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Markus Stocker

Between information technology and environmental science with a flair for economics, the clarinet, and the world of soups and salads.

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Willard F. Libby had a major role in the development of radiocarbon dating. The significance of Libby’s discovery is captured by the quote below [1]. Radiocarbon (14-C) is formed in the atmosphere, where neutrons generated by cosmic rays react with atmospheric nitrogen (14-N) to form 14-C, whereby 14-N looses one proton for an additional neutron. Radiocarbon quickly oxidizes to 14-CO~2~.

Seldom has a single discovery in chemistry had such an impact on the thinking in so many fields of human endeavor. –Nobel Committee (1960)

Atmospheric nuclear weapons testing in the late 1950s and early 1960s doubled the amount of radiocarbon in the atmosphere [2] and had, thus, a profound impact on radiocarbon geoscience [1] to the point that radiocarbon measurements of post-bomb samples “cannot be considered indicative of an age” [2], as there is no consensus on a standard.

What a disgrace. As someone with an increasing sensibility for the environmental sciences I’m left with little more than a “crazy” for practices such as (atmospheric) nuclear weapons testing. The testing even messed-up a tool such as radiocarbon dating. My “crazy” is, of course, not scientific.

Perhaps there is no argument to make it less of a disgrace. Yet, it just isn’t the whole story. In fact, the consequences of injecting anthropogenic radiocarbon into the biogeochemical system opened “new and unanticipated opportunities to perform global tracer experiments […] to study exchange and transport processes in the atmosphere, the biosphere, and the oceans on a scale that would otherwise have been nearly impossible” [1].

What was it, now, atmospheric nuclear weapon testing? A moment of human foolishness? The reason for opportunities we would not have had else? Something else? Suddenly things are not clear-cut anymore.

They seldom are.

“Japan radiates into cantonal parliament” writes the Swiss Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Two days into the incidents, Swiss political parties are busy defending their own handful views. The green and social democrats call for a pullout from nuclear, the right and liberal want to “keep cool heads”. Predictably clear-cut. In the US, to be democrat is not to be republican, basically. In economics, Keynesian, Marxist, Austrian, or whatever other school, the discourse typically is one of “my view right view”. Some of the most heated discussions I experienced did glow because of the fierce defense of a single view.

To hold onto any particular view is to freeze Reality […]. To take a view is like taking a snapshot — you’ve frozen the scene right there. –Steve Hagen

Instead to comfortably sit on the one-view chair I better learn to walk the more challenging path of never collecting the last one.

[1] L.A. Currie. The remarkable metrological history of 14-C dating: from ancient Egyptian artifacts to particles of soot and grains of pollen. Czechoslovak Journal of Physics, Vol. 53 (2003), Suppl. A

[2] P.J. Reimer, T.A. Brown, and R.W. Reimer. Discussion: Reporting and calibration of post-bom 14C data. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, October 12, 2004.