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Rough Science 6 Colorado: Mine Video Diaries: Hermione Cockburn

Updated Tuesday 29th November 2005

Exclusive video extra in which Hermione Cockburn talks about the challenge for the Mine programme, from the sixth BBC/OU TV series Rough Science, based in Colorado

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Okay, so got to the end of the down the mine challenge, and it’s been a weird one. I’ve got that kind of end of the challenge high but this has been quite a tricky one actually, but I didn’t think it was going to be. When Kate said okay, you know, you’re going to be exploring the mine and I knew that what I wanted to do was build a cloud chamber I thought well, you know, everyone builds cloud chambers, but it’s a lot trickier than you think and I really persevered with the kind of traditional way of thinking about a cloud chamber in an upturned jam jar and it just wasn’t happening. And I spent a whole day trying to do that, I didn’t sleep at all. Got up day two really early, tried again just setting up a few of the cloud chambers in the jar.

I mean even if they had, even if I had got them to work - and I thought I might have seen a few trails - even if I had got them to work there wasn’t a hope in hell that that would have come out on camera so it really wasn’t any good for what we were trying to do. And it was just, everybody, I mean I spoke to everyone, put their heads together and just came up with this new design. It’s a really simple design and it really, really works.

So day two, the morning of day two I was able to get that working with an artificial source. And the artificial source was very interesting actually. Jonathan Hare, he’s amazing. He brought with him on the trip his homemade Geiger counter which has been invaluable actually because we’ve been using it, I’ve been using it particularly just to test sources, to check where the radioactivity is so that we can get the cloud chambers working really properly.

Anyway, he also had with him to demonstrate the cloud chamber a little dial, looked like something out of World War II off some device. I don’t know what it came from, but it had a needle that was painted in luminous paint. Now old fashioned luminous paint used to contain uranium minerals and it was really hot with the Geiger counter, it was fantastic and it proved just the most brilliant source to set up and test the cloud chamber with properly on day two. And it was just mesmerising and really, really great to get it working. Everybody could see it, it was just brilliant.

So then the next part of my challenge was to actually go out, head out into the hills and find some uranium mineral naturally occurring, and the very interesting thing about Colorado is that it’s very rich in uranium minerals. Down on the south east edge of the Colorado plateau a lot of the sandstone layers there are actually sort of interspersed with carnotite which is a secondary deposit, a secondary mineral, groundwater effectively leaches through units of rock that are rich in uranium and this in concentrated and precipitated out as a yellow crust, bright yellow, very distinctive yellow crust interspersed amongst the sandstone layers.

So went out, afternoon of day two, fantastic to get out into the hills again and go to this old uranium mining area and be able to just pick up carnotite, it was brilliant. And interestingly enough, the area has such a rich history of uranium mining. It wasn’t just uranium though, it was also vanadium, which is another mineral that occurs in the same way and that’s used as an alloy in steelmaking, or at least I think it’s formed in the same way, don’t quote me on that. But anyway, uranium and vanadium occur together and these mines that were set up in the forties and fifties were mining for both minerals, both elements.

But, interestingly enough, the secrecy that surrounded the early atomic energy business essentially and, of course, atomic weaponry meant that the miners in that area weren’t paid for the uranium that they mined, they were only paid for the vanadium and it wasn’t until later that compensation came in to reward the miners who were mining uranium for the secret kind of cold war effort building atomic bombs. And they were only paid at that time, vanadium, that was what they were all said that they were doing but really they were getting uranium and of course it kicked off the whole nuclear industry and nuclear weapons programme.

Anyway, so found the carnotite, and then day three I’ve had a really, really lovely day because I was able to, I was pretty confident at that stage that the cloud chamber would work and I was able to spend the day really helping out Jonathan with his hand cranked torch which was just such a clever design. Anyway it was a pleasure to work with him before we went down the mine.

So the whole culmination then of this challenge has been, was for us to go down and explore this mine and for me that was a real highlight. So I always like it when we all come back together, because the team on this one has really been working in isolation but we all came back together to head down and see what we could find, and it was just beautiful. I mean as always it was too brief, you know, we didn’t get to spend much time down there but we found what we were looking for and everything worked. So another successful challenge and just really looking forward to the next one I suppose.

 

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