By Dr. Gerald L. Looney, MD, MPH (member of EFN)

Feb. 21, 2003

In the beginning, earth was without formulas or physicists, yet purely a product of nuclear physics. Few seem aware that the greatest contributions of this reputed new science are actually ancient history since they occurred at the beginning of the universe 13.7 billion years ago, but remained unknown and unacknowledged until the past century when mankind finally discovered this most elemental of all sciences. Predictably, it was labeled a new science and presumed to be somewhat manmade and under man’s dominion and control. Hasty scientific hypothesis and public dogma held that nuclear phenomena with ionizing radiation were hazardous at any level, and that man must be shielded and protected from this "new" hazard. This is highly ironic, since the truth of the matter is that man is a product of nuclear energy, not vice versa, and now this less familiar but more accurate reality will form the basis of this discussion. Later pertinent findings in astrophysics as well as in the medical sciences have been announced piecemeal and as scattered reports to a variety of audiences, so they have never grabbed worldwide attention as vividly and singularly as the atomic bombs in WW II when man seemed to claim control of his destiny, for better or worse, and then made hasty assumptions based on very limited information, assumptions he has been loathe to revise or reject even in the face of refuting data.

While generations of students and scientists have learned about radioactive decay and the half-lives of various radioactive elements and isotopes, virtually no one has turned the telescope around and discussed or documented the reverse view: the same number of half-life years taken back into the past produces a double-life, a doubling of radioactivity for these elements and an incremental terrestrial background level many times higher than today’s levels. The Big Bang nearly 14 billion years ago at the formation of the universe transformed energy into matter and produced a profusion of simple hydrogen atoms which still populate the earth and universe to this day and along the way served as the building blocks of subsequent larger elements, including the vital carbon and oxygen. Nonetheless, 10 billion years passed before the first life forms appeared on earth. Part of this delay was undoubtedly due to the early inhospitality of this planet to the initial generation of life, as well as to the subsequent preservation and propagation of primitive single-cell organisms. However, there was another essential biologic requirement for these early simple organisms: the necessity to tolerate and adapt to the inherent risk factors of early earth such as ionizing radiation, a sort of Radiologic Imperative necessary for life.

The possibility of such an imperative was never considered by science or society following the new and startling discovery of these mysterious rays and it was arbitrarily decreed that ionizing radiation is intrinsically dangerous at even the lowest levels. To guard against any risk or hazard, scientists settled on the Linear No-Threshold (LNT) Hypothesis for radiation protection by extrapolating risk data from high-level exposure down thru lower levels all the way down to zero exposure, a level which has never existed on earth except in specially shielded containers with artificial environments. And this is the biggest surprise and best-kept secret of all: a man isolated in such a chamber and secure from extrinsic background radiation would still experience significant intrinsic irradiation from himself. The human body, instead of being the chaste and inviolate vessel of biologic purity devoid of and unpenetrated by ionizing radiation, is actually its own radioactive repository and beehive of ionizing rays with an intrinsic level of 9,000 kBq for the average 150 pound human. At this level, the body is experiencing more than 8,000 disintegrations per second, a million ionizing rays every two minutes, thirty million per hour, and three-quarter billion per day. Thus, if a nuclear power worker and his family were "protected" in some hypothetical shielded environment, he would still receive more ionizing radiation from snuggling next to a sleeping spouse for eight hours than he receives from a full 8-hour shift at work. This defies the original popular image of the human body as a radiosterile structure and the resulting widespread assumption that any ionizing ray within this structure represents an isolated disruptive burst of thunder and lightning which blasts and damages biologic tissue and leaves a smoldering scar waiting to later burst into a consuming fire of malignant destruction. A more accurate view is that these radioactive rays represent the steady spark of nature’s ignition in a smoothly running biologic engine. Early life on this planet swam in an ocean of ionizing radiation, and this invisible ocean has clearly not disappeared even though it has receded.

The original naive assumption has been that life on this planet was safe and secure from these odorless, tasteless and invisible radiologic phenomena until they were released from the genie’s bottle by Wilhelm Roentgen and later tracked by the Curies and many others using cloud chambers, photographic film and other detection devices in the past century. However, the facts indicate the exact opposite: man’s psyche may have been exposed to the reality of ionizing radiation for the first time in 1896, but his soma has been bombarded for eons by retrogressively higher levels of natural background radiation, punctuated by episodes of extra-terrestrial radiation from exploding supernovae and occasional hypernovae as well as evolving solar activity. According to the LNT hypothesis, such levels should have sterilized the earth and eradicated all life. Instead, radiation may have produced multiple new mutations in existing life forms, with the negative disadvantageous mutations disappearing rapidly, and the positive advantageous mutations prospering and propagating. Indeed, it seems likely that this Radiologic Imperative was a significant factor in the evolution of all species.

Quickly following in the footsteps of Roentgen, British radiologists/radiotherapists formed the world’s first radiological society and began registering members in 1897, monitoring one of the oldest occupational groups exposed to ionizing radiation. Because they had equipment to generate higher levels of radiation than laboratory researchers utilizing natural ores of radium compounds and pitchblende, these early radiologists received greater exposures (protection was unheard of) and were, therefore, one of the first groups to recognize skin burns and other negative effects of excessive exposure. Nearly a quarter-century later in 1921, the first radiological protection standards were published, standards which were later reviewed and made periodically more stringent for all occupations. The original increase in initial radiologist cancers, which was not manifested for several decades, rapidly declined with protection and decreased exposure, and for members registered after 1954, no increase in malignancies could be found and a hint of decreased cancer risk began to be noted. This hint was quickly forgotten in the furor over the atmospheric testing of atomic bombs, and some scientists launched a crusade against all things which might have radioactive potential, not realizing that they were condemning and rejecting their own species and birthrights.

No science has ever risen under clouds as dark and dismal as the mushroom-shaped cloud over Hiroshima and the self-prescribed mea culpa of the reputed father of the atomic bomb in the New Mexico desert, Robert Oppenheimer. When asked about his thoughts on this discovery of atomic energy, Oppenheimer did not look skyward and realize that he was opening secrets of the universe, secrets obvious to every creature on earth able to view and feel the radiant heat from the fusion reactions of our sun which had made life on earth possible and sustained it for billions of years (along with intermittent surges of cosmic rays). Instead, he lowered his head to look at the ground as he quoted the ancient Hindu text, the Bhagavad-Gita, "I am become death, destroyer of worlds…" By smearing this new science with this broad Hindu brush, the diabolical die was cast, ties to the universe were ignored, and future generations of scientists and citizens began to believe that mankind had invented a new sin. Aided and abetted by the pressures and manipulations of the Cold War, it became politically correct and acceptable for science to practice discrimination and disinformation for this part of the electromagnetic spectrum.

We wrongly assumed that life on earth never knew radioactive sin until man brought it on himself, that zero-exposure was the historical rule, not the exception, and that elimination of future exposure should be the ultimate goal of humanity at home, at work, and eventually in space. Such zeal for a radiation-free environment could lead in the future to actual radiation deficiency, since living organisms depend on low-level exposure to stimulate immune system functioning. This current zeal for zero-tolerance of radiation is reminiscent of the puritanical efforts of early missionaries visiting South Sea islands for the first time. Because of their zero-tolerance for alcoholic beverages, these newcomers coerced the natives into giving up their fermented home-brews containing many natural nutrients and eventually leading to deficiency states of several vitamins and minerals. Inadvertently, these missionaries documented the Law of Unintended Consequences and helped pave the road to hell with their good intentions. It has already been documented that nuclear workers with additional low-level exposures (LLE) have statistically significant longer life spans and lower cancer incidences than matched-control workers without the LLE. Our current radiation antipathy and LNT hypothesis would never predict this result, so this unexpected improvements for exposed workers continues to be largely ignored and unacknowledged. A quick internet search for "radiation hormesis" produces a wealth of positive information, information which is almost completely lacking in prior and current medical textbooks and physics publications.

If the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Project is someday successful, and we obtain feedback from an observer on a distant planet, the observations may be rather startling. ET may find our behavior puzzling and humorous, laughing at our fixation on stone tools, iron implements and petroleum products, but perplexed by our abhorrence of the oldest and most universal energy of all, nuclear energy. This unearthly observer may compare earthlings’ behavior following the recent discovery of nuclear physics with their earlier ancestral discovery of fire: when man’s first encounter with lightning-induced forest fires resulted in the infliction of numerous fatalities and scores of survivors with severe burns and scars, Homo erectus initially feared greatly this frightening new phenomenon and ordered all of his tribe to avoid the flickering flames to prevent future death and disfigurement. Only subsequent generations were able to overcome this phobia and learn to control this once-fearsome demon for everyone’s comfort and benefit. In this regard and this discussion, let us hope that history can indeed repeat itself and learn from the Beginning.

Dr. Looney is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the Harvard School of Public Health, and has held medical faculty positions at Harvard, Boston University, University of Arizona, University of Southern California, and is currently Associate Clinical Professor of Medicine/Occupational Medicine at the UCIrvine College of Medicine. He recently retired as Medical Director of the Boeing Company’s Military Transport Division (C-17 Project) in Long Beach and currently serves on the Dept. of Energy (DOE) Physician Review Panel to examine cases of workers from earlier nuclear facilities who might have occult work-related illness.



ACKNOWLEDGMENT: This paper could not have been written without the influence and assistance of several people over several generations:

  1. Chief John Looney, Cherokee chieftan whose burial place in the Congressional Cemetary in Washington made me realize that history rarely follows a straight path and often provides unexpected findings when and where least-expected.
  2. William B. Looney, MD, PhD, former director of the Radiobiology Program at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Bill was a lifelong influence and factor in my life and in the field of radiation biology. As a young medical student in Richmond, he wrote one of the first papers in the medical literature on Medical Effects of the Atomic Bomb; in Chicago, he was one of the first nuclear medicine fellows and often played tennis with Enrico Fermi; after completing training, he traveled to many nations as a representative of President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program and later as a researcher made several trips to Russia and China to coordinate oncology research.
  3. James Looney, Bill’s youngest son whose inquisitive and restless intellect led him to visit me several times and finally convince me that quantum mechanics and astrophysics were not beyond my comprehension, whose quest for learning led him from the ski slopes of Utah to the high mountains of Nepal before his untimely death at 27 in the Blue Ridge Mountains of his native Virginia.
  4. Ralph D. Reymond, MD, a Swiss of exceptional intellect and patience who tolerated me as a room-mate at Hopkins for four whole years and then subsequently turned from pursuit of a degree in Physics to medical school with a residency in Radiology and a career in Radiation Oncology in Topeka, a lifelong friend and colleague who has shared his views and readings by mail and email to this day.
  5. T. D. Luckey, PhD, emeritus professor of Biology at Univ. of Tennessee whose pioneering work in radiation hormesis was a profound influence on my outlook and many others, and whose practical letters and faxes as well as consults by telephone and face-to-face discussions at meetings of DDP and in airport terminals (at LAX, to and from trips to the Orient) kept my enthusiasm up even when my strength wore thin.
  6. Edward Teller, PhD, original chauffeur for Leo Szilard taking the pivotal letter about the potential for nuclear weapons for signature by Albert Einstein and delivery to President Roosevelt, and who remains one of the few surviving nuclear physicists from the Manhattan Project and pioneer in defending this nation. It was his shock and surprise in learning about radiation’s positive biologic effects (hormesis) when we discussed it at meetings of The American Civil Defense Association (TACDA) and Doctors for Disaster Preparedness (DDP), then continuing the dialogue by mail, which made me realize the depth and breadth of the void between modern science and natural history and the crucial need to bridge this chasm.
  7. Paul Capp, MD, originally a faculty and neighborhood colleague at the Univ. of Arizona College of Medicine in Tucson, who after retiring as Professor and Chair of the Radiology Department became Executive Director of the American Board of Radiology and remains a friend who encourages and supports my interests in radiation hormesis.
  8. James Muckerheide, State Nuclear Engineer for the state of Massachusetts, founder and President of Radiation, Science and Health (RSH), and Co-Director of the Center for Nuclear Technology and Society at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, who for years has been a wealth of enthusiasm and information, always available by phone or email when trying to track down information on short notice. Jim is a unique colleague and one of the most valuable resources to be found in this new and contentious arena of scientific fact vs. scientific dogma.