Saturday, August 20, 2005

The New Men and George W. Bush

I am finishing a novel by C.P. Snow, "The New Men." It is one of a series that he wrote eventually called "Strangers and Brothers." They apparently made a PBS special out of this sequence of eleven novels, but since I don't have a TV, I didn't see it (no TV Dr. C., are you Pleistocene?) In any case, "The New Men" is a novel about the British effort to make an atomic bomb during World War II. Since C.P Snow was involved in this on the bureaucratic side, I assume a lot of the information is first hand, though the setting and personnel are fictitious.

Now C.P. Snow is not an action writer on the order of Batman/The Incredibles. But, interestingly enough, there is a lot of sex, albeit off screen. (I had always thought the Brits were stodgy, sort of permanent Victorians. Not so.) C.P. Snow's main focus is the psychology of the men, and women, located at the Los Alamos (and Oak Ridge) of England, called Barford in his story but actually Harwell. The team of "New" men in his story construct a breeder reactor to produce plutonium. In reality, the British didn't build a bomb until after the War, so Snow tampers a lot with History.

In addition to the usual clash of personalities between the scientists and the administrators (an ongoing Snow obsession), there is the usual presence of the Communist sympathizers. One should not discount the effect of communism on the intelligensia of this period. They had all lived through the horrors of the depression and the fascist dictatorships. Many of them were fellow travelers and the brutality of Stalins regime was not well known. But I digress.

One of the themes of the book is the ethical quandary presented to scientists who have created nuclear weapons. There is a calculation made by the wife of the chief scientist who is a mathematician that predicts 300,000 instant deaths and as many lingering deaths if the bomb is used on a city such as London. The reality of the lingering deaths becomes evident when the chief scientist tries to extract the plutonium and is accidentally exposed. Since no one was aware of the effects of high dose radiation, they had to sit and watch. It wasn't pretty. At first nothing appeared to happen. Then the man began to feel weak and debilitated. Gradually he became sicker and sicker with vomiting, diarrhea and blood blisters on his skin, eventually he lost his hair. Since there were doctors available, and everyone was anxious to know what the effects of radiation were, he was monitored closely. After several weeks of constant support he survived. Barely.

It turns out that we have had extensive experience with this situation, the effects of lethal doses of radiation on humans, in the last 35 years. It is called Bone Marrow Transplantation and it is used to attempt to cure patients of intractable cancer (and for a few other, esoteric reasons.) First the patient is exposed to lethal doses of radiation and/or chemotherapy in an effort to eradicate the tumor.
Then, because what is lethal is the destruction of the bone marrow stem cells, there is an infusion of these cells either from a donor, related ro unrelated, or from previously stored cells from the patient.

Within a few days the patient begins to experience the symptoms that the scientist at Barford experienced. Because the bone marrow has failed and it takes at least two weeks for the infused marrow to take hold, the normal products of the marrow must be replenished by blood and platelet transfusions. White cells go to zero and there is the risk of overwhelming infection. It is not a pretty sight. I can tell you from personal experience.

These are the symptoms that the 300,000 lingering deaths the mathematician calculated will experience. They will die without the simplest of medical help. They will die without the succor of their family and friends. This is not the plague in Venice. This is Hiroshima.

Interestingly enough, BMT is something that is looked on as an index as to whether you have "arrived" in the medical world. In two developing countries that I visited in the 90's, Siberia and Romania, the major thrust at the hospitals was to have a BMT facility. They were ready to do this even before they had adequate support for such an endeavor, i.e. a Blood Bank. Such is the strangeness of hype. But I digress.

The effects of radiation on a human are devastating. The scientists at Barford (Harwell) saw this and were, in most cases, dead set against ever using the bomb on humans. So were many scientists at Los Alamos. Many were aghast that the first bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.
When the second bomb was dropped on a city, ostensibly to compare a plutonium bomb with a uranium bomb, they were horrified.

This has all faded into history. The utter devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki does not seem to intrude on our perception of reality. The question has to be asked, how could any, reasonable, civilized country use an atomic weapon against a civilian population? Is any country ready to do this?

The answer, of course, is "yes." And the leading country that is ready to do this is the United States of America, my country, followed closely by Israel, Pakistan and India. In spite of the rhetoric, Russia and China have not shown an inclination to be first users of their bombs. In fact, one might make the argument that, at least for China, nuclear weapons were a defensive move.

Why do I say that we might use the bomb, with all its ensuing horror? I say that because George W. Bush has given me no assurances that he wouldn't do so, if it suits his purposes. He has instructed the scientists in our government, unfortunately not as inhibited as those of the 40's, to build a "bunker buster."
President Bush requested $US6.63 billion for nuclear weapons activities at the Energy Department, which maintains and develops nuclear warheads, up 0.7 per cent from the current 2005 fiscal year.

The budget includes $US4 million to revive a study on bunker-buster nuclear arms, called the "robust nuclear earth penetrator".
I would also like to point out that putting $6.6 billion dollars into nuclear weapons at the same time that he is demanding a cut in Medicaid
The final budget resolution requires those committees to make at least $10 billion in cuts -- all or most of which will presumably come from the Medicaid program
is a far more accurate portrayal of the twisted mind of our President than any novel by Bob Woodward.

Let me summarize. C.P. Snow in his novel, "The New Men," described the ascendancy of scientists as creators of a terrible and lethal new technology, nuclear weapons. He introduced us to the ethical struggles that these scientists went through, and described firsthand the horror of radiation exposure. The calculation of 300,000 instantaneous deaths and 300,000 lingering deaths was a clarion call for sanity. It was ignored.

We now have a President who looks on nuclear weapons as one more way to exercise the power of our country. He wants mini nukes and bunker busters for the arsenal. These are not strategic weapons, i.e. there for the purpose of deterrence. These are day to day, if-you-have-them-you-will-use-them weapons. He has taken the money for this from health care for poor children, Medicaid.

We don't have a crisis in Iraq. We have a crisis in our country that is so deep a pervasive that it is questionable that we will survive it.

We will become like the woolly mammouths of the pleistocene.

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