Cheat-Seeking Missles

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Polonium Didn't Heat Litvinenko's Tea

Karl Lembke of Mens News Daily read my most recent post on Alexander Litvinenko and paused to consider this passage:

“Sasha (Litvinenko) remembered the man making him a cup of tea.

“His belief is that the water from the kettle was only lukewarm and that the polonium-210 was added, which heated the drink through radiation so he had a hot cup of tea. The poison would have showed up in a cold drink,” he added.

Being a vocal critic of junk science I greatly appreciated his response:
I think someone's pulling someone's leg on this one.

I just went to the Health Physics Society's information sheet for Polonium-210 and looked up some numbers.

According to the sheet, a microgram of the stuff will give a whole-body dose of 5000 rads. This is lethal enough for most purposes; we don't have the medical technology to fix that kind of damage yet.

Going back to the sheet, the specific activity for Po-210 is 166 trillion disintegrations per second. Each disintegration releases 5.3 MeV of energy. After multiplying together with a bunch of conversion factors, it turns out each gram of Polonium-210 will yield about 33.7 calories per second.

A microgram of Po-210 mixed into a teacup of water (call it 150 grams of water) will heat that water at the rate of a quarter of a millionth of a degree per second. That means, after a day, the radiation will have driven the temperature of the water up about a fiftieth of a degree.

If you decide to up the dose by a hefty factor, just to make sure, multiply this by whatever factor you use. You'll reach insane doses long before you reach reasonably perceivable temperature changes.

While we're at it, consider the temperature of whatever container our assassin must be carrying. If our container has a mass of 2 grams, and a generous heat capacity half that of water, it will be increasing in temperature at a rate 150 times that of the teacup-full of water. Something that will produce, say, a 10°C rise in temperature in that cup of water in a minute will raise the temperature of the vial by 150° in that same minute.
Long before our assassin got through customs, that vial would be literally burning a hole in his pocket.
Don't you just love good science? There's so much misuse of it for alterior motives, so it's nice to see it used the way it's supposed to be used.

Lembke's comment also raises even more questions about the Litvinenko affair, since it portrays the victim and his buddies as highly imaginative guys who love the fine art of embellishment.

Photo: Le Figaro
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