Sunday, 27 March 2011

At a Loss for Words

It has been rather a long time since I last wrote an article on this blog. There are three reasons for this. One is that I was rather busy with work; one is a thing I will be writing about shortly. The third is Japan.

I am of course speaking about the devastating Tōhoku earthquake and the subsequent catastrophe at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, which has mostly eclipsed the earthquake and the tsunami in the international perception.

I have mostly considered myself an ahistoric person, at least when the daily tedious national politicking is concerned. I have always a point of being somewhere else in my mind than at the scene of the contemporary tax reforms, economic issues, election campaigns etc., although I have a lively interest in many social issues. Einstein was said to have been offered a political post in Israel and having declined, stating he would stick to physics, as politics was for the day, but formulæ were for eternity. I can relate to that.

But that earthquake and nuclear disaster was too large to ignore it and write about mathematics or literature or UFOs. It would have seemed hearless and simply wrong. It left me shaken for days, and my heart flowed over with admiration for the heroic way the people dealt with it (the people, the residents, firemen, soldiers and technicians, not the obviously crooked owners of the nuclear plant).

So if I would write an article it would have to touch that event. But I cannot claim to have very much to say about it. I am not a physicist. And I note that even physicists are somewhat at a loss as far as predictions on how the thing will turn out are concerned. It may go either way, and my guess is as good as yours.

What else to say then? I might make a sentimental statement (as I have partly done above), but I would not write an article unless I feel I can contribute something which not everybody else can do just as well. So I was in a dilemma, and the only way out was to write nothing at all for a while.

But if there is something I might contribute to the topic it is the shameful way some of my countrypeople reacted to it.

I am from Austria, which lies between Italy and Germany, right across the globe from Japan. It is the place on earth that is probably the most safe from the effects of the disaster, but this did not prevent people from panicking in an absurd way. I heard people stormed chemist’s to buy iodine tablets, and when they were refused went berserk, claiming that we were all lied to by “the authorities” and that the Viennese air was badly contaminated—at a time when there weren’t even problems in Tokyo yet. They seemed to think that radioactive air had the power to dash across the globe at homongous speeds, not being diluted along the way—if they were thinking at all.

Our environment secretary, a dim little wretch of a politician tried desperately to capitalize on the catastrophy by appearing twice a day on TV and stating that Austria was still safe. He even had a telephone hotline installed for worried citicens. I was appalled at the sheer egotism of such acts. It seemed to say that the thousands having died in Japan and the millions in dire danger were nothing compared to the conceited fears of my countrypeople. It was the usual saga of “a plane crashed today, 300 people are dead, but thank god, no Austrians were among them” but multiplied a hundredfold. I had disturbing (of course fictional) visions of employees of the Austrian embassy in Tokyo storming the stores snatching the last provisions, leaving the Japanese high and dry.

Some days ago the giveaway newspaper that people read in subways had the headline “Atomic cloud over Vienna”, despite the fact that it took very precise measurements to detect anything at all, as the effects of the Japanese disaster were below the usual range of fluctuation of natural radiation. But this sounded as if we were in the town of Pripyat.

And another thing that angered me as well was something that turns up regularly in this country and which I term the “me too” effect. It may be that all countries and groups of people are prone to it, but in combination with the fact that in this country the spirit of all things is miserably small and mean produces a ghastly effect. (I realize I sound like one of our embittered litterateurs now, Thomas Bernhard or Nobel price winner Elfriede Jelinek, but there is no helping it.)

The “me too” effect is the displaying of the notion that all great events in the history of mankind—the fall of the Soviet Union, the first moon landing, the discovery of America, all great inventions, the greatest works of art, music and cinema—were only possible because of some small but significant Austrian contribution. Or there is at least an interesting link to us. It is saying, “See, we may be tiny and mean-spirited, but still we matter!”

I admit the effect appeared only in traces in the recent disaster, but still: There is a single nuclear power plant in Austria. While it was being built political entanglements caused a plebiscite on it to be held, which ruled that the plant was to be abandoned. At this point it was completely finished; all that was missing was the fuel rods. And so it has remained since then, as a kind of museum.

And now some newspapers pointed out that that reactor was of a type very similar to the ones at Fukushima and all but insinuated that it might help technicians in solving the crisis by being used to simulate and study possible solutions. I felt somewhat reminded of Apollo 13.