Monday, January 28, 2013

The Radioactive Boy Scout

Kevin Coolidge

The first haircut, the first kiss, the first time I got just the right amount of potassium nitrate, sulfur, and charcoal. All are important rites of passage, but none are quite as memorable as winning my first pinewood derby. The pinewood derby is a racing event for Cub Scouts in the Boy Scouts of America.

We were given a kit containing a block of pine, four plastic wheels, and four nails. The finished car can’t weigh more than five ounces. The cars are powered by gravity so getting the car as close to the five ounces is pretty critical. My first try was a sky blue block that resembled a shoebox, but you are never too young to start applying scientific principles.

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. It’s the law, but there was no rule that said my red rocket beauty couldn’t have a little something extra in those chrome exhaust ports. I made pack history by being the first scout to take first, second, and third place. Unfortunately, the judge ruled that my car had to cross the finish line in one piece to qualify. Next year, I decided to go nuclear…

Growing up in suburban Detroit, David Hahn too was fascinated by science. While he was working on his Atomic Energy badge* for the Boy Scouts, he learned that some of the requirements were making a simple Geiger counter, learning about the pioneers of atomic energy—such as Niels Bohr and Enrico Fermi – and building a model of a reactor, showing the various parts. He also needed to be able to explain how a reactor could be used to change nuclear into electrical energy or make things radioactive.

David learned how all radioactive elements and isotopes have a half-life, a term that refers to the amount of time required for the intensity of their radiation to decay by half. He also continued his research on other nuclear scientists, and read everything he could find about the Marie and Pierre Curie. Much of their hard work and genius got results even though their methods are crude by today’s standards.

David pored over his nuclear research whenever he had a chance. He plunged into a new project: building a working nuclear reactor in his backyard. The rickety shed that served as his laboratory offered little protection from the elements.

Following blueprints from outdated physics textbooks, and information he solicited from industry experts by posing as a physics teacher. David was able to cobble together a crude device that emitted toxic levels of radiation.

His unsupervised and unknown project sparked an environmental emergency that brought a team of men in white, ventilated suits to the suburbs of Detroit on a warm summer afternoon on June 26, 1995. David didn’t come close to building a working reactor, though he succeeded in penetrating with neutrons the atoms of his gathered thorium-232**, but was not able to turn it into fissionable uranium.

The wood planks that were his shed, and everything found inside, however, was sealed in thirty-nine barrels marked with the radioactive symbol and was buried in a sealed repository designed to last for thousands of years in the middle of the Great Salt Lake Desert in Utah.

David’s experiment that put over forty thousand people at risk first appeared in Harper’s Magazine. Investigative reporter Ken Silverstein conducted extensive interviews with David, teachers, parents, police reports and Environmental Protection Agency reports, which grew into the book, The Radioactive Boy Scout…

*The Atomic Energy Badge has since been replaced with the Nuclear Science merit badge.
**Obtained by collecting hundreds of thorium-dioxide coated mantles from gas lanterns and then isolating it into a pure form by using lithium from batteries.

Cold glass of milk with your yellow cake? Or a scoop of ice cream on your hot apple pi? Drop me an email at and let me know. Miss a past column? Dig deep and explore at and discover for yourself. Cats are really bad at science, but can be great storytellers. You can read about Hobo’s story in “Hobo Finds A Home” a story about a kitten that turned lead into gold…

Monday, January 14, 2013

Retribution Will Fall

Kevin Coolidge

My job is to read. Well, part of my job. I work in a bookstore. I have my choice of any of over 50,000 books to take home after I finish work, with millions only a day away available from my wholesaler. Publishers send me free advanced reading copies every week, hoping I’ll love the book and hand sell it. Publicists call me to tell me about a book that they just know will be perfect for our store. My email is crammed with upcoming releases and authors telling about their newest book, and what book couldn't I wait to dive into? What book isn’t even available in the United States yet? What book did I have smuggled out in a blood pudding? The Iron Jackal* written by British author, Chris Wooding.

How did I find out about this book? Was it from an email? A cold call from a publicist? No, a wife of a customer asked me if I had ever watched the TV show Firefly? Heck, I own a T-shirt with the schematics of the Serenity. I’m still plumb riled up at the Qing wa kao de liu mang** that cancelled the show. The customer told me that her husband said I need to read Retribution Falls, and the follow up, Black Lung Captain.

As a bookseller, I talk about books, but it’s also my job to listen. Listen to what the customer likes, wants, and needs. You know have an actual conversation. Often I find out about a great book I want to read myself. The perilous exploits of the cocky, misfit crew of the Ketty Jay are such stories.

This is the type of old-fashioned adventure that I just don’t see much of anymore. I grew up reading such authors as Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Theodore Sturgeon. I recommended this to an older gentleman that seldom reads speculative fiction outside of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. He decided to give it a try anyway. He later told me that he didn’t want to like it, and yet he couldn’t stop reading it.

There are engaging characters, an interesting world, and a story that whisks you along. In each novel the crew grows tighter knit, more like family, and more daring. There are aerial battles, swash-buckling chases, and superb one-liners.

It’s not Firefly. The series is part fantasy, part science fiction, and all fun with a steampunk*** feel. Yet there’s something comfortably familiar. The crew of the Ketty Jay isn’t cut out to be heroes, and they’re not bad enough to be pirates…not really.

*Iron Jackal is currently only available in Britain (but I know a guy)

**It’s a Mandarin Chinese phrase that if I actually defined, my editor would edit…

*** Subgenre of science fiction and fantasy featuring advanced technology usually powered by steam, but may include retro-futuristic flying machines, analog computers, or beautiful women in corsets…

Retribution? Or Forgiveness? Email me at and let me know. Miss a past column? Don’t get mad. Get caught up. All is forgiven if you just visit Look for Hobo’s new exciting adventures in his upcoming steampunk novel, “The Steam-Powered Subterfuge”…

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