On Polonium

I’ve been doing some research into polonium for an article to appear in a forthcoming issue of Popular Science. Polonium has been in the headlines for the past few months, since it was slipped into the tea of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko and killed him. Nuclear physicists have a nickname for polonium. They call it the terminator, not because of its efficacy as a poison, but because of its place in the Periodic Table at the end point of the slow neutron capture process (s-process).

Elements form in stars when a nucleus grabs a loose neutron and converts it into a proton, thereby increasing its atomic weight and pushing it one step up the Periodic Table. But polonium is highly unstable. It decays so fast that too little of it is around long enough for the s-process (which is very slow, about one neutron capture every 30 years or so) to take place. As a result, all of the elements higher than polonium in the Periodic Table form through the rapid neutron capture process (r-process), which occurs once every .1 of a second—but only in supernovas. The difference between making an element with the s- and the r-process is kind of like the difference between cooking an egg by dropping it into boiling water and dropping it into an active volcano.

Cooking is an excellent metaphor for how elements are made. The elemental broth of stars boils away over billions and billions of years, and eventually all the constituents of matter are prepared, laid out like some cosmic smorgasbord from which the ingredients of every single thing are selected. Polonium is a highly energetic substance. Alpha particles, a form of radiation, are crashing around inside it with such force that the material takes on a life of its own. If left in an open container (a teacup, for example), it will quickly scale the sides of the receptacle and permeate the entire room, attaching itself to everything—and everyone—it touches. Just like the smell of some particularly pungent dish will cling to your clothes, your breath long after the meal itself has been consumed. Speaking of cooking and stars, there is an aphorism by French gourmand Jean–Anthelme Brillat–Savarin that refers to both of these natural and man-made wonders:

The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a star.

On Hurting My Back

Last weekend, I did something I have not done in a long time: I hoisted my daughter up onto my shoulders while we were walking through Hampstead Heath. My daughter loved it; she was laughing, bouncing up and down, and really enjoying the view. But I quickly realized why I had not done this in quite some time. My daughter, who is four-and-a-half years old, is just a little bit too big for this kind of thing. And I, at 44, am getting just a little bit too old. It was a big mistake.

The next day, I had a very sore neck and back and am still mostly in pretty excruciating pain. I feel like a whiplash victim without the neck brace: I can barely turn my head without spasms of muscle pain shooting through my left shoulder. The simplest movements—like bending down to tie my shoes or getting in and out of a car—become extremely slow and painful. When I walk, I must look like a Cyberman escaped from the Doctor Who set: carefully erect and totally rigid, I hardly move my head at all. When I turn to look at something, I swivel from the hips so my entire upper body pivots rather than just my neck and head. I am, truly, a pathetic sight.

The experience has given me a scary glimpse into how it must feel to be old, and an even scarier insight into how it must feel to require help in performing the most trivial tasks of daily life. Pain concentrates the mind wonderfully, but only on the things made evident by the pain itself. For example, I never knew how many back muscles are involved in a simple sneeze until I sneezed this morning and ended up writhing in pain on the floor as the left side of my spine seized up. Motions that we normally perform unconsciously—like turning a key in a lock or looking down at the keyboard to type this sentence—are vividly highlighted because they hurt. Who knew such intricate interconnections, such a fine mesh of musculature was behind all these things that I take for granted.

Needless to say, I won’t be hoisting my daughter onto my shoulders again anytime soon. We’re both beyond that now. Sad but true. Hopefully, I’ll still be able to give her piggy-back rides, though, for a little while longer at least. Those are less traumatic from a back pain point of view. After all, she ain’t heavy; she’s my daughter… Theodore Roosevelt advised:

Pray not for lighter burdens but for stronger backs.

Roosevelt had the constitution of an ox. He was shot once while delivering a campaign speech; he finished the speech, the bullet still lodged in his chest. As for me, I’d rather have lighter burdens and a stronger back.

On Sliding Boards

I recently visited an office building that had a sliding board in it. The sliding board, a 29-foot-long strip of white fiberglass that connects the third and fourth floors, is one of those architectural flourishes meant to signify the vivacity and effervescence of a brand. Of course, I wanted to slide down it. But first I had to read the Slide Rules, which basically state that you must use the stairs if you are pregnant, wearing high heels, or under the influence of alcohol. None of these conditions applied to me, so I climbed onto the slide, which is narrow and tubular enough to feel like a miniature Olympic luge course. After a little push, I was off, landing a few seconds later in the marketing department with a pleasant little adrenalin rush.

It’s been along time since I’ve been down a sliding board, and I had forgotten that titillating, vaguely queasy feeling you get in your stomach on the way down. I should have remembered it, though, because my four-and-half-year-old daughter is still very much into slides, calling the sensation caused by the descent a “tickle tummy.” Whenever we’re out in the car, I’m always on the lookout for little humps in the road that could produce the right conditions for the tickle-tummy effect. Country roads are best for this since they are often undulating, especially when the road fords a small stream by means of a little bridge. If I spot a promising hump from far enough away, I accelerate on the approach so we get the little lift-off at the top that generates the desired sensation. It’s a nice, though slightly uncomfortable feeling, a tingling premonition of impending excitement—or danger. As Dutch columnist Toon Verhoeven put it:

Better one butterfly in your stomach than ten in the air.

Aphorisms by Irena Karafilly

Irena Karafilly is an author, journalist, and occasional university lecturer who lives in Montreal. Born in the Russian Urals, Karafilly has won Canada’s National Magazine Award (Gold) for Fiction as well as other literary prizes. She holds an M.A. in English from McGill University and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. She is the author of three books and of numerous short stories. Her most recent book, The Stranger in the Plumed Hat, is a memoir of caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s disease. Karafilly is also an aphorist, and a small sample of her aphorisms follows. More of her aphorisms can be found by clicking here.

The really amazing thing about history is not that it so often repeats itself, but that it fails to bore us.

Falling in love is like falling anywhere. You pick yourself up, brush yourself off, and keep on walking, hoping no one saw you.

The only power you have over people is the ability to do without them.

If human beings were born with a conscience, God would be out of a job.

Eating an artichoke requires a certain amount of optimism.

On Getting My Shoes Shined

Speaking of thrones and arses, I had my shoes shined recently. I was in the SF airport. Had to climb up two or three very steep steps to get to what looked and felt uncomfortably like an electric chair. Had a magnificent view from up there, watching the tops of people’s heads as they rushed to or from flights. I felt a little uneasy at such an elevation. Having your shoes shined is one of those experiences that, for me at least, still has overtones of class division and racism; you’re literally putting yourself above your fellow man. Not many social encounters around anymore in which that happens so explicitly.

The man who shined my shoes was a real professional. He applied several different kinds of polish. He used a toothbrush to reach the deep crevasse where the leather of the shoe meets the sole. Then he took two brushes, one in each hand, and start flailing away at my shoe. His arms were swishing back and forth like a windmill, but his aim was true so that the tips of the brushes just skimmed the surface of my shoe. Then he took a cloth and draped it over the shoes and swished that back and forth, sort of like the way you dry your back with a towel by holding it at each end and pulling it back and forth across your skin. After that, he applied a different kind of polish, this one more liquid than the previous paste, and buffed the whole thing up. By the time he finished, my shoes were so bright that I could have read by them at night.

My shoes looked good as new, better than new even, or actually, too good to be true. They were too bright, too shiny. The rest of my apparel couldn’t match the effusiveness of my shoes. I felt like a walking advertisement for the Diderot effect. Remembered Henry David Thoreau’s admonition:

Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes.