Radionuclides and The Anthropocene

We like to use the expression “the nuclear age” to describe that period of history following the detonation of the first nuclear explosive device. The nuclear age is one we continue to experience.

I think it is best to view the “nuclear age” in a much broader context, what we might refer to as “the Anthropocene.” Humanity has become a type of geological force influencing dynamics on a planetary scale, so much so that many argue that we ought to declare a new geological era, that is “the Anthropocene.”

Nuclear science, energy and weapons, when you think about it a little bit, have right at their core considerations regarding man’s relationship with nature, which I believe, to no small degree, revolves around matters of knowledge especially knowledge of nature.

Given this the concept of “the nuclear age” should be subsumed by the concept of “the Anthropocene.” They are strongly connected.

That is why I have put the concept the Anthropocene on the banner of this site.

In August the Working Group on the Anthropocene recommended to the International Geological Congress on 19 August that our current era should be officially termed as the Anthropocene.

The Anthropocene is often taken as starting at about 1950. This is appropriate, I feel. Although the era of economic growth began in about 1820, there wasn’t much economic growth prior to this, it really took off after 1950.


The same applies to CO2 emissions, which of course is associated with global warming. Although the emission of greenhouse gases started to rise with the industrial revolution, it took off after 1950 which, of course, correlates with the spike of economic growth


Debate exists as to what should be the demarcating indicator of the Anthropocene. Many recommend the radionuclides dispersed from nuclear weapons testing. I would agree with this.

The Report of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation to the General Assembly stated

The main man-made contribution to the exposure of the world’s population has come from the testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, from 1945 to 1980. Each nuclear test resulted in unrestrained release into the environment of substantial quantities of radioactive materials, which were widely dispersed in the atmosphere and deposited everywhere on the Earth’s surface…

…Some general assumptions have been made to make it possible to specify the fission and fusion yields of each test in order to estimate the amounts of radionuclides produced in the explosions. The estimated total of fission yields of individual tests is in agreement with the global deposition of the main fission radionuclides 90Sr and 137Cs, as determined by worldwide monitoring networks.

You can see this with radiocarbon (C14)



I think there are deeper reasons why radionuclides dispersed by nuclear testing should be the demarcation used to date the Anthropocene. Little green men would learn much about what we know, or better still knew, from observation of human dispersed radionuclides. I was thinking about this when contemplating the opening remarks of Richard Feynman in his famous Feynman Lectures on Physics, delivered to Caltech undergraduates, at a set of traffic lights of all places

If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms—little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.

Have a read, and see how Feynman beautifully elaborates upon this.

The little green men would know that we knew this, that we knew this upon the basis of theoretical understanding rather than happenstance, but nonetheless we didn’t have maturity enough to develop social systems that are sustainable with respect to possession of this knowledge.

It is a deep, deep point about our relationship with nature, our relationship to each other and the way in which the two are intimately connected.

You get a good sense of this from the position of Ernst Mayr in his famous debate on extra terrestrial intelligence with Carl Sagan. Mayr offered one reason why higher order intelligence, of the type needed to form civilisations, but we can broaden this of the type needed to form sciences, has not evolved frequently on Earth

Adaptations that are favored by selection, such as eyes or bioluminescence, originate in evolution scores of times independently. High intelligence has originated only once, in human beings. I can think of only two possible reasons for this rarity. One is that high intelligence is not at all favored by natural selection, contrary to what we would expect. In fact, all the other kinds of living organisms, millions of species, get along fine without high intelligence.

If what Mayr says is correct theoretical science is not an epistemological adaptation, and we would not expect it to evolve frequently in the universe. Notice that science became the engine of economic growth from 1950. Prior to 1950, despite the popular misconception, science was not the key driver of economic growth. We might also recognise that this undermines what is called “evolutionary epistemology,” but let us put this aside.

I have termed this epistemological angle “Russell’s Problem,” after Bertrand Russell. I don’t want to go into detail as to why here, but I note that Bertrand Russell, an especially deep thinker, was one of the first, if not the first, to notice this connection and that right at the onset of the Anthropocene.

A remarkable figure.