Saturday, August 06, 2005

Sixty Augusts ago...

...a President, a bunch of scientists and even more soldiers ended up opening Pandora's Box for all time. (And if I'd been there, I'm afraid I would have done exactly the same thing.)

On August 6, 1945, a specially-fitted bomber called the Enola Gay dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. It ended the war, but opened a box of ultimate evil, and for sixty years we've been trying in vain to stuff it all back in the box.

Today, in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, a ceremony will be held on the University of Chicago campus, where the first controlled nuclear reaction occurred in the first atomic reactor. A Henry Moore sculpture marks the site; unfortunately, the marker for the first controlled nuclear chain reaction is clearly symbolized by the first tragically uncontrolled reaction.

In the exuberance of my youth, I found atomic power to be the dream of the future. No emissions, highly efficient, I saw it as the triumph of science and technology over the needs of culture, and I trusted in the technology to keep us safe. I even remember touring the yet-unfinished Millstone Point nuclear power station with my dad as part of an IEEE conference on nuclear reactors.

Interestingly enough, Millstone 1, finished in 1970, was shut down in 1996 after a series of safety issues and releases of radioactive gas. It's going to be dismantled, and this is where the problem comes. The "waste" products from commercial atomic energy remain radioactive for tens - even hundreds - of thousands of years (see this link for a good article about radioactive half-lives). Technology failures (think Three Mile Island and Chernobyl) would cause devastation which could literally wipe out civilization. If you can find it, an old sci-fi book called The Prometheus Crisis offers a great way to see how the world could very well end.

I didn't mean to get off on a nuclear-safety rant...but, as I listened to survivors retell the stories of the hideous effects of radiation poisoning, and the incredible devastation of the blast itself, I sure as hell wish we could have done differently. The problem today is that not only does the tiger still have 24,000-year teeth, but it's not in the cage - nuclear material is being actively sought by terrorists. While I couldn't bring myself to see the movie, I found the book The Sum of All Fears to be terrifyingly accurate as far as what I understood of the process for nuclear destruction.

On this day, I mourn the lives lost, and the innocence lost. We will never be able to stuff Pandora's evil back in the box - and living with it is going to require more courage than most of us can imagine. I've lived with the air-raid drills - hiding under desks in elementary school forty years ago - and I can't go back to living in that kind of fear. I can only go forward in faith, and work for a better way. And pray...

7 comments:

Danny said...

Thanks for this. I still remember the day in 5th grade when I found out that the ability to destroy the earth wasn't just something from a Marvin the Martian cartoon. What an awesome and terrifying capability we humans have.

Dave said...

You know, when the hand-held cross bow that could be fired several times in rapid succession was invented way back when, there was just as much of an uproar. People then thought it was the final weapon that would cause the destruction of civilazation.

wesd said...

Maybe I have specific scars, having discovered in the 80's:

bomb factories
pay better than
public health field.

Having bought premise "A", I was more amenable to "B." In the end, my rationalizations led to another type of "uncontrolled reaction."

"Poor me, my life is out of control and I don't know why."

This hypocrite doesn't have to look "out there" for evil. Maybe "original sin" sounds offensive, but when the shoe fits...

My seduction was sponsored by society's economic choices. However I ought not alloweth what I condemneth?

Lorna said...

Thanks for this interesting post

Steve F. said...

I'm with you, Wes - and for more reasons than most folks know.

I, too, do not have to look far for evil, or failing. A glance around my room shows signs of sloth, gluttony, and a few other fear-based behaviors. And I don't have much trouble with "original sin," either - I am practically a walking poster-boy for it. (Practically the only thing, other than long-windedness, that I will ever be a poster-boy for...)

But that evil is everyday, I guess - and less destructive in the mass sense than atomic bombs. And there is no anniversary for original sin - except, perhaps, at every sunrise, and when passing apple trees...

Poor Mad Peter said...

I read aletter to the editor of the toronto Globe and Mail, in which the writer was thankful that the bomb dropped on Japan ended World War 2 and Japanese territorial ambitions in the Pacific, because otherwise (and I am only lightly paraphrasing, now) Japan would have become an economic powerhouse, Japanese cars would be all over our streets and Japanese products in all our stores, and there would be a proliferation of sushi bars everywhere...

wesd said...

Teilhard de Chardin suggests, "At the present time many believers, to avoid the anxieties that contact with reality might renew them in them, allow a veil of conventional answers to cover the mysteries of life."

As you suggest, Steve, evil is a petty, not great, thing. It occurs one, seemingly innocuous, step at a time in the same way as spiritual progress.

Physics won't change, but our concept of justice might: "This is a sick man. How can I be helpful to him? God save me from being angry. Thy will be done."