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Can Radioactivity Be Nullified

Can Radioactivity Be Nullified

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Published by Tom Slattery

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Published by: Tom Slattery on May 15, 2011
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Can radioactivity be nullified?By Tom Slattery Nuclear reactor disasters at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and now Fukushima would nothave been nearly so bad were it not for the massive dissemination of long-lived, deadlynuclear radiation.We humans dove headlong into the atomic age and its horrible nuclear weapons and its promise of cheap power generation without knowing what radioactivity is let alone howto make it un-radioactive. Moreover, no one seems to be thinking about it let alonesearching for it. As far as I know, the Department of Energy has no serious program toresearch making radioactive material un-radioactive.Researchers funded by nations and corporations are trying to find ways of storingradioactive waste from military research and civilian power generation. There are plansto store radioactive waste in mined-out mountains and plans to bake radioactive materialinto bricks. Some have even suggested using NASA to shoot radioactive material into theSun, Moon, or asteroids.But virtually no one has seriously thought about let alone worked at finding ways tonullify radioactivity itself. Everyone seems to have thrown up arms in despair and givenit up as if a hopeless quest. No one can find an answer to a problem without first creating questions. Even the silliestquestions about nullifying radioactivity would be better than the present pervasivemorbid silence.Decades ago, back in a different millennium, I puttered with asking questions aboutradioactivity. As time dragged on it slipped away and I had completely forgotten about ituntil about a week ago when a friend emailed me a historical photograph of Grants Pass,Oregon. I suddenly recalled the nearby Rogue River campground and the modifiedgeodesic dome tent that I had invented for a camping trip.It was actually a homemade painted canvas tent and tent frame made from pentagons,hexagons, and half-hexagons (trapezoids). In short, it was a truncated icosahedron slicedin half. The main advantage was that it had no poles in the center, as with army pup tents,for instance. But the main reason for making it was that it was "with it," a tent for moreintellectual and creative modern times.My wife had painstakingly sewed the hexagons and pentagons together using a one-dollar sewing machine bought from Goodwill. I had made a frame of hexagons, pentagons, andtrapezoids from hardwood molding and wood staples. The floor of the huge trunk of our 1959 Ford Fairlane was large enough for these geometric figures, and we drove northfrom San Jose, California, on a camping trip all the way to British Columbia and back.
In these modern times one might instantly recognize my invented tent as a super-sizedsoccer ball cut in half. But on our camping trip in that summer of 1966, soccer balls,including the one used in the World Cup, were still being made of curved brown leather strips sewn together and inflated into a sphere.Thus the strange newfangled tent got ooos and ahhhs from our fellow campers and other spectators. And that, of course, made the camping trip ever so slightly more pleasant.I would not see famous Buckminster Fuller giant geodesic dome at the Expo-67 world'sfair in Montreal until the next year. But geodesic domes had entered the popular imagination and someone had erected a sample wood-frame geodesic dome house in a parking lot at the San Jose State (then) College campus. I had gone to see it several timesand had modified the geodesic idea into my one-half truncated icosahedron tent.Doing so had come natural to me. In the mid-1960s I was working as grunt minimum-wage labor at the Stanford Linear Accelerator, working around big-brained nuclear  physicists and wishing that I could somehow contribute to their esoteric craft. And iteventually came around to my wondering about radioactivity and whether radioactivewaste might somehow be made un-radioactive.Some physicists had told me about the workings of beta-decay. At its root, radioactivityis beta-decay. In simple terms, a neutron taken out of a nucleus and left alone will decayinto a proton, an electron, and an anti-neutrino in about fourteen-and-a-half minutes. Inother words, a neutron might be seen as a cobbled-together proton, electron, and neutrinoI had looked with amateur eyes at the Chart of Nuclides for clues. The Chart of Nuclides(Google it and see one of several copies posted) has the number of neutrons in an element plotted along one axis against the number of protons plotted on the other axis.Creatively looking at the Chart, one might conjure up a scheme where it is neutrinos thatare the glue holding electrons and protons together to make neutrons.In this scheme the Chart of Nuclides is can be seen as an axis of protons plotted againstan axis of neutrinos.Those were merely some of the wild questions going through my mind as I did my paidwork of using a measuring machine to measure nuclear particle tracks captured in spark chambers. I worked in a noisy dark room all day. My boss would eventually win a NobelPrize related to that early measuring work and much more to follow.In the course of my questioning myself about what radioactivity might be I beganwondering about shapes of atomic elements and what part that might play. For instance,the universe is made up mostly of hydrogen.
Hydrogen makes up most of the mass of the universe partly because it stays stable anddoesn't decay. On the Chart of Nuclides hydrogen is a single proton. It is effectively a point with no shape.There is no shape to distort. And there are no neutrons to decay into those other things.So it just stays there without changing.There are, of course, other forms of hydrogen that would begin to take on shape. There isdeuterium, made up of one proton and one neutron. At any given instant a deuteriumatom might have the imaginary shape of a gym dumbbell with a line of attractive forceholding the neutron and proton together to keep them from flying off separately intospace.This shape seems terribly stable. As long as the neutron in the deuterium atom stays incontext with the proton in it, it won't decay. And therefore it seems fair to ask thisquestion. What is it in this marital relationship of proton and neutron that keeps theneutron from flying apart in beta decay into a proton, electron, and neutrino? In findingan answer to that question one might also find a way to nullify radioactivity.The next shape is a triangle. The triangle can either be helium-3, two protons and oneneutron, which is terribly stable, or another triangle of heavy hydrogen, called tritium,that has one proton and two neutrons. Tritium is unstable and decays (i.e. is radioactive).If we are dealing only in shapes, both equilateral triangles would probably look alike.Helium-3, would have two protons and one neutron at its vertices. Tritium, would havethe opposite, two neutrons and one proton at its vertices.So it would seem that there may be an unknown quality in the proton that can handle oneneutron and keep it from radioactive decay. Or, alternatively, two protons can handle oneneutron, and keep it from radioactive decay. I have no idea what this unknown "stuff"might be. It just seems reasonable to guess that something might be there.But the proton "stuff" would seem to have limited power. There does not seem to beenough of this "stuff" in one proton to handle two neutrons at a time. As far as thetriangle-shaped tritium atom goes, in about 12 years (radioactive half-life) one of thosetwo neutrons is going to fly off and decay.Shape itself does not seem to matter in this case. If anything might be said for shape, itmight be structural strength inherent in the shape, and after the three nucleons of tritiumand the three nucleons of helium-3 comes a reasonably tough shape. Next to hydrogen, the most common atom in the universe is helium. Helium is terriblystable and had two neutrons and two protons. Therefore at any given instant the shape of a helium atom would be a tetrahedron, a pretty indestructible geometric figure.

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