Late last year I wrote a diary in this space on the History of Water in the Universe which contained a digression of the subject of one my favorite elements in the periodic table, plutonium, and its longest lived isotope 244Pu. Nuclear scientists have long understood that this isotope acreted with the protoearth about 4.5 billion years ago, and it's presence is well understood from the signature of xenon isotopes in earth's atmosphere, since certain isotopes are produced from the spontaneous fission of this isotope. (Regrettably this isotope is not accessible in anything but trivial quantities in nuclear reactors.) The half-life of 244Pu is 80 million years, sufficiently long enough to justify a search for its presence in very old rocks: A metric ton of 244 Pu present in the early earth, 4.5 billion years ago, would leave about 12 picograms (a picogram is a trillionth of a gram) of 244Pu today, well within the reach of analytical chemistry.
This search has, in fact, been completed and the work was accomplished by the great nuclear chemist Darleane Hoffman who is now 84 years old, but is still active. She will be giving a lecture at the upcoming meeting of the American Chemical Society in Denver during a symposium that is a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the award of Nobel Prize in chemistry to Marie Curie. The overwhelming majority of speakers at this symposium are women nuclear scientists.
Here is the link to the program..
Although the talks will be a celebration, I suspect that at least one of the talks, given by Dr. Annie B. Kersting of the Glenn T. Seaborg Institute at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory will be depressing. It will discuss the need to train new nuclear scientists for future generations, a practice that is sad decline in this country because of the ignorance, fear and superstition of that set of people who know no nuclear science, but hate the science anyway.
Ignorance, fear and superstition has always weighed on scientists, famously from the time of Galileo, and is represented today by assaults from the right on evolutionary biology and assaults from some subset of the left on on nuclear science. The assaults are strictly equivalent.
Superstition, fear and ignorance affecting nuclear science is not new, by the way. Possibly the most famous episode in the hatred of this science took place in 1930's - 1940's Germany, where the science was declared "Jewish Physics," which lead, albeit via an unfortunate mechanism, to the construction of the first nuclear reactors in the United States.
This weekend, I have been perusing a symposium in print Enrico Fermi, Master Scientist on the subject of the life of Enrico Fermi, the inventor of the nuclear reactor. I recommend it highly for anyone interested in the history of science, and it contains reminsences of this great 20th century nuclear scientist from some of the 12 fellow Nobel Laureates that Fermi trained, including Hans Bethe.
It is said that both Fermi and Marie Curie were killed by their work in nuclear science and this may well be true, since it is likely that they did not take the simplest precautions that one would take today, partially because they were working on the frontiers of science. Marie Curie's laboratory, as well as her notebooks are still highly radioactive. On the other hand, Bethe lived to be 99 years old, Seaborg to be 87. Dr. Hoffman is now 84 and is still giving important lectures on science. It would be statistical nonsense to represent any of these ages as "proof" of anything about the value of a career in nuclear science.
Essentially nuclear science is, in fact, the "Queen" of the sciences and its partial destruction by fear, ignorance and superstition is a tragedy.
It is very sad to me that the nuclear chemistry sections of the meetings of the American Chemical Society are getting smaller and smaller and the average age of the participants is rising. These facts are are great risk to the future of our country, whether we know it or not.