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When I was a boy, back in the 60's--the 1960's--there was supposedly this horrific weapon called the cobalt bomb, it was a nuclear device that would set off a chain reaction, eat it's way to the Earth's core & we'd all die.  I don't know where we picked up this story; it was probably just the kind of thing kids use to scare one another, but it was little different than many of the pending calamities that we were truly being warned about.  Rachel Carson had convinced everyone that birds were toast & we'd follow shortly, Paul Ehrlich said that the population was going to grow so fast that we'd be reduced to eating Soylent Green and scientists were confidently predicting that all evidence indicated we were headed towards a new Ice Age.  In my middle years, the Cold War was going to see us all die in a nuclear exchange followed by Nuclear Winter, AIDs was going to rival the Black Death and we were going to run out of fossil fuel on Tuesday.  Today, global warming, ebola, prion diseases, Gulf War Syndrome, etc. are continuing the amusing trend of scientists since the time of Malthus of announcing with absolute rational certitude that they have discovered an inexorable inevitable man-made, or man-exacerbated, threat to our species.  After a couple hundred years of being consistently, albeit spectacularly, wrong, can these idiots even spell hubris, let alone acknowledge it in themselves?

On the one hand, these Cassandras wildly overestimate the capacity of man to seriously threaten his own continued survival, on the other, they assume that men won't change their behavior to meet changing circumstances.  This sets up an interesting dissonance in their arguments--the evil that man does is catastrophic and irreversible, while remedial measures are both unlikely to occur and when they do, are doomed to be ineffective.  They want to stake out both sides of the argument; they are basically saying that man is only capable of causing massive change to the biosphere when he does something that they don't like--man can cause damage, he can not bring about improvement.   But the most important feature of their warnings is the fact that they are based less on serious science than on political inclinations.   They are essentially making political decisions about how Man should live and then dressing them up in scientific necessity in order to give their arguments some heft.     Unfortunately, this book does something similar.

Richard Rhodes is a master at marshaling the complicated sets of facts and events surrounding a big  Science story and rendering them in interesting and exciting form for the general reader.  His Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun are both excellent and are the standard against which any subsequent books about the development of nuclear weapons will be measured.  In Deadly Feasts, he brings his considerable talents to bear on the story, familiar to any newspaper reader, of prion diseases. These are the ones, like Kuru, Mad Cow Disease (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE)) and scrapie, that attack the brains of mammals, causing shaking, dementia & eventually, death. They occur at regular low levels throughout the animal kingdom, but it appears that they can be transmitted when mammals consume the brains of infected fellow mammals.  He painstakingly traces the research on these diseases from Papua New Guinea's cannibal populations to Britain's Mad Cow problems to the United States and masterfully depicts the scientific wrangling that has accompanied efforts to explain them.  All of this is handled deftly.

But the whole book, starting with the cover, has a kind of hysterical edge to it, as he tries to convince us that eating meat is going to kill us.  I'm willing to concede his point that we shouldn't be feeding livestock & poultry the remains of other livestock, but I think it's a tad hasty to ban the Big Mac.

Rhodes has a compelling story to share; he didn't need to go overboard and make it seem like the Gotterdamerung was imminent.  His apocalyptic warnings about the imminent rash of deaths from eating contaminated hamburger meat wring especially false several years removed from the height of the scare.  I realize that in some weird sense these stories appeal to our pride, on some warped level it is comforting to know that we are so powerful that we can destroy ourselves and the planet.  But it seems increasingly unlikely that this is either possible or probable.   Sooner or later, we need to tell the Henny Pennys of the world that the sky is likely to remain just where it is--that is, assuming that there are no asteroids or alien invasions headed this way…


Grade: (B-)


See also:

Book-related and General Links:
    -Richard Rhodes (Interview, etc. from Ann Online)
    -INTERVIEW:  Richard Rhodes  on prion diseases (1997)   (Beatrice)
    -Science Matters Bookclub: Deadly Feasts
    -THE REAL NEWS PAGE   Review & Commentary on Deadly Feasts
    -The Official Mad Cow Disease Home Page
    -Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease:  Mad Cow disease (information about Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) and Variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease)
    -REVIEW: (George Johnson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: Deadly Feasts by Richard Rhodes (Laura Manuelidis, Commentary)
    -REVIEW: of Dark Sun, Bigger Bomb (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Farm: A Year in the Life of an American Farmer (Maxine Kumin, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Farm: A Year in the Life of an American Farmer (Christpoher Lehmann-Haupt, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of Dark Sun: The Making of the  Hydrogen Bomb By Richard Rhodes (Chuck Hansen, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists)
     -REVIEW: of  The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes Making It  (Rudolf Peierls, NY review of Books)
    -Science Matters Bookclub: Making of the Atomic Bomb
    -Dark Sun Book Page
    -Booknotes Transcript: Richard Rhodes: Farm: A Year in the Life of an American Farmer
    -Paul Leventhal vs. Richard Rhodes on Nuclear Proliferation (Excerpt from "Talk of the Nation," National Public Radio   January 4, 1994)
    -ARTICLE : US 'planned nuclear first strike on Russia' (Michael Smith, 15 June 2001, Daily Telegraph)