A zone that mutates the life forms within it covered up by the government? A small unit sent inside to collect samples? Sounds like the plot of the recent critically acclaimed film “Annihilation,” where a team of researchers led by Natalie Portman venture into a zone called “The Shimmer” to find a way to stop it from expanding and tampering with DNA. Or, maybe it’s a description of the events that unfolded after the Chernobyl disaster.
There are striking similarities between the effects of “The Shimmer” in “Annihilation” and the after-effects of the Chernobyl nuclear facility meltdown. In The Shimmer, organisms of different species have their DNA spliced together while nuclear radiation mutates cells’ DNA to make them cancerous or unable to replicate. However, The Shimmer is caused by a chance meteorite strike while radiation’s origin is rife with human causation.
In the early 1900s, research on the atomic level was just beginning as Sir J.J. Thompson discovered the electron. This line of study was criticized because of its apparent lack of real life application. Because of its apparent lack of practical applications and conceptual difficulty, only small steps were taken into atomic research until 1934, when Enrico Fermi and his team of scientists threw some electrons at uranium. Beforehand, they already had the knowledge that doing so would manipulate the atoms within the element, as they were testing multiple elements at the time, according to energy.gov. In the case of the uranium, however, he noticed that it lost a substantial amount of mass, signifying that mass had been converted into energy. From there, research on the subject snowballed and received significant attention from Adolf Hitler. Ironically, the likes of Bohr and Einstein escaped from Germany to the U.S. under the pretense that Hitler intended to abuse the huge energy expenditure properties of uranium, i.e., the atom bomb. By this assumption, loads of U.S. government funding was poured into not only research in developing the atomic bomb, but also nuclear power via a self-sustaining nuclear reactions chain, since research in both areas were intrinsically related.
According to energy.gov, the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction chain was initially discovered by Fermi and his team of scientists in 1942. In 1954, the first commercial nuclear power plant was established in the Russian city of Obninsk, just outside of Moscow, according to wired.com. Surprisingly enough, Pennsylvania was the site of the United States’ first commercial electricity-generating plant powered by nuclear energy in 1957; these steps facilitated the growth of the nuclear power industry in the 1960s.
In the subsequent decades, nuclear power became the norm and was especially utilized in the resource-starved USSR in the 1980s—so starved, in fact, that the other three Chernobyl reactors were still in use the day after the Chernobyl disaster. Although the casualties of those who were drafted to the facility to maintain the other three reactors were numbered at 250, the individuals who were drafted estimated that the number of casualties was closer to 500 according to the History Channel’s “Children of Chernobyl” documentary. The onset of radiation sickness—caused by ionizing radiation and consisting of hair loss, bleeding from the orifices and vomiting—as detailed by medlineplus.gov popped up within the next decades in these folks who were forced to work at the plant, along with neighboring towns such as Pripyat.
Today, it seems most problems humanity faces are caused by their own hands. Global warming, poverty, war—all calamities that could be lessened, if not resolved, when human action is mobilized in the correct manner. By all means, this statement is not radical either; to some extent, most people acknowledge that if everyone took the right measures—carpooling, donating to charities, prioritizing peaceful conflict resolutions—these momentous issues would be greatly lessened.
In the case of the Chernobyl disaster, if the Chernobyl power plant had been shut down after the meltdown, if the people of Pripyat had been evacuated sooner and if the rest of the world wasn’t left in the dark, it’s safe to assume the damage caused by that catastrophe wouldn’t have been so large. In the case of “Annihilation,” however, everyone appeared to be taking the most sensible measures and still failing—each mission inside the field a suicidal endeavor and turning up no results. Although “Annihilation” bolsters the ideology of the echoes of human action, that “what goes around comes around,” the catalyst of the film’s conflict is extraterrestrial forces, not humanity. Maybe in the 17th century this feeling of powerlessness to natural forces beyond our control would have been fitting, but in 2018, it would have been far more beneficial to give “The Shimmer” a human-caused origin.
Despite this oversight, we can still glean the film’s basal message that most of the problems we face today are created by ourselves and are thusly able to be resolved through our own action. In a time when a nuclear threat is arising once more, perhaps we should, in the words of Natalie Portman, “follow the echoes” and recognize the very human causes of this problem.
Shannon Solley is a second-year student majoring in English with a minor in Studio Art. ✉ SS876454@wcupa.edu.