On This Date: Radium, Tu-144, and Earthquakes

On most Mondays, we post either a piece by a guest blogger (first and third Mondays) or a video interview (second and fourth Mondays). We do have video interviews queued up for the new year (and just wait ’til you see who!), but today we take the opportunity for one of our “on this date” posts.

Marie Curie (National Museum of American History)

In 1898, just three years into their marriage, one of our favorite collaborative couples of yesteryear announced at the French Academy of Sciences that they’d isolated radium. Marie and Pierre Curie had isolated the element five days earlier, though it wasn’t named until the following year. They did come up with the term radioactivity, and radium was the second ray-producing element they’d discovered that year. The first was polonium. They continued to work with an enormous amount of pitchblende to isolate a wee bit of radium. And they didn’t patent their processes, thereby allowing the larger scientific community to readily use their work.

Radium was applied as luminescence on watch dials and aircraft switches, which, it turned out, was quite dangerous for those who painted those dials and switches. It was also added to cosmetics before such a glow was considered hazardous. Later, it was used to treat cancer, though, of course, because it is radioactive and because the body processes it like calcium, it likely caused the leukemia and related illnesses from which Marie Curie died in 1934.

Marie Curie was awarded her second Nobel Prize in 1911, this time in chemistry, in part for her role in discovering radium. (Because Pierre died in 1906, he did not share in this award.) Her earlier Nobel Prize, which she shared with Pierre and Henri Becquerel in 1903, was in physics for their work in radiation. She was the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize, the first person to be awarded a second, and one of just two people to be awarded Nobel Prizes in different fields. (Linus Pauling is the other.) We’ve written about Marie Curie before—click HERE to read more.

Tu-144 (NASA)

Today is also the anniversary of the Tupolev Tu-144’s entry into supersonic transport service in the Soviet Union. The Soviet government began developing this aircraft in 1963. But the first production airliner crashed at the Paris Air Show in 1973. Accusations of espionage and cover-ups surrounded the investigation. With delays after this debacle, the Tu-144 ended up first flying mail on this date in 1975, with commercial flights beginning almost two years later (and almost as long after Concorde started its commercial routes). The Tu-144, which shares so many design cues with Concorde (dropped nose, cranked wing, and slender fuselage) that its nickname in the Western press was Concordski, was riddled with problems and had only a short commercial run, flying passengers from November 1, 1977 through June 1, 1978. A more recent use of the Tu-144 was as a flying laboratory for NASA.

Map of This Earthquake and Aftershocks (USGS)

This past year, one of the top news stories was the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the subsequent damage to the nuclear power plant at Fukushima Daiichi. (Read some of that HERE and HERE.) Today is the seventh anniversary of another devastating earthquake, a 9.2 (numbers vary by source) quake in Indonesia, India Thailand, and the surrounding areas, that also produced tsunamis. It was so strong that some estimate that the entire world moved a full centimeter. As with most recent earthquakes, this one in the Indian Ocean was the result of subduction, or one tectonic plate scraping under an adjacent tectonic plate. In this case, hundreds of miles of a tectonic plate moved about 50 feet.

When this subduction occurred, the seabed rose, pushing water up. In the vast, deep ocean, that sort of wave isn’t much of a problem and is difficult to detect. But as the tsunami reaches shores, the wave can be devastating, and no warning system was in place for the Indian Ocean. The tsunami, of course, reached different shorelines at different times—several minutes or several hours—depending on the distance of the land from the earthquake’s epicenter. In some places, the waves washed a mile inland.

This natural disaster killed almost 230,000 people and is considered one of the ten deadliest natural disasters of all time. In addition to the cost of human life, it devasted coral reefs and wetlands and contaminated freshwater sources. Haiti’s earthquake, the second anniversary of which occurs next month, was even deadlier. Earthquakes change the face of the earth and the faces of the world.

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