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chemistry, Documentaries

Uranium: Twisting the Dragon’s Tail

YEAR: 2015 | LENGTH: 2 parts (60 minutes each)  |  SOURCE: PBS


Legends have it there’s a world beneath this one. They say that’s where the Dragon sleeps. Warm. Coiled. Ready to spring. They say she breathes fire, they say her wings might envelop the Earth. They say be careful how you wake the Dragon. 2015 is the 70th anniversary of the most profound change in the history of human enterprise on Earth. The unleashing of the elemental force within uranium. The unleashing of the Dragon. Join us on an epic adventure, a journey through place and time, around the cultural, scientific and natural history of the most wondrous and terrifying rock on Earth.


Derek Muller introduces uranium and its use throughout history. Uranium, originally sourced from pitchblende, became the subject of intense scientific study. Using computer-generated dragons as a metaphor for daughter isotopes, the episode shows how uranium turns into lead in the process of radioactive decay. The harmful effects of radiation from radium, which is produced during the decay of uranium, are discussed. Derek shows what the first atom bomb looked like. The episode concludes with the use of uranium as a nuclear weapon and the bombing of Hiroshima at the end of World War II.

The use of uranium at the conclusion of World War II ushered in the atomic age. Uranium has since been utilized as a source of energy as well as in cancer treatment. Derek Muller visits Chernobyl and Fukushima, where major nuclear disasters have occurred. The proposition that in our energy-hungry, warming world, uranium both tempts with unbelievable power and threatens all life on earth is explored.


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