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  • The Problem I Am Having Is One of Scale
  • Emily DePrang (bio)

Radiation is everywhere, steaming off of almost every organic thing on Earth. It is heat, light, ultraviolet light, the invisible cosmic barrage, sunlight and moonlight, stoplight, night-light, X-ray, microwave, radio wave. You are slowly and slightly irradiated each time you sleep next to another human being. No amount of radiation is considered safe, but the only kind of radiation that is known to do rapid and irreparable harm is ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation isn’t a different substance from non-ionizing radiation; it is the same stuff, most often photons. But the amount of energy in each individual photon is such that it can knock free an electron, creating free radicals. Free radicals, a romantic-sounding term, are unstable elements in the body that accumulate and disrupt, causing cells to self-destruct (apoptosis) or else reproduce with deranged DNA (mutation).

Some kinds of radiation can be blocked by a sheet of paper or aluminum foil or a hat. Some kinds require three inches of lead. Some kinds of exposure can be effectively handled by brushing off one’s clothes.

The water at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station burns.

On Thursday night, March 10, 2011, Jeffrey was playing video games, and I was in bed with my laptop on my knees. The bed sat on a thin, matted blue carpet laid over an adobe floor. Under the floor was the Earth, specifically the North American Plate, one of the seven or eight large tectonic plates that make up the lithosphere, the crunchy top layer of the Earth. The North American Plate on which I sat extends east to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, and west all [End Page 71] the way to Siberia. It and its kin drift and bump along over the asthenosphere, the hot and viscous part of the upper mantle, traveling about ten centimeters a year or less. About 6,000 miles west of our adobe house, the edge of the North American Plate meets the tiny Othotsk Plate, which is shaped like a fox’s head with an extra-long nose, and upon which most of the other major plates converge, leaning hard into and peeling away—the Pacific, Eurasian, Amurian, Philippine, and the North American, upon which I ride.

It was almost eleven; I was getting sleepy. I took a multivitamin fortified with folic acid. Six thousand miles west, the Pacific Plate had been sliding under the Othotsk Plate for a long time, pulling it down the way a thumb pulls down a page as it flips past. When the thumb gets all the way past the page, the page springs up, and on Thursday night in Tucson, Friday afternoon in Japan, the Othotsk Plate sprang up, making a break in the sea floor tens of kilometers long, sending it lunging upward several meters. The energy released could power a city the size of Los Angeles for a year. The energy released tossed a 2,600-ton ship over a mile. It moved Japan’s main island west about eight feet. It shifted the Earth’s figure axis over six inches, accelerating the Earth’s spin and shortening our days by an estimated 1.8 microseconds. It was the largest recorded earthquake in Japanese history.

Jeffrey and I slept like babies. We woke in dry beds. Several nights later, I would dream in flickering, insomniac dreams that I was standing in the doorway of our bedroom watching us sleep and the black water came, quiet and rushing, licking at the bedposts and crawling up the coverlet, and we slept as it swirled around us, cold and inky. But that would be after I’d watched the news. I didn’t even know about the earthquake and tsunami until Saturday. Someone posted a video on Facebook.

A tsunami wave looks just like a normal wave coming in. It even breaks in the same place on the beach. A German tourist points his camera at the panoramic white crest peeling away from itself in the middle distance and says, “Look, you can see the waves breaking.” But it isn’t waves; it...


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