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.

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.

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.

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.)

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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