The Stir of Waters: Radiation, Risk, and the Radon Spa of Jáchymov. By Paul Voosen. Kindle Single
Reviewed by Ann Finkbeiner (guest reviewer)
Jáchymov is an old Czech city set in mountains under which are seams of uranium. The uranium is mined, and through the mines run hot springs -- "hot" both thermally and radioactively. The hot water is piped up into baths for Jáchymov's famous radon (a gas that's a byproduct of uranium) spas. The radon spas are a century old and even now, every year, nearly 20,000 people come to them to bathe and thereby treat a variety of ills. In a normal three-week treatment, the people inhale about 3.5 millisieverts of radiation. That's about forty times the 0.08 millisieverts I received in 1979 before I got in my car and got the hell out of Harrisburg, PA, panicked after the accident at Three Mile Island.
That enormous disconnect between the risk seen by a panicky me and the benefits seen by Jáchymov's customers is what The Stir of Waters is about. My panic about the risk is partly a reflection of the Western world's attitude toward radiation, which is neurotic. The perception of benefit is partly a result of the former Soviet bloc's attitude, which is relaxed and secretive; and partly a result of the relief of the customers' chronic aches and pains, especially for arthritis and auto-immune disorders. So how to balance the risks and benefits of radiation in low doses? Right here, right where you want Science to step out front and adjudicate, Science turns pink and disappears behind the curtains.
Science does know the risks of radiation that's high-dose: experimental subject--from the survivors of Hiroshima to the uranium miners of Jáchymov--die, get sick, get cancers. But scientists can't extrapolate from high dose/lots of sickness to lower dose/less sickness. The low extrapolated numbers of cancers that people might be getting after medical X-rays or radon spas get lost in the numbers of the cancers that people get normally. Scientists can't quantify the risk.
To find "empirical evidence," the author, science writer Paul Voosen, went to Jáchymov, to the Radium Palace, which glowed at night "with an ethereal white light"--except it was fully booked, so he had to settle for the spa hotel that looked like a concrete bunker. His bath was strictly timed. The water was warm, and the tiny radon bubbles were pleasantly prickly. "It was a good bath," he says. The spa keeps medical records on its customers, but doesn't do follow-ups. No empirical evidence. And that's the end.
The book is short, closer to the length of a very long feature article, what's now called long-form writing. As Tom Levenson says here, such stories, which are neither regular features nor baby books, "demand formal structures of their own, with particular demands of organization, of narrative depth, of pace." I absolutely agree, even though I'm not sure exactly what Levenson means: maybe it's an analogy to the way a short newsy story has a different structure, makes a higher cut through the subject, and moves faster than a feature article does.
Nor am I sure I'd be able to control those particular demands myself. I am sure that Voosen didn't; the book felt wobbly, repetitive, aimless. Every aspect of the risk/benefit balance showed up at least twice, in varying levels of detail. The book also had a lot of information about uranium mining, radiation biology, and the history of radiation--when the Curies were isolating radium, they used uranium ore from Jáchymov--all of which I was interested to know. But the story had no strong line pulling the reader through to the end, and in fact, it hardly had an end at all.
We shouldn’t hold this against the author. In the first place, he's otherwise a clear, graceful, friendly writer. In the second place, as Levenson said, the rules of this non-article, non-book story have yet to be sorted out. In the third place, the story isn’t just a new kind of length. It also lives only in electrons. And these new electronic stories are often published without being edited, and that too has to be sorted out: writers need editors.
The Stir of Waters is published by Amazon's Kindle. Amazon lets you download its Kindle editions and read them on your computer which, since I don't have a tablet of any kind, I did. This was the first time I've read an electronic book and didn't hate doing it. You could bookmark your place, which seemed necessary. You could also search the book, tag locations, and make notes--all of which I deeply appreciated as a reviewer but would never do as a reader. It also had a little right-click pop-up definition of whatever word the cursor was on, and by that I was mightily aggrieved.
As electronic books go, Kindles are plain: no hyperlinks or embedded videos, no interactive features, nothing to twiddle or twirl. Would a little animation of an alpha particle busting up some DNA have helped? Or a filmed interview with a radiobiologist? Or a walk through the corridors of the Radium Palace and into the baths? Those all would have been nice and I would have enjoyed them. But I don't think they'd be necessary to the story or deepen my understanding of the risk/benefit problem.
And that's another thing this new long-form, electronic genre has to sort out: the precise value-added of bells and whistles. I've thought about this and gotten almost nowhere. So far, I have one criterion: every bell and every whistle should be as necessary and integral to the story as every character, fact, and detail. I don't want to be sent haring off on a linked tangent showing the laboratory of the Curies; I want to stay in the text, I don't want to go anywhere else. I don't want to be interrupted at all, I want to stay in the river of the story.
So maybe I should stop thinking about text with embellishments. What about some sort of moving story where the text slides in and out of the real places and the real people doing real things? The words merge into atoms which disintegrate into alpha particles which fly off and break a DNA chain which tries to repair itself and can’t, and the person whose DNA is broken asks his radiobiologist whether he’s at risk for cancer and the radiobiologist begins to explain and his words slide back into text which turns into little radon bubbles that tickle the author's skin. Something like that: a story that merges all the media in a single uninterrupted stream.
I can just hear the software developers: “the woman knows nothing about code.”
Ann Finkbeiner is a freelance science writer, teaches in the graduate program in science writing at Johns Hopkins, has most recently written A Grand and Bold Thing, and is co-proprietor of the splendid Last Word on Nothing.