Radioactivity: Why is this blight different from all other blights?

Scrutinizing culture.
March 18 2011 1:30 PM

Radioactivity

Why is this blight different from all other blights?

(Continued from Page 1)

Radioactive captures in a unique way the inseparability of love and death: the love of scientia, of knowledge for its own sake, and love for the deep, nuclear-level bonds between human beings in love. And the death that knowledge brought them, the Faustian bargain nuclear knowledge bought them. The myth of the Fall of Man set in early-20th-century Paris.

And, overhanging it all, the later tragedies which Ms. Redniss never allows the reader to forget, the tragedies of Hiroshima and Chernobyl (I learned from Ms. Redniss that the dead zone around Chernobyl is known as "the zone of alienation"—worth the price of the book alone), to which can now be added the meltdowns of northern Japan.

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Why is radioactivity different from ordinary energy, from ordinary disintegration—if it is?

Here's where the Hidden Variables mystery enters the picture, with Einstein himself making a star cameo. The radioactivity produced by the Curies' radium samples was the result of the instability of the radium atom. A certain percentage would disintegrate and send deadly fragments flying all over the place, and with certain radioactive substances lead to explosive chain reactions, bombs, and reactors.

Quantum physicists could figure out a way to predict, statistically, what percentage of a given isotope of radium atoms would disintegrate, but they could not find a way to discover which ones would and which ones wouldn't disintegrate and why.

The physicists claimed that precise prediction was impossible, and that the statistical probability was all that mattered. But not to Einstein who couldn't abide this "quantum unpredictability." To his death he insisted there had to be some kind of as yet undiscovered "hidden variables" within each identical-seeming atom that caused them to go off at a specific time.

Maybe you don't think it matters, Jeff Jarvis isn't going to tweet it, but it's important. It makes a difference whether our entire existence is built on solidity and causality or just a matrix of probability and statistics.

The conventional wisdom of contemporary physics is that Einstein lost the argument, that we have to accept quantum unpredictability. Although I'm of the school that says, "Don't bet against Al," because I can't accept that there is such a thing as the uncaused causation the quantum purists postulate. You might as well believe in Aquinas' God.

I e-mailed Ms. Redniss and asked her (this was a month or so before Japan) if she had any thoughts on Hidden Variables, from her study of radioactivity, or any hints from the Curies. I got the feeling she was one of those artists who dislike being asked what their work means. Do you remember the great scene in Tootsie where Bill Murray is playing a Very Serious Off-Off-Broadway playwright who is telling some people at a party, (I'm paraphrasing) "I don't like it when people see my play and come up to me afterward and say, 'I really dug your message, man.' I want you to show up three days later dazed and bleeding and just ask me, 'What happened?' "

No, I had no indication Ms. Redniss had that Bill Murray attitude, but I had that "What happened?" feeling after I read her book. In its own subtle way it will shake you up, maybe not 9.0, but close.

And I felt her reluctance to theorize came from humility not hubris: She e-mailed back she didn't have a theory but that "hidden variables are the story of my life." Enough said!

But it didn't help me with the problem at hand. Hidden variables and their relationship to the insidious intellectual threat posed by radioactivity. Why is this blight ... etc.

What finally gave me an intimation of why radiation is so intellectually as well as physically insidious—even repulsive—was reading my friend Errol Morris' five-part New York Times blog series on the philosophers Thomas Kuhn and Saul Kripke and why Kuhn threw an ashtray at Morris. In particular the delightfully digressive third part about the death of Hippasus of Metapontum, the fifth-century B.C. philosopher and mathematician who was alleged to have been murdered by members of the then-reigning school of Pythagorean mathematics because Hippasus had, if not invented, foregrounded the existence of "irrational numbers" that the Pythagoreans could not abide or fit into their mathematical schema. A number like the square root of two or pi whose decimal-point identity never comes to a precise endpoint but keeps unfolding into infinity. (Full disclosure: I read some early drafts of Morris' series.) Something about this incompletion, like the lack of hidden variables, is deeply disturbing.

They murdered the poor guy—Hippasus, not Morris—because of the threat of irrationality! The very same threat posed to science by the quantum unpredictability of radioactivity. Such irrationality is a scary abyss no rational intellect wishes to stare into.