Thursday, 17 March 2011

Carolinium ... Carolinum

While Googling current events in Japan, I ran into this New York Times piece that exemplifies the gormlessly optimistic and typically nationalist hype of the early days of nuclear discovery.

Dr. Baskerville the Only American Who Ever Found a New Element.

THERE was once a time when nobody could hear of a great scientific discovery without having a mental picture of a dreamy, hermitlike student who buried himself in his laboratory among nasty fluids and disagreeable gaseous odors. Such an impression no longer holds good. An instance in point is the latest celebrity in the field of chemistry, Dr Charles Baskerville, who at the age of only thirty-three has just startled his brother scientists by announcing two hitherto unknown elements of matter contained in thorium.

There is nothing of the secluded, unsociable hermit about this professor from North Carolina. Though hailed by great chemists as the only American who has ever discovered a new element, he is ready at a minute's notice to go out on the football field, pull off his coat, and show that he can punt the leather ball further than any undergraduate in the university. Fair-haired and full of chest, he looks much more like the athlete than the man of science.

... etc

- New York Times, May 22, 1904

While the NYT painted Dr. Baskerville as something like Doc Savage, later research proved this celebration of his discovery misplaced; an attempt in 1905 by RJ Meyer and A Gumperz to repeat his separation of "carolinium" and "berzelium" found no components in thorium except thorium (see Zur Frage der Einheitlichkeit des Thoriums, DOI: 10.1002/cber.190503801140).

While the hype for Baskerville's discovery had been immense, reportage of this fairly quick refutation was vanishingly low-key - in fact nonexistent outside the scientific journal circuit - so the name must have been a meme for a while. That leads me to suspect "carolinium" to have been the source for the name of the fictional radioactive element "Carolinum" in HG Wells's 1914 novel The World Set Free (it might even be a misnomer for the same thing, just as the real-world martial art Bartitsu become "baritsu" in Sherlock Holmes stories).

As explained in the article How nuclear energy was foretold (Dr Anthony R Michaelis, New Scientist, 1st March 1962) - which summarises several fictional appearances of nuclear applications - The World Set Free is a "future history" story exploring the use and abuse of nuclear energy. Wells credited the inspiration to Frederick Soddy's 1908 popular lectures and the ensuing (and occasionally flaky 1) book Interpretation of Radium. While The World Set Free is often cited as a prediction of nuclear weapons, Wells didn't get the technical details right (or even feasible as nuclear physics). Instead of the reality - a rapid chain reaction causing one large explosion - he envisaged an unstable isotope, Carolinum, that could be held in stasis until released.

Those used by the Allies were lumps of pure Carolinum, painted on the outside with unoxidised cydonator inducive enclosed hermetically in a case of membranium. A little celluloid stud between the handles by which the bomb was lifted was arranged so as to be easily torn off and admit air to the inducive, which at once became active and set up radio-activity in the outer layer of the Carolinum sphere. This liberated fresh inducive, and so in a few minutes the whole bomb was a blazing continual explosion.
But Carolinum, which belonged to the beta group of Hyslop's so-called 'suspended degenerator' elements, once its degenerative process had been induced, continued a furious radiation of energy and nothing could arrest it. Of all Hyslop's artificial elements, Carolinum was the most heavily stored with energy and the most dangerous to make and handle. To this day it remains the most potent degenerator known. What the earlier twentieth-century chemists called its half period was seventeen days; that is to say, it poured out half of the huge store of energy in its great molecules in the space of seventeen days, the next seventeen days' emission was a half of that first period's outpouring, and so on.

This is fantasy physics; there's nothing that can put radioactive decay on hold. A letter commenting on the Michaelis article comments that Carolinum "sounds more like a strongly pyrophoric material that also happens to be radioactive" (see Letters, New Scientist, 15th March 1962). However, Wells got one thing right:

A moment or so after its explosion began it was still mainly an inert sphere exploding superficially, a big, inanimate nucleus wrapped in flame and thunder. Those that were thrown from aeroplanes fell in this state, they reached the ground still mainly solid, and, melting soil and rock in their progress, bored into the earth. There, as more and more of the Carolinum became active, the bomb spread itself out into a monstrous cavern of fiery energy at the base of what became very speedily a miniature active volcano. The Carolinum, unable to disperse, freely drove into and mixed up with a boiling confusion of molten soil and superheated steam, and so remained spinning furiously and maintaining an eruption that lasted for years or months or weeks according to the size of the bomb employed and the chances of its dispersal. Once launched, the bomb was absolutely unapproachable and uncontrollable until its forces were nearly exhausted, and from the crater that burst open above it, puffs of heavy incandescent vapour and fragments of viciously punitive rock and mud, saturated with Carolinum, and each a centre of scorching and blistering energy, were flung high and far.

His description of what would now be called a "China Syndrome" scenario - a molten mass of self-heating fissioning material melting itself into the ground - is horribly realistic. The Hungarian physicist Leó Szilárd, discoverer/inventor of the nuclear chain reaction concept, read The World Set Free in 1932. Accounts differ as to whether it directly inspired him, but its portrayal of nuclear weapons certainly informed his decision to file the patent out of the public eye, with the British Admiralty (see Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Dec 1992).

There's a good summary and analysis of The World Set Free in Chapter 8, Setting The World Free, of Gordon D Feir's 2005 HG Wells at the End of His Tether: His Social And Political Adventures. The novel itself isn't difficult to find online, though I won't link to it. It's an example of the bizarre inconsistency of copyright law, and its failure to adapt to the open nature of the Internet. As Copyright and HG Wells explains, Wells is out of copyright in the USA, Canada, Australasia and Africa, but in copyright in the UK until 31 December 2016. It's hard to see the point of this demarcation - at least to the extent of merely reading the book - when any UK reader can see the book on Project Gutenberg.

1. Flaky in the sense that Soddy's ideas included the theory that alchemical ideas of transmutation and the elixir of life were some kind of folk memory of a previous civilisation that knew of nuclear transmutation:
Is, then, this old association of the power of transmutation with the elixir of life merely a coincidence ? I prefer to believe it may be an echo from one of many previous epochs in the unrecorded history of the world, of an age of men which trod before the road we are treading today, in a past possibly so remote that even the very atoms of its civilisation literally have had time to disintegrate.
- The Interpretation of Radium, Frederick Soddy, 1909

- Ray

1 comment:

  1. Then, of course, there is the speculation that one might go through a worm hole into another Universe where the laws are ever so slightly different. i.e. where the fine structure constant differs in the tenth place. In that Universe Carolinium exists and Crabs are King.