SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Chemical Eye on Atoms on a Plane
by Preston MacDougall


December 12, 2006
Tuesday AM

How would you complete the following list: tinker, tailor, soldier, (blank)?

If you said "sailor", then you're either a natural-born poet, or, like me, you were exposed to quality, age-appropriate literature from the get-go.

If you thought "sailor", but said "spy" to sound more mature, then there are a few possibilities.

You could be a fan of John le Carré's spy novels, or you could be British and watched the acclaimed BBC series of mini-dramas with the so-completed list as its title. Or, you could be yet more like me, and Netflixed the entire DVD six-pack (including the follow-up series "Smiley's People") as an intelligent alternative to cable television that seems to have William Shatner on every channel.

jpg Kremlin

Scotland Yard and the Kremlin are jointly investigating
the death of a former K.G.B. agent.

Finally, if you thought "sailor", and were going to say "spy" to sound more mature, but then blurted out "sushi chef" to be a wise-guy, then please call your biological mother and ask her why she never told me that I had an identical twin.

The improbable key to this inside joke is polonium-210, which has been in the news almost every day recently, and could likely figure in a future le Carré plot. (In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if it already did so, in a novel of his that is unknown to me.)

The story in the news is a real-life murder mystery, involving at least two Russians who "formerly" worked for the K.G.B. spy network: a dead one, named Alexander Litvinenko, and a sick one, named Andrei Lugovoi.

From Mr. Litvinenko's autopsy, it appears that he was effectively murdered by someone who likely dosed his food with invisible yet lethal amounts of the element polonium - number 84 on the atomic charts, dead-center between lead and radon. From the Moscow prison where he is hospitalized with signs of radiation sickness, Mr. Lugovoi's diagnosis fingers the same heavy metal.

The Parisian discovery of polonium, along with radium, was reported in the doctoral thesis of Marie Curie (born in Poland as Maria Sklodowska). It was submitted and accepted in 1903. Later in the same year, she would share the Nobel Prize in Physics, which cited her central role in this literally pain-staking endeavor.

The pain came much later when she died in 1934 (presumably from radiation poisoning). In the meantime, she won another Nobel Prize, this one in chemistry and unshared, in 1911 for her radically true insight into the then-mysterious phenomenon of radioactivity: many kinds of atoms are ticking time bombs.

However, some radioactive atoms have much longer "fuses" than others, some much shorter. And unlike time bombs that we can see, as in a James Bond movie, it is impossible to know if the fuse of a radioactive atom was lit at the end, the start, or somewhere in between. It is conventional to assume that it was lit exactly in the middle, and the resulting countdown would last "one half-life".

There isn't really a fuse per se. In fact, we don't actually know what triggers naturally occurring atomic disintegrations. We can accelerate the process, as in a nuclear explosion, but that isn't natural. According to quantum theory, the clock starts ticking as soon as a radioactive atom is formed, whether long ago in a faraway supernova, or recently in a nuclear reactor here on Earth.

Additionally, even atoms of the same kind can vary tremendously in both the intensity of the radioactivity, and the possible health effects of the resulting atomic shrapnel. Consider hydrogen. It sits atop the atomic chart, with an atomic number of 1. It has three weight classes: hydrogen-1 and hydrogen-2 are not radioactive, but hydrogen-3 is. Code-named tritium, it is a beta-emitter, which means its shrapnel is moderately penetrating. It has a half-life of 12 years, which means that its radiation is spread out over a fairly long period of time, a property utilized in old-fashioned glow-in-the-dark EXIT signs.

All weight-classes of polonium are radioactive. Presumably polonium-210 was chosen as the murder weapon because its half-life, 138 days, is "just right" to be the most deadly. Too long, and the health effects many not overwhelm the body's own repair mechanisms. Too short, and the nano-weapon may be spent long before it reaches its target.

Scotland Yard's tracking of the radioactive trail, which includes numerous flights between London and Moscow, has identified a sushi bar near Piccadilly Circus as one possibility for the effective murder scene. Both former spies met with others there for the purpose of discussing "Russian business deals".

This news hasn't had the least effect on my fondness for flying, nor on my appetite for sushi. If I were you though, I would stay away from the californium rolls.


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Preston MacDougall is a chemistry professor at Middle Tennessee State University. His "Chemical Eye" commentaries are featured in the Arts and Public Affairs portion of the Nashville/Murfreesboro NPR station WMOT (

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