I was walking with my friend Con the other day, when we fell into conversation about radiation. That has a nice lilt to it, doesn’t it? Anyway, I was saying how dreadful it is, that nowadays you can’t get a watch that glows properly in the dark, so paranoid is everyone about radiation. Con was assented to this, and told me how he’d been having dinner with an ancient uncle in Vienna, shortly after the Chernobyl meltdown, when the waiter told them the asparagus was off on account of the fallout on Austrian market gardens. It took quite a while for Con to get across to his valetudinarian relative that radiation was now generally considered to be toxic, because the uncle suddenly exclaimed: “When I was in the Urals, before the War, we used to have radiation baths for our health!”
Indeed. And when we were kids we used to have our feet X-rayed when we were buying shoes — and I don’t remember the sales assistants putting on lead aprons. Nothing better demonstrates our banjaxed relationship with the space-time continuum than our schizophrenic incorporation of radioactive isotopes. On the one hand you can’t tell the time in the dark, while on the other £20bn of tax payers’ money is about to be spunked off on a vast fleet of Armageddon-inducing intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Poor Pierre and Marie Curie, mashing up pitchblende in their bathtub, a little home cooking that led to the isolation of radium. In later life, Marie was appalled by the way cosmetics manufacturers used radioactive materials without precautions, but she herself carried test tubes full of them in her pockets. She died, in 1934, near Sallanches, from aplastic anaemia, almost certainly due to radiation poisoning. Her life, dedicated to the medical application of these wondrous, fissionable compounds, encapsulates the whole bizarre paradox of 20th-century physics.
Of course, Marie Curie did have the compensation of having been twice awarded the Nobel Prize, a signal honour — if a little bizarre. After all, if the vast fortune assembled by a dynamite manufacturer was used to honour those who — wittingly, or not — contributed to the creation of far more destructive technologies, then what comes next? Surely there should now be Teller, Bohr or Oppenheimer prizes, and they should be given to those who invent warheads capable of turning entire galaxies into the stellar equivalent of a hot fudge sundae.
I digress. On the one hand, the Trident “deterrent” and all the other ICBMs rattling in the silos of the superpowers abolish distance more effectively than any other technology. It makes no difference if you’re in Hiroshima or Harrogate when you can be reduced to a smear of ash on a smoking wall, within minutes of an ex-public schoolboy pressing a button. Yet, by the same measure, nothing thrusts one place further away from another than the vast fosses of paranoia and revetments of anxiety conjured up by the spectre of the acquisition of these “deterrents” by “irresponsible” regimes.
Until North Korea tested its “dirty bomb”, it was merely an isolated country, now it might as well be on Mars. The same goes for Iran, which until fairly recently was located squarely in the Middle East. Now, so alien have its mad, atomic ayatollahs become, that I wouldn’t be surprised if some astronomical wonk, squinting through the Hubble telescope, were to see Tehran orbiting Betelgeuse.
At the risk of boring you (a fate worse by far than radiation poisoning), I’d like to reiterate the maxim of this column: changes of scale invariably sacrifice the sensible in favour of the intelligible. And what could be a more extreme alteration in scale than the development of nuclear technology? For the past 60 years the entire planet has been held to ransom by a few kilos of plutonium. What can we understand by this? Either that our aspirations, as a species, possess astonishing grandeur, or, alternatively, that they have all the significance of quite liking new season asparagus. It won’t surprise you to learn that I incline to the latter view.
That being noted, I by no means think any of us should lie down in the face of the nuclear juggernaut. One of the chief things to recommend our homegrown protests is that they usually involve walking, and even – in the case of the longstanding Greenham campaign – camping. You know me, any excuse for a ramble. My late mother often used to visit the Greenham Peace Camp, although she couldn’t quite commit to spending a night under canvas. Fair enough, in the early 1980s her health was in decline, and despite generous doses of radium she died of cancer in 1988. The irony of this would not have been lost on her, besides we are all sitting in the dark, listening to the steady tick, yet unable to discover what time it is.