Book chat: ‘Midnight in Chernobyl’

Midnight in ChernobylWhat do you know about Chernobyl?

What do you think you know about Chernobyl?

I’ll go first: until a few weeks ago, next to nothing. As the wife of a physicist, I’ve been with Spencer as he “talks science” on many occasions. He’s great at breaking things down when I ask questions, but I usually have to get him to start at the beginning. As an English nerd, I’ve always fashioned myself to be someone only moderately capable of understanding something like a positive void coefficient.

Adam Higginbotham’s stunning Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster changed all that. Not only am I apparently capable of understanding scientific principles a decade-plus after I last set foot in a classroom, but I can enjoy it, too. When Higginbotham is at the helm, at least.

Midnight in Chernobyl opens with the key players of the infamous April 1986 disaster — and that’s fitting, of course, given how many people and oppressive power structures all contributed to the eventual failing of the No. 4 reactor at the power station in Ukraine, then a part of the USSR. I already felt lost in the roll call, but my husband convinced me to stick with it. The names — unpronounceable, at first, to my western ear — all soon came sharply into focus: Akimov. Dyatlov. Brukhanov. Legasov.

It’s not about one person . . . not several people. Not a single system or single failure. Not just a single finger on one fateful button. “The holes in the Swiss cheese lined up,” as they say. And since zero people need a dissertation on Chernobyl from me, I’ll leave you to much wiser folks if you’re interested in the subject matter.

Better yet — read this book! It’s loads more fun than a bunch of Wikipedia entries, I assure you. Even if it is very interesting to see corresponding photos of everything Higginbotham describes.

What’s amazing about that, though, is I already had a thick stack of mental pictures: of the dark, water-filled tunnels beneath the reactor and its deep, burning throat; of the reactor hall blown open, and the people scrambling in its wake. Of the radioactivity so thick that it actually shrouds the bottoms of photos in something like fog. Higginbotham describes everything so poetically, it’s easy to forget we’re talking about nuclear meltdown. About science. This? It reads like literature.

I was hooked.

It’s no surprise that the author is a journalist. The book describes everything in stunning detail; his passion for the subject is evident. The level of research must have been insane. I loved when, toward its final pages, Higginbotham himself entered the narrative, describing the settings of his interviews with Chernobyl scientists still living or spouses left behind, picking up the radioactive wreckage all these years later.

Chernobyl2Now suitably intrigued by Chernobyl, like so many before me, I’ve started watching the acclaimed HBO miniseries after the kids go to bed. Spencer has already watched the whole thing through once (twice?), and it’s not exactly light bedtime viewing . . . it’s disturbing, of course. Incredibly well done and memorable, but not relaxing.

It’s hard to stop once you’ve started, though. From the evacuation of Pripyat — now an extreme tourist destination — to the government cover-ups and human toll eventually collected in Moscow’s Hospital No. 6, it’s impossible to look away from this terrible slice of history.

The show is great, but I didn’t need it to deepen my understanding of Chernobyl. Everything depicted in the show is as I’d imagined from Higginbotham’s writing. Midnight in Chernobyl paints such a vivid picture that I scarcely needed to “see” anything at all.

I won’t forget it. You won’t, either.


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I’m electric!

lightning_strike We all have those fun, carefree memories of careening down giant plastic slides as children, laughing giddily as our hair begins to stick on end through our repeated contact with that industrial-strength plastic. We shocked our siblings with one touch of our little fingers, pretending to hug them when we really wanted to give them the jolt of their lives. I, too, once thought static electricity was fun and harmless; one of those crazy scientific principles we’re actually able to see in everyday life.

But not anymore.

Friends, I have a problem. As soon as the temperatures drop and I start wearing wool clothing and big black boots, a peculiar thing begins to happen: I become tremendously, crazily aware of my own personal force field. I’m a walking lightning strike. Sparks erupt in my wake.

I’m electric.

I’m having a hard time understanding how I’m able to generate so much static electricity. It’s gotten so bad, I have to purposely brush against the doorway to my office with my arm every time I get up, which is about a dozen times a day. If I don’t force myself to get a shock by brushing against the metal doorframe, I run the risk of becoming a personal lightning rod when I turn out the lights in our offices — something I do many times a day (I’m going green). I can literally see blue sparks fly from my tiny, unassuming fingertips to the light switch. It’s scary. It’s painful!

I’ve linked it especially to a particular pair of boots. Trust me, I’m still going around shocking myself all day long when I’m barefoot, but when I throw on this pair of shoes for work and drag my feet across our industrial carpeting, I feel as though I’ve gotten stuck outside in a terrible lightning storm. At this very moment, the tip of my pointer finger is throbbing!

Good ol’ Wikipedia says static electricity is a term from the field of Electrostatics, whereby we are “charged” through continuous contact with other surfaces. Furthermore, so says Wikipedia, “Although charge exchange happens whenever any two surfaces contact and separate, the effects of charge exchange are usually only noticed when at least one of the surfaces has a high resistance to electrical flow (non-conductor/insulator).” I guess that would be my body. And we remain conductors until these static electric charges “bleed off to ground or are quickly neutralized by a discharge.” Unfortunately for me, they’re usually raising all of the hair on my arms and neck until I stick my little finger near a light socket. Then KAPOW! And repeat this fun about ten times a day.

I’m worried I’m incredibly flammable and getting ready to explode any day now. Not to mention when I stop to fill up my gas tank! I push my hand against the body of my car several times before even getting near that gas nozzle. I could blow my town right off the map!

Maybe I’m destined to be a superhero; this is just elementary training for my gathering super-human powers. Either way, I’m going to need a new pair of black shoes!