The true story of a boy and his backyard nuclear reactor
by Ken Silverstein, Random House, New York, 2004
I remember science. I remember being thought of (in grade school) as being a part of the new generation of scientists, the one that would put America ahead of the Russians. I remember...Science.
It wasn't like now, O best beloved, when we're told to be oh, so very careful, with microquantities of chemicals and plastic test tubes. I remember mixing salt and sand, and separating them again. I remember my class project in High School, when I used that technique to show how medieval painters made gold dust out of gold leaf, since gold's extreme malleability defies grinding. (It beads.) I remember the beauty of Mme Curie, and wanting to be Lise Meitner and falling in love with J. Robert Oppenheimer, as played by none other than Sam Waterston. (And getting to go to Los Alamos, in the depths of the Reagan administration, and wanting so much to hear a real atomic secret, and finally going into the heart of the Beast itself, bringing back a purple stoppered vial of tritium...) Oh, yes, I remember science.
And so it is we have this curious little book, written by Ken Silverstein, who we are told is a very smart man. And we are told that he has written for Mother Jones, and The Nation, and is a contributing editor for Harper's, a man of words and self-righteous progressive politics, who also wrote Washington on $10 Million a Day: How Lobbyists Plunder the Nation. And so we have the story of David Hahn.
Meester Hahn, as he is portrayed, is hardly the type of man to set a maiden's breast aflutter. His mom's nuts, his dad's distant, he himself is not exactly all there, and he'd love to participate in the kind of science portrayed in the Golden Book of Chemical Experiments, perhaps even penetrate into the world of nuclear technology, as epitomized by Pierre and Marie Curie, walking one evening into their backyard laboratory and finding it bathed in the most beautiful greenish light from the salts of radium.
Well, of course, anything radioactive is going to be bad for chilluns and other people. Anyone who reads the Nation knows this. Nukes are what makes for bombs and bombs makes for strikes against the Russkies (who have bombs of their own) and well, we don't want to hurt where old Papa Joe used to live. Why, they might even lob a few back, and then what would we do? Obviously, Mr. Hahn, like so many of the other fellows that created the Bomb, is what you might call a sicko, and should be treated with chemicals until he ain't no problem to anyone anymore. Besides which, he lives in Detroit, which has no mass transit and is an exemplar of what unbridled capitalism can do.
And so, he tries to make himself more of a man. (Which should be suspect, hints the author, since who would want to be more of a man, anyways?) He plays with chemical tanners, one of which (canthexin) is (incorrectly) branded a steroid by the author. He tries to improve his intelligence with portobello mushrooms and tyrosine. He wants to collect one of every known element, like bagging butterflies or sighting birds. Only, he can't exactly spell or parse grammar the way a college graduate can, which is tough, since he wants to build a breeder reactor, and he needs information...
Meanwhile, his parents are being nonchalant. Well, there was that small explosion. And there was that time that he got something in his eye. And they call him "Glow Boy" at school. And, well, there are a lot of different ands. But really, he's a good boy. He's a Boy Scout, for chrissakes! And he'll make the Eagle's Nest, soon.What's not to like? Give us a break!
...and materials. It's not hard to find radioactivity in everyday materials. You just have to be persistent. Smoke detectors,for instance. Or the thorium-dipped mantles in Coleman lamps. Some old clocks have radium in em. There's pitchblende in them thar hills, if'n you have one of those them there Geiger counters. And so, he accumulates...well, quite a haul of very hot property indeed, with very very little shielding, and could have, if he were really honked off with life and the community, made quite a mess of things for, well, a really loooong time. And then he starts, just as a lark, to fire particles from one to another, just to see what would happen if....
Which would be a wildly scary scenario in itself except that, as I've tried to indicate Mr. Silverstein is less interested in the facts than in fuming that all of this is just another expression of how utterly blind American culture can be (unlike, apparently the country that brought you Chernobyl, or the inhabitants of Easter Island) towards the most looming of dangers. He doesn't like science very much (except inasmuch as it gives him something to fume over) and scientists, even the most knowledgable, make him cringe, since they're (to him) obviously all nursing deep-seated pain as the result of inadequate parenting. He's got very little sympathy with Scouting, as well, which he stigmatizes as being quasi-military, elitist, and run by petty Neo-Nazis obsessed with enforcing blind obedience to American government and big business concerns and preventing masturbation (as if the Communist countries didn't have the Komsomol), quite possibly since he can't quite jibe the fact that the kid's had quite a lot of experience appreciating nature, hiking, and camping with his playing Mad Scientist in his mom's backyard. While he does passably well explaining what's going on as far as chemistry and physics go, it's clear that his entire background in the subject came about after having fallen in with Ralph Nader: every reference to the excitement and fun of, well, just finding things out and making new things is hedged about with the precautionary principle, and you get the feeling that he curled his lip in distaste everytime he was forced to write the word "chemistry". Anyway, the climax is...
Oh there's a climax? Sorry. I forgot. Well, we forgot to put one in. You see, he never really got a reactor out of it, an awful lot got thrown out by his parents....and he didn't get scanned, so we won't know exactly how radioactive it got or how much damage he did to himself. The potting shed is now a Superfund site. He's doing OK, though, in the Navy. He's still kind of flaky, I mean, in a proper country we would have had him in a camp ^H^H^H^H psychiatric facility a long time ago, never mind his parents.
I mean, this is America, right?