Saturday, July 11, 2009

an open letter to tritium

Dear Tritium:

I've been reading some of the stuff people have to say about you, and it seems pretty clear that you've got a lot of people almost as impressed with you as you are with yourself. I mean, look at what they have to say: "It has an atomic mass of 3.0160492! Like, omigosh, that's the same as an atom of lithium!"

And the comic book geekboys all love you, because you occur naturally when cosmic rays hit the Earth's atmosphere and interact with hydrogen. "Yo, dude," they say, in that annoying stoner voice that we always associated with Star Trek Voyager. "That's just like the Fantastic Four!"

But let's be clear about something: Dude, you are freaking hydrogen. That's it. When it comes to the Periodic Table of the Elements, you are at the bottom of the heap. Ever wonder why you have trouble getting a date with the noble gases? That's it.

You might think you're something special because you've got two neutrons and deuterium has only one, but it's the protons that count, buddy, and you've got only one. Even if she didn't have a thing for carbon -- and who doesn't, after all? -- the department secretary isn't going to be caught dead on a date with you any time soon. She has standards, and she has a reputation to uphold. Suck it up and deal.

And there's the way you're used in thermonuclear detonations. My, aren't you impressive. Stick a little tritium in the nuclear warhead, and a regular A-bomb goes straight to H-bomb. The extra punch you pack increases the payout of the fissile material and blows the lid off an otherwise conventional nuclear explosion.

Of course, that's not all it blows the lid off -- one of those nukes can destroy a major population center, killing millions of people just upon detonation, and creating radioactive fallout that will screw up the environment for generations to come.

You know, tritium, maybe you missed this in your contemplation of how awesome you are, but the phrase "You da bomb" isn't meant to be taken literally. Real bombs suck, just like fourth-graders suck when they think that wearing bling makes them cool even though they ignore their teachers and talk trash about girls.

You want to talk radiation? Plutonium is impressive. It's named after the Roman god of the dead and for good reason. All you have to do is hang out around plutonium for a few days and you'll have some really freaky, frightening and fatal forms of cancer springing up all over your body. Same thing with uranium.

Not you, though. Your beta radiation is so wimpy that it can't even penetrate human skin. Even the cheap pocketknife I had when I was 3 years old could do better than that.

Sure, you talk big when you swagger into a bar with unbonded oxygen atoms. "Hey, baby," you say, "I have a half-life of 4,500 days, plus or minus eight days." Wow, I'm so impressed. That means in about just 12 years and four months, you'll have turned into helium-3, and your main source of income will be inflating balloons at birthday parties.

You think you're something special, but you know it's all just hot air. Even your symbol, 3H, is embarrassing. You know what that makes you look like? An isotope that didn't have even have enough protons to join the local 4-H club. How pathetic.

Maybe you haven't quite got the picture yet, so let me spell it out for you. Every single link in this article so far is to Wikipedia. Wikipedia. You got that? You're not even impressive enough for me to bother linking to a real reference source.

Look tritium, there is one thing you do well, and we're all proud of you for doing it. You know what it is: You keep the sun going. Our sun is a big flaming ball of gas, a fusion-powered furnace that keeps us warm and toasty on this planet. I know a few people have been complaining about your job performance there too, saying that you've been letting the sun lose mass so that eventually the Earth will break free of its orbit and plunge deep into space where we'll all freeze to death.

I can't say I'm wild about that, but the truth is that we've known all along that this was only a temporary arrangement anyway. Sooner or later, we all expected you'd want to move on up the Periodic Table of Elements and try something new: maybe a stint as nickel, or copper, or even selenium. That's how these things have worked as long as the universe has been around, and you want your turn.

It'll come. Just be patient, and keep doing your job.


Copyright © 2009 by David Learn. Used with permission.