Monday, August 19, 2013

How a slice of meat gave birth to the science of Radiology.

When the Nazi’s came to power in Germany, they seized all the wealth and assets belonging to Jews and their sympathisers. So in 1930’s two German scientist, Max von Laue and James Frank sent their Nobel Prize medals to Niels Bohr for safekeeping. Bohr kept it at his institute in Denmark, but by August 1940 the Nazi storm troopers were knocking the doors of the institute. Desperate to hide the medals, Bohr asked his colleague Gyorgy Hevesy to dissolve the gold medals. To do this Hevesy used ‘aqua regia’ – a mix of nitric and hydrochloric acids that fascinated alchemist because it dissolved “royal metals” like gold. Hevesy managed to complete this job just in time. When the Nazi’s ransacked Bohr’s institute for loot, they left the beaker of orange aqua regia untouched. In 1943, Hevesy fled Denmark, but returned back to the institute after the war. To his surprise he found his beaker intact on a shelf. Hevesy precipitated the gold and Nobel academy later recast the medals for Franck and Laue. If you haven’t heard of Gyorgy Hevesy, then you need to read this. In 1910 Hevesy arrived in England from Hungary are worked under Rutherford on radioactivity. Hevesy was staying in a boarding house and after noticing patterns of meals served, Hevesy grew suspicious of the food served there. He suspected that his landlady was recycling the leftover food and he confronted her with his fears. The landlady denied it, and Hevesy decided to seek proof. So one night Hevesy took some extra serving of meat during dinner and when the landlady’s back was turned he sprinkled some radioactive lead on the meat which he had got from his lab. After dinner, the lady collected the leftovers as usual. The next day Hevsey bough home a radiation detector, from his friend Hans Geiger (today we call it the Geiger counter) and waved it over that night’s dinner. The Geiger counter went berserk and Hevesy confronted his landlady with the evidence. The lady supposedly was charmed at being caught so cleverly, with the latest tools of science. Hevesy, had another idea, instead of sprinkling the lead on dead tissue (cooked meat), he began musing over the possibility of injecting minute quantity of his radioactive lead into living creatures. Since the lead would emit radiation, he could actually track the molecules inside veins and organs, with an unprecedented degree of resolution. Hevesy had discovered elemental tracers, giving birth to the field of radiology. In 1920 Hevesy left for Copenhagen to study under Niels Bohr. Here along with physicist Dirk Coster he discovered element 72, Hafnium. Hevesy was repeatedly nominated for the Noble Prize, for the discovery but the political bickering, prevented him from getting one until 1943. Probably the ‘aqua regia’ stunt did finally help him. 

No comments:

Post a Comment