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.


See more on Goodreads

Under a night sky

Stars 3

Despite knowing embarrassingly little about it, I’m so fascinated by the universe.

Stars. Planets. Black holes. Meteors. Gravity.

How much do I regret not paying any attention in my science classes growing up? At some point in my academic career, I determined I didn’t have any aptitude in them. That they weren’t my thing. I wasn’t a math girl, a physics girl; I was a writer. I read books.

I should have known I didn’t have to choose, but I was lazy. I didn’t try.

But, you know. It’s too late for regrets. And the good thing? Though I’m seven years out of college and far longer from high school (!), the quest for learning continues. In the bold digital age, I can learn anything I want with enough time and patience.

It’s pretty awesome, actually.

Spence joined a local astronomy club a few years back, and I’ve gone with him twice to hang out in the observatory and check out the moons and rings of Jupiter in their humongous telescope. Unfortunately, both times have been freezing cold — and I’m a total weakling. After a few hours in the chilly air with hands that have gone numb, I’m out.

But before I reached that point on Saturday, I was able to play around with some long-exposure photography of the night sky. Nothing I saw really comes across well in an image, unfortunately; I’d need some serious skills and probably superior equipment for that.

But what I can try to express? What it feels like to stand beneath an open expanse of sky, where the stars burn brighter than I’ve ever seen them. I stand in the cold, exhale; I think, I am here. I think again of the pale blue dot, of being one human being at a specific point in time in a vast, unpredictable universe.

Sometimes it makes me sad, and other times . . . well, it makes me want to do something. Be something.

I like the latter better.

Stars 2

Being married to a scientist is a challenge — in a good way — and I revel in the opportunities Spence has to share his knowledge with me. For a while, that intimidated me; my husband just has such a different skill set, you know? Where I excel in the arts and humanities, focusing on language and history and philosophy, he is so grounded in the practical world.

But still, we work. Mostly because we both love to learn, I think, and we’re always learning from each other. I talk to him about famous authors, The Great Gatsby, the outcomes of wars, the culture of far-flung nations. He tells me about gravity and Tesla coils and currents.

And what Spencer can’t tell me, I look up on Wikipedia.

It works.

Stars 1

Blinding me with science


Einstein quote on our bookmark favors.

One of the wedding projects I’m most excited about has to be our table names.

Ever the classy geeks, Spence and I agreed early on that it would be fun — delightful, even! — to label our guest tables for famous writers and scientists instead of traditional numbers, an homage to our individual passions. I won’t unveil all my literature-themed choices just yet, but the physicists? Well, I’ll spoil a few of them.

If you’re anything like me, science remains a nebulous idea that brilliant minds ponder while I eat cupcakes and watch “Downton Abbey.” The fact that I’m marrying a physicist remains a source of hilarity, especially because I barely passed a chemistry class in high school. (Never made it to physics.) Our educational backgrounds vary wildly and are often entertaining topics of conversation, especially because my science-minded questions tend to go like this:

“So what is physics, exactly?”
“How big is the universe?”
“What’s the difference between ‘theoretical’ and ‘experimental’?”
“Is your work like ‘The Big Bang Theory’?” (Answer: yes and no.)

Because many of our guests may not be familiar with Robert Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman or James Clerk Maxwell (ain’t no shame in it), I’ve started crafting table tents to sit on the appropriately-named tables. There will be cards for the writers, too, but most of my choices — like William Shakespeare — should be familiar to friends and family.

The scientists, though? The scientists? Spencer’s hand-selected choices might as well be in a foreign language. Here’s a sentence I actually just typed, with help from Wikipedia:

“An American theoretical physicist who assisted in the construction of the atomic bomb, Richard Feynman is known for his work in the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, the theory of quantum electrodynamics, and the physics of super-fluidity of supercooled liquid helium.”

Um, whut?

Look, I know I’m not dumb. I’m an editor, a columnist — a well-read, frizzy-haired dynamo. But when it comes to anything scientific, I’m the one standing there scratching her head like a cartoon character.

I could fall down the Wikipedia rabbit hole all day, clicking on endless topics to sort out concepts others spend years studying . . . or, to simplify my life, I could just go ahead and pester my fiance about them.

He’s so cute when he tries to explain quantum mechanics to me.

The meaning of a dot


At a photography club meeting last Saturday, a friend showed a dark, unusual image at the end of a presentation. I squinted at the screen, wondering what he could possibly be showing us, as Jeff asked the group if we recognized the photo. A few people did.

It’s Earth, he explained — our home. A “Pale Blue Dot” in the vastness of space. And then he read aloud a passage from astronomer Carl Sagan. It was one of the most powerful pieces I’ve ever heard.

We talk about more than photos at our montly gatherings — though the subject is certainly steeped in photography. Pale Blue Dot is a picture of Earth taken from 3.7 billion miles away. Captured in 1990, you may have heard of it — but I’ll confess I never had. (This upsets my scientist fiance, I’m sure.) In the days since Jeff showed us Pale Blue Dot, it’s been ricocheting around in my mind . . . as has Sagan’s passage from the book of the same name:


“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity — in all this vastness — there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Home. Our little sliver of the universe.

Sometimes thoughts are too big to begin to contain them. This is probably one. But as someone always prone to asking too many Big Questions, it’s gotten me thinking — and thinking — and I felt it worth sharing.

Even on the bad days, even on the tragic days, even on the scary days . . . I’m glad we’re all here. Together.

Blending art and science

It should come as a surprise to exactly no one that Spencer and I will be throwing a literature-and-science-inspired wedding. The idea struck me like lightning! Or, like, I don’t know . . . a jolt from a Tesla coil.

I am a writer. My fiancé is a scientist. We want a day that will marry (haha, marry — puns!) our different interests and backgrounds — and having a day inspired by those two passions just feels right.

To be honest, I like that we’re such different people. The whole arts/physics thing really balances us out. While I can be zany and introspective, Spencer is rational and steadfast. His math- and logic-oriented brain sees quandaries in a completely different way than I do, and I like that I can depend on him to offer a fresh perspective.

And he’s creative, too.

Writing out table numbersAs we probe deeper into our theme and start buying materials for the reception, I’ve been thinking about how I want our literature-and-physics idea to play out. If you hang out on my overstuffed Pinterest wedding board occasionally, you’ll probably see a bevy of book centerpieces — and for good reason. We’ve already chosen to use a stack of books for the main focal point on each table, and we’re planning to use Erlenmeyer flasks as the vases for our petite floral arrangements. Tables will be named for famous writers or scientists — and I’ve started drafting my favorite authors list (pictured above!). There’s so much more to do, but this is really the fun stuff.

My friend and officemate Sandy is a godsend. With her creative eye, generosity and talent, we’re coming up with an entire scheme that will blend our two backgrounds into one beautiful day — and she’s helping with all the flowers. I’ve decided I’m obsessed with the ranunculus, a peony-like flower, and just have to figure out where to obtain such a weird-sounding bud. The red ones are my favorites.

I totally need more ranunculus in my life. A ridiculous amount of ranunculus!

Full moon

Unless I’m worried about a werewolf attack (which, you know — I’m totally not), I rarely pay much attention to the moon. It’s there, and I’m grateful — especially if it doesn’t get any closer and cause a reaction severe enough to plunge us into unnatural winter. And other disasters.

I never worry about these things, anyway. Like, ever. Um.

Saturday’s full moon was bright, big and unmistakable. After a full day at photography boot camp, I was ready to put some of my newly-acquired knowledge to use. But because I stubbornly refuse to use a tripod, I was fighting with camera shake. Eh. Regardless, I was able to hand-hold a shot well enough to capture the above, my best view of the moon to date . . . and though it’s nothing compared to this, I was pretty impressed. And feeling good.

Until my scientist boyfriend discovered I didn’t know the moon’s “glow” is really just reflected sunlight. And then I was playfully mocked.

Guess I should have stayed awake a little more in science class.

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!