Did the HBO show do justice to a constant, complicated issue?
I was totally engrossed in HBO’s Chernobyl when it came out in 2019.
The historical drama miniseries, which revolves around the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster and the cleanup efforts that followed, was lauded for its brilliant production design and tight scriptwriting, elevating the human stories behind the recent history. It won an Emmy and a Golden Globe, and was particularly praised for some of its more overt messages.
In The Atlantic, Sophie Gilbert praised it as a “grim disquisition on the toll of devaluing the truth,” and many other reviews continued in a similar vein. After all, this is the show that takes a recurring question of “how does a [specific type of] nuclear reactor explode” and in the final episode answers it, quite simply: “lies.”
But even when I watched the miniseries for the first time, I wasn’t quite satisfied with that explanation.
Because, yes, the show is trying really hard to be a meditation on the human costs of truth and falsehood – and it succeeds at that in some really important ways. But it also has another, equally important thread running through it:
This is a show about the importance of science communication.
There are lots of examples of science communication done well – or, just as often (and, in fairness, this is reflective of real life) done really badly – over the course of the five episodes.
Take, for example, this exchange between nuclear physicist Ulana Khomyuk (a composite character representing the many scientists who worked on investigation and cleanup efforts at Chernobyl, played by Emily Watson) and a low-level politician who has the power to help:
Khomyuk: I know about Chernobyl. I know that the core is either partially or completely exposed.
Politician: Whatever that means.
Khomyuk: And if you don’t immediately issue iodine tablets and then evacuate the city, hundreds of thousands of people are going to get cancer, and God knows how many more will die.
Politician: Yes, very good. There has been an accident at Chernobyl. But I’ve been assured there is no problem.
Khomyuk: I’m telling you that there is.
Politician: I prefer my opinion to yours.
Khomyuk: I’m a nuclear physicist. Before you were Deputy Secretary, you worked in a shoe factory.
Politician: Yes, I worked in a shoe factory. And now I’m in charge.
The show chooses to frame this scene entirely from the (painfully accurate) angle of “a highly qualified woman gets shut down by an incompetent man,” but it’s also an excellent example of science communication gone wrong. Even though Khomyuk did a lot of things right here while under duress (particularly, her clear explanation of the next steps that needed to be taken, and the consequences of not doing so), there are also elements I think scientists can learn from.
Not everyone will have the same knowledge base as you, which means, just because you’re aware of a serious problem that should have everyone scrambling to fix it, the person you’re talking to won’t necessarily know that this matters, why this matters, or indeed why they should be listening to you about it.
And yes, to be clear, this politician (as depicted in the show, at least) was an ass. But if he had been able to frame this conversation as a “meeting of experts” (her nuclear physics background, his knowledge of the sectors he has power over), would they have been able to make some progress here?
I know these aren’t the primary questions woven through Chernobyl’s narrative arcs. But they were certainly ones that I’m still thinking about in 2021.