It’s all in the — scientific — numbers

By Pat LaMarche,
Posted March 15, 2011, at 8:39 p.m.

From Pythagoras and the ancient Hebrews right up until today there have been folks who believe that numbers have sacred meanings. Sometimes they bode tragedy, sometimes great joy.

The minute I saw the magnitude of the Japanese quake last week — 8.9 — I was struck motionless in my seat. That number — 8.9 — isn’t just the seismic intensity of the earth shake that may end up causing the world’s largest nuclear disaster, it’s also the date that we dropped the A-bomb on Nagasaki, Japan.

But both these numerological nuclear realities — each heralding death, chaos and misery for the Japanese people — are only significant numbers when taken together and after the fact. As sentient beings we will never be able to foresee natural disasters like earthquakes or tsunamis based on numerology because nature has to cooperate. That’s not the same for man-made disasters — or man-made disasters exacerbated by natural disasters like Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi complex — because if we were smart we’d take advantage of knowledge gained from past experience as well as known scientific data and avoid compounding natural calamity.

Let me explain. According to The Australian: “A Japanese expert on nuclear safety warned more than three years ago that the policy of building large numbers of reactors in the middle of a volatile earthquake zone could lead to catastrophe.” The article goes on to say that a number of top-ranking Japanese scientists resigned from working in the nuclear industry to protest unsafe practices, but still the energy companies continued making nuclear power along Japan’s fault lines.

And here’s where numbers play an important role. Fifty-five Japanese nuclear power reactors are in danger of not withstanding a major earthquake. In fact, Ishibashi Katsuhiko, a professor at Kobe University and the expert cited above, said in 2006 that guidelines used to protect against disaster were “seriously flawed.”  Well, time has proved Dr. Katsuhiko right and proved that this current disaster was not only predictable but also predicted.

You’ve got to be asking yourself — when watching those frightening scenes unfolding in Japan and for the love of humanity and all the rest of the little creatures on this beautiful Earth — why would smart guys like Katsuhiko be ignored?

The answer to that question is really just more numbers, but those numbers have dollar signs in front of them.

Still, there are really big numbers that have major consequences even before they translate into cash. Take 3.4 billion for example. That’s the estimated number of barrels of oil that Norway will leave where they lie under their North Sea fishing areas. According to the Huffington Post, Norway announced Friday that the possible costs outweigh the potential gains of offshore drilling. Additionally, the Norwegian government claims that they learned that valuable lesson from us: “Environment minister Erik Solheim said an analysis of the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico last year influenced the decision.”

Ever since the Industrial Revolution in the mid-19th century, humanity’s hunger for power generation has yielded dire consequences. And even when counseled wisely by our scientific communities against certain behaviors, the greed for energy and money has outweighed the common-sense realities of preserving life.

The number of lawsuits filed against BP for the Deepwater Horizon disaster are in the hundreds of thousands — and the exact environmental impact of the spill is a yet to be determined astronomical number. Yet, last month Washington told oil giant Noble Energy to resume its offshore drilling.

We have scientists cautioning us constantly about the risks involved in pursuing nonrenewable sources of energy. Natural gas fracking, mountaintop removal coal mining, offshore drilling, nuclear production and waste — and still we listen more to the purveyors of these fuels than we do to the proponents of renewable sources.

We don’t need numerologists in government to predict the magnitude of our next ecological and environmental disaster any more than the Japanese needed to know that the magnitude of an earthquake would mimic the date of our final atomic bombing of their country. But we — like the Japanese — would do well to listen better to our scientists. Maybe we would if we had government officials like they have in Norway; who know that lots of important numbers come without dollar signs.

Pat LaMarche of Yarmouth is the author of  “Left Out In America: The State of Homelessness in the United States.” She may be reached at PatLaMarche@hotmail.com.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/03/15/opinion/it%e2%80%99s-all-in-the-scientific-numbers/ printed on July 29, 2014