CRITICALITY (IN PHYSICS AND ART) II
Date: Sat, 25 Apr 1998
Date: Sat, 25 Apr 1998
From: Paul Perry
Have you noticed the patterns in the 'decay chain/evolution' of uranium-238? Going up the entropy slope:
Lead 206 ________________________ stable
Polonium 210 __________________ 138 days
Bismuth 210 _____________________ 5 days
Lead 210 ______________________ 22 years
Polonium 214 __________ 160 microseconds
Bismuth 214 _________________ 20 minutes
Lead 214 ____________________ 27 minutes
Polonium 218 _________________ 3 minutes
Radon 222 _____________________ 3.8 days
Radium 226 _________________ 1,600 years
Thorium 230 _______________ 76,000 years
Uranium 234 ______________ 245,000 years
Protactinium 234 ______________ 1 minute
Thorium 234 __________________ 24.1 days
Uranium 238 ________ 4,470,000,000 years
There is a pattern: Lead -> Polonium -> Bismuth
and a pattern: Thorium -> Uranium -> Protactinium
What do you think of assigning the following topics to the elements
(repetition means an expansion/evolution of a topic):
Lead: The Human Condition/Normality/Background Radiation/Heat Death/Entropy
Radon: Poison vs. Sustenance
Radium: The Light at the End of the Tunnel
Thorium: The Garden of Eden/Oklo Natural Reactors/Sentient Rock
Protactinium: The Sinularity
Date: Sun, 26 Apr 1998
From: Paul Perry
It's 6:00 AM. On the quay below my window two huge Black-Backed Gulls are fighting and protesting. Young ones.
>>Each new technology creates an environment that is itself
>> regarded as corrupt and degrading. Yet the new one turns
>> its predecessor into an art form.
>>-- McLuhan, Marshall: Understanding Media, Introduction to the Second
>>Hmmm. Nothing today is seen as more corrupt and degrading than a nuclear
>>reactor. Wouldn't you agree? And a few weeks ago I realised that if I
>>didn't get to do my Nuclear Garden now it would inevitably be done sometime
>>in the future by a Japanese garden designer.
To which you replied:
>Partially, yes. But the funny thing is that in Holland the Nuclear Age is
>>something of the past - it was killed in the eighties in a joint effort
>of anti nuclear activism and failing scientist who did not manage to get
>the 'Snelle Kweekreactor' going - I think they are turning it into yuppie
>apartments and a theme park, if I remember correctly. So if the Nuclear
>Age (which is the prevailing age in France, for example, where about 50
>procent of their energy comes from nuclear plants) is something of the
>past, it is the content of the prevailing age - that is: it can become
>art, just as nature became art in the industrial age.
I do not believe that the Nuclear Age is "something of the past", as you put it. How can it be? The Nuclear Age is just beginning. In Holland nuclear power was defeated politically in the 1980s but this should only be seen as a temporary hiatus or break in its development chain (like the evolution of lead to uranium). A local incident.
The (Dutch) rejection of nuclear power as "degrading and corrupt" and the evolution of 'green' energy into art is pure McLuhan.
I am sometimes struck by how profoundly un-calvinistic the Dutch have become. Coercionary conservatism out of concern for 'our children's children's children' displays a profound lack of faith in the future. Coercionary conservatism may be the worst course of action for us if we wish 'our children's children's children' to evolve.
Evolution is not linear. It proceeds by fits and starts and in small cycles. We measure change in half-lives rather than in whole lives because at any given moment the old (radiation relics - background radiation) and the new co-exist. Time for radioisotopes is a matter of birth, not death - time is a measure of ratio.
In our entropic universe a sample of Uranium-238 will slowly decay (change) into istopes of thorium, protactinium, radium, radon, polonium, bismuth and lead. The cycle starts at one element (Uranium) expands (diversifies) into many elements and finally (at the end of time in the case of Uranium-238) contracts or closes in on Lead-206.
The Nuclear Age is an age of exploration rather than an age of engineering. The Nuclear Age will truly be "something of the past" when we know enough to enter the Nano Age and begin the direct manipulation of matter at an atomic level.
EVOLUTION VS. THE DOCTRINE OF DECLINING VIRTUE
A combined form, the spiral of cycles plus the notion of progress, may have been known in the sixth millenium B.C. One of the most evolved (and best known) mythical chronologies is the Hindu doctrine of cycles, called days of Brahma, or maha yugas, each lasting 4,320,000 (= 360 x 12,000) years. Each cycle is divided into four yugas called krta, treta, dvapara and kali.
This scheme illustrates two features shared by most fully developed chronologies: it is cyclic, renewing creation after each catastrophic annihiliation; and each cycle is declining in virtue. In the Hindu system, the length of each yuga is proportional to its virtue. Thus krta has 4800 x 360 years, treta has 3600 x 360, dvapara has 2400 x 360, and kali yuga has 1200 x 360, for a total of 12,000 x 360 years. In each succeeding age, virtue declines according to the proportions: 4, 3, 2 and 1. In another reckoning the maha yuga of 4,320,000 is divided into about seventy-one periods, each subdivided into four yugas. The dates of the yugas according to this calender are those shown in the following table:
Before going to bed last night I chose a book randomly from my book
Dawn of Krta Yuga __________ 58,042 BC
Beginning of Krta Yuga _____ 56,026 BC
Beginning of Twilight ______ 35,864 BC
Dawn of Treta Yuga _________ 33,848 BC
Beginning Treta Yuga _______ 32,336 BC
Beginning of Twilight ______ 17,215 BC
Dawn of Dvapara Yuga _______ 15,703 BC
Beginning of Dvapara Yuga __ 14,695 BC
Beginning of Twilight ________ 4614 BC
Dawn of Kali Yuga ____________ 3606 BC
Kali Yuga ____________________ 3102 BC
Middle of Kali Yuga ___________ 582 BC
Beginning of Twilight ________ 1939 AD
End of Twilight of Kali Yuga _ 2442 AD
-- Abraham, Ralph: Chaos Gaia Eros (1994)
Date: Sun, 26 Apr 1998
From: Paul Perry
davidkremers says: ...manhattan...
Arjen Mulder says: Annie Hall
How are we going to settle the argument between two intellectuals over which Woody Allen film contained the cameo appearance of Marshall McLuhan?
Date: Mon, 27 Apr 1998
From: Arjen Mulder
Maybe the Woody Allen movie was Manhattan.
Date: Mon, 27 Apr 1998
From: Arjen Mulder
>Have you noticed the patterns in the 'decay chain/evolution' of
>uranium-238? Going up the entropy slope:
>There is a pattern: Lead -> Polonium -> Bismuth
>and a pattern: Thorium -> Uranium -> Protactinium
>What do you think of assigning the following topics to the elements
>(repetition means an expansion/evolution of a topic):
This seems to make a lot of sense. So lets go for it. But still, maybe it would be nice if we manage to get that idea in that the process of going from lead to Uranium 238 by bringing energy and particles into the chain is an analogue of making an artwork (as a proces: the final artwork - Uranium 238 tends to go through the same process, but down the entropy hill). And my question remains: what are the particles the artist 'shoots' at his/her inert material to make it 'alive' or extropian?
(I wrote this monday morning, I'll check if there's any mail from you now).
Date: Mon, 27 Apr 1998
From: Paul Perry
You wrote on the 23rd of April:
>I was wondering about a cultural equivalent
>of this extropian approach of the decay chain the other
>way round. You start with inert, stable material (lead) and then you do
>something: you have to put energy in it, and you have to shoot particles at
>it so that these can be absorbed by the inert material. And then the
>material comes alive, and reaches, finally, through these 15 stages, the
>phase where it has a half life of over 4,5 billion years - longer than the
>earth exist - immortality.
>Well, that must be a metaphor for creating a work of art, don't you think?
And again this morning:
>But still, maybe it
>would be nice if we manage to get that idea in that the process of going
>from lead to uranium 238 by bringing energy and particles into the chain is
>an analogue of making an artwork (as a proces: the final artwork - Uranium
>238 tends to go through the same process, but down the entropy hill). And my
>question remains: what are the particles the artists 'shoots' at his/her
>inert material to make it 'alive' or extropian?
I've been waiting for the 'particles' to settle down a bit inside my head before trying to address this question of yours. Since it doesn't look like this will be happening anytime soon, I might as well begin...
In my first post (in this current chain) I included a passsage by David Lillie describing 'the achievement of critical mass' as a way of introducing the concepts: sub-critical, critical and super-critical. That particular passage described critical mass achievement in an atomic weapon - where 'shooting' or explosion/implosion methods are involved. These operations are very difficult to achieve (and besides this sort of energy release is *NOT* the end result that I or you are looking for).
SHOOTING REQUIRES AN INTELLIGENT MIND
...This idea also turned out to be much more complex in practice than conception, and it was here that von Neumann made important contributions. The imploding plutonium became a liquid. The implosion had to be almost perfectly symmetrical for the bomb to work. The joke was that it had to be like crushing a beer can without splattering any beer. Explosive 'lenses', shaped charges containing both fast and slow explosives, were necessary to focus the imploding force on the plutonium. Von Neumann considered the problem in the fall of 1943, and his calculations led to a successful design for the lenses.
-- Poundstone, William: Prisoner's Dilemma (1992)
An external application of energy such as the 'shooting' of particles is not required in a nuclear reactor. It reaches critical mass simply through size (i.e. the bringing together of enough fissionable material in one place) and through the moderation (slowing down), containment and reflection of escaping neutrons. Criticality is initiated and controlled through the use of control rods consisting of a 'neutron poison':
Nuclear power exists because in each fission event induced by a neutron 2 to 3 more neutrons are produced. Each of these produces additional fissions and still more neutrons. Thus a chain reaction is created on the extraordinarily rapid time scale of nuclear events, and enormous amounts of energy can be released in extremely short times as in a nuclear bomb. To harness this energy we need a way to use up extra neutrons so that they cannot produce more fissions.
It is not hard to see that if each fission event can produce only one additional fission there will be continuous production of power at a fixed level, whatever that level was when we achieved the 1 for 1 balance. If each fission produces on average more than 1 additional fission, power will grow; if less than 1 power will decrease. We can exercise this control by insertion or withdrawal of poison materials such as boron, cadmium, indium, or hafnium, having the capability of absorbing huge numbers of neutrons in nuclear reactions that do not contribute significantly to the energy generated.
-- Lillie, David: Our Radiant World (1986)
In a thermal reactor, the core contains a material known as a moderator, the purpose of which is to decrease (i.e., moderate) the speed of the fast neutrons that are liberated in the fusion process. Most thermal power reactors in the United States employ ordinary (light) water as the moderator (and coolant). It is the hydrogen nuclei in the water that are effect in slowing down the neutrons. In some (gas cooled) power reactors, the moderator is the element carbon in the form of graphite.
-- Glasstone and Jordan: Nuclear Power and its Environmental Effects (1980)
The core is surrounded by a neutron 'reflector' the nature of which depends on whether the reactor is thermal or fast. The purpose of the reflector is to decrease the loss of neutrons that have escaped from the core. As the name implies, the reflector returns many of these neutrons to the core where they can contribute to the fission chains. Among the consequences are a decrease in the critical mass of the fuel and an improved distribution of fissions (and hence improved heat generation rate) within the core.
-- Glasstone and Jordan: Nuclear Power and its Environmental Effects (1980)
The natural reactors that burned at Oklo Gabon 1.8 billion years ago achieved critical mass through the action of 'congregating' bacteria and were cybernetically moderated and controlled by the amount of water present (when things got too hot the moderator boiled off and the reaction slowed down).
Rather than shooting particles at my material -- my metaphor for creating art is to wrap the fuel in the right containment, to supply the right moderator and control rods and let 'nature' do the rest. There is no need for external 'hype'. Build it right and it will evolve. The well engineered reactor climbs the entropy slope all by itself.
A glass fish bowl containment, moderated with water.
Date: Mon, 27 Apr 1998
From: Arjen Mulder
>I do not believe that the Nuclear Age is "something of the past", as you
>put it. How can it be? The Nuclear Age is just beginning. In Holland
>nuclear power was defeated politically in the 1980's but this should only
>be seen as a temporary hiatus or break in its development chain (the
>evolution of lead to uranium). A local incident.
Be careful here, Paul. Nuclear energy in Holland was not defeated through some polical blabla, but because the (at that time very strong) pro-nuclear lobby could not come up with the arguments why Holland should have nuclear powerplants. There were 2 main objections:
There was (and still is) no way to get rid of the waste, the burnt out fuel rods. First they wanted to keep them above ground till the problem was solved about what to do with them (remember that the 'opwerk fabriek', the factory to reload the energy sticks, that they were building near the German border never worked and is closed now, after consuming a couple of billion guilders). The idea to put them in salt layer underground was too tricky, because the soil is not that stable in Holland. Then the exported them to Sellafield in England - which has a lot of problems to keep the stuff, because they do not really know what to do with it either.
The second objection was the duration of the nuclear power plants. They work, if I remember correctly, 25 - 50 years, and after that you have to close them down and keep them closed for the next 50,000 years or something. This is tricky in Holland: until about 10,000 years ago most of Holland was water, and in another 10.000 years it will probably be water again.
This is why I should warn you for rhetorics of this kind:
>The (dutch) rejection of nuclear power as "degrading and corrupt" and the
>evolution of 'green' energy into art is McLuhanism.
>I am sometimes struck by how profoundly un-calvinistic the Dutch have
>become. Coercionary conservatism out of concern for 'our children's
>children's children' displays a profound lack of faith in the future.
>Coercionary conservatism may be the worst course of action for us if we
>wish 'our children's children's children' to evolve.
Nuclear energy is too tricky in Holland on the long term. And we have a tradition with wind- and waterpower, so why not try that? It's cheaper, cleaner etc.
There was a typical eighties argument in the anti nuclear sentiments, and that was the fear that terrorists might attack a nuclear plant and blackmail the goverment etc (Israel once bombed a nuclear power plant in Iraq, just before the nuclear fuel was brought in). The Americans made some movies about it. I don't think this argument works any more: the idea was that in order to protect nuclear power plants against terrorists you had to control all the country - the Big Brother argument - and that you would have your 1984 'atom state' as it was called at the time.
I don't think it's a good idea to 'defend' your work of art with the argument that nuclear power plants are just what we need. In Holland no one needs them, so nobody will listen. The political lobby that might have had interest in your arguments died ten years ago, after Chernobyl. And although Bopal may have been bad news for the population of India, there is one difference, I guess. Atomic energy deals with your genetic material, and gives the misgivings of the fathers and mothers on to the next generation (as in original sin, talking about calvinism). There are a lot of terrible crippled children around Chernobyl. And remember the H bomb on Bikini: for more than 20 years women on the islands around the test site got 'jelly fish babies' because of the radiation sickness they had had after the tests.
When you write about the childrens children that evolve, I think you make a mistake. Evolution does not work on a timetable of one century. History does, history goes fast, if necessary. Mankind has mutated, 4 procent in the last 200,000 years, if I remember correctly. Biologically speaking we are basically the same as the people who made the rock paintings. But history has changed a lot since then (technology has changed, I mean, our media have changed). That's why talking about an extrahistorical Human Condition is okay to me, but only when we talk about the basic events of human life - not when we're talking history.
>The Nuclear Age is an age of exploration rather than an age of engineering.
>The Nuclear Age will truly be "something of the past" when we know enough
>to enter the Nano Age and begin the direct manipulation of matter at an
I guess you're right. So Holland is a bit ahead of the rest?
>EVOLUTION VS. THE DOCTRINE OF DECLINING VIRTUE
>"A combined form, the spiral of cycles plus the notion of progress, may
>have been known in the sixth millenium B.C. One of the most evolved (and
>best known) mythical chronologies is the Hindu doctrine of cycles, called
>days of Brahma, or maha yugas, each lasting 4,320,000 (= 360 x 12,000)
>years. Each cycle is divided into four yugas called krta, treta, dvapara
Holy Moses. Now we're talking business. You know, what I like about your use of Uranium 238 is that you found the material that evokes what we call in Dutch a 'heilig ontzag', a holy adoration/fear. Just like gold used to do in the old age. There is this element of holiness in uranium (Uranus), which is so strong that it scares the shit even out of professors. Actually - did I ever tell you why, after getting my degree 'cum laude' Biology, I never wanted to work on the university, but wanted to get out as quickly as possible, and even became an 'illegal scientist' ten years later? Because the university as I expierenced it, was the most petty bourgeois place to be if you wanted to be an intellectual, interested in new ideas and new perspectives. They hated anything new. They only wanted to produce publications etc. It was like a factory of factoids. I never regretted getting out.
I ordered 'The Physics of Immortality'. Hope to get is soon.
Date: Tues, 28 Apr 1998
From: Paul Perry
>Be careful here, Paul.
I am trying to be careful -- and not believe the heresay evidence and distortions of fact surrounding everything *nuclear*. I've just spent the last few months searching out and reading the most non-biased information I could find on nuclear energy. What about you? Are you sure of your facts?
>I don't think it's a good idea to 'defend' your work of art with the
>argument that nuclear power plants are just what we need. In Holland no one
>needs them, so nobody will listen.
I am not arguing that nuclear power plants are what we need today. I am arguing that we will need and use them (on earth, in space, on other planets) sooner rather than later. Arjen, I'm afraid you have misunderstood my point. You seem to have responded with your guts (and your past) rather than with reason. I am interested (and yes, I believe) in progress and development. I believe in mankind's continued cultural and technological evolution -- mankind and post-mankind continuing to climb, as Arthur O. Lovejoy put it, 'The Great Chain of Being'. I thought that this is what we've been discussing here over the last few days. In any case this is what my artwork for the garden in Wageningen is about.
The Nuclear Age, the age of awareness of the energy contained in the atom and the nature of our radioactive universe, has just begun.
>There was (and still is) no way to get rid of the waste, the burnt out
The Sufis have a saying: "Trust in God, but tether your camel first". In other words, have faith in tomorrow's facts but don't forget the facts of life today. Here's the today's facts of the art concerning nuclear waste:
About one cubic meter of waste per year is generated by a power plant. It needs to be kept away from people. After 10 years, the fission products are 1,000 times less radioactive, and after 500 years, the fission products will be less radioactive than the uranium ore they are originally derived from.
-- Nuclear Energy FAQ compiled by John McCarthy (1998)
Fission products of very short half-lives such as minutes or hours, even though initially highly radioactive, are of little concern to us in problems of waste disposal because they have decayed to insignificance in a few days or weeks. Very long half-life isotopes (a thousand years or more) are a problem because of their long term of existence, but this is leavened by their relatively low radioactivity per gram.
If you have a pile of rocks and throw the rocks away slowly one at a time, the pile will last a long time. If you throw them away quickly in handfuls the pile will soon be gone. That is why long half-life isotopes are by nature low intensity emitters and hence less dangerous. They last a long time because particles are emitted less often.
The radioactive isotopes that are the greatest problem are those like Strontium-90 with a half-life of 28.1 years or Cesium-137 with a half-life of 30.2 years. They are initially strongly radioactive and, using a conservative rule of thumb of 20 half-lives to reduce their radiation close to background, they would be troublesome for 600 years. By that time, however, for every original curie there would be less than a millionth of a curie left.
Solidified high-level waste from all the estimated nuclear power production in the United States by the year 2000 would be fitted into a cube 50 feet on each side (15.24 m3). The physical volume of these wastes is thus not very large, and the space required for its storage is not very large either.
-- Lillie, David: Our Radiant World (1986)
Have the radical environmentalists (intentionally) confused the fact that some radioactive isotopes have an extremely long half life but are not that dangerous with the fact that short lived isotopes are very hazardous?
You know, I suspect that underlying all of these issues is a great watershed dividing the optimists who believe in perpetual progress and the pessimists who believe in limits to human growth and expansion. This choice is often made subconsciously. Celia Green described it as the 'Human Evasion'.
Are the pessimists in the majority? It would appear so.
Optimists *expect* technological solutions to technological problems. In his book "Unbounding the Future" nanotechnologist K. Eric Drexler suggests a way of dealing with nuclear waste which would require *lots* of cheap energy:
Even before the era of the nuclear reactor and the nuclear bomb, experimenters made artificially radioactive elements by accelerating particles and slamming them into non-radioactive targets. These particles travelled fast enough to penetrate the interior of an atom and reach the nucleus, joining it or breaking it apart.
The entire Earth is made of fallout from nuclear reactions in ancient stars. Its radioactivity is low become so much time has passed -- many half-lives, for most radioactive nuclei. "Kicking" these stable nuclei changes them, often into a radioactive state. But kicking a radioactive nucleus has a certain chance of turning it into a stable one, destroying the radioactivity. By kicking sorting, and kicking again, an atom-smashing machine could take in electrical power and radioactive waste, and output nothing but stable, nonradioactive elements, identical to those common in nature. Don't recommend this to your congressman -- it would be far too expensive, today -- but it will some day be practical to destroy the radioactivity of the twentieth-century's leftover nuclear waste.
Nanotechnology cannot do this directly, because molecular machines work with molecules, not nuclei. But indirectly, by making energy and equipment inexpensive, molecular manufacturing can give us the means for a clean, permanent solution to the problem of wastes left over from the nuclear era.
-- Drexler, Eric: Unbounding the Future (1991)
Btw: Drexler's energy scenario for the Nano Age does not require nuclear power, he predicts the production of photosynthetic matter:
External walls, roofs, and paving surfaces are exposed to sunlight, and sunlight carries energy. A proven ability of molecular machinery is the conversion of sunlight to stored energy: plants do it every day. Even now, we can make solar cells that convert sunlight into electricity at efficiencies of 30 percent or so. Molecular manufacturing could not only make solar cells much cheaper, but could also make them tiny enough to be incorporated into the mobile building blocks of a smart paint.
To be efficient, this paint would have to be dark -- that is, would have to absorb a lot of light. Black would be best but even light colors could generate some power, and efficiency isn't everything. Once the paint was applied, its building blocks would plug togetherto pool their electric power and deliver it through some standard plug. A thicker, tougher form of this sort of material could be used to resurface pavement, generate power, and transmit it over large distances. Since smart solar-cell pavement could be designed for improved traction and a similar roofing material could be designed for amazing leak-resistance, the stuff would be popular.
On a sunny day, an area just a few paces on a side would generate a kilowatt of electrical power. With good batteries (and enough repaved roads and solar-cell roofing) present demands for electrical power could be met with no coal burning, no oil imports, no nuclear power, no hydroelectric dams, and no land taken over for solar-power generation plants.
-- Drexler, Eric: Unbounding the Future (1991)
>The second objection was the duration of the nuclear power plants. They
>work, if I remember correctly, 25 - 50 years, and after that you have to
>close them down and keep them closed for the next 50,000 years or something.
>This is tricky in Holland: until about 10,000 most of Holland was water, and
>in another 10,000 years it will probably be water again.
Regarding your fuzzy time span of "50,000 years or something" (where did you get this figure?) -- perhaps we should 'take it', as the phrase goes, 'with a grain of salt'? No pun intended.
As to your second figure: Do you really think that mankind will be on this planet in 10,000 years? Given the progress of the last 400 years?
Progress is a relatively recent development. As you know Alvin Toffler was one of the first to popularly discuss the increasing rate of technological change in his book 'Future Shock' first published in 1970. I read 'Future Shock' in high school and it made an enormous impression on me. A quarter of a century later I'd say that it's premise of an 'increasing rate of change' has done more to define my outlook on the future than any other book. You and I discussed 'Future Shock' (and the Singularity) in the interview we did a few years back in 'Metropolis M', remember?
Here in Rotterdam the book is close at hand -- allow me to quote some vintage 'Future Shock':
This book is about change and how we adapt to it. It is about those who seem to thrive on change, who crest its waves joyfully, as well as those multitudes of others who resist it or seek flight from it. It is about our capacity to adapt. It is about the future and the shock that its arrival brings.
(Is this not the watershed I mentioned earlier?)
... One of the most striking statements of this theme has come from Kenneth Boulding, an eminent economist and imaginative social thinker. In justifying his view that the present represents a crucial turning point in human history, Boulding observes that 'as far as many statisical series related to activities of mankind are concerned, the date that divides human history into two equal parts is well within living memory.' In effect, our century represents The Great Median Strip running down the center of human history. Thus he asserts, 'The world today ... is as different from the world in which I was born as that world was from Julius Caeser's. I was born in the middle of human history, to date, roughly. Almost as much has happened since I was born as happened before.'
This startling statement can be illustrated in a number of ways. It has been observed, for example, that if the last 50,000 years of man's existence were divided into lifetimes of approximately sixty-two years each, there have been about 800 such lifetimes. Of these 800, fully 650 were spent in caves.
Only during the last seventy lifetimes has it been possible to communicate effectively form one lifetime to another -- as writing made it possible to do. Only during the last six lifetimes did masses of men ever see the printed word. Only during the last four has it been possible to measure time with any precision. Only in the last two has anyone anywhere used an electric motor. And the overwhelming majority of all the material goods we use in daily life today have been developed within the present, the 8ooth lifetime.
-- Toffler, Alvin: Future Shock (1970)
I consulted John McCarthy's 'Progress and Sustainability' web site earlier today to look up the facts that I needed to answer some of the questions and objections that you raised. I could have found the information in my archives but searching the web site was faster. I'm glad I did. He's updated his pages since I was last there:
Humanity has progressed over hundreds of thousands of years, but until about the seventeenth century, progress was a rare event. There were novelities but a person would not expect a whole sequence of improvements in his lifetime. Since then scientific progress has been continual, and in the advanced parts of the world, there has been continued technological progress.
McCarthy describes himself as an extreme optimist...
There is a widespread belief that the present standard of living in the advanced countries is not sustainable and not extendable to the present backward countries. I and many others don't agree. This exposition (http://www-formal.stanford.edu/jmc/progress/) mainly concerns scientific and technological bases for optimism rather than the historical and economic arguments ably advanced by Julian Simon.
Who in a quesion and answer section discusses why progress is necessary for sustainability...
Q. Given all this uncertainty about the prospects for continuing material progress, isn't it better to be safe than sorry?
A. Yes, but material progress is much more likely to be safe than stagnation. The proposals for limiting progress are likely to costs lives from poverty and make humanity less capable of dealing with the inevitable emergencies. The proposals claiming that safety lies in restraining progress are more likely to lead to sorrow than continuing progress in general.
-- McCarthy, John: Progress and Sustainability web site
>Biologically speaking we are
>basically the same as the people who made the rock paintings. But history
>has changed a lot since than (technology has changed, I mean, our media have
Biologically speaking we are indeed Paleolithic. Our senses evolved to detect warning phenomena such as rapidly changing light conditions (produced for example when a bear moved past the entrance to our cave) and not to the high-speed sensory diet of today's cultural world. We must do a lot of 'dumbing' down and extra interpreting of sensory data to meet our paleolithic biology. This means plenty of opportunity for serious misjudgement and error. And lots of stress.
>Nuclear energy is to tricky in Holland on the long term. And we have a
>tradition with wind- and waterpower, so why not try that? It's cheaper,
This is debatable.
>The political lobby that might have had
>interest in your arguments died ten years ago, after Chernobyl. And although
>Bhopal may have been bad news for the population of India, there is one
>difference, I guess. Atomic energy deals with your genetic material, and
>gives the misgivings of the fathers and mothers on to the next generation
>(as in original sin, talking about calvinism). There are a lot of terrible
>crippled children around Chernobyl.
It is interesting to compare Chernobyl with Bhopal and other 'technological' disasters. Why makes Chernobyl stand out in people's minds and not Bhopal? (I'm including a somewhat technical description of the Chernobyl reactor. This shouldn't pose to much of a problem by now -- though you are probably learning more about nuclear reactor design than you ever wanted to know.)
The Chernobyl accident at Chernobyl, Ukraine, was the worst accident in the history of nuclear energy, worse than all others put together. The following factors made the accident worse than is likely to happen in other plants:
1. The 16 RBMK reactors, of which the Chernobyl plant was one, are built without containment shells. In other reactors, the containment shell will keep almost all radioactive material from spreading in case of an accident.
2. RBMK reactors were intended to produce power and also to produce plutonium for military use. This required that it be possible to remove fuel rods for reprocessing by means of a crane on top of the reactor at short intervals in order to get Pu-239 without substantial admixture of Pu-240. These facilities made the reactor too tall for a containment structure used in Western and other Soviet reactors.
3. The reactor had several other features which were regarded as unsafe in the Soviet Union as well as by experts from other countries. The Soviet Union never exported RBMK reactors.
- Positive void coefficient: If the water in the reactor boils in some spot a bubble of steam is produced. In PWR and BWR reactors, this reduces reactivity, causing the nuclear reaction to slow down. In RBMK reactors it causes the nuclear reaction to speed up.
- Carbon moderator This can catch fire in case of an accident and did at Chernobyl.
4. Making an experiment with the reactor which involved disabling its safety features. This is the single main cause of the accident. The safety features would have safely shut down the reactor if they hadn't been disabled.
In order to prevent the reactor from shutting itself off from xenon poisoning, the operators pulled the control rods almost all the way out. This caused an enormous increase in the nuclear reaction to 150 times the reactor's normal power level (in ony a few seconds). This caused a steam explosion that blew the top off the reactor, probably stopping the nuclear reaction. Then the carbon caught fire and burned for about nine days. This scattered the reactor contents and large amounts of radioactivity. 32 people died in the accident and in efforts to put out the fire. 38 more people died of acute radiation sickness in the following months. There were measurable health effects in Ukraine and Belarus.
The radioactivity spread over northern Europe caused some plants and wild animals to be more radioactive than was legal for human consumption. However, there were no identifiable illnesses outside the Soviet Union. There may be some increase in cancer but this is unlikely to be detectable, because of the large numbers of cancers from other causes.
In terms of immediate deaths it was a rather small disaster. 32 people died. Cave-ins in coal mines often kill hundreds.
However, about 20 square miles of land became uninhabitable for a long time. This isn't a lot.
Fall-out from the Chernobyl explosion will contribute an increase to the incidence of cancer all over Europe. How much of an increase is disputed. Since the increase will be very small in proportion to the amount of cancer, we probably won't know from experience.
The largest estimates are in the low thousands which would make Chernobyl a disaster comparable to the Bhopal chemical plant or the Texas City explosion of a shipload of ammonium nitrate or the Halifax disaster during World War I. On the other hand these large estimates are small compared to the number who have died in each of several recent large earthquakes in countries using stone or adobe or sod houses.
It is comparable to the number killed in coal mining accidents in the Soviet Union over the years Chernobyl was operating.
The large estimates depend on the linear hypothesis which is almost certainly wrong but which is used for regulatory purposes because it is so conservative. The estimates are probably too high by a substantial factor, maybe 10, maybe 100.
-- McCarthy, John: Nuclear Energy FAQ and Chernobyl web sites
Arjen, this has been a long and difficult mail and its late. I hope I don't come across too much as an advocate of nuclear energy -- or that I am marginalizing the risks involved. I am still however amazed at the irrationality with which the subject is approached...
P.S. I leave you with 2 more tables for our growing tabula rasa:
Risk / Days of Life Expectancy Lost by Taking Risk
Riding in cars (10,000 miles/yr) _______________________ 200
Not using seat belts ____________________________________ 50
Driving small cars ______________________________________ 50
Smoking one pack/day __________________________________ 2200
Overeating by 200 calories/day __________________________400
Being one pound overweight ______________________________ 30
One diet drink/day _______________________________________ 2.5
Fire ____________________________________________________ 30
Drowning ________________________________________________ 40
Being poisoned __________________________________________ 20
Choking on food _________________________________________ 12
Being asphyxiated ________________________________________ 7
Struck by falling object _________________________________ 6
Electrocution ____________________________________________ 6
Lightning ________________________________________________ 6
Being bitten by an animal or insect _____________________ 0.3
Being murdered __________________________________________ 90
Consuming nuclear electricity (if it were all nuclear) __ 0.05
Consuming electricity from coal _________________________ 15
Air pollution (all sources) _____________________________ 25
Being male rather than female _________________________ 2700
Remaining unmarried ___________________________________ 1800
Working as a coal miner _______________________________ 1500
Sources of Radiation Exposure to the Average American
Radon ________________ 55%
X-ray Exams __________ 11%
Natural Internal _____ 10%
Terrestrial ___________ 8%
Cosmic rays ___________ 8%
Nuclear Medicine ______ 4%
Commercial Products ___ 3%
Other _______ less than 1%
Date: Tue, 28 Apr 1998
From: Arjen Mulder
>Rather than shooting particles at my material -- my metaphor for creating
>art is to wrap the fuel in the right containment, to supply the right
>moderator and control rods and let 'nature' do the rest. There is no need
>for external 'hype'. Build it right and it will evolve. The well engineered
>reactor climbs the entropy slope all by itself.
This wonderful statement would be the ultimate answer, were it not the case that in the nuclear reactor the process is still entropian, not extropian. If you want to climb the decay chain, you'll somehow have to reverse the process. And in stead of inhibiting, reflecting or modifying the stream of particles, you have to make them accept your input (of energy and particles in the extropian chain, of energy and whatever in the artistic chain). I'm still wondering.
The word I wanted to use yesterday but could not find (for 'heilig ontzag') is: awe. Using uranium as an artistic material is a direct and technical way of creating an 'aura' for the artwork, of which Walter Benjamin wrote a long time ago that it was the great characteristic of artworks. You have this desire / necessity to create objects, to make objects, even though in a way your not so much an object-artist as a process-artist, I suppose (the process of going up the extropian chain?). An art object is (or has to be, or wants to be?) an awe inspiring object (as Nietzsche wrote 120 years ago: 'art is the last metaphysical activity left to western man' - since prayer didn't work anymore because of God's death).
It's tuesday evening now, I will check my mail and see if you had any comments on the awe-stuff already. The only person I can think of who can do some editing, might be Michael Gibbs, who is English and did a lot of translating from the Dutch.
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