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"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen

Review: The Radioactive Boy Scout, by Ken Silverstein

The Radioactive Boy Scout: The Frightening True Story of a Whiz Kid and His Homemade Nuclear Reactor - Ken Silverstein

The Radioactive Boy Scout is a small book with a big punch. Ken Silverstein's account of David Hahn, the teenager whose backyard nuclear experiments resulted in such high radiation that the EPA was called in to clean up the site, is unaccountably gripping.

The many historical chapters on the discovery of radioactivity, the development of the A-bomb, and the rise and fall of nuclear optimism, are plenty interesting. But the book's main fascination is its title character. I'm not sure what to make of David Hahn, how to classify him. Whether to admire his evident genius, or fear his recklessness and obsessive drive, or pity his isolation and indifferent homelife, or deplore his disregard for both the law and basic common sense.

Growing up in Michigan in the early 90's, David had been fascinated with chemistry from a young age, constantly seeking out new materials and running dangerous experiments. Chemical burns, explosions, and other mishaps were a regular occurrence in the makeshift laboratories he kept at each parent's house. While his father, an engineer, was too engrossed in work to take much notice, and his mother, lost to alcoholism and schizophrenia, was too sick to care for him, David was mostly left alone to tinker. A poor student with few friends, science was his only refuge, his only hobby, and it quickly became an obsession.

As a young teen, David became interested in nuclear physics, reading every book he could find on the subject. Soon, he lit on the idea of building a model nuclear reactor. He wanted to develop new forms of energy, and making a small breeder reactor (a theoretical type of sustainable nuclear power generator that has never been successfully built) seemed like the perfect place to start.

It shouldn't have been possible for David to get any farther than the pipe dream stage, but he managed to get his hands on a not insignificant amount of radioactive material, which can be found in small quantities in household products like smoke detectors, camping lanterns, and some antiques. He obtained thorium, radium, and americium this way, and after acquiring (i.e. stealing) a few other rare elements, he was able to build a crude nuclear device.

Sure, it wasn't a breeder reactor. But it did manufacture such unexpectedly high levels of radiation that it frightened even David (who was not accustomed to taking many safety precautions and who refused to read anything on nuclear accidents or dangers because they were too "negative"). He quickly dismantled the device, but the damage had been done. His shed/laboratory was so irradiated by the time the EPA was called in that it was declared a Superfund site and had to be disposed of in a nuclear waste repository in Utah.

It's a terrifying incident. For so many years, the nuclear dangers we've feared are things like catastrophic A-bombs and apocalyptic core meltdowns. But who would have thought a curious teenager who couldn't spell the word "caution" (a handpainted "CAUSHON RADIOACTVE" sign was found in his laboratory) would be able to acquire enough radioactive material to put his entire town at risk?

But as scary as this story is, more than anything it's just tragic. Here's this brilliant kid, whose scientific talents are truly astonishing, but who lacks the support and the nurturing he would have needed to reach his potential. Instead, left to his own devices by two sets of distant parents, his aptitude completely ignored by teachers and scoutmasters, he retreats into obsession and mania, and endangers forty thousand people in the process.

The saddest paragraph in the book comes after David's project has been discovered, the EPA called in, and his research destroyed and disposed of. Even after David became moderately famous as "The Radioactive Boy", nobody took him seriously:

"Indeed, most adults looked upon David's experiments as an embarrassment and something best not talked about. No one concluded that he had talents that should be harnessed or that with a little more encouragement and guidance he might end up at MIT."

The book leaves David in his mid-twenties. After a stint in the Navy, he's back living at home, still collecting materials for projects he refuses to discuss with Silverstein (or anyone else). The book concludes by rhetorically asking whether his talents will ever be honed towards "more conventional forms of scientific inquiry".

Any question of that is immediately settled with a quick Google search. Here is David in 2007, after being arrested for stealing 16 smoke detectors:

He'd done the same thing as a teenager, because smoke detectors contain a small amount of the radioactive element americium, which he needed to build his reactor. At 31, he was apparently after a similar goal.

As is evident in the mugshot, Hahn's face was covered in open sores - whether as a result of past or recent radiation exposure, another experimental mishap, or some other cause, is unknown. But it is clear that he hadn't found a legitimate, professional outlet for his scientific pursuits.

And as for what his illegitimate pursuits are these days, we can only hope he never manages to duplicate or exceed his earlier "success".


8 November 2012