Uranium is an Element experiencing a Mid-Life Crisis
It’s heavy, unattractive, and lacking in basic conversational skills. Uranium is a metal, but unlike most metals, it’s soft and malleable and not well suited to being made into anything useful. No one will ever build a bridge from Uranium. Uranium barely conducts electricity. Other metals mock Uranium behind its back. Uranium is drab, silvery-white, almost gray. It’s dull like lead and even denser. In the Periodic Table of Elements, Uranium is the last naturally occurring element listed. The last of its kind, Uranium is a dead-end element. Uranium has a mustache, dyes its hair, owns a Corvette, and hangs out at roller rinks. Uranium is a mid-life crisis element.
Atomic Structure and other Boring Facts
The nucleus of an atom is made up of protons and neutrons. Nobody knows why. Protons are an atom’s DNA. The number of protons in a nucleus determines what an element is. The difference of just a few protons can be all the difference in the world. For example, Gold has 79 protons and who doesn’t like Gold? Gold is popular with the other elements, lives in the nice part of town and can afford to send its kids to the best schools. But add just a single proton to Gold and it becomes Mercury, a deadly poison, an undesirable character, an element you wouldn’t let your daughter date. Of course, this is just in theory. Even nerdy scientists in lab coats can’t figure out how to change one element into another by just adding a proton. Imagine if they could! They’d be rich! Does Armani make a lab coat?
Neutrons are the other thing in the nucleus of an atom. No one’s ever seen a neutron, but they seem to be important. For most elements, the number of protons and neutrons in the nucleus is in balance. Hydrogen, the simplest element, has one proton and one neutron. Carbon, one of the most abundant elements, has six protons and six neutrons. Balance. Symmetry. These are good things. But as elements get bigger, things start to get out of whack. More and more neutrons are crammed into each nucleus. Argon has 47 protons – 60 neutrons; Lead, 87 protons – 125 neutrons; and Uranium boasts a paunch of 92 protons and 143 neutrons. Uranium is bloated.
At some point, Nature decides enough is enough. There have to be consequences to cramming more and more neutrons into an already grossly overcrowded nucleus. Something has to give. We’ll get to that in a minute, but first A Public Service Announcement.
Uranium, Nature’s Misunderstood Metal
Not everything about Uranium is bad. Yes, Uranium has gotten some bad press over the years, but not everything you read in the papers or hear on the evening news is altogether accurate. Let me set the record straight. When you think of Uranium, what images come to mind? Mushroom clouds? Sterile wastelands stalked by robotic overlords? Horribly mutated, giant rabbits? Well, I’m here to tell you that, despite those frightening misperceptions, the dense silver-grey metal is rather innocuous. I’ll admit that Uranium is a radioactive element. I’m not going to try to hide that fact from you. It’s true, Uranium naturally decays to Thorium, periodically coughing out a Helium atom like some kind of nuclear hairball. But this happens so infrequently. Scientists talk about this infrequency in terms of Uranium’s half-life, or the time it would take for half of all the atoms of a chunk of Uranium to undergo nuclear decay. Scientists like to talk about things in ways that make no sense to non-scientists. They use phrases like half-life and nuclear decay. Nobody knows why they do that. Maybe it makes them feel better about having to wear those dreadful lab coats! Maybe they got beat up in high school a lot. Maybe. But think of it this way – if you had two atoms of Uranium in your hand, in 704 million years, one of them would spit out a Helium atom and become Thorium. And even then (if you were still around and still interested to see what happened) the Helium atom would bounce harmlessly off your skin. Uranium is really a pussy cat that way. 704 million years! That’s a long time. I wonder what scientists will be wearing then.
Uranium is the only naturally occurring fissile material on earth. Fissile is the word scientists use to describe an element that will undergo nuclear fission, that process of breaking apart an atom at its very core. Fissile. Nuclear Fission. Scientists think it’s funny to use words like these. Scientists also think it’s funny that certain elements, like Uranium and Plutonium, will undergo fission if just the right neutron comes along.
And this is Uranium’s dirty secret (the one it doesn’t like to talk about even with its closest friends). It’s a nasty, nasty secret: Uranium loves neutrons. Loves them, collects pictures of them, spends hours bathed in the glow of its computer monitors surfing the internet for them – neutrons, videos of neutrons, neutron chat rooms. It’s all sordid and disgusting. Uranium is addicted to neutrons.
Naturally, Uranium denies it has a problem. ‘It’s just fantasy,’ Uranium says. ‘It’s not like there’s even a remote chance of hooking up with any neutrons on the internet’! ‘Besides,’ Uranium rationalizes, ‘most neutrons simply don’t meet my particular standards.’ That’s true enough (as far as it goes). Uranium’s fascination with neutrons is mostly just a fantasy. And Uranium is picky. Not just any neutron will do for Uranium! No, this neutron’s too short, that neutron’s too fat, that one has weird eyes, that one has an annoying laugh… and so on and so forth. Besides, it’s not like there’s any possibility of anything ever happening. Except… sometimes there is!
The Allure of Neutrons
Sometimes a neutron comes along with just the right features, just the right jiggle, just the right kinetic energy. Uranium tries to play it cool, tries to be aloof, but Uranium is only kidding itself. It’s only a matter of time before Uranium makes its move. After all, an element can only control its urges for so long. Uranium and the neutron make eye contact, the neutron smiles demurely. Uranium introduces itself, they dance, they touch, they’re unable to control themselves. You can imagine the rest.
At first there’s excitement and heat and intense vibration just like Happy Hour at a Holiday Inn. Uranium feels fulfilled, completed, and wildly excited. You don’t need a lab coat to figure out what’s going on here! Uranium and the neutron grope each other like Sudanese wrestling lizards in heat. There’s a sloppy, drunken kiss. It’s impossible to tell where Uranium stops and the neutron begins. But before either can ask, “My place or yours?” there’s a blinding flash, a incandescent instant that explodes like bar lights after last call, and the whole thing tears itself apart in a burst of heat and light and radiation and possibly restraining orders.
The Breakup, E=mc2
Albert Einstein may have been the first person to say, “Breaking up is hard to do.” The breakup of the marriage between Uranium and the neutron is spectacular! In an instant, both Uranium and the neutron cease to exist. In a retina-searing flash of heat and energy, they become two completely different elements – Cesium and Strontium.
Cesium and Strontium try to get by as best they can, but things are stacked against them. They can never measure up to their parents. Something is missing. Scientists will tell you that if you add up all the protons and neutrons in Cesium and Strontium, they don’t total up to those in the original Uranium and its neutron. Some of the proton and neutrons are missing, turned instantly into energy. Scientists call that the mass–energy equivalence and (if you give them half a chance) will gleefully explain to you about Einstein’s famous E = mc2 equation which shows that the energy (E) released in the breaking up of Uranium is equal to the weight (m) of the missing protons and neutrons multiplied by the speed of light (c) squared. Nobody really understands what that means but it is a huge amount of energy. Uranium is obliterated, split into two lesser elements, and part of its mass is just missing. It’s like part of Uranium’s possessions were dumped in its front yard and set on fire. Fission is a bitch.
Children of the Apocalypse
Uranium’s problems are over, but you know it can’t end there. Divorce is always hardest on the children. The same is true of the divorce of Uranium and its neutron. The once harmless and perfectly normal Uranium atom is gone, changed by its neutron dalliance into Cesium and Strontium, unnatural elements vomited out of the fission breakup loaded with emotional baggage and the psychological scars of intense radioactivity – gamma rays and x-rays. Scientists like gamma rays and x-rays in the same way some people like rubber-necking at bad traffic accidents. They’re attracted to the perverse. But the damage done by the fission break up is irreparable. Before the break up, Uranium was just an element in crisis, lonely, overweight, dull and soft. Neutrons were its only love and, even though Uranium couldn’t control its unhealthy obsession with neutrons, it was safe. You could hold it in your hand. You might even have felt sorry for it. But after the breakup – after fission – the damaged children Cesium and Strontium are too much for anyone to handle. They’re sociopathic, they disrespect authority, and they’re so destructive they would kill you dead in seconds. It’s all the same to Cesium and Strontium. They’re dead inside. And they’ll stay that way for millions of years. Even scientists find that heartbreaking.