How to shelter from fallout after a nuclear attack on your city

Graph: Fallout: miles from ground zero vs. siz of bomb in kilotons


How to shelter from fallout after a nuclear attack on your cityExpand

Terrorists have detonated a low-yield nuclear warhead in your city. How long should you hide, and where, to avoid the worst effects of radioactive fallout? We talked to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory atmospheric scientist Michael Dillon to find out.

Yesterday Dillon published a paper on this topic in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A. He’s spent his career researching how the government should respond to disasters with an airborne component, whether that’s a chemical accident, an epidemic, or nuclear fallout. After poring over dozens of studies on how fallout behaves, and analyzing as many factors as possible related to urban detonations, he’s come up with a disaster plan that he hopes can be implemented by governments from the local to the federal level.

The best part of Dillon’s fallout plan is that it’s aimed at people like you and I, who won’t have access to information about wind direction and blast magnitude. It’s a plan that works even if all you know is that a nuclear bomb has gone off in your city.

This Is Not A Cold War Bomb

When I spoke to Dillon about his work, he was quick to point out that his disaster plan is still theoretical. Nobody has yet had a chance to study a low-yield nuclear blast in a real-world city — “thankfully, these are rare events,” Dillon said. But as the threat of a terrorist nuclear attack grows more likely than a Cold War scenario, it’s crucial for cities to have plans in place. And that means a major paradigm shift in how we think about nuclear attack.

The classic nuclear attack scenario that most of us imagine comes straight out of the Cold War — or movies like Terminator. Multiple megaton-class bombs go off all over the world. The results are catastrophic, with whole regions burned to a crisp, mass deaths, and a fallout plume that stretches hundreds of miles. But the scenario we’re more likely to encounter today involves bombs that are anywhere from .1 kilotons to 10 kilotons. They’re small compared to the bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and infinitesimal compared to the warheads we had in our Cold War arsenals.

“These events are more like a Katrina-level disaster,” Dillon said. “Your city has the potential to survive, and that’s what we’re planning for.”

The chart below gives you a sense of the damage radius of the bombs that Dillon studies, as opposed to Cold War weapons. The worst damage occurs in the pink areas (psi stands for pounds-force per square inch, and is used to measure blast force). People inside the pink dotted line run the risk of getting pretty severe burns, and those outside are more at risk for doses of radiation and injury from fire or other blast damage. What’s most important, though, is that you can see the range of radiation danger is much smaller with today’s nuclear bomb threats. A 1 kiloton warhead will pose a radiation danger up to 2 kilometers away from ground zero. Compare that to a 10 megaton, Cold War bomb, which irradiates areas as much as 40 kilometers away.

So you can appreciate why a nuclear attack today doesn’t have to mean instant death for everyone around — and could even be something that your city would recover from.

How to shelter from fallout after a nuclear attack on your cityExpand

Taken from the Student Guide to Federal Nuclear Detonation Response Planning

What To Do When the Bomb Goes Off

If the bomb goes off and you are unhurt in the initial blast, you need to worry about protection from radioactive fallout. Because we’re not in a Cold War world anymore, Dillon said, “You don’t need a specific fallout shelter to get the protection you need.” You just have to be aware of what kinds of buildings will provide adequate shelter and which won’t.

Emergency responders measure the effectiveness of a fallout shelter on the “PF” scale (you can see a FEMA guide about that here), but Dillon is assuming you won’t have PF numbers on all the buildings in your neighborhood. What you want to do is try to find what he calls “adequate shelter” in the first 30 minutes after the bomb goes off. What is adequate? Said Dillon:

Put as much mass and material weight between you and bomb as possible. Distance [from the blast] is good but weight — heavy things, concrete, large stacks of books, earth — those are good. Go underground, if you can get there. Again, you’re looking for concrete roofs and walls. Even just deep inside big buildings. A basement is the classic spot.

Think about your city. Where is the nearest adequate shelter to your home and your work? Is it a subway station? A library with thick concrete walls lined with books? Your basement? A large building with lots of interior rooms that are shielded by many walls? Dillon warns that you want to try to reach this place in 30 minutes, but don’t count on being able to drive there. Traffic may be at a standstill. Make plans that will allow you to walk or possibly bicycle to your adequate shelter.

How to shelter from fallout after a nuclear attack on your cityExpand

Then the question becomes how long to wait in this shelter until it’s safe to go outside. In the movies, of course, we see all kinds of ridiculous scenarios, from people going outside within minutes to whole civilizations remaining underground for centuries. None of those are really accurate, said Dillon.

Your best bet is to stay until emergency responders come. Given that we’re talking about a low-yield bomb, which may have a blast radius of less than a mile, this isn’t a disaster that has taken out the nation’s power structure. Help will arrive soon. But let’s say nobody does come. Dillon says his personal preference would be to wait about 12-24 hours before going outside. But, he emphasized, “wait for emergency responders because they’ll help with an evacuation route.” You don’t want to jump out of your fallout shelter and walk right into the path of the radiation.

How Does Fallout Work?

My first reaction to Dillon’s advice was disbelief. I could be relatively safe walking out of a fallout shelter less than a day after the blast? The answer is yes, because the most immediate danger is from what’s called early fallout, which is comprised of radioactive particles that are heavy enough to fall within hours of the blast. They usually fall in zones fairly close to the blast, depending on wind direction and intensity.

How to shelter from fallout after a nuclear attack on your cityExpand

Said Dillon, “It’s going to be falling for hours after the blast. These large particles are the most dangerous and have the highest levels of radiation. This is the stuff that’s going to make you physically sick immediately.” He contrasts the radiation sickness you can get from this early fallout to other kinds of illnesses, like cancer, that you can get many years after radiation exposure. Sheltering from fallout may not prevent cancer in the future, but it will prevent you from dying immediately of radiation exposure.

How to shelter from fallout after a nuclear attack on your cityExpand

The other thing to keep in mind is that fallout isn’t a magical substance that floats everywhere and gets into everything. “There will exist a physical region that’s contaminated with highly radioactive particles,” he said. “After leaving the shelter, you want to exit that region.” That’s where emergency responders can help, of course — they’ll be able to tell you how to avoid that zone, and how far away to go. Certainly there are lighter fallout particles that can stay airborne for much longer than the early fallout, but those particles are not going to cause immediate radiation sickness — which is what you’re trying to avoid in the bomb’s aftermath.

Dillon added that the early, dangerous fallout also “decays really fast.” The “dangerous zone shrinks quickly, and it’s a lot safer to be outside in 24 hours” than it is an hour after the blast.

How to shelter from fallout after a nuclear attack on your cityExpand

Our pop culture is still straining to catch up with a world where nuclear blasts result in a scenario more like Katrina than On the Beach. We’ve been trained to think of nuclear attack as the end of the world, but it’s like many other disasters: horrific, but something that we can survive. While we’re waiting for a movie that realistically depicts a low-yield nuclear attack in the post-Cold War era, we can start planning our real-life escape routes and shelters in the citiscapes around us. One day, that big ugly building downtown with the thick concrete walls could save your life.

Read the full scientific study in Proceedings of the Royal Society A

Unless otherwise specified, all charts taken from the US national security staff publication Planning Guidance for Response to a Nuclear Detonation

Phonological Font Friday

Graph: Optimum font size

An interesting article by UK layman Peter Irons from his blog, “To Read or Not to Read: This Blog will chart the progress of the emergence of the use of computer screen technology to enable more people to maximise their reading performance across the world.”

In his blog Irons explores reading deficits such as dyslexia, especially in children, and how they may be best ameliorated. Here he comments on a Harvard study about children’s relative reading speed and comprehension on e-readers as opposed to in print. All emphasis and text colors are that of the author.

Continue reading “Phonological Font Friday”

Letter written by ten-year-old Hellen Keller

Helen Keller letter

By Susan Martin, Collection Services, from the Massachusetts Historical Society:

Those of us who process manuscript collections are always stumbling on interesting and unexpected finds. I was recently working with the MHS’s George E. Ellis papers to improve the arrangement and description of the collection, and one letter immediately caught my eye. It was written by 10-year-old Helen Keller.

Between 1888 and 1892, Keller was a student at Perkins School for the Blind in South Boston. (The school moved to Watertown, Mass. in 1912.) She found a happy home at Perkins, which she described in her 1902 autobiography The Story of My Life: “Until then I had been like a foreigner speaking through an interpreter. In the school where Laura Bridgman was taught I was in my own country.”

The subject of this letter, written to Dr. Ellis on 27 April 1891, is four-year-old Tommy Stringer, another Perkins student who was both blind and deaf. Stringer’s family was unable to support him, so he had been brought up from an almshouse in Pennsylvania to the Perkins kindergarten. Keller became his energetic advocate and wrote to friends and strangers alike, as well as newspapers, to solicit donations for his education. Ellis was one of the many who contributed. Keller wrote to him gratefully:

Mr [Phillips] Brooks once told me that love was the most beautiful thing in the world, and now I am sure it is, for nothing but love could brighten Tommy’s whole life. I think we ought to love those who are weak and helpless even more tenderly than we do others who are strong and beautiful….I have read that there are lonesome and dismal places in this great world, but I cannot imagine anything so sad and lonely as a little child’s heart who has no loving mother to caress and care for him. But we shall all be so good and gentle with little Tommy that he will think the world is full [of] loving mothers and patient fathers.

It just so happens that Ellis was the president of our very own MHS at the time, an historian, and a former minister of the Harvard Church in Charlestown, Mass. He corresponded with many notable people, but this letter, written in large, neat, blocky handwriting, stands out from the rest. It’s amazing to realize that it was written just four years after Keller met Annie Sullivan, at which time Keller could barely communicate at all, let alone read and write. (About a year later, she explained to the readers of the children’s magazine St. Nicholas how she wrote by placing a “grooved board” between the pages, probably some version of a noctograph.)

George E. Ellis died in 1894. In his will, he bequeathed $30,000, as well as his home and all its contents, to the MHS. Funds from the sale of his property were used to help build and relocate to our current home at 1154 Boylston Street. Our very own research room, Ellis Hall, is named after him. We hope to see you there sometime!

Thomas Stringer graduated from Perkins in 1913 and became a woodworker in Pennsylvania, dying in 1945.

High-Res Scan of Poe’s “Raven,” Illustrated by Doré

Title page of Poe's "The Raven"

By  at

The Library of Congress’s website hosts a high-resolution scan of a rare edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” illustrated by Gustave Doré. The title-page is at page 11, the list of illustrations is on page 14.

The illustrations are amazing, like no other illustrated Poe I’ve seen. I’ve collected my favorites below, and there are a lot of them — honestly, it was impossible to choose.














The Raven / by Edgar Allan Poe ; illustrated by Gustave Doré ; with comment by Edmund C. Stedman. (via Reddit)

Mayonnaise Hatred: A Brief History of Mayo and Disgust

Mayonnaise packet

By from

Mayo, the divisive condiment.

Near where I work there is a deli with a basket on the counter piled high with mayonnaise packets. They’re complimentary: If you buy a sandwich, you can take as many as you want. I know that decent folks nab just one or two, but I have a hard time sticking to that amount. I prefer four: two to lubricate the bun, and two reserve packets for use ad libitum on bites that demand an extra squirt of condiment. I find that if there’s mayo left in one of the reserves after the sandwich is gone, I can slurp it directly from the packet.

I slurp covertly, of course: I’m ashamed of my four-packet-a-day habit, which, if I’m being honest, typically involves a fifth packet. One day a friend espied me clutching a turkey and cheese, its half-eaten face white and glistening, as my free hand applied more sauce. “You are disgusting!” she said.

She was right: I have a mayo problem. But as my shame faded, I began to wonder: Was the problem really mine, or was it hers? Ketchup and mustard—our nation’s uncontested condiment king and queen—elicit no ire. But mayonnaise, an egg and oil spread whose 100th birthday under the label Hellmann’s arrived in September, is a source of endless controversy: BuzzFeed ran an article recently calling it “the devil’s condiment,” and Jimmy Fallon, Rachael Ray, and President Obama are all on record as mayo haters. What accounts for this condimental controversy? Why are we so divided over mayonnaise?

* * *

Anytime somebody orders a corned beef sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise, somewhere in the world, a Jew dies.

“Anytime somebody orders a corned beef sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise, somewhere in the world, a Jew dies,” goes one version of the old Milton Berle joke. The joke works on two levels: It may be that the Jew is dying out of horror at a clueless deli patron, since everyone knows corned beef goes with mustard and rye. Or it may be that the Jew is dying because she herself has chosen mayo and white, and therefore is no longer a Jew. In either reading, the mayo critique is clear—Keep your slime off my food!—a protest that critics of the sauce would make ever more emphatically as the 20th century wore on.

You wouldn’t guess from Berle’s joke that he himself took his corned beef with mayo on white, a preference he attributed to a nomadic showbiz youth fueled by pit stops at railroad lunch counters in the 1920s. But for many Jewish Americans who came of age in that era, the frequent combination of white mayonnaise, white bread, and white gentiles created a lunchroom culture clash in which they were on the losing end. “They would make fun of me because they would be eating their sandwiches on white bread,” recalled Fred Okrand, who grew up in Los Angeles. “And I remember feeling ashamed, somehow, that I was eating rye bread and the other kids weren’t.”

In the postwar years, however, Borscht Belt comedians turned this insult on its head. Well-sensitized to the fault lines in the American condimental landscape, and inspired by the seemingly boundless zeal for mayo expressed by a nation of molded-salad-obsessed housewives, these comics made the mayo-munching majority a target for gentle ridicule. To Mel Brooks, a Midwesterner was someone who “drives a white Ford station wagon, eats white bread, vanilla milkshakes, and mayonnaise.” Jackie Mason observed that when gentiles first ate pastrami they used mayo, but after trying mustard “they become like Jews”: one look at someone wielding the white stuff and “they say, ‘Yech.’ ”

These jokesters formed the advance guard in a burgeoning late-20th-century anti-mayo movement. Woody Allen underscored mayo’s goyish qualities in both Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters; humorist Harry Shearer profiled a family of pasty Midwesterners who maintained personal mayonnaise bottles in his 1985 mockumentary The History of White People in America. The menu at Katz’s Deli, Manhattan’s famous smoked-meat joint, bowed to the anti-mayo comedic-industrial complex by warning pastrami seekers to “ask for Mayo at your own peril.” By the 21st century, the condiment’s link with square, fair-skinned peoples was such that in the 2002 comedy Undercover Brother, learning to like mayo was one of the eponymous protagonist’s key training tasks for passing as a “tight-butt white man.” (For more mayo mockery, don’t miss Meshugene Men.)

Of course, this ethnic-comedic anti-mayo campaign did not exactly make a lot of sense. Despite its milklike appearance, mayonnaise is kosher and in fact holds a time-honored place in Jewish cuisine; Katz’s Deli happily sells mayo-rich egg salad and Russian dressing. Jackie Mason, in an email, hypothesized that the complicated relationship between Jews and mayonnaise was probably a consequence of Jews feeling “guilty over betraying mustard.”

A more fundamental—and deadly serious—threat to the hegemony of mayonnaise would come from public health advocates—who, like the comedians, insisted the nation’s appetite for the sauce had simply gone too far. By the 1960s scientists were sounding the alarm that eating too many cholesterol-rich foods such as eggs was perilous for the heart. In 1970 the New York Times, responding to reader requests for advice on “foods that do not clog the arteries,” described a typical lunch for heart disease epidemiologist Jeremiah Stamler: “A sliced turkey sandwich, no butter, no mayonnaise, coffee with skimmed milk, and melon.” Health anxieties over mayo expanded further with reports linking raw egg consumption to salmonella poisoning.

Out of these ingredients congealed the organized anti-mayo movement. The flagship organization, the Worldwide I Hate Mayonnaise Club, was launched in the late ’80s by Honolulu-based writer Charles Memminger, who declared his intention to combat the “evil empire of slime.” A few years later, in 1991, a dozen college students at Wesleyan University formed the Wesleyan Anti-Mayonnaise League (WAML). The League formed to protest the daily appearance of large tubs of mayo in the college’s cafeterias, which, according to WAML founder Jenny Gotwals, “would get SO GROSS sitting out all day.” (Gotwals included a pledge to “never bring tuna or mayonnaise into our home” in her wedding vows.) In 2006 marketer Craig Horwitz launched the web site “When you order a BLT, there’s no ‘M’ in it. … It should not be the default. That’s our political position,” he explained.

A graph of historical appearances of the phrases “hold the mayo” and “hold the mayonnaise” in the Google Books database offers a glimpse into the rise of the mayo opposition, and reinforces the impression that anti-mayonnaise ideology is mainly a late-20th-century phenomenon. (And one that is associated, at least temporally, with emerging concerns about the risks of dietary fat.)

mayo graph.

However, there is evidence that mayonnaise was dividing eaters long before people started fretting over cholesterol. “Much modern depravity … I attribute to the unholy cult of Mayonnaise,” intoned the British writer Frank Schloesser in 1905. “At its best it is simply a saucy disguise to an innocent salmon or martial lobster,” wrote Schloesser, adding that the sauce’s effect on food was reminiscent of “an old actor painted up to look young.”

What do these century-old barbs suggest? Is it possible, as mayonnaise haters contend, that there is some offensive element intrinsic to the sauce itself that gives rise to mayophobia?

* * *

In late September I attended a mayonnaise-themed picnic hosted by Hellmann’s to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the company’s mucilaginous muck. The firm had constructed the longest picnic table in the history of the planet on Pier 84 in New York City to celebrate its special day, and in the ardent hope that a Guinness world record might accompany its richly anticipated mayo-infused super-moist chocolate birthday cake.

A cheerful twentysomething in a Hellmann’s T-shirt passed me a box lunch containing a mayo-infused burger, mayo-smothered pasta salad, mayo-lubed corn on the cob, and a mayo-moistened cupcake. I asked her if it was awesome to work at the Hellmann’s event, since I assumed she got to eat as much mayonnaise as she wanted. She was a bit off-message: She admitted she thought mayo was disgusting. “I think it’s just when I was little I didn’t like things that were white,” she said.

What does it mean to say that something is disgusting? It is a surprisingly juicy question, and one that has stimulated a gush of scholarship in recent years. Research into human disgust suggests that substances of animal origin, such as poop or mucus, are more commonly offensive than plant matter. Disgust theorists often explain this pattern by noting that rotten flesh can harbor deadlier microbes than moldering plants. (The grossout response presumably serves to protect us from noxious things.) Research conducted in the U.S. suggests that slimy, gooey, filmy, mushy, and squishy things may arouse disgust. In the 1990s Army researchers concluded that the most widely disliked food item was liver.

Mayonnaise contains an animal product, it is reminiscent of pus or semen, and it is remarkably slimy and jiggly. And anti-mayo campaigners do seem to agree that the condiment’s gloppiness is central to its repulsive powers. “I have consistency issues in general,” admitted Gotwals. Horwitz also denounced the condiment’s terrible viscidity, and called the emulsification process by which it achieves its peculiar density “black magic” and “Satanic-type stuff.”

But vanilla ice cream and pudding are also jizzlike slimes, and they arouse little animus; ketchup is cherished despite its likeness to blood. And scholars have long noted that revulsion can rarely be reduced to sensory factors alone. Charles Darwin commented on the social aspects of taste in his 1872 The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals: “In Tierra del Fuego a native touched with his finger some cold preserved meat which I was eating at our bivouac, and plainly showed utter disgust at its softness; whilst I felt utter disgust at my food being touched by a naked savage, though his hands did not appear dirty.”

Darwin’s observations hinted at an idea upon which revulsion scholars generally agree: Disgust is largely a cultural phenomenon. Infants don’t seem to experience it. Tiny children will tolerate unholy decay odors, and experiments show many will happily eat imitation feces (made with stinky cheese) or quaff glasses of juice in which (sterilized) grasshoppers bob like ice cubes. From centipedes to boogers, the grossout response is a learned one. Its latent purpose is often to distinguish friend from foe, and pass judgment on the habits of others. (To wit: As one informant bluntly told me, “Let’s be honest: Mayonnaise is a fat man’s food.” Or consider this quote from HoldThatMayo’s Horwitz: “If you’re looking for the real fringe, it’s the people who like Miracle Whip.”)

If mayonnaise haters are not born but made, does this mean they could be reprogrammed to covet the sauce? Could mayonnaise even shed its image as a humble condiment—a stigmatized food type, since they can only be eaten in small quantities before taboo ensues—and be recast as a standalone snack? Anti-mayo activists will surely recoil at the suggestion. (In a 2012 Bon Appétit blog post, one mayo detractor begged, “STOP trying to force me to un-hate it … I don’t force my love of Jamiroquai on anyone else.”)

But Rachel Herz, a smell scientist and author of That’s Disgusting: Unraveling the Mysteries of Repulsion, thinks it can be done. Food meanings can change dramatically, notes Herz, who believes that the consumption of insects as food will soon take off in the U.S. (“I think in another 10 years you might be having mayonnaise on your cricket sandwich,” she says.) If mayonnaise could recapture the trendiness and luxury status it once held—perhaps via a renaissance in hip restaurants or an association with glamorous people—the haters might well change their tune, Herz says. “People will be like lining up to get those little packets and squirt them into our mouths,” she said with a giggle.

Even for a confessed packet slurper like me, this was hard to swallow. But the recent opening of a successful artisanal mayonnaise shop in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights suggests that a minor mayo movement is indeed stirring. And at the Hellmann’s event, there were unmistakable hints that a mayo makeover may be underway. “A lot of people don’t know about sandwiches with just mayonnaise only,” said NBA All-Star and Hellmann’s promoter Paul Pierce, now with the Brooklyn Nets. No meat, I asked? “Straight-up mayonnaise only!” Pierce said. And then there was celebrity chef Mario Batali: “It’s more than a condiment, my friend. Condiment is where it was born, and that’s where it lives. But using it as a main ingredient in baking and cooking is where its future is.”

Talk about disgusting: My stomach did somersaults in the face of this shameless saucy salesmanship. This turned out to be the rare mayonnaise topic upon which an avowed advocate of the sauce—yours truly—and a mayo hater could firmly agree. “Just the thought of that is revolting,” said Worldwide I Hate Mayonnaise Club founder Memminger, when I asked how he felt about the idea of mayo as a main course. “It’s a slimy, horrible alleged food.”

Elsewhere in Slate, David Merritt Johns explains the history of mayonnaise, Ari LeVaux tries to find out why Hellmann’s is so good, and Katherine Goldstein argues in favor of a surprising mayonnaise alternative.