It seems hard to believe that the fall semester is almost over, but there’s only a few weeks left until winter break. And after winter break, of course, the rush and chaos of the semester starts right back up in the spring!
Faculty and instructors: if you’d like to use Radioactive in your spring semester course, let us know! Fill out this form to be added to our list of participating courses. If you would like to receive your own copy of the book, please check the box marked “I need a desk copy for myself.” Desk copies will be distributed right away.
We will begin distributing student vouchers in early January. Student vouchers can be redeemed at several campus libraries (Chemistry Library, College Library, Ebling Library, Memorial Library, Steenbock Library, and Wendt Commons) for free copies of the book. Your students will not need to purchase the book.
If you have any questions, please email us at gobigread @ library.wisc.edu. We look forward to working with you in the spring semester!
It’s cold and flu season, and your friendly neighborhood Go Big Read blogger took a sick day earlier in the week and spent the afternoon on the couch. Buried under blankets, I ended up catching a few episodes of the show Doomsday Preppers on the National Geographic Channel.
In Radioactive, Lauren Redniss recounts an interview with Vic Rantala, president of Safecastle, LLC. Safecastle is a major seller of “prepping” materials, from meals-ready-to-eat to body armor to portable solar power generators to full-blown fallout shelters. Vic Rantala describes how his personal experience, working as a “designated NBC – Nuclear, Biological, Chemical – specialist” in Germany during the Cold War, led to his personal belief in preparing for worst-case scenarios. “You don’t have to be a wacko,” he says. “You don’t have to be a gun nut. You don’t even have to suspect the government of any conspiracies. It’s logical to have a plan. […] What I’m selling is not necessarily protection. What I’m selling is peace of mind. Whenever something big happens, it’s going to be something that no one expected.” (Redniss 149)
Doomsday Preppers explores the lives of people who have taken Rantala’s philosophy to heart, and are busily preparing for the end of the world, whatever form it happens to take. Preppers stockpile food, water, and other resources; they build fallout shelters in their homes or maintain shelters elsewhere; they practice “bug out” drills (bugging out refers to quickly leaving home for a safer location in the event of an emergency) and outfit themselves with body armor, hazmat suits and, yes, weapons. You can view clips of the show on the National Geographic Channel website, and you can even take a quiz to determine your own “prepper score.” (Your score is determined by the length of time you would likely survive in a worst-case scenario. If that’s not anxiety-inducing, I don’t know what is!)
As bizarre as this might seem to some of us, however, prepping is certainly not a new phenomenon. Anyone who studied the Cold War in high school or college will probably remember the famous Duck and Cover video, put out by the Federal Administration for Civil Defense in 1952. Below, a clip from the film.
Federal Administration for Civil Defense, 1952.
These were the scariest years of the Cold War, the height of the McCarthy era, when every stranger was a potential communist and it was assumed that the Soviet Union could be deploying its nuclear weapons at any moment (weapons built, of course, on the foundation of the Curies’ research on radiation—though neither of them lived long enough to see where their research had led). At this time, citizens were encouraged by civil defense organizations to build fallout shelters in their homes and to stockpile food, water, gas masks and other resources to help them survive in the event of a nuclear war. Today’s Doomsday Preppers are only following in a long tradition. Though the Communists with their atomic bombs may no longer be the “Big Bad” of our collective cultural imagination, there are other things to fear: global warming, government conspiracies, bioterrorism, a zombie apocalypse, the supposed “2012 prophecies,” and more.
Certainly, there are things in this world that are frightening, and preparation for certain disasters and emergencies is wise. As Vic Rantala points out, peace of mind is a valuable thing. However, sixty years from now, these prepping extremes might seem as silly and antiquated as Bert the Turtle and his “duck and cover” technique—or maybe the preppers will have the last laugh after all.
The Radioactive author event might have come and gone, but you haven’t missed your chance to hear (and participate in!) a fantastic discussion of the book! Go Big Read and the Madison Public Library have partnered to bring you a whole slew of Radioactive events over the next couple of weeks.
Starting on Tuesday in Stoughton, various branches of the Madison Public Library across the city will be hosting their own book discussions, some of which will be led by students at the UW’s very own School of Library and Information Studies. The Stoughton event is on Tuesday, November 13th, at 7:00pm. On Thursday the 15th, the Monroe Street branch opens its doors at 6:00pm, and on Saturday, November 17th, you can head over to the Goodman South branch at 1:30pm.
If art and design is more your thing, you should make your way to the Meadowridge branch of MPL on Wednesday, November 14th at 6:30pm. The library is hosting a discussion on “the aesthetics of Radioactive,” which is sure to be fascinating.
When the Curies announced their discovery of radium in 1898, the world took note–and not just the scientific community. Many uses were proposed for the gently glowing substance, from toothpaste to house paint. The Curies themselves began investigating radium’s possible medical uses, while the less scrupulous rushed the product immediately to market as a cure for anything that ailed consumers, whether the complaint was acne or heart disease or anything in between.
“La Loïe Fuller,” Henri Toulose-Lautrec
One figure who was particularly fascinated by radium’s potential was Loïe Fuller, a famous dancer at the Folies-Bergère. Born and raised just outside Chicago, Mary Louise Fuller had made a name for herself as an actress on the vaudeville circuit. By the time she arrived in Europe, however, her focus had shifted from acting to dance, and she was already well known for her Serpentine Dance, which she had begun performing in 1891. While touring in France, Fuller found the audiences particularly receptive to her work, and she chose to remain in Paris, changing her stage name from Louie to Loïe Fuller. She became a star attraction at the Folies, where her innovative technique and colorful performances won her the devotion of the crowd. Fuller’s image, as depicted by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and other notable artists of the time, adorned the famous posters of Paris.
Loïe Fuller saw radium as an artistic medium. The style of dance for which she was famous involved wildly swinging and shaking her billowing gown under colored lights, to give the illusion that her gown changed color as she danced. She had already conducted experiments with Thomas Edison using phosphorescent salts on a black dress, and had relished the effect: her veil, when thrown into the air, “disappeared in the darkness and only the falling luminous drops were seen elongated in their descent taking on the form of great violet blue tears…these things looked ethereal, spiritual, and made me feel in touch with the supernatural.” Now Loïe realized that radium, with its gentle glow, could produce an even more enchanting effect.
Loïe Fuller’s famous Danse Serpentine.
But the Curies turned her down. Radium was too rare, they felt–after all, it had taken them months of work to produce even a small amount of the substance. There were other things that could be done with it, better uses that could be made.
Loïe must have been disappointed. But, as Lauren Redniss points out in Radioactive, she bore her disappointment well: “A moth to the Curies’ flame, Loïe Fuller came to dance in their home.” (Redniss 64)