Polonium Shmonium

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A long time ago Brian of London trained to a rather high level as a physicist. He even spent some time studying medical physics and even the medical effects of radiation.

One of the Universitites I studied in was associated with a research hospital with a rather fun room in the basement. This room was called the “Low Activity Suite”. That wasn’t a place with comfy recliner chairs and nurses to bring you drinks: the low activity meant low radiological activity.

The room was made from 2ft thick walls of steel. The steel was forged (and this is very important) before WWII meaning it was fixed into its atomic structure before we started splitting atoms in the atmosphere. This steel had once been part of the armour on a British battleship long since de-commissioned.

We used to work on measuring the presence of minute quantities of radioactive substances: quantities so small that if we tried to detect their emissions outside this room, our instruments would only record what’s called the “background radiation”.

I only say all this as a run up to telling you that all the stories about digging up Arafat to test for Polonium are about as far-fetched as the notion that the King of Saudi Arabia is joining Scientology next week. Well you’d need an even more special room than that one to detect Polonium so many years since the death of Terrorist in Chief Arafat.

For so many reasons, starting with the fact that as it has a half life of 210Po is around 138 days, there is no physical way to detect the presence of any that might have been around when Arafat died. I could go on, but it’s dull. And, because it’s an Alpha Radiation emitter it’s only really dangerous inside the body: a sheet of paper will protect you from alpha radiation. Clothes are good too. All this story teaches is the astonishing lack of knowledge of the press today and their complete disregard for any sort of easy fact checking.

Update: in the comments Morris the Katz makes a calculation to show what a 135 day half life really means.

The half-life of polonium is about 135 days, meaning that each year, there’s about 1/8 as much as a year prior, or 2**(-3). Over 8 years, this would work out to 2**(-24), meaning that of 32 million polonium atoms, one would be left. Try finding that one atom in Arafat’s stained boxers.

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