OPEN THREAD 20200131

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 86 – RADON.

36 thoughts on “OPEN THREAD 20200131

  1. Radon is right on the direct decay path in the thorium and uranium series, and is not ridiculously far off of it on the actinium series. As such…it’s much more common than actinium.

    I even got to do an experiment in a lab for physics class where we let a sample of radon gas (taken off some ore, or perhaps a sample of radium) into a chamber, and counted its decays and could see how it would decline fairly rapidly with time; we could plot the counts per minute decreasing in accordance with the half life.

    I’m guessing it was radon-220 with a 55 second half life (it would fit my recollections), but it was a long time ago, I just don’t remember. That’s part of the thorium series and EVERY thorium 232 atom is fated to eventually spend a minute or so (on average) as a radon-220 atom. But a given thorium atom has about 15 billion years to prepare for that fate.

    Radon is found in basements because it seeps out of rock (granite contains uranium, granite buildings tend to have higher-than-background levels of radioactivity as a consequence). It’s hazardous, because, of course, it’s in the air, and what you breathe in will turn into polonium while its in your lungs, or end up as polonium on dust molecules. And polonium, as people who piss Putin off will tell you, is nasty stuff.

    Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia’s chart on radon isotopes; I kept only the rows that appear in nature:

    217-Rn .54(5) ms α 213Po
    218-Rn 35(5) ms α 214Po
    219-Rn Actinon Actinium emanation 3.96(1) s α 215Po
    220-Rn Thoron Thorium emanation 55.6(1) s α 216Po
    β−β− (rare) 220Ra
    222-Rn Radium emanation 3.8235(3) d α 218Po

    Hopefully the columns will be preserved…I won’t know until I post, then it’s too late to fix. But if not…the first column is the isotope, The second column is names given to that isotope when it was first discovered…and therein hangs a tale which I’ll get to. The next column is the h alf life in milliseconds, seconds or days. Then the decay mode, usually alpha particle, but in one case, rarely it can do a double beta decay–two simultaneous beta decays, and jump to the right TWO slots on the periodic table (back to radium) with the same weight. Finally, the isotope it becomes.

    OK, a lot of these isotopes were first discovered before we had any concept of an element having multiple isotopes. So we’d look at one lump of ore, and find a radioactive gas with a four second half life with an atomic weight of 219. Then a different lump of ore (different decay series), emitting a gas with a 56 second half life, and an atomic weight of 220. Then another, with a four day half life and an atomic weight of 222. Now, back then, we had no concept of isotopes; tin (which actually has ten naturally-found isotopes) had an atomic weight equal to the average weight of a tin atom (which could have ten different weights in different proportions).

    So when we had gases with three different weights, and three different half lives, we figured they were three different gases, and gave them different names! Those are given in the table above. Rn222 was originally given the name radon (among others) and that’s the name that eventually stuck when we sorted things out and realized all three gases were really isotopes of the same element.

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  2. OK, continuing from SteveinCO’s great explication of decay chains in yesterday’s thread (which you should go read if you haven’t)…..radon is produced on the way from something heavier to something lighter. The most stable isotope, Rn-222, is the result of radium-226 decay, and will decay to polonium-218 on the U-238 chain. Rn-220 is a result of Ra-224 decay, and will decay to Po-216 on the Thorium chain. Rn-221 can be the result of Ra-225 decay or At-221 turning a neutron into a proton — but in either case will decay to Po-217 on the U-235 chain.

    So, most of the time, the immediate precursor to radon is some form of radium, and the immediate daughter is some form of polonium. What makes this particularly intriguing is that both radium and polonium are solid, while radon is a gas. Solids tend to sit there. Gases tend to spontaneously mingle with other gases and drift around. And, like all such activity, these transformations occur atom by atom.

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    1. Now, this can have some other weird effects. For instance, let us take the pleasant substance Radium Chloride — RaCl2. It’s a colorless, luminous compound.

      Every time one of its radium atoms goes “bloink” and becomes a radon, the radon no longer wants anything to do with common chlorine — it’s now a Noble Gas. And both gases will blow away — the radon to accumulate in a basement, and the chlorine to attack the next substance it encounters.

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      1. Later, when the radon is gaseously drifting around, doing its thing, then goes “bloink” and becomes a polonium, it will naturally fall to the ground. Of course, it is a single atom, somewhere in an atmosphere — imagine the finest dust you’ve ever encountered, and get finer and finer still until there are 6.023 x 10^23 particles stuffed into an insectivore. That kind of dust could drift around for a while, even if it is so heavy an element. It wouldn’t take much for that kind of dust particle to get kicked back up into the air a few times by tiny wind currents.


  3. Of course if you ever somehow managed to amass a signficant quantity of radon (say, enough to fill a balloon) it would sink to the ground; it’s MUCH heavier than air…like about six times as heavy.

    But it wouldn’t manage to do that; the balloon would catch fire instantly from all the heat that much radon would be giving off from its radiactivtiy. And you would be dead.

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      1. The “here all week” applies to me, not the radon…..the longest half-life of any isotope of radon is 3.82 days for radon-222 (which is entirely unrelated to Walt Whitman High School’s American History class).

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        1. And speaking of artifacts from the 70’s that have not aged well…..let’s have a distinctly not creepy, totally wholesome musical interlude from 1978…..


          1. I was actually looking for Lloyd Haynes, Denise Nicholas, Michael Constantine, or Karen Valentine. They all starred in a show created by James L. Brooks called, “Room 222” [not Radon-222] — which was based in an American History classroom in the fictional LA-area Walt Whitman High School.

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  4. It would be kind of cool if we could somehow suppress radioactivity, even if only temporarily. Under normal circumstances nothing affects it, not cold, not heat, not pressure.

    There was a science fiction story in Analog a few years back–OK it was probably back in the 90s. I can’t remember the name or the author. The plot, basically, was that the main character found out his ex girlfriend (ex by her choice, not his), worked in a research lab; she worked in a differnt part of the same company and she ended up accidentally getting a lethal dose of a radioactive cesium isotope and was going to die within a week.

    He figured out how to rebuild an MRI machine to squash nuclei back into spherical shapes (the idea being that radioactivity results from nuclei becoming elongated because of their instability) That would reset the “half life” clock for the nuclei (from what little I know, that’s probably very dubious science). So he manages to push all the cesium nuclei that were about to decay back into shape. She’s able to live out her life, as long as she periodically went back into the nucleus-moosher to reset all those cesium atoms….meanwhile she’s constantly taking drugs to flush the crap out of her system.

    The boy got the girl of course. The doctor who had the task of trying to save her walked away from his now completely non-radioactive patient, singing Beethoven/Schiller’s Ode to Joy. He’d never have to watch someone die of radiation poisoning, ever again.

    Come to think of it, that’s the name of the story: Ode to Joy.

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  5. On my first visit to Europe, 42 years ago, our tour group stopped for lunch somewhere and I got a bottle of mineral water. It was labelled in Italian (since we were in Italy), and it had a guaranteed analysis printed on the label. I was puzzling out what it said and hit something about “xxxx mmC”, which was something I was unfamiliar with.

    Our tour leader explained that the bottle was claiming that it contained a certain number of milli-micro-Curies, because a certain amount of radiation in your water was supposed to give you “zip”. [One does wonder about the shelf-life…..]

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  6. While we’re in that European travel mode…..let’s visit the beautiful town of Bad Gastein in Austria. It’s a spa town, founded around the Heilstollen (“healing tunnel”) where its thermal springs run before heading out into the open. No less a personage that Marie Curie, herself, went there and noted that the spring water contained radon. And thus was born “radon therapy”, where people intentionally breathed an atmosphere containing roughly 43,000 (avg) [although 160,000 Bq/m^3 peak] of the gas.

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  7. Let’s see…..

    A doctor and a lawyer were both at a reception. The lawyer noticed that people were constantly coming over to the doctor. “Why are so many people coming over to you?” asked the lawyer. “It’s terrible,” sighed the doctor, “ever since I became a doctor I don’t have a moments peace, people are constantly coming over to me for medical advice.” “I’ll tell you what I do,” said the lawyer with a sneer , “I send them a bill in the mail.” The doctor agreed with the lawyer that this was a good solution. The next day, upon getting his mail, he was surprised to see a letter from the lawyer — he was even more surprised when he opened it….it was an invoice.

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  8. A young lawyer died and was brought for judgement at the gates of heaven. Upon arriving the lawyer started protesting that it’s way too early for him, he was only 32 years old, and there must be some mistake. The listening angel agreed that perhaps it was a mistake and agreed to look into it. After a few minutes the angel came back and said “I’m sorry, sir, but I am afraid there is no mistake. We calculated your age by how many hours you billed your clients, and you are at least 96.

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  9. I should point out that hourly billing of professional services is a problem in all sorts of businesses. When I was just starting out in public accounting, the joke was that you should check a calendar when summoned into a partner’s office. If it was an odd-numbered date, you were going to get your butt chewed because you weren’t billing 40+ hours per week. If it was an even-numbered-date, you were about to get reamed because you charged too many hours to the partner’s favorite client.

    At the time (the 1980s), you were exempt from labor/hour laws as a “professional” — despite barely being out of college. You were paid a flat 40 hours per week. And you were supposed to bill at least 40 hours each week to any clients you worked on — at one place, timekeeping was in tenths of hours (six minutes) — most places did quarter-hours. Here’s the thing, though — if you worked on a client for three hours, it wouldn’t be terribly unusual for you to take a bathroom break in the middle. You might easily spend six minutes. You wouldn’t have accomplished anything tangible to advance the client’s interests in those six minutes…….? If you put it as “admin time”, you’d hear about it on the next odd date, and if you billed it to the client, you’d hear about it on the next even date. Or, of course, you could work an extra hour that you wouldn’t be paid for.

    At the time, you might be paid $15/hour (or, more accurately, $600/week, no matter how many hours you billed) and get billed to clients at $60/hour. That’s a lot of incentive on both sides of the even/odd for a partner. And it’s a whole lot of “floggings will continue until morale improves” for staff.

    What makes it all worse is that the work, itself, is generally enjoyable. Accountants usually enjoy organizing things and getting them right. And you learn a zillion things very fast in public accounting, so people who enjoy learning also benefit.


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