Thursday, June 05, 2008

Pet Peeve: Atomic vs. Nuclear

One of my biggest pet peeves is the way society uses the word "atomic" when they mean "nuclear." It has been going on for 60 years now, and now one seems to have the slightest clue.

For example, in tonight's NY Times:

2 Leaders Ousted From Air Force in Atomic Errors

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates made the decision after an inquiry into the mishandling of nuclear weapons found systemic problems in the Air Force.

Atomic process take place in the space of an Angstrom. Nuclear processes take place in the space of a fermi. There's a factor of 100,000 between them.

Does it matter? I think it does. It is... well, it's 10:03 pm on a Thursday night. Too late to pontificate.

1 comment:

MT said...

Well, in bomb speak "atomic" originally is about nuclei being cleaved by neutrons, so it's not really about larger-than-nuclear process. So this usage was benighted from the start. What peeves me in using "nuclear" and "atomic" indiscriminately is that it encourages people to think that in Hiroshima and Nagasaki we have an idea or memory of what a "Super" / "H-bomb" / "thermonuclear device" would mean for a country, and that with "nuclear power" we're talking about similar technological concerns. This kind of misinformation is a whole lot more perilous than confusing people just about the size and scale of different submicroscopic events.