Radiation, History, and Human Misery

23 Jun

I need to offer two apologies. First is for not posting more often. Every year around mid-June I seem to get very busy which cuts down on my blogging. For some reason I thought that might not happen this year but it has (definition of insanity here?). At the very least I’ll be quite busy through a conference in Charleston I’m returning from on July 20 and I imagine for at least a few weeks after that. My second apology is that I’m about to put up what may be one of the most pointless posts I’ve ever written. But I want to get something out which I could put together quickly, even though a chunk of it relates to my real job.

I recently received the conference proceedings for the “International Science Symposium on Combating Radionuclide Contamination in Agro-Soil Environment.” Yes, this is the kind of stuff I read for my real job. A friend of mine from USDA who I work with on a national radiological project attended (March 8-10 in Koriyama Japan) and sent the proceedings to me. This is absolutely fascinating stuff (this term will be repeated later). We have the world’s largest outdoor laboratory to assess the agricultural and environmental impacts of a large-scale radiological incident. The amount we’re going to learn from this, lessons we can apply in case of another incident, will be tremendous.

The proceedings, which include discussions of topics such as; the efficacy of recovery techniques such as potassium or phosphate fertilizer applications, feeding Prussian Blue to livestock; which crops are susceptible and resistant to radionuclide soil uptake; lessons learned from Chernobyl and their application to Japan, etc., is riveting. Seriously. And I’m just getting started reading it.

So I’m reading the first presentation and the thought literally crosses my mind, “This is absolutely fascinating.”

Full. Stop.

This is a real tragedy, with a massive Human cost. The death toll will likely approach 20,000. The economic losses will be in the hundreds of billions and won’t be able to be accurately assessed for decades. Displaced families, cultural damage and loss – I suppose I could throw in a hundred terms about what Japan and its citizens have suffered and continue to suffer. And I find it fascinating? I was more than a little appalled at my response.

I can’t help it. As I continue to read, it continues to be fascinating. Intellectually I know there have been massive losses and suffering. I can’t say I’ve never been exposed to this as I’ve assisted with disaster response before though for nothing approaching this scale. However for the most part my interest in the subject matter trumps my recognition of the devastation. And then I started thinking about history.

I find it fascinating too. Never mind that so much of it is about Human suffering. The end of the Roman Empire, the period in which I’m most interested, resulted in (I’m certain, despite some recent books seeking to minimize this) major societal upheaval, loss, death, lack of security, and so on. During the later Roman Empire the mere existence of the institution of slavery meant that for many people their entire lives consisted of a pitiful existence. Among the areas I find most interesting are heresy and its suppression and the Crusades. No suffering there, eh? (sarcasm mode)

But I don’t think of this, much. I know it went on though I can’t quantify it. I don’t give it all that much thought when I’m reading about the Tohoku earthquake and subsequent disaster (though it does encroach a bit more). I’m not a psychologist and can’t begin to explain it but I don’t think I’m alone in being able to read about and study Human events which were absolutely devastating for those involved where my foremost thought isn’t the Human impact but rather how interesting it is. I guess we wouldn’t want a world full of people walking around crying every time a tragic event crossed their minds. Even so, I find this troubling.

Don’t say you weren’t warned; I told you this post was pointless.


Posted by on June 23, 2012 in Uncategorized


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11 responses to “Radiation, History, and Human Misery

  1. Lucas

    June 23, 2012 at 6:58 pm

    On the contrary, I don’t think this is pointless at all and in fact raises an important issue that I think we as historians are sometimes too quick to jump over. It’s easy to forget that the people we’re studying were people too, and that although they lived in a very different context and thought world, they were still human and were still subject to the passions and miseries of mortal existence. I wonder if sometimes we deny them that and try to argue that they did something “because they were a medieval” instead of just a human being. Perhaps in striving for as much objectivity as possible we separate ourselves too distantly from them. Since post-modernism has thrown Enlightenment ideas of objectivity in history out the window, recognizing that we study flawed human beings much like ourselves is something that we should be taking advantage of in historical study.

    • Curt Emanuel

      June 24, 2012 at 8:29 am

      We (people) have always internalized what we experience far more than what we intellectually learn. I know this but for some reason it bothered me when I was reading about Fukushima yesterday. On a more philosophical level this often makes me wonder how this will allow us to progress as a species. We can learn how to add, read, do nuclear physics and make all sorts of neat gadgets but for the most part it takes experiences rather than intellectual knowledge to change us on a personal level (again, I’m not a psychologist or any other sort of “ologist” to speak on this with any real authority). It’s the main reason why I think the quote should actually read, Those who study history learn that we are doomed to repeat it. Wow I’m maudlin. And tangential. And likely not explaining myself very well.

  2. Michelle Ziegler

    June 23, 2012 at 11:53 pm

    Curt this is the eternal struggle with studying something like the plague and biosecurity in general. (As you know the radiation work is biosecurity mitigation.) I find much of it fascinating and can’t understand why not everyone else can see it. Yet, the three plague pandemics are probably in the top 10 of human disasters of all time, each had deaths that are counted in the millions. The danger from plague is not a thing of the past, but still very much in the present even if we are in a relatively quiet period. Studying past tragedies, recent as in Japan or long past as in the Black Death, to improve our handing of future events is an important activity. There will be more nuclear accidents, and unfortunately possibly nuclear weapons so we have to understand how to respond. As far as being fascinated by what we study, would you really want people who were not fascinated by it to do the work? Its the fascination that gives you the drive to put in the extra effort to learn as much as you can.

    • Curt Emanuel

      June 24, 2012 at 8:33 am

      I thought of you when I was writing this. The same holds true for the study of anything which results in a major societal change. Someone almost certainly suffered greatly, likely large numbers of people. This propensity isn’t all bad (may not even be mostly bad). You have to have folks who can analyze and problem-solve. But for some reason it really bothered me yesterday.

  3. Joan Vilaseca

    June 24, 2012 at 3:19 am

    I had very similar feelings reading Josep M. Salrach’s ‘La Fam al món : passat i present’. The history of human hunger is devastating (especially from a moral point of vue, ‘homo homini lupus’), but it’s nevertherless fascinating for what we learn about ourselves.

  4. edmund

    July 7, 2012 at 2:19 am

    A lot of times when I’m getting really immersed in some history I’m reading, I’m really struck by the idea that there are other people at the end of what I’m reading. As hard as I’m trying to understand what I’m reading, as much as I hope for some things and fear others, so did the people I’m trying to find by stumbling through thousand-year-old documents. Every person a whole world, just like we all are. I decided that reading about them and trying to hold their lives in my mind is a way of making them live again. Especially when their stories are sad, I feel like I’m the scar tissue of their lives. That’s been entering a lot recently into my thinking about what history is and what historians do.

    • Curt Emanuel

      July 23, 2012 at 7:00 am

      “Every person a whole world, just like we all are.”

      I like that and may steal it. It’s something I often drift to whether reading about history or tragic current events like the Colorado USA theater shooting. Every person who ever lived or is alive today had/has their own hopes and dreams. Every person was someone’s son or daughter. Almost every person was cherished by his or her family and existed in his/her own reality where things/people were as important to that person as certain things/people are to us. It’s interesting to think about Human commonalities but also provide some perspective (at least when thinking of myself) about how I’m both extremely insignificant and extremely important. I’m just another in the teeming mass of humanity, yet I am also unique, never seen before and never to exist again and contributing something, however small, which nobody else can offer.

      This is about to get way too philosophical for this blog so I’ll leave off now. Thanks for the comment.

      • thegodsseries

        August 14, 2012 at 3:45 pm

        I am new to blogging and am inspired to find this thread on my first visit to the site.

        I’ve joined to research (and in due course promote) an e-fiction series, set around AD 400. Reading source materials, the biggest challenge I face is to get into the minds of characters from the time in a way that is both honest and emotionally interesting.

        I for one shall very much enjoy reading your future thoughts on the human/emotional impacts of historical events (philosophical or not! :).

  5. traveller

    September 19, 2012 at 9:33 pm

    Hello. I just surfed in. Great stuff. Amateur historians make the world go round! Best of luck in the future.

    • Curt Emanuel

      September 22, 2012 at 7:37 pm

      Thanks – hope you enjoy the blog and find something useful in it.


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