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Godzilla and the Birth of Modern Environmentalism
It rose up out of the sea, a fearsome roaring monster unlike anything humans had ever seen, horrible, primeval, unstoppable, towering, breathing radioactive fire and leaving total destruction in its wake.
No, this was not Gojira, the lumbering prehistoric beast who hit Japanese movie screens in 1954 and has starred in 30 films since, the most recent of which is just out. This monster was the founding inspiration for Godzilla: the fearsome hydrogen bomb explosion known as Castle Bravo, a test detonated earlier that year in the Pacific that gave birth to far more than cinema’s most famous monster. Castle Bravo played a key role in establishing the deep fear of all things nuclear that persists to this day, helped give rise to modern environmentalism, and even planted the seeds of a basic conflict modern society is struggling with: Are the benefits of modern technology outweighed by the threats they pose to nature itself?
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We think now that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki horrified the world, but against the other ghastly horrors of World War II, they didn’t really stand out. The frightening pictures of cities devastated by nuclear weapons didn’t look that much different from Tokyo after the Operation Meetinghouse firebombing of March 9-10, 1945, that killed more people than either atomic weapon.
Not even the outbreak of “A bomb disease” several years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leukemia cases among the bomb survivors caused by exposure to high doses of radiation, was enough to instill the global fear that was to come.
But this was…
…the fearsome, roaring, alien monster of Castle Bravo that lit the sky like a false sun, creating a fireball so wide it would have vaporized a third of Manhattan, and so tall it stretched four times higher than Mt. Everest. The scale of the destruction was massively greater than the atomic bombs dropped nine years earlier on Japan … almost too great, too frightening, to comprehend.
Now everyone could feel the fear that Manhattan Project director Robert Oppenheimer felt as he watched the first atomic bomb test in New Mexico in 1945, recalling the words of the god Shiva in the Baghavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.”
As frightening as the explosion of Castle Bravo was the fallout. When the dust settled, radioactivity had contaminated more than 7,000 square miles, nearly the size of New Jersey. One speck in that vast area of contamination was the Japanese fishing boat Fukuryu Maru, or Lucky Dragon. It was operating in what were supposed to be safe waters, but the explosion was three times as powerful as scientists had planned. The crew of the Fukuryu Maru got back to Japan, and under the glare of international media attention, fell sick from radiation exposure. The Japanese press called it “The Second Atomic Bombing of Mankind."
Now no one on Earth could pretend they were not at risk, either from the vastly more threatening hydrogen weapons themselves, or from radioactive fallout that caused cancer, a disease which the public at that same time was just beginning to openly talk about and fear.
What’s more, nature herself was now in jeopardy, threatened with being poisoned … polluted … contaminated by people daring to play God with the very forces of nature. As Spencer Weart reported in his marvelous book The Rise of Nuclear Fear, newspapers called nuclear weapons “a menace to the order of nature” and “a wrongful exploitation of the ‘inner secrets’ of creation.” Pope Pius XII, in Easter messages heard by hundreds of millions around the world, “warned that bomb tests brought ‘pollution’ of the mysterious processes of nature.”
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Oppenhiemer’s quote about becoming the Destroyer of Worlds is famous. It is less well known that, upon receiving an honor from the Army for creating the atom bomb, Oppenheimer said of the threat of nuclear weapons: “The people of this world must unite or they will perish.” And that is precisely what happened in the months following Castle Bravo. In 1955, the year after that test, the annual rally against nuclear weapons in Hiroshima was massive, and international news coverage of the rally helped spawn the Ban the Bomb movement against both not only the weapons themselves but atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. It was the first truly global protest movement. People were indeed uniting, brought together by the shared fear that they might perish.
That movement spawned opposition to atomic power, the new form of electrical generation being developed in the 1950s. Some of the most influential leaders of that movement, including Barry Commoner and Rachel Carson, broadened their attention to other ways that technology seemed to threaten human health or nature itself. The modern environmental movement grew directly out of ‘Ban the Bomb’ and fear of radiation. In fact, Carson was inspired to write Silent Spring, about the threat of the overuse of pesticides, by the similarities she saw between the threat of both forms of fallout: “the parallel between radiation and chemicals is exact and inescapable.”
Opposition to nuclear power and industrial chemicals have been core themes of modern environmentalism ever since, based on the same inspiration that brought Godzilla up from the depths: that we need to protect nature from human-made technology. Those same appealing environmental values now also inspire opposition to genetically modified food, or fracking, or large scale industrial agriculture — any modern technology that allows humans to manipulate and threaten the natural world, the benign true natural world that existed before humans came along and, with their technology, ended it, as Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature suggests.
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Of course, humans are a species too, not separate from but a part of the natural world, and like all species our interactions with the natural world have all sorts of impacts. True, the human intelligence that allowed us to master fire has meant that we have done far more harm than other species. But technology is double-edged blade. Science and technology have also brought fantastic progress and offer great hope, including solutions for the mess technology helped us make in the first place.
Gojira itself raised precisely this conundrum, framing the modern conversation we’re still having. As it ends, Tokyo is in ruins. Humans’ most powerful weapons are useless. The monster has retreated to the depths, but no one is sure if or when it will rise again. The reclusive scientist Dr. Serizawa and our hero, Hideto Ogata, are on a boat heading out to find and destroy him.
Serizawa has finally admitted to Ogata what the film has hinted at: He has a weapon that can kill Godzilla, a technological device which, dropped into water, sucks all the oxygen out of it. He has kept it a secret until now because “if the oxygen destroyer is used even once, politicians from around the world will see it. Of course, they'll want to use it as a weapon. Bombs versus bombs, missiles versus missiles, and now a new superweapon to throw upon us all! As a scientist—no, as a human being—I can't allow that to happen! Am I right?”
Ogata replies, “Then what do we do about the horror before us now? Should we just let it happen? If anyone can save us now, Serizawa, you're the only one!”
Serizawa grabs the device and jumps into the sea, killing Godzilla and sacrificing himself but saving mankind … by using a technological weapon more powerful that the atomic bombs that woke the monster from his prehistoric sleep in the first place.
Geoengineering may be able to help combat climate change. Genetically modified food may help feed a global population soon to approach 10 billion. Safer forms of nuclear energy may power population growth cleanly. Are these technological solutions to some of the damage humans have done to ourselves and the natural world, or are they just versions of Castle Bravo and the Oxygen Destroyer, escalations of a self-destructive technological death spiral? Are those who oppose these technologies just modern Godzillas, rising up like mindless angry monsters willing to cause massive suffering and destruction to defend nature?
These are the questions Castle Bravo and Gojira asked. We are still fighting over the answers.
This piece first ran on Slate.com, which put together a fabulous short video on the history of Godzilla films
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out.
- The debate over whether or not humans have free will is centuries old and ongoing. While studies have confirmed that our brains perform many tasks without conscious effort, there remains the question of how much we control and when it matters.
- According to Dr. Uri Maoz, it comes down to what your definition of free will is and to learning more about how we make decisions versus when it is ok for our brain to subconsciously control our actions and movements.
- "If we understand the interplay between conscious and unconscious," says Maoz, "it might help us realize what we can control and what we can't."
Puerto Rico's iconic telescope facilitated important scientific discoveries while inspiring young scientists and the public imagination.
- The Arecibo Observatory's main telescope collapsed on Tuesday morning.
- Although officials had been planning to demolish the telescope, the accident marked an unceremonious end to a beloved astronomical tool.
- The Arecibo radio telescope has facilitated many discoveries in astronomy, including the mapping of near-Earth asteroids and the detection of exoplanets.
Bradley Rivera via twitter.com<p>In 1963, the concave dish was built into a natural sinkhole on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. The location was <a href="https://www.space.com/20984-arecibo-observatory.html" target="_blank">picked because it was near the equator,</a> providing scientists a clear view of planets passing overhead, and also of the ionosphere, which is the uniquely reactive layer of Earth's upper atmosphere where the northern lights form.</p><p>Since its construction, scientists have used the Arecibo telescope to map near-Earth asteroids, detect gravitational waves, study pulsars, detect exoplanets and <a href="https://www.seti.org/goodbye-arecibo" target="_blank">search for alien civilizations</a>, among other projects. Here's a brief look at some of the discoveries and accomplishments made using the Arecibo telescope:</p><ul><li>1964: Astronomer <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Pettengill" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gordon Pettengill</a> discovers that Mercury's rotation period is 59 days, significantly shorter than the previous prediction of 88 days.</li><li>1974: Physicists Russell Alan Hulse and Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr. discovers the first binary pulsar, for which they won a Nobel Prize in Physics.</li><li>1974: Scientists use the telescope to transmit the "Arecibo message" to <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Globular_Cluster_in_Hercules" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">globular star cluster M13</a>. The message, when translated into image form, contains basic information about humanity and human knowledge: the numbers one to 10, a map of our solar system, an illustration of a human being, and the atomic numbers of certain elements.</li><li>1989: Scientists use the telescope to image an asteroid for the first time.</li><li>1992: Astronomers Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail become the first to discover exoplanets.</li></ul>
The Google-owned company developed a system that can reliably predict the 3D shapes of proteins.