Friday, December 4, 2009

Subduing the Spectrum

Many people at or beyond retirement age fondly remember the excitement of mailing in 25 cents and a cereal box top, then waiting anxiously for the promised item to arrive by return mail. My personal favorite was the “Lone Ranger Atomic Bomb Ring” from 1947, just two years after Hiroshima. This remarkable promotion came with instructions as follows: “Twist tail fin--slide it off…Go into dark room and wait until your eyes are accustomed to darkness. Look into lens—and SOCKO! You’ll see brilliant stabs of flashing light caused by released energy of atoms split to smithereens inside atom chamber.”

This hyped promise was actually quite accurate--more so than the disappointing pirate treasure finder’s ring I ordered later. The “stabs of flashing light” were caused by alpha particles, bundles of two protons with two neutrons, shooting out from the nuclei of a tiny quantity of radioactive isotope polonium 210 embedded inside the ring. When the particles struck a zinc sulfide screen, peering into the ring we could see flashes of light. I learned to appreciate the remarkable science of this toy as an adult. The polonium atoms randomly disintegrated on their own, forming lead and helium. The small amounts of radioactive elements and isotopes in our environment behave in a similar way. Using this scientific knowledge for beneficial purposes is a way to “subdue the earth,” God’s directive to man in Genesis 1:28.

The story of radioactive materials is somewhat more complicated. Radioactive elements emit one or more types of ionizing radiation: the previously mentioned alpha particles, beta particles (electrons), and gamma rays--extremely high energy electromagnetic radiation. Gamma radiation has the shortest wavelength of the electromagnetic spectrum. In just over 100 years, scientists have discovered how to harness this radiation for man’s benefit.

The “ionizing” radiation of alpha particles, beta particles, gamma rays, and X-rays has become useful in treating disease and making food safer. Ionizing radiation breaks down the DNA molecule in cancer cells, damaging them fatally. Normal, healthy cells may avoid such damage when doses of radiation are correctly meted out to cancer victims. Radioactive elements such as cobalt 60 can kill microbes in food, retarding spoilage and increasing shelf life. Irradiated foods are gaining acceptance because the process is safe, leaving no residual radiation.

Near the end of the 19th century, little was known about how to use the many types of electromagnetic energy for the benefit of man. Since then we have experienced a flood of discoveries. Without this knowledge, life as we now know it would be impossible. God’s instructions to man in Genesis 1:28 are finally finding fulfillment, thousands of year after He gave them.

The Lone Ranger Atomic Bomb Ring was completely harmless. Polonium 210 emitted virtually no gamma radiation or beta particles as do many radioactive elements. Alpha particles do not even pass through a sheet of paper, much less the casing of the Lone Ranger ring. The cost of that relic was only fifteen cents plus one box top and the price of a postage stamp--three cents at that time. What a small price to pay for piquing my interest in the wonders of how God’s created world works. In 1947, the best was yet to come.