Long ago, the Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder remarked that, given how combustible matter is, it was a daily miracle that the globe did not burn. But for a long time it was assumed that although objects burn, the atoms that make them up are stable, robust and indestructible. When Marie Curie revealed radioactivity to the world at the beginning of the 20th century, things changed overnight.

Curie’s discoveries unexpectedly showed that a gigantic energy reservoir lurks in the basement of matter. As they decay, radioelements dissolve this inner wealth. But all atoms, it has been argued, contain such quantities. These revelations were “iconoclastic,” noted the African-American scientist CH Turner in 1905.

The assumption that everyday matter – even the ore underground – is filled with corked energy immediately suggested to scientists that our planet might be more like a “warehouse” of dynamite than a healthy habitation.

In early 1903, Frederick Soddy, one of the founders of nuclear physics, wrote that all it took was a tinkering scientist to come across a “suitable detonator” and ignite the “warehouse” through a chain reaction. This happened at the end of an essay when he was reaching a crescendo, trying to impress his readers. (Soddy had a penchant for the high-flying and dramatic.)

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Evidence that planets could explode dates back to the Enlightenment, when astronomers began looking for explanations for the unusually large gap between Mars and Jupiter: a yawning abyss conspicuously filled with debris. Yet no known force could cause a planetary body to burst. Soddy suggested in 1903 that radioactivity could change that.

Not long after Soddy’s comments, his research partner Ernest Rutherford made similar noises, which were published in prominent journals. Any “fool” that Rutherford reportedly egged on “playfully in a laboratory” could “unexpectedly blow up the universe.” Soddy soon spoke of someone putting their hands on the “lever” that could “destroy the earth.”

This happened in the extreme immaturity of nuclear physics. The science was barely more than a year old. Such comments were therefore unfounded conjectures: more rhetorical chatter than serious hypothesis. It was almost as if Soddy and Rutherford were bragging, trying to instill a sense of awe and draw attention to their emerging field.

Source : www.bbc.com

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