A FRESH ANNOUNCEMENT just made to the Academy of Sciences in Paris by Monsieur Curie, co-discoverer with his wife of the most extraordinary of all chemical elements, radium, brings the wonderful properties of that substance once more to public attention. Radium, whose existence as an independent element was finally demonstrated last year, presents about the greatest puzzle with which science has to deal. It seems to violate — although no scientist is prepared to admit that it actually does violate — the fundamental laws of energy. In a word, it gives out energy unceasingly without revealing the source. It appears to draw upon an inexhaustible supply, and yet receives nothing in return from without. In this respect it seems to realize the dream, which science has pronounced impossible, of perpetual motion.
M. Curie’s new announcement is to the effect that a piece of radium is continually giving off heat, keeping itself at a temperature two and seven-tenths degrees Fahrenheit above its surroundings. This is sufficient to enable it to melt its own weight of ice in less than an hour, and to keep on melting ice at the same rate indefinitely.
If radium were an abundant substance, think of the consequences of this strange property! But unfortunately — or, perhaps, fortunately — radium is one of the rarest things upon the earth. It is never found in the pure state. It must be dissociated from the other substances with which it is combined, by long, tedious and costly chemical operations. It is obtained from a mineral called pitchblende1“A blackish mineral that is a type of uraninite and occurs in veins, frequently associated with silver: the principal source of uranium and radium.” Collins English Dictionary, found in Bohemia, and during the two or three years that have elapsed since its discovery by Madame and Monsieur Curie of Paris they have succeeded in separating out of tons and tons of pitchblende less than two pounds of radium. That is all that exists, uncombined, in the world, and even that is not the pure thing. It is mingled with more or less barium.
The Curies do possess, however, one tiny bit of chemically pure radium. It weights about half a grain, and is said to be of the size of a buckshot. M. Curie has declared that he would not sell it for one hundred thousand francs. If he and his wife have a monopoly of this precious substance, they are not getting rich out of it. The demand is not active. Half a grain of impure radium in a little tube is offered in Paris for five thousand dollars.
A thief who should run off with a bit of radium as big as a small diamond would find that he had caught a Tartar. If he kept it in his pocket, it would produce an inflammation that might cost him his life. If he handled it much, his fingers would get sore and might have to be amputated. Monsieur Curie is quoted as saying that he would not venture into a room containing a kilogram of pure radium; for, if he did, he would probably lose his skin, his eyesight and his life!
This being so, let us examine a little more the properties of radium. We have noted Monsieur Curie’s recent announcement about its giving off heat. It gives off light also. Pure radium shines in the dark, although it is not hot like a flame. But, most wonderful of all, it constantly projects into space around it streams of invisible corpuscles, smaller than atoms, with a velocity as great as a hundred thousand miles per second!
It is this marvellous and ceaseless bombardment of its surroundings that makes radium so dangerous to handle. The infinitely minute particles can not, of course, be seen, but they affect photographic plates, and it was in that manner that the existence of these inexplicable radiating streams was first demonstrated.
Radium is omnivorous in its appetite for obscure and mysterious properties. Not content with its penetrating streams of pulverized atoms, it give off, at the same time, at least two other, different kinds of rays. One of these resembles the ordinary X-rays from a Crookes tube, the other consists of something that is easily stopped of absorbed by interposed obstacles. But even these absorbable rays have the tremendous velocity of eighteen or twenty thousand miles per second.
Monsieur Curie’s buckshot of pure radium is, in some respects, a miniature of the sun. It draws no light, no heat, no energy, from surrounding space, but it radiates them generally and continuously upon everything about it. Helmholz solved that riddle for us many years ago. The sun is no perpetual-motion machine, and it violates no law known to science. By the gradual, and to us imperceptible, shrinking of its gigantic bulk it generates the energy that it gives off. A somewhat similar explanation has been offered to account for the mysterious energy of radium. Messrs, Rutherford and McClung, of the McGill University, suggest that it is the breaking down of the atoms into the smaller corpuscles that are radiated away which gives rise to the energy whose expenditure without apparent source of supply so puzzles us.
In a few years it may be found that radio-activity is a common phenomenon in nature, playing a part even in things that concern our own welfare, of which we are now unaware. But radium is its chief source, so far as is yet known, and the study of this singular element may lead to a wide readjustment of scientific theories.
The Marvels of radium by Garrett P. Serviss. Republished from Collier’s: The National Weekly. April 11, 1903. Volume 31, Issue 2, Page 14.
- 1“A blackish mineral that is a type of uraninite and occurs in veins, frequently associated with silver: the principal source of uranium and radium.” Collins English Dictionary