Now that’s a gadget gift to gladden the heart

Recently, my wife Maria gave me the best birthday present ever.

I am a hard person to buy a gift for. My interests are off the conventionally beaten path. After more than three decades of marriage to someone whose excitement levels are heightened exclusively by cameras, telescopes or, more recently, very low-frequency radio receivers, Maria knows that the latest Eleanor Catton novel just won’t cut Ian’s birthday mustard.

Imagine my giddy heart when, on my birthday, I unwrapped a bright yellow GQ GMC-800. Maria had gifted me the world’s most cost-effective, data-logging, multifunctional Geiger counter.

Nothing excites me more than a piece of new scientific kit. I love observing the world around me. My garden has a weather station that reports extensive meteorological data every minute. I wear a watch that tracks my heart rate and blood oxygen levels. And now, thanks to Maria, I have unfettered access to a Geiger counter. And thanks to her, I can use this fantastic new piece of kit to record cosmic rays and levels of radiation during airliner flights around New Zealand. I have a whole new astronomy hobby!

Our atmosphere is extraordinary. At sea level, it shields us from cosmic radiation; high-energy particles originating from the Sun, other stars in our galaxy, and distant galaxies. But as you go higher, atmospheric protection lessens, and we are exposed to more cosmic radiation. On a typical intercontinental flight, you are exposed to roughly the same amount of radiation as when you have a chest X-ray.

On a recent flight between Wellington and Dunedin, I used my GMC-800 to record my radiation dose as a function of altitude. The accompanying chart shows that my body was exposed to five times as much cosmic radiation when travelling at peak altitude as at ground level.

The average passenger’s exposure to cosmic radiation during airliner flights is nothing to worry about. While there are certainly enhanced risks to aircrew and, worse still, for astronauts, the average passenger can watch their Geiger counter safe in the knowledge that they are observing but probably not being physically changed by cosmic radiation.