We Are All Fools

My friends, these are the times that try our souls. Just last month I was writing with a light heart, and today yours and mine are heavy. I’m glad you’re here to share this with me.

On this April Fool’s Day, my favorite column of the editorial year, I want to speak of what fools we are, and always will remain. I’ve written previously about My Biggest Misteaks, #1 of which has to be my prediction that the iPhone would be the “biggest flop since Ishtar and Waterworld combined”. What can I say? “Often mistaken, never in doubt.” That, and “oops”.

I remember thinking recently that we’d conquered infectious disease, at least in the First World. That most modern Westerners now died of self-inflicted diseases, stemming from our affluent diets and substance usage. My undergraduate classmate, now an infectious disease doctor, had chosen a specialty as moribund as newspaper journalism. Oops again.

Last September, many young people held large rallies ahead of the UN Climate Summit. My daughter enthusiastically joined in, along with most of her engineering school classmates.  Brimming with righteousness, they hiked 4 miles to the trolley station to travel to the rally. “We only have 10 years to reverse it, or we’ll all dead,” she later told me.

If that’s true, we’d better start planning funerals, because it ain’t gonna happen. But the cynic in me can’t help but wonder: who wants to bet that within my lifetime, we’ll be worried about the planet becoming too cold? Nuclear winter from a [hopefully limited] India – Pakistan nuclear exchange, maybe?

But of all reversals in popular wisdom, the biggest has to be the role of nuclear-generated electric power. I remember the No Nukes concert in 1979 – “Split Wood, Not Atoms”, was the slogan. Check out the video of John Hall’s song, popularly called “The Warm Power of the Sun” . Now many of those very same people want to grow more trees to store carbon instead of burning them for heat, and to expand nuclear power as a carbon-free source of electricity. If we’d kept building nukes 40 years ago, we might not be in this climate crunch now. (We’d have other crunches probably, like the Chernobyl and Fukushima meltdowns, but not that one.) Double oops.

You can feel the waves of sanctimony radiating from the stage, the self-righteousness that we hold the One True Truth, that none other is possible, that we are Right and those who disagree with us are Wrong. I knew a guy that summer who’d made a bumper sticker reading “Split Wood AND Atoms.” He was roundly reviled by both sides. The louder we shout that the other guys should shut the heck up, the more likely it is that we’re wrong ourselves.

As we shelter in place on this dark April Fool’s Day, cowering before a submicroscopic virus, I remind us once again: you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can make a fool of yourself anytime. And that the biggest fools of all are those who think they aren’t.  

You want the true warm power of the sun? Here are my lyrics for that song today, sung to the tune of the original:

Just give me the warm power of the sun
Give me the beauty of nuclear fusion
Give me the helium that used to be hydrogen
Just give me the spooky dancing of the quarks
Give me the nuclear strong interaction
But please take all your polluting carbon power away

Everybody needs some power I’m told
The best is fusion whether hot or cold
It drives the sun, and all the other stars too
That electrical repulsion’s so strong
It takes heat and pressure inside a star
To squeeze those nuclei close enough together
That good old Heisenberg can tunnel ’em through

Just give me the warm power of the sun
Give me deuterium-tritium fusion
Give me the pions carrying the field as they come in range
Just give me the curve of binding energy
Give me the spin of an antineutrino
But please take all your polluting carbon power away.

One more thing: Let’s meet for virtual coffee, you and me. Message me here or via email, and we’ll pick a convenient time. It has almost certainly been too long since we’ve sat down together. How about it?

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