Why Do Scientists Measure Things by Half-Life?

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istock.com/SPmemory

Reader @Procrustes tweeted at us to ask: “Why do scientists measure things like radioactive elements in half-life? Why not just measure the whole life?”

If you’re not familiar with the term “half-life,” maybe you’ve heard one of your nerd friends use it. If they weren’t complaining about a guy named Gabe and ranting about steam and a valve, they were probably using it in reference to radiometric dating, a technique that uses measurement of radioactive decay to figure out the age of archaeological artifacts and dinosaur fossils.

Decay and Dating

At the center of every atom is a dense region called a nucleus, which consists of protons and neutrons. In some atoms, the forces in the nucleus are balanced and the nucleus is stable. In others, the forces are unbalanced and the nucleus has an excess of internal energy; it’s unstable, or radioactive. These unstable atoms essentially self-destruct because of the imbalance and break down, or decay. When they do this, they lose energy by emitting energetic subatomic particles (radiation).

These particles can be detected, typically with a Geiger counter. In the case of radiocarbon dating, a common dating method for organic matter that uses carbon-14 (an isotope, or variant, of the element carbon) to estimate age, one radioactive “beta particle” is produced for every carbon-14 atom that decays. By comparing the normal abundance of carbon-14 in a living creature (which is the same concentration in the atmosphere) with the amount left in the material being dated, based on the known decay rate, scientists can figure out roughly how long ago whatever they’re looking at was still alive.

Half-life steps onto the scene in the decay process. While the lifespan of any individual atom is random and unpredictable, the probability of decay is constant. You can’t predict when an unstable atom will break down, but if you have a group of them, you can predict how long it will take. Atoms that have an equal probability of decaying will do so at an exponential rate. That is, the rate of decay will slow in proportion to the amount of radioactive material you have.

“Many will disappear early on in the process but some will last for much longer time periods,” says Dr. Michael Dee, a researcher at Oxford University’s radiocarbon lab. “It’s a bit like putting (a lot) of coins out in the rain. Although they all have an equal probability of being hit by raindrops, many will be struck immediately and others will remain dry, perhaps for an extended period of time.”

It’s easy misinterpret half-life to mean “one half of the time it takes for whatever atoms you’re looking at to decay,” but it actually means “the length of time it takes for one half of the atoms you’re looking at to decay.” The measurement is useful in radiometric dating, says Dee, because exponential decay means “it doesn’t matter how much radioactive material you have, the time taken until half of it is gone [the half-life] is always the same.”

The whole life of the material, on the other hand, would be equal to the lifespan of the last atom in the group to decay. Since an atom’s lifespan is random, inestimable and essentially infinite, the whole life would be, too. It winds up being a not-very-useful measurement. “It’s a bit like one coin sitting out in the rain,” says Dee. “And never getting hit, ever.”

Why Are There No Snakes in Ireland?

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iStock

Legend tells of St. Patrick using the power of his faith to drive all of Ireland’s snakes into the sea. It’s an impressive image, but there’s no way it could have happened.

There never were any snakes in Ireland, partly for the same reason that there are no snakes in Hawaii, Iceland, New Zealand, Greenland, or Antarctica: the Emerald Isle is, well, an island.

Eightofnine via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Once upon a time, Ireland was connected to a larger landmass. But that time was an ice age that kept the land far too chilly for cold-blooded reptiles. As the ice age ended around 10,000 years ago, glaciers melted, pouring even more cold water into the now-impassable expanse between Ireland and its neighbors.

Other animals, like wild boars, lynx, and brown bears, managed to make it across—as did a single reptile: the common lizard. Snakes, however, missed their chance.

The country’s serpent-free reputation has, somewhat perversely, turned snake ownership into a status symbol. There have been numerous reports of large pet snakes escaping or being released. As of yet, no species has managed to take hold in the wild—a small miracle in itself.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

If March 15 Is the Ides of March, What Does That Make March 16?

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iStock.com/bycostello

Everyone knows that the soothsayer in William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar was talking about March 15 when he warned the Roman emperor to "beware the Ides of March." We also all know Caesar's response: "Nah, I gotta head into the office that day." But if March 15 is the Ides of March, what does that make March 16?

At the time of Caesar's assassination, Romans were using the Julian calendar (introduced by Julius Caesar himself). This was a modified version of the original Roman calendar, and it is very similar to the one we use today (which is called the Gregorian calendar). A major difference, however, was how Romans talked about the days.

Each month had three important dates: the Kalends (first day of the month), the Ides (the middle of the month), and the Nones (ninth day before the Ides, which corresponded with the first phase of the Moon). Instead of counting up (i.e., March 10, March 11, March 12), Romans kept track by counting backwards and inclusively from the Kalends, Ides, or Nones. March 10 was the sixth day before the Ides of March, March 11 was the fifth day before the Ides of March, and so on.

Because it came after the Ides, March 16 would’ve been referred to in the context of April: "The 17th day before the Kalends of April." The abbreviated form of this was a.d. XVII Kal. Apr., with "a.d." standing for ante diem, meaning roughly "the day before."

So, had Julius Caesar been murdered on March 16, the soothsayer's ominous warning would have been, "Beware the 17th day before the Kalends of April." Doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

This story first ran in 2016.

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