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npr - How Atomic Particles Helped Solve A Wine Fraud Mystery

How Atomic Particles Helped Solve A Wine Fraud Mystery

by The Kitchen Sisters June 03, 2014 3:31 AM ET

In a laboratory, deep under a mile-high stretch of the Alps on the French-Italian border, Philippe Hubert, a physicist at the University of Bordeaux, is testing the authenticity of a bottle of wine.

"We are looking for radioactivity in the wine," says Hubert. "Most of the time the collectors send me bottles of wine because they want to know if it is fake or not."

First, Hubert takes the bottle in the hand and puts it close to a detector. After he closes the shielding, which blocks the radiation, he records the gamma rays. The level of those gamma rays emitted can often tell him something about when the wine was bottled. For example, if it was bottled before about 1945, there shouldn’t be any cesium 137 — radioactive evidence of exploded nuclear bombs and the Atomic Age — in the wine.