I am assured by fundamentalist Christians that six thousand years ago God created the world in six days. Of course, six thousand years ago a day was about the shortest period of time humans could measure accurately. And the mystical number six is also the number of sides to the electromagnetic spaces that give cell phones their name. Within each 10 square mile cell surrounding every tower, 832 separate frequencies are used, two frequencies for every individual phone conversation. For the last half century the preferred method for defining these frequencies, the time between each electromagnetic wave crest, has been to hit a ball of 10 million pure cesium atoms with a microwave beam. The cesium then releases electrons, each with a new wave crest 9 billion, 192 million, 631 thousand 770 times every second. And the cesium will maintain that exact frequency - and your cell phone conversations and web connections - it is estimated - for about 20 million years. And 20 million beats 6 thousand any day of the week.
The only problem is that pure cesium is rare. The metal is so it eager to combine with oxygen that on contact it instantly steals water's two oxygen atoms, thereby generating enough heat to visibly explode the now free hydrogen atom like a mini-Hindenburg. Given a little time cesium will even dissolve glass to steal its oxygen. Cesium is only stable in nature in a rare rock called Pegmatite (above), and 82 % of all the cesium rich Pegmatite known to exist on earth has been found in one place, beneath a single narrow lake along the Bird River in Manitoba, Canada, a land unknown in 1656, to the Archbishop of Ireland.
In retrospect the Irish primate James Ussher (above) seems an unlikely source for 300 years of dogmatic intellectual stagnation. In life he was a purveyor of political compromises. Ussher's “Annales veteris testamenti” (Annals of the Old Testament), published in 1650, displayed his love of dusty manuscripts, esoteric minutiae and ancient languages. As an academic it was his judgment the world began after sunset on Sunday 23 October, 4004 B.C. He was using the best evidence available at the time, and disagreed about the date for creation with his friend, the Oxford mathematician Sir Isaac Newton, by just four years.
Bernic Lake is about 60 miles northeast of Winnipeg, just beyond the western edge of the Canadian Shield. But on this spot two and a half billion years ago, Precambrian rains fell upon sterile volcanic basalt of the shield, chemically altering and eroding the rock into the world wide ocean, laying down oxygen poor sediments called Greenstone belts. These belts were buried and heated, compressed and folded at least three times, beginning two billion years ago with the advent of plate tectonics, until eventually batholiths of a new rock, granite, rose and (above) intruded the Greenstrones at depth. And at one batholith, about 15 miles due west of today's small community of Lac du Bonnet, Manitoba, cracks in the Greenstone were injected with chemically rich waters from the granite, concentrating a potpourri of rare earth metals, lithium, beryllium, tantalum and cesium.
Sir Isaac Newton's modern fame is as the discoverer of gravity, the inventor of calculus and optics and his three Laws of Motion. When praised by his contemporaries Newton explained he stood on the shoulders of geniuses. But the great economist John Maynard Keynes also called him “the last of the magicians.” Newton devoted most of his time and effort to alchemy, and his search for the Philosopher's Stone, which would magically turn lead into gold. Newton was no more a fool, than Bishop Ussher. But both of men were of their age, and they lacked the technology to more precisely measure the world they lived in. But they both wanted to do better. Neither of them thought human knowledge should stop where they were.
The Bird River flows through the largest remaining, seemingly eternal, boreal forest on earth. It is an awe inspiring terrain, but capable of supporting only two humans per square mile. Since 1929 some 60 families in Lac du Bonnet have depended upon the Cabot Corporation's Tanco mine (above) to earn a living. Since the middle of the 1990's, each year's 30,000 kilograms of cesium extracted from the great rock rooms beneath Bernic Lake, have been destined to lubricate and cool oil drilling equipment world wide, in the form of caesium formate. The tiny fraction used in atomic clocks would never economically justify keeping the mine open. But there is enough profitable cesium under Bernic Lake to last another ten years. If the mine does not swallow the lake first.
At room temperature a single atom of cesium has 55 electrons in six orbits around its nucleus - two in the first level, eight in the second, eighteen in both the third and fourth, eight in the fifth and a lone single electron on the outside or valance level. It is the valance electron that emits energy at a specific frequency when excited by microwaves, as was first predicted in 1945 by Professor Isidor Rabi from Columbia University. With all due respect to Professor Rabi, he was not smarter than Newton, but as Newton put it, Rabbi was standing on Newton's shoulders. Seven years later the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) built the first cesium atomic clock. They kept perfecting and miniaturizing the design until about 1968, when they established the highest standard of measurement - until recently
Until 1989 cesium sold for less than $5 a gram (above). Then came the invention of cesium formate, a slurry that was liquid enough to lubricate drilling bits, and heavy enough improve drill efficiency and to carry rock back up the bore hole, while enduring the temperatures and pressures found thousands of feet underground at the point of a drill bit. By 1998 the price of 99% pure cesium was over $60 a gram. It was then that Cabot decided to maximize profits by extracting even the ore holding the up the roof of their mine. They shaved away the pillars supporting the ceiling, from 50 feet in diameter to just 25. In 2012 the price of cesium was $70.60 a gram. Then, in 2013, Cabot admitted that over the past three years at least a ton of rock had fallen into their mine because “The crown pillar...is unstable and requires immediate action”. Corporate greed was destroying the goose that laid the golden egg, and mining had to stop.
The accuracy of cesium clocks is now the limiting factor in available cell phone channels, the accuracy of Global Positioning systems, higher precision and versatility in the electrical grid and better science in every field. So in the new generation of clocks, the NIST-F2, introduced on 3 April 2014, the chamber containing the cesium ball is chilled to minus 316 degrees Fahrenheit (-193 ºC). This does not change the frequency of the cesium, but it eliminates much of the “noise” of all the other atoms in the chamber, so the faint electromagnetic vibrations produced by that single valance election can be more clearly heard and more closely defined. Instead of losing a second every 20 million years, the NIST-F2 loses a second every 300 million years. With this the internet will get faster, cell phones will get more versatile and dependable and there will be more profit and better lives for every living human on earth. Until the cesium runs out.
By 2015 it was figured that Bernic Lake (above) would drown Cabot's golden goose and the world's primary source of cesium within three years, unless something was done. Cabot's solution was to bulldoze a new road through the virgin forest, build dikes across the lake, and “de-water” the now isolated section over their mine. In Cabot's opinion, this provided “an optimal solution, in that it eliminates the immediate risk of flooding, minimizes the long-term footprint of the project, and upholds Cabot’s corporate commitment to being responsive, responsible and respected citizens...”. It will also keep oil pouring into pipelines around the world, and profits pouring into the pockets of Cabot stockholders. It will also continue to pour $28 million a year into the Lac du Bonnet economy, and save 150 jobs in Manitoba. In 2016 Cabot's reported to stockholders that, "We may resume mining operations in the future," So Cabot hopes to rovide cesium for new NIST-F2 clocks world wide. But to do so it may have to kill the three mile long Bernic Lake, and poison the Winnipeg River and Lake Winnipeg which the Bird River pours into.
About six thousand years ago a Sumerian Michelangelo crafted an 8 foot long, 3 foot wide copper tribute to his God, the powerful lion headed eagle Imdugud (above). Copper was a new medium six thousand years ago. The metal has two electrons in its first orbit, eight in the second, eighteen in the third, and like cesium, a single electron in the valance level. But unlike cesium, when exposed to oxygen and moisture, copper slowly forms a layer of green verdigris, or copper carbonate, which then shields the underlying metal from further corrosion.
The Imdugud frieze, found in the ancient city of al' Urbaid, has been dated using carbon 14 techniques, which uses the science developed by Newton and extended by Professor Isidor Rab. The science of chemistry and metallurgy tells us the ore for the frieze came from mines in present day Iran, mines whose tailings and waste rocks were scavenged by a third and fourth generation of miners for copper not long after Bishop Ussher's birth date for the universe. Perhaps the ore was carried to Ubaid in a ship powered by a sail, an invention which also made its first appearance about 6,000 years ago, as dated from the images painted on pottery, an unbroken line of which can be followed style change by style change, over the last eight thousand years - 2,000 years older than Bishop Usher ever imagined.
In the past the Catholic Church has denied that atoms decayed, that sunlight could be split into a spectrum, that the sun was at the center of the solar system, that anything existed before sunset Sunday, 23 October, 4004 B.C. None of those contentions proved or disproved the existence of God. And eventually each, and a thousand other beliefs were discarded, without destroying the faith of the faithful. Only insisting that ignorance is truth, that hypocrisy is devotion, only by taking his name in vain and by mistaking your will for God's will, only that threatens faith.. And your ability to receive a cell phone call from your kids telling you they love you.
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