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Not long after the Litvinenko story broke, a friend of mine in the nuclear engineering field announced over dinner, "I can get polonium over eBay."

There followed a confused hubbub. As he told us, back in the 1940s General Motors used polonium in spark plugs; the radiation from the polonium ionized the air and made it easier for sparks to form. Unfortunately, the isotope which killed Litvinenko has a half-life of only 138 days, so had any been there, not much would be left.

I once read a book by a forensic pathologist who said that because not everybody can smell cyanide, there's often one poor guy on the coroner's staff who is called over each time cyanide is suspected to smell the dead body.


Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

--Dorothy Parker

Great article

I hope everybody read this article

Tim has a new series coming in April called Drive, and one of the regular characters is a physicist from Pasadena. Interesting to me is that his job takes a backseat to his lfe, caring for his daughter (okay, so maybe there's a rocket scientist joke or two) and he's not written as some sort of Rainmanesque freak.

We've been talking about Nowak at the lab, and the part that always strikes me is how can anyone drive over 900 miles and still be mad?

Hi Jennifer,

what a great, informative post! I read it avidly. I also broke a few mercury thermometers in my youth, but I do not think they harmed me... I think most of the mercury I am exposed to come from eating tuna. Tuna is a fish that likes to eat on the sea floor, where lots of heavy metals are deposited in the mediterranean.



[Arsenic] makes the skin all clear and pretty, too.

Planning to leave a good-looking corpse? :-) I should warn you that Does Anything Eat Wasps? (you'll have to Google it, the comment system here strips out my links) doesn't think much of the arsenic immunity plan, saying "... the physical basis for such a tolerance has never been ascertained, and arsenic is known to be carcinogenic in small quantities". Best stick to something quick and sure!

I remember when I was in 4th or 5th grade we would hold up thermometers to the lamp and then break them; I thought the little bits of mercury rolling around in my palm was the coolest thing. (My mother wasn't pleased with these mysteriously broken thermometers.) I can't remember who gave us this idea, but we were under the impression that such a small amount wouldn't hurt us. Then in 7th grade our science teacher had a nice glob of it - couldn't play with it, though...darn. ;-)

Ken, I happened to have thumbed through that book at Borders yesterday. Here is the Amazon url (you can't use HTML tags here):

Alas, I was trying to knock off other books from my Amazon Wish List and had to resist *that* one. Also, I was reminded of Jennifer's informative "snowflake" post when I saw Ken Libbrecht's "Field Guide to Snowflakes" (Hardcover) facing out on the shelf. It really is a beautiful little book and would make a great gift for a snowbound person (like some in NY right now) who has plenty of flakes to look at. Nice quality photos. Unfortunately I had already hit my $$ quota, so that will have to go on the Wish List...

Too, Jennifer, I was pleased to see both of your books facing out on the physics shelf at Border's - not next to eachother, so they made for nice symmetry. They really are attractive covers. Above you was the "Physics of Superheroes" facing out, and down a shelf was "Bad Astronomy." :) I won't go into the bad science books that have now infiltrated the section - especially on the biology shelves. (Yes, I'm dorky - I pay attention to how books are displayed, cover designs, publishers' logos, etc.)

T., Heavy Metal in the marine environment:

There is one par of the Mad NASA scientist story I just don't get...she puts on a diaper so she can drive 950 miles without stopping?

What kind of car does she have that she can drive 950 miles on one tank of gas? Does she get like 60 miles per gallon? This story sounds like bunk. I bet the government is trying to discredit her because they are afraid she'll leak some scary info...

Arsenic causes chronic health problems as well having the more famous acute poisoning effects. The problem is particularly severe in Bangledesh, where UN clean water probgrams based on inadequate hydrology have subjected tens of millions of people to chronic, low level arsenic poisoning. See for more information.

I think it is very sad how so many bright minds seem to have that spot where they completely whack out. Perhaps it is the semi lack of real socialization that once their stasis, or balance gets lost, they basically don't know how to mitigate the pain and so react in odd, and as you pointed out, sometimes dangerous ways.

Nowak did indeed flip out out. 20 years ago, we never would have heard a word about it. But now, the society's craving for drama cannot be quenched. This poor dear, nuts as she may be, doesn't need to be crucified over her obvious inability to deal with her emotional states.

Maybe some mental types ought not receive high level education? Maybe the larger "libraries of the mind" cause problems for some people. It seems that a necessary trick is to learn to become comfortable with the uncomfortable.

Two mercury stories: When I was a kid back in the 50s, after every visit my dentist (whose name, unbelievably, but I swear it's true, was Speedee Nutz) would give me a shiny dime for being a good patient. It was shiny because he'd dipped it in mercury. My dad worked for the telephone company and he had some kind of testing kit that contained a bottle of mercury. I used to play with the contents with my bare hands, and I can't believe that I haven't suffered some kind of permanent, debilitating damage from this exposure.

My high school chemistry teacher told us a story about someone who thought he had discovered gold. As a test, he dissolved it in mercury (I think that's called an amalgam), and then heated it on the kitchen stove with the exhaust fan going. The mercury vapors spread throughout the house, coating nearly everything with an atom-thick layer of mercury. Everyone got sick, and the house was uninhabitable for several decades until the mercury had evaporated. And of course, there was no gold--just iron pyrites.

My uncle had a Coke bottle filled with mercury. No one knows where it is now, but I remember being strangely attracted to it.


My Honda could make a 950-mile trip (assuming interstate highway driving) on slightly less than three tanks of gas. Tanking up is quicker now, too, if you can afford it, thanks to the slots on all the pumps which accept those nifty little plastic cards. Not having to take bathroom breaks might cut the time one has to spend off the Interstate in half.

A slender peg on which to hang a conspiracy. . . .

"The Elements of Murder" by John Emsley, Oxford University Press, 2005, is an interesting book describing the "classic" elements of poisoning. It contains many stories of intentional and unintentional poisonings by mercury, arsenic, antimony, lead, thallium, and other elements (but not polonium).

"Among medieval alchemists, mercury was a required element for the transmutation of base metals into gold (something the alchemists never achieved, but hey, they kept hoping)"

Actually it is a fine exersice on nuclear bonding forces to calculate the energy released in the transmutation of *mercury itself* into gold. You can suspect it is feasible because mercury misses by two the shell closure of 82 protons. A ckeck can be done from the table of nuclides, for instance in The process to look is 201 Hg going to 197 Pt plus 4 He, and then beta to 197 Au, the stable isotope. The mass difference 201 Hg minus 197 Pt is 4.002954 amu, to be compared with the mass of 4 He, 4.002603 amu. The energy available is .000772 amu. The beta process, from 197Pt to 197Au, has another .000351 amu available and proceeds smoothly in about 20 hours. The alchemical quest is to find a substance ("the stone") or a method ("a particular") able to induce the initial alpha decay (and no others) in a sustainable way. A minor nuisance is that 201 Hg is only a 13% of the natural mercury and probably some isotope separation is also required here.

Modern alchemists are usually old people living in the countryside, thus not afraid of poisoning. They keep to the rule that every step in the process must be done (and understood) by the alchemist. Then it is a very good hobby for the retirement: you must locate and extract the minerals you want to use, as well as some organic substances. You must process them to get your basic chemistry set: acids, alkalis and all that. I think they are allowed to buy the instrumental (furnaces, glassware, etc) but perhaps there is even a ultraorthodox branch I am not aware of. I am not sure if they are allowed to use electricity nor modern isotope separation equipment; most probably they rely on repeated distillation, a procedure to be done only a a really isolated countryside; every nuclear physicist can tell terror histories about accidents during this kind of processing. Fortunately the scammers in the alchemical world play safe by leaving nuclear theory aside and selling some fake superconductivity recipes or simple cristalography games.

(footnote: I am not an expert on the use of the nuclide tables, so I could be doing a wrong interpretation of the mass data above. If so, I would be happy to be corrected... it is actually a bit embarrasing to admit the above processes)

It would seem that, perhaps, if one has at some time been subject to less gravity than the remainder of us forever ground pounders, this could result in the release of not quite normal behavior. Could NASA have overlooked the basic equipment needed for space flight? Maybe they forgot the Psych guys? Your head in the clouds, your feet on the ground. Although pepper spray is better than a 9mm, its the diaper that really is the Dark Side of behavior. Could be that on the road to NASA, those high achievers don't cope well with what they may see as failure. How much Mercury is there in a pair of Depends? For that matter, why are in need of such news items, and the every last detail they seem to think we need? Oh!! I get it!! NASA can now endorse adult diapers. Don't leave Earth without them. At least now they should be able to afford getting one of their own the help she needs. I hold no similar hope for the Media.

What I don't understand about the Nowak case is why she's being charged with attempted murder after pepper spraying her rival. A guy exhibits this behavior and all he gets charged with is stalking. Not defending Nowak (as she's clearly gone over the wall), but this seems like an extreme charge to me. I know she had weapons in the car, but never took them out. Or is there something I missed in the news reports?

When I was a first year at secondary school (year 7) in 1991, our physics teacher demonstrated the properties of a gas that was heavier than air. He poured a flask of chlorine into the classroom.

My favorite use for mercury is as a telescope mirror (look up "large zenith telescope" in Google - feh no links.)

One of my physics texts shows someone melting a bar of gallium in their hand. Hot stuff.

Great news


I think your blog is highly instructive, one of the best I had the opportunity to read.
I am from Brazil, not a physicist, but a "general" reader of science texts...As others told, I played with mercury drops from broken thermometers when I was a child...apparently I feel very well today.
Keep it going!


I want to be a forensic scientist when I'm older *I am only 13* and the bit about cyanide was really useful. I have wanted to know why only some people can smell it after I read it in a book once. Thanks!

My friend is Marta Bradley's niece, and today when she told me the story in school, I just stood there in lunch thinking that this guy had to be psycho or something to do something like this. So, I googled "Marta Bradley" and sure enough, there was a Court TV Episode about her and this article, which is extremely creepy by the way... Mercury!?!

Is it me or does Marta Bradley look a lot like Lisa Nowak. Are they sisters? I cannot get over the resemblance. It would be extremely ironic if it was.

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      2 oz brandy
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