A Brief History Of Radioactivity

More than one hundred years ago, Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium emitted penetrating rays similar to those used by Wilhelm Röntgen to take the first X-ray image (of his wife’s hand), starting a new era of far-reaching applications. There are of course many dangers that come with the use of radioactivity, but there are also many beneficial uses for our society.


An alpha particle is expelled from the nucleus.

The nucleus of an atom is made of protons and neutrons. Because protons have positive charge, they repel each other, so there must be a force that holds the nucleus together, and the neutrons don’t help, because they are neutral. This force is the strong nuclear force and the energy associated with it is called the binding energy.

For reasons that go beyond the scope of this article, atomic nuclei with more than 83 protons in it (bismuth) do not have enough binding energy to hold the nucleus together. In response, the nucleus tries to achieve balance by giving off a neutron or proton in the radioactive decay process, which emits radiation in the form of alpha particles, beta particles or gamma rays (among other more exotic processes). Alpha particles, for example, are composed of two protons and two neutrons that are expelled at high speed (some 5% of the speed of light) from the nucleus, and an atom of a different chemical element is created by the decay.


The first X-ray image from the hand of Anna Bertha Ludwig, Röntgen´s wife.

While conducting experiments with electricity and vacuum tubes in 1895, Wilhelm Röntgen discovered that his photographic plates were darkened, even when wrapped with black paper. He then concluded that some kind of yet unknown, penetrating rays were at play in his experimental setup. He was able to use this new “X-rays”, as he named them, to take the first X-ray image, using the hand of his wife Anna Bertha. A year later Henri Becquerel found that similar rays were produced naturally by uranium salts.

The phenomenon that produced the X-rays was named radioactivity by Marie Curie, Becquerel´s doctoral student. Marie and her husband Pierre, carried on much of the pioneering work on radioactivity. They discovered new elements with this property, such as radium, polonium, and thorium. Of the 48 women who have been awarded Nobel prizes, Marie Curie is the only one who won the distinction twice: first in physics for her work in radiation phenomena, and then in chemistry, for her discovery of radium and polonium. It is worth to mention that only four persons and two organizations have won multiple Nobel awards.

Marie Curie died in 1934, victim of her work with radiation, since it was not known at the time that radiation posed serious health issues. Her papers and even her cookbook are stored in shielded boxes as they are still highly radioactive and cannot be handed safely.


Advertisement for the Undark self-glowing paint.

Radium was found to be two million times as radioactive as uranium, the radium salts even glow visibly from radiation. This lead to a new industry that benefited from the new phenomenon (the Curies did not patent their discovery). The US Radium Corporation was a company that used a recipe that combined radium salts with glue and zinc sulfide, an element that glows in the presence of radiation. The result? Glow-in-the-dark paint, that was marketed with the name “undark”. It was used by the military in their wristwatches and instrument panels so they could be read at night. It was also used in house numbers, light switch plates, and even for the eyes of toy dolls.

The painting was done by a group of women, some as young as 14. They were known as the Radium Girls. When working with fine-tipped brushes to paint the numbers and hands of wristwatches, they used their lips and tongues to point the tips of the brushes. Unaware of the tremendous danger of the radiation, they even painted their fingernails and teeth in order to surprise their boyfriends. Of course they ingested huge amounts of radioactive material, and began to suffer from anemia, fallen teeth, stillborn babies, bone fractures and jaw necrosis.

The first legal suit against US Radium was filed in september 1925. With the help of doctors and dentists in their payroll, the company rejected all claims that the radium exposure was to blame. More than two years passed until one of the girls could find a lawyer that would take the case, and the trial dragged on for months. Four other girls also joined the suit and the case finally attracted the attention of the media.  The girls settled out the case for around $100,000 in today´s dollars, plus medical expenses and  $600 per year for as long as they lived. The last girl only survived for two years after the settlement. After the case was settled in 1928, US Radium continued operations under new safety laws until 1947.

There were similar histories, such as the Radiant Dial Corporation, which also employed women in the same conditions as US Radium, with similar unfortunate results.  Unfortunately, due to the initial lack of knowledge about the dangers of radiation, and the fact that everything atomic was terrifically fashionable at the time, radium was used in everything you can imagine: cosmetics, household cleaning products, toothpaste, suppositories, cigarettes and even virility boosters such as the Scrotal Radiendocrinator: place it under your scrotum and you’ll be atomic in the bedroom.

Despite the lawsuit won by the radium girls, the atomic products trend continued until the late 1950s. Fortunately, most of these products contained only tiny amounts of radium due to its high price.


There are many practical uses of radioactivity. Of course nuclear reactors for power generation are very well known. Tracers are radioisotopes whose pathway through a chemical reaction can be followed, and are used in chemistry and biochemistry to understand chemical reactions and their interactions. They can track the distribution of a substance in the tissue, and form the basis of several imaging systems such as positron emission tomography, and single-photon emission computed tomography. The location of fractures in hydraulic fracturing also makes use of tracers. Radiocarbon dating is used in archaeology to determine the ages of fossils. Irradiation of foods and medical equipment is used to kill germs without harming the substance that is being disinfected. Foods take much longer to spoil, and medical equipment can be sterilized without exposure to chemicals or extreme heat. Gauges containing radioactive substances are used to measure the thickness of paper products, fluid levels in oil and chemical tanks, and the moisture and density of soils.

Since its discovery, much has changed in our understanding of radioactivity. The knowledge of its properties has given humanity the power to use it in many fields that can be beneficial, but also a belated appreciation for the potential dangers.


58 thoughts on “A Brief History Of Radioactivity

  1. It’s a terrible shame that we seemingly haven’t learned the correct lessons from TMI, Chernobyl and Fukushima. We don’t need to stop using nuclear power. We need to stop doing so with ridiculously dangerous antiquated reactor designs. We’ve known for decades now how to design them properly (or at least far better than PWRs we’ve been using). So let’s get on with it!

    1. The problem as with most problems comes down to money. It costs $9 billion to build a new nuclear power plant while a coal plant only costs $2 billion. Add in the NIMBY mentality, and the costs to deactivate a current nuclear power plant, and you are facing an extreme uphill battle. That said, I agree with you, and wish that we would build more nuclear generators.

      1. And those $9G are for a current design plant.
        If you’d want a true gen. IV reactor, you’d have to do a fair bit of practical research and probably a scaled down test power plant, neither of which is cheap.

      2. Hell no! the reactors are not the problem, the waste is… Give me a solution for that and off you go. And no, bury it or dumping it in the ocean is not a solution, just a prospone of big disaster later on.

          1. There are also subcritical reactor designs that burn up nuclear waste in the neutron beam of a linear accelerator, or by simply having the waste next to a working reactor so the neutron flux from the reactor core speeds up the half-life of the waste elements.

          2. It’s interesting that you call Plutonium (which has a 24,000 year half life) a “product” rather than a by-product and therefore exclude it. It begs the question – what do you intend to *use* this *product* for over then next 100,000 years.

            Oh, you don’t want to use plutonium because it’s so good for weaponization! Well that must be so much better than it being a by-product. Somehow???

            I really don’t get the logic of that argument.

          3. @[Michael]

            Well America is unilaterally and globally opposed to nuclear enrichment to plutonium stage. Tell me what country on this planet is quite comfortable with a neighboring country (or even any other country) manufacturing plutonium.

          4. @[RÖB] Exactly why I said that one reason recycling is not being done is Plutonium
            I do like the molten salt reactors mentioned by Steel_9 because they don’t need the existing material to be processed (concentrating the Plutonium) before it can be used.

        1. The problem is one of fraudulent accounting. For something to be considered economically viable it needs to at least cover its costs. But with nuclear power the profits a privatised while the costs are nationalised. To truly cover their costs Nuclear plants has to, upfront, before operating at all, pay rates and taxes for the land for 200 000 years. (The estimated period before it will he save again for humans) But its not just rates and taxes, its the maintenance costs of the waste site. security costs and of coarse insurance. Paid upfront for 200 000 years, because that is how long the waste will need to be looked after. What will happen in the next 200 000 years? What languages will be spoken? Will humans even still be around? 200 000 years is an awfully long time, after all 40 000 years ago Neanderthal was still walking the earth. And just imagine the insurance premium on that one? With an unknown environment, an unimaginable time ahead what dangers may exist, and what could the labour rates be? Big business likes nuclear not because it is viable, but because the costs are nationalised and because it does not scale down. Joe the handyman does not get to play, restricted competition means high margins.

          And those are just the economic considerations. Unlike wind or PV which scales beautifully, nuclear is one of those “Trust us” industries. Joe soap does not get to play, and we need to just trust a small group of people with the future of the next 8000 generations. A small group who although ideally may be acting with the best of intentions, may not share the priorities of the vast majority of the population. The “Just trust us” time has passed. Modern democracies are about more than voting once every 4 or 5 years. Modern societies demand an active ongoing say in their shared future, and nuclear power in its current form is just not compatible with the needs of a 21 century democracy.

          1. But Wind and PV suffer from a supply standpoint. To make the power that either of those technologies provide viable, you need to build in a buffer stage of some nature that can be called upon when the supply of wind or sun is lower than demand. That adds cost in material and real estate. Once storage technology becomes dense enough Wind and PV will be exceptionally attractive.

            Oh, and lets not forget the Gallium Arsenide by-product of some PV manufacturing. Nothing is 100% clean.

          2. >”To truly cover their costs Nuclear plants has to, upfront, before operating at all, pay rates and taxes for the land for 200 000 years. (The estimated period before it will he save again for humans) ”

            That’s utter bullshit, and a top example of the meaningless demands and nirvana fallacies posed by the anti-nuclear folk. Of course nuclear power is impossible if you believe in the insane and the unreal.

            There are already decommissioned and reclaimed nuclear powerplant sites, which do not require any special measures for 200,000 years into the future, and with deep borehole disposal for the remaining waste there’s no surface structures left whatsoever.

      3. It could be a lot cheaper if each reactor wasn’t designed and built from different plans which are still being drawn while the powerplant is actually being built, and there wasn’t 10 years of political red tape preceding each build permit.

        In short: it would be a lot cheaper if Areva wasn’t building it.

        1. Ha! Washington State has some closed and very very expensive projects because the State was in the design and build processes. Those who were opposed were always able to finds at least one x-ray that was open to interpretation, and always for a part that was completed and in concrete. Other activists lobbied for regulatory changes. They just ran out of money doing tear downs to verify. It was part of the Washington Public Power Supply System and before long, everyone was wearing WHOOPS hats, which were a ball cap with an extra bill sewn on at an odd angle. http://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/09/wpps-municipal-bond-default-whoops.asp

          This was a tough one for the Seattle socialists. It was a State controlled effort, but it was ATOMIC! They finally went with full opposition to nuclear.

          The movie “The China Syndrome” came out before the second plant was finished. I would expect this to repeat itself., though new surveys of “millennials” show over half want to see more nuclear energy production in the US.

          1. That’s another thing. The opposition -demands- zero defects, zero chance of failure, even in non-critical parts, because they know it’s impossible to pull off.

            The rhetoric is that every possible nuclear accident that involves any release of radioactivity is the same thing as Chernobyl, and Chernobyl is treated as if it was the holocaust. If you design a reactor which has adequate safety and good measures to mitigate the results of a failure, that’s not going to be good enough. They want it all to be in the first line of defence, and it has to be perfect because they argue the second and third line are already too little too late, which also means it’s going to cost a hell of a lot more.

            It’s just the law of diminishing returns. You can never reach 100% and any time you split the difference to 100% your costs also double. If you try to do all in one step, one line of defence, you’ll get to 95% before your money runs out and that’s still not good enough.

    2. What good can a better design be if you build the power plant on the seismic “ring of fire”. Catastrophic failure is still inevitable.

      Designs are rated buy the statistical time it would take before a catastrophic event. There are two very simple problems with this.
      1) The catastrophic event is still inevitable.
      2) Catastrophic events are not constrained by averages and could even occur on day one of operation.

      1. You know, the Fukushima accident was completely avoidable because the company that built it changed the design while they were building it and dropped the whole plant something like 40ft below where it was originally designed, to save money.

        1) catastrophic events do not necessarily mean catastrophic outcomes
        2) some amount of catastrophes simply have to be acceptable, or you can’t do anything. Even wind turbines and solar panels kill people – more than nuclear power for a fact.

        1. Well I didn’t know about the 40′ thing but would that have helped anyway. And what about Chernobyl, that was simply human error from disorganization.

          The problem is that we use the *insurance* model of risk assessment which disregards the lives lost, that insurance doesn’t have to pay for. A better assessment model would be to multiply the assessed risk by the consequences to human life.

          Fukushima was assessed under the former model. Had it been assessed under that latter model, it would *not* have been built for reasons that are now obvious.

          1. Yes it would, because the emergency generator rooms -in the basement- wouldn’t have had been left flooded. The plant itself sustained barely any damage from the earthquake and tsunami, except for the fact that it couldn’t resume pumping coolant through the reactor which was still generating residual heat from the emergency shutdown.

            The company originally planned the whole plant further up the shore, but decided they didn’t want to pump the coolant uphill so they dropped the whole thing down and justified it by “we’ll build levies”, which they did, but they only built them for a certain height of a tsunami wave which they considered “improbable”, which was another cost cutting method, which it wasn’t as it turns out.

          2. >”A better assessment model would be to multiply the assessed risk by the consequences to human life. ”

            Also on that point, what metric would you use? The opposition likes to use the LNT model which over-estimates the risk by ignoring the fact that biology is largely insensitive to low radiation levels because there’s eroding rocks everywhere which contain radioisotopes.

            The LNT works under the assumption that any amount of extra radiation is harmful, so it can be used to extrapolate millions and millions of victims into thousands of years of future, completely ignoring the fact that people already live in areas where the background radiation levels exceed that of the Fukushima exclusion zone and don’t appear to be any more ill for it.

          3. they also conveniently forget that other power sources also contribute to atmospheric radiation, coal contains some radioactive elements as well, not to mention the direct health effects from air pollution and smog either.

    3. If we believe in AGW then it seems that hydro and nuclear are two slam dunks despite the cost and some damage to fish species. If proliferation is a concern than subsidize IAEA trusted producers to fix hydrocarbons or other transportable fuelsrather than burning fossil fuels if grid distribution is impossible. Also I think we need small modular reactors like pebble bed designs to get the electricity down to small yet safe designs which are either public or at least not run by a dangerous large corporation who has no link to the community. This may not work for breeder designs which simply burn up existing waste rather than storing it in dangerous form.

      1. If the opposition was about fighting global warming, they would choose nuclear.

        France went from 0% to 70% nuclear power in their grid in 15 years. The renewables systems have been coming since the 80’s and we’re still no closer to any real solutions.

        And you can’t even complain about not getting enough political or financial support, since the government drops the worth of two new nuclear power stations into renewable energy subsidies every year.

    1. At a co-op at a chemical plant, I worked with level sensors that could determine the process levels in sealed tanks that couldn’t be measured from the inside. The sensor, basically a long (12 foot) Geiger counter was placed on the tank opposite of a radiation source. The amount of radiation received corresponded to the process level. They are a pain to calibrate though. It is amazing how the basic phenomenon that we learn in high school physics can be applied to find novel solutions to difficult problems.

      1. “It is amazing how the basic phenomenon that we learn in high school physics can be applied to find novel solutions to difficult problems.”

        This ^^. I am continually amazed by how simple phenomena are continually re-used in cleverer and cleverer ways (often abetted by technology) to make amazing sensors.

        1. And I’m amazed by how companies used to put radioactive stuff everywhere. They knew nothing about the danger… but did toothpaste really need radium? Putting it on tools (perhaps those very expensive fishing rods Abercrombie made before becoming an awful clothing brand) made sense, but using it for toys’ eyes only made them scary (and dangerous).

          BTW, radioactive lighting is still used in some rare expensive watches and tools. It’s much safer though as it uses very small amounts of tritium sealed inside glass gauges instead of exposed radium.

      2. Thanks for the comment iforster, it prompts me to offer this experience…

        This technique was used by Mt Newman mining co Mt Newman’s beneficiation
        plant circa 1977. The co I worked for Pretron Electronics used Dave Gibson’s
        design with a pair of Cs137 sources set 1m apart vertically sending beta particles
        horizontally through a falling dry iron ore curtain. The opposite side of the curtain
        had a pair of scintillation counters matched horizontally to the sources. Iron
        ore flow rate needed to be controlled as there were a series of particle size
        gauging screens. I was called in to debug the code, its calibration & filtering the
        output with great help from Indesa Rajasingham who’s math analysis offered
        a Kalman filter style adaptive filter rate constant which we both implemented
        in assembler macros & subroutines…

        All this ran off an NS 16 bit Pace micro running an assembler implementation
        of Forth ie Subroutine calls & some macros to manipulate the registers as the
        forth stacks as well as ram stack extensions along with calibration constants &
        mass flow logs in fixed locations. The initial setup fed by paper tape and 2708 eproms !
        The primary system output gave a DAC signal which represented the mass flow
        rate of the ore in tonnes per minute update each 1-2 seconds or so sent to a
        Foxboro controller which drove a servo mechanism to alter the flow rate so the
        screens wouldn’t get clogged as well as log the total mass flow for the day etc…

        12 system were in place in Mt Newman for sorting/beneficiation whilst a couple
        of others iirc in Port Hedland just for flow rate logging when filling the freighters.

        Calibration was a routine matter of letting the system acquire counts with no ore
        flow for about 30mins or so at the start of each day. The math to determine flow rate
        used the standard acceleration due to gravity with various terms but, it was the
        differential between the top & bottom beta beams counts & how the mean changed
        which was the key to getting delta flow rate & with appropriate calibration constants
        & filtering we got the mass over the course of the day to about +-2% or so.

        Later on we changed to Co60 sources which improved the accuracy and also
        because the Cs sources were subject to an updated clearance issue re radiological
        safety requirements. Suffice to say we all had to take a course in radiological safety
        with updated first aid as well.

        1. Thanks for sharing! I love hearing about equipment’s implementation. At my co-op, everything was off the shelf instruments so I didn’t get into the implementation of the workings of the instruments. I had never heard of the NS Pace. It’s a pretty interesting micro.

  2. This excludes the billions of years of history prior to Becquerel, how silly!!! “More than one hundred years ago, Henri Becquerel discovered” How anthropomorphic of the writer!!!

    1. It’s an article about humans using radiation so being, anthropocentric, is kind of the point. It’s not like radiation was technologically used by anything else on earth prior to these pioneers.

      1. Thank you for your response. However, radiogenic heat produce by radioactive
        decay in the mantle accounts for roughly half of the internal heat that makes
        it to the surface of our planet. The other half is from primordial heat from the
        original formation events for our planet. Hence, our planet has been kept warm
        for millions of years prior to Becquerel.

        The same radioactive decay is a factor (not the largest) in genetic evolution,
        again since the dawn of single-cell organisms.

  3. I lost an eye and grew two huge rodent like teeth but it was totally worth it to learn so much about radioactivity….

    Just remember kids everything is radioactive, it is just a question of the timing of the half-life with the shorter periods being the most energetic/dangerous. And for a really cool piece of obscure knowledge, did you know you can hack the half-life of elements by exposing them to a stream of neutrinos. This may actually come in handy if your neighbour is a nuclear armed megalomaniac and you want to mess with his research. ????

    1. I think you meant neutrons, which of course are fairly easy to achieve
      depending on what you can lay your hands on…

      I wonder about the people who are going OCD collecting as many of the
      smoke detector Americium alpha emitters & getting hold of boron & old
      dental x-ray machines and “flavouring” their mix with Thorium they can
      get from beach sands especially around the coast of Western Australia ;-)

        1. I know that “hacking” half life can be done easily with neutrons but not
          with neutrinos as they just don’t react much with matter at all :-(

          So I ask in response to your comment – Really how can you be sure ?
          Surely you are aware of the immense neutrino flux passing through us &
          at all times from the Sun including any matter that might be “hackable” ?

          In your first comment are you implying that some minuscule neutrino particles
          generated artificially can flip some unstable isotopes to become more
          radioactive ie reducing their half-life when the differential in the neutrino flux
          they are exposed to is billions of % smaller than the Sun produced all the time,
          is that your belief ?

          Can you reference a link, cite a peer reviewed paper please ?

          1. Think this through please Dax,
            Does it make any sense to perform any sort of search unlikely to find
            the very exact same paper/forum/link he relied upon to make his claim ?
            Far more efficient to request he cite the link he formed the opinion from ?

            Its the conjunction of a time management exercise with convergent dialectic,
            capisce’ ?

            Knowing that adding a minuscule amount of neutrinos is very unlikely
            to flip isotopes or even induce fission (of all things) from such negligible
            change artificially added suggests the poster is naive as well as easily led
            far more likely he’s offered a joke as satire/sarcasm not substantive Physics
            but, didnt frame any emoticons so probability favoured he’s been misled.

            Also need to think not appropriate to mislead the public as comments fixed.

            There is some anecdotal evidence a few years ago that Earth’s orbit
            when closer to the sun might speed up some radioactive decay but,
            hasnt been shown to be definitive and not re fission – really Dax ?

            Instead of facile one liners which seems more frequent pattern, try to either:-
            Read the mind of the poster & get his link if he can’t or refuses to
            Find the most likely link to support his case & expect it to be so easy
            for you as a trained “google warrior” resorting to it at the drop of a hat ;-)


          2. If you spent as much time and energy on learning and research as you did in naively lecturing me you would already know exactly why my claim is accurate and entirely compatible with the known laws of physics and observed phenomena. The question of if you in particular accept my claim matters little in light of the fact that you have already demonstrated that you are not qualified to judge it in the first place.

          3. Thanks for confirming you weren’t making a joke or
            offering sarcasm/satire in your first post on this topic :-)

            I trust most would notice I merely questioned your claim, specifically
            from my training in nucleonics & my continuing interest in this field.

            Unfortunately, you seem to completely misunderstand the Scientific
            process in respect of claims & evidence & instead make puerile attack.

            ie. You made a specific claim (not a joke) & in response I offered a
            scenario re the comparative change in neutrino flux any artificial source
            could offer, this was not a “lecture” it was offering a simple scenario
            for which you have failed to offer any rationalisation to support your
            claim as well as failed to cite reference, ideally a paper at the least a web link :/

            Anyone interested in reading this will observe you make a claim & when
            questioned instead of a mature citation/reference you merely Attack !

            Surely you must understand its easy for any idiot to make any type of
            claims & sad that idiots often quote those claims as if they are valid.
            This is not how science progresses for the benefit of society :/

            you have made a specific claim that has an inherent flaw re comparative
            flux so please have the presence of mind that its not helpful to anyone &
            shows you up to attack in response. Far more mature to reply scientifically
            (not emotionally) with a reference please ?

          4. Instead of wasting time by back-pedalling with simplistic reply,
            surely you are aware there’s lots of propaganda that influences
            and it takes a LOT of time to wade through that and a host of
            various papers or extracts etc. Its obviously NOT efficient so do
            you think its useful for any dialectic to hand wave a “DYOR”
            is that useful to any observers or is it even a wee bit intelligent ?

            Clearly its not efficient & not helpful to duplicate research when
            you already have, smarter to link directly to it with the ethics
            of educating, can’t you see that ?

            So what is *your* specific reference initiating your comment ?

            ie Which paper/forum/link do YOU rely on for your claim please ?

          5. Stop squirming Massen.

            Neutrino induced fission is a known phenomenon, easily verified by 30 seconds on Google. What you’re doing here is the equivalent of demanding a citation for the claim that water is wet. All you’re doing is wasting time in a futile attempt to save face.

            All the guy said was that neutrinos influence the half-life of radionuclides, and so they do. There’s no need to refer to any specific paper or document.

          6. Dax,
            What you fail to understand Dax is, as part of the Scientific Method, when
            someone makes a claim on a technical ie Science site they should be
            prepared to support it – evidence he either refuses or fails to, which is it ?

            You Dax, also failed to understand the comparative flux of neutrinos,
            ie Sun produces approx millions per sq cm by the time it passes through
            items on earth – to add a few hundred by beaming them over from
            some unknown emitter is not just facile it appears as facile fabrication ie Lie

            Tell us about this neutrino source that isn’t a neutron source generating
            enough to start fusion, fission or accelerate radioactive decay ?

            To equate paradigm water being wet with the existing solar high neutrinos
            not inducing fission or fusion is plain stupidity of the highest (Physics) order
            yet the claimant & you imply you can by adding a very small amount ie millionth
            of a % puts both of you in the unintelligent claimant basket wasting everyone’s time :/

            Dax & whats his name (which could be you) own up & link to the paper please ?

            Failure & continued refusal to do so proves point blank his claim & your support false :-(

            Yours Faithfully

            Mike Massen

  4. Radioactivity is also used in well logging equipment for checking that the casing is good, and determining other properties of the well. http://logwell.com/

    Syd Levine, the owner of that company, was a Jewish atheist and former member of a hippie/communist group in the 60’s and 70’s that was opposed to oil, coal and nuclear power. They threw him out when he said that technology could be the answer to problems. So he went into the oil business.

    Getting government clearance to handle radioactive and explosive materials was a bit of an adventure. He said the FBI file on him was very thick.

    Syd was quite the character on a machine tool e-mail list I used to subscribe to, always ready to rake the EPA over the coals over stupid crap they were always coming up with to make his work more difficult. Wish I could find what he wrote about “vacuum pressure”. ;) There’s no such thing as “vacuum pressure”. There’s either vacuum OR pressure. Vacuum being lower than ambient air pressure and pressure being higher. Yet the EPA was insisting on tracking the “vacuum pressure” in injection wells.

    Scroll down to find the Talllini Tales of Destruction – a series of articles on how people accidentally blew themselves up with nitroglycerin in the early oil fields.

  5. Have you seen the TV series “The 100”? It’s an expensively produced study in how to get everything *wrong* about physics, medicine and chemistry in a science fiction show, while still somehow managing to remain entertaining.

    On radiation, The 100 gets everything about it totally wrong, except that it 1. exists, and 2. enough of it can kill you.

    97 years after a nuclear war, global in scope, the only radiation that would be a problem is from any plutonium and americium in the fallout. Most of the rest would have decayed to negligible levels. Plutonium and americium would either be buried under several inches of dust and decayed plant matter or washed down storm drains. Large areas of land would have little to no contamination, even with as many bombs as depicted in the show.

    How much plutonium and americium is in the waste products of various types of nuclear warheads? Is it enough to actually be a big danger once it’s washed down by rain and/or buried by nature? Use a Geiger counter when digging downwind of any blasted cities and don’t crawl through sewers and storm drains.

    In short it’s a show that can’t be taken seriously on *anything* it presents in technical matters, yet still manages to be entertaining. If only they’d spent as much time working on the science as they did creating several artificial languages and huge numbers of costumes and props. Most of the goofs and gaffes would have been extremely simple to make right.

    My opinion is getting all that wrong might be deliberate. There was ONE episode where they managed to get things right on some medical stuff. Must have been a rogue writer that escaped and managed to get to Google for a few minutes.

  6. in the uk billions have been spent on a new nuclear fleet….no resistance, its citizens resistant to the idea of even the thorium plant MSR, why? misunderstanding and misinformation, 3 million die at the behest of coal plants, no one is picketing and resisting those are they, zero emission, nuke waste burning Thorium MSR? makes them nervous. Education is the key, our only reliable 100% emission free power generator is a nuclear one.

  7. The spousal unit and I visited the Marie Curie museum in France. Was very entertaining to see how things were utilized historically before we understood the effects of radioactivity.

    You’ll make the staff’s day if you ask to see the notebook in her office. They take out of leaded glass and run the geiger counter around it. Still emitting Alpha particles after all these years.


  8. An interesting full-circle use of radium – radium 223 (223Ra) was recently licensed for treatment of cancer!

    Radium is in the same chemical “Group” as calcium and so tends to accumulate in bone. That’s a problem if you are ingesting it from your paint-brush but for guys with advanced prostate cancer, once of the worst morbidities is caused by the cancer spreading to the bone. 223-Ra is good at targeting the bone surface and burning away the cancer cells. It can give guys with advanced disease some extra months and more importantly a much better quality of life during the time that they have. Google Xofigo for more information.

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