Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The Addleton Tragedy

Sherlock Holmes
Arthur Conan Doyle wrote fifty-six short stories about his detective hero, Sherlock Holmes.  The narrator, Holmes' companion Dr Watson, regularly tells us that his writings are only a selection form Holmes' case-book, and the hints he drops about Holmes' extra-canonical exploits are endlessly fascinating.  Who could not wish to learn more about "the giant rat of Sumatra, a story for which the world is not yet prepared" (The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire)? Why couldn't the whole story about "the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant" be given to the public (The Veiled Lodger)?  What exactly did Holmes infer from "the depth which the parsley had sunk into the butter upon a hot day" (The Six Napoleons)?  And what were the "singular contents of an ancient British barrow" which gave rise to the Addleton Tragedy (The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez)?

A crowd of chroniclers have stepped in to tell these tales (and many others beside).  Many of their efforts are collected in The Mammoth Book of New Sherlock Holmes Adventures (2009), among which I particularly enjoy Barrie Roberts' reconstruction of the Addleton tragedy, The Mystery of the Addleton Curse. Holmes investigates the mysterious death of an eminent archaeologist, which follows some years after the discovery of a remarkable casket "covered in symbols of death" in a barrow at Addleton, "a stone-built village huddled deep beneath the great square bulk of Addleton Moor".  It transpires that the opening of the barrow was linked both to the death of the archaeologist's son and to strange events in the village itself: diseases, stillbirths, deformities, but also the unexpected healing of a brain tumor.  To underline the point, we learn that no camera can make a photograph of the barrow and that no snow will lie on it.

Mr. Roberts' physics may be a little haphazard but the modern reader will have no difficulty in guessing that some radioactive material was concealed in the barrow.   For Holmes, in 1894, this inference might be a bit trickier, but fortunately we learn that during the Great Hiatus after his escape from crazed math professor and master criminal James Moriarty, his "research...in a laboratory at Montpellier" (The Adventure of the Empty House) had brought him into contact with Henri Becquerel and Pierre and Marie Curie, and that he had learned from them something of their ideas about radioactivity (which were in fact published several years later).  This knowledge gives Holmes the clue he needs to understand the tragedy, save the archeologists' reputation and reassure the villagers that the "Addleton disease" will not recur.

So why do I like this tale so much?  Because it is one of those stories that kicks you in the teeth with the last paragraph, a sonorous, perfectly Watsonian period. Watson, writing twenty-five years after the event, acknowledges that once again his skepticism about Holmes' theories was misplaced, and that indeed "the Curies and Becquerel have richly deserved their Nobel prizes for their efforts in turning a freak of nature to the advantage of mankind."   And then this final sentence:
As to the deadly aspects of Becquerel rays, they are now well understood by scientists.  Now we know their dangers and, unlike our primitive forefathers, we do not have to fear that they will ever be carelessly unleashed upon the world.
The reader is left dangling there, reflecting on the way Watson's Victorian-era optimism rings hollow in the post-1945 era.  How confident, honestly, can we be in our own good intentions, over the long haul?

This story brings into focus for me my central worry about nuclear power production.  I don't honestly know what I think about nuclear power.  As a large-scale, reliable source of zero-carbon energy, it is hard to beat.  (Case in point: France, which made the decision to "go nuclear" in 1974 following the first oil shock, now derives 75% of its electricity from nuclear power, has the least costly electricity in Europe, and is a major exporter of power.)  And it seems to me that the short-term risks of nuclear power are manageable.  The question I have is more about the long-term risks: not to us, but to our grandchildren, and their grandchildren, and so on for centuries.  Investment in nuclear power generation seems to me to be an investment that requires a confidence that the scope of our control of nuclear materials - what in another post I called "social containment" - can be widely extended in time and space, can be pushed far into the future.   Is that confidence justified?   Can we be sure that our descendants a couple of hundred years hence will still know how to manage the decommissioned reactor cores and spent fuel ponds and waste dumps that our nuclear power generation will leave behind?  I am not questioning that we can do that now: I am wondering what are the ethical principles behind the assumption that our successors will be able to do these things too.

Like climate change, this seems in the end to be another question about intergenerational equity.

Illustration: "Twisted lip" by Sidney Paget - http://www.artintheblood.com/twis/twis9.htm. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

1 comment:

Russ Pierson said...

John, I love where you begin, and I find myself there, too:

"I don't honestly know what I think about nuclear power."

And I love where you end, too:

"Like climate change, this seems in the end to be another question about intergenerational equity."

I also wonder if there aren't serious connections to consider between climate change and nuclear power. Certainly Fukushima highlights the dangers of the siting of nuclear power plants, often located as they are along the coast or near rivers. These sites are becoming increasingly precarious in the wake of climate change.

As usual, I love your thoughts and where they take me.