Cosmic Variance
By Daniel Holz
Mar 14, 2011 7:35 PMNov 20, 2019 2:30 AM


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The magnitude of the disaster in Japan is starting to sink in. The photo that drove it home, at least for me, was the one that graced the front of yesterday's New York Times (see right). The Japanese prime minister tells us that it is Japan's worst crisis since World War II. He has ordered the largest mobilization of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces since World War II. Emphasizing the magnitude of the event, Japan is now measurably closer to the US. As if recovering from an earthquake and a tsunami were insufficient, the people of Japan are now confronted with their worst nuclear accident ever. There are officers in radiation suits scanning residents near affected nuclear power plants with Geiger counters. The authorities are evacuating over 200,000 people, and are preparing to hand out iodine pills (so that the thyroid is flooded with "normal" iodine, rather than radioactive Iodine-131). According to news reports, three people are already showing signs of radiation sickness (if it has manifested itself so quickly, it is probably a very bad sign for these individuals). Information about the ongoing nuclear crisis is surprisingly scarce. Google, as usual, is operating as a clearinghouse for information (including details on the rolling blackouts and a person finding database). The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is doing its best to keep the world apprised. There is also Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency. Other places to check are Reuters and the BBC. These are the sorts of events that highlight our shared humanity. There are many ways to help, including the Japanese Red Cross (donate through google) and Doctors Without Borders. Our hearts go out to the people impacted by this tragedy. Science is a particularly international endeavor. I have friends and colleagues in Japan, and thankfully they and their families appear to be okay (although shaken). Many thousands have not been so lucky. We have scenes of complete devastation of the Japanese homeland coupled with ongoing concern of radiation exposure. Echoes of a previous time are unmistakable and unavoidable. I've put together the following montage (on the left is Hiroshima in 1945, on the right is Sendai today):

I am by no means trying to imply that these events are in any way equivalent. They most certainly are not. But the images are scary, and give a sense of the scale of the disaster.

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