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A leaky unit

Measuring the damage done by radiation is an inexact science

By Philip Ball   June 2011

Checking radiation exposure after Fukushima—but it’s hard to gauge how much is dangerous

Few have heard of the Swedish medical physicist Rolf Maximilian Sievert, but his name has been much in use following the Fukushima nuclear leak. To honour his work, the international unit of radiation exposure adopted in 1979 was named the sievert. It is also one of the most ad hoc scientific units ever devised, underlining the fact that gauging the dangers of radiation to the human body is an inexact science.

The sievert is a useful but piecemeal attempt to quantify radiation’s biological effects. There are three…

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