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How Earth's Core Could Change Our Lives Remains Unknown

How Earth's Core Could Change Our Lives Remains Unknown

(Pavel Chagochkin/Dreamstime)

David Nabhan By Thursday, 04 October 2018 01:45 PM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

In theory it’s not supremely difficult to make an atomic bomb. Amass enough fissionable uranium-235 (fifty-two kilograms) within the confines of a sphere 17 centimeters across —critical mass — and a nuclear explosion will result.

The atomic bomb detonated over Hiroshima was a gun-type weapon; high explosives were utilized to slam together at great speed two halves of the sphere described above.

The geologic processes of the Earth themselves have on occasion managed to arrange the near-perfect conditions necessary for natural nuclear reactors to be triggered within concentrated uranium deposits. That occurred, for example, two billion years ago over the span of one million years in what is now the nation of Gabon in West Africa.

While ancient African nuclear anomalies are certainly interesting these rare outliers aren’t of overwhelming importance. But, the massive heat generated in Earth’s interior by the radioactive decay of uranium, along with thorium-232 and potassium-40 certainly is.

The heat created replaces much of what escapes to outer space, sufficient to have slowed the planet’s cooling such that Earth’s internal temperature is only 5 percent cooler after some 4.5 billion years of radiating heat to the surrounding vacuum of space.

The Earth is alive geologically, driving plate tectonics and all life-sustaining processes, owing very much to these radioactive isotopes.

There is some debate, however, concerning how much uranium there is on Earth, and more specifically regarding where it should be concentrated.

Since uranium is the heaviest natural element in the universe, at first it might be assumed that just as heavy iron and nickel sank to the core in the early stages of the molten proto-Earth billions of years ago, our planet’s supply of uranium should have done the same.

Most scientists dispute that view though because uranium is chemically reactive and should have combined to form compounds with oxygen and silicates. Uranium is a “lithophile” (rock-loving), hence an estimated 40 trillion tons of it has tended to migrate toward the crust and away from the core.

However, what is known with certainty about the Earth’s core can be summed up in two words: very little. What is more, earth science doesn’t have a very flattering record in choosing fact over heated opinion — trumpeting incorrect views regarding such monumental chapters in scientific history as mountain-building, plate tectonics, and jet streams.

It should surprise no one then that there are a few top-tier physicists and other scientists who don’t rule out the possibility that such an over-arching and relentless force as gravity would have pulled down some portion of Earth’s original uranium supply, conceivably resulting in a five-mile wide ball of compressed uranium within the nucleus of the core itself.

This view necessitates a whole different perception of the world.

A planetary nuclear reactor in service at the center of the Earth would dramatically change quite a few concepts in just as many disciplines — the list far too long to catalogue here.

What is or isn’t occurring thousands of miles below at the core is more than just fodder for scholarly debate though. The Earth’s core’s primary and irreplaceable benefit is to generate the life-preserving electromagnetic shield around our planet, brushing off the otherwise atmosphere-striping solar radiation that would have long ago turned Earth into a carbon copy of Mars: desiccated, airless, dead.

Former UCSD geophysics professor, Dr. Marvin Herndon, is the foremost scientific figure positing the plausibility of a massive atomic reactor being nestled in our core — not so incredible considering the Sun is itself a colossal fusion bomb. And, Dr. Herndon’s hypotheses float upon an undeniable fact about uranium, the cosmic heavy-weight. It can be relied on to do one thing at least: sink.

Herndon’s thesis relies on the composition of the proto-planetary Earth accreting materials in the early history of the Solar System composed of reduced oxygen. "When there is plenty of oxygen, all of the elements that like to combine with oxygen make silicates. But when there’s limited oxygen, elements such as uranium and magnesium would in part go to Earth's core."

Dr. Herndon estimates 64 percent of Earth’s uranium sank this way billions of years ago.

For full disclosure, Dr. Herndon happened to be the topical editor chosen by the History of Geo-and-Space Sciences in Gottingen, Germany to either allow or decline peer-review for a paper I wrote in 2013. To have a pair of eyes such as those on one’s work wasn’t a pleasant feeling, but his green-lighting the paper was.

He’s an exceptionally open-minded scientist, directing his attention to what is found at the core of science as well as planets. "Science is an investigation," Dr. Herndon says, "discussing, debating, and considering other possible explanations are valuable approaches for training tomorrow’s scientists."

Wise words, considering all that is unknown, above ground, underground and elsewhere.

David Nabhan is a science writer, the author of "Earthquake Prediction: Dawn of the New Seismology" (2017) and three previous books on earthquakes. Nabhan is also a science fiction writer ("Pilots of Borealis," 2015) and the author of many scores of newspaper and magazine op-eds. Nabhan has been featured on television and talk radio all over the world. His website is To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.


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What is known with certainty about the Earth’s core can be summed up in two words: very little. Earth science doesn’t have a very flattering record in choosing fact over heated opinion.
geo, herndon, oxygen, sciences, space, uranium
Thursday, 04 October 2018 01:45 PM
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