Thursday, January 13, 2011


On September 13, 1987, two unemployed young men in search of a fast buck entered a partly demolished radiation clinic in Goiania, Brazil. They removed a derelict cancer therapy machine containing a stainless steel cylinder about the size of a gallon paint can, which they sold to a junk dealer for twenty-five dollars. Inside the cylinder was a cake of crumbly powder that emitted a mysterious blue light. The dealer took the seemingly magical material home and distributed it to family and friends. His six-year-old niece rubbed the glowing dust on her body. One might imagine that she danced, eerily glowing in the sultry darkness of the tropic night like an enchanted elfin spite.

The dust was cesium-137, a highly radioactive substance. The light was the result of the decay of the cesium atoms. Another product of the decay was a flux of invisible particles with the power to damage living cells. The girl died. Others died or became grievously sick. More than two hundred people were contaminated.

I wrote about this episode long ago in a Globe column, subsequently adapted in The Virgin and the Mousetrap. The image of the girl dancing in the tropic night has never left me. I see her even today, whirling in a diaphanous cotton dress, luminous, like a lovely moth. A refulgent dust, an agent of healing, had become an instrument of death.

Knowledge always has the potential for harm. The care and use of knowledge requires wisdom and restraint.