12 Dec. 2006
SETI League
PriUPS Project

The Element Geek

That's me.  I'm an element geek and proud of it.  Even though I'm neither a chemist nor a nuclear physicist, I do know my elements, at least on a superficial level.  I can name them all, even in song.  I've read books.  (Of course other element geeks have written books about them.)  I found a company that makes element T-shirts, and I'm thinking of ordering a set.  My ultimate admiration is reserved for the gentleman who built a wooden periodic table with the elements in it.  Some aren't all that easy to get!  And, of course, there's the game I've been playing with the Wall Street Journal that I call "Periodic Table Bingo."  I'm getting close on a couple of rows.  My sympathy for Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian dispatched by the element polonium was tempered by two new acquisitions:  Thallium, which was the initial poisoning agent suspect, and radioactive polonium, which was eventually fingered as the culprit.  Both elements have been added to my bonus table thanks to this ongoing saga.

That being said, I'm puzzled by the incident and its sequelae, including the claimed polonium poisoning of Sasha's dining companions.  What's going on here?  While I don't pretend to know any of the true facts, I'm having a grand time speculating.  It's like a Le Carré novel unfolding before the whole world.  I do have what I believe are some interesting questions.  I haven't seen these asked in the media, or at least what little media I encounter.

First and most obvious, what's the point?  People are fragile; you can kill them in any number of ways without calling attention to it.  So, presumably, whomever was responsible wanted attention called.  I wonder why!

Next, a forensic puzzle.  At the beginning of the incident, it was believed that Litvinenko was poisoned by thallium.  Thallium is a well-known poison, and has an LD50 in the mg/kg range, i.e., some number of milligrams per kilogram of body weight will do you in.  What surprises me is how long the thallium theory flourished.  Although at least one symptomhair loss—is consistent with radiation poisoning, it seems to me that thallium should have been ruled out promptly, since the bevy of experts would have checked for its chemical presence right away and, presumably, found none.

But the biggest puzzle for me (beyond "Why?" of course) is the bizarre polonium trail that the police and intelligence agencies seem to be trying to follow.  Unlike thallium, which requires many milligrams to kill, polonium is lethal in picogram quantities.  A milligram is a thousandth of a gram; a picogram is a trillionth of a gram.  That's a ratio of a billion to one.  It seems to me that this quantity, when dispersed throughout a 100kG human, is undetectable by chemical means.  The only way you can find it is by using nuclear instrumentation, e.g., an alpha spectrometer.  You can distinguish polonium from other radioactive species by how much energy each decay generates, and that is what a spectrometer does.  Presumably, after the clues started falling into place, one was trotted out and used to classify the radiation that was killing Litvinenko.  And now they're on the prowl for the source of the polonium.  Traces have been found in associates, in apartments, in airplanes, in restaurants, and, I think, in vehicles.  That's a lot of traces!

I read about an experiment a few years ago.  In the true spirit of science, it was disgusting and not terribly important.  Apparently the investigator was trying to find how far toilet water traveled in the air after flushing by looking for fecal bacteria on toothbrushes some number of feet away from the toilet.  Surprise!  He found it.  The experiment was later discredited when it was noted that the same bacteria were found everywhere and the ones on the toothbrushes weren't necessarily from the toilet.  In other words, there was no "control."

I can't help wondering if it's the same for the polonium traces.  An alpha spectrometer can detect the decay of a single atom.  Polonium and Radon have something in common:  They are both daughter nuclides in the decay series of uranium, a surprisingly common element and one that is widely distributed over the planet.  Radon is found everywhere, to the extent that in many locations ordinary houses are tested for excessive quantities.  Is it the same for polonium?  Are they finding traces in these odd places because, like Chicken Man, "It's everywhere!  It's everywhere!"  Would they find traces in my basement, too, if they only bothered to look?

I honestly don't know.  This is sheer speculation.  But a good conspiracy theory can point anywhere, and in this case I wonder if nuclear physics is having some sport with the gumshoes.

NP:  "Uncle John's Band" - Grateful Dead

© 2006
Richard Factor

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