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?

Radioactive symbol. Click image to expand.
Is radiation threatening to us metaphysically?

I'm guessing the reference in the title makes sense to the non-Jewish world. You've all heard "Why is this night different from all other nights?" haven't you? One of the key Passover questions. The night is different because the story of Exodus is told on that night, and it's, you know, a big deal what with the plagues and the murrain (hate that murrain!) and the Red Sea and all that.

So what makes radiation different from all other blights? This is, by the way, not a column on nuclear power policy options post-Japan. It's a column about the primal dread radioactivity evokes in us.

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I'll concede that the tragedy in Japan impelled me to bring together some thoughts I'd been having about radiation. Thoughts in part inspired by my own book on nuclear war and in part by another book, the remarkable booklike objet d'art, Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie: A Tale of Love and Fallout, by Lauren Redniss. I'll get to that book and what it says about the astonishing regenerative power of human heart muscle cells—of the human heart itself—in a moment.

But I want to dwell further on the "why is this blight different" question. It's an "exceptionalist" question and, in case you haven't noticed, I am drawn to exceptionalist questions. Hitler, for instance, presents an exceptionalist question: Was Hitler on the continuum of other evildoers in history—a very, very, very bad man at the far end of the continuum of bad men, but still explicable by means of the same psychological, sociological terms that suffice to explain other evildoers? Or did he represent some unique sui generis category of radical evil? (Or so I asked in Explaining Hitler.)

And Shakespeare. Was Shakespeare just a very, very, very great writer, at the far end of the continuum of other great writers? Or did his work represent a sui generis creation, a quantum leap into a realm of words all his own? (Or so I asked in The Shakespeare Wars.)

And with another quantum conceptual leap we come to the radioactivity question: Is nuclear radiation whether contained within a civilian reactor or unleashed in a wartime explosive, different from other forms of energy in some mysterious way, quantitatively more powerful, but qualitatively more demonic—threatening to us in some manner that is metaphysical as well as physical? (Or so I asked in my new book, How the End Begins.)

Questions within questions: Here is one that I'd direct to the creationists out there, the ones who believe in a benevolent God. Couldn't your God (all powerful and loving after all) have created a universe in which there was no radioactive decay, thus no Hiroshima no Fukushima meltdowns. There would still be a lot of suffering and evil in such a world if that's important to you, but just not this particular kind. (Partic-ular indeed!)

Those who believe that suffering and evil can be explained, even justified, by the fact that man has free will and thus the ability to choose evil (the "blame-it-on-the victim" school of theodicy) and argue that courage and goodness would not mean anything if mankind did not have that free choice, still have to answer the question: Is this really the best of all possible worlds? Couldn't God have made it a little better? A little less suffering, fewer of those earthquakes, say, a slightly smaller number of childhood cancers, a little less heartlessness, a little more humanity in human nature? Whenever I hear people echo Voltaire's mocking (in Candide) of Leibniz's assertion this is "the best of all possible worlds," I hear Leibniz with a different, sardonic, anti-Candide questioning tone: "This, THIS is the best of all possible worlds?" This is the best you could do, God, Mr. Big Shot burning-bush guy?

Would it not be possible for you to devise a physics that allowed a world to exist and sustain hapless humans without adding to their burden by making nuclear extinction weapons and painful radiation deaths possible?

So there's that, although it must be accepted that in this world radioactive decay is a fact we have to deal with. But that still doesn't answer all the questions about radioactive decay.

Which is where the Hidden Variable controversy and the terror of irrationality comes in. And Radioactive and heart muscle cells.

I can't decide whether Radioactive is a work of art in the form of a book, or a book in the form of a work of art. It has elements of both, pictorial and scriptorial. Ostensibly, it's the story of the life of Marie Curie, two-time winner of the Nobel Prize for her theory and work on radioactivity. And a story of interactivity you might say. Hers with the two men she loved: her husband Pierre Curie, and—after he died in a freak accident—Paul Langevin, a fellow scientist. And interactivity between the human race and radioactivity once the Curies made it visible, usable.

Without heavy-handedness, Redniss counterpoises the love and tragedy that were the intersecting vectors of Marie Curie's life and work in an object—this book—which in its very inking radiates a striking luminescent glow amid menacing shadows.

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