Tech Trivia : Did You Know? This Week in History …

26th July 2023

How Bright Is Your Toothpaste?

The Oppenheimer blockbuster launched with an IMDB rating of 9.0, so it appears lots of people liked it.

Whilst the film made mention of many of the pioneers in physics who helped during the Manhattan project, it could perhaps have made more than at least a passing reference to Marie Curie. After all, her contribution towards nuclear physics literally killed her and she died in the month of July, way back in 1934, as a result of radioactive exposure. This was hardly a surprise given what little people knew about the effects of radiation at the turn of the last century. In fact it was her that literally coined the phrase “radioactivity”.

Obviously, it’s a bad idea to handle radium. Yet people did in those days and with gusto, because it glows in the dark. In fact people used it from everything to wristwatch-dials to brushing their teeth with it, with devastating results! As an aside, Marie’s notebooks are still too contaminated to be considered safe to handle even now.

Not only was she the first woman ever to get a Nobel prize, she was the first person to get it twice and the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different scientific fields and the first woman to become a professor at the lauded Sorbonne in Paris – simply unheard of in those days.

To get an idea of the kinds of lengths she went to, she used to manually process pitchblende (the ore where radium comes from). There’s about 1 gram of radium for every seven tons of the ore and the cost of radium went from circa £400 per gram in 1903 to circa £20,000 per gram in 1918 when people believed it cured cancer (rather than causing it).

Nuclear physics has come along a long way since people cheerfully drank radium-laced cocktails and hopefully we’ll shortly see the advent of scalable clean energy coming from fusion reactors being developed – there’s a lot of investment and excitement in this space right now. With luck, the power requirements for the burgeoning tech industry could be met (alongside those of other sectors) because with AI and everything else, data-requirements are definitely exploding right now, even if the reactors don’t.