Why Do Scientists Measure Things by Half-Life?

istock.com/SPmemory
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.”

What's the Difference Between Memorial Day and Veterans Day?

iStock/flySnow
iStock/flySnow

It may not be easy for some people to admit, but certain national holidays often get a little muddled—namely, Memorial Day and Veterans Day. In fact, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs sees the confusion often enough that they spelled out the distinction on their website. The two days are held six months apart: Veterans Day is celebrated every November 11, and Memorial Day takes place on the last Monday of May as part of a three-day weekend with parades and plenty of retail sales promotions. You probably realize both are intended to acknowledge the contributions of those who have served in the United States military, but you may not recall the important distinction between the two. So what's the difference?

Veterans Day was originally known as Armistice Day. It was first observed on November 11, 1919, the one-year anniversary of the end of World War I. Congress passed a resolution making it an annual observance in 1926. It became a national holiday in 1938. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower changed the name from Armistice Day to Veterans Day to recognize veterans of the two world wars. The intention is to celebrate all military veterans, living or dead, who have served the country, with an emphasis on thanking those in our lives who have spent time in uniform.

We also celebrate military veterans on Memorial Day, but the mood is more somber. The occasion is reserved for those who died while serving their country. The day was first observed in the wake of the Civil War, where local communities organized tributes around the gravesites of fallen soldiers. The observation was originally called Decoration Day because the graves were adorned with flowers. It was held May 30 because that date wasn't the anniversary for any battle in particular and all soldiers could be honored. (The date was recognized by northern states, with southern states choosing different days.) After World War I, the day shifted from remembering the fallen in the Civil War to those who had perished in all of America's conflicts. It gradually became known as Memorial Day and was declared a federal holiday and moved to the last Monday in May to organize a three-day weekend beginning in 1971.

The easiest way to think of the two holidays is to consider Veterans Day a time to shake the hand of a veteran who stood up for our freedoms. Memorial Day is a time to remember and honor those who are no longer around to receive your gratitude personally.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

What Is the Kitchen Like on the International Space Station?

iStock/Elen11
iStock/Elen11

Clayton C. Anderson:

The International Space Station (ISS) does not really have a "kitchen" as many of us here on Earth might relate to. But, there is an area called the "galley" which serves the purpose of allowing for food preparation and consumption. I believe the term "galley" comes from the military, and it was used specifically in the space shuttle program. I guess it carried over to the ISS.

The Russian segment had the ONLY galley when I flew in 2007. There was a table for three, and the galley consisted of a water system—allowing us to hydrate our food packages (as needed) with warm (tepid) or hot (extremely) water—and a food warmer. The food warmer designed by the Russians was strictly used for their cans of food (about the size of a can of cat food in America). The U.S. developed a second food warmer (shaped like a briefcase) that we could use to heat the more "flexibly packaged" foodstuffs (packets) sent from America.

Later in the ISS lifetime, a second galley area was provided in the U.S. segment. It is positioned in Node 1 (Unity) and a table is also available there for the astronauts' dining pleasures. Apparently, it was added because of the increasing crew size experienced these days (6), to have more options. During my brief visit to ISS in 2010 (12 days or so) as a Discovery crewmember, I found the mealtimes to be much more segregated than when I spent five months on board. The Russians ate in the Russian segment. The shuttle astronauts ate in the shuttle. The U.S. ISS astronauts ate in Node 1, but often at totally different times. While we did have a combined dinner in Node 1 during STS-131 (with the Expedition 23 crew), this is one of the perceived negatives of the "multiple-galley" scenario. My long duration stint on ISS was highlighted by the fact that Fyodor Yurchikhin, Oleg Kotov, and I had every single meal together. The fellowship we—or at least I—experienced during those meals is something I will never, ever forget. We laughed, we argued, we celebrated, we mourned …, all around our zero-gravity "dinner table." Awesome stuff!

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

Clayton "Astro Clay" Anderson is an astronaut, motivational speaker, author, and STEAM education advocate.

His award-winning book The Ordinary Spaceman, Astronaut Edition Fisher Space Pen, and new children's books A is for Astronaut; Blasting Through the Alphabet and It's a Question of Space: An Ordinary Astronaut's Answers to Sometimes Extraordinary Questions are available at www.AstroClay.com. For speaking events www.AstronautClayAnderson.com. Follow @Astro_Clay #WeBelieveInAstronauts

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER