The evening news report was examining the history of unreported radiation leaks and safety problems at Fukushima Daiichi and other Japanese nuclear plants run by the Tokyo Electric Power Company, also known as TEPCO.
That name...TEPCO...it sounded so familiar. Then it struck me. I'd read about TEPCO several years ago, while doing some historical research into Maine. It was one of the companies that in 1969—unbelievable as this may sound—nearly succeeded in building a nuclear power plant and an aluminum refinery on the doorstep of Acadia National Park.
The plant and refinery were planned for the shore of Union River Bay in Trenton, a small town adjacent to Bar Harbor that bills itself as the Gateway to Acadia National Park. Pamelia and I live in Trenton. We look out at the mountains of Acadia and see, well, much of the wildlife and natural beauty you read about in this blog. Her mother's 1934 cottage sits on Union River Bay. The idea that anyone ever could have considered erecting here two potential environmental nightmares (on top of the radiation dangers of a nuclear plant, aluminum smelting is a serious source of air pollution) seems unfathomable to us.
The heroes of this story are John Cole and Peter Cox. They were the editor and publisher, respectively, of the Maine Times, which Time magazine, in its October 1969 account of the Trenton nuclear saga, described as "a unique statewide paper that tirelessly harasses would-be wreckers of Maine's environment." Cole and Cox, in Time's words, "lambasted the [nuclear] developers and explained precisely how their plans could pollute Trenton's air, land and water."
Keep in mind that in 1969, the environmental movement was only a few years old. There was no Clean Air Act. There was no Environmental Protection Agency. The country was in a recession and—as today—the pressure to create jobs and boost local economies was considerable. And yet the voters of Trenton, the last obstacle standing in the way, voted 144-77 to reject the nuclear plant and aluminum smelter.
I'm waiting to receive, through inter-library loan, a copy of a hard-to-find book that features the Maine Times's coverage of the whole episode. When I get it, I'll give you more details about the original plans for the plant and the smelter and why Trenton was chosen as the site.
Fortunately, given that we will almost certainly need more nuclear energy in the decades ahead, the technology has improved tremendously since 1969. Lessons from the Japan calamity will help make future plants safer—though no such facility should ever be built a few miles from a national park. If you're wondering, not one nuclear plant has been constructed in the U.S. in the last 30 years. Among several now on the drawing board is at least one on the Texas Gulf Coast that is to be built by a consortium of companies, including TEPCO.
Tilt! Tilt! Tilt!
As spring arrives at 7:21p.m. Eastern time on Sunday, think big. Envision the Earth. Remember that rather than being perfectly perpendicular to the Sun, our planet is always tilted at about 23.4 degrees. In winter, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted away from the Sun, and so—even though the Earth is 3 million miles closer to the Sun in January than it is in July—our weather is colder. In summer, our hemisphere is tilted toward the Sun, which rises farther overhead and (even though it's farther away) brings us beach weather and sunburns.
You may have read that the earthquake in Japan literally shifted the mass of the Earth and has caused the planet to spin slightly faster. Each day is now 1.8 microseconds (that's less than two millionths of a second) shorter than it used to be. This may seem startling, but in fact the speed of the Earth's rotation hasn't been constant throughout the planet's almost 4.6-billion-year history. In the early years of the Earth, the planet revolved much faster—once every six hours. Hence that was the length of each day.
It's a fun exercise to imagine what our daily routines would be like now if instead of living in a 24/7 world we lived in a 6/7 one.
The Indoor-Outdoor Woodchuck
One of the small pleasures of living in this part of Maine is reading the Nature column written each week by author, musician and long-time naturalist Ruth Grierson. It appears in the Mount Desert Islander, one of the three weekly newspapers that (along with the Bangor Daily News) provide this area with outstanding local coverage. This week Ruth wrote about (among other topics—she always hits several in a column) the emergence of woodchucks from hibernation. "The woodchuck is not everyone's favorite animal, but I like them," she wrote.
I knew that the woodchuck is a rodent; Ruth noted more specifically that it is the largest member of the squirrel family in New England. "Like many humans, they have a perpetual weight problem," she wrote, "spending six months fattening up and then six months losing weight."
Ruth always adds a nice personal touch. She recalled in her column that "many years ago my husband and I had a small woodchuck living in our small house with us. It was very tame and we didn't think it would be a problem until one day I came home from teaching school and found that it had chewed the leg off a chair and had almost severed a lamp cord...That afternoon the woodchuck moved outside."
I can't find an online link to Ruth's columns, but if I do I'll pass it along.
Answers to Last Puzzler:
The jumbled words, when unscrambled, are:
1) papaya (aappay)
2) oriole (leiroo)
3) thrush (hursth)
4) eagle (legae)
5) worms (mosrw)
6) lightning (glinngith)
This one (borrowed from the late running guru and brainiac Jim Fixx) is in honor of the British explorer Sir Richard Burton, who would have turned 190 years old today:
An explorer is captured by vengeful natives. They tell him this: "Make a statement. If what you say is true you will be hanged. If it is false you will be shot." What can the explorer say to save his life?
B.F. Skinner, the influential Pennsylvania-born behaviorist who has been described as the most celebrated psychologist since Sigmund Freud, would have turned 107 on Sunday. Skinner believed that behavior is shaped by the positive or negative reinforcement an animal receives for that behavior. His theories have been influential in many fields, including education, where they caused emphasis to be placed more on positive reinforcement than on punishment. Skinner, who thought Freud's study of the unconscious motives for our behavior was a waste of time, was criticized for seemingly eliminating free will from the explanation for how people act. He envisioned creating, through positive reinforcement, a more utopian society and said that one of his goals was to help save humankind from destroying itself. He left that particular task unfinished.
William Morton Wheeler, the Milwaukee-born myrmecologist and entomologist who became the world's leading authority on social insects, would have been 146 years old today. His interest in animals began to flourish when he was a boy and was sent to a school that had a small natural history museum (perhaps a sort of old-fashioned Naturalist's Notebook without the cool stuff for sale?). I know you're wondering, so here's the answer: Myrmecology is the study of ants. And entomology is the study of insects, not to confused (as it frequently is in my own brain) with etymology, the study of word origins.
Ovid, the great Roman poet, would have been 2054 years old on Sunday. He was not what you'd call a naturalist writer. He was more into the theme of love, though in his history-of-the-world epic, the Metamorphoses, he did describe ancient god-driven natural forces and people being turned into creatures such as wolves and spiders. I'm intrigued by a short work that has sometimes been attributed to him, called Nux, or The Walnut Tree. In it, a walnut tree talks to some delinquent boys and asks them to stop throwing rocks at his branches to try to knock his nuts off. I think that sounds like a wonderful parable of mankind's treatment of nature (and a side-splitting joke for schoolboys to tell each other), but the consensus seems to be that, alas, Ovid didn't actually write it; one of his lesser contemporaries did.
Maud Menten, the Canadian scientist who helped shape the field of biochemistry, would have been 132 on Sunday. Menten and colleague Leonor Michaelis came up with the groundbreaking Michaelis-Menten equation, which gave researchers a way to measure and record the reactions of enzymes (the proteins that serve as catalysts for virtually all metabolic events in the body, including the making of DNA). One observer has noted that the development of most drugs in this century would not have been possible without Michaelis and Menten's breakthrough. Menten also did pioneering work in isolating and analyzing proteins, those crucial building blocks of the body. Described as a petite dynamo who drove a Model T for 32 years, she spoke at least six languages, painted superbly and went on mountain-climbing and Arctic expeditions. And, at age 70, she finally earned tenure at the University of Pittsburgh.
Edward Everett Horton, the Brooklyn-born character actor who—as we moose fans know—narrated the "Fractured Fairy Tales" segments on the Bullwinkle and Rocky Show, would have turned 125 yesterday. That cartoon classic's Cold War spoofing and punnery ("Be with us next time for 'Missile While You Work,' or 'Boom With a View...'") was probably more memorable than its insights into either the flying squirrel or the antlered Maine state animal. Why, for example, did Bullwinkle (who was named after a real-life car dealer) wear white gloves? How did he pull lions and bears out of that magician's hat? And did any other moose ever attend Wossamotta U.?
Semi-obscure literary pun in one episode:
Rocky: Bullwinkle, this ship is covered in rubies and look what's written on the side: O-Mar Khay-yam.
Bullwinkle, do you know what this is? Bullwinkle: Well, if you're waiting for me to say it, I won't.
Antique Dealer: Me either.
Rocky: O.K., then this must be...the Ruby Yacht of Omar Khayyam!"