Friday, November 04, 2011

Hiding in our bunkers

kw: risk aversion

I recently watched a PBS program, "Radioactive Wolves" on Nature. 400,000 people were evacuated from Chernobyl after the meltdown there, and an area called "The Zone" will be uninhabitable by humans for tens of thousands of years. I thought, "By what criterion?"

The program showed how wildlife is flourishing there. In just a couple of decades, many buildings have been breached by "the elements" and the way plants and animals are taking over is more instructive than the "Life After People" series on the History Channel. In this environment, radiation levels are hundreds of times as high as "normal" background, and the fur of the wolves would be considered toxic radiative waste. Yet a couple hundred wolves, and countless other creatures, thrive there.

Late in the program there was a moment that got my back up. The scientists are studying colonies of dormice, and it was noted that "abnormalities" were seen at about twice the usual level. Think of it: the Geiger counter is screaming, but most newborn dormice are still unaffected! The narrator said, "This level of birth defects would never be tolerated among humans."

I say, "Why the hell not?" It just exemplifies the wimpification of supposedly civilized humanity. In some parts of the world, there is still the substantial prospect of predation, of people being eaten by a tiger, leopard, bear or crocodile. Among more than half of humanity, many children are dying of diarrhea and infections that the other half can afford to shrug off with modern medicines. Those crowded masses would probably consider a radiation-soaked landscape quite acceptable if they could just be free of the threats of being eaten or killed by infectious disease.

But there is more. We are so cocooned we cannot tolerate risks of any kind. Buying a house entails risk. I recall mortgage rates of 9%, and being happy they weren't higher. I was not as happy with "only" 5% interest on passbook savings, so I invested in CD's that earned 8%. The banks were getting rich on a 1-point spread. Now that mortgage rates are "low" at 4%, the banks only offer 0.2% on passbook savings, and the best CD's are about 1.2%. The banks are crying they aren't making it, with a 3-point spread!

Do you know why X-games and adventure sports have become so popular in Europe, the US and Westernized Asia? Kids have to invent risk, because they don't live it. And do you know what killed the U.S. "manned" space program? Two shuttle disasters. Nobody wants to invest in a replacement, primarily because of the risks. The risk-aversion that would have to be built into the design of a space vehicle makes it completely impractical to design at all. It is actually not hard to design a new shuttle that would be quite a bit safer than the recently-retired ones, but that is not considered good enough these days. It needs to be "failure proof". Can't be done at any price.

Look, if you want to go to the Moon, you have to cross 240,000 miles (385,000 km) of radiation-laced vacuum. You have to quickly punch through the Van Allen radiation belts that surround Earth, just to get the first 10% of the way. Unless you burrow into the surface of the Moon, you're going to get a radiation dose similar to parts of The Zone around Chernobyl. This is the primary reason that the Apollo missions were limited to a week or so. These levels of radiation are the biggest obstacle to sending people to Mars with current technology. They'd have to spend eight months getting there, accumulating a damaging radiation exposure on the way, and eight more months getting home.

I agree such a prospect is daunting. It is unlikely that many people will want to take those kinds of risks. But some will! And people vary in their resistance. Not everyone who gets zapped gets cancer. The main problem on a Mars mission is brain damage from the long-term radiation. So, we need to develop a technology to get there two or three times as fast. How about this for a goal: A technology that can take people to Mars in thirty days! And you send a big bulldozer with them (it would have to be solar powered; there is too little oxygen), so they can dig in and shield themselves from the radiation.

By the way, the radiation in space differs from that in The Zone in this way: It is more penetrating. Radioactive fallout produces lots of alpha, which is stopped by a sheet of paper, and somewhat less beta, which can get into the body a short distance, and much less gamma, which is the most penetrating, being very high-energy x-rays. In space, the primary threat is high energy protons, which can pass right through the body, and are massive enough to kill many of the cells they pass through. They are not alpha, beta or gamma; I call them pi radiation.

Back to The Zone. No exclusion effort can be perfectly vigilant for decade after decade. Not everyone fears radiation's effects. Squatters will likely move into The Zone sometime in the next twenty years or less. Maybe they'll live by poaching the game. Doesn't matter how. They'll find the dangers of living there are less fearsome than somewhere else they have already lived, and accept the risks. It is what people do. Sooner or later, we may find that a group of people have evolved more-than-ordinary resistance to radiation poisoning and radiation-induced cancer. They won't mind the risks that going to Mars entails. They might make great long-term astronauts. Will the bunker denizens of the rest of the world let them go?

No comments: