Friday, April 8, 2011
Middle Eastern and Japanese news stories are offshoots of the same problem. The past 230 years of modernization, running hand-in-hand with liberal democratization, meant that the great mass of people in developed societies gained standards of living way beyond a level they ever had. At the core of this nexus between industrial, technological and scientific advances, the rise in quality of life, and competing left and right wing political ideologies is one problem: energy.
Raising the bulk of the human population to this extent requires vast amounts of energy. Yet the sources we use bring many problems - ozone layers; global warming; strategic conflicts over oil; controversy over natural gas drilling; pollution; terrorism; despots and popular revolutions in the Middle East; and fears about nuclear safety and the weaponization of civilian nuclear materials - are we there yet? One of the most prescient science fiction novels of the 1960s was Frank Herbert's Dune. In a way, it's even more accurate than Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, because it moved beyond the political world to the deeper problems of technological determinism. Herbert saw that we would biologically and genetically contort ourselves to match our primary energy source. He made it clear: we will do anything for energy. That is because with energy, we have the raw force to accomplish whatever we can imagine.
Yet we face a deeper quandary. It comes from precisely that - from 'whatever we can imagine.' Critics dismiss the Atomic Age with three words. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. Chernobyl. But as terrible as nuclear weapons and accidents are, they are inseparably part of the wellspring of Millennial creativity. The discovery of radioactive elements in the 19th and 20th centuries opened the door to atomic theory and quantum physics; these doctrines fundamentally altered our vision of reality, which had previously remained essentially unchanged since the Ancient Greeks. It's a sea change in perspective that no one can escape.
Even the Watchmen, a famously grim comics series about the countdown to a nuclear holocaust, has been spoofed to have its lighter moments. Here's a brief respite from the nuclear news (image sources: here, here, here and here).
Thursday, April 7, 2011
In the list of superhuman qualities, perhaps the most enduring are those derived from radiation. The incredible power from our Sun has long spawned divine myths around our star. Twentieth century science contributed a number of themes to this ancient archetype: evolution, radiation's effect on DNA, splitting the atom, nuclear power. This is explained in a piece on nuclear accidents and the rise of the modern superhero on Boing Boing:
Superman, Spider-Man, Captain Atom and Doctor Manhattan are all examples of Nietzsche's Übermensch; sometimes they have Messianic qualities; or they are scientists, caught in a nuclear accident; and sometimes they are Everyman figures who are suddenly raised above all others. Characters with similar origins include The Ray, Captain America, The Atom, X-Ray, the Nexus Fusionkasters and Apollo. All of them are anthropomorphized versions of qualities we attribute to the power of radiation, whether cosmic, solar, elemental or nuclear. Most of pulp fiction's characters respond to radiation by acquiring superpowers such as strength, energy manipulation and flight; but some endure a separation of body and soul by nuclear means. Some gain the ability to travel through time; and some achieve immortality. Below the jump are the most popular radiation-powered heroes in the order in which they historically appeared. In some cases, there are later versions of the same character.In the first part of the 20th century, the evolutionary scientists were expressing the idea that maybe cosmic radiation, which we've lived with on earth for our whole history, might have caused some changes to our DNA. Radiation can do that. At the same time, people were learning about evolution, which depends on random changes. I think that caught their imagination. That connection between radiation and evolution. I remember one of the earliest stories I read where they put this guy into a chamber and irradiated him, and he evolved before their eyes. Really he would have just died, but the idea remains.
Monday, April 4, 2011
A woman basks in the sun outside the Pickering Nuclear Plant, Ontario, Canada. Image Source: CTV News/CP/Kevin Frayer.
After the Japanese earthquake and ongoing problems with the Fukushima plant began last month, the Canadian authorities rushed to reassure citizens that Canada's nuclear sector is safe, with no reactors built on earthquake fault lines. Yet they had already launched a review of the state of atomic energy in the country before the Japanese disaster. Some older plants are being closed: Dalhousie University shut down its nuclear reactor and discreetly moved its uranium core from Halifax, Nova Scotia to an undisclosed federal facility in Ontario under cover of darkness in January, 2011.
The Canadian public remains jumpy. Toronto newspapers report that there are calls to rethink a shift to nuclear energy. For this post, I was going to cover the Chalk River medical isotopes plant that is north of Ottawa (Google has a timeline of incidents at that plant here), which featured Canada's only level 5 incident (the same level as Three Mile Island). But unfortunately, there are news reports of something more pressing - a radioactive leak into Lake Ontario from the Pickering A plant - on 14 March 2011.
Sunday, April 3, 2011
When radium was first discovered, the element was considered to be a health booster. Due to this, radium and other radioactive materials were and have been added to many products from the late nineteenth century up to today. These elements were believed to improve vitality, cure impotence, and lately have even been labeled 'eco-friendly environmental products.' Because of the health-giving connotations initially associated with radioactivity, the terms 'X-ray,' 'radium,' 'atomic' and even 'uranium' or 'plutonium' were added to brands that had no such additives. Here are some products that had no radioactive ingredients. The early ones come from the high period of unstable elements, when radioactivity was used as a brand name and selling point, promising vitality and energy. More recent products cryptically refer to these elements' originally-assumed health-giving properties (either through use on sports equipment or with promises of invigoration); new products also use radioactive elements' names to indicate very intense, glow-in-the-dark colours. Finally, in some cases, atomic names have been used ironically by anti-nuclear activists. Regardless, the way these brand names were used tell us something about the qualities we have ascribed to radioactivity.