Polonium, #84

Maria Sklowdowska Curie was the daughter of schoolteachers. She and her husband Pierre studied the radioactivity of the uranium ore pitchblende and in the process discovered a new element. Madame Curie named the substance Polonium (from the Latin Polonia) after her homeland, a nation we call Poland. Such a country did not exist in 1898, having been carved up by conquerors. The Curies were awarded a Nobel Prize for their work on radium and polonium.

Marie and Pierre’s daughter Irene was also a Nobel-prize winner! She and her husband Fredric Joliot also studied radioactive isotopes. Both mother and daughter died of leukemia, most likely from too much exposure to radioactive materials.

Polonium was used as an initiator in two of the first atomic bombs. Both “The Gadget” (the one tested at Trinity) and “Fat Man” (the one dropped on Nagasaki) used a polonium-beryllium initiator. The device provided a neutron source that would start the chain reaction once the critical mass was achieved. The polonium for both bombs was isolated at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. My late father-in-law learned how to build nuclear power plants at Oak Ridge. He was a physicist at Corning, a lieutenant in the naval reserve, and a young father at the time (the mid-50s). Other companies like Union Carbide sent their scientists and engineers to the same school. It was part of the “peace dividend” of the Eisenhower administration—an attempt to turn more nuclear technology over to civilian uses.

Here’s what ORNL looks like now:

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