Tuesday, October 14, 2014




A scientist at the Salk Institute discovered that the rare metal, iridium, when alloyed with certain alkalis was prophylactic against cancer. Gamma ray radiation emanating from telluric compounds of iridium prevented the development of tumors. At last, cancer had been cured. The efficacy of telluric iridium as a cancer preventative measure was close to 100 percent.

But there was a problem. Iridium is one of the most rare elements on earth: gold is forty times more prevalent. Most iridium is found in deposits left in the earth’s crust by ancient collisions with meteorites and asteroids.

In the asteroid belt, there is a irregularly shaped stone hurtling in orbit between Mars and Jupiter. That stone, the size of Lake Baikal and roughly shaped like that body of water, is almost entirely made of iridium. Spectroscopy demonstrated the composition of this asteroid to astrochemists employed by the Merck pharmaceutical company – this was part of a world-wide search for sources of iridium. The name of the asteroid was Tsiphone, a Greek word for one of the Erinys or Furies.

The astrochemist who discovered that Tsiphone was largely composed of iridium was subject to a confidentiality agreement protecting from disclosure discoveries that he made for his employer. But, notwithstanding that agreement, the chemist, who felt that he was under-compensated by Merck, defected to Pfizer and told his superiors in that firm about the large deposits of iridium on Tsiphone. Merck sued Pfizer for unfair competition, tortious interference, and trade secret misappropriation. The lawsuit proceeded under a seal of confidentiality in federal court in New York. But. an enterprising law clerk sold the court-sealed information about the iridium on Tsiphone to GlaxoSmithKline. That company launched a probe to Tsiphone, subsidized with money from the United Kingdom and Holland, the headquarters for an allied firm, Organon. The probe landed successfully on Tsiphone and confirmed that the spinning chunk of rock was almost entirely iridium and, therefore, valuable beyond all measure. A Russian probe had also been launched to Tsiphone and a dispute arose between that nation and the European Union as to what nation, or groups of nations, had sovereignity over the barren, sun-scorched boulder of iridium ore. Complicating the matter was a claim to ownership over the asteroid lodged in the Hague by Takeda, the Japanese pharmaceutical giant, in contractual alliance with Eli Lilly and Company of the United States. Chinese space researchers claimed that they had first discovered the presence of iridium on Tsiphone, pointing to an obscure article published in Nature, and that, therefore, their nation had a prior claim to the element that was to be mined on the planetoid. A dispute arose between Japan and China, relating primarily to some contested offshore islands, but, in that context of that controversy, a Chinese rocket dispatched to Tsiphone was shot down over the North Pole, apparently by rockets fired from a Japanese fighter plane. The Chinese retaliated by blasting several Japanese aircraft from the air, including, by accident, a passenger plane. At about that time, signals from the GlaxoSmithKline probe, that had landed on Tsiphone ceased transmission. Georgian separatists claimed that the Russians had destroyed the United Kingdom/Holland probe with a death-satellite launched in Siberia. The Russians punished the Georgians for this calumny by invading that country and burning its capitol city. This aggression induced an international crisis and a formal United Nations’ denunciation of Russia. Undeterred, the Russians aligned themselves with China and asserted that the asteroid was a province of their empire (and the Chinese sphere of hegemony) – remote, to be sure, but just as surely Russian as Moscow or St. Petersburg. Spurred on by pharmaceutical interests in the United States and Europe, crippling economic sanctions were imposed on the Russians, including an embargo. Off the coast of Murmansk, an American destroyer sunk a Russian vessel attempting to breach the trade embargo. The Russians responded by launching missile strikes on American vessels in the Mediterranean and Gulf of Oman. All nations had eschewed the use of nuclear weapons and so armaments of that kind were not deployed in the ensuing conflict. But the Chinese, Israelis, the United States, India, Pakistan, and Russian all had sizeable inventories of biological and chemical warheads. An initial exchange of missiles, triggered by a misunderstanding, led to further warfare. In the end, almost all of the earth’s population was killed by viral agents, including smallpox that bored holes in people’s flesh until their bones were exposed. No part of the earth was spared. The medical infrastructure collapsed. Babies died of measles. Mobs of lepers roamed the smashed cities of Europe. So many perished that no one could remember how to produce antibiotics. The survivors of the chemically and biologically induced plagues died of gas gangrene, tetanus, appendicitis, and other infections.

Vainly transmitting signals back to their ruined planet, a half-dozen space probes clinging to the surface of Tsiphone sent hopeful messages as to the purity of the iridium that they had assayed. There was no one to receive the messages. The probes continued to signal for almost a hundred years before the power in their solar panel batteries failed.

The name iridium comes from the Greek word: Iris. The element’s name means: "Of rainbows."