The Angry Corrie 21: Jan-Feb 1995


Meet me down by the pylons...

As the Superquarry debate drags on, TAC looks ahead to the next high profile environmental controversy - the electricity pylons in Ayrshire. Here the issues are even more complicated, as the very subject of electromagnetic radiation (EMR) is so poorly understood. TAC enlisted the help of Professor Perkin Warbeck to differentiate the field vectors:

The Ayrshire pylon debate has two prongs to its trident. There are those who argue the string of pylons will deface the landscape, and there are those who insist the EMR will give everyone cancer. As the former argument rests on the hypothesis that Ayrshire has some scenic value in the first place, I shall not concern myself with it.

The subject of EMR however is very close to my heart. First - a bit of basic science. Many modern phenomena we take for granted such as light, TV, radio, crop circles etc are electromagnetic. What makes them all different is the frequency of the radiation. Gamma rays are at the very high frequency end of the spectrum, light rays less so and radio waves somewhat lower. Frequency is the number of oscillations per second and is measured in Hertz. (Aren't they car hire people? - Ed.) For example, a dance combo like M People might claim their new waxing has 180 bpm or beats per minute. This could equally be described as 3Hz. The frequency of verbs occurring in the band's lyrics must be about 0.001Hz, but hey, this is dance music. If you want allusions to DH Lawrence, go and listen to Pat Kane. Hertz took over from the old unit kilocycles per second, which you may still hear from old buffers who lament the "new fangled transistors". What I would like to ask these old gits is, "If valves were so bleedin' marvellous, how come they don't make 20,000 quid hi-fi amplifiers out of them?" Unfortunately, they do, so I don't.

In general, the higher the frequency, the more chance EMR has of doing you damage; much the same as if a homicidal maniac was attacking you with a raspberry - tinned or fresh. The more blows from the fruit per second, the more damage. The national grid uses electricity at 50Hz. Most people are familiar with the sound of 50Hz. You may have been at a rock concert and heard an annoying buzzing sound coming from the loudspeakers. If it was a New Order concert, then probably the gig had started, but otherwise it was probably 50Hz pickup or mains hum. 50Hz is a low frequency, and traditionally has been assumed to be harmless. Our homes are full of electricity at 50Hz and it has never done any of us any harm, apart from those who spend three hours on a Saturday evening following Noel with Cilla and Casualty.

So why are all these woolly hatted loonies up in arms in Ayrshire? Well, one big difference is that the electricity will be up in the air. Suspended from giant pylons. EMR is transmitted by what we scientists call photons, and these will speed up under gravity so that by the time they hit you on the head they will be going as fast as a cricket ball. You may well ask "Well, what about the sun's photons, since they start ninety million miles above us?" Good point. This is why so much fuss is made of the ozone layer. The ozone layer is a kind of crash helmet for Mother Earth. It absorbs the sun's photons and slows them down to walking pace. The woolly hats want the cables buried underground, where precious few photons would escape the pull of gravity and most would go beetling off to Australia to give Kylie a few more freckles.

Much of the worry over EMR comes from some experiments performed on rats, where after huge amounts of EMR they were less skilled at finding their way round mazes. This may be a reason not to have pylons in Crete, but I can't recall any labyrinths in Cumnock. On the other hand, some of the injuries sustained in junior football in Rabbie's country would back up the hypothesis of a large horned animal rampaging around the pitch.

A final word about units. When the woolly hats go measuring EMR, you might hear such phrases as "underneath the pylon we measured a field of eight nano-Teslas". This perhaps sounds frightening, especially if subliminal images of Hiroshima are used by unscrupulous documentary makers. To scientists, however, the Tesla is an old friend. It measures magnetic field strength, and a field of one Tesla would indeed be a bit of a brute. It would rip the zimmer from an old fogey's hands as they wandered under the pylon. Or reduce a Lada to walking pace. But the prefix nano- means 10-9 in scientific notation. In layperson's terms: one millionth of a millionth of a millionth of a Tesla. Now, can you really imagine that giving anyone cancer?


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