Climate of fear Anti-science protestors led to the closure of the High Flux Beam Reactor at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in the US 25 years ago using tactics that are widespread today. (Courtesy: iStock/DanielVilleneuve)
Topics: Biology, Cancer, Carl Sagan, Civilization, Climate Change, Philosophy, Physics
I typically don't comment on articles, but this one resonated with my memories of Carl Sagan desperately trying to raise the critical thinking skills of an entire essential nation with "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark." The host of Cosmos would succumb to pneumonia as a consequence of bone marrow disease. I will be the age Carl was when he passed away this year, 62, but not as accomplished as he did in the six decades we all had access to him.
The framework of our current duress was already here in the form of celebrity worship, gossip columns, and talk shows where sensationalism equaled eyeballs, just as the Internet rouses the primitive lizard portion of our brains to be afraid, get angry, and "buy-purchase-consume" products (a friend who's a sound engineer likes to say that a lot).
Underhand tactics by environmental activists led to the closure of a famous physics facility 25 years ago. We can still learn much from the incident, says Robert P Crease.
Fake facts, conspiracy theories, nuclear fear, science denial, baseless charges of corruption, and the shouting down of reputable health officials. All these things happened 25 years ago, long before the days of social media, in a bipartisan, celebrity-driven episode of science denial. Yet the story offers valuable lessons for what works and what does not (mostly the latter) for anyone wanting to head off such incidents.
The episode in question concerned one of the more valuable scientific facilities in the US, the High Flux Beam Reactor (HFBR) at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. As I mentioned in a previous column and in my book The Leak, the HFBR was a successful research instrument that was used to make medical isotopes and study everything from superconductors to proteins and metals. “Experimentalists saw the reactor as the place to go,” recalls the physicist William Magwood IV, then at the US Department of Energy.
But in 1997, lab scientists discovered a leak of water from a pool located in the same building as the reactor, where its spent fuel was stored. The leak contained tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that decays with a half-life of about 12 years, releasing low-energy electrons that can be stopped by a few sheets of paper. The total amount of tritium in the leak was about that in typical self-illuminating “EXIT” signs.
The protestors’ tactics are a familiar part of today’s political environment: tell people they are in danger and insist that anyone who says otherwise is lying.
The article goes on to recount the actor Alec Baldwin using his celebrity to put a ten-year-old child on the Montell Williams Show to claim that the tritium and the research facility caused his cancer. It wasn't true, but it was LOUD, drowning out the experts who are used to spirited peer review and erudite discussions of research, not tears and gnashing of teeth.
Montell Williams ended his talk show after announcing that he had multiple sclerosis. Alec Baldwin, though I enjoyed his SNL skits, has other pressing issues.
I have a physicist friend who's using tritium in his research with optical tweezers, separating isotopes to detect and treat cancers, among other applications. I am opting not to give his website as those same elements described in the article about Brookhaven National Labs have metastasized into our current societal mass psychosis. If his research leads to your cancer cure, you can thank him later.
Twenty-five years ago, we weren't as far along in climate disruption as we are now. Twenty-five years ago, CNN was 19 years old, and its clones, Fox and MSNBC, were 3 years old. Five years after the Y2K scare (exquisitely setting us up for election 2000 and 9/11), humanity further siloed itself into warring tribes, first posting on Internet bulletin boards, MySpace. Then, the logical progression was to Facebook, Twitter (now X), and its myriad progeny.
A side note: CERN would go on to discover the Higgs Boson because we, in the spirit of fiscal stewardship, closed the superconducting collider in Waxahachie, Texas, 48 kilometers south of Dallas. Peter Higgs and François Englert owe their 2013 Physics Nobel Prize to Switzerland. U-S-A. U-S-A.
How much further along in cancer research and nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels would we be if, prior to Facebook and the former Twitter, we exercised a little critical thinking and common sense? I'm not talking about tritium, but fission reactors, which we know how to build (fusion, though cleaner and less radioactive, is still far off), but the environmental activists have terrorized anyone from building newer and safer facilities that might have had some positive impact on our warming climate. To paraphrase a famous saying, "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good." Our air quality improved during the pandemic, so the logic leads to upgrading public transportation to something matching other countries that rely on it more than we do, or within our borders, the subway systems in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, or Washington, DC. You end up doing nothing of any importance. We could replace the fission reactors one by one as fusion comes online.
That is what enrages and disappoints me.
The American reactor that was closed by fake news, Robert P Crease, Physics World