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Paradise*
October 22, 2012 11:00 AM   Subscribe

The sky is a deep cobalt blue; coconut palms, orange-limbed and yellow-fringed, sway in the steady trade winds. There are still breadfruit trees and pandanus trees and flame trees with brilliant red blossoms. Two hundred yards to the north, a coral reef meets the full, transparent blue violence of the Pacific. There is just one problem, though you could stare at this palm grove for a lifetime and never see it. The soil under our feet, whitish gray in color with flecks of coral, contains a radioactive isotope called cesium 137. In high enough doses, it can burn you and kill you quickly; at lower levels, it just takes longer to do the job, eventually causing cancer.(via)
posted by ChuraChura (47 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
That paragraph certainly has the blues.
posted by y2karl at 11:11 AM on October 22, 2012


...and yet they somehow resisted the obvious cesium/sky-blue pun.
posted by McCoy Pauley at 11:18 AM on October 22, 2012


The danger lies in the plant life that takes it in, and in the animal life, like the huge coconut crabs that live on the island and eat the plants.

How... how huge?
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:19 AM on October 22, 2012 [11 favorites]


More seriously, yay, we just don't seem to be able to do long-term planning or deal with long-term consequences. This is especially troublesome with nuclear issues, which are generally very long-term (and potentially large-scale) problems. If we can't imagine bast the next fiscal quarter, how can we deal with problems that need planning for centuries-long outcomes?
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:22 AM on October 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


How... how huge?

OH HAI GUYS DON'T MIND ME, JUST OPENING SOME COCONUTS WITH MY ENORMOUS PINCERS AND GAPING MANDIBLES
posted by Mayor West at 11:25 AM on October 22, 2012 [13 favorites]


Hey guys, do you mind leaving your ancestral homeland so we can detonate a huge, worthless bomb, irradiate your neighbours and destroy all life within a couple-mile radius? Thanks. You can come back in like sixty years, maybe. It's “for the good of mankind and to end all world wars." See you later!

I'm so angry right now.
posted by superquail at 11:29 AM on October 22, 2012 [5 favorites]


Zoidberg! Get out of that trash bin!
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 11:30 AM on October 22, 2012 [7 favorites]


If we can't imagine bast the next fiscal quarter, how can we deal with problems that need planning for centuries-long outcomes?

I've got good news and bad news.
posted by odinsdream at 11:37 AM on October 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


The good news is if you risk your ass to sit on that beach eventually you'll have no asterisk.
posted by Floydd at 11:38 AM on October 22, 2012 [14 favorites]


I have seriously heard people say that radioactivity isn't so bad because 'look at how wildlife is flourishing in the Chernobyl exclusion zone." But there's a funny thing about wildlife, for some reason they don't complain in so many words about stillbirths, birth defects and cancers. Guess we should just man up like them, huh?
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:39 AM on October 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


...the modern bikini was invented by French engineer Louis Réard in 1946. He named it after Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, the site of the Operation Crossroads nuclear weapon tests in July that year.
I've heard rumors a number of times of an early photoshoot more or less on location, but I've never seen any pictures.
posted by jamjam at 11:54 AM on October 22, 2012


Mayor West: "How... how huge?

OH HAI GUYS DON'T MIND ME, JUST OPENING SOME COCONUTS WITH MY ENORMOUS PINCERS AND GAPING MANDIBLES
"

Meh, don't worry too much about coconut crabs. They're easily spotted and easily caught and they taste delicious (and they know it). A coconut crab cooked on an open fire on a beach is one of the genuine delicacies this world has to offer.

Worry more about the fact that if you eat too much coconut crab at once you tend to get the shits in a massive way, which isn't always the sort of situation you want to find yourself in if you're on a random atoll hundreds of miles by boat from the nearest (well) anywhere.

Err, or so a friend of mine says. Yeah a friend, that's it.
posted by barnacles at 11:58 AM on October 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


OH HAI GUYS

OK, that's big, but not that big. I mean, big for a crab, but it's not like Godzilla would notice. So we are pretty much safe. Well, except for Godzilla. And, you know, random radioactive contamination.
posted by GenjiandProust at 12:00 PM on October 22, 2012


More germane to the Bikini situation, I hope there's a special shame the people of the future hold for the US and France for their treatment of Pacific Islands as personal playlands for nuclear testing. Destroying permanently the lands on which people have lived for *quick mental arithmetic based on the earliest settlement dates of Eastern Polynesia* over 1000 years? That's bullshit, and we should be ashamed.
posted by barnacles at 12:02 PM on October 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


Here's a rundown of the complete Operation Crossroads test series.

Other tests at Bikini...
Castle
Redwing
Hardtack 1
posted by Thorzdad at 12:03 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hey guys, do you mind leaving your ancestral homeland so we can detonate a huge, worthless bomb, irradiate your neighbours and destroy all life within a couple-mile radius? Thanks. You can come back in like sixty years, maybe. It's “for the good of mankind and to end all world wars." See you later!

Except if you think of it in the context of the hot phase of the cold war they actually did a surprising reasonable thing by choosing a place where the impact was minimized to a small number of people who could be relocated.

It's a tragedy but it needs to viewed as a tragedy in a context of the cold war in the shadow of an unbelievably and monumentally tragic World War that killed 60 million people. Also nuclear power was only just harnessed so they really didn't have the knowledge we now do about what they were doing.

So yes it is tragic that a beautiful part of the world is ruined.

But it is also understandable.
posted by srboisvert at 12:05 PM on October 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


I have seriously heard people say that radioactivity isn't so bad because 'look at how wildlife is flourishing in the Chernobyl exclusion zone." But there's a funny thing about wildlife, for some reason they don't complain in so many words about stillbirths, birth defects and cancers.

I haven't made this argument but I have pointed out how lush Bikini Atoll is and noted that it's kind of embarrassing that humanity "just hanging around" (e.g. the Great Barrier Reef) is harder on the environment than a thermonuclear device every 50 years or so.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 12:06 PM on October 22, 2012 [12 favorites]


If only the IAEA got involved when someone built a human breeder reactor.
posted by feloniousmonk at 12:10 PM on October 22, 2012


Also nuclear power was only just harnessed so they really didn't have the knowledge we now do about what they were doing.

Mmm. Not quite right. The physicists involved had a pretty clear idea what was going on. The military were briefed and chose to ignore what they were told or considered it as collateral damage.
posted by tigrefacile at 12:12 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Except if you think of it in the context of the hot phase of the cold war they actually did a surprising reasonable thing by choosing a place where the impact was minimized to a small number of people who could be relocated. It's a tragedy but it needs to viewed as a tragedy in a context of the cold war in the shadow of an unbelievably and monumentally tragic World War that killed 60 million people. Also nuclear power was only just harnessed so they really didn't have the knowledge we now do about what they were doing.

I'll grant that I am speaking from a perspective colored by my child-of-the-80's, Day-After-watching, had-nightmares-about-the-apocalypse bias. But - y'know, thinking about it in that context still really doesn't help.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:14 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Except if you think of it in the context of the hot phase of the cold war they actually did a surprising reasonable thing by choosing a place where the impact was minimized to a small number of people who could be relocated.

Or, y'know, they purposely chose a spot out in the clear, open ocean, where the whole world could spy on the tests and tremble at our arrogant display of might.
posted by Thorzdad at 12:19 PM on October 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


They're easily spotted and easily caught and they taste delicious

This just freaks me the hell out and doesn't in any way make me hungry.

I suppose if I were already hungry and had a plate of crab meat ceviche put int front of me, I'd be alright with it, but as far as that photo goes... iiiiiih.

Thanks for the FPP however, great lunchtime reading
posted by mmrtnt at 12:22 PM on October 22, 2012


barnacles: They're easily spotted and easily caught and they taste delicious (and they know it).

"Lobsters and crabs...they don’t look like food to me.... Anything that’s crawling toward me sideways with big pincers, you know—hey, that don't make me hungry! In fact, my instinct is 'Step on that fuck! Step on that thing before it gets to the children!'" -- George Carlin
posted by Greg_Ace at 12:23 PM on October 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


They live on a diet of coconut. How could they not be delicious?
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 12:25 PM on October 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


...and yet they somehow resisted the obvious cesium/sky-blue pun.

...or Cobalt Thorium G. ;)
posted by trackofalljades at 12:30 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


If we can't imagine bast the next fiscal quarter, how can we deal with problems that need planning for centuries-long outcomes?

It seems to me if astronomers were in agreement that a gigantic asteroid was headed directly for Earth in 100 years and would probably wipe out the entire population, we wouldn't have as much trouble planning for it. But with things like global warming, overpopulation, nuclear disarmament, nothing gets done because not enough people believe the problems are that big. It's a miracle we haven't destroyed more of the planet with nuclear weapons yet.
posted by Golden Eternity at 12:40 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Great, now 'catastrophic asteroid deniers" is officially in my head.

Also: now I have a name for my ex-republican ska band.
posted by Blue_Villain at 12:43 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


So yes it is tragic that a beautiful part of the world is ruined.

But it is also understandable.


No, it's not.
posted by blucevalo at 1:15 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Mmm. Not quite right. The physicists involved had a pretty clear idea what was going on. The military were briefed and chose to ignore what they were told or considered it as collateral damage.


Heh.

The largest single radiation contamination event in the history of US nuclear testing came with the Castle Bravo test in 1954. This was the first test of a solid-fuel fusion device. The yield of this test was twice the estimated "maximum" yield; the physicists had screwed up and not accounted correctly for all of the potential reactions of the lithium fuel. The test was performed with weather conditions at the very edge of acceptable operational parameters. The resulting fallout plume was carried over a range of inhabited atolls in the Marshall Islands. Direct casualties exceeded 1,000 people killed or injured, and the fallout was eventually detectable worldwide (so much for a "secret" test). The decision to proceed with the test under marginal weather conditions was made by Dr. Alvin Graves, one of Fermi's guys from his Chicago days, who had final operational authority.

So, yeah, there were some physicists both misunderstanding the science and choosing to ignore what they did understand.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:16 PM on October 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


On the bright side, because cesium-137 is a wholly man-made element and is spread in trace amounts around the globe you can use its presence or absence as a test of whether a given wine is pre-atomic-age.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 1:36 PM on October 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


I know this is kind of a stupid question, but...

After reading about the bountiful nature on Bikini and in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, it seems like pretty much every animal that isn't a human can deal with radiation better than we can. What is it about humans that makes us so sensitive to radiation poisoning?
posted by Afroblanco at 1:54 PM on October 22, 2012


But it is also understandable.

No, it's not.


Failing to attempt to understand something, even if you disagree with it, isn't really something you should announce like it is a proud moral position.
posted by srboisvert at 1:57 PM on October 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


What is it about humans that makes us so sensitive to radiation poisoning?

Nothing much, we just see the effects more than a shorter lived species would. If you die by shark, you don't have time to get cancer.

As apex predators, we also bioaccumulate everything.

Also, as was said above, the animals don't complain in a way we can hear them.
posted by BeeDo at 2:03 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Nature does really well in the absence of humans. The DMZ in Korea has become a valuable nature reserve. Maybe they should do the same with Bikini Atoll.
posted by Golden Eternity at 2:08 PM on October 22, 2012


But it is also understandable.

No, it's not.


You don't have to agree to understand. Hell, I've spent lots of time thinking about how abhorrent things have happened, trying to understand why people did them.

Know thine enemy and all that.
posted by Ickster at 2:12 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Wait... cobalt blue? Is that some kind of byproduct of the pollution, or does this person not know what words mean?
posted by cmoj at 2:48 PM on October 22, 2012


After reading about the bountiful nature on Bikini and in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, it seems like pretty much every animal that isn't a human can deal with radiation better than we can. What is it about humans that makes us so sensitive to radiation poisoning?
Survivor bias.

If you occasionally visit the Chernobyl exclusion zone, the animals look great. If you lived there, watching your friends succumbing to cancer wouldn't be much fun. Whether you are a squirrel or a human.
posted by b1tr0t at 2:49 PM on October 22, 2012


How much can we blame nuclear testing for cancer? Surely the experiments (and power plant failures) have increased our consumption of radioactive particles.
posted by five fresh fish at 3:10 PM on October 22, 2012


Meh, don't worry too much about coconut crabs. They're easily spotted and easily caught and they taste delicious (and they know it). A coconut crab cooked on an open fire on a beach is one of the genuine delicacies this world has to offer.

Worry more about the fact that if you eat too much coconut crab at once you tend to get the shits in a massive way,


I think you may have your worry in exactly the right place, barnacles, because this put me in mind of that Parkinson's-like disease people apparently got from eating fruit bats which had consumed cycads:
Lytico-bodig disease

The frequency of cases grew amongst the Chamorro people on Guam until it was the leading cause of death between 1940 and 1956.[citation needed] The symptoms range from strongly resembling ALS to those resembling Parkinson's dementia complex (PDC). The symptoms tend to show themselves between the ages of 25 and 40. Many victims are not able to speak of their own accord, but they can speak coherently and fluidly when spoken to. The disease is caused by toxins in the cycad trees prevalent on Guam.

Neurologist Oliver Sacks detailed this mysterious condition in his book The Island of the Colorblind .[3] Sacks wrote that a local species of fruit bat, which is now largely extinct due to overhunting, had been feeding on cycads and concentrating β-methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA), a known neurotoxin, in its body fat. The theory is that consumption of the fruit bat transferred sufficient quantities of the toxin to lead to long-term toxicity,[4] although this has not yet been proven.[5]
Coconuts don't contain this toxin, however, but according to Wikipedia:
Adult coconut crabs feed on fruits, nuts, seeds, and the pith of fallen trees, but will eat carrion and other organic matter opportunistically. The species is popularly associated with the coconut, and has been widely reported to climb trees to pick coconuts, which it then opens to eat the flesh. While coconut crabs can climb trees, and can eventually open a coconut collectively, coconuts are not a significant part of their diet.
So perhaps these crabs also concentrate the cycad toxin, and that's what gives you the diarrhea.
posted by jamjam at 3:11 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


jamjam, coconuts aren't cycads. They're angiosperms, a totally different division of plants (you could call it a different superphylum or different subkingdom if you wanted -- the division is higher-order than humans and worms, but lower-order than humans and plants) from cycads, which are gymnosperms. Cycads are indeed known for being generally toxic, but coconuts are not.

Also, I would venture that diarrhea and parkinson's-like-symptoms are very different sets of symptoms which are probably indicative of very different physiological affronts.
posted by Scientist at 3:40 PM on October 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Back in the day, people had a different attitude about radiation hazards, and the Bikini Atoll tests were, in an epic way, like an episode of Mythbusters gone haywire on steroids. The Demon Core, a 6.2 kilo plutonium sphere, that fueled the first detonation killed two scientists at Los Alamos before it even got into the bomb. Louis Slotin was the second.

“On May 21, 1946, physcicist Louis Slotin and seven other scientists were in a Los Alamos laboratory conducting an experiment to verify the exact point at which a subcritical mass (core) of fissile material could be made critical by the positioning of neutron reflectors. The test was known as "tickling the dragon's tail" for its extreme risk. Slotin, who was given to bravado, became the local expert, performing the test almost a dozen separate times, often in his trademark bluejeans and cowboy boots, in front of a roomful of observers. Enrico Fermi reportedly told Slotin and others they would be "dead within a year" if they continued performing it. It required the operator to place two half-spheres of beryllium (a neutron reflector) around the core to be tested and manually lower the top reflector over the core via a thumb hole on the top. As the reflectors were manually moved closer and farther away from each other, scintillation counters measured the relative activity from the core. Allowing them to close completely would result in the instantaneous formation of a critical mass and a lethal power excursion. Under Slotin's unapproved protocol, the only thing preventing this was the blade of a standard flathead screwdriver, manipulated by the scientist's other hand. Slotin, who was given to bravado, became the local expert, performing the test almost a dozen separate times, often in his trademark bluejeans and cowboy boots, in front of a roomful of observers. Enrico Fermi reportedly told Slotin and others they would be "dead within a year" if they continued performing it.

While lowering the top reflector, Slotin's screwdriver slipped a fraction of an inch, allowing the top reflector to fall into place around the core. Instantly there was a flash of blue light and a wave of heat across Slotin's skin; the core had become supercritical, releasing a massive burst of neutron radiation. He quickly knocked the two halves apart, stopping the chain reaction and likely saving the lives of the other men in the laboratory. Slotin's body's positioning over the apparatus also shielded the others from much of the neutron radiation. He received a lethal dose in under a second and died nine days later from acute radiation poisoning.”
posted by Huplescat at 3:42 PM on October 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Afroblanco: After reading about the bountiful nature on Bikini and in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, it seems like pretty much every animal that isn't a human can deal with radiation better than we can. What is it about humans that makes us so sensitive to radiation poisoning?

Others have answered this, but to spell it out more clearly: it's not that other animals are more resistant to radiation poisoning than we humans are. It's just that we don't tend to hang around in places where we've recently dropped nuclear bombs, and that does a lot in terms of promoting healthy ecosystems.

As barnacles said above, the presence of humans living in an environment is generally a lot worse for that environment than the occasional nuke. So it's not that the animals aren't being harmed by the radiation: they almost certainly are. It's just that they are being harmed a lot less by that than by the usual pollution, habitat modification/destruction, resource overexploitation, etc that we tend to carry out wherever we are living.
posted by Scientist at 3:44 PM on October 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


The Bikini blasts weren't the only Pacific Island tests, of course. Here's a pretty good time-map of all 2000-plus nuclear-weapons tests in the world 1945 to 1998. (This has been linked on the blue before)

Knowing (as the article mentions way down) that the environmental half-life for Cesium-137 works out to about 9 years instead of the radiological half-life of 30 years is a little comforting. Or at least less worrisome.
posted by Sleeper at 11:15 PM on October 22, 2012


"It's like taking the small city of Wichita Falls, Texas, chopping it up into city-park-size pieces, and scattering it
all over Western Europe."

Thanks for clearing that up.

Let's find a way to measure everything in terms of obscure Texan towns relative to Western Europe. We can call the unit the "texweu".

Worst. Analogy. Ever.
posted by tbonicus at 2:39 AM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


jamjam, coconuts aren't cycads. They're angiosperms, a totally different division of plants (you could call it a different superphylum or different subkingdom if you wanted -- the division is higher-order than humans and worms, but lower-order than humans and plants) from cycads, which are gymnosperms. Cycads are indeed known for being generally toxic, but coconuts are not.


Good grief, Scientist, your reading skills are utterly dismal.

I said coconuts do not contain the toxin in question:

Coconuts don't contain this toxin, however,...

Then I went on to quote the section of the Wikipedia article which pointed out that despite the name, coconuts are a small part of the diet of coconut crabs:

Adult coconut crabs feed on fruits, nuts, seeds, and the pith of fallen trees, but will eat carrion and other organic matter opportunistically. The species is popularly associated with the coconut, and has been widely reported to climb trees to pick coconuts, which it then opens to eat the flesh. While coconut crabs can climb trees, and can eventually open a coconut collectively, COCONUTS ARE NOT A SIGNIFICANT PART OF THEIR DIET. [apparently necessary emphasis added]
Which leaves open the strong possibility they are consuming cycads just the way the fruit bats do, since they can climb the trees fruit bats reach by flying-- a possibility I thought was too obvious to need explicit statement, though clearly now, I was wrong about that.
posted by jamjam at 9:31 AM on October 23, 2012


“Over all, it’s a myth to suggest that animal abundances are higher in the Chernobyl exclusion zones...”

Survivor bias indeed.
posted by sneebler at 11:44 AM on October 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


Who pissed in your cheerios today, jamjam? Seriously, what the fuck did I do to deserve that little tirade?
posted by Scientist at 4:42 PM on October 23, 2012


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