Tag Archives: The Mighty Atom

Absolute Zero is 0K

Near the heart of Scotland lies a large morass known as Dullatur Bog. Water seeps from these moistened acres and coalesces into the headwaters of a river which meanders through the countryside for nearly 22 miles until its terminus in Glasgow. In the late 19th century this river adorned the landscape just outside of the laboratory of Sir William Thompson, renowned scientist and president of the Royal Society. The river must have made an impression on Thompson—when Queen Victoria granted him the title of Baron in 1892, he opted to adopt the river’s name as his own. Sir William Thompson was thenceforth known as Lord Kelvin.

Kelvin’s contributions to science were vast, but he is perhaps best known today for the temperature scale that bears his name. It is so named in honor of his discovery of the coldest possible temperature in our universe. Thompson had played a major role in developing the Laws of Thermodynamics, and in 1848 he used them to extrapolate that the coldest temperature any matter can become, regardless of the substance, is -273.15°C (-459.67°F). We now know this boundary as zero Kelvin.

Once this absolute zero temperature was decisively identified, prominent Victorian scientists commenced multiple independent efforts to build machines to explore this physical frontier. Their equipment was primitive, and the trappings were treacherous, but they pressed on nonetheless, dangers be damned. There was science to be done.

The City Under Ice

Another experimental audio article: The story of Camp Century: A "nuclear city" under the Greenland ice sheet that was not entirely what it seemed.

This piece was intended primarily as an audio experience, there is an adio player embedded in the episode page.


ALAN: This is Damn Interesting.

In 1946, the United States sent a political delegation to the kingdom of Denmark. Their objective: acquire the island of Greenland.

Greenland is perhaps best known as the land mass with the most misleading name in history. Greenland is very much not green. The large island lies north of Canada near the North Pole, so most of the land is caked in permanent ice all year long, thousands of feet thick. It is almost entirely frozen and inhospitable. As you may know, the name Greenland was specifically designed to draw in gullible settlers. As the story goes, in 982 AD an Icelander named Erik the Red was exiled due to “some killings,” so he and his entourage sailed northwest where there were rumored to be unclaimed lands. They named their new settlement Greenland in hopes of tempting other Nordic settlers to sail right on past Iceland in favor of these allegedly greener shores. The strategy was only modestly successful.

Ownership of the island was ambiguous for centuries, but in 1933 the Permanent Court of International Justice, a body which no longer exists, decided to grant official control of Greenland to Denmark, which would govern the island from 3000 km away, which takes us back to the US delegation offering to buy Greenland in the 1940s. Despite the island’s cold and hostile demeanor, the US was prepared to pay $100,000,000, about $1.2 billion in today’s dollars. The delegation explained that the US wanted to establish an airbase there. The Army also wanted access to a permanent ice sheet in order to develop techniques for building structures on and under the ice and to train troops in polar warfare. This was the Cold War after all. The kingdom of Denmark refused to sell, but they felt they owed America a debt of gratitude for the then recent World War. During the war, German forces had occasionally dropped by, slipped ashore, and surreptitiously installed weather stations, and every time a Greenlandic dog sled patrol spotted one, they could count on the Americans to come demolish these unauthorized Nazi meteorological apparatuses.

So the Danish government granted the Americans permission to establish their airbase and they granted permission for US Army engineers to find some flat, remote, desolate area of the ice sheet and use it to experiment with their ice construction. That seemed like a reasonable compromise. So the Army engineers descended upon Greenland and launched two major construction projects: they built Thule Air Base near the western coast and 150 miles inland from there, they started another project codenamed Camp Century. The official US War Office film entitled “Research and Development Progress Report #6” describes this project.

The Isle of Doctor Seaborg

Glenn T Seaborg c. 1964
Glenn T Seaborg c. 1964

It was the summer of 1936 when Ernest Lawrence, the inventor of the atom-smashing cyclotron, received a visit from Emilio Segrè, a scientific colleague from Italy. Segrè explained that he had come all the way to America to ask a very small favor: He wondered whether Lawrence would part with a few strips of thin metal from an old cyclotron unit. Dr Lawrence was happy to oblige; as far as he was concerned the stuff Segrè sought was mere radioactive trash. He sealed some scraps of the foil in an envelope and mailed it to Segrè’s lab in Sicily. Unbeknownst to Lawrence, Segrè was on a surreptitious scientific errand.

At that time the majority of chemical elements had been isolated and added to the periodic table, yet there was an unsightly hole where an element with 43 protons ought to be. Elements with 42 and 44 protons—42molybdenum and 44ruthenium respectively—had been isolated decades earlier, but element 43 was yet to be seen. Considerable accolades awaited whichever scientist could isolate the elusive element, so chemists worldwide were scanning through tons of ores with their spectroscopes, watching for the anticipated pattern.

Upon receiving Dr Lawrence’s radioactive mail back in Italy, Segrè and his colleague Carlo Perrier subjected the strips of molybdenum foil to a carefully choreographed succession of bunsen burners, salts, chemicals, and acids. The resulting precipitate confirmed their hypothesis: element 42 was the answer. The radiation in Lawrence’s cyclotron had converted a few 42molybdenum atoms into element 43, and one ten-billionth of a gram of the stuff now sat in the bottom of their beaker. They dubbed their plundered discovery “technetium” for the Greek word technetos, meaning “artificial.” It was considered to be the first element made by man rather than nature, and its “short” half-life—anywhere from a few nanoseconds to a few million years depending on the isotope—was the reason there’s negligible naturally-occurring technetium left on modern Earth.

In the years since this discovery scientists have employed increasingly sophisticated apparatuses to bang particles together to create and isolate increasingly heavy never-before-seen elements, an effort which continues even today. Most of the obese nuclei beyond 92uranium are too unstable to stay assembled for more than a moment, to the extent that it makes one wonder why researchers expend such time, effort, and expense to fabricate these fickle fragments of matter. But according to our current understanding of quantum mechanics, if we can pack enough protons and neutrons into these husky nuclei we may encounter something astonishing.

In Soviet Russia, Lake Contaminates You

In late 1945, along the banks of the Techa River in the Soviet Union, a dozen labor camps sent 70,000 inmates to begin construction of a secret city. Mere months earlier the United States’ Little Boy and Fat Man bombs had flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki, leaving Soviet leaders salivating over the massive power of the atom. In a rush to close the gap in weapons technology, the USSR commissioned a sprawling plutonium-production complex in the southern Ural mountains. The clandestine military-industrial community was to be operated by Russia’s Mayak Chemical Combine, and it would come to be known as Chelyabinsk-40.

Within a few years the newfangled nuclear reactors were pumping out plutonium to fuel the Soviet Union’s first atomic weapons. Chelyabinsk-40 was absent from all official maps, and it would be over forty years before the Soviet government would even acknowledge its existence. Nevertheless, the small city became an insidious influence in the Soviet Union, ultimately creating a corona of nuclear contamination dwarfing the devastation of the Chernobyl disaster.

The Apocalypses That Might Have Been

NORAD - Keeping an eye towards the sky to protect the United States.
NORAD - Keeping an eye towards the sky to protect the United States.

In the early dawn hours of November 9th, 1979, just a month and a half after the inexplicable Vela Incident, crews manning the underground missile silos along the American Great Plains received an urgent alert. Early warning satellites had detected that Soviet nuclear missiles were in flight, soon to rain apocalyptic fire and death upon the United States. This was not a drill (repeat, this was not a drill!). The soldiers manned their stations, and braced themselves for the unthinkable: the possibility of launching their ballistic nuclear missiles in retaliation. There was little time for considering options, as there were apparently hundreds of megatons worth of atomic weapons en route at high speeds. It seemed the world was about to end, courtesy of the world’s superpowers.

This alert was not limited to the US intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force. The entire U.S. air defense interceptor force was put on alert, and at least 10 fighters took off. The National Emergency Airborne Command Post— the “doomsday plane”— also took to the sky, although the president was not on board. The United States was falling into its doomsday contingency plan, preparing for the worst.

The Vela Incident

Vela Satellite
Vela Satellite

On 22 September 1979, sometime around 3:00am local time, a US Atomic Energy Detection System satellite recorded a pattern of intense flashes in a remote portion of the Indian Ocean. Moments later an unusual, fast-moving ionospheric disturbance was detected by the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, and at about the same time a distant, muffled thud was overheard by the US Navy’s undersea Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS). Evidently something violent and explosive had transpired in the ocean off the southern tip of Africa.

Examination of the data gathered by satellite Vela 6911 strongly suggested that the cause of these disturbances was a nuclear device. The pattern of flashes exactly matched that of prior nuclear detections, and no other phenomenon was known to produce the same millisecond-scale signature. Unfortunately, US intelligence agencies were uncertain who was responsible for the detonation, and the US government was conspicuously reluctant to acknowledge it at all.

Spies on the Roof of the World

In the closing weeks of 1964, the US Central Intelligence Agency was gripped by anxiety in the wake of troubling news. On October 16th, a great mushroom cloud had been spotted towering over the remote Chinese missile-testing range at Lop Nur. All evidence had indicated that Chinese scientists were at least a year away from squeezing the destructive secrets from the mighty atom, but this bombshell underscored the agency’s dangerously feeble espionage efforts in the Far East.

Details regarding the twenty-two kiloton device were scarce, but the US regarded the development as an unwelcome wrinkle in the already precarious Cold War. Officials from India were also distressed, having felt the business end of China’s military during a recent border dispute. In the interest of self-preservation, the two nations made a secret pact to combine their China-watching efforts. Photo reconnaissance satellites were still too primitive for practical spying, and high-flying surveillance planes were too conspicuous, but there was one alternative vantage point. The intelligence agencies hatched a nefarious scheme to keep a sharp eye on China’s weapons tests from atop India’s Nanda Devi, one of the tallest mountains of the imposing Himalayan mountain range. It offered an unobstructed view of China’s distant test site, assuming one could manage to hoist a sufficiently powerful electronic eye to its summit.