The Periodic Table: A Source of Conflict

In Isaac Asimov’s The Gods Themselves, the plot revolves around the discovery of a new isotope of plutonium known as plutonium 186. As anyone familiar with chemistry already knows, such an isotope cannot possibly exist (at least not in our universe), but it turns out that by acquiring it from a parallel universe, we are able to create a cheap and highly efficient new source of power.

In last week’s edition of Sciency Words, we talked about “conflict minerals.” These valuable minerals are essential to our technologically advanced society, but they’ve also become a source of conflict in the world. The most noteworthy example is in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the mining of four specific metallic elements has funded a bloody and protracted civil war.

Right now, real people are suffering and dying because of gold’s exceptional ability to conduct electricity and tungsten’s extremely high melting point. To understand why this is happening requires a little study of the periodic table of elements, which reveals the special properties of these and other metals.

Whether we’re talking about the minerals mined in Congo or mythical isotopes like plutonium 186, the lesson is the same. We cannot deny the importance of science in our world when the information contained in the humble periodic table of elements can spark so much conflict, both in science fiction and real life.

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