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An abandoned uranium mine in Queensland, Australia. © Calistemon, 2009 (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Treasures: Natural nuclear reactors

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I don’t know how other people are taught, but for a long time I thought that nuclear reactors generated energy through some borderline-mystical atomic process that I could never really comprehend. And that’s partly true. But if you skip the details of how fission actually works, its role in a power plant is actually pretty simple to understand: the reason we can use nuclear decay to generate power is that it releases heat. So it’s not really the mystical atoms as such that make nuclear power possible, but the comparatively mundane process of using heat to make steam to move turbines.

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Diagram of nucleosynthesis in a star.

Treasures: Stellar Nucleosynthesis

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Most of the things in our “Treasures” series are living organisms. I think this is partly because lots of living organisms are easy to identify with: they exist on a scale similar to ours and are easy to categorize as discrete entities. Phenomena are a little harder to sell, for the most part. Stellar nucleosynthesis has had some help though, in the form of Carl Sagan’s wildly popular and surprisingly durable “star stuff” monologue. And it’s true: we’re literally made of atoms that came here from dying stars. Of course this is equally true of centipedes, norovirus and Rob Ford, so admittedly the magic relies on a bit of anthropocentrism.

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