Scientists want to 'nuke' their image

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FED UP with being associated with environmental catastrophe and atomic holocausts, nuclear physicists are considering dropping the dreaded N-word from their name.

A debate is raging within one of science's least understood backwaters on how to improve the image of a community that feels unfairly tarnished by the public's fear of anything nuclear. A group of European nuclear physicists will discuss how to repackage their image as part of a debate aimed at securing EU funding.

One of the most radical suggestions is to find a label which does not have the doom-laden connotations of the destruction of Hiroshima or of disasters such as Chernobyl.

"One of the image problems they identified was the word nuclear," said Peter Rogers, editor of the journal Physics World. "I asked ... what is the link between nuclear-physics research and nuclear power and nuclear weapons. If the link is weak or non-existent, one way to solve the problem would be to change the name."

Scientists studying atomic nuclei are helping to understand the forces of creation rather than using them for destruction, said Jim Al-Khalili, a nuclear physicist at Surrey University. He added that many physicists would oppose a name change, because it would look as if they have something to hide.

But precedents have been set: magnetic resonance imaging, which is used for scanning body organs, was changed from "nuclear magnetic resonance" as a way of reassuring patients, Dr Al-Khalili said.