Monday, March 14, 2011

Impossible Germany, Unlikely Japan

Wilco's Sky Blue Sky album features a song called "Impossible Germany"; the song begins with the lyric quoted in the title for this post.  It came to mind this morning when I was reading the latest updates on the scenario that continues to unfold in Japan.

The devastation wrought there by the earthquake and tsunami is scary for all of us bearing witness, and the loss of life and pain experienced by the Japanese is heartbreaking to consider.

It also strikes me as a stark reminder of randomness and how we humans are prepared to deal with the random.

My friend AdanA and I exchanged a number of emails last week, some in a connected series and some stand-alone items, and about a variety of topics, but when I look back I see the imprint of the Japan disaster on all of them.  We discussed Japan's adherence to a higher standard in their building codes, and how that decision that assuredly cost more on the front end has ultimately reduced the cost to human life; one has only to look to the recent earthquake tragedies in Haiti and Chile to see what lower standards and lesser quality building materials can lead to (and this is not to be taken as a criticism of the people of Haiti or Chile, but a discussion of randomness and its outcomes.)

AdanA also offered up a question/suggestion, wondering aloud if there may be some mechanism we (people) could employ to compensate for an inbuilt flaw in our statistical understandings...while he did not specifically call out the events in Japan, I felt a connection.  See, even with Japan's relatively robust level of preparedness for both earthquakes and tsunamis, had you asked the average "man on the street" in the days before the 'quake hit what might happen to their nuclear reactor facilities in the event of a "double whammy" scenario, where the area got hit by a 9.0 Richter earthquake and massive tsunami waves, they would likely not have an answer at hand.

I read this morning that the nuclear facility that is in fact failing was built to withstand a quake in the mid 7s on the Richter scale (earthquake magnitudes are measured on a logarithmic scale - a 2.0 is 10 times larger than a 1.0); the quake in Japan clocked in at a 9.0, and the measures in place to keep the reactors cool failed in succession.  Radioactive clouds are escaping from the reactor.  This is a terrible thing.

But is it possible to plan for every contingency?  Is it possible to ever move forward when each step is subject to endless scrutiny and consideration?  How do we train ourselves to be aware of the existence of the highly improbable and to make an explicit accounting of the impact of that highly improbable?  Is it human (I mean in keeping with the way we conceive of our humanity) to say: "Some number of people will die of radiation exposure due to nuclear reactors failing in some number of scenario iterations."?  Is the question of our humanity contingent on the ratio of people dying vs the number of iterations being low enough?

I don't know the answer, but I know these are questions we all need to consider.  Now, for a palate cleanser:

No comments:

Post a Comment