In Blood Stepped In So Far
Shakespeare’s Macbeth is intelligent but not smart. Unable to control his ambition, he embarks on a murderously selfish path that unites opposition against him. Late in the play (Act 3, Scene 4) he realizes his plans are unlikely to succeed. Should he change course? No. “I am in blood stepped in so far that, should I wade no more, returning were as tedious as go o’er” (I’m in so deep it would be as hard to go back as to go on). Russia’s dictator is every bit as ambitious as Macbeth. Deep down he probably knows he’s made an enormous mistake by attacking Ukraine. But his actions suggest he lacks Macbeth’s intelligence, which means he hasn’t spent even a moment mulling an alternative to going o’er.
So it’s no surprise that Peter Berezin, the chief global strategist (read that “risk manager for international finance”) at BCA Research, a prominent Canadian investment firm, estimates a ten percent chance of catastrophic nuclear war within the next year stemming from Russia’s attack on Ukraine.
I wanted to get a sense of what that might be like for my little household, so I went to Nukemap and asked what would happen if a Russian Topol SS-25 800 kiloton nuclear missile detonated above the heart of San Francisco. Russia has much higher-yielding missiles than the SS-25, but San Francisco is a relatively small target (roughly seven miles square) surrounded on three sides by water, so a larger warhead wouldn’t be necessary, especially using an air burst, which causes wider harm from the explosion. Here are the estimated results:
- About 493,000 people would die and 506,000 would be injured — one million casualties.
- The fireball radius would be roughly half a mile across and would vaporize everything within it.
- Moderate damage (compared to the fireball) would envelop city limits, flattening virtually every building and killing or maiming virtually every living thing.
- Light damage (compared to the moderate damage described above) would extend to where I live, about twelve miles from the fireball, and at the very least include shattered windows. At this distance, harm from heat and radiation would depend on blast altitude and atmospheric conditions.
Silicon Valley would likely get its own, bigger blast. Heck, we might even get one here in Berkeley. Where else can you kill six or seven Nobel Prize winners with one bomb?
And if this is going to happen, none of us can stop it, any more than the bewildered citizens of Ukraine could stop the tanks from rolling over the border or the rockets from falling on their cities.
No wonder, then, that Shakespeare’s bleakest soliloquy — bleaker even than Hamlet’s “To Be or Not To Be” or Richard II’s “This Prison Where I Live” — is spoken by Macbeth when the consequences of his actions become too clear to deny:
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
I think that’s true in the larger sense. But many of us find a great deal of significance in our ordinary little lives. I look at The Fabulous Wife doing a jigsaw puzzle at the kitchen table and my cats contentedly sleeping in the living room, and my most fervent hope is that our peaceful little house remains so until we all die of old age — the Putins of this world notwithstanding.