Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Scientifically Illiterate Journalists, Polonium-210 and the Un-Asked Question

News today that Interpol and officials in Hamburg, Germany investigating links to the Polonium-210 poisoning death of Alexander Litvinenko, have found more people contaminated by the isotope.

One obvious question that has NOT been asked by the scientifically-challenged press is WHY Polonium-210 is turning up all over the place.

The answer can easily be found on pp. 579-580 of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, the prize-winning history by Richard Rhodes.

Rhodes' book explains that, "...another nasty characteristic of polonium caused shipping problems: for reasons never satisfactorily explained by experiment, the metal migrates from place to place and can quickly contaminate large areas. 'This isotope has been known to migrate upstream against a current of air,' notes a postwar British report on polonium, 'and to translocate under conditions where it would be doing so under its own accord.' Chemists at Los Alamos learned to look for it embedded in the walls of shipping containers...."

Few -- disgracefully few in the media -- have even a basic grasp of science which is why issues from global warming to stem cells and radiation assassinations are so poorly reported. With science and technology governing so much of human lives, those involved with the education of journalists must make sure that all journalists -- not just those aiming toward science and technology -- are competent to ask the right questions.

Truly, those who have no clue about history are doomed to misreport it.