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Why Do Scientists Measure Things by Half-Life?

?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.”

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Big Questions
Why Do Baseball Managers Wear Uniforms?
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Basketball and hockey coaches wear business suits on the sidelines. Football coaches wear team-branded shirts and jackets and often ill-fitting pleated khakis. Why are baseball managers the only guys who wear the same outfit as their players?

According to John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball since 2011, it goes back to the earliest days of the game. Back then, the person known as the manager was the business manager: the guy who kept the books in order and the road trips on schedule. Meanwhile, the guy we call the manager today, the one who arranges the roster and decides when to pull a pitcher, was known as the captain. In addition to managing the team on the field, he was usually also on the team as a player. For many years, the “manager” wore a player’s uniform simply because he was a player. There were also a few captains who didn’t play for the team and stuck to making decisions in the dugout, and they usually wore suits.

With the passing of time, it became less common for the captain to play, and on most teams they took on strictly managerial roles. Instead of suits proliferating throughout America’s dugouts, though, non-playing captains largely hung on to the tradition of wearing a player's uniform. By the early to mid 20th century, wearing the uniform was the norm for managers, with a few notable exceptions. The Philadelphia Athletics’s Connie Mack and the Brooklyn Dodgers’s Burt Shotton continued to wear suits and ties to games long after it fell out of favor (though Shotton sometimes liked to layer a team jacket on top of his street clothes). Once those two retired, it’s been uniforms as far as the eye can see.

The adherence to the uniform among managers in the second half of the 20th century leads some people to think that MLB mandates it, but a look through the official major league rules [PDF] doesn’t turn up much on a manager’s dress. Rule 1.11(a) (1) says that “All players on a team shall wear uniforms identical in color, trim and style, and all players’ uniforms shall include minimal six-inch numbers on their backs" and rule 2.00 states that a coach is a "team member in uniform appointed by the manager to perform such duties as the manager may designate, such as but not limited to acting as base coach."

While Rule 2.00 gives a rundown of the manager’s role and some rules that apply to them, it doesn’t specify that they’re uniformed. Further down, Rule 3.15 says that "No person shall be allowed on the playing field during a game except players and coaches in uniform, managers, news photographers authorized by the home team, umpires, officers of the law in uniform and watchmen or other employees of the home club." Again, nothing about the managers being uniformed.

All that said, Rule 2.00 defines the bench or dugout as “the seating facilities reserved for players, substitutes and other team members in uniform when they are not actively engaged on the playing field," and makes no exceptions for managers or anyone else. While the managers’ duds are never addressed anywhere else, this definition does seem to necessitate, in a roundabout way, that managers wear a uniform—at least if they want to have access to the dugout. And, really, where else would they sit?

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

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Big Questions
How Long Could a Person Survive With an Unlimited Supply of Water, But No Food at All?
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How long could a person survive if he had unlimited supply of water, but no food at all?

Richard Lee Fulgham:

I happen to know the answer because I have studied starvation, its course, and its utility in committing a painless suicide. (No, I’m not suicidal.)

A healthy human being can live approximately 45 to 65 days without food of any kind, so long as he or she keeps hydrated.

You could survive without any severe symptoms [for] about 30 to 35 days, but after that you would probably experience skin rashes, diarrhea, and of course substantial weight loss.

The body—as you must know—begins eating itself, beginning with adipose tissue (i.e. fat) and next the muscle tissue.

Google Mahatma Gandhi, who starved himself almost to death during 14 voluntary hunger strikes to bring attention to India’s independence movement.

Strangely, there is much evidence that starvation is a painless way to die. In fact, you experience a wonderful euphoria when the body realizes it is about to die. Whether this is a divine gift or merely secretions of the brain is not known.

Of course, the picture is not so pretty for all reports. Some victims of starvation have experienced extreme irritability, unbearably itchy skin rashes, unceasing diarrhea, painful swallowing, and edema.

In most cases, death comes when the organs begin to shut down after six to nine weeks. Usually the heart simply stops.

(Here is a detailed medical report of the longest known fast: 382 days.)

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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