Friday, March 18, 2005

The Radioactive Boy Scout

The Radioactive Boy Scout - The True Story of a Boy and His Backyard Nuclear Reactor by Ken Silverstein

I just read this book yesterday, got it out of the library and finished it the same day, which is something for me, as I usually take my time with books. But I HAD to know what happened to David Hahn, the teen who attempted to build a model nuclear breeder reactor in a potting shed in his backyard in Detroit in the 90's.

I've always had a strange fascination with radioactivity, both the facts and the fantasy of it. I don't know why; in reality it scares the bejeebers out of me yet I find information and stories about it really interesting. The history of Chernobyl, the Bikini Atol, the tests in Nevada. Post-apocalyptic fiction, particulary post nuclear-apocalyptic stories, I can't get enough of - like Z for Zachariah. The "Fallout" RPG games - getting to BE a character in this neo-retro post apocalyptic nuclear world. Films, no matter how cheesy - "The Postman", "Mad Max", the one realistic film that was made to scare people about nuclear destruction that follows some individuals trying to survive after a nuclear attack whose name I always forget...

And what makes this book even better/scarier is that it really HAPPENED.

The book was written by an investigative reporter and doesn't just tell David Hahn's story, how he managed to build something that generated extremely large amounts of radiation levels measurable from several blocks away - it also tells us the history of radioactive materials and their scientific discoveries and uses and the history of the damaging effects various radioactive materials have caused. It tells us about how the government put a happy face on atomic energy and how it was this very out-of-date information that under-informed David enough to go through with much of his experimenting. Lastly, the book details David's family life and how he was able to get away with so much with so little supervision. It's absolutely stunning and really amazing. This teenager was a chemistry genius who was figured out how to procure all kinds of highly restricted radioactive material -- and it's not an evil genius story, just a kid obsessed with a project whose consequences he never really thought about or informed himself about.

Anyway. Good read - I'm not a chemistry buff and the technical stuff was written so I could understand it but without talking down to its audience. And you really feel for David - if only his parents were more supportive, etc.

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