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Fukushima Daiichi, Three Years Later March 12, 2014

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Three years ago yesterday, on March 11, 2011, the nuclear power plant at Fukushima Daiichi was hit by a tsunami that followed an earthquake less than an hour before. The tsunami waves exceeded the height of the seawall protecting the power plant by as much as thirty feet. The facility flooded, and, over three days, explosions at the reactors occurred.

(Shigeru23)

(Shigeru23)

The accident is categorized as a Level 7, the same category as the Chernobyl accident of 1986, though Chernobyl released much more radioactive material. Leaks at Fukushima Daiichi have been discovered since the initial accident. Cleanup and full decommissioning of all six reactors there could take several decades.

Tepco, the Tokyo Electric Power Company that runs the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, has been criticized for not releasing accurate, timely information from the get-go. Only a few weeks ago, Reuters reported that Tepco measured increased levels of strontium-90 in a groundwell near the ocean. The measurement was taken last fall but not released to the Nuclear Regulatory Authority taskforce for five months.

With water coming down from the mountains, seeping into the reactor buildings, then seeping out as groundwater that moves at about four inches every day, something needs to be done, and efforts by Tepco thus far haven’t stopped contamination downstream of the reactors. The most recent issue of National Geographic reports of the leak discovered last August, “Now an underground ice wall is being proposed to contain [the seeps of groundwater].” Ice walls have been used in mining and construction for decades, and one was put into place at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee to contain radioactive groundwater.

526px-Japan_Nuclear_power_plants_mapIn addition to new leaks, the world is watching for signs of the accident’s effects on human beings exposed to the immediate dangers three years ago. This spring, a group of U.S. veterans filed a class action lawsuit against Tepco. According to The Huffington Post, the USS Ronald Reagan “was as close as a mile offshore as the stricken reactors poured deadly clouds of radiation into the air and ocean beginning the day after the earthquake and tsunami.” The lawsuit alleges that Tepco did not provide enough information about the accident and the risks and that those who brought the lawsuit have suffered a variety of ailments from blindness to cancer to children with birth defects.

Roughly a week before this news, in early February of this year, Business Week and other media outlets reported that the radioactive water from Japan is expected to wash up on the West Coast of the United States this year. Many scientists suggest that the danger is minimal because the radioactivity has become so dispersed in the Pacific Ocean and that, even nearer to Japan, the danger has been minimal because of strong currents. In fact, “Under normal operations, Diablo Canyon [a nuclear power plant in California] discharges more radiation into the sea, albeit of a less dangerous isotope, than the Fukushima station, which suffered the worst nuclear accident since Chernobyl.” In other words, this discharge happens all the time around the world, which might allay fears but should also raise concerns about whether any exposure is safe and how exposure and risk is measured.

Japan's Electricity Generation (EIA)

Japan’s Electricity Generation (EIA)

We’ve written about these issues several times before at Lofty Ambitions, and the anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi accident is probably a good time to poke around at our other posts about radioactivity.

While trepidation in the wake of the accident three years ago initially halted the expansion of nuclear power plants, Reuters reported last month that the United Arab Emirates and Belarus have started construction on nuclear power plants in the last two years. Four more countries are expected to start construction of nuclear power plants in the next five years. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “There are currently 65 commercially operating nuclear power plants with 104 nuclear reactors in 31 states around the country.” According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, “As of January 2014, 30 countries worldwide are operating 436 nuclear reactors for electricity generation and 72 new nuclear plants are under construction in 15 countries.” While nuclear is the primary power source for France, Belgium, and Slovakia, the United States has more nuclear power plants than any other country.

Closer to home for us are the Diablo Canyon Power Plant and the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. The former is located near four faults and has been upgraded to withstand an earthquake of 7.5 magnitude. The latter was shut down in 2012, after a steam generator leaked radioactive material into a containment tank, with a small amount released into the environment. Unexpected wear was discovered in some parts, and the reason for the wear and the leak have not been determined. Now, the units there are being decommissioned.

For our readers in the United States, check HERE to find your closest nuclear power plant on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission map.

International Geophysical Year and the Cold War December 28, 2011

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As a group, scientists have a generally deserved reputation for being canny with numbers. Perhaps this perceived facility has also earned them a certain flexibility toward—what a lay person might perceive as casualness with—numbers. On occasion, early estimates of quantities or measurements are said to be correct within an order of magnitude, or a single power of ten. (Powers of ten are ably demonstrated in a film of the same name, which we discussed HERE.)

During the Manhattan Project, initial estimates of the amount of fissile material (in this case uranium) necessary for making an atomic bomb were said to be correct plus or minus an order of magnitude. As the story goes, this pronouncement led General Leslie Groves, military leader of the Manhattan Engineer District, to offer up the analogy of planning for a wedding with a hundred guests, except that perhaps as few as ten or as many as a thousand people might turn up.

Our post today stems from a time when a group of the world’s scientists got together and arranged for an 18-month year: the International Geophysical Year (IGY), which spanned July 1, 1957 to December 31, 1958. During the IGY, scientists from 67 nations collaborated on performing experiments and collecting data in eleven major scientific areas:  “aurora and airglow, cosmic rays, geomagnetism, glaciology, gravity, ionospheric physics, longitude and latitude determination, meteorology, oceanography, rocketry, seismology, and solar activity.”

The IGY was a direct descendant of two previous International Polar Years, the first held in 1882-1883 and the second in 1932-1933. Years later, at a dinner party in honor of Oxford geophysicist Sydney Chapman held on an April 5, 1950 at the home of James Van Allen (later of the Van Allen radiation belts), the assembled handful of scientist-guests, several of whom had participated in the most recent International Polar Year decided that, instead of waiting the customary 50 years between International Polar Years, they would have one to correspond with an upcoming peak in solar activity (which is on an 11-year cycle). The name change from International Polar Year to International Geophysical Year was consciously chosen to reflect science’s  growing ability to focus on problems that encompassed the entire earth.

James Van Allen with Soviet Scientists, 1959 (NASA)

April 5, 1950, (which was Doug’s father’s ninth birthday) must have been quite an eventful day in Dr. Van Allen’s personal life. In addition to hosting a dinner party that would lead to the largest international scientific endeavor to that point in history, he also accepted a Guggenheim fellowship to work at Brookhaven National Laboratory that day, ending nearly a decade of work at Applied Physic Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University.

The American IGY effort required a large number of participants coordinated by the U. S. National Committee (USNC), which was formed at the behest of the National Academy of Sciences. In a historical overview of the IGY, the NAS has this to say: “American participation in the IGY was charged to a US National Committee (USNC) appointed in March 1953 by the NAS. Joseph Kaplan, Professor of Physics at UCLA, was appointed Chairman of the USNC. Physicist Alan H. Shapley of the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) was appointed Vice-Chairman, and Hugh Odishaw, also of the NBS, was appointed Executive Secretary (later, Executive Director). The core USNC was made up of sixteen members, but the five Working Groups and thirteen Technical Panels that operated under it eventually drew in nearly 200 additional scientists.”

As ever, we at Lofty Ambitions respect an unanticipated connection, and we have one here with the appearance of  the name Alan H. Shapley. This Shapley was the son of astronomer Harlow Shapley about whom we wrote HERE.

Fundamental science was performed during the IGY in areas such as seismology with the confirmation of plate tectonics as evinced by the discovery of a continuous mid-ocean ridge. We’ve touched upon plate tectonics recently (HERE) and in our series related to the tsunami that overwhelmed the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant (HERE and HERE). Seismic and volcanic activity along parts of the mid-ocean ridge had been well documented prior to the IGY, but what wasn’t previously known—and was revealed as a part of IGY research—was that there was a more-or-less continuous ridge of nearly 50,000 miles in length, reaching into every ocean, encircling much of the earth. It is our planet’s largest extant mountain range.

GRAIL launch, September 2011

Probably the most significant scientific contributions of the IGY was the discovery of the Van Allen radiation belts (Van Allen of the IGY-initiating dinner party). Undoubtedly, we’ll soon have more to say about the Van Allen belts, how their discovery came about, and what the Cold War has to do with that. And we’ll have more about mapping, too, for the two GRAIL spacecraft are scheduled to reach the Moon this coming weekend. (To catch up on GRAIL, click HERE and HERE.)

To continue to Part 2 of our focus on IGY, click HERE.

On This Date: Radium, Tu-144, and Earthquakes December 26, 2011

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On most Mondays, we post either a piece by a guest blogger (first and third Mondays) or a video interview (second and fourth Mondays). We do have video interviews queued up for the new year (and just wait ’til you see who!), but today we take the opportunity for one of our “on this date” posts.

Marie Curie (National Museum of American History)

In 1898, just three years into their marriage, one of our favorite collaborative couples of yesteryear announced at the French Academy of Sciences that they’d isolated radium. Marie and Pierre Curie had isolated the element five days earlier, though it wasn’t named until the following year. They did come up with the term radioactivity, and radium was the second ray-producing element they’d discovered that year. The first was polonium. They continued to work with an enormous amount of pitchblende to isolate a wee bit of radium. And they didn’t patent their processes, thereby allowing the larger scientific community to readily use their work.

Radium was applied as luminescence on watch dials and aircraft switches, which, it turned out, was quite dangerous for those who painted those dials and switches. It was also added to cosmetics before such a glow was considered hazardous. Later, it was used to treat cancer, though, of course, because it is radioactive and because the body processes it like calcium, it likely caused the leukemia and related illnesses from which Marie Curie died in 1934.

Marie Curie was awarded her second Nobel Prize in 1911, this time in chemistry, in part for her role in discovering radium. (Because Pierre died in 1906, he did not share in this award.) Her earlier Nobel Prize, which she shared with Pierre and Henri Becquerel in 1903, was in physics for their work in radiation. She was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize, the first person to be awarded a second, and one of just two people to be awarded Nobel Prizes in different fields. (Linus Pauling is the other.) We’ve written about Marie Curie before—click HERE to read more.

Tu-144 (NASA)

Today is also the anniversary of the Tupolev Tu-144’s entry into supersonic transport service in the Soviet Union. The Soviet government began developing this aircraft in 1963. But the first production airliner crashed at the Paris Air Show in 1973. Accusations of espionage and cover-ups surrounded the investigation. With delays after this debacle, the Tu-144 ended up first flying mail on this date in 1975, with commercial flights beginning almost two years later (and almost as long after Concorde started its commercial routes). The Tu-144, which shares so many design cues with Concorde (dropped nose, cranked wing, and slender fuselage) that its nickname in the Western press was Concordski, was riddled with problems and had only a short commercial run, flying passengers from November 1, 1977 through June 1, 1978. A more recent use of the Tu-144 was as a flying laboratory for NASA.

Map of This Earthquake and Aftershocks (USGS)

This past year, one of the top news stories was the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the subsequent damage to the nuclear power plant at Fukushima Daiichi. (Read some of that HERE and HERE.) Today is the seventh anniversary of another devastating earthquake, a 9.2 (numbers vary by source) quake in Indonesia, India Thailand, and the surrounding areas, that also produced tsunamis. It was so strong that some estimate that the entire world moved a full centimeter. As with most recent earthquakes, this one in the Indian Ocean was the result of subduction, or one tectonic plate scraping under an adjacent tectonic plate. In this case, hundreds of miles of a tectonic plate moved about 50 feet.

When this subduction occurred, the seabed rose, pushing water up. In the vast, deep ocean, that sort of wave isn’t much of a problem and is difficult to detect. But as the tsunami reaches shores, the wave can be devastating, and no warning system was in place for the Indian Ocean. The tsunami, of course, reached different shorelines at different times—several minutes or several hours—depending on the distance of the land from the earthquake’s epicenter. In some places, the waves washed a mile inland.

This natural disaster killed almost 230,000 people and is considered one of the ten deadliest natural disasters of all time. In addition to the cost of human life, it devasted coral reefs and wetlands and contaminated freshwater sources. Haiti’s earthquake, the second anniversary of which occurs next month, was even deadlier. Earthquakes change the face of the earth and the faces of the world.

Radioactivity and Other Risks (Part 1) May 4, 2011

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Since shortly after the nuclear accident at Fukushima Daiichi, we have been writing about various topics related to understanding that event. This week, we’re thinking about radioactivity and risk, though not only the risk that radioactivity—and exposure to it—poses. We’ll work our way back around to that on Friday. But we want to contextualize that particular risk (a risk of exposure to radioactive particles) within how we look at risk generally and how different risks are related. One thing borne out time and again is that the miscalculation and mismanagement of risk by institutions can have profound consequences.

May 4: Earthquakes in last 8-30 days

Much reporting has focused on the fact that the machinery of Japan’s nuclear power plant survived the 9.0 earthquake intact and functioning, at least according to the current thinking about how the accident unfolded. The machinery, however, wasn’t designed to withstand an earthquake of that scale because those who assessed the risk that earthquakes posed for that nuclear plant did not think a 9.0 was probable enough to occur that it warranted designing for what ultimately did occur. Though we may find otherwise when (or if) people are able to see the machinery up close (perhaps via remote camera as with Chernobyl), the nuclear reactors seem to have exceeded their design specifications for earthquakes. Despite the wherewithal of the nuclear reactors, the facility had not adequately prepared for the tsunami, one which left the emergency generators vulnerable and, therefore, left the reactors without enough power to circulate cooling water.

According to an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “Japan had a 30-foot-high tsunami from a 7.8 earthquake on the west coast in 1993.” Eighteen years ago, a smaller earthquake than this year’s caused a wave that would have overwhelmed the Fukushima Daiichi plant, but “the word ‘tsunami’ did not appear in government safety guidelines until 2006. […] Despite the lack of government guidance, the initial plant designs for Fukushima Daiichi did take tsunamis into account. But engineers expected a maximum wave height of 10.5 feet, so the plant was thought to be safe sitting on a 13-foot cliff, and that was apparently the end of the matter.” A tsunami was not an unknown risk. But the engineers had miscalculated the probability of the event and, therefore, had not taken appropriate steps to manage the risk that tsunamis actually pose to the west coast of Japan.

Bear Stearns former NYC offices (Photo by David Shankbone)

The failure of institutions to properly calculate risk also played an outsized role in the most recent financial panic. The roots of this faulty risk assessment go back to 2004 when five financial institutions—Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley (see NY Sun article)—were successful (it’s hard to believe that that’s the correct word, but there you are) in petitioning the SEC to have the amount of debt that they could take on substantially increased. At the time, this was an acknowledgement that the SEC would be abdicating its prior responsibility for risk assessment and leaving it up to the individual institutions themselves. Here’s a quote from a New York Times article that sums it up: “In loosening the capital rules, which are supposed to provide a buffer in turbulent times, the agency also decided to rely on the firms’ own computer models for determining the riskiness of investments, essentially outsourcing the job of monitoring risk to the banks themselves.”

A lone letter to the Federal Reserve warned that the software model that the institutions used to calculate risk might not be up to the task. In a sinister bit of irony that reminds us of our all too frequent hubris when confronted with things we only pretend to understand, this same letter invokes the language calculating the risks associated with a 100-year flood. In less than four years, three of the five successful (there’s that word again) petitioners were no longer independently viable institution, Merrill Lynch having been gobbled up and Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers turning into funerary pyres of taxpayer dollars. In the end, the one-two failures of Bear Stearns followed by Lehman Brothers were the opening band for the laser-light show financial calamity that ensued, whizzing images and crunching power chords distracting us from the fact that Wall Street had no intention of changing the way it takes risks with our money.

We just returned from Florida, where managers at NASA delayed a space shuttle launch because they perceived excessive risk in a redundant (that means it was NOT the only one doing the job) heater line. So we can’t help but apply our notions about risk to space exploration as well. And it turns out that including the space shuttle in this discussion is also our way back into the topic of radioactivity and risk in Part 2 of this piece scheduled for Friday.

One thing that we know about manned spaceflight is that it’s a risky business. In press briefings, especially those used to disseminate information about why there is a launch delay, Kennedy Space Center (KSC) officials point out that astronauts know there always exists risk. It’s clear that KSC decision-makers use detailed criteria—about weather here and abort sites and about all the various systems of the orbiter, the external tank, and the solid rocket boosters—to determine whether a launch is a go. They calculate risk constantly, have a level of acceptable risk they are willing to take, and manage risks as they shift in order to come in at or under that acceptable level for every launch. When they do miscalculate the risk, it’s usually not catastrophic. In fact, this week’s problem with the heater line, had it been discovered in orbit, would have necessitated a few tasks, basically to disable and make safe the parts. In and of itself, that problem would not have affected mission success.

Challenger STS-51L Crew

But twice, managers mismanaged the risk to space shuttles in ways that led to catastrophe. Much has been written about the o-rings and cold launch temperatures for Challenger’s final launch and about heat protection tiles and tank foam for Columbia’s last launch, so we won’t recap that here. (See Guest Blogs on this topic HERE and HERE and HERE.) Instead, suffice it to say that NASA managers do not eliminate all risk, but they are charged with limiting known risks and with delaying launch when the risks are not fully understood.

We’ll break here until Friday, when we’ll get back to these notions of known and unknown risk, limiting not eliminating risk, and radioactivity in particular.

The Original Renaissance Man April 15, 2011

Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Aviation, Science, Space Exploration, Writing.
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Self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci

Last night, we wandered over to the Leatherby Libraries balcony to watch a rocket launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base off to the west, on the coast of Southern California. The payload was super-secret, launched for the National Reconnaissance Office at 9:24p.m. At first, we weren’t sure that the red dot in the distance was the Atlas 5 rocket. But as it rose, the flame became more discernable. Within five minutes, the rocket arced overhead toward the southeast, into the mission’s news blackout, and into the ink-black sky, an apt metaphor for the people who will control the satellite’s function, whatever that may be.

Today, we woke to Leonardo da Vinci’s birthday. He’s a favorite of ours because he was exceptionally curious about many things. He invented a bobbin winder that was useful in his own lifetime and composed plans for a helicopter that couldn’t possibly have been built in the days of yore. He thought solar power was a good idea and developed a basic understanding of earthquakes and plate tectonics. He liked to collaborate, he made accurate maps, and he played the lyre pretty well. Of course, he’s best known as a painter and regarded especially for his ability to render the human figure and also the draping of clothes. He was born on April 15, 1492—more than 500 years ago!

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci

Here are our five suggestions for celebrating da Vinci’s birthday through the weekend:

  • Make an appointment for your annual physical. Da Vinci drew the human skeleton, the vascular system, and other internal organs.
  • Book an airline flight. United Airlines has a deal for Chicagoans to fly to Tulsa this weekend for $140. Southwest Airlines has sale fares to Newark. Leonardo drew many concept flying machines, some of which have since been built, a few of which actually work.
  • Paint that room you’ve been meaning to paint all winter. Leonardo’s painting accomplishments include Mona Lisa and The Last Supper.
  • If you can’t paint, smirk like Mona Lisa. Or pluck your eyebrows.
  • Write left-handed, for that’s what da Vinci did. In fact, write left-handed and backwards, because that’s the way he seems to have written in his journals. One codex of scientific materials was purchased in 2007 for more than $30 million by Bill Gates. To see a page from another of his notebooks, visit the British Museum HERE.

Lest you think Leonardo da Vinci’s is the only birthday to celebrate, tomorrow is the anniversary of Wilbur Wright’s natal day. Whenever there’s a reason to celebrate the Wright brothers, we recommend a punny homage: going out to drink a flight of beer.

Dorothy Wordsworth

And here’s today’s bonus for National Poetry Month and to celebrate the science of botany (though unfortunately, without recoding for stanza breaks). On April 15, 1802, poet William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy, who kept copious notes from which he drew material for his poems, came upon some gorgeous yellow daffodils.

I WANDERED LONELY AS A CLOUD

William Wordsworth

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine

And twinkle on the milky way,

They stretched in never-ending line

Along the margin of a bay:

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they

Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:

A poet could not but be gay,

In such a jocund company:

I gazed—and gazed—but little thought

What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

Measurement and Scale March 16, 2011

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Fukushima Prefecture (photo by Lincun)

On March 11, 2011, just off the east coast of Japan, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake occurred. When we talk about an earthquake having magnitude, we attempt to understand its seismic energy. That number is a notch on the Moment Magnitude Scale (MMS), which, in the 1970s, replaced the colloquial Richter scale that had held sway since the 1930s. Since 1990, just one other quake of greater size than last week’s Japan quake has been recorded. (For more info on earthquakes, see the U.S. Geological Survey.)

Because of the subsequent events unfolding at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, we made an unexpected connection between the Richter scale and the nuclear age. The Wikipedia entry table for Richter Magnitude examples includes a few atomic and thermonuclear weapons tests, most uncomfortably assigning the fifty-megaton Tsar Bomba—or Big Ivan—with a magnitude of 8.35 on the Richter scale. In our post entitled “Measuring the Unthinkable” (December 8, 2010), we claimed that the measurement of fifty megatons was relatively meaningless, that we couldn’t really comprehend the explosion that was Tsar Bomba. But now, in the wake of Japan’s seismic event, we are trying to do just that. We want to understand what 9.0 means.

Fukushima Daiichi 2002 (photo by Theanphibian)

Last week, before the earthquake hit Japan, we were already thinking about scale because we watched the documentary film Powers of Ten (see video below and more here). The opening scene is of a man and a woman indulging in a leisurely, early fall picnic close to the shore of Lake Michigan. The film is narrated by MIT physicist and Manhattan Project veteran Phillip Morrison. (As an aside, Morrison was also the dissertation director for Chapman University’s Dean of Schmid College, Menas Kafatos.) Morrison tells us what is important in this scene: we are viewing a one-meter square image from a distance of one meter. His next statement provides the plotline for the entire documentary: “Now, every ten seconds, we will look from ten times farther away and our field of view will be ten times wider.”

With every new vantage in Powers of Ten, Morrison offers a physically meaningful context. When the field of view is a hundred meters, he tells us that this is the distance a man can run in ten seconds. Ten thousand meters become the distance that a supersonic aircraft can travel in ten seconds, and so on. Every ten seconds, we are ten times further away. After reaching 1024, the journey stops and returns to where it began. Then, the camera travels inward. As we pan back to the starting point, every ten seconds, the perspective travels ninety percent of the remaining distance. The perspective continues moving beyond the starting point, ultimately reaching what Morrison terms the “limit of our understanding” at 10-16 meters, deep in the subatomic structure of matter.

What Powers of Ten so effectively communicates are the concepts of logarithms (in this case, logarithms of base 10) and orders of magnitude (each power of ten is equivalent to an order of magnitude). By providing rough visual cues tied to our understanding of our bodies (at one meter, about half of the man is in the frame), things that our bodies can do (a man running a hundred meters), and things our bodies can see happening (an airplane flying overhead), Powers of Ten makes an intuitive appeal to take us into realms not ordinarily comprehensible, like the distance between stars.

Decibel Scale

Noise, like a seismic event, is measured by a logarithmic scale, using the unit of the decibel. Your refrigerator hums at about 45 decibels, and heavy traffic can reach 85 decibels, a level at which lengthy or repeated exposure can cause hearing loss. The danger is one of scale: for every ten-decibel increase—from the highest volume on an mp3 player (100 dB) to a rock concert (110 dB)—the sound is actually ten times as powerful. Energy, intensity—these are not the areas in which ordinary addition will do.

(If you eat a cookie, let’s say that’s 200 calories. If you eat a second, 200 + 200 = 400 calories. Imagine if the caloric intake of cookies worked on a logarithmic scale instead. That second cookie would be 2000 calories, and a third would be another 20,000 calories. That third cookie would be the equivalent of more than five pounds of body fat.)

Tomorrow, we’ll attend a reception for the closing of Measure for Measure, an art exhibit built, according to the accompanying booklet, on the “idea that we can organize and understand objects by incorporating a sense of their size—both in relation to ourselves and in relation to other physical quantities.” The curators—artist Lia Halloran and physicist Lisa Randall—chose the exhibit’s name to echo both William Shakespeare’s play and Tom Levenson’s book (the subtitle of which is A Musical History of Science). Lia Halloran was the person who reminded us, last week before the earthquake, of the film Powers of Ten.

One installation, by artist Meeson Pae Yang, of mirrored sculptures suspended from the ceiling tells us that the ocean isn’t what it appears to be, that 90% of its creatures are microscopic algae. Susan Sironi’s self-portraits use the size of her body parts to carve out layered illustrations in the books Gulliver’s Travels and Alice in Wonderland, two classics that toy with our sense of scale. The artwork by the seven artists in this exhibit reveals how our interpretation of scale “makes us question and perceive the world in new and various ways.”

Fukushima 1 NPP, Reactors 1-5 (National Land Image Information, Color Aerial Photograph)

As we write this, Japan’s death toll is currently relatively low, though there are more than 10,000 estimated dead in the province of Miyagi alone. The bodies—not yet those missing—are being counted. As the weeks go by, the bodies will accumulate, the missing will be tallied, and our way of measuring death will shift. Several of the largest earthquakes since 1990 caused no deaths, in large part because the epicenters were far from populated areas. Last year’s earthquake in Haiti, though, was just a 7.0—100 times less powerful than 9.0—but it caused 222,570 fatalities, in part because Haiti is, according to Newsweek, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. Magnitude is one way to measure, fatalities another. Each way of measuring reveals different relationships to ourselves and the world around us.

As we finish this post, France’s nuclear safety authority says that the Fukuskima Daiichi catastrophe can now be categorized as a 6. The International Nuclear and Radioactive Event Scale (INES) is 1 through 7 and is another attempt at understanding the world around us. Three-mile island was a 5 (an accident with wider consequences), and Chernobyl was a 7 (a major accident). Tokyo, the metropolitan area where 13 million people reside, is less than 150 miles from the nuclear power plant in the town of Okuma, population of more than 10,000, presumably almost all of them evacuated. Clearly, we’ll be thinking about these ways of measuring for a very long time.

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