5 Ways Radioactivity Lights Up Your Life

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The word radioactivity always seems to bring up a number of glowing concerns. But maybe it's time you got over your fears and warmed up to the idea. Here are some reasons to grin about radioactivity.

1. If You Aren't Radioactive, You Just Ain't Livin'

The carbon dioxide in the air contains one part in a trillion of radiocarbon, which is radioactive and produced by cosmic rays from space. Plants, of course, take in this carbon, so then they become radioactive. If you eat plants or animals that eat plants, then you become radioactive. But why is this important? When you die, the radiocarbon will begin to decay. In 5,730 years half the radiocarbon will be gone. In another 5,730 years half of that will be gone. Because scientists can measure the age of ancient bones by measuring how much of the radiocarbon is gone, if a bone is not measurably radioactive, it means that its owner has been dead at least 50,000 years.

2. Radioactivity Helps You Get Your Drink On

The most surprising thing isn't that the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, and Tobacco tests alcoholic beverages for radioactivity, but that it rejects any alcohol that doesn't show radiation as "unfit." What's the reason? Any alcohol that has zero radioactivity must have come from very old carbon, and that usually means the alcohol has been manufactured from fossil fuels. After burial for 100 million years, the radio-carbon in the original organisms decays, and Congress has decreed that such alcohol may not be legally consumed. The argument that it's unfit probably has more to do with politics than with science, since there's no scientific reason why fossil fuel alcohol would be any worse than alcohol from grapes.

3. The Hills Wouldn't Be So Alive

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Mountains come from the collision of large tectonic plates on the surface of the earth. Nobody knows what makes these plates move, but a reasonable guess is that the very slow flow of rocks (if they go slowly enough, they behave like fluids) is driven by the heat of radioactivity in the earth's depths. So, if it weren't for the fabulous effects of radioactivity, the plates wouldn't have moved, and those hills Julie Andrews and the Von Trapp family were so eager to sing about would never have existed.

4. You Might Be Speaking French

This is also related to the movement of the plates, discussed in the previous paragraph. About 100 million years ago, Europe and North America were one continent. And if you look on a modern map, you can still see how the continents once fit together. But the flow of rock, possibly driven by radioactivity, sent the continents apart. As a result, we have Europe and the United States. Why should we be thankful for radioactivity? Well, without it, the United States and France would probably be next-door neighbors, and Paris would seem a whole lot less exotic.

5. Ain't No Sunshine When There's No Radioactivity

The sun is driven by a process called fusion, which is actually a series of reactions that requires short-lived radioactive intermediaries to undergo a kind of radioactivity called beta decay. Simply stated, without radioactivity, the fusion on the sun could not proceed, and the sun would have cooled off billions of years ago. Needless to say, without the sun, plants and animals wouldn't be here, and you probably wouldn't have that killer tan.

Ed note: This article was pulled from Condensed Knowledge.

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December 6, 2007 - 6:08am
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