Peter Cochrane ( Head of Advanced Applications and Technology for British Telecom) Finds No Absolutes In A Perfect World
July 15, 1997
One of the key differences between superstition and science is the lack of absolutes. Science is dynamic and dominated by uncertainty; the latest state of understanding is dictated by models and theory linked by experimentation and observation to the world in which we live.
In contrast, folklore offers the comfort of certainty with rules and beliefs that endure for centuries, even in the face of irrefutable evidence. A flat earth at the centre of the universe was established wisdom that took thousands of years to overturn. And no doubt there are more discoveries and surprises to come. When we have sufficient knowledge to challenge the divinity of life we will face some mighty conceptual barriers.
In the absence of any real evidence individuals and society have a tendency to react adversely to the new as if under threat. Witness Dolly and cloning. Cloning is not photocopying, and poses no threat, but you might have thought from the media hysteria it was the beginning of the end.
Currently mobile phones and other communication devices are a hot topic as their radio emissions may pose a new threat in the form of cancer stimulation. Of course we should react with caution and be responsible, but as yet there is no positive evidence, only fear. In fact, the evidence is currently in favour of mobile phones being safe and an insignificant risk.
Perhaps we should also look at how many people bask in the sun for hours, or have their microwave ovens conveniently mounted at head height. Does anyone bother to check for safe sun exposure times or radiation leaks from their oven caused by abuse and poor maintenance? Given the hundreds of watts generated by microwave ovens, we perhaps ought to treat them with a little more caution and respect.
Consider now the ludicrous situation with the internationally agreed safety levels for nuclear radiation. Here the safe levels are defined to be below that most of us naturally receive by just sitting at home in our armchairs. Certainly, anyone living in a rocky area will be receiving a natural background radiation dose that well exceeds that defined as safe.
Interestingly, no one worries about the Carbon 14 emitted from the exhaust stacks of coal-fired power stations, which cumulatively exceeds the radiation leak at Three Mile Island in 1979.
Japan is the only country with a population that has been exposed to atomic bombs, and the horror of those events probably did much to foster the “all radiation is bad” thinking that prevails today. But recent evidence seems to indicate that those exposed to the lower levels of nuclear radiation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki are, on average, actually living longer than those far removed and totally insulated. Could it be that this is the first evidence that low level radiation is actually good for us? Now this is an area that we should really start to study and understand.
Just suppose for a moment that we need radiation as a primary agent in the evolutionary process. What if it is the vital noise function, the randomness agent that promotes mutation in cells and gene strings. It might just be that it is the prime mover, the core of life itself – in moderation of course.