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Stuff of Progress: Uranium

The discovery and use of Uranium

The discovery and use of Uranium

Uranium was first used as a coloring agent in the manufacture of pottery. As early as 79 CE, naturally-occurring uranium oxide was ground up into a yellow powder and applied as a pottery glaze.

Martin Heinrich Klaproth discovered the element uranium in 1749, but uranium's radioactive significance was only unlocked in 1896 by physicist Henri Becquerel. Pure uranium is a silvery-grey radioactive chemical element.


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Stuff of Progress: Uranium

Stuff of Progress: Uranium


Key Ideas

The discovery and use of Uranium

Uranium was first used as a coloring agent in the manufacture of pottery. As early as 79 CE, naturally-occurring uranium oxide was ground up into a yellow powder and applied as a pottery glaze.

Martin Heinrich Klaproth discovered the element uranium in 1749, but uranium's radioactive significance was only unlocked in 1896 by physicist Henri Becquerel. Pure uranium is a silvery-grey radioactive chemical element.

Uranium and electrical energy

  • Uranium is energy-dense. In 2018, uranium powered nuclear reactors produced 2,700 terawatt-hours of ultra low-carbon electricity. One terawatt-hour of energy is equivalent to the annual energy consumption of 27,000 European citizens.
  • Electricity production from nuclear energy is one of the cleanest forms of energy production, even when nuclear waste is taken into account. Nuclear waste storage is currently resulting in little mortality and illness, as the waste is contained within the grounds of the nuclear power plants themselves.


Iron: the fourth most abundant element on earth
Iron: the fourth most abundant element on earth

Iron is the fourth most abundant element in the Earth's crust, and is found as an ore called Magnetite. Iron is crucial for creating steel, which is required for countries which are und...

The early history of iron exploitation

Iron has been collected, mined and processed into its metallic form since 1200 BCE. Large scale production only started in 1750, at the start of the Industrial Revolution.

Steel, an alloy of Iron and Carbon is known for its purity and strength, and was patented by British inventor Sir Henry Bessemer in 1857. Steel helped humanity make stronger and larger tools, paving the way for industrialized progress.

Iron and the increased demand for wood

Scaling up of iron production in Great Britain, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, led to a dramatic increase in the demand for wood. The creation of steel takes its toll on forests, with the requirement of charcoal, a residue of wood, to smelt iron and carbon.

Charcoal production, leading to demand for wood, has since then led to widespread deforestation with thousands of square kilometers of forests cut annually.

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Nuclear energy as a negative character
In televison, nuclear is not the context but the antagonist. It becomes a demon: It is constantly talked about, its nature endlessly debated and described.

And that demon terrifi...

Radiation inaccuracies

Radiation is not contagious. Once someone has removed their clothes and been washed, the radioactivity is internalized.

After nuclear disasters, hospitals do isolate radiation victims behind plastic screens, but that's because their immune systems have been weakened and they are at risk of being exposed to something they can’t handle

TV shows get nuclear wrong

Television gets nuclear wrong not only for dramatic effects, but for the same reason humankind as a whole has been getting it wrong for over 60 years, which is that we’ve displaced our fears of nuclear weapons onto nuclear power plants.

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James Watt
James Watt

James Watt was a Scottish engineer and inventor from the 18th century and is remembered for improving the design of the steam engine.

Watt's steam engine made energy supply ...

James Watt's life
  • James Watt was born on January 19, 1736, in Renfrewshire, Scotland. Due to illness as a child, Watt was mostly homeschooled.
  • His father was a shipbuilder. Watt grew up around his father's workshop and mentioned that it had a profound influence on his educational goals and the direction of his career.
  • When Watt was 18, he traveled to London to study mathematical instrument making, which involved learning to build and repair devices such as quadrants, compasses, and scales.
  • A year later, Watt returned to Scotland and opened a mathematical instrument shop at the University of Glasgow.
The revolutionary discovery
  • In 1764, Watt received a Newcomen steam engine to repair.
  • The 1712 Newcomen engine worked by condensing steam in a cylinder, which then creates enough push to power a piston.
  • While fixing the engine, James Watt noticed that more than three-quarters of the steam was wasted due to repeated heating and cooling in the same cylinder.
  • He then designed a cylinder that had a separate chamber to condense the steam in. Watt's engine kept the cylinder at a stable temperature as the steam condensed in a separate chamber. This was revolutionary.

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Considering risk
It is not always possible to anticipate the effects of unexpected events that occur throughout the business cycle.

But those who routinely examine the way risks propagate across the entir...

Risk along the value chain

Most companies only examine the most direct risks facing a company and tend to neglect secondary risks that can have an even greater impact.

Companies need to learn to evaluate aftereffects that could weaken whole value chains.


All differences in business models can create the potential for competitive risk exposure. This does not mean that a company should imitate its competitors, but that it should consider the risk when they have different strategies.

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Climate change and human behavior

We know that climate change is happening. We also know that it’s the result of human activities. And we know that it’s urgent. But that information hasn’t been enough to change our behaviours ...

Brain biases and climate change

We overestimate threats that are less likely but easier to remember, like terrorism, and underestimate more complex threats, like climate change.

We are very bad at understanding statistical trends and long-term changes, because we have evolved to pay attention to immediate threats. 

Our lack of concern for future generations

Evolutionary theory suggests that we care most about just a few generations of family members: our great-grandparents to great-grandchildren. 

While we may understand what needs to be done to address climate change, it’s hard for us to see how the sacrifices required for generations existing beyond this short time span are worth it.

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Nutrient Cycling

The planet’s ecosystem has many cycles, like the water cycle or the seasonal cycle, and one of the most important ones is the nutrient cycle. This is a biogeochemical cycle involving both l...

The Carbon Cycle
  • Carbon is the backbone element of all organic polymers, and we are ourselves known to be carbon-based life forms.
  • The movement of CO2 and other carbon compounds through biological components is known as the fast carbon cycle.
  • The abiotic components like rocks, soil and oceans also circulate carbon compounds taking as much as 200 million years and is known as the slow carbon cycle.
Steps Of The Carbon Cycle
  1. Removal of CO2 from the atmosphere by plants and bacteria.
  2. Generation of organic molecules, and building of biological mass in plants.
  3. Consumption of plants by animals.
  4. Respiration of animals restoring the CO2 in the atmosphere.
  5. Dead and decaying organic matter getting decomposed.
  6. Burning of organic matter releasing CO2 in the environment.
  7. Fossil fuel combustion, volcanic eruptions and erosion returning CO2 in the atmosphere.

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Wilhelm Rontgen
Wilhelm Rontgen

The German scientist was the first person to identify electromagnetic radiation in a wavelength that we today know as an x-ray.

The most common usage of x-rays includes ...

Early life of Wilhelm Rontgen
  • Röntgen was born on March 26, 1845, in Lennep, Prussia.
  • He enrolled in the Federal Polytechnic Institute in Zurich as a student of mechanical engineering in Switzerland.
  • In 1869, Röntgen obtained a Ph.D. and became an assistant professor.
  • By 1874, he qualified as a Lecturer at Strasbourg University and became a professor in 1876.
  • In 1888, Röntgen moved to become Chair of Physics at the University of Würzburg, where he made his world-changing discovery.
Discovering a new type of ray

On November 8, 1895, Wilhelm Röntgen was conducting experiments using a cathode ray tube. He noticed that when he used the cathode ray tube, a board on the other side of his lab that was covered in phosphorus began to glow. Even if he covered the tube's light in a thick black cardboard box, the phosphorous board continued to glow.

It became clear to Röntgen that he had discovered a new type of ray.

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Outlining types of future problems
Outlining types of future problems

There are different types of problems that we will face now and in the future.

We need to evaluate the degree of “alarm” with which those problems should be treated.

Known problems with known solutions

Known problems with known solutions include the following:

  • Global warming. It is partly caused by excessive emission of carbon dioxide (CO2). CO2 emissions come from energy generation and can be replaced by nuclear power.
  • Declining freshwater reserves could be tackled through greater use of desalination and recycling wastewater.

Once the gravity of these problems becomes apparent to a critical mass of humanity, solutions would be put in motion.

Known problems with solutions within reach

Known problems to which solutions are not only imaginable but (probably) within reach include:

  • Malaria: Like smallpox that was fully eradicated in 1980, it is not much of a stretch to think that Malaria will be defeated through a combination of genetic engineering, insecticide-treated mosquito nets, vaccines, and drugs.
  • Superbugs or deadly viruses: Crispr technology allows for easy alteration of DNA sequences and modifies gene function. Crispr could be used to turn bacterium or viruses machinery against itself.

These problems are bound to cause suffering until an appropriate solution is found.

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