One hundred and forty-four years ago this past Monday, a baby was born in Poland who would become one of the greatest scientific minds in our history. Born Marie Sklodowska, we all know her today as Madame Marie Curie. She and her husband Pierre discovered radioactivity (a term they coined) and forever changed life on earth.
Radioactivity is a multi-faceted thing. In the beginning, the Curies thought they had discovered something wondrous and fascinating. It was thought to be a cure for cancer, among many other things. Radium, discovered in 1898 and one of the two radioactive elements they discovered together, was often carried by men in a small vial as a small, albeit novel and perhaps magical, fashionable accessory for any man worth this scientific salt. Then it went through phases of a health potion (from innocuous to sometimes dangerous results) and diagnostic tool, to bombs.
Of all those uses of radioactivity, our fear rests with the power held within those nuclear-heavy atoms. Certain radioactive elements are so unstable in their nuclei, that they fission, or split, with no outside force, and generate tremendous energy. On a positive note that energy converts to heat, creates steam that turns turbines and generates electricity. Negatively, those forces can be sealed in vessels and dropped on enemy forces, which sadly were unsuspecting Japanese citizens. Nuclear bombs have not been used since those dark, tragic days of August 1945, but the threat remains.
When Emergency managers consider possible threats to their institutions, I often wonder what they think when they rank “nuclear threat” on their lists. As a health physicist, I am no expert, but I think I do have a solid foundation of the mechanics of the how radioactive elements interact with matter, especially people. Certainly, people can be severely hurt and die from over-exposure, but the biggest threat comes from just the possibility that someone, somewhere, could use it to threaten, harm and destroy, which is so far from what the Curies intended.
So, Marie, I hope you know that you did find a good thing, a wondrous thing. It HAS been used to treat cancer and allow people to live longer, healthier lives. It HAS powered things in remote locations where conventional energy is not possible. It HAS been used in places to light up dials so we can navigate more safely. We can only hope that one day, as a present to you, that we stop any harmful use of radioactivity and honor your dedication and years of hard work and suffering to find the magic that is in those special atoms.