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Saturday, October 20, 2007

Mythbuster's To Test Cockroach Radiation Tolerance

Mythbusters to test cockroach radiation myth:
After a nuclear holocaust, would cockroaches really be the last creatures standing?

That's a question for the same people who've tested whether you can jump in a falling elevator to save yourself, whether throwing a toaster into a bathtub really will electrocute someone and whether dropping a penny from a skyscraper is lethal.

A team from the Discovery Channel's Mythbusters is at the Hanford nuclear reservation this week to get to the bottom of the nuclear survival myth.

"It's been on the original list of myths since day one," said Kari Byron, one of the Mythbuster stars, who came to town with Grant Imahara and Tory Belleci.

The show not only had to find a place to do the testing, but it also had to convince the Discovery Channel that it could be done safely.

"People are just scared when they hear radiation," Byron said. "Too many zombie movies."

The crew is using an irradiator in the basement of Hanford's 318 Building just north of Richland. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory usually uses it to calibrate dosimeters and test for radiation damage on equipment such as video cameras and fiber optic cables.

But Thursday afternoon, Byron and Imahara were moving uncooperative cockroaches into a specially built roach condo to be exposed in the irradiator.

"I had to put myself in quite the mindset to do it," Byron said.

The experiment required 200 cockroaches sent to Richland by a scientific supply company.

"They're all laboratory-grade. Farm fresh," Imahara said.

Fifty will get no radiation so they can be used as a control group. Another 50 will be exposed to 1,000 rad of radiation, the exposure that's lethal to humans.

It gets worse from there for the bugs. The next 50 will be exposed to 10,000 rad and the final to 100,000 rad.

They'll be compared against flour beetles and fruit flies that will get equal radiation exposures.

But it was the roaches causing the team grief as they tried to corral them inside a set of tiny blocks arrayed to make sure each got the same radiation exposure.

"They are very fast. They are very aggressive. They want to get away," Byron said. "They are opportunists."

"Frustrating" and "gross," Imahara said.

All the bugs will go back to San Francisco. But instead of flying, a Mythbusters employee is having to drive the bugs back. Airlines, it seems, don't like cockroaches on a plane.

They can't fly in the baggage hold without upsetting the experiment.

"We have to maintain reasonable temperature and humidity so they don't go into shock," Imahara said.

The bugs will be watched over the next couple of weeks to see how soon they die.

"Contrary to popular belief, not a significant amount of research goes into cockroach radiation," Imahara said.

But scientists do know that cockroaches and other insects do not have all the complex organs that humans have that can be damaged by radiation.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory agreed to play host to the visit in the interest of science education. Staff donated their time, including workers who took vacation time to operate the irradiator. Mythbusters showed their appreciation by meeting with laboratory staff and their children to answer questions as part of a food drive for the Tri-Cities Food Bank.

The show, while perhaps best known for exploding outhouses and cement trucks, presents good examples of scientific method and encourages developing a questioning attitude, said Michelle Johnson, a technical group manager for the national lab.

"(Viewers) should learn that things don't glow if exposed to radiation," she said. "And they won't be radioactive after being exposed to radiation."

But will the roaches grow really, really large?

"Some of our staff do believe in comic book logic," Byron said.

And if that happens, it will be a really good show, she said.

The episode should air in about four months.


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