A Skeptical Engineer

Polonium and settled science

Actual scientists know science is truly open ended and there are always new horizons to expand and explore. More importantly, scientists should know a new discovery could prove them wrong.

Take polonium-209, for example. It’s a radioactive isotope used in dating samples taken from the bottom of lakes and oceans to measure mankind’s effects on the environment over the last century.

Scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology got wind of some inaccuracy in the established value for Po-209’s half-life, the one scientists had come up with, “settled” on, back in 1956. So the NIST team applied a bit of 21st century engineering and determined P-209’s half-life is 25% longer than previously thought. For almost 60 years, it was a “fact” accepted by a consensus of scientist that Po-209’s half-life was 102 years +/-5 yr. Turns out it’s more like 125.3 years +/-3.2 yr.

Makes me glad I never memorized that little piece of trivia, Po-209’s half-life.

And makes me wonder if it renders those environmental-impact studies more dire or more benign.

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