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The radiation we should be worried about

Every second you are being bombarded by various types of radiation. One of them should concern us.

You live in a sea of ​​radiation. If you use a mobile phone, you’re being irradiated by microwaves. The same happens if you’re connected to the internet by wifi, or if you have a wireless keyboard. But I’m not going to talk about this type of radiation, about which there are already innumerable studies and regulations. Nor am I going to talk about ionizing radiation, capable of altering the molecules of your body, causing burns, cancer, or even death, as it happened to its discoverer, Marie Curie. While ionizing radiation is easy to measure, the radiation that I’m going to talk about consists of another particle, with which we are being irradiated in much greater quantity, and which is almost impossible to measure.

The radiation that no one thinks about

The radiation I’m referring to is neutrino radiation, particles that are generated in wildly disparate environments, from Earth’s atmosphere to supernova explosions, and from nuclear reactors to bananas. However, most of the neutrinos we receive come from inside the Sun. They are so difficult to detect that huge structures are needed to indirectly perceive their existence. And the reason we managed to detect them at all is because they are extremely abundant. In fact, every second, trillions of neutrinos pass through your body.

Sudbury neutrino detector
Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, Canada, an underground structure 12 meters in diameter.

A bunker can protect you from all the radiation emitted in a nuclear explosion, except one: There are no walls thick enough to protect you from neutrinos.

It is impossible to hide from neutrino radiation.

And yet no one seems to be talking about this kind of radiation…

Why doesn’t anyone worry about neutrinos?

The reason why no one cares about neutrino radiation is actually very simple: It’s irrelevant. Neutrino radiation is absolutely harmless.

Photons and neutrinos are the most abundant particles in the universe. But while the photon (the particle of light) “feels” the presence of the atoms in your body, the neutrino passes through them without flinching. When you close your eyes, your eyelids are able to block sunlight, but not solar neutrinos. Neutrinos are “antisocial”: they barely interact with anyone.

In fact, of the trillions of neutrinos that pass through you, possibly only one will ever interact with an atom in your body during your entire lifetime. Not even the amount of neutrinos produced in a nuclear explosion, like Hiroshima or Nagasaki, would be dangerous. Indeed, to receive a harmful dose of neutrinos, you would have to stand inside a star in the midst of a supernova explosion!

The worry matrix

Having reached this point, you may well be thinking that this article is pure clickbait. I’ve described something as innocuous as neutrino radiation in the same section where I mention nuclear bombs, cancer and death. And indeed, that was my intention: to attract your attention.

However, despite the sensationalist tone, everything I’ve said about neutrinos so far is scientifically valid. It was when I claimed that “The reason no one cares about neutrino radiation is simple: It’s irrelevant” that my argument started to lose credibility. You see, this phrase incorrectly assumes that people don’t care about irrelevant things. And indirectly it presupposes that, if something were important, it would attract the attention of the masses. But is it really so?

Let’s make a “worry matrix”: A table in which, from left to right, we order things according to how much they should worry us, and, from bottom to top, how much they actually do worry us. If society were aware of the world’s greatest problems, and actively worked to solve them, things would be distributed diagonally, from the lower left corner to the upper right. It would be a sensible society, concerned with the problems that genuinely matter, without being distracted by trivial things.

In the diametrically opposite case, if we as a society ignored pressing problems, and were distracted by irrelevant things, it would be a rather reckless place to live. We wouldn’t even be alerted to our own extinction, hidden in the lower right quadrant.


What is the worry matrix like in our current society?

Visible and invisible tragedies

Imagine that today a plane crashed with 600 people on board. It would become the biggest plane crash in history, with even more victims than the infamous Tenerife disaster. It would appear in all the news, it would be the cover of newspapers around the world and a trending topic on social media. And rightly so, since it would be a horrible tragedy. But there are many other tragedies happening right now that are not spoken about. Tragedies that are qualitatively and quantitatively even worse.

Airplane flying among clouds in the sunset
Photo from Pixabay.

To give an example, each year around 5.2 million children die worldwide. However, if the global infant mortality rate was as low as it is in the European Union, “only” about 0.5 million children would die annually. In other words, we have enough knowledge and technology to prevent the remaining 5.15 million deaths. What we don’t have is equality.

The scale of this tragedy is truly terrifying: The number of children dying around the world from preventable causes is equivalent to a plane crashing with 600 children on board. And not every day, but every hour.

So why does a plane crash get so much media coverage and global infant mortality so little? From a pragmatic perspective, it should be the other way around: There is nothing you can do to prevent the next plane crash but you can do something to reduce the number of child deaths. Malaria, one of the main culprits, can be prevented with something as simple as a mosquito net. In fact, donating money to install mosquito nets is considered one of the most cost-effective ways to save lives.

But unfortunately, humanity does not always distribute its attention in a pragmatic way, as we will now see.

The other radiation

The time has come to talk about a different type of radiation altogether: The radiation of stimuli.

By nature, we are programmed with attentional biases. That is, we pay more attention to certain things than to others. Like many other cognitive biases, attentional biases arose as evolutionary mechanisms for the survival and proliferation of the species. For example, if there is a hungry bear running towards us, it is helpful if our attention is drawn towards the bear, rather than to the shape of the clouds or the smell of the flowers. But these attentional biases also tend to make us worry more about more immediate and shocking dangers, like plane crashes, than about more subtle but constant dangers, like malaria.

Every hour around 600 children die in the world from preventable causes.

To make matters worse, social media platforms take advantage of these attention biases. Just as fruits developed bright colors to attract the attention of animals, and thus better spread their seeds, social media sites have optimized their techniques to capture our attention. They exploit those “mental defects” that nature has left us in order to overstimulate us, and get us to click on links and scroll for hours without knowing why.

The result is that we are constantly being irradiated with stimuli, distractions, information and, of course, also misinformation. And this radiation should really worry us, since it has a long-term impact both on our individual health and that of our society.

Taking all of the above into account, I suspect that our society has a worry matrix dispersed among the four quadrants in a fairly random way. We may not live in a totally reckless society, but we don’t live in one that’s very sensible either.


We live in a sea of ​​neutrino radiation that comes from the sun. It’s a very difficult radiation to measure, and which we cannot protect ourselves from. However, it has no impact on our health whatsoever, so we are right to not worry about this type of radiation.

On the other hand, modern technology bombards us with a constant radiation of stimuli. And the little attention that we have left is affected by innumerable biases, which prevent us from perceiving reality objectively. The impact of this other radiation is also very difficult to measure. But, unlike neutrino radiation, this kind of radiation should concern us much more than it currently does.

So, is there anything we can do to protect ourselves from this other radiation? Well, for my part, I have set myself the challenge of becoming more and more aware of my own cognitive biases (which I will write more about in future posts). By detecting our own “mental defects”, we will be better at distinguishing those things that should concern us from those that should not. So I invite you to participate in the challenge. The more “defected minds” that come together, the more sensible our society will be.

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