Doing Good Science

Doing Good Science

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Book review: The Radioactive Boy Scout.


When I and my three younger siblings were growing up, our parents had a habit of muttering, "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." The muttering that followed that aphorism usually had to do with the danger coming from the "little" amount of knowledge rather than a more comprehensive understanding of whatever field of endeavor was playing host to the hare-brained scheme of the hour. Now, as a parent myself, I suspect that another source of danger involved asymmetric distribution of the knowledge among the interested parties: while our parents may have had knowledge of the potential hazards of various activities, knowledge that we kids lacked, they didn't always have detailed knowledge of what exactly we kids were up to. It may take a village to raise a child, but it can take less than an hour for a determined child to scorch the hell out of a card table with a chemistry kit. (For the record, the determined child in question was not me.)

The question of knowledge -- and of gaps in knowledge -- is a central theme in The Radioactive Boy Scout: The Frightening True Story of a Whiz Kid and His Homemade Nuclear Reactor by Ken Silverstein. Silverstein relates the story of David Hahn, a Michigan teen in the early 1990s who, largely free of adult guidance or supervision, worked tirelessly to build a breeder reactor in his back yard. At times this feels like a tale of youthful determination to reach a goal, a story of a self-motivated kid immersing himself in self-directed learning and doing an impressive job of identifying the resources he required. However, this is also a story about how, in the quest to achieve that goal, safety considerations can pretty much disappear.

David Hahn's source of inspiration -- not to mention his guide to many of the experimental techniques he used -- was The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments. Published in 1960, the text by Robert Brent conveys an almost ruthlessly optimistic view of the benefits chemistry and chemical experimentation can bring, whether to the individual or to humanity as a whole. Part of this optimism is what appears to modern eyes as an alarmingly cavalier attitude towards potential hazards and chemical safety. If anything, the illustrations by Harry Lazarus downplay the risks even more than does the text -- across 112 pages, the only pictured items remotely resembling safety apparatus are lab coats and a protective mask for an astronaut.

Coupled with the typical teenager's baseline assumption of invulnerability, you might imagine that leaving safety considerations in the subtext, or omitting them altogether, could be a problem. In the case of a teenager teaching himself chemistry from the book, relying on it almost as a bible of the concepts, history, and experimental techniques a serious chemist ought to know, the lack of focus on potential harms might well have suggested that there was no potential for harm -- or at any rate that the harm would be minor compared to the benefits of mastery. David Hahn seems to have maintained this belief despite a series of mishaps that made him a regular at his local emergency room.

Ah, youth.

Here, though, The Radioactive Boy Scout reminds us that young David Hahn was not the only party operating with far too little knowledge. Silverstein's book expands on his earlier Harper's article on the incident with chapters that convey just how widespread our ignorance of radioactive hazards has been for most of the history of our scientific, commercial, and societal engagement with radioactivity. At nearly every turn in this history, potential benefits have been extolled (with radium elixirs sold in the early 1900s to lower blood pressure, ease arthritis pain, and produce "sexual rejuvenescence") and risks denied, sometimes until the body count was so large and the legal damages were so high that they could no longer be denied.

Surely part of the problem here is that the hazards of radioactivity are less immediately obvious than those of corrosive chemicals or explosive chemicals. The charred table is directly observable in a way that damage to one's body from exposure to radioisotopes is not (partly because the table doesn't have an immune system that kicks in to try to counter the damage). But the invisibility of these risks was also enhanced when manufacturers who used radioactive materials proclaimed their safety for both the end-user of consumer products and the workers making those products, and when the nuclear energy industry throttled the information the public got about mishaps at various nuclear reactors.

Possibly some of David Hahn's teachers could have given him a more accurate view of the kinds of hazards he might undertake in trying to build a back yard breeder reactor ... but the teen didn't seem to feel like he could get solid mentoring from any of them, and didn't let them in on his plans in any detail. The guidance he got from the Boy Scouts came in the form of an atomic energy merit badge pamphlet authored by the Atomic Energy Commission, a group created to promote atomic energy, and thus one unlikely to foreground the risks. (To be fair, this merit badge pamphlet did not anticipate that scouts working on the badge would actually take it upon themselves to build breeder reactors.) Presumably some of the scientists with whom David Hahn corresponded to request materials and advice on reactions would have emphasized the risks of his activities had they realized that they were corresponding with a high school student undertaking experiments in his back yard rather than with a science teacher trying to get clear on conceptual issues.

Each of these gaps of information ended up coalescing in such a way that David Hahn got remarkably close to his goal. He did an impressive job isolating radioactive materials from consumer products, performing chemical reactions to put them in suitable form for a breeder reactor, and assembling the pieces that might have initiated a chain reaction. He also succeeded in turning the back yard shed in which he conducted his work into a Superfund site. (According to Silverstein, the official EPA clean-up missed materials that his father and step-mother found hidden in their house and discarded in their household trash -- which means that both the EPA and those close enough to the local landfill where the radioactive materials ended up had significant gaps in their knowledge about the hazards David Hahn introduced to the environment.)

The Radioactive Boy Scout manages to be at once an engaging walk through a challenging set of scientific problems and a chilling look at what can happen when scientific problems are stripped out of their real-life context of potential impacts for good and for ill that stretch across time and space and impact people who aren't even aware of the scientific work being undertaken. It is a book I suspect my 13-year-old would enjoy very much.

I'm just not sure I'm ready to give it to her.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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