I had never met a nuclear physicist until I moved to Albuquerque. Now I know several.
I had never heard the term “atomic tourism” until a few years ago, when a seatmate on a flight told me why he was travelling to New Mexico.
In the wake of this week’s devastating tsunami in Japan, I am reminded of two things: the power of nature and the interconnectedness of humanity.
As the nuclear crisis unfolded in Japan, I started reading online. One of the first things I noticed was a quote from a former Sandia National Labs expert in nuclear accidents. I wasn’t surprised that we have experts doing this kind of work in our city, not with our history.
I was a little relieved (if that is the right word to use) that the lab mentioned was Sandia, not Los Alamos. Though there is some grim poetic appeal to New Mexico bringing the atomic age full circle in Japan. The thought that experts from this Land of Enchantment could provide assistance to Japan in their hour of need years after the destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima both comforts and disconcerts me.
I know there are those who will demonize nuclear fission and everything associated with it. I’ve attended more than a few children's birthday parties sullied by über-ardent pro and anti-nuke debate.
I spent my teen and young adult years hanging out with surfers at Trestles, in the shadow of San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. (When I was in middle school the boys called it the Dolly Parton Monument.) The water was warm and we invincible teens thought it was cool to laugh in the face of something that many thought symbolized death and destruction. Years later I think about the irony of Santo Onofre, desert dweller, and the water surrounding the land named for him.
I worked in a government building during college – the building had a fallout shelter. Since my job required that I use the back staircases constantly, I saw the graphic image of the fallout shelter sign constantly. I was taken by the bold visuals, though I really didn’t know what it meant until one day I mentioned it to my parents at the dinner table. They responded with “duck and cover” – which gave me some insight into their understanding of the nuclear age.
Later in my life, I listened intently as friends described to me the haunting and beautiful shade of blue of Čerenkov radiation. (For some reason this always makes me think of Hume’s missing shade of blue.) I’ve never seen this with my own eyes, but I still hope to some day.
As a young woman I faced a fork in the road – science or philosophy? And to this day I wonder about the road not taken. I became a philosopher who deals with science and ethics, not a scientist.
Still, I vowed to pass on my passion for science to my children. It was easy to do in Albuquerque.
My own children have seen the models of Fat Man and Little Boy more times than I can count at the National Museum of Nuclear Science & HIstory. And we have read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes just as many times, if not more.
They know that the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center is based right in their home town. And for years, every August I brought my August-born children to local Peace Day events marking the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing.
We’ve had plenty of talks about the scientific challenge of breaking the atom, and of humans desiring to control nature. These days our discussions tend to be framed around Hayao Miyazaki’s art – Princess Mononoke, for one.
I marvel at the certainty of those who are convinced that nuclear power is the single best approach to satisfy our seemingly insatiable need for power to fuel our lifestyle.
Likewise, I marvel at the certainty of those who are convinced that nuclear anything is one of the greatest evils that humans have wrought upon humanity.
Far be it from me to knock the power of nuclear medicine. It saved my life once.
And I recognize that a good part of this state’s economy was built on the nuclear industry, which continues to sustain it.
In this city, where people holding these opposing positions dwell side by side, I’m somewhere in the middle.
I’m not so good at certainty.
I’m better at questioning and listening and forming tentative opinions that I’ll revise as new knowledge comes in. Call it the hallmark of the philosopher – or of the scientist. Both fields require one to consider new hypotheses and explanations when established ones become insufficient.
Like much of the world, I’ve got an eye on what is happening in Japan. I’m hoping for the best ending to what can only be described as a nightmare times ten.
I’m pulling for those nuclear experts, some of whom are right here in Albuquerque, to provide the knowledge and expertise that will result in the least amount of harm.
The least amount of harm.
Isn't that what we all want, in some fashion?
It is the pesky details of this that confound us as humans - pro-nuclear and anti-nuclear and especially those of us in the middle.
Header image is Hokusai's woodblock print, The Great Wave, courtesy of the British Museum.