Wine and Nuclear Testing

I wrote about this a while back and it was one of my more popular posts.

The New Yorker had a piece which Patrick Radden Keefe explains several methods by which experts determine the age of a given bottle of wine.

Now, whatever else you want to say about nuclear-weapons testing, it apparently has given the world a couple of different ways to figure out if you got your money’s worth by dropping several grand on that bottle of whatever.

According to Keefe, a gentleman had the contents of a particular bottle carbon-dated in an effort to figure out whether he had been swindled. That’s where nuclear-testing came into play:

 All organic material contains the radioactive isotope carbon 14, which exhibits a predictable rate of decay; scientists can thus analyze the amount of the isotope in a bottle of wine in order to approximate its age. Carbon 14 has a long half-life, and carbon dating is relatively imprecise for evaluating objects that are several centuries old. But *nuclear atmospheric tests in the nineteen-fifties and sixties offer a benchmark of sorts, since levels of carbon 14 rise sharply during that period. In this case, the amounts of carbon 14 and of another isotope, tritium, were much higher than one would expect for two-hundred-year-old wine*, and the scientists concluded that the bottle contained a mixture of wines, nearly half of which dated to 1962 or later.

Similarly, Philippe Hubert, a French physicist, developed a method of determining the age of wine which also is related to nuke testing. Keefe writes that Hubert

had devised a method of testing the age of wine without opening the bottle. Hubert uses low-frequency gamma rays to detect the presence of the radioactive isotope cesium 137. Unlike carbon 14, cesium 137 is not naturally occurring; it is a direct result of nuclear fallout. A wine bottled before the advent of atmospheric nuclear testing contains no cesium 137, so the test yields no results for older wines. But if a wine does contain cesium 137 the short half-life of the isotope—thirty years—allows Hubert to make a more precise estimate of its age.

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