A giant lizard of the pop culture?

That’s what Gloria Goodale calls it. Nuclear radiation in pop culture: more giant lizards than real science.

Anxiety over nuclear radiation isn’t new, and purveyors of pop culture have profited handsomely. But even with more serious films on the subject, the public is still largely ignorant of the science.

It’s not just the public. Look at all the headlines about radiation found in milk this morning.

Films such as the Godzilla franchise that began in 1954 depicted the first radiation-mutated lizard destroying Tokyo in the Japanese version, and the “Incredible Shrinking Man” in 1957 showed a sailor who navigates through a mysterious cloud and soon shrinks to nothing.

Don’t forget Them! about those ants in the New Mexico desert.

Movies and comic books have come up with a visual equivalent of radiation, says Rob Latham, associate professor of English at UC Riverside, who teaches a course in 1950s science fiction.

“Giant ants or Godzilla are a visual symbol of radiation,” he says. “The actual monsters produced by radioactive radiation are a spectacular way of visualizing radioactivity since you can’t actually see it. Having Godzilla come from the ocean or giant ants running around Los Angeles from the desert is a way to represent the effects of an invisible force.”
Radiation was seen as beneficial

Radioactivity was not always seen as a negative power. In the early days of radium research, it was considered beneficial. Early uses included such popular items as “radium suppositories,” points out Mr. Latham.

Those therapies didn’t work out so well.

Back to the milk: there is a reason for finding radioactivity in milk. That is because it is radioactive, just like bananas and most other things in our close environment. What the headlines are probably trying to say is that one or two atoms of stuff that probably came from Japan have been found in the milk. The key item to note in that is just how precise a measurement can be made when it comes to things radioactive. That is one reason why radioactive material is easier to clean up. It is the pollutants that are hard to detect that are more difficult to deal with.

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