By William Souder
Sixty years ago, in the predawn hours of March 1, 1954, a Japanese tuna boat named Daigo Fukuryu Maru (“Lucky Dragon no. 5”) was fishing near the Marshall Islands in the central Pacific. Its engine off, the ship drifted silently on a glassy sea. Overhead, the stars illuminated a few wandering clouds. Suddenly a blinding wall of light appeared on the western horizon. As the crew rushed on deck, the light changed from white to yellow, and then to orange and finally a deep red—a monster light that continued to grow and rise into the sky. After a few minutes, the 99-ton ship lurched as a deafening roar passed over it.
Racing to the chart room, the ship’s radio operator—a man named Aikichi Kuboyama—made a hasty calculation. Estimating that the sound wave had reached the ship about seven minutes after they first saw the light, Kuboyama figured they were roughly 87 miles away from whatever had happened. Looking at his chart, Kuboyama saw that there was nothing in that direction but open water and a few small piles of sand called Bikini Atoll, 85 miles to the west.
A few years later, marine biologist and author Rachel Carson recounted Kuboyama’s death in the most sensational book of 1962: Silent Spring. A stern polemic on the dangerous overuse of synthetic pesticides such as DDT, Carson’s book explained how these chemical poisons were a threat to wildlife and to human health. Silent Spring alarmed the public and made Carson the target of an angry, well-financed smear campaign by the chemical industry.
One of Carson’s challenges in writing Silent Spring was how to convince her readers of the then-novel idea that an unseen chemical contaminant that might be anywhere (or everywhere) might cause unanticipated collateral damage to ecosystems. She solved this problem by perceiving a parallel between pesticides and radiation. Invisible, ubiquitous, and accumulating in the tissues of living things over time, pesticides and radioactive fallout from nuclear testing were, Carson argued, the twin existential problems of the modern age.