In Kurt Vonnegut’s classic novel, Cat’s Cradle, the major plot device is a substance known as ice-nine. It is a polymorph of water that remains in a solid crystalline structure at room temperature. When it comes into contact with liquid water, the structure rapidly spreads through the water converting it all to crystal. In the novel, it’s a dangerous doomsday weapon capable of freezing the entire planet. However, silver iodide, which could be considered to be a real-world analogue to ice-nine, is actually quite useful for weather modification.
Weather modification may sound like science fiction, but humans have been using a method called “cloud seeding” since the 1940s – of which, silver iodide is an important ingredient. As the name implies, silver iodide is a compound created from the reaction between an iodide solution and a solution of silver ions. Silver iodide has a crystalline structure that is very similar to ice. Similar to ice-nine, if silver iodide is introduced to super cooled water, it will induce freezing via heterogeneous nucleation. In other words, the water molecules copy the crystal structure of silver iodide and become ice.
At higher altitudes, the water vapor of clouds is usually a super cool (less than 0 °C). By “seeding” the clouds with silver iodide via plane, one can increase precipitation, reduce fog conditions, or decrease the size and formation of hailstones. This makes cloud seeding useful for a variety of applications – drought areas can have increased rainfall and airports can maintain clear skies. Beijing even fired silver iodide rockets to clear the skies in time for the 2008 Olympics.
And who do you think discovered the method for seeding clouds using silver iodide? None other than atmospheric scientist Dr. Bernard Vonnegut – Kurt’s brother.
In a previous blog post, we outlined the regulations for making the Olympic medals – including the precious metal contents for gold, silver, and bronze medals. But, the regulations are not very strict. This allows the hosting country to create medals that have a unique, nationalistic spirit to their design.
Usually, the host country will use certain artwork to make the medals their own. But sometimes, they can alter the actual composition. For example, Norway designed Olympic medals that contained sparagmite – a type of stone native to Scandinavia. More recently, China awarded Olympic medals containing jade in Beijing. In the upcoming 2014 Olympics, Russia will design their medals in a similar fashion – but with some minerals that are really “out-of-this-world.”
In 2013, a meteor made impact in Chelyabinsk, scattering fragments all over the country. It was a historical event and the source of much international intrigue and scientific fanfare. To honor the Olympic champions, Russia will award medals that are embedded with meteorite fragments from the impact. It’s truly a design unlike previous medals, and yet another reason for aspiring athletes to shoot for the stars.
The field of healthcare is one that gets a lot of use from precious metals. Silver’s anti-microbial properties have earned it several roles in medicine. Gold can be converted into an anti-inflammatory drug. And, all precious metals are used to make various alloys in dentistry. Similar to gold, platinum can also be converted into a useful, even lifesaving, drugs.
The medicines we’re talking about are known as platinum-based antineoplastic drugs. When converted into certain chemical forms, platinum can cause living cells to stop dividing. The cells continue to grow (usually much larger than they would normally), but they never divide or reproduce. This novel property makes platinum useful for treating cancers and tumors.
Platinum’s ability to inhibit cell division was discovered in the 1960s and used to create a chemotherapy drug called cisplatin – which was found to be extremely effective at treating testicular cancer. Platinum has since been used to create several other chemotherapy agents such as oxaplatin, straplatin, picoplatin, and more.
Unfortunately, platinum-based drugs do have drawbacks. Some patients develop a resistance to the drugs, and neurotoxicity is a dangerous potential side-effect. Still, in cases where it is effective, platinum-based drugs have saved many lives.