Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Science Fact-ion by Randall Hayes
October 2018

Titrating Terror

Up from the depths, thirty stories high.

Breathing fire, his head in the sky!

-theme song, The Godzilla Power Hour

With Halloween just around the corner, I'm thinking about monsters. In particular, I'm thinking about why it is so difficult to keep monsters scary.

Take Godzilla, Japan's first and foremost symbol of the horrors of atomic war. The original black and white film, Gojira, had the monster not just stomping through the city destroying property, but eating people. By the time I was a kid in the 1970s, Toho's movie Godzilla was practically a hero, fighting other monsters and teaming up with MechaGodzilla. In the Saturday morning cartoons of my childhood, the crew of the Calico could call him by pushing a button! Every time they got in trouble, he would come save their stupid asses. And I don't even want to talk about his cute "nephew," Godzooky. The latest incarnations are in between, imagining Godzilla as ecology's scaly angel of death, avenging our wrongs against nature with a flaming sword--and in one recent anime series, even driving us from the planet into space on generation ships.

Why not just show what happens to people when they're exposed to radiation, as in the classic manga and anime Barefoot Gen, based on the memories of a Hiroshima survivor? Why are starvation and bloody diarrhea off-limits?

Because they're too real.

You see, humans like being a little bit scared, as long as there's some sense of distance and control, as long as we can turn it on and off. As an instructive example, watch a child (or a rat) run away from being tickled, screaming--and then turn around and come back to the tickler for another dose. It's healthy to exercise the emotions, within limits. Unreal fantastic constructions help us to do that, as Gerard Jones wrote in Killing Monsters. They are useful precisely because they are not real. Our recognition that we created these things allows us to titrate our emotions, just like adding acid or base to a solution, a drop at a time, to achieve a desired pH. A little bit of acid offers an interesting tartness. A little more, a hilarious pucker-face. We stop before we blister our mouths, and everything is fine. There's even an equation to model the process more precisely.

The models of how to produce an activist are similarly one-dimensional, with names like "ladder of engagement." Just add outrage, a little at a time, to move a person from rung to rung. Click on an online petition. Send a little money. Write a representative. Attend a rally. Boil a frog in a saucepan.

But that model is only partially right. Stretch our emotions too far, out of the dynamic range of social convention and rational justification, and we freak out. Plus, unlike the one-dimensional acid-base case, or a rubber band metaphor, our emotions are multidimensional. Rage, panic, and depressed paralysis are all possible. Also, unlike the simple acid-base equation, our emotions are nonlinear and dynamic. Our freak-out thresholds move depending on our histories, our current mental conditions, and our environmental circumstances.

Fortunately, for most of us those extreme emotions don't last very long. Unfortunately, we now have weapons that are uniquely unforgiving of emotional instability. As few as 100 nukes going off, plus the fires that would inevitably follow, could lift enough dust into the stratosphere to shut down photosynthesis around the globe and starve many, many millions of us.

According to Daniel Ellsberg's latest book, The Doomsday Machine, the single set of launch codes in the silver briefcase is a comforting myth. There are literally thousands of people capable of launching missiles, should they decide to do so. Not to mention the possibility of an honest mistake. Eric Schlosser's Command & Control centers on the explosion of a Titan missile inside its silo in Damascus, Arkansas, caused by a tech dropping a wrench and poking a hole in the fuel tank. It then goes on to describe over twelve hundred nuclear arms accidents in the United States alone. The worst part is that probably every one of the nine known nuclear states has what Ellsberg calls a dead hand system, guaranteed to launch massive retaliatory strikes if seismic sensors detect a nuclear explosion in its territory. Even a big meteor strike (which are much more common than we think) might be enough to set one of those systems off. This is not paranoia; there have been a whole series of documented close calls.

Was that too much? Have I exceeded your threshold? Are you freaked out? Probably not. Just a bunch of words on a screen. Not even a repeated message, like the many Cold War episodes of The Twilight Zone, or Star Trek. We've milked that atomic snake of its radioactive venom and made mental antibodies. Godzilla's not going to eat that little girl from Stranger Things. That would be absurd.

Maybe it's time to step away from metaphors and monsters, as in The Day After, the highest-rated made-for-TV movie ever, which showed regular Americans trying to cope with radioactive contamination. The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States is about as realistic as you could ask an SF novel to be. There are no talking apes, no mole people worshiping a bomb, no kaiju, and no mutants roaming the wastes of Anarchia outside New Chicago like on Buck Rogers. There are no pseudonyms or other emotional buffers. 2020's volatile president, "Hurricane Donald," is our volatile president. Former national security advisor John Bolton is called out by name. Even the eyewitness reports are based on those of real Japanese victims of the two real atomic bombs.

[Name witheld] Arlington, VA: I looked next door and I saw the father of a neighboring family standing almost naked. His skin was peeling off all over his body and was hanging from his fingertips. I talked to him, but he was too exhausted to give me a reply. He was looking for his family desperately.

--Black Rain, p. 239

Ironically, as stated in the diagram of the blast radius around Trump Tower in Manhattan on the page before, "Third degree burns extend throughout the layers of skin, and are often painless, because they destroy the pain nerves."

Is this more shocking, more realistic, better? Or is it too much to think about? Will it galvanize us to do something about these weapons, or will it overwhelm us so that we shut down in frustration and apathy? Research shows that any one event is unlikely to change our emotional baselines for very long. It takes repeated engagements, over months or years, to move the needle in public health campaigns. So we need a steady stream of stories to keep the issue in front of the public (like BotAS, but fictional), and they need to be different kinds of stories, because of the changing set points I described above, and because fashions change with time, like music.

An old man, an old man

Has got his little hands on the button

Feels like nothin' anyone can do

People out there crackin' up, crackin' up

And I'm just tryin' to keep it together

- Lake Street Dive

There's no formula but evolution. Try everything, and keep trying until something works.

Randall Hayes, PhD, generally likes being alone with his thoughts. There are exceptions, though.



As with much of 70s animation, I had a love/hate relationship with this show. I so wanted it to be cool, and it just wasn't. Occasionally one of the monster designs would be kind of interesting.




Just discovered this podcast, and am really digging it. Love the comparison of the monster with a giant toddler.


"Come on Godzilla, make it fast! Your good buddy's in trouble!" -The Breeder Beast


"This stuff is pure DNA--a genetically clean slate. If that barrel was full of this stuff, it would be like a mass of clay, waiting to be molded." -Trust No One

The 90s iteration was better in some ways, but man, that is so backwards.

Now if you had everything else except the DNA. . .


Don't know why Tojo never tried anime before. Seems like a natural. There's a sequel, now, too.







If you scroll down, there's a video.





"Never underestimate the power of swag!"






More detail, including graphs.


See especially Figures 2,3, & 4.

Ellsberg, Daniel. The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. Bloomsbury USA, 2017.


I only made it through a couple chapters of the massive book version.


So Dr. Strangelove was right?


Though these high airbursts are interesting, there's probably not much danger of mistaking them for nukes.


Good info on the variables that go into making such decisions, and links to similar stories.

Lewis, Jeffrey. The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Attacks Against the United States: A Speculative Novel. Boston: Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018.


Also mentions the Mars Hill, SC, accidental bomb drop, but not the one in Goldsboro, NC.

Make sure to click through to Paul Bracken's chapter from the online book Breakthrough.






I invited these two young policy analysts from the Brookings Institution to brief my students at the NC Governor's School via Skype. Some of the kids wanted talks at their own schools back home. That's hopeful.







Sabido's method is rather formulaic, so they might disagree with me on this one, but I think the difference is in generating initial interest (engagement) vs. later, deeper transformation of mental models (education).


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