Sunday February 18, 2007

New Radiation Symbol

The IAEA and ISO have announced an updated version of the venerable ionizing radiation warning symbol.  The original was easily the coolest of the warning symbols, whose only serious competition was the biohazard symbol (though I have a soft spot for the laser symbol, myself).  However, it suffered from a serious flaw.  As the IAEA press release says, the original symbol "...has no intuitive meaning and little recognition beyond those educated in its significance."  They have therefore designed the following supplemental symbol:

Hmm.  It's not everything it could be.

The atom boys have a legitimate point about the original symbol.  A linguist would say that it's not very iconic—that is, you're unlikely to guess its meaning based solely on its physical form.  Human languages tend not to be very iconic (with some exceptions like onomatopoeia and, to some extent, sign languages), but a lack of iconicity is a real flaw in what is, after all, an icon whose meaning is supposed to transcend language.

The new symbol, though, doesn't even address that flaw—it compounds it.  Instead of replacing the non-iconic original with something more iconic (whatever that might be), they've simply added more symbols that require a person viewing it to decipher a compositional meaning—but since they've included the original radiation symbol, it's a compositional meaning based around a symbol whose meaning is obscure.  It's a problem of self-reference: if the radiation trefoil isn't interpretable, no symbol including it is likely to be interpretable either, unless the new composed symbol somehow explains what the symbol means.  They might have been better off leaving the radiation symbol out entirely and just making a sign that means "RUN AWAY NOW!"

The new symbol's compositional meaning could be clearer, too.  As it stands, I think the most plausible reading is, "A giant skull is loose!  Run to your right to lure it under the ionizing radiation source in the ceiling.  That's the only way to defeat it."  Or maybe the skull is supposed to represent Sinistar.  Or, just possibly, the skull-and-crossbones doesn't represent a skull—these non-iconic symbols can be so tricky!—and the sign is instead a warning about pirates.  In any case, I'm pretty sure the running man should be depicted holding his hands over his groin—safety first!—and possibly sobbing.  (via)

I am The Tensor, and I approve this post.
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LOL! My husband's a health physicist, so I had to send him the link to this. Expect it to make the rounds of the scientific crowd. ;-)


Posted by: Deanna Hoak at Feb 19, 2007 6:23:42 AM

"Pirates please exit to right when overhead fan is on"

Posted by: zuzentzailea at Feb 19, 2007 8:59:41 AM

Well, those wiggly arrows echo the arrows one sees for radioactive particles being emitted. But of course, that once again only helps if you already know what the symbol means.

Posted by: Lance at Feb 19, 2007 11:25:33 AM

"Exit room before ninja-darts flense your skull and femurs!"

Posted by: Pious Agnostic at Feb 19, 2007 11:31:45 AM

The giant skull is clearly the floating head from "Zardoz" that vomits guns and shouts that the penis is evil.

Posted by: S. Connery at Feb 19, 2007 12:45:59 PM

Ah, I like your Zardoz theory, Mr. Connery. (If you've never seen the scene in question, check it out here.)

If you're inclined to worship a giant floating head-god, Zardoz is a pretty good choice. He provides a coherent vision of the world and the material support you need to make it happen. Plus he's considerate—he vomits out guns and ammo. That's one-stop shopping.

The only drawback I can see is the uniform.

Posted by: The Tensor at Feb 19, 2007 2:33:09 PM

I think the wiggly arrows are an insightful clue into the wavelike nature of EM radiation.

Posted by: Hao at Feb 20, 2007 12:57:51 AM

"I think the wiggly arrows are an insightful clue into the wavelike nature of EM radiation."

But then won't it be completely confusing if you find particle-like behavior? (I think there might be a Nobel prize in there somewhere.)


Posted by: Doug Sundseth at Feb 20, 2007 8:56:07 AM

They should definitely have tried to somehow express the particle-wave duality in graphical form. Where most people just see dangerous levels of ionizing radiation, I see a teachable moment.

Posted by: The Tensor at Feb 20, 2007 4:34:39 PM

"A giant skull is loose! Run to your right to lure it under the ionizing radiation source in the ceiling. That's the only way to defeat it."

Although the icon-man may be running to *our* right, he's running to *his* left.

I think what it is saying is, "There is a fan blowing on some poison; you'd better flee lest you breathe some of the fumes."

Posted by: David Conrad at Feb 20, 2007 6:17:01 PM

Although the icon-man may be running to *our* right, he's running to *his* left.

I dunno, if he has any sense he's running straight ahead.

Posted by: The Tensor at Feb 20, 2007 6:38:27 PM

FYI, Ze Frank has a brief thought on the new symbol here (right before the end).

Posted by: Aaron Braver at Feb 23, 2007 8:51:10 PM

Wonkette has some similar thoughts.

Posted by: Ben Zimmer at Feb 24, 2007 12:08:31 PM

The new SUPPLEMENTARY ionizing radiation warning symbol does NOT replace the trefoil- the international symbol for radiation- it only supplements it. It is designed to be placed directly on the shielding housing large radioactive sources. It is never to be placed on doors or shipping boxes or gates. It is meant as a last warning to people not to remove the shielding or they can be in grave danger. This new symbol was tested with international children and in 11 countries around the world (1650 participants) by the Gallup Institute and the findings clearly showed that regardless of gender, age, culture or education level, the symbol was understood to mean danger- run away and that is the intended message. Most people will never see this new symbol because in order to see it, they will need to be very close to a large radioactive source. You will continue to see the trefoil in all it's normal (and required) locations and it was left on the new symbol because people that are educated in the meaning of the trefoil will understand that the hazard is radiation. Others simply will understand that something is coming at them and it is dangerous and they should leave.

Carolyn Mac Kenzie
Radiation Source Specialist, IAEA
aka "Atom Woman"

Posted by: Carolyn Mac Kenzie at Mar 1, 2007 5:21:42 AM