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“After Chernobyl” at Ebling Library

“The closer you are to Chernobyl, the less dangerous it seems.”

This is the theme of Ebling Library‘s latest exhibit, “After Chernobyl: Photographs by Michael Forster Rothbart.” Though the Chernobyl of popular mythology is a dead, barren wasteland (or, in some tellings, a radioactive breeding ground for monsters), Rothbart’s photographs tell a different story. The Chernobyl he shows us, nearly thirty years after the nuclear disaster, is filled with life in unexpected places. From the residents, many of them evacuees, of nearby “safe” towns and villages, to the workers and managers who maintain the inactive power plant as it is decommissioned, to the samosely—elderly evacuees who illegally returned to their homes inside the Exclusion Zone after the accident, and still live there now—the Chernobyl area is not quite as dead or barren as terrible horror movies would have you believe.

It would be interesting to ask Marie Curie if, had she known what her work would ultimately lead to—among other things, disasters such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and, most recently, Fukushima (a link between our last Go Big Read book and our current one)—would she still have pursued her line of inquiry? Do the benefits of nuclear energy outweigh the risks? In the aftermath of a nuclear disaster, is it worth it to try to build a new life in a radioactive home?

As the Ebling exhibit asks: after Chernobyl, would you stay?

“After Chernobyl: Photographs by Michael Forster Rothbart” runs until August 31st in Ebling’s third-floor gallery space.

For more information on the Chernobyl disaster, you can check out these library resources. Lauren Redniss writes about Chernobyl in the 2012-13 Go Big Read pick, Radioactive. The once-flourishing, now-abandoned city of Pripyat, which was built to house plant employees and their families, has its own fascinating website, set up by an organization seeking to turn Pripyat into a “museum city.” In the meantime, as seen in the Chernobyl Diaries trailer, there are guided tours that will take you into Pripyat and to the Chernobyl plant. If you’re not feeling quite that adventurous, you can take a look at these photos of Chernobyl and Pripyat at the Telegraph.

But your first stop, of course, should be the third floor of Ebling Library.

Happy Halloween from Marie and Pierre!

These phenomena that we have seen seem to us inexplicable by any trickery–tables rising from four legs, transport of faraway objects, hands that pinch and caress you, luminous apparitions.  Everything in a place that was prepared by us with participants we know well and with no possible deception. –Pierre Curie

Image courtesy of the National Media Museum.

The spooky image to the right is an example of spirit photography, a relic of the Spiritualist craze that swept Europe and North America in the mid-19th century.  Emanuel Swedenborg, an 18th century Swedish mystic, theologian and scientist, is widely credited with inspiring the Spiritualist movement: his writings on the spirit world and the nature of the human soul were devoured by readers eager for some hint of what lay on the “other side.”  Swedenborg’s work, and the work of those who followed him, became particularly popular in the Victorian age—the era of Victor Frankenstein, Sherlock Holmes, Jack the Ripper and Count Dracula—when the intersection of the scientific and the spine-chilling did not seem wholly unlikely.  Many prominent figures of the time were fascinated with spiritualism, including Pierre Curie.

Spiritualist mediums and mystics made claims of communication with the dead, and seances were usually well attended by believers and skeptics alike.  Pierre Curie was particularly interested in the work of Eusapia Palladino, a famous Italian medium.  Her veracity was highly contested; it was quickly discovered that she would “cheat” whenever possible, but her fans insisted that plenty of things took place at her seances that could not be explained by trickery.  Pierre Curie treated the seances as a science experiment, taking careful measurements and notes.

Image courtesy of the National Media Museum.

Spirit photography was just as popular as the seance, perhaps more so, because the photographs were believed to be documented proof of ghosts and other spiritual activity.  One of the most famous cases was that of the Cottingley Fairies: photographs were published of two young English girls sitting and playing with fairies near the brook at their country home in the early 20th century.  The photographs were declared by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to be undeniable evidence of psychic activity.  Decades later, the two girls in the photographs, now elderly women, admitted that the entire affair was a hoax.

In her October 15th lecture on campus, Lauren Redniss pointed out that the Curies, with their interest in Spiritualism, were simply following their instincts as scientists: they could not dismiss the idea simply because it seemed unlikely.  After all, the isolation of polonium and the discovery of radium had once seemed equally unlikely.  Why shouldn’t two scientists entertain the possibility that there might be more to the world than they knew?

If you’d like to explore the world of Spiritualism, or just want to get into the Halloween spirit, check out these spooky links:

The Spirit Photographs of William Hope, a Flickr gallery by the National Media Museum
Do You Believe?, a “Ghostly Gallery” from the American Museum of Photography
Spiritualism at the Victorian Web
The Case for Spirit Photography, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The Disembodied Spirit, Alison Ferris
Eusapia Palladino and Her Phenomena, Hereward Carrington
Spirit photography is alive and well today (pun intended)!  Check out these galleries of modern day spirit photos.

Happy Halloween!

Brooke Williams, GBR Grad Student

Share photos on Flickr! Submit pictures with “In Defense of Food” scenes.

One of the many benefits of a common book program is the community that is formed by the mere act of lots of people all reading the same book. We have an opportunity to share images of that act using Flickr. Go ahead and take a picture of yourself, your family, your book club, your class – whatever scene might include people with this year’s common book, In Defense of Food. We’ve created a group in Flickr called Go Big Read. Join the group and add your photo to the group pool. The end result: a wonderful depiction of the book being read in all kinds of settings by all kinds of people.

I recently took In Defense of Food on my vacation in Yosemite. The small, light-weight book fit perfectly in my backpack and I read it by headlamp in the tent every night. As one of my tent-mates said to me, “was the last thing I heard last night really you telling me that butter is better than margarine?” 🙂

I thought to myself during the week, wouldn’t it be great if we could capture all the various places people are reading this book and share that? So I had my picture taken on top of Sentinel Dome to provide a spectacular vista as background for my Yosemite vacation book choice. I wonder what other scenes of reading this book will emerge…

Therefore, I’m sending out the call to everyone participating in this program: take a picture with the book, load it to Flickr and join the Go Big Read group: If you don’t use Flickr and still want to participate, email your photo to: