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Science File | K.C. Cole MIND OVER MATTER

When the Dangerous or Unusual Becomes the 'Normal,' Beware

April 15, 2002|K.C. Cole

I didn't understand what a truly bizarre place L.A. was until a few months after I arrived and was invited to a Halloween party. Despite considerable effort, I couldn't find an appropriate "costume": No matter how outrageous a get-up I picked, I was informed it was "normal" attire for someone.

A scant year later, a friend visiting from the East Coast kept surprising me by exclaiming every time we passed a thong bikini or a crown of spiked hair. For her, these oddities demanded attention; for me, they were already wallpaper.

So it goes. What at first glance sets off sirens in your cerebellum, after a while fails to stir up so much as a neuronal breeze.

I was horrified to see my daughter go to school with bra straps showing, only to realize that all her friends were wearing more or less the same attire. These days, I don't even notice errant lingerie--on myself or anyone else.

We get used to almost anything that comes upon us slowly. The classic example is that of the frog plopped into a pot of hot water--it will leap out. Plop the same frog into cool water and turn the heat up slowly, and he'll sit contentedly until he's cooked.

It can be useful not to notice things, of course. You'd be endlessly distracted if you couldn't shut out such constant signals as the feel of clothes on your skin, the glasses on your nose, the nose on your face. (And when would college students ever sleep if they couldn't tune out professors during lectures?)

Then again, some people become so accustomed to their own bad smells or foul manners that their "normal" becomes unbearable for anyone else.

Resetting "normal" means, in effect, resetting the zero point for sensation. (Physicists even use a version of this--appropriately enough called renormalization--to set unwanted effects to zero.) To register, a signal needs to rise above the background--like a car radio in a convertible. Like the stars over city lights.

It's a now classic L.A. story: During the Northridge earthquake, when L.A. went suddenly dark, hundreds of worried people called Griffith Observatory wondering about those strange lights overhead. So steadily that hardly anyone noticed, we'd been spilling city light into the sky, washing out the stars; and while a nearly starless sky seemed "normal," the sight of thousands of stars was shocking.

Leave it to the Czech Republic (a nation run by a playwright) to become the first nation (this February) to pass a law prohibiting light pollution.

Here's another: Not so long ago, the deadly microorganism known to biologists as Clostridium botulinum was mostly known as the source of a lethal poison found lurking in bulging soup cans--one of the most poisonous substances known. Today, it's a beauty treatment, injected at some expense into foreheads to make wrinkles go (temporarily) away. This has gotten to be so "normal" that "Botox" parties are what Tupperware was to my mother's generation.

This is not a good thing, to put it mildly. According to the editor of Science magazine, Donald Kennedy, in a recent issue of his journal, C. botulinum ranks right after anthrax on the list of biological weapons terrorists might employ. If the demand for Botox continues to soar, and longer-lasting strains hit the market, as soon seems plausible, "will we be happy to have that many of these hot bugs around?" Kennedy asks.

The key to spinning poison into beauty potion lies partly in the words: Botox sounds better than botulism. It's always the way with "normalization." A "daisy cutter" seems so Martha Stewart. "Taking out" is a term from musical chairs, or for taking out the garbage--

certainly not somebody's son or grandmother. No splattered blood or melted flesh.

In reality, a daisy cutter is, as everyone now knows, a 15,000-pound "anti-personnel" weapon. It delivers scarcely one-thousandth the power of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb--which itself is pathetically puny by today's (even mini-nuke) standards.

What does it mean to scale up by a thousand? Imagine, as a physicist friend did, that you suddenly find yourself serving dinner for 4,000 people instead of four. Making do with the same kitchen, same pots, same glassware. This is a fair comparison, he said, because after all, the Earth itself--the people, the homes, the civilizations--does not change even as firepower increases.

The progression from conventional weapons to nuclear ones is not like going from bra straps to tongue piercing. Closer to summing up the situation is Einstein's remark: "I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones."

Good people will differ on choices of action, but you can't see where you're going if you mistake your destination for wallpaper. Be careful what you normalize. It might just take you out.

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