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I absolutely love Chernobyl (2019) and have watched it many times. But there is still one scene that I don't fully understand.

In Episode 2, "Please Remain Calm", while trying to figure out where the previously detected radiation is coming from, Ulana Khomyuk calls the nuclear power plant in Ignalina. After a short exchange, she hangs up the phone and states: "They're at four. It's not them."

What does that mean? Is "being at four" a common expression that I don't know about? Or are the subtitles at fault here (I checked the ones from the retail Blu-Ray)?

2 Answers 2

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The answer can be found in the script of that episode.

The (unheard) operator at Ignalina Khomyuk is talking to on the phone states: "We've got 4 milliroentgen here, [...]", to which Khomyuk replies: "All right, stay calm."

Thus, "they're at four" refers to the amount of radiation Ignalina is detecting.

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    To add context, its a method of deducing the source - Minsk (where Khomyuk is) has a reading of 8 milli-roentgen, the closest nuclear power station at Ignalina (to the north of Minsk) has a reading of 4 milli-roentgen, so by deduction Minsk is either closer to the source than Ignalina or between the source and Ignalina. They call Chernobyl, which is south of Minsk and thus south of Ignalina, in the hope that Chernobyl can also give them a reading so they can track it down...
    – Moo
    Apr 30, 2023 at 23:03
  • @Moo Isn't "between the source and Ignalina" a subset of "closer to the source than Ignalina"? And I take it they were calling nuclear reactor sites because they would have radiation detecters. May 2, 2023 at 3:31
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    @Acccumulation are we supposed to use legalese in these comments?
    – Moo
    May 2, 2023 at 4:15
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It's a common phrasing, but not an expression in and of itself.

The phrasing omits a certain detail (in this case the units - four of what?), but it is considered irrelevant for what the scene is trying to convey. You can just take it on faith that the speaker knows what they're talking about, and they're conveying that Ignalina is not the source of the issue.

So the direct answer to your question is:

  • Four milliroentgen (see other answer)
  • The subtitles were not wrong
  • "It's not them" is what the viewer should understand - Ignalina is not the source of the issue.
  • "They're at four" is something added for realism. This is realistic conversation between two experts.
    • They mention the concrete measurement, something they are interested in
    • They omit the unit of measurement, which would have been obviously inferred in their current conversation
    • The viewer, not being an expert, cannot obviously infer the omitted unit. However, since this sentence is only added for realism, not to convey narrative detail to the viewer, this is not considered a problem that needs to be solved.
  • Just to prove the point, replace "They're at four" with "None of their shloops have been dingled". Silly as this example is, it doesn't actually impact your understanding (as the viewer) of this scene. It's clearly not a realistic script line, but narratively it tells you as much as you needed to know, i.e. some expert jargon that you're not expected to fully understand.
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    Knowing what the script intended, I disagree. I consider the missing information relevant, as it explains how Khomyuk is able to track down the radiation source (Minsk has 8, Ignalina has 4, thus Chernobyl is a candidate due to its location). Also, the series is quite consistent in providing details throughout, so obfuscating a detail in this particular scene makes little sense. I'd argue that this was an oversight: when the decision was made to 'silence' Ignalina's operator, they should've changed Khomyuk's reply: "There're at four milliroentgen. It's not them." That fixes the scene for me.
    – Fonic
    May 2, 2023 at 7:36
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    @Fonic Not explicitly pointing out something is not the same as willful obfuscation from the viewer. The realism of omitting the mention of milliroentgen is a realistic depiction of what such a conversation would've sounded like.
    – Flater
    May 2, 2023 at 13:33
  • Exactly. That's why I consider it an oversight. It makes no sense to leave out this piece of information on purpose. As for realism: this is a conversation between two scientists, presumably experts in their field. For them to be imprecise by leaving out something as vital as a unit of measurement is actually quite unrealistic, if anything. Science is all about precision and facts. Thus, in real life, Khomyuk's colleague would likely have asked "Four what?" immediately after her statement.
    – Fonic
    May 3, 2023 at 20:17
  • @Fonic: It's not an oversight. An oversight implies it's something that the script writers wouldn't have done had they realized it at the time. This is not the case here. The script writers wrote lines that were both narratively meaningful to the viewer and realistic as to what these people would in reality say to each other. Your assertion that all scientists are pedants who are either unable or unwilling to ever make any inference from an omission during casual conversation is plain ridiculous. Common conversation is not held to the same standard that scientific papers are.
    – Flater
    May 3, 2023 at 22:54
  • Well, it's you who seems to be confused - Khomyuk and Dmitri are scientists, not engineers, and certainly not plant workers. Not sure where you got that from or which other scene you might be referring to. As for "An oversight implies it's something that the script writers wouldn't have done had they realized it at the time.", again: exactly. That's what I consider this to be. They decided to silence the remote side of the phone and forgot to add 'milliroentgen' to Khomyuk's line when they should have to retain all the information, as simple as that. Not sure what's unclear in that regard.
    – Fonic
    May 4, 2023 at 9:50

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