Do you feel safer with the test ban treaty in place, asked Walter Cronkite during his special broadcast of "Fifty Tears After the Bomb and Counting?" He was interviewing renowned nuclear scientist Harold Agnew. Agnew’s answer caught Cronkite by surprise. He felt we were less secure because the generation of generals who had witnessed a nuclear bomb firsthand had retired. Agnew felt we would be safer if the world’s new generals were lined up to witness a real bomb test, in their undershorts.
Agnew went on to explain that only when you are face-to-face with a real thermonuclear explosion do you really appreciate the power of that distant inferno. In another interview, he elaborated: "...you don't know what heat is until you've seen the heat from a ten megaton, fifteen megaton hydrogen bomb. The most impressive thing about the heat is it doesn't stop, it just gets hotter and hotter and you start to really worry even though you're twenty some miles away...." Agnew believed that if generals felt the intensity of that distant inferno firsthand, they would never order a thermonuclear bombing. No audio-visuals, no modern media in 3-D, could ever replace the feel of that heat penetrating your body. But rookie generals whose only imagery of the H-bomb was from conventional weapons and abstract videos made this a more dangerous world.
And therein lies a paradox of science. When science gives us advances—in this case the prolonged absence of nuclear warfare—science often wipes out the very experience base that allows us to have a reasonable and commonsense perspective.
Science chlorinated our water and greatly reduced waterborne diseases. Now, lacking widespread experience with waterborne diseases, more people question chlorination.
Science eliminated polio, smallpox and other major infectious diseases in the United States. Now, a new generation with no experience with serious maladies questions vaccination, readily believing bogus claims that vaccination was never effective.
Science added fluoride to water supplies. The number of children with cavities plummeted. Now that cavities are rare, more citizens question fluoridation.
Computers and the internet insulate us from real experiences even further. For such media to be meaningful, we must have real-life experiences. For instance, assume you are driving home on the interstate tonight at 80 miles per hour. Up ahead you see an accident has just happened. In your mirror you can see the ambulance approaching. The officer is waving you to go on by. You can see the driver pinned in the car. It looks serious. The rest of your trip home is at a slower speed. You have "sobered up." This tragedy pre-occupies your mind. But on the television news that night are images of a disaster somewhere in the world. The death toll is far greater. But that mediated message, just like computers and the internet, has little effect.
This is the difference Agnew was pointing out. We do not learn by reasoning alone. Learning is an emotional experience embedded in real life experiences. Today we know that a section of our brain is stimulated by emotions and tells us: "This is real. Remember this!"
Real experiences test true and have real consequences. A sheltered and simulated world does not.
In the absence of understanding comes ignorance and fear. And ignorance and fear is pretty much all we are getting from most news media reports on the Japanese reactor. Reporters spout nonsense about clouds of radiation and question how you can wash radiation off clothing. Most have no image of radiation beyond their own dental x-rays. They proclaim one milliseivert above ultra-conservative dosage limits to be "dangerous."
I join Harold Agnew in his suggestion that we line up our generals to get an education in nuclear energy. And I would add journalists to those in the line up—all in their undershorts.