Thursday, July 24, 2008

Danger scale

I've been reading Steven Pinker's bestseller about language, published back in 1994, entitled The Language Instinct. It is indeed an excellent and refreshing book, which insists upon the fact that humans are not really taught to communicate by language, even though many parents surely imagine that their children would never have learned to speak were it not for the teaching efforts of their parents... who've often made a huge effort to become experts in "baby talk", believing naively that this was the only way of being understood by their toddlers. No, as Pinker's title suggests, the basic capacity to use language is a human instinct shared by every individual. The proof that our linguistic ability is instinctive is the fact that we say many things that have probably never been said before. So, how could we have been taught to make such statements?

Anecdote. Many years ago, I encountered briefly an exceptional woman: the English philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe, a world authority on the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein [1889-1951], whose mysterious and celebrated Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus had fascinated me when I was a student back in Sydney. Anscombe, closely linked to friends in Brittany who shared her Catholic faith, told us a weird story about one of her sons who had never uttered a single sound up until the age of four. One day, unexpectedly, he proclaimed loudly in perfect English: "Mother, you must punish my brother, for he just tried to lock me up in a wardrobe." Stupefaction! From then on, he spoke normally, as if some kind of a mental dam had been unclogged. This trivial anecdote would have probably never impressed me so much were it not for the associations between Anscombe and Wittgenstein.

Recently, I was fascinated by a TV documentary concerning the amazing story of the Israeli crooner Moshe Brand, who was a French celebrity under the name of Mike Brant, up until he jumped to his death from the balcony of a building in Paris. He too, as a child in Israel, never pronounced a single word. Then, at the age of four, he suddenly started to speak in Hebrew, revealing an exceptionally powerful and beautiful vocal tone that would contribute later to his international success as a singer.

Getting back to Pinker's book, I'm amused by his debunking of the silly myth about Eskimos having a huge variety of words for snow. The truth of the matter is that Eskimos probably use fewer words than a run-of-the-mill Alpine skier to talk about various kinds of snow.

When I arrived in France, I was intrigued by cases of a single English word being replaced by two or more French terms. For example, whenever an English-speaking person talks about finding bones [in French: os] in his fish dish, French observers are greatly amused. They imagine, say, a humble trout with a huge thigh bone. The correct French word for the bony things you find in a fish skeleton is arête.

Another stumbling block was the word scale. In a measurement context—for example, in maps—the French equivalent is échelle, which is also the word for ladder. But in music, when referring, say, to the scale of C major, a quite different word appears in French: gamme. Apparently, this new word has something to do with the Greek letter gamma. So, back at the time I was taking guitar lessons in Brussels, not only did I have to replace C, D, E by do, , mi, etc, but I had to force myself to refrain from speaking, say, of the échelle de do majeur.

The subject I wanted to evoke today (after taking quite some time to get around to it) is danger scales for potentially catastrophic events. To start the fireball rolling, let's say that everybody has heard of the famous Richter scale for earthquakes. As strange as it might appear, this logarithmic scale has no upper limit. Consequently, we could never refer to an earthquake of "the greatest possible magnitude", because there would be always be room at the top of the scale for an even more disastrous earthquake. That's nice scientific rigor, but I wouldn't feel like buying a used car from an earthquake scientist who told me that the vehicle required no more than a couple of minor repairs.

I wonder how many people are aware of a similar scale for accidents in the domain of peaceful nuclear energy, known as the INES. Now Ines, pronounced een-ess, happens to be an elegant French female Christian name of Greek etymology, meaning "pure and virginal", which I've encountered once or twice. But the INES that concerns me today is an acronym for the International Nuclear Event Scale, whose eight degrees extend upwards from zero to seven, from green to red.

As I pointed out in my articles of 17 June 2007 entitled Nice TV spot [display] and 27 December 2007 entitled Nuclear energy [display], France is covered with a relatively dense system of nuclear reactors run by a state-owned corporation named Areva, whose president is Anne Lauvergeon. Well, over the last fortnight, several minor accidents have occurred. The first was at the Tricastan site on the Rhône.

Many years ago, Christine and I spent some time there, when it was still thought of as the Pierrelatte center for refining the stuff with which you make atomic bombs. I was participating as a computing instructor in a job skills recycling program aimed at transforming nuclear energy technicians into computerists. I remember, above all, that we were housed in a VIP lodge in the woods, and that the notorious Mistral wind, blowing through the Rhône Valley, drove me mad during my entire stay at Pierrelatte. Indeed, these days, whenever my friends Natacha and Alain extoll the splendors of Provence, I still think to myself: Provence, yes... but Mistral, no!

Over the last fortnight, there have been no less than four accidents in nuclear installations operated by the French electricity authority, EDF. One occurred in the nearby city of Romans, and another in my home département, Isère. We're informed that they were all trivial events on the INES scale... which is nice to know. The latest accident, resulting in the irradiation of a hundred Tricastin employees, was of level zero on the INES scale. A French journalist, not accustomed to the habit (derived from computing) of starting to count with zero, asked rhetorically whether the nuclear authorities might end up trying to convince us that we're faced with negative dangers from their reactors!

There is, in fact, a competent French government agency, called ASN [Nuclear Safety Authority], in charge of safety and security in the nuclear energy domain. [Click their logo to access English-language documentation.]

Funnily enough, we're faced with a similar situation to the doping affairs in cycling, as sketched in my article of 18 July 2008 entitled Half empty or half full? [display]. If we seem to be hit suddenly by an avalanche of nuclear incidents, this doesn't necessarily mean that the whole engineering infrastructure is deteriorating. On the contrary, these danger alerts stem no doubt from the fact the security and detection processes are becoming more and more refined and intense. So, let's be optimistic.

1 comment:

  1. France is never touched by nuclear accidents.

    Remember Chernobyl: the radioactive clouds decided to stop at the border between Germany and France.
    As for Tricastan: the radioactive pollution decided to stop just 30 cm above the phreatic surface (so we were told on TV news), in order to protect the people living in the area.

    Don't worry, be happy - the government takes care of you.

    In "my" parc (André Citroën) the balloon which takes tourists up in the sky is supposed to be also a balloon informing you about the quality of the air in Paris (white: OK, orange: so and so, red: bad. Or something like this - I don't really remember all colors, just the interpretation of white).

    Every time I see this balloon up in the sky, it is white. I don't know if it is Delanoë's propaganda, but I can tell you that sometimes, when the balloon says "white", it is not true at all. I'm able to smell/feel air pollution through every pore of my body, but I don't care, since I'm not affected by this any more. I suppose I'm immunised because I lived several years - in the 70s - in Ludwigshafen (Germany) nearby the BASF factory. It happened very often that we couldn't open our windows for several weeks because of the smell and the air pollution.

    Anyway, to cut a long story short: I just wonder who (and how) decides about scales. Another example: I had a Red Bull today. Normally, I can't drink more than 2 cups of coffee a day, otherwise I'm ill (my heart/ brain don't work properly any more). After my Red Bull (equivalent of 30 cups of coffee, so Roselyne says) I'm still fine...

    Some scales seem to be subject to ideological/political ideas and not at all based on objective scientific surveys.