he was there, then retreat to safety while we came out into the garden. He would watch us through the window, sometimes calling out to get our attention, and only fly off when he saw us get up. Not stupid, this bird!

For a while, the crow had things to himself. Free peanuts for breakfast, and through the day whenever he wanted them. Ahh, the good life! Eventually, however, the magpies, nesting nearby, spotted what was happening, and came to get in on the act. After that things got really interesting, watching how the birds behaved. The magpies would watch the crow come for his first peanut, and as soon as he left, they would come down and help themselves to as many of the remaining nuts as possible. From there, things just escalated.

crow coming in to land

crow coming in to land

crow looking for peanuts

crow looking for peanuts

The crow would often eat his first peanut there on the wall, with the magpies sitting just a beak-length away. The crow is bigger, so can keep the two magpies at bay. After his first peanut, he would pick up two more in his beak, and fly off to enjoy them at leisure. The magpies then came in for the rest.

Then the magpies chicks fledged, two of them, making four magpies in the family team. The crow had to be quicker coming in, and also tried to be more discrete. Sometimes he could get most of the nuts before the magpies spotted him from the trees, but if he was slow off the mark, the magpies would take the lot very quickly.

Eventually he took to sitting on the roof of the barn at dawn, watching for me to open the doors to the terrace and put out the first peanuts of the day. Then he’d be in like a shot, the moment I turned round to walk away. If the magpies weren’t around, he’d take his first peanut away and hide it in the nearby bushes, then come back for more. If the magpies got there before him, they too would often take some away to hide, and often in the same bushes! There must be quite a stash of them there by now, if they haven’t forgotten about them. Or maybe they’ve all been found by our nightly hedgehog visitors, they doubtless patrol those bushes too.

crow with one peanut

crow with one peanut

Since the weather warmed up, over a month ago, our crow has stopped coming. We haven’t seen him around for a while now, he’s probably moved on to the fields for more usual fare. The magpies came for a while longer, especially the youngsters, but now we don’t see any of them very often. It’s been a real treat to see the young magpies growing up, steadily becoming more confident and adept, just like human children.

magpie back for more

magpie back for more

I expect that, come winter, our magpies and our crow will be back. I hope so, they’ve made life a lot more interesting around here. It’s amazing how smart they are, in the ways that they figure out how to keep ahead of the competition, and in the ways that they manage to train us to do their bidding.

In case anyone is worried that we may be taming these birds, we’re not. They remain as wary as ever of people, and won’t stay anywhere near when we’re outside. Our role is strictly that of peanut-providers, and we know our place!

Jasmine with some apple

Jasmine with some apple

Not that this crow is the first bird to train us, oh no. Jasmine, our African Grey, had us trained long ago. I remember when she first said “Some apple, Jasmine”. She was just beginning to learn the phrases we used, and to associate them with actions in the real world. I turned around in surprise when she said this, only to see her looking straight at me to see if those words meant what she thought they meant. They did, and she got her apple!

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An Unusual Farm

July 4th, 2010

I know of a farm where they don’t feed the animals. They even allow predators to roam freely, taking up to one fifth of their stock. And they’re proud of it.

That sounds pretty awful, but it’s not, it’s actually very good news. You can hear all about it in this video of a talk by Dan Barber. Dan is a New York chef who is quite outspoken in his views on the way we produce food today. He’s also a nice guy, which comes across clearly in the video. If you’d rather read a transcript, here it is.

The farm Dan talks about is Veta la Palma. It’s a fish-farm on the Guadalquivir river, in Spain. It produces 1,200 tonnes of sea bass, bream, red mullet and shrimp each year. Miguel Medialdea, the farm’s biologist, explains that they don’t need to feed their fish because of the way the farm is set up.

Miguel himself says that he is not an expert on fish, but he is an expert on relationships. By working with nature to build a sustainable ecosystem, instead of working against it to maximise profit, Veta la Palma produces fish in a way that also benefits the wildlife of the region.

In fact, their farm is one of the most important private estates for bird life in Europe. Before the farm, there were only 50 bird species there, now they count 250 species. This includes flamingos that commute 150 miles daily from their nesting sites to feed there, following the A92 highway.

If that’s not a recommendation for the quality of the fish, I don’t know what is!

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Underwater Photography

May 23rd, 2010

scorpionfish

scorpionfish


Issue 54 of Underwater Photography magazine dropped into my inbox recently. Underwater Photography magazine is a free electronic publication by Peter Rowlands (thanks Pete!). Don’t be fooled by the cost, it’s a highly polished publication, worthy of attention by anyone serious about getting into the water with a camera.

When it comes to taking photographs underwater, there’s lots of good advice out there about technique and equipment. I don’t consider myself to be an expert in underwater photography, but I’ve picked up a few simple tips that I haven’t found mentioned anywhere else, so I’d like to share them with you.

I’ve used two cameras underwater, a Nikon Coolpix 990 in an Ikelite housing with an attached strobe, and a Canon Ixus 400 in Canon’s own WP-DC800 housing.

The Ikelite housing is a work of art, but it’s big, and when you dive with it, you can’t ignore it. The controls are big and chunky, easy to manipulate even if you’re wearing thick gloves – which I wasn’t, since I only used it in the Maldives, where you’re not supposed to dive with gloves. It doesn’t wobble around in your hand, you can get a good grip on it thanks to its large handles.

The Canon housing is much smaller, and has correspondingly smaller controls. It could conceivably fit into the pocket of your BCD, though I wouldn’t recommend that as it can be uncomfortable when you inflate your BCD. I prefer the Canon housing for it’s compactness, though I found the Ikelite easier to use in some ways, precisely because of its size.

Clownfish at Giraavaru Thila

Clownfish at Giraavaru Thila

So what have I learned about using them? Firstly, one of the most important pieces of kit for underwater photography is your dive-buddy. A buddy who knows what you want to photograph, and helps you find it, is a great asset. It’s all too easy to get engrossed in taking photos and to forget to look out for your buddy as you do so, so it’s important to have your buddy in tune with what you’re doing and how you dive.

Your buddy can help in other ways too. For static subjects, having your buddy illuminate the scene with a diving-lamp is a great help. You shouldn’t rely on flash alone to light your subject for several reasons. For one, it’s not nice to the fish to just set off a flash in front of them, if there’s a constant source of illumination they can at least adapt to it, and the flash is then less of a glare. Using flash to supplement the light, instead of as the main source of light, is kinder to them.

Whitemouth moray (Gymnothorax meleagris) at Giraavaru Thila

Whitemouth moray (Gymnothorax meleagris) at Giraavaru Thila

It’s also very hard to frame the photo well in the viewfinder if it’s poorly lit. With your mask and the camera-housing between you and the screen, your view is somewhat restricted. Having the scene well lit by a buddy helps enormously. Of course, many shy creatures won’t stay around for the light, but if anything, the noise of your bubbles will probably scare them more than the light.

If you’re relying on autofocus, again, a well-lit scene is important. But even then, modern cameras can easily get confused underwater. Floating particles in the water can distract the camera, and it may have a hard time identifying the subject. This is especially true if you are trying to photograph something at the back of a hole, or hidden away somewhere in a coral reef. If you know what you are looking for before you dive, you might want to lock the camera focus at an appropriate distance, and simply press the button when you are at the right distance from your subject. That still leaves some guesswork, but at least the camera isn’t hunting for focus, draining the battery all the time.

If you do leave autofocus enabled, you can help the camera by setting it to focus only on the centre of the scene, instead of letting it guess which part of the scene you are interested in. It’ll probably guess wrongly underwater, and you can always crop the finished photograph to re-frame the subject.

The reef at Kihaa Rock

The reef at Kihaa Rock

Perhaps the best tip I have come across, thanks to Antonio, formerly of Ocean-Pro Dive-Team in Coco Palm resort, is to dive without the camera in the housing!

No, seriously, if you haven’t used the camera housing for a while, since your last diving holiday for example, consider taking the housing down without the camera in it first. That way, if there are any aging defects that will cause leaks, you get to find out about them without ruining your camera. You should test the housing to the maximum depth that you intend to use it, just to be sure. Thanks for the advice, Antonio!

These suggestions may not help you take the greatest photos ever seen, but I find they increase my success-rate for casual shots considerably. I hope you find them useful!

Giant moray (Gymnothorax javanicus) with cleaner shrimp

Giant moray (Gymnothorax javanicus) with cleaner shrimp

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Night Patrol

May 16th, 2010

two hedgehogs eating peanuts

two hedgehogs eating peanuts


Our terrace is inspected every night by the local night watch. They go over every inch of the grounds, looking for intruders that shouldn’t be there. They’re quiet and unobtrusive, doing their work efficiently and without supervision.

They first appeared a couple of months ago, not long after the last snows melted here. We first found evidence of them in the droppings they left behind. When it comes to animal droppings, I don’t know – much, but a few minutes with google confirmed that these were likely the work of those cutest of creatures, the hedhehog.

Sure enough, it turns out that we have not one, but two (at least!) that come round for a nightly visit. Around 10pm each evening they squeeze under the garden gate, help themselves to a meal (breakfast?) of peanuts and sunflower seeds, then set off on their rounds.

(These photos are rather poor quality because they were taken without flash, so they are several-second exposures. I don’t like to use flash on animals, especially nocturnal ones.)

When we realised who it was that was visiting us at night we started putting out more nuts for them, instead of just letting them have the leftovers from the birds. After all, the birds don’t leave much! At first we left peanuts in their shells. The hedgehogs made short work of them but also left something of a mess, with bits of shell everywhere. After looking around the internet for information on how to feed hedgehogs, I found very little that talked about peanuts. So I contacted the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, to ask their advice.

Fay Vass promptly replied, telling me that unsalted peanuts are fine, but that they should be chopped or crushed, as whole or half-nuts can get stuck in the roof of their mouths. Thanks for the advice, Fay, they now have a diet of chopped nuts and sunflower seeds to start their evening.

You might think that the British Hedgehog Preservation Society is a small group, tucked away in some quiet place in the English countryside. Small they may be, but that hasn’t stopped them from taking on McDonalds over their hedgehog-unfriendly packaging, successfully persuading them to redesign it so hedgehogs can’t get stuck in it. Good for them!

So now, thanks to the British Hedgehog Preservation Society, our local night patrol is well and safely fed. They eat for 15-20 minutes, then they’re off on their rounds, keeping our terrace slug-free.

And the best thing of all is that they work for peanuts!

...still eating...

...still eating...

...and off on patrol

...and off on patrol

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Mystery plant

May 9th, 2010

Mystery plant

Mystery plant


Does anybody know what this plant is called?

It appeared in pots filled with fresh compost this year, so I’m assuming the seed was in the compost. It started growing as soon as I filled the pots, in March, so it seems to be pretty hardy. I left it there, because the leaves look pretty, and I wasn’t ready to plant anything else there, but now the time has come to decide it’s fate, so I’d like to know what it is!

Here are a couple more close-up views. The leaves have no scent, even when crushed. If anyone has an idea what it might be, I’d love to know!

close-up

close-up

another close-up

another close-up

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Nuclear power and radiation exposure: should you worry?

April 25th, 2010

Mention nuclear power to someone, and, of course, the subject of radiation exposure comes up. Radiation is a subject that, rightly or wrongly, strikes fear into a lot of hearts. But why?

Koeberg Nuclear Power Station
Image by Mark H via Flickr

Some people believe that there is no level of exposure which is safe, and that any radiation of any kind must be avoided. Some believe that nuclear power stations emit radiation, much as coal-fired stations emit smoke. Political parties like Europe Ecologie even claim, in their manifesto, that we should abandon nuclear power in France because of the radiation it puts out. These views are very widely held, but is there any truth in them?

I don’t think so. I think that radiation exposure can be perfectly safe providing the level is low enough, because zero exposure is simply not possible. You and I are exposed to several sources of background radiation on a constant basis, and I feel just fine, thank you very much! Let me tell you about some of these sources.

One source is my own body. No, I don’t glow in the dark, but like all people, my body emits a low level of background radiation. Potassium and carbon isotopes present in the body contribute about one tenth of the total radiation we receive.

Radiation also reaches us from outer space, and it comes up from the ground. It varies from place to place, but there’s nowhere on earth that you can avoid it. Medical procedures, such as x-rays and scans, also contribute to our exposure.

What if we stay indoors, and never go to the doctor? Alas, that might not help. Many things found indoors emit low levels of radiation. Granite, which we might use for our kitchen workspace, is one example. Natural gas, which we use to heat our homes and cook our food, is another. Radon, a naturally occurring radioactive gas, can build up in confined spaces such as homes. Radon accounts for fully half of the exposure we get. So staying indoors might well increase your exposure!

Many buildings, such as Grand Central Station in New York, have higher than average background radiation levels, because of the materials they were constructed with. The radiation emitted by Grand Central Station exceeds the levels allowed for a nuclear power plant. Think about that next time you’re waiting for a train!

Taking the plane may not be much better. Airline pilots and frequent flyers can receive twice as much radiation as those of us who stay on the ground, because the thinner air at high altitude provides less protection against radiation from space.

What about nuclear power stations, how much radiation do we get from them? Not much. About 0.014%. That means that, of your daily dose of radiation, nuclear power accounts for 12 seconds worth. Nuclear power plants may actually reduce your radiation exposure, because the fossil fuels they displace emit more radiation than they do!

Of course, too much radiation is dangerous. Radiation can and has killed people. But it’s the dose that makes the poison. You can enjoy a beer or a glass of wine from time to time without long-term effects, but drink a bottle of whisky a day and you can expect your liver to pack up. You can smoke the occasional cigar with no worries, but smoke 40 cigarettes a day and don’t be surprised if you end up with lung cancer. So many of the things that we encounter or enjoy in everyday life are toxic in large quantities, yet we don’t notice any adverse effects if we keep our exposure low.

So, you and I are surrounded by radiation, wherever we are and whatever we do. It’s not because we have nuclear power stations, either, the dose they give us is nothing to worry about. Is there any form of radiation that does cause me concern? Well, yes, there is. I try to avoid getting sunburn.

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