By Marvin L. Goldberger
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Additional resources for Collision Theory
The workers were made to carry sacks of the velvety black stone more than twenty kilometers to the railhead, where the sacks were sent to port and then shipped by ocean steamer to Belgium. The uranium-rich leftovers, known as tailings, were simply thrown away. Uranium was interesting only because it hosted tiny bits of radium. By itself, it was considered worthless: a trash rock. When the Nazis invaded Belgium in 1940, Union Minière moved its headquarters to New York. War was lucrative, and the United States would soon become the world’s largest user of Congo cobalt, an important metal for the manufacture of aircraft engines.
The nation was renamed the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the flag of Zaire was replaced with a blue banner with a gold star in the middle—a flag that bore a strange resemblance to King Leopold’s flag. The new government promised better roads and schools. But the culture of graft known as Mobutuism is still pervasive. Diplomas and government contracts are still for sale to those who ask. A request for sucre, or “a sugared drink,” is the usual euphemism for a bribe. Occasionally the request can be blatant.
Dark and greasy, it typically showed up in kidney-shaped blobs, with the neighboring rocks stained brilliant shades of green, orange, or yellow. The miners nicknamed the stuff “pechblende” (the German word blende means “mineral,” while pech can mean both “tar” and “misfortune”; it was literally the “bad-luck rock”) and tossed it aside. Seeing this pechblende—the English word was pitchblende—was never welcome: It usually meant a particular vein of silver had been cleaned away, leaving nothing but mineral garbage, and the miners would have to endure the backbreaking chore of sinking another shaft.