This is the story that was waiting on advice. Two total rewrites due to isotope incompatibility later, here you go.
You owe this one to a suggestion a friend made, and the fact that my current job involves being alone in a lab for hours on end with nothing to do with my mind but compose.
Sorry about all the chemical theory – the story that wanted to be written doesn’t make a yuge amount of sense without it, unfortunately. Check the note at the end.
This story is entirely fictional, and the narrator is not me.
“There’s a new purple one came in this morning,” I said. “Really lovely, that soft washed-out violet. Of course it won’t be cobalt. Maybe manganese.”
“Purple,” my friend repeated. “Have you looked for neodymium yet?”
“No, I’ve barely started looking for anything,” I told him. “Why neodymium?”
“You’ll find a lot of old decorative glass with neodymium oxide as the glaze color. Mostly purple or blue pieces. It fluoresces under a blacklight.”
I laughed. “The samples are all brand new, from Myles’ department store.”
“You never know.”
“With you I often don’t,” I said. “I’m not going to be the technician’s favorite person – they probably won’t have calibrated the machine for that, but all right, I’ll look.”
“I doubt you’ll find anything deadly,” my friend said suddenly, then added as an odd afterthought, “but there’s a Geiger counter in the lab down here.”
Going back upstairs to my corner of the chemistry lab, I stared at the teapot on the bench. Was I imagining things, or was it shining, just a little, in the artificial darkness of the stormy afternoon, the sullen grey light seeping in through the window? The strong glare of the anglepoise lamp, adjusted to shine straight onto my work surface, hit off and reflected the violet inner glaze. I picked up my hammer, hefted it experimentally, then set it down again, and surveyed the shelves above my bench. Vases, jugs, another teapot, platters, a few cups – domestic ceramicware, the glazes of which I was grinding down and analyzing for potentially dangerous compounds. (The most exciting thing I’d thought to find was lead.) Vials of powdered glaze. Vials of powdered ceramic. A yellow polaroid camera I was using to record samples, and a box of films for it. An agate mortar and pestle borrowed from three labs over, shimmering, in the uncertain light, from purple to gold to silvery-grey and back again.
It was a lovely thing, this teapot: odd shape, more like a coffee pot, a smooth tapering cylinder of slightly translucent boneware, mathematical perfection of form marred only by a graceful spout and delicate handle like a braided vine. The outer surface was pure white (titanium dioxide or lead?) with fine purple tendrils and flowers, slightly raised from the surface, curling around the vase in an ecstatic, patternless tangle. Inside, the glaze was a featureless vivid warm violet. Five dollars from Myles’ – cheap Chinese import, but pretty. Turning the pot over, I snatched up the hammer again and brought it down with a crash on the base of the teapot. The blow echoed in the quiet lab, and the pot shuddered, but remained intact. I was getting used to resilient crockery by now, so I shrugged and tried again, then collected up the shards of china and swept away the dust.
The purple glowed brighter now, out in the fluorescent light of the lab, and seemed to have taken on a bluish cast. The entire base had come away in a cascade of sharp sectors, and lay in a disorderly heap inside the circle of the teapot’s rim. I slipped one larger shard into a plastic envelope – not allowed to carry unwrapped samples around the corridors – and headed out of the lab, through the study I shared with three other researchers.
“What have you got there?” one of them asked, looking up from a computer simulation of ozone molecules forming and breaking.
“I’ve got an idea about this one, I’m just going to ask down the hall if I can check it on a piece of equipment in the organic lab.” The equipment was a UV lightbox, normally used for examining developed chromatography plates in preliminary investigation.
The organic lab supervisor sighed and opened the lightbox closet for me. “Let me know when you’re done so I can lock up.”
“Thanks,” I said, and as soon as he had gone, slipped the shard of china into the lightbox and switched it on. I didn’t even need to look into the window in the top of the box; a brilliant golden radiance shot through the glass pane, striking twirling dust motes in the dark closet into a constellation of yellow stars. Still, bright yellow fluorescence under a UV proved nothing… right? Right.
My next stop was further along the corridor, the x-ray technician’s room, to – very irregularly – use the handheld fluorescence spectrometer. “Please,” I said. “I just need to check for one element and then I’ll go away, I promise.”
We fired up the machine, and set the teapot base flat on the mounting.
“What am I looking for?” the technician asked.
“Neodymium.” I remembered something. “Don’t you have that calibrated from when the ecologists were looking at bioaccumulation in seabirds?” So we ran the spectrum, and, of course, it peaked in just the right place, about 6 on the keV energy scale. Neodymium. And the numbers ticked over on the quantitative display – trace, 100 parts per million, 1000 parts, 5000 parts… one percent. Five percent. Ten percent. When the scan finished, the room was silent except for the click…click…click of samples moving through the larger machine in the corner, and the soft hum of the air conditioning.
The technician broke the silence. “That’s quite high, isn’t it?” The neat serif figures on the screen stood at 22.5%.
“Yes,” I said. “That does seem quite high. Can we do it again?” So we did it again. Twenty-two and a bit percent neodymium, beyond a shadow of a doubt. “Oh,” I said. “Is that all going to be in the glaze, or is some of it out of the way in the substrate?” Of course neodymium is so heavy it was unlikely the XRF had picked up even everything in the glaze, let alone penetrated the substrate. The broken edge of the shard was just wide enough to scan effectively: forty percent neodymium outside of the glaze.
“Hmm. Your manufacturer’s got some of explaining to do,” the technician commented.
Picking up my sample, I retreated into the hallway, fished my phone out of my pocket and stared at it, trying to decide what to do. Neodymium was almost entirely outside my area of knowledge: I didn’t know whether what I was holding was empirically a lot or a little, or even if ‘a lot’ was a problem.
Well, research, that was my job; specifically, researching the heavy metals present in ceramic glazes. So reading up on this was just part of doing my job. Half an hour and a helpful reference book later, I had learned that although most neodymium isn’t very radioactive, it is poisonous, so far as the limited studies to date suggest. But probably not very poisonous, and so long as it’s outside your body and you aren’t working with large quantities every day, it isn’t a major issue. Accidentally breathing neodymium dust, for instance, would be a cause for concern, regardless of what sort it was.
The main isotopes are stable, but the ones that aren’t are β-emitters, that turn into other β-emitters, and so on for quite a while. The worst I could reasonably expect was 147, which makes up about a quarter of the natural neodymium on the planet, but still has an intermittent habit of decaying to release a high-energy electron. And if it was radioactive… the atoms can decay even in a molecule, even in an aluminosilicate or soda-lime-silica matrix that will usually hold just about anything. I knew that I was overreacting, and that the chances of there being anything dangerously out of the ordinary were slim to nil, but this was the most exciting thing to happen to me in weeks.
I could call my supervisor and say ‘hey, guess what I found!’ but he was in New York at a conference. I could go back downstairs and ask my friend ‘do I have a problem here?’ but in a university, land of strange bureaucracy, where everything is documented, the inevitable questions the next day would be tricky. Why had I, a chemistry research assistant, taken my question to someone in a completely different department, who didn’t even officially know anything about the topic? The only answer I had was ‘ummm… because?‘, which I knew wouldn’t cut it.
In the end I went back to the lab I was supposed to be in and asked the lab safety supervisor there. It turned out, rather to her consternation, that neodymium did not appear in the lab’s safety folder or material data sheets, mostly because it didn’t have any reason to be in the lab. So the LSS went up one of the strange parallel hierarchies that exist in a university… and came up with the department safety supervisor. He, of course, said to calm down, neodymium is used for making magnets, so if it wasn’t safe didn’t I think someone would have noticed before now?
When I returned to my bench, it was getting late, and the sun was breaking through the heavy clouds to slant in through the high windows. I had just enough time to break the column of the teapot roughly in half, and stow the pieces on the shelf ready to deal with when I came back on Monday morning.
Monday of course was a nightmare – Mondays often are – and in the excitement of discovering that someone had left ten liters of concentrated nitric acid in open acid baths on the floor over the weekend, and then sensibly decided not to come to work, and that a fuse had come adrift on one of the samples fridges, leading to the imminent thawing of a lot of unpleasant things everyone would rather didn’t thaw, it was mid-morning before I got back to my bench. And a pile of new samples that had arrived early in the morning and needed photographing and cataloging. Loading a film into the polaroid camera, I snapped a photo of the first sample – an interesting hemispherical bowl in a deep clear green – and set the exposed film on the bench to develop.
My photography skills have never been up to much, but surely even I, even with a polaroid camera, couldn’t possibly have taken a picture with lens flare in five directions and smudgy pale patches all over the image. The next photograph was even worse, almost a double exposure, if that were possible.
“Has someone been messing with my film?” Even when I said it, I knew it was pointless – nobody would steal things off that shelf, because I didn’t have any equipment worth stealing, and theft is the only reason anyone meddles with someone else’s bench. But still, polaroid film is opaque; only the camera mechanism will allow the photosensitive layer to be exposed to light. And the film was definitely intact when I loaded it. With my propensity for jumping to dramatic conclusions, of course the first thing that occurred to me was ‘something radioactive’. And of course I had to check, by taking the camera to the box of spare films in the next room, and taking another photo.
When it came out perfectly clear, I returned to the lab long enough to pick up a piece of the purple-lined teapot, and scurried away down the echoing concrete stairs to knock on the door of another lab.
“Can I borrow that Geiger counter?” I asked my friend.
Note: I am generally as virulently anti-research as John Grisham, but yes, I did research this one. Neodymium does almost all the things I’ve said it does, with the exceptions that 147Nd is nowhere near as abundant as I’ve suggested, and that a ceramic item made with the concentrations in the story would be appallingly useless due to lack of structural integrity. I haven’t tested Instax or Polaroid film with radioactive sources mainly because I haven’t got any film and I’m not allowed in the lab where they keep the radioactive cobalt anymore, but theoretically it would react as it did in the story.
Regarding safe levels of radiation, I’ve deliberately avoided ‘green’ or ‘environmental’ sources, as they tend to be a touch hysterical. My data comes from a guy from Stanford, periodictable.com, UMaryland, J. Expo. Sci. Environ. Epidemiol., and irritating some people I know. Regarding the properties of neodymium, I’ve mostly relied on Wikipedia because this is fiction not my darn research paper, but I did check a bunch of Wikipedia’s references as well because that’s just standard practice.