Plutonium – the Most Deadly Substance Known to Man – I’ve Heard That Someplace…

Pu238 powers spacecraft

Pu238 power source for Mars rover Curiosity

Long time readers know we once worked in the American Nuclear Weapons Complex and, specifically, at the Rocky Flats Plant. This blog began when the excellent, first-hand account An Insider’s View of Rocky Flats was published. Since then we’ve ranged far away from Rocky Flats.

Today I’d like to return to my transuranic roots, as it were. Plutonium is an effective bomb because it’s relatively easy to handle in a military setting.

Don’t misunderstand me. It’s still a bomb, and a powerful and scary bomb at that. It must be guarded against misuse, whether accidental or intentional. But the plutonium inside is not terribly radioactive as it sits there (not compared to some medical isotopes) and, provided you keep it contained so no plutonium dusts are inhaled and it doesn’t catch fire, it doesn’t present a huge danger. Not even to Navy personnel who practically sit on nuclear warheads in submarines.

But that’s about radiation. What about toxicity?

Plutonium recently appeared on one of my favorite sites, Skeptoid. The researcher and host, Brian Dunning, periodically posts corrections to past podcasts, and posted this:

I mentioned plutonium as being the most toxic substance known… It’s one of those bits of pop culture knowledge that I uncritically parroted.

[A listener responded.]

The myth of extreme plutonium toxicity can be traced to unsubstantiated statements made by Ralph Nader and other anti-nuclear activists of the 1970s. He was challenged by renowned health physicist, Dr. Bernard Cohen of the University of Pittsburgh, who offered to ingest the amount of plutonium that Nader considered lethal.

I don’t know that I’d volunteer to swallow a dose of plutonium. The government would follow me to collect all my bodily effluvia for way too long to be convenient. But, yeah, as a healthy adult it would mostly pass through me, with little being dissolved or absorbed.

Dunning’s listener provided a link to “a list of substances…which are determined to pose the most significant potential threat to human health due to their known or suspected toxicity and potential for human exposure. Plutonium appears at number 120.” An American federal public health agency keeps the list here. The benzene used at Rocky Flats, once common in college and commercial labs, is more hazardous.

(In case you’re wondering, arsenic, lead, and mercury top the list, followed by vinyl chloride and polychlorinated biphenyls.)

The list was prepared for “substances that are most commonly found at facilities” at hazardous waste sites being cleaned up by the government. Plutonium was not commonly used at such sites. Fallout from old above-ground testing is everywhere, however, so if plutonium were the most hazardous substance known to man (a phrase I recall reading) it would be present at all sites, and should show up higher than #120.

This doesn’t mean the hazards of plutonium should be ignored or that clean-ups are unnecessary. It means that anyone, even a fine researcher, may repeat common claims without much consideration – inculcated, to use a favorite word, by repetition. That’s an error we’re all likely to fall into from time to time. We humans are more likely to believe something if we hear it over and over. I hope, when I’m corrected, I’m as gracious as Dunning.

“Violence Here is the Social Norm”*

Another week, another under-the-radar lunatic goes on a killing spree with his AR-15, and another round of recriminations from gun control advocates leveled at Congress for not passing stricter gun laws, at the NRA for existing at all, and at law-abiding gun owners for not saying “enough” and remorsefully schlepping their weapons to the local police station to give them up.

Gun ownership advocates, as usual, managed to throw off this guilt and continue to insist that putting more guns in more places, carried by trained individuals, will deter the maniacs or at least minimize the carnage.  Each group cites statistics supporting its position, bringing to mind the old saw about statistics being used the same way a drunk uses a lamppost – for support rather than illumination.

We do have a lot of guns – a recent NY Times article alleges that Americans own some 300 million – four out of every ten private firearms in the world.  We also have a lot of anonymous, deeply troubled individuals who are one fight with the in-laws away from going postal.  No law of God or man can be expected to keep all of society’s crackpots away from all those lovely, deadly weapons, and the gun argument is distracting us from another discussion that we desperately need to have.

Crazy people killing other people – not just with guns, but with rental trucks, homemade bombs or box cutters – is a relatively new phenomenon here.  The U.S. has always had a surplus of firearms and lunatics-in-waiting, but the growing number of high-casualty events seems correlated with our growing fascination with – and tolerance of – brutal, graphic conflict in every form of our entertainment, from TV and movies to the internet to video games to sports, even music. Today, more than ever, potential assassins are at risk of having their worst impulses constantly reinforced whenever they tune in or log on.  Less violence soaked cultures (including a fairly recent version of our own) have suffered fewer, and smaller, mass-casualty incidents, no matter how many guns (or rental trucks) their citizens have access to.  But today America has normalized violence to the point where a crazed assailant has to kill at least a dozen innocent people in order to get noticed.

Focusing on guns as either the root of, or the counter to, this savagery is a cop-out.  Those 300 million weapons are an effect, not the cause, of the culture we have allowed to evolve; a world in which “fake” violence is so pervasive that it has become background static.  Whenever some tortured soul decides to embrace the real thing, we seldom pause to consider his motivation. We are too busy arguing about his methodology.

We have to start recognizing the fake violence that surrounds us for the empathy suppressant that it is and seeing real violence as the insidious cultural sickness that it is.  Until we do there will be more – and given the glorifying publicity lavished on them by the media, worse – incidents of mass murder in our future.  If we really want to stop the bleeding, the discussion has to go beyond the “how” and the “who”.  We need to look in the mirror and ask, “why?”

*Rehumanize Yourself – Sting and The Police

Too Much Success

One of the largest and most-venerable cooperatives in AmericaFair use in Commentary has folded. I read about this in the Garbanzo Gazette, my own small-town co-op’s monthly newsletter.

Berkeley’s co-op was founded in 1937. Back then, many Americans looked favorably on communism with a lower case “c” and people didn’t realize, or denied, that every Communist with a capital “C” country was a dictatorship or oligarchy.

Berkeley was a “first wave” co-op, founded for political reasons but expanding over the years to sell food, hardware, gasoline, and more. On-site childcare was provided as parents shopped and there was even a co-op burial society.

Communes seldom survive much beyond their founders – subsequent generations aren’t as enthused and willing to suffer for the ideal. Perhaps some of that attitude affected Berkeley, but it survived for 80 years and at its peak had over 116,000 members.

There were clear reasons for the failure… Overextending in the Bay Area food marketplace was clearly one and the weirdness of the way their board operated (very contentious) another… [They began cutting programs to save costs.] It was all downhill from there. Garbanzo Gazette

My local co-op opened in 1974 in the “second wave” where co-ops were about “brown rice, organic pintos, tamari and things like that… a quaint little hippie store.” The political angle was still there, but food trends were more important.

I joined (though our co-op is open to non-members) for the bulk dried food and bulk spice sections. The hippie atmosphere continues – incense is a big seller – and some members never step foot in the local Walmart, but that’s not me.

I suppose that’s why our co-op is in financial trouble.

Organic. Non-GMO. Free trade. Cage-free eggs. Quinoa. Supplements. Those trends succeeded throughout America. Huge corporations like Walmart embraced these emerging consumer demands and there are even chains like Whole Foods that specialize in them.

Companies have learned to watch for trends, and buy-out or simply take-over new ideas like meal kits. Blue Apron’s stock is worth half of its IPO and I can buy frozen meal kits at Walmart – fresh kits can’t be far behind. There’s less space for upstarts to persist in the highly-competative grocery marketplace.

My co-op is losing its niche in foods, and the niche of people-who-hate-Walmart simply isn’t big enough. The board is looking for a way to survive, but a recent attempt to add a restaurant failed. Maybe local-sourced food can be a winner, but we’re not a big farming region. Besides, I see one of the smaller, non-Walmart, groceries is selling local meats, so the niche may already be filled.

Berkeley’s demise points to pluses and minuses. More people have access to food trends, and trends will be more standardized than in the past. Crazy trends will spread more quickly with corporate power behind them, but so will beneficial ones.

Of course, when a trend runs its course and is dropped by Walmart (which, for example, has very little bulk dried food today, and when’s the last time you saw a giant-chain-store salad bar), small competitors don’t benefit because they’re long gone.

You can’t fight progress. At least, not for long.
Read more about the Berkeley co-op.

We’ll Cross That Bridge When We Come to It

Wooden_Bridge.svg.medTo cross a bridge when you come to it means to deal with a problem when it is imminent. A related phrase advises, don’t cross the bridge till you come to it, changing the meaning to say don’t worry about a problem that may not arise, or don’t allow a future problem to divert your attention from current needs.

Theidioms puts the origin of the phrase in the 1800s, when there was often literal concern over the safety of bridges.

The reliable Phrase Finder had a post asking about the phrase, but no information on the origin.

Wikipedia lists it as an English proverb, so I suspect it is recorded in old books, but none is listed.

So I tried searching on “Guttenberg ‘cross the bridge till you come,'” and found The Golden Legend, a poem from 1851 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Included in a conversation with Lucifer:

That, my good woman, I have not said. Don’t cross the bridge till you come to it. Is a proverb old, and of excellent wit.

So apparently the saying was well known by 1851.

America’s Civil War – When Will We See the Last Battle?

I was all set to write about climate change and the bond market, Traitors' flagwhen I found myself dragged back into the Civil War. We’ve posted before about the lead-up and execution of America’s Civil War and it’s distressing modern remnants, but only recently have I come to appreciate how deeply the evil remains embedded in America.

I saw the incredibly bizarre statement of an American general, John Kelly.

During an interview Monday night on Fox News, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said that “the lack of the ability to compromise led to the Civil War.”

His comment was swiftly countered by confounded observers, who pointed out that the Civil War was fought over slavery and that compromising on slavery would be morally unconscionable — and that the country did strike such compromises for decades and they did not, in fact, prevent war. NPR

If anything demonstrates we should offer the military respect, but not deference, this is it.

Starting with the Constitutional compromise that preserved slavery in the South, many writers have listed the nation’s shameful willingness to leave black Americans enslaved – to compromise on slavery. If today’s Americans are ignorant of our original sin, our education system has truly failed.

If the South hadn’t demanded slavery be extended into America’s western territories, how long would we have lived with the horrible compromise of our Founders? Would there still be slaves in America today?

I have fallen into political correctness myself, have silently tolerated monuments to Confederate leaders who sacrificed thousands of lives to perpetuate slavery. Perhaps I can understand how a war-weary nation abandoned black citizens to Jim Crow, but what excuse do I have?

Today I have a president who condemns NFL players for kneeling during the National Anthem but celebrates the statues of traitors against America. The Confederate Battle Flag was carried into war against the Stars and Stripes. Its display outside of museums and history books shows more disrespect against the America Flag than a stadium full of protesters.

Of course, not many people would be upset by Confederate monuments if real-life bias had disappeared. Symbols can lead us to action. It’s time to face our past and future with courage, to reject trolls aiming to inflame our divisions, and create a more perfect union.

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

We Need Dumber Phones

I’m probably not the first and certainly not the only person to observe that as smartphones get smarter, the people using them seem to be getting dumber. We have all witnessed drivers weaving along as they fumble with a text or pedestrians barging into traffic with their noses glued to their screens.  Annoying, and all too often tragic; casualties among drivers and walkers are up dramatically nearly everywhere.  Also not surprising.   The draw of a palm-sized device through which one can access everything and everyone all the time is difficult to ignore, even when its use threatens our physical well-being.  But the bigger threat posed by smartphones, and the insidious marketing strategies they enable, may be to our minds rather than our bodies.

Smartphones have placed more information at our disposal than we can possibly use, and many human brains find this data avalanche perplexing, if not overwhelming.  Some form of filtration might be useful, and the clever programmers at Facebook, Amazon and a hundred more Big Media companies stand ready to help.  Their algorithms scour your browsing history and analyze your reading habits, your media consumption, even your grocery list, to compile a dossier of your personal preferences. Through ads, suggested websites and “those who looked at this also might enjoy seeing that” prompts, they turn you into a demographic of one,  a “one” that can be specifically targeted by marketers every time you log on.  In the process, you are subtly encouraged to ignore any influences that might broaden your taste in books, clothing, cars, organic produce – or news outlets.  Of course there are a thousand other sources of information out there, but the algorithms don’t want you to bother with those.  Your time is too valuable.

The unintended (perhaps) outcome of this assistance is a populace that is becoming  accustomed to letting computer programs perform its due diligence. An app may be a great way to shop for underwear, but do we really want Facebook to choose which political or economic commentary we want to absorb?  Because while some marketers only want to “help” you decide which brand of running shoes to buy, others want to “help” you decide which news stories best fit your political leanings and which ones are fake.  A few (rhymes with Prussians) may even be using your predilection for indifference to influence your vote.

The ability to sort through reams of data and separate the good stuff from the background noise is like any skillset; if you don’t use it, you will lose it, and the evidence of our disuse is pretty stark.  Something like 95% of Google searchers never make it past the first page of results.  Is Google really that good, or are we just getting too lazy to look at page two?  Most readers of newspapers – remember newspapers? – glance at a story’s headline and skim the first couple of paragraphs.  There’s a reason it’s continued on page 9, but in the Age of the Smartphone brevity is king.  And speaking of brevity, there’s Twitter.  If erudition is a sign of intelligence, what to make of a medium wherein proper spelling and capitalization are MIA, punctuation marks have facial features and the deepest exchanges are more shallow (and shorter) than a 6th grader’s book report?

Google, Twitter, Facebook, now Siri and Alexa – they are all waiting for us on our smartphones, waiting to answer questions we didn’t really ask, waiting to tell us what they want us to know.

Our personal devices may not literally be sapping our intelligence, but they are certainly making us less intellectually rigorous.  In the long run, that may amount to the same thing.