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 2)

So we're looking at a two-millennia-long resistance to the irrationality that seems to be built into the grain of our very existence and persists, even after we've come to accept irrational numbers, in the instinctive dread of irrationality that underlies our fear of radioactivity. I'm not saying the heroic Japanese reactor team, who, as I write, are probably on a suicidal mission to cool those fuel rods, have anything but the task at hand and the lives they're sacrificing on their minds.

I'm talking about the recognition that something doesn't compute about the world we live in, the post-decimal identity of the square root of two will never be completed even unto the end of time; the solid ground we step upon is but a sea of holes. Maybe it doesn't bother you when you're following Jeff's tweets, but I have a feeling that at some level it touches on the insecurity about our Being that we recognize from dreams and nightmares, from the classical philosophical problem of the inability to distinguish what is more "real"—our dreams or our waking lives. (I'm a Richard Linklater fan.)

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But there is more to the story. Ms. Redniss concludes Radioactive with a surprising coda. One that is not directly connected to the Curie narrative in a biographical way but thematically ends the book on a stirring image of love and loss, the fission and fusion of the heart.

In the final pages, she has a glowing, fiery-orange-colored double-page spread evoking the furnace of the sun. On the right-hand page is a shadowy couple embracing and kissing flanked by a smaller childlike figure holding up a large egg shape. On the left-hand facing page there is an egg-shaped block of text that tells a resonant story about science and the human heart.

It was about the way radioactivity enabled scientists to prove that heart cells can regenerate.

It had long been an assumption of physiologists that human heart cells were different—in an exceptionalist way—from other cells: They could last a lifetime but could never be replaced if lost, or repaired if damaged, unlike cells from other organs.

Then a Swedish scientist named Jonas Frisén realized there was a way to test this theory. Aboveground atomic explosions from 1945 to 1963 (when the test ban treaty drove them underground) resulted in fallout, which was taken up in the food chain in the form of radioactive Carbon 14, which was absorbed by humans alive during that time.

 "A radioactive tracer," Redniss writes, "had been introduced into humans after all: the atomic tests between 1945 and 1963 had time-stamped every human being on earth. The very experiments developed to vaporize human existence would now be employed to understand and sustain life. Dr. Friser's lab began by studying the muscle cells of the left ventricle. Heart cells, they found, do regenerate." In other words, as I understand it, he discovered cells that had not been in existence at the time the body was taking up Carbon 14 and thus must have come into being, been generated, after the tests' fallout ended, though the heart was still alive.

And then she has this remarkable quote from the doctor himself: "the heart muscle cells will be a mosaic: some that have been with that person from birth and there will be new cells that have replaced others that have been lost." Heart cells in a mosaic of the born and reborn. That means a lot to some of us. So much so that I refuse to end this with some lame Celine Dion joke. It's a genuinely, profoundly moving metaphor!

And, not to get too sentimental, but this is good to know—the capacity of the heart to expand—because we'll all need some new heart cells to express the way we feel about the Japanese reactor workers who gave up their cells for ours.

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