CERAD Faces: Brit Salbu

Tell us about yourself:

Nuclear chemist educated at the University of Oslo, and Dr of Philosophy with a thesis entitled: “Preconcentration and Fractionation Techni­ques in Determination of Trace Elements in Natural Waters - Their Concentration and Physico-Chemical Forms”. I am still working with speciation of radionuclides and trace elements, including particles, and time dependent interactions - but the techniques available today are far more advanced.  Happy to be appointed member of the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Letters since 1990, and of Royal Society of Chemistry, UK. Very proud to receive the 2014 V. I. Vernadsky Award in recognition of outstanding contribution to the development and dissemination of Radioecology from the International Union of Radioecology, and to be appointed Honorary Professor at the National University of Life and Environment Sciences in Kiev in 2016.

I have published many articles, educated many students, joined many expeditions and participated in many national and international projects, including EU projects from the 3rd Framework Programme (1990-1994). The essence is to enjoy the challenges, collaborate with good friends and explore the opportunities!

How are you connected to CERAD?

Producing a successful application to the Research Council of Norway, and have the privilege to be the Director of CERAD

You get a year to research abroad. Where would you go and why?

I have been to many “classified” contaminated sites in different countries, but some exotic sites remain. I would like to go to China, to visit Loop Noor, or the Antarctica, close to the McMurdo base, and look for traces of past history and the cold war.

What do you prefer: to teach or to perform research?

Education must be research-based. Bringing students and young scientists to the field to demonstrate in real life what has theoretically been part of the lectures is most fruitful.

Invite three science heroes for dinner – who would you chose?

Like most nuclear scientists, I would like to invite Antoine Henri Becquerel (1852 – 1908) from France, Louis Harold Gray (1905 – 1965) from UK and Rolf Maximilian Sievert (1896-1966) from Sweden - all physicists giving their names to important units in nuclear sciences. As a surprise, Madame Curie (1867-1934) would come as a guest of honor. I am not sure all of them would appreciate the presence of Marie Curie, although two Nobel prizes can hardly be ignored.

Different life histories and different personalities:  due to poor economy Gray and Marie Curie were hardworking, “self-made” with the support of others, and were probably used to fight for their positions. In contrast, Becquerel came from a rich family of four generations of scientists However, he probably did not really understand what he discovered. Similarly, Sievert, a lazy, probably spoiled student, was also coming from a very rich family. He could even fund his first physics laboratory on his way to be the “father of radiation protection”.

These pioneers focused on radiological measurement and instrumentation. In addition, Curie used x-ray for diagnostic purposes during the WWI, while Gray and Sievert focused also on cancer and radiotherapy, on effects of ionizing radiation (e.g., relative biological effectiveness) as well as radiation protection of man (ICRP, UNSCEAR).

I would ask 3 questions to the audience;

  • Do you consider the replacement of the unit Curie (small numbers) with Becquerel (large number) beneficial or promoting radiophobia?
  • Do you expect relative biological effectiveness for non-human organisms to be different for that of humans?
  • Is the concept of radiation protection relevant not only for man, but also for the environment?

During the discussion, I would expect Sievert to take the lead, Becquerel would be modest, Gray would be insisting, while Marie Currie would either nod or shake her head. I am not sure they would notice the menu, I am not sure that the evening would be extremely pleasant, but I am quite sure that the debate would be extremely interesting.

Which technical term do you love?

Uncertainty – It is important to realize that uncertainties have to be taken into account when statements, conclusions or recommendations are given.

Which technical term do you hate?

Model predictions without the associated uncertainties. Ignoring or omitting uncertainties can either be attributed to poor education or to political correctness where communication of uncertainties may ruin a good story.

How do you think the system of publication points for scientific publishing should be done?

Within natural sciences, interdisciplinary, interinstitutional, national and international collaboration is essential. Thus, a criterion for success should be many authors from different fields and different institutions.  Unless a review paper is to be published, no incentives should be given to single authors. Scientists should be encouraged to collaborate!

Which paradigm shifting or scientific discovery you wish you were a part of?

Fission is the fundament for the nuclear weapon and fuel cycles. Until 1938, it was believed that elements with atomic numbers greater than uranium would be produced when U atoms were irradiated with neutrons. Although some speculations about a paradigm shift “when heavy nuclei are bombarded with neutrons these nuclei could break down into several fairly large fragments”, were put forward, the idea that “heavy atomic nuclei could break down into lighter elements” was regarded as totally inadmissible.

Nuclear fission was discovered in Germany 1938 by the chemist Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner ( first woman to become a full professor of physics in Germany), and Hahn’s assistant Fritz Strassmann (when Meitner left Germany).  As a surprise, Hahn observed barium in the irradiated uranium containing sample???? A real intellectual challenge and it would have been fun to be part of the struggle.

Fission was explained by Meitner and her nephew Otto Robert Frisch in Sweden, 1939:  the splitting of the uranium atom into fragments and the release of 2.5 neutrons during fission, essential for building nuclear bombs and reactors. 

The story behind: As Lise Meitner was Jewish, she had to leave Nazi-Germany in 1938, and was “smuggled” to Sweden by the support of many, including Niels Bohr. From Sweden, her neutron number was “transferred” to Niels Bohr, to UK and the US, essential for the Chicago reactor and the Manhattan project. In 1944, Hahn and Strassman received the Nobel Prize in chemistry, no prize to Lise Meitner - a shame.

Published 30. November 2016 - 10:18 - Updated 23. May 2017 - 19:10

Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU)

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