A Field Guide to the Invisible

Yesterday and today I read A Field Guide to the Invisible by Wayne Biddle. Each entry in this book focuses on microscopic or subatomic things around us, some of which are harmless, even helpful, but most of which are dangerous, to put it mildly. We are surrounded by countless inescapable hordes of bacteria, mites, and fungi, but the threats posed by these are minuscule compared to the damage humanity has done, and continues to do, to itself. And even if we were able to erase the vast environmental damage humans have wrought, there's always cosmic radiation and naturally occurring chemical menaces -- at least, that's the view I got when emerging from this fascinating book.

Biddle, however, presents his topics with little editorializing, allowing scientific and historical data to shock and terrify you. For example, compounds called dioxin -- the worst of which is 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzodioxin (TCDD) -- are totally useless chemical byproducts that bioaccumulate, primarily through the food chain. Experiments with TCDD identified it as "the most potent animal carcinogen ever tested," and "no 'safe' low dose has ever been established." According to an EPA estimate, people consume on average 119 pg/day -- "more than 280 times the 'acceptable' dose" (p. 42). Swell. Further, the section on fallout is pretty horrifying, focusing on the coverup of the March 1, 1954 H-bomb explosion over Namu Island. Top officials perpetuated ignorance, lies, and death in the years following that event; shockingly, we still live with the results of nuclear weapons testing: "Fallout is the reason almost every person on Earth carries a bit of plutonium in their bodies" (p. 55). Goodbye, natural living.

Although one might expect a book like this to be alarmist or paranoid, Biddle takes a different approach, explaining the dangers we face with a sense of wonder. Further, there are rare occasions when things aren't as bad as some believe: I was surprised to learn that electromagnetic fields (EMF) don't appear to be harmful (pg. 48-50). And as a slight respite from the bad, the author includes lighter, more benign topics, such as B.O. and noise; even God, thoughts, and zeitgeist receive some attention, though it tends toward brief philosophy.

Elsewhere, I like what Biddle says about neutrinos: "A veritable gale of neutrinos spewed out by nuclear reactions in the Sun, as well as by the collapse of distant stars and other cataclysmic cosmic events, continually roars through our planet. It has been said that neutrinos are about as close as something can come to being nothing, yet they are one of the most pervasive forms of matter in the universe" (pg. 94-95). In fact, out of the 60 billion supernova-produced neutrinos sent through the Earth in February 1987, only eleven were detected (pg. 97-98). I also learned that "cooties" refers to body lice, and that after you remove a cat from your house, it takes at least five months for the cat allergens in the dust to return to non-cat-infested levels (p. 47). If another book with such an eclectic mix of information on invisible things exists, I haven't seen it.

posted at 09:48:00 PM on 03/31/04 by nullibicity - Category: Books


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