Irrational Fear Is Killing You

Kate Hitchcock, MD, PhD


January 28, 2022

New technology scares people into doing silly things. We've certainly had a clear illustration of that in recent months.

Over their Christmas vacation in 1938, two physicists named Meitner and Frisch took a walk in the snow and discussed some recent confusing results from experiments among their scientist friends. With the relaxed minds that only a vacation can give us, they assembled the pieces of the puzzle and in January published the first description of the concept of nuclear fission (see note below). Following that fateful stroll, the genie was never going back in its bottle, but the story of its incredible powers could have taken many different routes to common culture.

Unfortunately, by that time World War II was, if not fully in swing, an absolute inevitability. Their discussion predated formal declaration of war between Great Britain and Germany by only 8 months. The US wasn't in it yet but that same year, hearing that Hitler was working on creating a fission-driven bomb, FDR created the agencies that later coalesced into the Manhattan project. Those crazy guys set off the first nuclear bomb despite not being entirely certain that it would not ignite the entire atmosphere, destroying every living organism on the face of the planet. I guess from there, a path of calm rationality was not in the cards.

As you know, after that the US government did its best to keep knowledge of nuclear science heavily classified, even as their desire to fund rapid growth of the Cold War nuclear armamentarium made them keep "duck and cover" on everyone's minds day and night. The result was a few million people taught terror of radioactivity while having no idea how it actually works. At least the resulting B movies are entertaining.

One downstream effect of this course of events is that I am forced to watch people commit suicide in front of my eyes. Back in the days of Oppenheimer and crew, radiation therapy was already an established method for curing cancer, having been used for that purpose since the 1890s. Following the war, Manhattan Project scientists like Charles Lauritsen and Lester Skaggs used their hard-won knowledge to rapidly expand the use of radiation therapy in this country, but it was already a 50-year-old treatment by the time they started.

The subsequent secrecy and fear-mongering, though, were incredibly powerful in shaping public perception. So powerful that every radiation oncologist in the world has had the experience of looking someone in the eye and saying, "I can cure your cancer and save your life," then receiving the reply, "No, I don't want radiation."

Too much practice has made me better at fighting this. "The radiation from this machine is called gamma radiation. It's the same as the sunlight that falls on you every day," I tell them. Except for my fellow scientists and university faculty, most did not know this before I told them. A fission reactor is simpler to understand than an internal combustion engine, but nothing ends up being understandable if it's never taught. Lately my secret weapon of last resort is, "In the last second, 100 trillion neutrinos have passed through your body. You're getting radiation just sitting in this normal clinic room with me. And when you go home, you'll still be getting radiation ALL THE TIME."

These days, I can persuade most people to consider radiation therapy as a treatment option. I don't want to actually talk them into treatment. It's their body and therefore completely their decision. I just want them to make that decision with rational fact and logic, not fables and wild supposition. The ones I've lost, though, will haunt me forever. I'm sure some of them I never even get to meet because they refuse to schedule an appointment simply to speak with me. The same people who will knock down the door to persuade a doctor to chop off part of their body, or pour literal poison directly into their veins, end up leaving me waiting in the clinic while they run to the restroom because just talking about radiation gives them anxiety diarrhea.

There is only one thing that will fix this. As we've clearly seen over the last couple of years, science education in this country needs a huge boost. Understanding of nuclear science should be front and center in that effort and is 100% appropriate for kids all the way through school. It's not brain surgery.

As a fun aside, Creature from the Black Lagoon was filmed at Silver Springs, Florida, a site that still exists as a nearly unaltered piece of the previous century. You should come ride the glass-bottomed boats that have been enjoyed there for more than 150 years — there is evidence that both Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman visited after they got done shutting down a little treason, for example. Fans of James Bond and a great many other movies and shows will recognize it when you get there. Plus the ice cream is to die for.

As a less fun aside, the discovery and first description of fission was yet another instance in which a Nobel Prize was awarded to male scientists with no acknowledgement of a woman who was key to the work and who arguably contributed more than the recipients.

Photos of Silver Springs, FL, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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About Dr Kate Hitchcock
Kate Hitchcock, MD, PhD, is a radiation oncologist, biomedical engineer, and retired aircraft carrier driver who grew up as a Wyoming cowgirl. When she is not at the hospital, you can find her with Carolyn, Mary, Tyler, Nick, Marlee, and Colby the barking dog, enjoying the natural splendor of the great state of Florida. She thinks you should visit sometime and try to solve the puzzle of why the natives have so carefully shunted all of the tourists toward the House of Mouse. Connect with her on Twitter: @hitchcock_kate


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