Sunday, August 06, 2006

Star treatment

Am I indulging in cheap ‘kiss & tell’ by musing on news@nature about my meeting with Madonna? Too late now for that kind of soul-searching, but in any case I figured that (1) this is now ancient history; (2) she’s talked about her interest in ‘neutralizing nuclear waste’ to Rolling Stone; and (3) I’ve no interest in trying to make a famous person sound silly. As far as I’m concerned, it’s great that some people with lots of money will look into ways of investing it philanthropically. But I did feel some obligation to suggest to her that this scheme did not seem like a particularly good investment. After all, part of the reason why she asked me over was to proffer advice (at least, I hope so – I’d no intention of acting simply as the PR officer).

The point I really wanted to make in this article, however, is how perpetually alluring these cultural myths of science are. Once you start to dig into the idea that radioactivity can be ‘neutralized’, it’s astonishing what is out there. My favourite is Brown’s gas, the modern equivalent of a perpetual-motion machine (actually a form of electrolysed water, though heaven forbid that we should suggest it is hydrogen + oxygen). None of this, however, is to deny that radioactive half-lives really can be altered by human means – but by such tiny amounts that there doesn’t seem much future, right now, in that dream of eliminating nuclear waste. So as I say in the article, it seems that for now we will have to learn to live with the stuff. Keith Richards does – apparently he drinks it. In his case it's just a nickname for his favourite cocktail of vodka and orange soda. But as everyone knows, Keith can survive anything.

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