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Scientist Citizen: Cecile Pineda's Devil's Tango: How I Learned the Fukushima Step by Step

A “scientist citizen” is a layperson, an ordinary citizen, who acquires scientific literacy to exercise the right and duty of a citizen to work for the well being of all members of society.

The example I present here is Cecile Pineda, novelist and theatrical producer, whose anti-nuclear activism is based on extensive research into the history of nuclear reactors and radioactive waste.[1] Devil's Tango [25] was published on March 11, 2012. It is crammed with facts and figures about fallout from the Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear accidents, about the process of building nuclear reactors from the mining of uranium to the storing of nuclear waste (including CO2 emissions at every stage of this process), and about interconnectedness between the production of nuclear weapons and the production of nuclear energy, how depleted uranium from nuclear power plants has been recycled into weapons deployed in the Gulf War, the Iraq War, and the War on Terror in Afghanistan and elsewhere.

In lieu of providing a footnote for every single piece of information that she discovered or rediscovered to write this book, Pineda opts for a reader-friendly yet robust style of citation. Distributed throughout the 200 pages of Devil's Tango are roughly 80 parenthetical citations of books, articles, or websites, and 30 substantial quotations, of which many are from sources not included in the eighty citations. Nineteen pages of reference material are provided at the end of the book. This bibliography includes a list of permissions and acknowledgments, and an appeal for donations to the Fukushima Information Center for Saving Children from Radiation/Citizens' Radioactivity Measuring Station, while also identifying:

• 30 organizations which provide information on nuclear energy (such as the Federation of American Scientists, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Union of Concerned Scientists)

• 17 websites concerning nuclear energy (such as Nuclear Resource and

Information Service, The Fukushima Project (at SimplyInfo), The Energy Net, and Depleted Cranium (which seems basically pro-nuclear))

• 18 activist organizations

• 40 books

• 48 articles.

Yet no matter how extensive or reliable Pineda's investigation into nuclear accidents and radioactive waste, her scientist citizenship does not emerge through research alone. Acquisition and deployment of scientific literacy is motivated by a certain concept of citizenship, and Pineda sets up two sensory exercises, at the start and end of Devil's Tango, respectively, to indicate what this concept is. As we will see, scientist citizenship means protecting the lunchbox.

In March 2009, the spacecraft Kepler was launched from Cape Canaveral to search for other Earth-like planets where life as we know it might exist. Planets sighted by Kepler's telescope become archived as KOIs: Kepler Objects of Interest. In November 2013, based on data collected by Kepler, it was calculated that some 8.8 billion Earth-size planets occupy the “habitable zone” of the Milky Way galaxy [27]. Two years earlier, a team of astrophysicists at UC-Berkley had already begun looking at 86 KOIs in particular from among these potential

8.8 billion [28]. In the first chapter of Devil's Tango, called “Habitable Zones,” Pineda asks us to think about these 86 planets in a particular way. First, we are asked to imagine each of them containing their own evolutionary history of life, an evolution from one-celled organisms into flowering plants and eventually into intelligent beings with the ability to use tools, compose music, and speak languages. Then we are asked to imagine what it would sound like if all the speech and music produced by inhabitants of these 86 planets were heard at the same time. But whether we want to attempt such a feat of imagination or not, Pineda points out that even the combined sounds of these 86 planets would only amount to 1/600,000,000th of the total sound produced by all neighboring galaxies, and therefore we cannot even begin to imagine how small the sound of our 86 planets would be in comparison to the total sound of the entire universe. Pineda opens Devil's Tango with this experiment in imagination to remind us that Earth comprises no more than a mere speck of life within the entire universe of space and time, and yet, our love for life on this particular planet is infinitely weightier and more enduring than a speck of space and time. We can supplement Pineda's exercise by trying to visualize any form of newborn existence, whether plant or animal. As soon as we conjure up the most familiar images of flower buds or young leaves on a tree, or creatures hatching from their eggs, we are reminded that new life is utterly fragile and miraculous, and appeals to us for protection. This is the frame of mind—wonder and humility when witnessing the gift of life, and a sense of responsibility for the well being of all living things—that undergirds scientist citizenship.

At the end of Devil's Tango, in the chapter called “What the Light Was Like,”[2] Pineda presents us with another sensory exercise to complement the first one. This time we are asked to imagine a scene called up from the author's past— her memory of gazing at trees bathed in sunlight. Pineda recalls how she was able to comprehend the passage of time by watching how the light moved across a grove. The light embraced in turn each tree and every part of each tree as the earth turned on its axis, a movement normally imperceptible to us yet on that day made perceptible to her through attentiveness to the caressing passage of sunlight over trees.

Both of Pineda's sensory exercises are telling us to direct our gaze away from outer space toward this beautiful planet that we already inhabit, because without total regard for Earth, we risk destroying it beyond repair. Especially in the episode of remembering how sunlight moved across a grove, Pineda calls attention to the miracle of in/finite space and in/finite time that we are always capable of perceiving in the here and now. These sensory exercises re-inscribe a scientist's understanding of in/finite space and in/finite time in the language and point of view of a poet. For although space and time are foundational concepts in all fields of inquiry, philosophy, art, science, and social science have different ways of representing and thus comprehending space and time. The sensory images comprising Pineda's instructions for imagining the amplitude of 86 planets and thereby re-cognizing our commitment to planet Earth, and the sensory images comprising Pineda's instructions for seeing what she saw on that day of sunlight passing over trees, come from the discipline of poetry and exemplify her placement of the poet's toolbox in the service of the lunchbox. The most prominent example of Pineda's poetic language is of course the metaphor “devil's tango,” which is used to illuminate the fact that nuclear history records a dance with death—Homo sapiens' apparent addiction to nuclear technology no matter how great its known record of devastation and irreversible damage.

Poetic language is not something for writers or literature scholars only, but is part and parcel of the language skills needed by a nuclear engineer—by any scientist or technician—to communicate specialized knowledge to laypersons, by virtue of the fact that poetic language is the primary language through which we comprehend and express the beauty of life and the gift of human being. To be a nuclear engineer without literacy in poetic language is to be like a computer with a voice, able to speak one's expert knowledge but devoid of any context of lived life as Homo sapiens. The same holds true for laypersons. Without acquiring literacy in the data, vocabularies, and concepts that comprise, represent, and valorize the work of scientists, laypersons cannot properly understand, evaluate, or improve their physical environment. Responsible citizenship in a post-Fukushima Daiichi world requires that each layperson have literacy in science, and that every scientist or engineer have literacy in poetic language.

Dear nuclear engineers, I am trying to convey two points about Devil's Tango.

The fi concerns Pineda's ethics of communication. She is an artist and writer who instructed herself to acquire a scientist's knowledge and vocabularies. Doing so did not require her to discard or demote her expert knowledge and skills as a poet. She operated on the assumption that the domain of science was not separate from or intrinsically superior to the domain of language arts, and that the two domains of knowledge must speak to each other or risk degradation and death to both. She used her expertise as a poet to communicate certain truths about science and technology that may not be readily perceived or admitted by scientists and engineers. For example, that certain forms of technological or scientifi “progress” (nuclear energy is one of them) create toxic byproducts with life spans of millions of years; that some things whose origins are beyond human memory, like a grove of trees basking in sunlight for generations, are beautiful and necessary to our lives simply because they are old-fashioned, that is: fashioned in a space and time, and embodying a mode of life, that precede and exceed the conceptual categories and practices of modern science. This is not a rejection of science and technology per se, but an invitation to scientists and engineers to reconfi whether their activities protect or degrade the lunchbox.

Hence my second point about Devil's Tango: I would like to suggest that it, and other books like it, become required reading for nuclear engineers. Understanding and appreciating what this book says does not depend on having a brain “wired” for poetry. Homo sapiens are, already, wired for both poetry and science to a remarkable degree. Rather, it's a question of attitude. If scientist citizenship begins by assuming that scientific literacy is necessary for ordinary life, citizen science cannot develop without a reciprocal assumption that the regard for life expressed in Devil's Tango is necessary to one's professional life as a nuclear engineer. When I first mentioned this book to Joonhong at some point during 2013, and before I had read it myself, I was surprised (and then not surprised, after all) to hear that he already owned a copy and had put it in the bag he carried to work everyday to make sure he got it read. Later he told me that while he could not agree with everything Pineda said, he respected her endeavor. The significance of this action (reading the book all the way through, making it a priority to do so) and response (partial disagreement anchored in respect for the other's point of view) cannot be overstated. It means that a nuclear engineer met an anti-nuclear activist halfway in an attempt to overcome entrenched oppositions between those working within the nuclear industry and those who seek to abolish nuclear energy altogether. If experts and laypersons both step forward to meet each other halfway, communication is possible and becomes productive.

  • [1] Four years before the publication of Devil's Tango, Pineda wrote and produced Like Snow Melting in Water, a play based on a true story about the Japanese village of Ogama, located on the Noto peninsula in Ishikawa prefecture. In 2006, Ogama's eight remaining elderly residents decided they had no choice but to move out, and sold their village to the Tashima Company, which planned to turn Ogama into a site for burying toxic waste [26].
  • [2] Pineda [25], 202.
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