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寻找“隐秘”辐射物的人

更新时间:2018-4-24 20:57:14 来源:纽约时报中文网 作者:佚名

The man who hunts 'hidden' radioactive objects
寻找“隐秘”辐射物的人

It began with an online video. Andrew Walker had watched as a collector of radioactive objects showed off the items he had procured over the years, such as antiques containing uranium. Walker thought that looking for such pieces ‘in the wild’ might make an interesting and unusual hobby – so he bought himself a Geiger counter.

一切始于一个线上视频,安德鲁·沃克(Andrew Walker)看到视频里一位收藏家展示了自己收集多年的辐射物,比如含铀的古董。沃克觉得,在户外找这种东西,也许算得上是一个有趣而不寻常的爱好,于是他给自己购置了一台探测辐射的盖革计数器(Geiger counter)。

He quickly realised, as scientists will tell you, that radioactivity is everywhere. The first elevated reading he got was in the parking area at a Mexican fast-food restaurant in Idaho. “I noticed that when we pulled in there, my Geiger counter was going off,” he recalls. Something nearby was flinging out the tiny subatomic particles that make up radiation in slightly higher quantities than might be expected – and though he couldn’t figure out what it was, Walker was suddenly aware of this otherwise invisible activity.

他很快发现,正如科学家所言,辐射无处不在。第一次从计数器上读到升高的指数,是他在爱达荷州一家墨西哥速食餐厅的停车场里。“我发现我们一进去,盖革计数器就响了。”他回忆着。这是因为盖革计数器测量到附近能产生辐射的亚原子粒子的量略高于正常数值。虽然沃克无法搞清楚这是什么回事,但他马上意识到,这就是人类肉眼见不到的辐射现象。

After that, he began looking for other intriguing examples.

之后,他开始寻找别的有趣的样本。

His pursuit of radioactive objects is still a hobby. By day, Walker is a cinema projectionist and a film-maker, not a scientist. But he enjoys sharing some of his finds on Twitter and Instagram, where he can discuss them with others who are similarly curious.

直到今天,找寻放射性物体仍是他的爱好。白天,沃克并非科学家,而是电影放映师和制片人。不过他热衷于在Twitter和Instagram分享自己的发现,在那里他可以和同样感兴趣的人探讨。

Radioactivity is something we live with constantly – it’s always there in relatively small amounts. Around the world, naturally occurring, higher-than-average levels of radioactivity are found in various types of beaches and soils, among other places. Meanwhile, most concrete is radioactive, though levels obviously vary. In the US, it is possible to get your home tested for radon gas – which is produced slowly over time by radioactive construction materials. Even the human body is slightly radioactive because we contain elements like potassium-40, which decay.

辐射一直和我们生活在一起,它一直存在,只不过数量相对较少。在全世界的大自然中,比起其他地方,高于平均水准的辐射存在于各种各样的海滩和土壤中。而且,大部分混凝土是有放射性的,只不过程度不一。在美国,在家中说不定就能测出氡,因为放射性建材会随着时间慢慢释放这种气体。即使我们的身体,也有轻微的放射性,因为人体含有像钾-40这种会衰变的元素。

Walker lives in Bozeman, Montana. He later discovered a curious historical fact: slag containing small amounts of uranium and radium was used in the past for concrete used in construction in his neighbouring state of Idaho. He wonders whether this led to his readings outside the Mexican restaurant.

沃克住在美国蒙大拿州的博兹曼。他曾发现一个奇怪的史实:在隔壁的爱达荷州,含有微量铀和镭的矿渣曾用作混凝土原料。他很想知道,在墨西哥餐厅外盖革计数器的数字上升,是否就是这个缘故。

Walker likes to plan trips to local areas where he thinks he might find interesting material. If he does, he then documents his discoveries. There are plenty of old uranium mines (and now deserted uranium mining towns) in the US and Walker has visited some of these on his travels.

沃克喜欢策划一些短途旅行,去一些他觉得能发现有趣材料的地方。如果真的有所收获,他就会拍摄记录下来。美国有大量的老铀矿,这些发迹于采铀的镇子现在都荒废了,沃克在旅行途中探访了不少这种地方。

He also began frequenting antique malls. “At every antique shop I have ever gone to so far, I have always been able to find something radioactive,” he says.

他还开始出入古玩市场。他说:“迄今为止我去过的每一家古玩店,总能发现一些有辐射的东西。”

These items include “Vaseline” glassware, which contains uranium and is a striking yellow-green in colour. But he’s also found orange-red plates and bowls that were coloured with a uranium-based dye and which often produce even stronger readings. The US government guidelines advise against using such crockery for food or drink, though the health risk of simply owning these items is negligible.

这里包括含铀的“凡士林”玻璃器皿,呈现出鲜亮的黄绿色。他还发现了用含铀的染料涂成橘红色的碗碟,用计数器能测出更高的辐射指数。美国政府建议大众,饮食时不要用使用这些器皿。不过若只是用来收藏,那其健康风险是还是可以忽略的。

Then there are watch and clock faces with glow-in-the-dark paint that contains radium. Such objects are relatively safe as long as they are not taken apart, but the women who made them in factories would often hold their paint brushes using their lips. This caused them to ingest small amounts of the radium paint. As a result, many developed serious illnesses including bone cancer in their jaws.

此外,钟表中的夜光涂料也含有镭。只要不拆开,这种东西还算安全。不过钟表工厂里的女工经常用嘴衔着画笔,这就导致她们摄入了少量的辐射涂料。结果,很多人得了重病,包括颌骨骨癌。

This is why Walker tries not to put himself at any unnecessary risk. Regarding his mildly radioactive crockery, he says, “If they weren’t radioactive I’d probably have them out, but they’re tucked away.”

这就是为什么沃克尽量避免不必要的风险。关于他那些辐射比较温和的器皿,他说:“它们要是没有辐射,我八成会拿出来,不过现在也只好藏起来。”

Still, his new hobby has intrigued friends and family. “They ask why am I going to these places and exploring this stuff,” he explains with a laugh. “It’s something I’m interested in; it’s just fascinating.”

沃克的这个新爱好一直令亲友们十分好奇。“他们问我为什么要去这些地方,探索这种东西,”他笑着解释道,“我就是很感兴趣,就是很着迷。”

He’s even found a few local landmarks, including public buildings like train stations, where the tiles produce slightly elevated levels of radioactivity – again, presumably a result of having been made with particular dyes or glazes.

他甚至发现,在一些当地的地标物,比如火车站等公共建筑里,瓷砖的放射性略高。这也很有可能是用了特殊的染料或釉料所致。

Geiger counters are easy to make – so much so, in fact, that some hobbyists assemble their own and experiment with finding sources of radioactivity with which to test them. Walker himself bought one for $1,300 (£930), a RadEye meter that detects alpha, beta and gamma radiation (see box, “What is radiation?”).

其实,盖革计数器很容易制作,以至于许多爱好者会自己组装,再寻找放射源来测试。沃克自己花了1300美元(约10000港币、8000元人民币)买了一台可携式计数器,来测量阿尔法(α)、贝塔(β)和伽马(γ)辐射。(请参阅下文中的“什么是辐射?”)

Radiochemist Nick Evans at Nottingham Trent University points out that radioactivity can be measured in a variety of different ways. One approach is to observe the rate of nuclei decaying over time; the international unit used for this is the Becquerel. But people may be more familiar with measurements in Sieverts (or indeed Microsieverts or Millisieverts).

诺丁汉特伦特大学放射化学家埃文斯(Nick Evans)指出,放射性可以用各种不同的方式来测量。一种方法是观测随着时间的推移,原子核的衰变速率,测量这个值的国际单位是“贝可”。不过人们更熟悉的测量单位可能是“西韦特”(或者说是“微西”)。

This is the effective dose of the radiation and the unit Walker uses. However, Evans says that the standard way of taking these readings is actually to hold the Geiger counter one metre away from the source so that objects’ radioactivity can be compared accurately.

这是沃克使用的辐射单位和辐射有效量。不过埃文斯说,读取放射性数值的标准做法,应该离目标源一米处测量,以便精确比较物体的放射性。

High energy

高能量

The fascinating thing about Walker’s expeditions is the ease with which he has found so many examples. Evans says this is partly a legacy of industries that treated radioactivity as a potential marketing ploy in the decades following its discovery in the late 19th Century. It was quickly capitalised on as a potential selling point for weird and wonderful new products.

沃克探索之旅的有趣之处在于轻轻松松就发现这么多样本。埃文斯说,一部分是以前的工业遗留下来的。19世纪发现辐射现象后,许多行业在之后的几十年中,将辐射作为一种潜在的市场商品,很快,辐射就成了稀奇古怪的新产品的潜在卖点。

“It was very, very different to anything else,” says Evans. “It was sort of mystical and people obviously wanted to try all sorts of things with it, play with it, if you like.”

“它非常、非常与众不同,”埃文斯说,“它有点神秘,显然人们干什么都想用上它,如果你喜欢,还能把玩把玩。”

Some of the things manufacturers came up with are mind-boggling today. Take radioactive suppositories, for example, a ‘treatment’ with no actual grounding in medical science. Surely there are safer ways to restore “your normal manly vigour”.

有些生产厂家造出来的东西,放到今天简直难以置信。比如放射性栓剂,一种毫无医学依据的治疗法。其实,明明有更安全稳妥的办法来恢复“你作为正常男人的精力”。

But that wasn’t the only health-related product seeking to help patients to a dose of decaying atoms. There was also radioactive toothpaste and even condoms.

这还不是唯一用衰变的原子来帮助病人的保健品。还有放射性牙膏,甚至是放射性安全套。

“I’ve no idea what the thinking behind those was,” says Evans of the latter. “I have a tin of them – not that I use them, I hasten to add.”

“我搞不懂这是怎么想的,”埃文斯提到安全套,“我有一堆,不过我没有用过,赶紧声明一下。”

The notion that increased doses of radioactivity could somehow be good for you is still with us today. There is a spa in the Austrian Alps called Bad Gastein where people can visit the humid tunnels of a former gold mine and sweat away their ailments – while breathing radon gas.

到今天,“提高辐射量可能对我们有益”这种说法还一直存在。奥地利阿尔卑斯山有一个名为巴特加斯的温泉浴场。人们可以走进曾是金矿的潮湿隧道,通过吸入氡气并排汗来远离疾病。

Many scientists have long bemoaned the public’s instinctive distrust of anything to do with radiation. Anxiety associated with it is exaggerated, argue some. Indeed, dangers like pollution don’t spark the same sense of trepidation and yet pollution kills millions of people every year. One study found that, in stark contrast, only 190 people died between 1980 and 2013 as a direct result of overexposure.

一直以来,对于公众本能地不信任与辐射相关的任何东西,许多科学家都相当惋惜。有人说,与之相关的焦虑被夸大了。的确,像污染这种危险,尽管每年致死数百万人,却没有引起同样的恐慌。一项对比鲜明的研究发现,从1980年到2013年,只有190人直接死于过度暴露于放射环境。

Walker says that many fears increasingly seem “irrational” to him thanks to his explorations. On the other hand, of course, his treks and antique shop visits really just show off how ubiquitous radioactivity really is.

沃克说,多亏自己的探索,他才发现人们对辐射的很多恐惧是 “非理性”的。另一方面,他出入于古玩店、徒步旅行,也确实说明了辐射真的是无处不在。

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