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Checking the time on the Doomsday Clock

by Michael Hoffman

In 1902, an American science writer named Robert Kennedy Duncan wrote a magazine piece titled “Radio-Activity: A New Property of Matter.” Its subject is French physicist Henri Becquerel’s discovery, in 1896, of the rays that now bear his name. Duncan’s tone is so radiant with hope, so luminous with the sheer joy of knowledge, that a few fragments must be quoted:

” ‘In the beginning God created,’ and in the midst of His creation He set down man with a little spark of the Godhead in him to make him strive to know — and in the striving, to grow, and to progress to some great, worthy, unknown end in this world …”

Inspired by the recent discoveries of X-rays and phosphorescence, Becquerel experimented with various materials, and “out of all the different substances he tried,” writes Duncan, “there was one, a substance containing the metal uranium that had waited aeons for this one precious day. For one day of twenty-four hours this substance lay upon a photographic plate enveloped in black paper, and thus, after ages upon ages of waiting, found utterance. The plate was affected … [revealing] the presence of penetrating rays … a new thing in nature! … So, as Becquerel stood in his laboratory that night, with this thought in his mind and the plate in his hand, he appears sharply silhouetted against the background of the ages …”

Duncan’s prose soars to a rapturous conclusion: “Space is all aquiver with waves of radiant energy … Waves of radiant energy constitute what has been called ‘the harp of life.’ … Some day, a thousand years hence, we shall know the full sweep of this magnificent harmony, and with it we shall vibrate in accord with the Master Musician of it all.”

Rapture and dread are strange bedfellows — or perhaps no more so than male and female; at any rate they are often together, though seemingly opposite. One is ascendant for a time, then gives way to the other, which waxes and wanes in turn. That Becquerel’s name is probably better known in Japan now than it was at the time of his great discovery is an irony that makes Duncan’s rapture seem quaint, if not, in retrospect, a little silly.

Atomic dread wasn’t born in Fukushima, of course, but in Hiroshima, a birth symbolized by the famous Doomsday Clock, maintained since 1947 by the board of directors of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists at the University of Chicago. At its inception the clock was set at 7 minutes to midnight. In 1953, back-to-back nuclear tests by the United States and the Soviet Union moved it up to 2 minutes to midnight — planetary annihilation seemed that close. The Cold War ended, but dread remained, fed now mainly by climate change. The last adjustment was in January 2010 — to 6 minutes before doom.

If rapture is going to seize us again any time soon, it will be a sudden seizure; there’s no sign of it visible from here. Dread reigns supreme. Fukushima is not really apocalyptic, but it feels that way, and if the Doomsday Clock were in Japan it would surely be advanced a minute or two.

“Black rain.” It’s an expression associated with radioactive rainfall after the Hiroshima bombing, resurrected by Shukan Gendai last month for Tohoku. The magazine tells a curious story. The government, it says, approached sportswear manufacturers: Could they immediately furnish 2 million nylon suits with hoods attached? Impossible, said the manufacturers; the most they could offer was 20-30,000.

The matter seemed to end there, leaving the puzzled manufacturers wondering what the government had in mind. Were the suits meant as disposable rainwear to be worn in the event of black rain? If that’s a danger, why is there no official mention of it? So as not to sow panic, no doubt — but is secrecy, especially when seen as such, the best means toward that end? Isn’t it more likely to stimulate the worst fears?

On the other hand, is anything the government says likely to reassure us? Our age of dread is also an age of cynicism — no one takes government pronouncements at face value. Even when they seem convincing and may (for all we know) be true, we know governments have lied before and will again, if there’s a political advantage to be gained.

No matter what the government says or doesn’t say, explains or doesn’t explain, discloses or doesn’t disclose, one fact won’t change: The general public doesn’t understand radioactivity, and won’t master enough of the subject in time to respond reasonably to the current crisis. Even scientists understand it incompletely (Duncan’s “thousand years hence” being still a ways off), which partly accounts for the contradictory nature of the information that does get out, suggesting at times that the situation is not as bad as we think, at times that it’s worse than we can imagine.

That’s the most dreadful thing of all — we live, and consent to live, and even demand to live, among devices whose wonders we don’t begin to understand, trusting the experts who claim to have them in hand the way our ancestors trusted the priests to keep the gods in hand. When the experts grow over-confident and fail, we end up with Chernobyl and Fukushima.

“The accident at the Fukushima No. 1 reactor isn’t over,” warns Shukan Gendai. “The real dread is just beginning.”