Thursday, June 20, 2013

Science Clock Series: Part II

In part two of this series, we look at a subject from nuclear physics. Or chemistry. It's kind of at the point where the two overlap.

Today's number is two, and it is approximately equal to:

\[2\approx\text{T}_{1/2}\,^{237}\text{Np}\,(\times10^6\,\text{y})\] T\(_{1/2}\) refers to the half-life of a substance, which means the amount of time, on average, that it takes for half of a sample of a radioactive substance to decay into something else. \(^{237}\)Np is the chemical symbol for the element neptunium (specifically, the isotope neptunium-237), and “\(\times10^6\)” is scientific notation for “multiply this number by 1,000,000”. So the whole expression means “approximately equal to the half-life of neptunium-237 when multiplied by two million years,” referring to two.

Neptunium is the element with atomic number 93 and the first transuranic element. This means it is the first element after uranium (atomic number 92), and is thus only found in nature in extremely tiny amounts (after uranium no element is found in nature in anything other than trace amounts). Neptunium has at least nineteen known isotopes, of which the most stable is neptunium-237 (also written \(^{237}\)Np) with 93 protons, 144 neutrons, and a half-life of 2.144 million years.

So the full expression can be read as “two (million years) is approximately equal to the half-life of neptunium-237.” And now you know where it comes from. Check back next time for something from cosmology! Click here to jump directly to it.

As an aside, the name neptunium comes from the planet Neptune which follows the planet Uranus out from the Sun, just as neptunium follows uranium in the periodic table. (Plutonium also follows neptunium just as Pluto follows Neptune [most of the time, anyway].) Uranium was named after the seventh planet from the Sun, which is now known as Uranus, but which was not always the case. When it (the planet) was originally discovered there was some controversy over what it should called: Herschel, the discoverer, wanted “Georgium Sidus” (“George's Star” in Latin), after his patron King George III of England. Astronomers from other countries were (understandably) a bit miffed at a celestial object bearing the name of a foreign monarch, and several alternate names were proposed, including "Uranus" by the German astronomer Johann Bode, who first determined Uranus' orbit. A few years later when Bode's colleague Martin Klaproth discovered a new metal (in 1789) he named it uranium in support of Bode's proposed name (which eventually beat the competition to become the standard today). By the time neptunium was discovered (officially in 1940) the name Uranus was long the standard, so neptunium and later plutonium were simply nice additions. 

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