OPEN THREAD 20200129

Basically, all legal free speech is allowed. We will assist the authorities in dealing with illegal speech. You are each other’s moderators. Have fun. And don’t forget to MAGA at nuclear levels.

Citizen U

Day 84 – POLONIUM.

24 thoughts on “OPEN THREAD 20200129

  1. I’ve previously mentioned that I grew up in a STEM household — my parents have 5 STEM degrees between them. And when I was growing up, there was this series of “kid books” — about a 2nd-grade reading level — about scientists and inventors. They were illustrated, and just barely wider than they were tall, in pale yellow. Two that I remember we had were Thomas Edison and Marie Curie.

    And polonium takes me back to the story of the Curies…..their hard work, their initial successes, the unexpected tragedy of Pierre Curie’s death, the political resistance to recognizing Marie as a scientist in her own right, continued efforts, and glorious triumph of being the first person ever awarded a second Nobel…..as seen through the astigmatic eyes of a very young techie fanboi.

    Yeah, it’s toxic and radioactive…..but I’ll always have a warm spot in my heart for the element.

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  2. There’s not really a nice handle to pull the fun stuff about polonium out of the dry and boring, so this evening’s comments are likely to be a bit more disconnected than usual. We’ll start with WHY it was discovered….with a slight detour into WWII.

    There is a place along the border of today’s Germany and the Czech Republic that is known as the “Ore Mountains”. It is one of the places where modern mining was invented — and, later, where mining and metallurgy went from being a craft to being an industry. Through several peculiar quirks in geology, you could find several adjacent mines there that produced different metals.

    Although taking place after our contact with polonium, this is a large part of the “Sudetenland” that was granted to Hitler in hopes it would slake his hunger and avert WWII. As is usual with Danegeld, it appeared to make things better for a year or so, but afterward made things much, much, much worse.

    One of the substances encountered in the ore mountains was pitchblende — a substance named for being black (“pitch”) and mixed so that nothing useful could be made of it (“blende”). Even though the material had been known since the 15th Century as a contaminant in silver mines, it got an official description in 1772. After that, it only took until 1789 before a bright guy (who we’ll meet in a few days) discovered uranium in it. Not much after that (1829), pitchblende was also found to contain thorium.

    Fast forward to 1896, when Henri Becquerel managed to slap a caliper on radiation (his Wikipedia entry states that he “discovered radioactivity” — SMH). One of the first things to be noted when you can run around measuring the radioactivity of things is that pitchblende is radioactive; uranium is radioactive; thorium is radioactive……but the sludge you have left from pitchblende after you pull out the uranium and thorium is MORE RADIOACTIVE than either raw pitchblende, uranium, or thorium.

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  3. The first element that Pierre and Marie Curie pulled out of that radioactive sludge was Polonium. It was named after Marie’s homeland, Poland. She was originally born Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Warsaw, although all of the work she is known for was in Paris, France.

    When Polonium was discovered, in 1898, historical Poland was partitioned between Germany, the Russian Empire, and the Austria-Hungarian Empire.

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  4. As a final note for Marie, her personal papers are available for research. However, because of their levels of radioactive contamination, her papers from the 1890s are considered too dangerous to handle. Even her cookbook is highly radioactive. Her papers are kept in lead-lined boxes, and those who wish to consult them must wear protective clothing.

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  5. The longest-lived natural isotope of polonium is Po-210, with a half-life of 138 days. The longest-lived synthetic isotope is Po-209, which has a half-life of about 125 years. As can be imagined, this makes polonium a very rare element.

    This is fortunate, because polonium is an extremely toxic substance — about 250,000 times more toxic by weight than hydrogen cyanide…..which seems peculiar because polonium does not have toxic chemical properties. It just has a habit of getting into inconvenient places and radiating.

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  6. Po-210 has the uncanny ability to become airborne with ease: if a sample is heated in air to 55 °C (131 °F), 50% of it is vaporized in 45 hours to form diatomic Po2 molecules, even though the melting point of polonium is 254 °C (489 °F) and its boiling point is 962 °C (1,764 °F). Considering the extreme toxicity of inhaled polonium, this should be of concern to anyone within several meters.

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  7. During the Manhattan Project, polonium was administered to five patients with incurable disease in order to determine how (if) it would be excreted. Presumably, they were volunteers, and benefits accrued to their heirs.

    On the other hand, polonium was administered to Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, against his will, as a means of assassination. He was a KGB agent who had defected to the British MI6. Took him about 21 days to die.

    Polonium poisoning is a pretty solid clue that state-level actors are responsible, as there isn’t enough polonium laying around that just anyone can grab some and put it in a teacup.

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  8. One day, a reporter for a suburban newspaper happened upon a construction site with a sign that ominously warned: “DANGER. RADIOACTIVE MATERIALS.”

    Driven by the prospect of a hard-hitting expose, he made a quick call to his editor, then returned to the scene to investigate. The construction supervisor looked unhappy to see him; “I’ll tell you the truth,” he said, “but I’m going to ask you not to publish what I say.”

    “This is just like the movies,” thought the reporter.

    The supervisor continued, “There’s nothing radioactive on this site. That sign has been the only way to keep our lumber from being stolen.”

    Liked by 1 person

  9. A man walks up to a librarian and asks, “Do you have any books on Pavlov’s dogs and Schrödinger’s cat?” The librarian responds, “It rings a bell but I’m not sure if it’s here or not.”

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  10. Heisenberg went for a drive on the autobahn and got stopped by a traffic cop. The cop asked, “Do you know how fast you were going?” Heisenberg replied, “No, but I know where I am.”

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  11. I should point out that I’m nothing special. If anyone else wanted to bring an observation about polonium, a random musical thing, or a joke, they are welcome to contribute.

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  12. OK…my long dissertation on radioactive isotopes is written.

    But given the time, I’m gonna hold it for tomorrow. It’s just as relevant any time in the next few days as it is today, honestly, so at least more people will see it that way.

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