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Alexander Litvinenko, a week before he died (photo courtesy:YouTube.com)

So, Alexander Litvinenko was ‘probably assassinated’ on the orders of Vladimir Putin – the ex-KGB agent who went from James Bond villain clone to lovable international sociopath. A British High Court judge last week deemed that Putin, through the auspices of the Russian Government (or the Russian Mafia as the Russian Government is also known), ordered Litvinenko poisoned by the ingestion of Polonium-210 in his tea. Thus spake Sir Robert Owen, Chairman of the enquiry committee constituted to investigate Litvinenko’s death.

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Polonium-210 is a deadly isotope of the metal that was named after Marie Curie’s native country, Poland. Placed just ahead of Bismuth in the periodic table, Polonium is known to exist in many forms or isotopes, 33 different isotopes in fact. Don’t know what an isotope is? I’d guessed as much. You cannot possibly know everything I do.

Isotopes are like siblings from the same parents. All have the same number of protons but behave very differently because they have a different number of neutrons in the nucleus of the atom. I’m just showing off, you can skip the para if you like. But this is really my blog and if I want ta fill it with isotopes, I will.

Polonium continuously loses mass, in a spontaneous process called radioactive decay. Because the numbers of protons and neutrons don’t match in isotopes, they are unstable, or in other words, radioactive. From the moment they are formed, they try desperately to reach a more stable state, by letting go of the excess neutrons protons so that the number of neutrons and protons in the nucleus get to match. In this process of trying to reach stability, they form entirely new elements. Polonium, for instance, morphs into Lead. Radioactive decay, happens spontaneously and there’s absolutely nothing you can do to make it change it’s mind. Like Helen and that short, stout guy in skin-tight pants, in those old R.D.Burman dance sequences (remember ‘pia tu, ab to aaja?). The moment Helen entered a scene, you knew she was going to take her clothes off and Shorty would soon be writhing around her dancing figure, on the shiny nightclub floor. No way you could stop them from doing that. You can’t nothing about radioactive decay neither. (or is it either? I get so confused).

All radioactive elements go through this kind of spontaneous decay and the time it takes for an element to decay down to half it’s original mass is termed it’s ‘half-life’. Let’s take Polonium 210 which has a half-life of 138 days. A 10 gm sample will have 5 gms remaining after 138 days, while the rest is converted to Lead. After the next 138days, there will be only 2.5 gms. And so on. Thus, the content of Po 210 will get smaller and smaller exponentially, halving in mass every 138 days. Radioactive stuff get converted, transformed into other stuff, all the effin’ time. In some cases, like in the case of Polonium 210, even the element it decays or breaks down to is also radioactive and undergoes decay of it’s own.

Of the 33 known isotopes of Polonium, only three are the rock stars, Po-208, 209 and 210. They’re like the three evil step sisters. The others have half-lives in microseconds. The step sisters stand out with appreciable half-lives and are therefore available for experimentation. Highly toxic, you wouldn’t want to be anywhere near these m—er f—ers, trust me. I’d love to tell you about all three and I know, your breath must be baited by now. However, Pierre, my carpool partner will be here soon and I have to get ta work, so I’ll focus on only the zinger, Polonium 210. As a start, let’s assume it is feminine, being toxic, and therefore call her PollyTwoTen. I always give objects names. Who knows, maybe they’re alive and it’s us who are dead.

A dull, sinister-grey metal, PollyTwoTen constantly and spontaneously keeps releasing massive amounts of energy in the form of intense heat and alpha particles, transforming itself in the process, to an altogether different element, Lead. A Polly-210 disc, such as the kind used as an initiater in a nuclear bomb will cast an evil greenish glow and remain really hot, 500-deg Celsius hot, as it decays to Lead-206. Handling and storage of this mother is a science you could do a PhD thesis on. An alpha particle is an unstable clump of matter, made up of just two neutrons and two protons.

PollyTwoTen exists in nature in such insignificant concentrations that the metal has to be extracted, either from Uranium-238 or Radium-226 inside a nuclear reactor. The extraction process is extremely expensive and highly classified, the technology available with only a few governments round the world. And given it’s predominantly military uses, it is unlikely that any private commercial enterprise will be able to or even be allowed to produce the stuff. Only around 100gms of the metal are produced worldwide every year, mostly in Russia.

Since it has extra neutrons lying around, Polly is used as an initiater in a nuclear bomb, to bombard a lump of Uranium-235 with a blizzard of neutrons to hasten the chain reaction that causes an atomic explosion. Besides use in a nuclear bomb, Polly210 also finds application in static eliminators that neutralize electrical charge build-up in manufacturing set-ups. And due to it’s natural heat emission, the metal was also used widely as a heat source in satellites in the early 60s, though, due to it’s short half-life of only 138days, it has since been replaced by a hotter babe with a much longer half-life of 24100 years – Plutonium239.

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Polonium210 has found another more sinister use – assassinations, state-sponsored assassinations. When ingested through food or a cut or wound, the alpha particles emitted from Polly, smash through bone and tissue at the atomic level, combining and changing the very molecular structure of the organ itself, mutating cells irreversibly, in a sort of drunken binge. They start a chain reaction that sees the body gradually turn upon itself when it realizes that it’s now made of something else other than healthy blood and tissue. The process is terminal and the poor sod who got the dose is history within a matter of two to three very painful weeks.

If Polly-210 hasn’t been ingested, there is a silver lining though. Alpha particles don’t get too far, just a couple of centimeters actually and they can be easily stopped by an ordinary sheet of bond paper or even the epidermis, the outer crust of the human skin, provided it isn’t ruptured as in a wound. The risk therefore of contamination is minimal, unless inhaled or ingested through food or the blood. In Alexander Litvinenko’s case, it was in the tea he drank.

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Having enlightened you sufficiently thus, let’s get back to the Alexander Litvinenko case.

On an overcast November 2006 evening in London, Alexander Litvinenko put on his favourite hunting jacket, kissed his wife, Marina, lightly on her cheek and walked over to Soho to meet an ex-FSB buddy by the name of Andrei Lugovoi for drinks and dinner. Immediately after, Livinenko started feeling stomach pains and had to be hospitalized, where he initially suffered from severe diarrhoea and vomiting.

The hospital, at first, diagnosed him with a stomach infection and began treatment for it. However, Litvinenko’s condition continued to worsen and doctors discovered that his white blood cell count had plummeted, impairing his immune system. After a while, his skin turned yellow, indicating possible liver dysfunction. Having no clue initially, doctors had him tested for the two most likely causes, hepatitis and AIDS, but both tested negative. At this point Litvinenko’s hair began falling out in clumps and this led the doctors to deduce that he was suffering from radiation poisoning. Further tests identified Polonium210 as the culprit.

Alexander Litvinenko died on November 23, 2006.

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Almost nine years after Litvinenko began raising the daisies, polonium-210 laced daisies, last week a British High Court judge named Sir Robert Owen has released a carefully worded report to the British Parliament, titled ‘Report into the Death of Alexander Litvinenko’. The long and short of the report is a delicately worded conclusion stating that though there is no direct evidence, Litvinenko ‘might’ have been done in under the orders of Vladimir Putin.

The interesting fact of the matter is that the evidence had been pretty damning. I mean, look at the 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing. The Libyans were convicted and incarcerated on evidence that was far less conclusive. But in Litvinenko’s case the Sir Bob chose to walk on eggshells.

Why? The matter has finally been laid to rest. It appears that just before he was going to write down ‘definitely’, something transpired that made him change it to ‘probably’…….

When he had retired to his chambers briefly for a fortifying cup of tea, he noticed that the waiter who served him his favorite green Darjeeling tea, was a replacement, the regular waiter having suddenly taken violently ill. This man had shaggy jowls, bushy eyebrows and a Slavic accent to his English

The man said as he handed Sir Robert his cup, “Compliments from St Petersburg, my Lord.”