tuesday rant

I'll be adding items to this as the day goes on, no doubt.

My first rant is the poor use of science in the media. The reason this is on my mind is that I recently caught up on my West Wing episodes. I've been recording it but not watching it for about 3 months and I caught up with the show this last Thursday and Friday. I watched 8 episodes and one of the subplots was a California nuclear reactor almost had a meltdown.

As part of the solution, President Bartlett had 2 engineers enter the plant with protection gear to open stuck valves allowing the coolant water to enter the containment vessel. This would expose them to large amounts of radiation even with their protective gear.

As it turned out, there was one further repair needed and President Bartlett had to decide whether to have the two engineers already in the facility to make that repair or to send new engineers in. He decided to have the engineers already inside make the additional repair--knowing this would put them well past the maximum allowable radiation dosage levels. As a result one engineer died fairly quickly of radiation poisoning and no doubt the other one would follow.

The problem I see here is that I find it difficult to believe that a President, with all his advisers, would make such a foolish mistake. Hollywood scriptwriters, on the other hand, I can see making this mistake.

All animals on the planet, including humans, have the ability to repair damage to ourselves from radiation. It's not an unlimited ability but we can repair some damage. It's a damn good thing since we're bombarded constantly by a number of different types of radiation, mostly natural, every day. For that reason, there are levels of radiation that are quite safe for us to encounter--and levels that become increasingly dangerous up to the point where the level is fatal.

On West Wing it would have been fairly safe to send a number of teams into the facility on a rotating basis so no one team had really high levels of exposure. Probably the scriptwriters were thinking in terms of exposure to lethal biological agents where it's all or nothing--you get the disease or you don't. In a scenario like that, it can be considered optimal to expose very few people and isolate them from the rest of the population afterwards. The repair people would be sacrifices to keep everyone else safe.

Radiation, on the other hand, is gradual damage to the body and limited radiation exposure to many repair people is the way to operate. Nobody dies.


Belinda said…
Oh, boy, I can see this becoming a big feature in this space! Wheeee!

What about, in that episode of "The Simpsons," when Homer prevented a core meltdown by manually venting the gas into a nearby cornfield, and then got stuck in the reactor's entry hatch? Now, THAT was science!!

*belinda ducks and runs*
utenzi said…
Excellent episode, Belinda. Homer is one amazing fellow. Of course, how Mr Burns keeps that plant operational is beyond me! He's got some very wacky employees.
Teresa said…
Not to belittle your concern and I only half-watched that episode, but my concern at the time was more about leakage out of the plant rather than overexposure of one team. I also found it odd that the President was making the call.
Uisce said…
My favorite show, and it's about to disappear. At least I've found a new addiction -- Lost. Yeah, it's hard to watch a show with so much realism do something you know just isn't right. There was something on the most recent episode that struck me that way, and now I can't even remember what it was! :/
Yaeli said…
Maybe the script writers wanted the guys to die. The point of the epsode could have been that even the most influential people stuff up and make bad calls.

The other thing... It's TV. They don't call it fiction for nothing.

:o)I've missed visiting you. I'll have to come back more often.
MissMeliss said…
That drove me crazy, also. As to LOST, I don't know if you watch it, but I really want to know why there aren't bloody battles every week over 40+ people sharing a single shower.
Lora said…
In my recent watching of plots missed from the 4th season of West Wing I picked up a several scientific inaccuracies too. Just about drove me nuts. I know it's just TV, but good writers know that the better your research and more believable you make your story the more people will enjoy it and respect it. I've decieded that the 4th season is when West Wing lost it's magic.

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