Sunday, August 14, 2011

The New Radiation

Ever notice how comic book superheroes all seemed to get their powers from radiation at one time?  A crew of astronauts get bathed in cosmic radiation and become the Fantastic Four.  A young boy is blinded by radioactive waste and becomes Daredevil.  A scientist gets hit by a massive dose of gamma radiation and becomes the Incredible Hulk.  A student is bitten by a radioactive spider and becomes Spiderman.  I can keep going for quite a bit here.  In the movies and comic books of yesteryear radiation either created giant monsters (Godzilla) or gave people superhuman abilities.  Ever wonder why this was such a popular notion?  Could radiation realistically give a person superpowers?  The answer of course is yes, but only if by "superpowers" you mean radiation poisoning, cancer and agonizing death!

Just to be clear, I'm not suggesting anyone tried to give themselves superpowers through radiation poisoning.  Also, I'm not suggesting that the silly folks of the last century actually believed that would work if they did try it (no, leave that for the incredibly stupid people of today).  All I'm saying is that it at least seemed like a plausible mechanism a couple of decades ago.  This was after all the days before Google when - if you really wanted to understand something - you had to go to the library and search through a lot of books to get all the info you wanted.  So naturally some people were happy to instead get by with the little knowledge they had and as the saying goes, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.  The little people did know was that nuclear power was amazing and immensely powerful not to mention the fact that radiation can affect your cells on a molecular level, altering your very genetic code.  Of course the results of this were never pretty but you can see on some level why people wouldn't immediately call shenanigans on the trope that radiation is magical, at least as far as their fiction was concerned.

Of course things have changed since then.  The Information Age dawned, people stopped believing that radiation was a magical explanation for the implausible and found new magical explanations.  Today however, some people choose not to save it only for their fiction, instead they actually believe in the magical explanatory powers of their New Radiation in real life.

Probably the most famous example is the one in the comic above.  Pretty much all New Age woo peddlers explain away their ridiculous claims with the magical power of Quantum Mechanics.  I am currently reading The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and it brought me to a profound realization - I am not smart enough to comprehend Quantum Mechanics!  It's fascinating stuff and what little I can understand blows my mind but the moment it goes past the most basic concepts I can feel myself starting to get lost.  Things just get so strange and so utterly counterintuitive that I have to admit I make little sense of it.  But even so, even though I understand so very little of it I am quite confident in saying that quacks like Deepak Chopra understand much, much less of it than I do!  Lucky for them, the same goes for a lot of the population so they are free to make their nonsense sound rational and scientific by using terms from Quantum Mechanics.  Just like with radiation, people know very little about Quantum Physics but what they do know is that it's fascinating and exciting and seems to overturn a lot of the "old science".  All of that is true of course but it does not therefore follow that you can wish things into existence (a la The Secret) thanks to Quantum Mechanics or that Quantum Physics show that positive thinking alters reality (a la Chopra).  None of that is true.  Like it or not, you're going to live your life within the boundaries of standard, boring old Newtonian physics - which only breaks down for incredibly big and incredibly small things, neither of which you deal with at all.  So while quantum particles can and do spontaneously pop into existence out of nothing, the same will never be true of a new Porsche no matter how hard you wish!

Quantum Mechanics isn't the only New Radiation in the world today of course but it's pretty prominent.  Another form, extremely popular for the conspiracy minded if no one else, would be the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Same story as the others, the Dead Sea Scrolls are mysterious, exciting and people don't know much about it - making it a perfect form of New Radiation.  What people know is that these are very ancient Biblical manuscripts that have been hidden unmolested for many centuries.  What many people therefore believe is that it shows all kinds of crazy things about the Bible, Jesus and how the Church has totally been hiding the truth, man!  We can mostly thank people like Dan Brown for that one.  After reading The Da Vinci Code, a friend of mine was utterly convinced that the Dead Sea Scrolls said that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had kids.  In fact you can make up just about any wild conspiracy about the Bible and claim the Dead Sea Scrolls show it's all true and people will believe you; despite the fact that you could probably find the contents of the Dead Sea Scrolls (in English) in your nearest bookstore.  The reality of the scrolls - while fascinating to historians and scholars - are not that exciting to someone looking for Catholic conspiracy and the dirty secrets of Jesus.  The actual contents of the scrolls are:

"The Dead Sea Scrolls are traditionally divided into three groups: "Biblical" manuscripts (copies of texts from the Hebrew Bible), which comprise roughly 40% of the identified scrolls; "Apocryphal" or "Pseudepigraphical" manuscripts (known documents from the Second Temple Period like Enoch, Jubilees, Tobit, Sirach, non-canonical psalms, etc., that were not ultimately canonized in the Hebrew Bible), which comprise roughly 30% of the identified scrolls; and "Sectarian" manuscripts (previously unknown documents that speak to the rules and beliefs of a particular group or groups within greater Judaism) like the Community Rule, War Scroll, Pesher on Habakkuk (Hebrew pesher פשר = "Commentary"), and the Rule of the Blessing, which comprise roughly 30% of the identified scrolls."

In other words, lots of fascinating Old Testament Judaism stuff, zero sexy New Testament dirt.  Still, just like Quantum Mechanics, the Dead Sea Scrolls may yet function as the New Radiation for a quite while before it's replaced with something else.

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