5 Ways Radioactivity Lights Up Your Life

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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Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images
Stephen Hawking’s Memorial Will Beam His Words Toward the Nearest Black Hole
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

An upcoming memorial for Stephen Hawking is going to be out of this world. The late physicist’s words, set to music, will be broadcast by satellite toward the nearest black hole during a June 15 service in the UK, the BBC reports.

During his lifetime, Hawking signed up to travel to space on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic spaceship, but he died before he ever got the chance. (He passed away in March.) Hawking’s daughter Lucy told the BBC that the memorial's musical tribute is a “beautiful and symbolic gesture that creates a link between our father's presence on this planet, his wish to go into space, and his explorations of the universe in his mind.” She described it as "a message of peace and hope, about unity and the need for us to live together in harmony on this planet."

Titled “The Stephen Hawking Tribute,” the music was written by Greek composer Vangelis, who created the scores for Blade Runner and Chariots of Fire. It will play while Hawking’s ashes are interred at Westminster Abbey, near where Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin are buried, according to Cambridge News. After the service, the piece will be beamed into space from the European Space Agency’s Cebreros Station in Spain. The target is a black hole called 1A 0620-00, “which lives in a binary system with a fairly ordinary orange dwarf star,” according to Lucy Hawking.

Hawking wasn't the first person to predict the existence of black holes (Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity accounted for them back in the early 1900s), but he spoke at length about them throughout his career and devised mathematical theorems that gave credence to their existence in the universe.

Actor Benedict Cumberbatch, a friend of the Hawking family who portrayed the late scientist in the BBC film Hawking, will speak at the service. In addition to Hawking's close friends and family, British astronaut Tim Peake and several local students with disabilities have also been invited to attend.

[h/t BBC]

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Carl Court, Getty Images
Is There a Limit to How Many Balls You Can Juggle?
Carl Court, Getty Images
Carl Court, Getty Images

In 2017, a juggler named Alex Barron broke a record when he tossed 14 balls into the air and caught them each once. The feat is fascinating to watch, and it becomes even more impressive once you understand the physics behind it.

As WIRED explains in a new video, juggling any more than 14 balls at once may be physically impossible. Researchers who study the limits of juggling have found that the success of a performance relies on a number of different components. Speed, a.k.a. the juggler's capacity to move their hands in time to catch each ball as it lands, is a big one, but it's not the most important factor.

What really determines how many balls one person can juggle is their accuracy. An accurate juggler knows how to keep their balls from colliding in midair and make them land within arm's reach. If they can't pull that off, their act falls apart in seconds.

Breaking a juggling world record isn't the same as breaking a record for sprinting or shot put. With each new ball that's added to the routine, jugglers need to toss higher and move their hands faster, which means their throws need to be significantly more accurate than what's needed with just one ball fewer. And skill and hours of practice aren't always enough; according to expert jugglers, the current world records were likely made possible by a decent amount of luck.

For a closer look at the physics of juggling, check out the video below.

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