They Didn't Ask Me (dr_phil_physics) wrote,
They Didn't Ask Me
dr_phil_physics

COSMOS Watch: Episode 7

Funny that after last week's episode, in which they tried to "visualize" smells and odor transport, that I ran across another attempt to visualize odors on TV -- and it wasn't a commercial. (grin) Meanwhile the weekend's Spring Break Clip Show version of NPR's news game show Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, did a section on Axe Body Spray, describing a junior high where so many boys had drenched themselves with Axe, that it set off the fire alarms... Smells. Molecules. Amazing stuff. Onward...

-- Once there was a man who went searching for the age of the universe.

-- Along the way he discovered a terrible threat.

-- Summer, California, 1966. Clare Paterson, geophysicist. He's determined to stop it, no matter the cost -- anime of people and dogs with splotches.

opening credits

-- You can't tell Pat (same as Clare) Paterson's story without a going back to where stars are created.

-- Iron (Fe) for the core of the Earth. Oxygen for water and breathing. Carbon for diamonds and life.

-- A star is born, in hours.

-- Once an object grows massive enough to have gravity, they begin pulling each other into crossing orbits.

-- This is how our Earth's surface looked when new. Show bombardments all over.

-- Nothing survived.

-- So how can we know how old the Earth is?

-- Archbishop James Usher did a calculation. Searched the Bible for events we had a date for.

-- Kings II -- 562 BC, the death of Nebuchadnezzar -- and then added up all the ages of the prophets and all the begats.

-- The Earth began on October 22, 4004 BC. At 6pm. It was a Saturday.

-- Up until we read from another book -- the rocks.

-- Grand Canyon -- layers. Oldest sediments at bottom.

-- Animation "expands" layers of Grand Canyon, so we can look at them one at a time in isolation.

-- Once upon a time, Pre-Cambrian, 1 BY ago, must have been shallow water -- blue green algae.

-- Bright Angel Shale

-- These tracks made 260 MY ago.

-- Age of the Earth, how long to make each layer.

-- But we know today that sediments layer at uneven rates. Some slowly, some in a catastrophic flood.

-- Used Grand Canyon and other sedimentary layers -- came up with 3 MY to 15 BY range.

-- Even deepest layers aren't the oldest rocks.

-- In space, it's another story.

-- I know a place where the unused bricks and mortar of the Solar System remain -- between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars.

-- 50,000 yr ago, journey ended for a small asteroid knocked out of its orbit by a collision, to blast out this crater in Arizona.

-- Fragments of the iron asteroid are still around. How can we know its age?

-- Some atoms in the rock may be radioactive.

-- In particular, after a long time, Uranium (U) undergoes a decay into Thorium, then more quickly into Praseodymium and ten more steps in the decay chain until it reaches stable Lead (Pb).

-- Pb will remain for eternity.

-- 20th century, big effort to measure the decay rates.

-- Nucleus is impervious to the outside world. You can boil it in oil or vaporize it -- the nucleus doesn't care.

-- There is a way to measure the U in original rocks, long gone.

-- Meteorites -- they were made at same time as the Earth.

-- 1947, Paterson a graduate student.

-- What started out as pure scientific research turned out to be something more.

-- Paterson was a wizard of the mass spectrometer.

-- Zircon crystals, the size of the tip of a pin, nothing goes in or out after formed.

-- Measure ppm of U inside.

-- Another graduate student, George Tilden measured amount of U.

-- Always the same.

-- But Pat's results of Pb content wildly different.

-- Made no sense.

-- Could the Pb have been contaminated?

-- Tried to cleanse the lab.

-- Still 100x too much Pb.

-- He'd been at it for two years.

-- He'd have to take stricter measures. Needed a whole new lab.

-- Cal Tech, Tilden brought Paterson.

-- Neil in bunny suit in first ultraclean lab room.

-- NOW could tackle the Fe meteorite.

-- Argonne National Laboratory. Most accurate mass spectrometer just went on line.

-- Vaporize sample. Now I'm going to ionize you -- what's an electron between friends? Mass spec uses magnets to segregate the atoms by mass.

-- The Age of the Earth -- 4½ BY old.

-- Paterson wanted his mother to be the 1st person to know. His reward? A world of trouble.

(Phone call from relative -- trying to take notes using Closed Captioning, so missing some bits)

-- Ship of the imagination, passing through the rings of Saturn.

-- Romans. These columns are the only remains of this temple to Saturn built 2500 YA.

-- No wars or executions during Saturnalia, the annual festival.

-- Early Church pulls in Saturnalia in winter to attract more people.

-- Saturn is the slowest planet, so named after the God of Lead.

-- Pb poisoning among the Romans. I'll give you a hint, plumbing comes from plumbum, Latin for Lead.

-- Widespread use of Lead may have contributed to the fall and decline of the Roman empire.

-- Cheap, easy to work with.

-- 80,000 tons of Pb mined per year in ancient Rome.

-- Pb mimics Zinc (Zn) and Fe, which we need.

-- Also blocks neurotransmitters, affecting memory and learning.

-- Turn of the 20th century, Glidden ad campaign to say Pb is safe to use for paint for children.

-- Pb production soared in 1920.

-- Tetraethyl Pb -- a gasoline additive.

-- Fat soluble.

-- 60 M tons per year.

-- Ethyl Corporation workers, some went insane.

-- 1st time the authority of science was used to cloak a problem.

-- Guy hired to promote Pb.

-- Pb naturally occurring. Sure, workplace could be bad, but that be self-regulated by industry. *** Everything is fine.

-- Until Clare Paterson starting looking for the age of the universe.

-- Leading expert on measuring trace amounts of Pb.

-- American Petroleum Institute looked at seawater.

-- Deep water, minimal Pb, but shallow?

-- It takes centuries to mix to deep water.

-- Estimated the rate of contamination.

-- Where's all this Pb coming from? -- The Pb in gasoline.

-- Well that's where the $ comes from for your research.

-- Published anyway.

-- What next? Thinking of measuring Pb in polar ice.

-- You've done Pb. We think you should look at other trace things.

-- When you ship tetraethyl Pb, you treat it like a chemical weapon -- there's a reason for that.

-- The National Science Foundation and others stood by Paterson.

-- In even the most remote locations, ice before the Industrial Revolution is different.

-- Pb levels in snow much lower several hundred years ago -- wherever he went.

-- Evidence of mass poisoning on an unprecedented scale.

-- Published findings.

-- Sent to an influential senator, Edmund Muskie.

-- 1966 hearings

-- Dr. Robert Kehoe, 1937 found no danger from Pb.

-- No evidence.

-- But on the 5th day of the hearing, Clare Paterson came in from Antarctica -- hadn't been expected.

-- You use actual measurements taken from the field? -- Yes.

-- Same numbers, different conclusions. -- We expect to hear from scientists, not lawyers.

-- At these levels, Pb is a chronic insult.

-- We've seen evidence of this?

-- Not if your purpose was to sell more gasoline.

-- Fought for twenty years.

-- Graph levels of Pb in human blood and levels of Pb in gasoline. (unsure of time scale)

-- They drop together.

*** Another red flag episode, I'm sure, with the gibe at self-regulation by industry. Where have we heard THAT before?

Also a dig at the idea of "presenting both sides" -- science funded with an industrial agenda can be tainted -- Cigarettes aren't dangerous, says the American Tobacco Institute. Or science versus non-science.

This is also, indirectly, an episode talking about the importance of general or pure research. You never know what or where research is going to go. And sometimes you find things you didn't want to know about -- or worse, things that other people didn't want you to know about. When people try to put a cost analysis on science, it's not always so easy. Many of the most useful discoveries were by accident or byproducts of something completely different. Deciding that funding should only go to applied science, to things that will be commercially useful, is so very shortsighted. Likewise, denying funding because you don't like a particular kind of science -- global warming, evolution, etc. -- also stifles real research and has consequences down the road.

Dr. Phil
Tags: cosmos
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