In a comment thread at Cathy Seipp’s blog, a commenter named “doug” says:
The LAT has an oddly chatty piece on Polonium 210 which is remarkable in the sheer number of errors made. It looks like an amalgam of half baked internet stories that didn’t get run by a fact checker. It would be acceptable in some small rag somewhere but the Times should be better than that.
Polonium-210 is, of course, the radioactive isotope that killed ex-K.G.B. agent Alexander V. Litvinenko. You can read the article doug is talking about at this link. I’m no science expert — and I don’t know doug’s background — but he seems to have a point. For example, the article says:
Of polonium’s 25 isotopes, polonium-210 is the most stable. After 138 days, half of it decays into a nonradioactive isotope of lead.
That is the correct half-life for Polonium-210 — but it doesn’t make it the most stable isotope of Polonium. As Bradley J. Fikes (who tipped me to this) notes, Polonium-209 has a half-life of about 103 years — far longer than 138 days. There is at least one other isotope with a longer half-life. Fikes asks the obvious question: “How did this pass through the LA Times’ legendary four levels of editors?”
But that’s not all. The article also says:
It takes 10 half-lives — about three years — for all of it to be converted into lead.
To which doug replies:
“All of it” is not a phrase used to describe radioactive decay. Ten half lives just means that .1% of the original remains. Eleven half lives would be .05%. Twenty half lives would correspond to .0001%, and so on.
Once again, I think the man has a point.
“doug” points to a number of other alleged factual inaccuracies in the article, in this comment and this one. I’m unqualified to judge the accuracy of most of doug’s assertions, but if you have a science background, toddle on over and take a look.
I count six alleged errors, including the two mentioned above.
The Times may be headed for one of those comical corrections that goes on and on and on . . .
UPDATE: I added this sentence to the above for clarity: “That is the correct half-life for Polonium-210 — but it doesn’t make it the most stable isotope of Polonium.” Without that sentence, some people were misreading the post.
UPDATE x2: I changed “There are other isotopes with longer half-lives.” to “There is at least one other isotope with a longer half-life.” The reason is that I am not specifically aware of more than one.