Good King Roger!
A Fairy Tale for Grown-ups
The King of Radsavia was troubled.
Inside the Palace throne room envoys from the Alchemists paced up and down, wringing their hands.
From the streets outside came distant but insistent shouts from
scientists: People are dying out here - the effects of low level radiation are far
worse than you think.
And the public, mistrustful of alchemists, were with the scientists. Revolution was in the air.
The King tried to attend to the Alchemists' case.
Majesty, they said, We have mountains of contaminated junk to dump;
fifteen billion ducats-worth of ever-so-slightly radioactive metal to sell for recycling;
vast tracts of contaminated land to develop, and tons of fuel to re-process. It would
all be so much simpler if we didn't have to protect the public from tiny radiation doses.
After all, Sire, radiation is such an uncertain magic that, even if your subjects do get cancer, no-one can be sure whether it was caused by our alchemy or by natural radiation and people's bad habits - smoking, drinking, and generally passing germs around.
Please, Good King Roger, grant us a boon; issue a Proclamation saying that there is a "Threshold Dose" below which no harm is done? Then we could make so-o much more money and pay so-o-o much more tax into the royal coffers.
But King Roger said What you ask is impossible. I decreed
that there is No Threshold in deference to my Fairy Godmother's warning at the Atoms
for Peace party.
Have you forgotten the Atoms for Peace party?
The courtiers shuddered, remembering vividly ('though it was many years ago) all the adrenaline rush of "Facing the Red Menace with Mutually Assured Destruction"; all the glorious promise of "Electricity too Cheap to Meter". But in their excitement they had failed to invite the Fairy Fallout to the party. She had come anyway riding her trident, ripping through the banners and flags in a holocaust of thunder and scalding black rain, clothed in the stench of rotting flesh, and hung about with garlands of crippled human bones.
Staring over his courtiers' heads King Roger continued: The party was ruined. We had to promise to stop building
nuclear power stations and not to play with the Atom Bombs except in the basement. Only
then would the Fairy Fallout leave.
But my Fairy Godmother told me that she was actually still there - in the party food, in the wine, in the cracks between the floorboards. And worst of all ... worst of all, she said that even the specks of magic dust dancing in the sunbeams had now become reincarnations of the Fairy Fallout. When I was a little boy I used to believe they were messengers from my Fairy Godmother herself.
The King's composure cracked, and there was a pause while he struggled with a sense of lost innocence.
Wait! I have to tell you worse:
Children die from radiation.
When he spoke again his voice wavered, but then gathered strength.
Godmother warned me not to underestimate the danger:-
I cannot go against my Godmother's instructions, said the King. She was telling me there is No Threshold for genetic damage.
"In this world of nuclear magic,
Fallout uses mirror logic;
"DNAWrecker" spells her WAND,
Smashing sub-atomic bonds.
There's no limit to her curse;
the Tiniest of scintillations
May cause cancerous mutations.
Count them, Roger! It's your nation -
You're their king! Make some prognosis
Based upon Collective Doses."
She was also saying it's my Royal duty to assume that every one of those tiny fragments of Fallout may kill somebody, somewhere, someday.
Wait! I have to tell you worse:
Children die from radiation.
In the silence that followed, the scientists in the street could be heard
That's right, your Majesty! And look out for the wands -- there's a big problem with the wands ....
But the alchemists were looking round the room to guage the mood of
the courtiers, for they knew that a King's mind can be changed. No King is impervious
to reason, nor to unreason cleverly argued; and the money thing was a clever
They looked at the Royal Cartwright. They knew him as a friend, since he was in charge of investigating why so many children had been getting cancer but had decided not to find out whether the Fairy Fallout was implicated.
They looked at the General Medical Counsellor, reading his mind from the uneasy way he shifted from foot to foot. He already suspected that his X-ray machine was causing as many breast cancers as it found. And he knew that cancer rates had increased steadily ever since the King had let the Army build and test nuclear weapons, just as he knew that ever since he himself had begun using radioactivity to treat sick people, there had been more and more patients from the parts of the City downwind of the Hospice's incinerator and sewage outfall. The shouts from the street are probably the truth, he thought. But if he were to admit it, he himself would have to answer awkward questions and face restless ghosts. So he just went on shifting his weight from foot to foot and said nothing -- especially not to the Health Physicists, whom he regarded as a bunch of oxymorons.
The Alchemists' gaze took in the Royal Drapers, who were quietly conferring with the Fudge-makers. It took in the Steward of Cancer Statistics, who somehow kept his job despite losing hundreds of records, and COMARE - the Council for Mystical Advice on Radioactive Emissions - who had unquestioningly accepted the Steward's explanation that the records had never existed at all, or if they had existed it was before this particular Steward took office, or if they existed after he took office they were wrong anyway so he'd rubbed them out.
It took in the Royal Statisticians. More friends; when asked to find out about cancer near the Hospice and the Royal Atom Bomb Factory they had all insisted that the low rates upwind balanced out the high rates downwind, so there was nothing to worry about.
The Statisticians' approach to averaging out local risks had given the Alchemists an idea which even they felt was outrageous, but their future wealth depended on it. It depended on it so much, in fact, that they had borrowed heavily on the strength of it and spent a good deal persuading some of the more influential of the King's advisers. Now the presence of so many sympathisers encouraged them to press on.
First they had to prepare the ground.
It is inconceivable Sire, that your noble Fairy Godmother was mistaken, but her warning seems ... how shall we put this? .. somewhat academic.
The Royal Epidemiologists cannot find evidence that radioactivity from our Alchemical works is causing real harm, however hard they look.
At this there was a sudden outburst of protest from the street and the Chief of the Royal
Statisticians, a weedy little fellow, had to make an effort to be heard above
Yes, Sire, he said, screwing up his face and winding his hands together, In relation to radioactivity in the streets, concentrations are very low, which may explain why there is indeed, as the noble Alchemist has said, a continuing lack of definitive scientific evidence of Collective harm. I should also say that where we do see ill health the inferences should generally be advised by caution because there may be problems with bias or lack of statistical power or potential confounding factors and I should also say that the blame could be put on alarmist pressure groups spreading scare stories and making people worry about Collective dose.
What do you mean?, asked the King, narrowing his eyes and wondering whether he himself could
possibly have appointed this unconvincing driveller. You cannot be saying that we
should ignore the possibility of harm from the smallest doses, for that would
upset my Godmother!
There is No Threshold, so logic demands that we must consider Collective Dose.
The Alchemists saw that the Statistician had not done their case any good,
and butted in quickly to regain the advantage:
The problem, Sire, is that no-one can say precisely what harm is done, and that is unfair. If the baker's wife blamed us because she has a tumour in her breast, we would be bound (bound, that is, by duty to our shareholders) to say "You have our deepest sympathy, Madam, but can you prove we did it?" And she would not be able to prove it, because all her neighbours have had just as much Collective dose as she, and most of them do not have tumours. The highest court in the land would not find against us, Sire, so we would not have to pay compensation. But at the moment we have to pay a pre-emptive penalty to protect all the tradesmen's wives from a purely hypothetical risk. That is why it's unfair.
We feel that there must be another way of looking at this...
There was. The Royal Health Physicist stepped forward.
I think the point is, Majesty he says, that the Fairy Fallout is not the only
one with a radioactive wand. Even before your illust... (He had to raise his voice as a
protestor in a Che Guevara outfit appeared outside the window shouting Not
a wand, you half-wit! Wands! ... wands! before the guards
pulled him down.)
As I was saying, even before your illustrious ancestors came to this land, various Fairy Nuclides were here. Fairy Potassium and Fairy Tritium, for example - they have very small and feeble Beta-type wands. Then there are the extraterrestrial gamma types, who pass through faster than tourists, and do even more damage. And lots of grotesque underground nuclides - more goblins than fairies - have short fat Alpha-type wands ... Uranium, and Radium and so forth.
This Natural radiation is everywhere - we're constantly bathed in it, it entirely permeates our bodies to a far, far greater extent than anything the Alchemists are doing, barring accidents.
Sire, my colleagues and I have discussed this at length and, with the greatest respect to the Fairy Godmother, Sire, we feel that, "WAND" may spell "Well- Averaged Natural Doses".
So. The "averaging" idea was now in the open, and while Roger's mind was grappling
with it, the Alchemists took it a crucial step further:
Could it not also be true that, in respect of Alchemical by-products, it also spells "Well-Averaged Nominal Doses"?
The Royal Statisticians (several of whom had moved house, upwind of the Hospice) sniggered into the sleeves of their spangly robes.
What about the backwards spelling? demanded the King.
It was time to put in the clincher, and the cleverest statistician had it ready.
It actually doesn't make any difference, Majesty, he said smoothly. Both are equally valid.
You see, Natural radiation does cause genetic changes (let's get away from this nasty emotive word "mutation") ... it does cause genetic variation. Otherwise we wouldn't exist - the only life on the planet would be rather primitive bacteria at the bottom of the sea. So we can very reasonably say that Well-Averaged Natural Doses are DNAWasters, and so are the Alchemists' Well-Averaged Nominal Doses -- but they are so much smaller that they only do infinitesimal damage.
The cleverest statistician stopped speaking. Being so clever, he knew when to shut up. In fact all the courtiers kept mum at this point, because King Roger was staring at the cleverest statistician, narrowing his eyes and frowning that I'm concentrating kind of frown; pursing his lips with that H'mmm, I'm onto something here kind of lip-pursing; and rocking to and fro drumming his fingertips on his chin in that Let's take a minute of quiet reflection kind of way that tells underlings Don't interrupt me if you value your job.
So!, he said briskly. You're telling me that if we just keep talking about "radiation" in terms of averages, and if we could make the public understand radiation "risk" in terms of multiples or fractions of natural background radiation, there would be no need to argue for or against a threshold?
Expressed with admirable clarity, Sire, said the cleverest statistician
....thereby maintaining my reputation for regal infallibility?
Amply so, Sire, said the statistician
... and avoiding any need to upset the Fairy Godmother?
Yes, Sire, said the statistician.
... and providing us with a weapon to discredit those rabble-rousing heretics in the street?
It will indeed persuade many people, Sire.
We just don't say anything about thresholds? said King Roger.
The No Threshold thing remains simply a tacit, underlying assumption, Sire.
And what do we say about Natural Background Radiation?
As much as possible, Sire, emphasising that there's an awful lot of it about, and that it doesn't seem to be doing anybody any harm.
And Collective dose?
Policy development has taken us to something which is simpler and, at the same time, more sophisticated, Sire.
Meaning? ... In practical terms? ...
We just make sure nobody gets such a big dose that they can prove anything.
Which I think, said the King, means we have defined a dose we could give to everybody, and they still wouldn't be able to prove anything!
That is exactly my understanding, Your Majesty, said the Statistician.
And what about my revenues?
The prospects for economic growth seem to be assured, Sire, said the Statistician.
Fine, said the King, It's time for a change!
And he instructed his Clerk to draw up a suitable Proclamation, which could easily be interpreted as saying that, as long as Alchemical wastes were spread out thinly and evenly, nobody would give two hoots.
The Proclamation was delivered to the Radsavian Society who rubber-stamped it after adding a Clause to say that, while they couldn't care less about public doses, they'd carry on totting up Collective Doses to themselves, thank-you very much.
Then the Incestuous Council on Radsavian Patronage endorsed the whole thing, and so the twin Spirits of Greed and Individual Litigiousness drove out the Spirit of Collective Responsibility (for that was the Fairy Godmother's real name).
See how out of joint my nose is
Yours was such a high profession -
She didn't go without a fuss:-
Look at me - reduced to screeching;
"How could you reject my teaching?"
You've caved in to power and wealth;
You've abandoned public health!
Since you dropped Collective Doses.
(Karl Z. Morgan felt the same
When his colleagues brought him shame.)
Saving us from Black Magicians;
Now you've turned it on its head;
Saving them from us instead.
See how out of joint my nose is
Yours was such a high profession -
But the Courtiers just sneered and called her a "professional scaremonger".
On the other hand they called the King "Roger the Good" and his reign became a new era of freedom for the Alchemists, who filled the Exchequer with more than enough money to squash the rebels.
And they extracted Plutonium from spent fuel, which poisoned the sea; and they built new nuclear power stations, which puffed out just as much radioactive water vapour as the old ones had; and they dismantled the old power stations, which caused a fine radioactive dust to cover the city; and they made good and sure that King Roger's enemies were properly roasted in their bunkers by making bullets from Uranium waste, which infected the air with tiny radioactive particles that even their own children would have to breathe; and they sold contaminated materials for people to use as fertiliser, and to play football on, and to build their houses with; and they sold contaminated land to build the houses on -- with gardens for the children to play in.
Some people said that all these were bad ideas, but the Health Physicists told them it was safe.
The King threw an Atoms for Profit party and this time the Fairy Fallout was definitely invited, the only condition being that she should cover her alarming appearance with the Cloak of Invisibility. And this she was quite happy to do, for, as all magicians know, wearing the Cloak of Invisibility is only a matter of dividing yourself so finely that human eyes cannot see you, so that she was able to fly all over the city, touching the little children with her wands.
Yes, wands! With an S.
This is the very sad thing, you see. This is what the scientists in the street had
been saying - that the Fairy Fallout was a completely new species. She had little helpers -
like the Strontium-90 elf and the Tellurium-132 elf - and each of them had
two wands which (in the world of mirror magic) spelled Sequentially
Decaying Nuclides Are Worse.
And what was even sadder was that the Fairy Fallout had disguised her elves as good, useful things like calcium and iodine, and in this way she smuggled them into the most sensitive parts of the children's bodies; and she gathered others, like Depleted Uranium, into hot particles which got into the children's lymph nodes through the secret passages in their lungs. And all these elves sparkled and crackled and double-whammied away in a new and quite unnatural manner, mugging nearby cells 'til they were forced to repair their DNA, and then hitting them a second time before they'd finished.
That is where the mutations came from. That is why some of the children died before they were even born, and why others were taken away by leukaemia before they were out of their cradles. It is why those who survived carried mutations with them - the seeds of disease - which they unwittingly passed onto their own children, so that in time the houses and parks became empty, and nothing remained in the city but little eddies of dust swirling at the corners of streets, and a tendency for the dust to glitter a bit more than it ought.
© Richard Bramhall 2001
... and our critique of them
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If you think all this is just fantasy, we suggest you read
R. H. Clarke: "Control of low-level radiation exposure: time for a change?" Journal of Radiological Protection, 1999, 19 No. 2
R. H. Clarke: "Progress towards new recommendations from the International Commission on Radiological Protection", Nuclear Energy 2001, 40, No. 1 Feb. 37-45
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