Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (2014) s01e07 Episode Script

The Clean Room

Once there was a man who went searching for the true age of the earth.
In his struggles to discover it, he stumbled on a grave threat.
Beautiful spring day, Pasadena, California.
Business is booming, life's good.
Except for one man, a geochemist named Clair Patterson, known as Pat.
He knows that everyone he sees is in danger from an invisible menace.
And he's determined to put a stop to it, no matter what the cost.
You can't really tell Pat Patterson's story without going all the way back to the time long before the earth, our home, was built, when the stars brought forth its substance.
Iron.
For the planet's molten core.
Oxygen.
For the rocks and the water and the air.
Carbon.
For diamonds.
And life.
A star is born, ours.
For the first few million years, things ran smoothly as dust grains snowballed into progressively larger objects.
But once these objects grew massive enough to have sufficient gravity, they began pulling each other into crossing orbits.
This is how our world looked when it was new.
No part of the earth's surface could survive intact from that time to the present.
So, with all its birth and early childhood records erased, how could we ever hope to know with any certainty the ge of our world? People have been wondering about this since antiquity.
In 1650 archbishop James Ussher of Ireland made a calculation that seemed to settle the question.
Like almost everyone else of his time and his world, he accepted the biblical account of creation as authoritative.
But the Bible does not give exact years, so Ussher searched for an event in the Old Testament that corresponded to a known historical date.
He found it in the second book of kings, the death of the Babylonian ruler Nebuchadnezzar in 562 B.
C.
Usher added up the generations of the prophets and the Patriarchs, the 139 "Begats" of the Old Testament, between Adam and the time of Nebuchadnezzar, and discovered that the world began on October 22 in the year 4004 B.
C.
At 6:00 P.
M.
It was a Saturday.
Archbishop Ussher's chronology was taken as gospel in the Western world.
Until we turned to another book to find the age of the earth, the one that was written in the rocks themselves.
Most of the rock layers in the walls of the Grand Canyon are made of sediments, deposited as fine grains in a time when this part of the world was a sea.
Over eons, the sediments were compressed into rock under the weight of succeeding layers, with the oldest ones at the bottom.
Pick a layer, any layer.
How about that one? Once upon a time, there must have been shallow water here.
Back in the Precambrian period, about a billion years ago, there was only one kind of life.
These blue-green bacteria were busy harvesting sunlight and making oxygen.
For them, it was just a waste product, but for the animals who evolved later, including us, it was the breath of life.
Okay.
Pick another layer.
How about that one? This layer is known as the bright angel shale.
It formed about 530 million years ago.
These tracks were left So you want to know the age of the earth? Just figure out how long it took to deposit each layer and then, instead of counting the "Begats," add up all the layers.
Easy, right? We know from observing this process, because it still happens today in oceans and lakes around the world.
That sediments can be laid down at widely different rates.
It usually happens very slowly, say a foot of sediment per 1,000 years.
But when the's a rare catastrophic flood, it can happen much faster, as much as a foot in just a few days.
Many geologists tried this method to calculate the age of the earth.
They used the Grand Canyon and other sedimentary sequences around the planet.
But their answers ranged too widely to be of much use, anywhere between three million years and 15 billion.
And there were other problems with this method: Even the deepest layers of rock are not the oldest things on earth.
Why? Because not even rocks could survive the earth's violent infancy.
In space it's another story.
Are there any mementos from when the earth was born, objects that could possibly tell us its true age? I know a place where the unused bricks and mortar left over from the creation of our solar system can be found.
It lies between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars.
Here is the stuff of the newborn earth, adrift in cold storage, unchanged ever since that time.
A million or so years ago, a large asteroid happened to jostle a much smaller one, sending it on a new trajectory, a collision course that ended one night some 50,000 years ago.
It must have shattered the peace of the Grand Canyon as it sailed overhead to blast out this crater in what would one day be known as Arizona.
Fragments of the iron asteroid that made this crater have survived intact.
If we just knew how long ago that iron was forged, we'd know the age of the solar system.
Including the earth.
But how could we know that? Pick a rock.
Any rock.
How about that one? Some atoms in this rock could be radioactive, which means they spontaneously disintegrate and become other elements.
A uranium atom first becomes a thorium atom.
On average, it takes a few billion years.
The thorium is much more unstable.
In less than a month it turns into protactinium.
A minute later, protactinium becomes something else.
The atom undergoes ten more nuclear transmutations Until it reaches the last stop on the decay chain: A stable atom of lead.
And lead it will remain For eternity.
In the 20th century there was a huge effort, lasting decades, to measure the time it takes for each radioactive element to transmute into another element.
Physicists discovered that the atoms of each unstable element decay at a constant rate.
The nucleus of an atom is a kind of sanctuary, immune to the shocks and upheavals of its environment.
Hit it with a hammer.
Boil it in oil.
Vaporize it.
The nuclear clock goes on ticking, keeping an absolute standard of time that does not look to the sun and the stars.
What better way to find the true age of the earth than with the uranium atom? If you knew what fraction of the uranium in a rock had turned into lead, you could calculate how much time had passed since the rock was formed.
But there's a problem.
The rocks in the earth that were present when it was formed are no more.
They've all been crushed, melted, remade.
There is a way to calculate the amount of lead that was present from the beginning.
It's a gift from the heavens: Meteorites.
This one A fragment of the one that made this giant crater Was ideal.
The amount of lead deep inside this meteorite is exactly the same as when earth formed.
Since you know the constant rate of uranium decay, that should give you the age of the meteorite, which was made at the same time as the earth.
All you had to do was measure the amount of lead in meteorites.
Easy, right? A scientist named Harrison Brown, at the University of Chicago, first understood this in 1947.
He chose a young graduate student, Clair Patterson, to do the work.
Patterson couldn't possibly know how this assignment would alter the course of his life And ours.
What seemed like pure scientific research turned out to be so much more.
Clair Patterson, son of a letter carrier from Iowa, was rebellious by nature and not very good in school.
But he was a natural born scientist.
A geologist named Harrison Brown gave Patterson what seemed like a straightforward scientific assignment.
First off, Pat You mind if I call you Pat? Now, I know you're no geologist probably couldn't tell granite from feldspar but I hear you really know your way around a mass spectrometer, Pat.
Good.
You married, Pat? Yeah, Laurie.
Yeah, she-she's a chemist, too.
Uh, we worked on the Manhattan Project together, at Oak Ridge.
Good.
Okay, well, first thing you need to know: There are these tiny crystals called zircons.
Real small, size of a pinhead, tight as a drum and tough.
Nothing gets in or out of 'em.
And I'm talking for billions of years.
We know how old these grains are because we've already dated the rocks they came from.
Each little zircon has only a few parts per million of uranium inside, and that uranium is decaying to even tinier amounts of lead.
Now, you figure out how to measure that lead, and you'll know how to do it for a meteorite.
You think you can do that, Pat? Yeah.
Yeah, I I don't see why not.
Good, because when you do, you'll be the first man to know the age of the earth.
And you'll be famous.
It'll be easy.
Duck soup.
While Patterson tried to measure the trace amounts of lead in the zircon grains, another grad student, George Tilton, was measuring the amount of uranium in the same grains.
All Patterson had to do was measure the amount of lead with equal accuracy.
She's all yours, Pat.
Measured it six times.
Same result: Yeah, nice going, George, thanks.
Tilton's results were always the same.
But Patterson's results on the lead content of the same grains were wildly inconsistent.
This made no sense.
Could the lab have been contaminated by previous experiments with lead? Maybe it was the naturally high amounts of lead in the environment that were messing up his results.
Patterson did everything he could to cleanse the lab of any lead.
There was still 100 times too much lead.
He had been at it for more than two years.
Duck soup, my ass.
Patterson realized he would have to boil his containers and tools in acid and purify all his chemicals to further reduce the lead in his lab.
Hey, you Oh, I No! I'm new here.
Uh, where's the men's room? Ugh, damn it.
All of Patterson's obsessive scouring and sterilizing had still not solved the problem.
He would need to design his own lab and build it from scratch.
The opportunity arose when Harrison Brown moved to the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and invited Patterson to join him.
Okay, Tom, that's enough.
We can move through the interlock, now.
Patterson had now been at it for six years, doggedly tracking down and eliminating the many sources of lead that were compromising his instruments.
He had built the world's first ultra-clean room.
He was finally able to measure how much lead was actually in the rock.
One whose age had already been established.
Now, at last, Patterson was ready to tackle the iron meteorite, to find the true age of the earth.
He brought his meteorite specimen back to the Argonne National Laboratory Where the world's most accurate mass spectrometer had just become operational.
Doc, this can't wait till tomorrow? Okay, little buddy, we're gonna have to vaporize you.
A mass spectrometer uses magnets to separate the elements contained in a sample, so that the amounts of each element can be quantified.
This would provide the last missing piece in the puzzle of the earth's true age.
Now I'm gonna ionize you, yeah.
Sounds worse than it is.
What's an electron between friends? Having isolated the sample from any outside lead contamination, Patterson was, at last, ready to measure the amount of lead and uranium in the sample and calculate how many years before it had formed.
The true age of the earth.
Thank you to all the scientists who came before.
Thank you, geologists.
Thank you, Charles Lyell.
Thank you, Michael Faraday.
J.
J.
Thomson.
Ernest Rutherford.
Thank you, Harrison Brown.
The world is four and a half billion years old.
We did it.
Mom? Mom.
Patterson wanted his mother to be the first person to know what he had struggled The true age of the earth.
His reward for this discovery? A world of trouble.
He didn't know it, but he was on a collision course with some of the most powerful people on the planet.
To the ancient Romans, the majestic ringed planet Saturn was not a real place, not a world, but a God King, a son of the marriage of heaven and earth, the God of lead.
These columns are all that remain of this oldest temple in the Roman forum, first consecrated to Saturn 2,500 years ago.
It also served as Rome's treasury and its bureau of weights and measures.
Tonight is Saturnalia, the wild december holiday in Saturn's honor.
And everyday life will be turned upside down.
The masters will serve the slaves, no wars or executions will be allowed, and gifts will be exchanged.
A couple of hundred years from now, when the early church fathers look for a way to attract more pagans, they'll decide to turn Saturnalia into Christmas, making it the latest in a long line of winter solstice holidays to be re-purposed.
This towering wooden statue of Saturn was dressed in red woolen underwear on only one night of the year.
But in ancient Rome, this God had another, darker side.
That other Saturn is a cold and sullen, sluggish ghoul, given to irrational bouts of rage.
He committed an unspeakable act of violence against his father, and devoured his own children.
Of all the planets visible to the unaided eyes of the ancients, Saturn is the slowest, which could explain why it's named after the God of lead.
But there's no denying that the more negative aspects of Saturn's personality reflect the age-old knowledge of the symptoms of lead poisoning.
Funny thing about the Romans.
Even though they knew that contact with lead inevitably poisoned people, rendered them sterile and drove them mad, what metal did they use to make the pipes that carried the water through their legendary aqueducts? I'll give you a hint.
The word "plumbing" comes from the Latin word for lead, "plumbum.
" What metal did they use to line their famous baths? And how did they sweeten their wines when they were too sour? What did they use to line their vats and cooking pots? There are some historians who believe that the widespread use of lead was a major cause in the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.
Why did they continue to use lead long after they knew it was toxic? It was cheap, very malleable, easy to work with, and the ones who were exposed to it at its most lethal levels the miners and workers who processed the lead were considered expendable.
Their lives didn't matter.
They were slaves.
Most of the earth's lead started off at a safe distance from living things, down below the surface, but about 8,500 years ago, humans began figuring out how to dig into the earth and extract metals from rock.
By the time this villa was new, just a couple of thousand years ago, the romans were producing Why is lead so poisonous to us? Because when it gets into our bodies, lead mimics other metals, like zinc and iron, the ones our cells actually need to grow and flourish.
Enzymes in the cell are fooled by the lead's masquerade, and they begin to dance.
But it's a dance of death, because the lead is an imposter that can't fulfill the cell's vital needs.
Lead also blocks neurotransmitters, the communication network between the cells.
It interferes with the molecular receptors that are vital to memory and learning.
This is especially damaging to children, but lead poisoning spares no one.
Starting at the turn of the 20th century, the makers of leaded paint hired the fledgling advertising industry to persuade the consumer that lead was child-friendly.
A little toy lead soldier once to the Dutch boy said, "we have some fine relations who all contain some lead.
" "Why don't you give a party so folks can meet and see the other happy members of the great lead family?" The first one at the party was gay electric light.
"He said, " I'm very brilliant.
" "I always shine at night.
" "No little of my brilliance is due to my glass head," which gives a light much brighter "because it's made with lead.
" A pair or rubbers entered and took the Dutch boy's arm.
"They said, " we are protectors who keep you dry and warm.
"You knew when we were molded, the man who made us said," we're strong and tough and lively "because in us, there's lead.
" But lead production didn't really shift into high gear until the early 1920's when chemist Thomas Midgley and inventor.
Charles Kettering of General Motors found that tetraethyl lead could be marketed as an anti-knock additive to gasoline.
They formed a new company called the Ethyl Corporation.
It had once been considered for use as a poison gas by the U.
S.
war department.
Unlike the lead in paint, tetraethyl lead was fat soluble.
A half a cup of it on your skin could kill you.
The manufacturers calculated that they could sell Only problem was, some of the workers who processed the stuff in factories in Delaware and New Jersey were going insane, hallucinating, jumping out of windows.
They died screaming.
This was a selling job that would require a lot more than dancing light bulbs.
What was needed was a man of science to calm the public's fears and improve lead's image.
They found the right man for the job.
This was one of the first times that the authority of science was used to cloak a threat to public health and the environment.
Robert Kehoe, a young doctor from Cincinnati, was hired by GM.
He raised scientific doubts in the public mind about the dangers of lead.
Lead was naturally occurring in the environment, he said.
Yes, there might be occupational hazards for the people who worked with lead, but that could be best handled by industry self-regulation.
And there was no evidence to suggest that lead posed any threat to the consumer.
For decades no one challenged him Until Clair Patterson went searching for the age of the earth.
Claire Patterson's research on the age of the earth had made him the world's leading expert on measuring trace amounts of lead.
And like everyone else at the time, he assumed the prevalence of lead occurred naturally.
True scientist that he was, he set out to discover everything he could about how lead circulates through the environment.
On a grant from the American Petroleum Institute, he carefully measured the concentrations of lead in deep and shallow seawater.
Once again, Patterson found that his initial data made no sense.
There were only minuscule concentrations of lead in the deep ocean water.
But in shallow waters and at the surface, the concentrations of lead were hundreds of times greater.
In any ocean, it takes a few hundred years for the shallow waters to mix with the deep.
This told Patterson that the large amount of lead in the surface waters had arrived recently.
Otherwise it would have been more evenly distributed.
Knowing the quantity of lead in the shallow seas and the time needed to mix it into the deeper layers, he was able to estimate the rate of lead contamination at the surface.
Patterson asked himself what could possibly supply lead to the world's oceans at such a rate.
Where's all that lead coming from? I think I know, Harrison.
It's from leaded gasoline.
Well, then we've got a problem, Pat, because that's the same place the money comes from.
But Patterson would not give in.
He went right to work on publishing the scientific paper that would make the case against leaded gasoline.
When he sent the paper to the prestigious scientific journal Nature, Patterson put his own name second.
He often did that with his students to advance their reputations.
He made a lifelong point of shunning the limelight and the privileges that come with it.
Only three days after publication the push-back began.
- Hello, Dr.
Patterson.
- Pleasure to meet you.
Very impressed by your work.
Your work is of great interest to us in the petroleum and chemical industries.
Well, it wouldn't have been possible without your funding.
Precisely.
And there's so much more we'd like to do for you.
Well, I've been thinking about measuring lead in polar ice to see if it shows the same kind of pattern as the oceans.
Lead? But you've already done that.
We're thinking it's time you move on to other trace elements.
In fact, Dr.
Patterson, our ability to fund you in any other line of research is Virtually limitless.
Lead is a neurotoxin.
When you ship your tetraethyl lead from the factory before you add it to the gasoline it's handled just like a chemical weapon.
There's a reason for that.
Where do you suppose all that lead goes after it leaves the tailpipe? Think about what it might be doing to us and our kids.
Dr.
Kehoe has shown that the level of lead in the environment is as natural as snow in December.
Then why doesn't it show up in the deep water? Here, let me just show you.
Thanks for your time.
Wait, you're just gonna keep on putting millions of tons of poison into the air we breathe? If my research doesn't put you out of business, some future scientist will.
Patterson's funding from the oil industry vanished overnight.
In fact, they tried to get him fired.
But the U.
S.
government The Army, the Navy, the atomic energy commission, the public health service, and the National Science Foundation Stood by him, supporting his research on lead pollution.
His investigations took him from Greenland in the far north to Antarctica in the far south, and to rivers, mountains and valleys in between.
In even the most hostile conditions, Patterson and his team worked to replicate the immaculate environment of the clean room.
Their plastic suits were replaced daily.
Working ten-to 12-hour days in subzero weather, they dug a 200-foot-long shaft into the ice of Antarctica.
It was a form of time travel, to recover snow that had fallen three centuries ago, before the start of the Industrial Revolution.
Nose! Wipe your nose, damn it! There's a thousand times more lead in you than in this ice! You want to contaminate the whole damn sample?! After four grueling weeks of painstaking sample collection, Patterson was ready to go back to the lab.
As with the oceans, he found that the amount of lead was much lower in the snow of a few hundred years before.
No matter where he searched on earth, no matter how far he traveled back in time, the results always told the same story: The naturally occurring levels in the air and water in the past, were far lower.
For thousands of years, lead had been known to cause brain damage, developmental impairment, violent behavior, and even death.
In searching for the age of the earth, Patterson had stumbled on the evidence for a mass poisoning on an unprecedented scale.
But Kehoe and the other scientists employed by the lead industry persuaded the public they had nothing to worry about.
Until one man started to pay attention.
Patterson went public with his discoveries about lead in a big way.
He published his findings in a major environmental health journal and sent copies to various government leaders, including one highly influential senator.
Edmund Muskie of Maine was the chairman of the senate subcommittee on air and water pollution.
In 1966 he held hearings on the lead question.
The first witness was Dr.
Robert Kehoe, longtime scientific advocate for leaded gasoline.
Is it, uh, your conclusion that, in 1937 to the present time, there has been no increase in the amount of lead taken in from the atmosphere by the average traffic policeman, service station attendant, or Or motorist? There is not the slightest evidence that there has been a change in this picture during this period of time.
Not the slightest.
The hearings were scheduled to take place, when the fiercest critic, Claire Patterson was off in Antarctica.
But he unexpectedly appeared on the fifth day of testimony.
Uh, looks like there seems to be an increase in the concentration of lead in people as a result of exposure to the environment.
Is that correct? That is correct.
In identifying typical lead levels, you use actual measurements you've taken in the field? Yes.
Are these observations different from the ones we've been hearing about from other witnesses? No, th They're the same observations.
You You've testified that there has been no change in natural lead levels, is that correct? That is correct.
You're sure about that? Absolutely.
The levels we see in people today may be typical.
But they are not by any means natural.
So you don't disagree with Dr.
Kehoe's numbers? Uh, no, no.
You're saying that the same numbers are leading to different conclusions? Yes.
You know, this is the kind of thing we expect to hear from lawyers, not scientists.
I would agree with that, yes.
You seem to be very sure of your conclusions, Dr.
Kehoe.
It so happens that I have more experience in this field than anyone else alive.
At these levels, lead is a severe chronic insult to the human body.
There is no medical evidence that lead has introduced a danger to public health.
It's irresponsible to mine millions of tons of toxic material and disperse it into the environment! If there was proof of harm, we would have found it.
Not if your purpose is to sell lead.
Patterson fought the industry for another 20 years before lead was finally banned in U.
S.
consumer products.
The man who figured out the age of the earth was also responsible for one of the greatest public health victories of the 20th century.
In just a few years, average lead levels in the blood of children plummeted by some 75%.
Today, the medical consensus is unanimous there's no such thing as a nontoxic level of lead in humans, however small.
Today, scientists sound the alarm on other environmental dangers.
Vested interests still hire their own scientists to confuse the issue.
But in the end, nature will not be fooled.