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The Town That Wasn’t

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, a town began to disappear.  It wasn’t a very large town to start with, but it began to get smaller and smaller, and the harder people worked to get it to grow, it just got smaller. 

It was sort of like a candy machine that you go to these days and you put your money in, and the candy bar you get back this time just isn’t as large as it was last time.  And next time, when you go, it wants more money.   

This is based on a law in physics, or mechanics, or, in this case, in economics, called the Law of Diminishing Returns.  It says that no matter how much work or value you put into something, it’s only going to give you back something less than what you put in.  So if you’ve put 10 ounces of blood, sweat and tears into something, you’re still going to get back only something less than that-9 ounces, or 5 ounces or smaller.  

A classic example, which 75 years ago or so we thought we’d beaten with the invention, or discovery, of the power behind a nuclear reaction, was that we could get out of it more than all the trouble it was to “enrich” the metal into a weapons-grade mass that would end a world war once and for all.   At the time, it was a big relief to call off the whole assault on the Japanese homeland which, it was said, would take months and months if not years more, of house-to-house fighting, to finally subdue the militaristic regime in control of the Japanese.   

As it turns out, now, this many years later, residents of St. Louis area are still finding residual radioactivity from certain properties that, apparently, were used as dumping grounds for our budding atomic industry in those early days.  The whole industry had exploded-no pun intended-on the scene of human history, in just a few years, from it’s residual beginnings in some downtown NYC offices along in 1939 or so, where it’s name was coined, “The Manhattan Project”, finally undergoing its first real-life application as actual bombs over two Japanese cities, seven years later, in 1945.  

So it’s remarkable that in just those few years’ time, we had suddenly a whole new industry on our hands, but with not much of a very good idea of what to do with the spent industrial waste from such industry-way too radioactive to leave safely around just anywhere, but not powerful enough to deliver for either war or peacetime applications. 

As it has turned out so far, it becomes a question as to whether the discovery of atomic power-either as a weapon, or for nuclear power to feed our increasing appetite for ever-more-and-more energy, is worth all the trouble it appears to take, just to dispose of the waste from that industry.  Here again, comes into play the Law of Diminishing Returns. 

If you are returning to that candy bar machine anytime soon, maybe better take a magnifying glass with you and a whole wad of $100 dollar bills.  Governing by the Law of Diminishing Returns, at some point out there on the not-too-distant horizon, a candy bar machine will require an infinite amount of cash and, just in case you happen to nervously drop the candy bar removing it from the machine because you are now heading into abject bankruptcy, the candy bar will be so infinitely tiny you’ll need a magnifying glass to find it down there on the floor somewhere. 

Kip DeVore

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