A Tale of Two Islands

On Earth there are two curious islands—or there were, or there should be—as real as you and me, but you cannot visit them. There is no visa restriction or anything like that; in fact, I can tell you exactly where they ... well, where they belong. They are, of course, very far from here and, of course, they have names in languages other than English. They were—or would be—created by different processes and there are different reasons you can’t visit them. How odd that something should be real and tangible and impossible to experience.

One way to get an island is to start with something that isn’t an island and then change it until it becomes one. Thousands of miles from where we sit, deep beneath the sea, a volcanic mountain due to become the next Hawaiian island is "under construction," much as a vacation resort might be created: the tropical locale has been determined, there is an estimated project completion time, it will be paradise when it is finished, and construction occurs around the clock. Oh, it won't be done for thousands or millions of years, but someday it will have a spectacular debut with moving pictures broadcast around the globe, when the sea spews fire and the area of the U.S. grows just a teeny bit. We saw it happen with the Icelandic island of Surtsey in the 1960s; you could say that the same factory is responsible for this project. Our new Hawaiian island already has a name: it is called "Lo’ihi" or "long one," and we'll never, ever spend a vacation there.

A coral atoll, by comparison, is created when a reef is able to keep its top at or above the surface of the ocean. The reef grows higher with the benefit of sunlight as coral organisms grow and die and leave their skeletons in an ever-growing pile. For all of the boring ways that an atoll could disappear, with mankind’s participation the process can be rather spectacular. On a beautiful day in 1952, in an ocean whose name means "peaceful," the atoll of Elugelab was spontaneously replaced with an underwater crater during the milliseconds in which the world entered the thermonuclear age. You could say that this was Mike’s fault, if you knew that "Mike" was the nickname of the world’s first hydrogen bomb. Thousands of times larger than the bomb that leveled Hiroshima, Mike was minute in comparison to modern weapons. Today you can fly over Mike’s handiwork in the Pacific nation of Palau and see the mile-wide circle of dark blue in the sea, a place that I would like to rename "Nothing Atoll." (I like the sound of the pun.) You'll never spend a night on Elugelab, but if you were downwind of Mike in 1952, perhaps Elugelab has already visited you.

Thor Heyerdahl once wrote that the moon was the closest land that was visible to the inhabitants of Easter Island, to which I would add that the moon is one "island" whose construction was completed a long time ago; you can count on it being there for a very long time to come and—most curious of all—in 1969, some folks on a business trip proved that one could actually drop in for a visit.

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