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Double Blasted

Monday, July 16, 2012 - 07:00 PM

In early August of 1945, Tsutomu Yamaguchi had a run of the worst luck imaginable. A double blast of radiation left his future, and the future of his descendants, in doubt. In this short: an utterly amazing survival story that spans ... well, 4 billion years when you get down to it.

On the morning of August 6th, 1945, Tsutomu Yamaguchi was in Hiroshima on a work trip. He was walking to the office when the first atomic bomb was dropped about a mile away. He survived, and eventually managed to get himself onto a train back to his hometown ... Nagasaki. The very next morning, as he tried to convince his boss that a single bomb could destroy a whole city, the second bomb dropped. Sam Kean, whose latest book The Violinist's Thumb scrutinizes the mysteries of our genetic code, tells Jad and Robert the incredible story of what happened to Tsutomu, explains how gamma rays shred DNA, and helps us understand how Tsutomu sidestepped a thousand year curse.

 

Guests:

Sam Kean

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Comments [38]

Elinor L. Rousseau from U.S.A

This was a very interesting story about the bombing attacks on Japan during WW2. Yamaguchi's account was unlike any other but during the podcast there seemed to be no personal health examinations about him post atomic bomb. Though he was healthy he should of had underlying health problems from the radiation. Since most of his DNA was damaged in the blast, I don't think that his reproductive cells would have been exempted from the gamma rays. The main question raised was why birth defects were not passed down directly to the next generation when the P 53 gene was present. I think that there defiantly had to be birth defects in most children born to direct victims of the atomic bomb. Even though the P 53 could fix the damage of the broken nucleotides, I still think that the people had health issues. Whether it was a missing gene or immune deficiency the people affected with gamma rays due to the blast of the atomic bomb could not escape the health problems.

Oct. 20 2014 07:45 PM

I generally adore Radiolab, and I found this segment fascinating but irresponsible. Aside from the grotesque immorality of using nuclear weapons, this story completely glossed over quite a lot of science. Even if Mr Yamaguchi and his offspring had suffered no ill effects from the two blasts, (apparently this is NOT the case), it would only show that he dodged a bullet (or would the analogy be a whole barrage of bullets) TWICE. This proves nothing in terms of statistics. Laboratories do not draw conclusions based on a single test subject.

As for the cheery notion that our genes just repair themselves… then, why is there any such thing as genetic disease? Some genetic afflictions require the same genetic defect from both the mother and the father, the odds of which might be greatly increased by us humans playing nuclear roulette. Others, as in the case of Down’s Syndrome, are caused by a genetic mutation received from just one of the parents.

Nuclear bombs and nuclear accidents have grave consequences. We should never minimize this.

Aug. 12 2014 03:36 PM
MoabUtahNative from Moab, Utah

I wonder if they really tested this mans, (no way am I going to attempt to spell his name), DNA? You don't specify this in your podcast. I live in a town which was originally put "on the map" for uranium found here and the big mining boom that ensued. My father received "down winders" funds for lung problems after working in a uranium mill, which was so horribly notorious for illness, that simply proving you worked there for a certain amount of time, and having one of the problems associated with radiation exposure, automatically qualifies your for the money. My mother's father received the money for a brain tumor, simply for being in an area where the wind from the testing in NV passed over, which just happens is also the location of that uranium mill. My brother in law also got the money. My mother who has had her vocal chords removed from cancer, after never having smoked a cig. or drank any alcohol, rarely drinking even a soda, did not qualify for this money. No good reason why. She was simply told that if she hired an attorney and kept applying she would get it. I guess it works like SSDI. Women can't get the yes nod as easily as men, because "men have families to take care of". That's the reason the State of Utah gave for paying me $2.70 an hour less than my male co-workers for 10 years, so I'm just assuming that this ass-backwards attitude is spread throughout our entire government and not just my State. It's odd to listen to this end of the uranium tale. I have lived in a community that has benefited and suffered from it's harvesting. I wonder if there is any study, or book, about the damage radiation has done, statistically to this community as in comparison to the victims of the A bombs? I was born in 65 and I had two breast tumors removed by age 21. I read somewhere that there was a higher number of benign breast tumors in very young women in Japan in the years following the bombing and that it was attributed to low level radiation exposure over time. That would make my story line up with theirs. No one has ever tested the DNA of anyone in my family or anyone I know of here. I think they are more interested in clean up, than in real evidence at this point. (That's just my opinion of our government but I've seen nothing to show me otherwise). I very much enjoyed your podcast. It makes me wonder if the harvesting and production of natural uranium into plutonium, is more dangerous than being exposed to the bombs. I have watched a generation of mill workers sicken and die quite young in Grand and San Juan Counties, so hearing that this man exposed to two blasts lived to such a ripe old age, is odd to me. Makes me scratch me head. Maybe the less violent and little known story of my town, is more lethal in the end? At least for those not directly burned to death in the blast. I never would have imagined. Thanks again for the story. I did not expect it to end so well.

Aug. 08 2014 09:36 PM
Heather C Ferris

There are higher rates of schizophrenia in the adult children of women exposed to radiation. Let's not underestimate the pure horror of adult onset schizophrenia.

Aug. 08 2014 12:34 PM
queon from austin TX

i didnt know this happend

Jan. 31 2014 03:01 PM
Webster Colcord from Los Angeles

In regards to my comment, I searched around today for an alternative to radiolab. This American Life ... I can only do it so much. Living on Earth... sorry I started to fall asleep at work. I love your show and I'm back to downloading every podcast.

I'll tell you what - I'll take the good with the bad. Just like certain friends of mine, you guys have your quirks and I'll just accept it.

I hope Robert can forgive my accusatory tone from yesterday.

Mar. 13 2013 09:14 PM
Webster Colcord from Los Angeles

In this podcast, I can't help but take note of how the hosts make a real effort to refer to the American nuclear bombs in the passive tense. Never acknowledging who dropped them. Saying instead that "Japan was at war" and (I think Robert) even slipping in slipping in the phrase regarding radiation poisoning, "like a biblical curse".

This tone also strengthens, in my opinion, Ms. Yang's argument in the controversial episode about "Yellow Rain"; it's a passive indifference that undercuts the human suffering and efforts toward atonement.

As an American, I would be fine with you taking :30 to own-up to the fact that we dropped the bombs and we had our reasons. You've done it before - it usually starts with, "Just to give a little context here..."

You guys have a very narrow point of view that is eccentric to your class and context. It's kind of cool and one of the reasons I listen but I think you need to realize that some of your listeners can see the bubble you're in. And I think Robert needs to take a look in the mirror at his attitudes toward Asian folks.

Mar. 12 2013 07:16 PM
Dave King from Mannheim, Germany

If less than 1ms of Gamma Rays is enough to damage your DNA, how did the American moon-astronauts fly through the Van Allen Belt unharmed?

Jan. 22 2013 01:19 PM
aaa from Manassas, VA

Thanks to providers, presenters, of Radiolab's interesting programs.
After listening to the story of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, entitled "Double-Blasted," I also read all the comments. One thing that I noticed was missing in this life- and science-oriented presentation and its related comments was an explicit reference to the fact that science remains neutral, until its use and application, which would determine whether it is used for constructive and/or destructive purposes, e.g., the use of two nuclear bombs in Japan or even all the war equipment used on all sides, which after all were/are the result of scientific studies, discovery, technology, industry, as well as economic and political exigencies.
However, I was most intrigued by one of the presenters' use of the term "guardian angel" for the p53 gene, relating it to a mysterious gene (phenomenon) that plays the role of the "guardian gene." Hence, my question and wonder:
1) Are there subjective, invisible, untouchable, intangible, unobservable, ..., phenomena, beings, elements, creatures in life, in general?
2) If yes, how important is their role in sustaining life?
3) Again, if yes, does every objective phenomenon have a subjective dimension and characteristic, too?
4) If so, since they are not observable by our senses, how can they be identified to verify their existence and their role in life, particularly in human behavior?
5) It is an established fact that temporal and nominal leaders, followers and institutions of prominent religions for centuries failed to realize the important role of science, and thus the objective phenomena in life, while the prevalent narrative dictates that if something is not scientifically observable, it is not even mentionable. Where does that mysterious savior gene/"guardian angel" fit in this story?
6) If there are elements in life like the p53 gene that are so important that they can be labeled/characterized as our guardian, yet we disregard them just because we do not see, hear, touch them, just because they objectively and scientifically cannot be observed, and then we dismiss them, wouldn't the scientific community make the same mistake, ignoring intangible phenomena, just as those who dismissed objective phenomena as described by science?

As an example, some of the objective characteristics of blood are its color, temperature, fluidity, pressure, red and white, cells, etc., all of which are objectively, scientifically observable. However, there are other characteristics attributed to blood making it the symbol of individual identity, such as fear, anger, passion, shame, bravery, and so forth, none of which can be observed or measured until their effect appears. Therefore, neither the objective nor the subjective characteristics of blood can be dismissed.

Dec. 27 2012 03:31 PM
Kevin

The Japs would not give up in the war, and that made them quit and it saved a bunch of american soldiers lives.

Dec. 18 2012 12:10 PM

I just listened to this podcast, months after it was presented, and was shocked by the ommision of any referal to the immoral, shortsighted, ill-considered nature of these attacks by the USA on innocent civilians. Although the question of whether the attacks were morally or legally justified or not was not the topic of the program, it seems to me that it was extremely insensitive not to at least have acknowledged the moral questions that surround these events.
You also created the impression that all is well in Chernobyl, an area which is in the process of being entombed in an enormous dome of steel, lead and concrete. Decades after the disaster, children are still being born with mutations and birth defects due to radiation.
By ommitting an adequte account of the suffering which still continues today at the locations of nuclear disasters, you've made light of some horrendous crimes, including those commited by the USA.

Dec. 07 2012 05:02 AM
Pica

To pick up a thread already touched on, I also found the tone of this piece a little offensively whimsical. I have no doubt about the good intentions of the hosts. However, when I heard one of them say "wait, he went back to work at Mitsubishi?...chuckle" all I could think of was how little we as a country take responsibility for the bombing--in our upbringing, our textbooks, in our general "story of America." I could never imagine in a million years the host saying "wait, he went back to work at Treblinka?...chuckle." That just wouldn't come out of an American's mouth. And yet here, we dropped a nuclear bomb on thousands (I don't know, was it millions?) of civilians. I'm certainly not trying to equate Nazis with the american government, not at all, I would not want to equate things in two different contexts, nor do I believe that. And I'm aware of all the arguments that dropping this bomb shortened the war. It's a complex topic. But what amazes me is that it's so deeply ingrained into our consciousness that Americans do no wrong, that in this case the well meaning hosts sound as if they want to turn a massacre into a science project, at least in tone. It's wonderful to live in a country that always feels like it is a beacon of light to the world, and truly, I think in many ways we are the best that one could expect of a world power. It's just that in this one case, it has always seemed to me that we have swept our biggest crime under the rug.

Oct. 02 2012 01:32 AM
kst from Salmon, Idaho

The story as related is truthful to an extent but many of the actual facts have been left out and that is disconcerting.The most important being about his health.
Later in his life, he began to suffer from radiation-related ailments, including cataracts and acute leukemia.He was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2009, which he died from. His wife also suffered radiation poisoning from black rain after the Nagasaki explosion and died in 2008 of kidney and liver cancer after a lifetime of illness.

Sep. 11 2012 10:06 PM
CC from MA

Riveting story as usual. Makes me more curious about the full consequences/outcomes of recombinant DNA

Sep. 06 2012 06:58 AM
Sally from Milwaukee

If you google Tsutomu Yamaguchi, you'll find a NY Times story from January 6, 2010, headlined Tsutomu Yamaguchi, Survivor of 2 Atomic Blasts, dies at 93. His children did indeed have health problems; a son died of cancer at 59 and his sites has been chronically ill throughout her life. They think the health problems came from their mother who was also poisoned from the Nagasaki blast.

Aug. 24 2012 01:42 PM
Antonio from San Luis

Mr. Aboumrad: After listening to this horrifying story, do you feel, as an american, a little guilty?

Aug. 22 2012 03:49 PM
Nicky

I was so psyched that Radiolab covered some DNA repair ground in the recent episode, and so bummed out that their guest implied that cells can't repair double strand DNA breaks. Our cells CAN repair double strand breaks, and only die when there are a heck of a lot of them. It's super cool that it works and It's part of the main reason why chemotherapy and radiation can kill cancer instead of us. And that amazing man who survived two nuclear bombs must have had some monster good genetics that helped him repair those breaks double time. So... anyways, I just felt like giving a shout out and a word up to the double strand break repair pathways.

Aug. 17 2012 08:08 PM
Mack from Wisconsin

In response to a comment regarding fewer cases of birth defect among explosed population.
Due to wide spread facts and rumors of A-bomb rediation affects, those who were exposed did not, would not and could not get married.
Certainly, there were higter % of deformity and chronically weak children born from those who had been exposed.
I am a post war Japanese but even I knew several who stayed single for life bacause of the bomb.

Aug. 16 2012 03:19 PM
Jim

AWesome work guys!

Aug. 07 2012 04:31 AM

I was a child when the bombs hit Japan and I have wondered for all my adult live anyway how the radiation affected the health of the Japanese. I believe this is the first report of any kind I've heard about the subject and I thank you very much for it. Well Done.

Aug. 02 2012 05:37 PM
James McWhorter from Lexington, KY

I just finished listening to this podcast. Great job!

Quick comment - Mr. Yamaguchi dies at an old age after being exposed TWICE to radiation.

I remember hearing that the cancer rates between the United States and Japan are very different and is due to several factors; including diet.

I think I'll be drinking more green tea and vegetables!

Aug. 02 2012 01:22 AM
tonioalucema from seattle

FloraZena, I think your taking the laughter way, way out of context. The little bit of laughter that was heard was a reaction to how crazy of a coincidence it was, not mocking or laughing about this man's fate. Robert and Jad are brilliant in painting a mental picture and are so successful in this because they use emotion freely. Sometimes its dead silence after a statement and sometimes its laughing at unbelievable circumstances. Whether the story turns out to be a hoax or not, it was a great listen and I probably wouldn't have heard this story elsewhere.

Keep up the good work fellas!!

Aug. 01 2012 02:17 PM
Tom

Can anyone ID the music at the end of the episode??

Jul. 31 2012 11:40 PM
CR from Canada

Yeah, i have to agree with FloraZena Hamburger there-- there was definitely a little too much whimsy in the description of Yamaguchi's story ("and then he got on the train...TO NAGASAKI!! OMG!!" That was so not necessary. A little too much distance from the subject there.).

In addition, his story as you presented it didn't ring true in a lot of places, like it was TOO good of a story in a lot of ways. I seriously doubt he literally saw the bomb be released from the plane at 31,060 feet, and i even more seriously doubt the second bomb went off JUST as the friend was doubting his story about a bomb that powerful (ho ho). They're just the kind of too-perfect details that often indicate an embellished tale (and that's all i'm saying it could be-- embellished, as opposed to fake or whatever). I get that you're recounting the story from another source, but how reliable is that source?

Jul. 29 2012 01:41 PM
FloraZena Hamburger

Normally, I'm a big fan of your work, but I have to say, I was frankly offended by the offhanded way you laughed at Mr. Yamaguchi's fate in being in both Hiroshima and then Nagasaki during the bomb blasts. I wonder if you realize how callously you came off in telling this story.... I don't think nuclear bombs and war are at all funny and even though I am sure you don't either, the way you discussed the 'amazing chance' that he would be a victim of both blasts for me, totally undercut the horror that the Japanese people and this person specifically was subjected to and undermines the power and humanity of this story. I wanted to hear the whole podcast and learn about the scientific ideas you relate, so, resisted the urge to turn it off midway, but I was disappointed and a bit disgusted by this aspect of the piece.

Jul. 28 2012 02:33 PM
Bryony from Melbourne, Australia

I have a quick question - in the podcast it said that very few children were born with birth defects. I was just wondering if there is any data on the length of time it took couples to conceive/general fecundity and the number of miscarriages before and after the blasts? I thought it might be possible that any genetic mutations that weren't corrected/stopped by p-53 might also have resulted in natural abortions.

Very interesting episode - great work as always guys :D

Jul. 24 2012 12:27 AM
erin from Rochester

I heard Mr. Yamaguchi's story was recently discovered to be a hoax, but I can not find any further details. Has anyone else heard something similar?

Jul. 23 2012 12:57 AM
BR On the Road from Oshkosh, WI

I read Mr. Yamaguchi's story a few years ago. The most interesting result of his double exposure to gamma rediation was that he was cured of cancer. According to the story, he was being treated for cancer prior to the first blast. He live to an old age and remained cancer free.

Jul. 21 2012 12:18 PM
kk from home

;hahah "biblical course", I thought earlier, you might be having the "Jesus gene" mr. Robert.

strong story tho
Good work and Best wishes

Jul. 20 2012 03:44 PM
Paul from Langley, WA

I was listening to this short while riding the ferry to work this morning. Just as your were describing the flash of the Hiroshima bomb, lightening flashed outside the window. It really brought another dimension to a riveting show.

Jul. 20 2012 12:19 PM
Judas Gutenberg from Hurley, NY

You guys are great, but you really missed a teachable moment with this story. In going over the reasons Mr. Yamaguchi's children turned out okay despite the fact that he'd been blasted by gamma rays twice, you failed to impart a bit of fundamental (though oft-neglected) wisdom that comes to us straight from Charles Darwin: survival of the fittest. Though we as individuals accumulate damage in our somatic cells (and also in our gametes) throughout our lives, with every new generation, all our genes pass through a very restrictive sieve. This is the filter that not only keep populations from going gradually into genetic decline, but which allows them the potential to improve. It's possible that 80% of Mr. Yamaguchi's sperm cells carried genes destroyed by one or both nuclear blasts, but if that resulted in serious defects, the resulting baby would not be carried to term. Any successful birth would be from a baby would reasonably good genes. The process of going from one generation to the next is a huge copy edit for the genome. You mention that lots of babies born in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki area were microencephlatic, but those babies were probably well along in their development when the bombs exploded. I have my doubts that there were many radiation-caused birth defects to babies that were conceived after the blasts.

Jul. 18 2012 09:15 PM
Geena from Denton, TX

It's beautiful how the P-53 gene--the gene that can force a cell to commit suicide when its damage is so great it comes a threat to the body--is like... well, it's like a biological form of Seppuku, a sort of honorable death. How wonderfully and coincidentally appropriate is that connection between culture (that of the protagonist, Yamaguchi) and biology? It boggles the mind.

Great episode!

Jul. 18 2012 03:32 PM
Geena from Denton, TX

It's so beautiful that the P-53 gene, which can force a cell to commit suicide when it becomes a threat to the rest of the body, acts like... well, like a biological form of Seppuku. Even though Seppuku is an ancient practice, how culturally and coincidentally appropriate is that connection? It boggles the mind.

Great episode!

Jul. 18 2012 03:27 PM
John Steward from White Plains, NY

Outstanding story and well done as usual. BTW, you seemed somewhat disappointed that Mr. Yamaguchi didn't display any effects of the two blasts to his DNA. Perhaps the damage was so large that the damaged cells just died.

On a smaller scale, perhaps you could do a show on epigenetics. There has been a study of a remote village in Norway where the effects of a famine were tracked over multiple generations. (The life expectancy for men jumped.) Recently (the last two months?) another study has shown that exposure to some contaminants have had effects over 3 and 4 generations. Epigenetics seems to say that long segments of DNA appear to be silent because environmental factors haven't turned them on. Once turned on, they stay on for multiple generations. There's some interesting middle ground here.
All the best,
John

Jul. 18 2012 08:34 AM
Alan Tirado from Huntington Beach

Amazing story, love this show!

Jul. 17 2012 05:50 PM
Brian from CA

Another great show. Outstanding. Mr. Yamaguchi seems to have been either the unluckiest or the luckiest person I have ever heard of. I guess he is both.

Jul. 17 2012 04:47 PM
Promilla from Poland

It's a great shame that your episodes are so so rare and you don't do more podctasts. . . ; (

Jul. 17 2012 03:56 PM
JP from seattle

great episode!

Jul. 17 2012 11:46 AM

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