I recently finished Tom Zoellner's book entitled Uranium. It is a fascinating look at the science and history behind this plentiful element. The book offers much to think about given the dual possibilities for the use of this substance - bombs or an energy source that could tide us over until we can develop solar and wind alternatives to fossil fuels. Some fun tidbits of information I picked up from the book:
- Uranium is the heaviest element that occurs naturally. With a large number of protons in its nucleus, it lends itself to releasing energy when its nucleus is split in a collision with another particle.
- Uranium is so unstable that it naturally sheds particles. As it loses protons, it becomes radium, then radon, and then polonium. Despite this, the ore itself can be picked up and carried around safely as long as the dust is not inhaled.
- Uranium ore must be concentrated into U-235 before there is a danger of a spontaneous chain reaction. Creating U-235 does not come easy. Processing requires a plant the size of a football field. This is not like making homemade beer in one's apartment bathtub.
- Prior to its use for nuclear reactions, when mining for precious metals like gold and silver, uranium was often found and cast aside as a "bad luck" metal.
- Cancer often results from uranium poisoning because the particles cast off from the material bombard the cell's nucleus and disrupt the makeup of the cell.
- X-rays got their name because "X" was a placeholder for an unknown source of energy. The original MIME type for DWF was drawing/x-dwf where "x" was for experimental.
- Plutonium does not occur naturally and only exists as a result of a freakish occurrence when uranium is bombarded with neutrons. It got its name from the planet Pluto that had been spotted only 11 years earlier. Plutonium is easier to manufacture in bulk than U-235 but is more dangerous to use.
This book is not for everyone. I enjoyed it - but then again, my favorite book is Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time.
Radioactivity is alive in the lab.