Oppenheimer and the problem of near‑zero

by Jeremy Whitlock

August 2023

Contrary to the portrayal in the film Oppenheimer (and now widespread public belief), the atomic scientists did not worry about the Trinity test igniting a fusion excursion in the atmosphere and destroying the world.

The prospect was raised early in the Manhattan Project, investigated, and discarded.

They did continue to discuss and joke about it, and the artistic choice to focus on this element is understandable: the tone-deaf scientist has always been tantalizing – long before "Big Bang Theory" cashed in on it.

Unfortunately, scientists typically avoid saying something won't happen, preferring instead 'near zero' probabilities – because that's how the universe works.

'Almost certainly' is as close as I think I've heard anyone get in this business.

In truth, this fundamental quirk has been at the root of science's public communication problem for centuries, culminating in our cultural fear of radiation – initiated by the mushroom cloud, fuelled by the cold war, leveraged by Hollywood and other beneficiaries.

It's why most people think low levels of radiation are dangerous, and largely why we're still polluting our planet to generate electricity nearly a century after learning how to avoid this.

The public, of course, intrinsically accepts "near zero" whenever they cross the street, but for anything related to radiation this will not stand: the perceived consequences are that abhorrent.

Thus, we see modern nuclear waste technologies – from geological repositories to near-surface disposal – vilified, despite objectively representing our most sustainable industrial waste strategies.

We celebrate any announcement of a new reactor project like it's 1950 and we're being innovative in saving the planet.

We wring our hands over the release to the sea of tritiated Fukushima water, which is cleaner than the sea itself.

We live in fear of the next nuclear incident anywhere, however small, lest it cause another country like Germany to turn its back on progress.

At the end of Oppenheimer we are reminded that the events of 1945 did, in fact, initiate a chain reaction that may still destroy the world: the arms race.

It actually initiated another chain reaction that has killed thousands more over the decades since, and presents an equally sobering existential threat: public fear of radiation.

Sitting in the dark at the IMAX, listening to the gasps of disbelief around me as the giggling scientists take bets on whether the 'Gadget' will destroy New Mexico, the USA, or the world – I couldn't help but feel doomed.


Discussion welcome.

©2024 Jeremy Whitlock

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