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Project of the Week #3: GammaSense

Thank you to Pieter of the Waag Society for nominating GammaSense for our third Project of the Week.

What does this project do?
Measures local gamma radiation, so that citizens living near nuclear power plants can find out quickly if there are any dangerous increases. (There is always a small amount of radiation and it can change from place to place, so don't worry about minor increases.)

What do I have to do?
You will need a laptop with Google Chrome and a webcam, plus some black tape.
Go to GammaSense and allow it to know your location and access your webcam. Put some black tape over your webcam. Click the "take a measurement" button: it will take one minute; then the result will appear on your screen.

There are instructions, currently only in Dutch.
This is Google Translate's version - feel free to leave improvements in the comments!

Where can I find out more?
Click on the little "i" at the top left of the screen; that will take you to their About page. They aren't on Twitter, but they are part of EU Sense and there is a detailed article here.

What's Citizen Science Project of the Week?
Citizen Science Project of the Week is a regular Monday feature at Doing It Together Science. What project would you like to see featured? Please let us know on the contact form, Facebook page or email us at Please put "Project of the Week" in the subject line and send us a link to the project, some information about it and why you'd like it featured. If you want us to, we'll credit you and tag you on Facebook!

More details:
The Waag Society's motto is "If you can't open it, you don't own it" and they enjoy teaching us how to open up both our gadgets and our environment. Gadgets often turn out to have more uses than we think ...

So they began to teach citizens how to use their webcams to pick up radiation: not the visible light we see, but that of a much shorter wavelength, which is much more energetic. The first thing they discovered was that many people do not know exactly what types of radiation are emitted by nuclear power plants. They thought it was similar to wifi and mobile phones. Both these types of radiation are photons - the same tiny "packets of energy" that make visible light; but wifi and phone signals are longer wavelength (less energetic) and gamma rays are shorter wavelength (more energetic). We can see only a very narrow range of photons - from around 400-700nm - a very convenient range, because objects absorb and reflect a wide variety of photons at this range, which then show up as colours. Longer wavelengths (less energy) include heat, microwaves and microwaves, and we use these to communicate over long distance. Shorter wavelengths (more energy) include ultraviolet waves, X-rays and the gamma rays involved in the phenomenon we call "radioactivity". (There's a friendly little refresher on all the types of radiation here.)

This is also distinct from the alpha and beta particles (small pieces of atoms) that are also emitted from radioactivity. These are more harmful, but are stopped much more easily than gamma rays. Visible light cannot get through black tape - but gamma rays can! And just as the receptors in our webcams register being struck by visible light photons, they will register being struck by gamma photons, too. These appear as white dots. There are far fewer of these photons than visible light, of course - which is why it takes a whole minute to make an accurate record.

How accurate is it? The experiment is still finding out. As is said in projects, it's still a pilot. Different webcams and phones will need to be calibrated. In fact, it's the latest of a great many DIY projects that followed the Fukushima disaster. You can read about some of these efforts in this book chapter "Post-Apocalyptic Citizenship and Humanitarian Hardware". Citizen scientists at Tokyo Hackerspace were very busy making DIY Geiger counters, and one initiative that emerged was Safecast, which aggregates citizen collected data on radioactivity and air quality. GammaSense's particular objective is to empower citizens to create their own very cheap sensors that will tell them very quickly if there is a problem. Currently, when a nuclear power plant leaks too much radiation, it can take days to inform local citizens.

However, we don't write all this to cause a panic. Nuclear power stations have a lot more safety features than they used to. And high-energy photons are often useful - in irradiating food to kill pests and parasites, for example, or taking X-rays or treating cancers. They don't leave any radioactive substance behind: just like visible light, when they're switched off, they're switched off. Still, it should be extremely interesting when GammaSense deploys a map and see if more white spots appear near power stations around Europe or if, should any problems occur, citizens are the ones to alert the government rather than vice versa.