Day 450: The Nuke-Fiddlers

originally published March 25, 2013

My parents gave up long ago on ever seeing me come up with any scientific discoveries. Maybe it was the time when I tested the resilience of ants by placing them in the middle of a sewer grate to see if they’d crawl to the edge or fall in. It might have been the time I lit the lawn on fire because… I don’t know, science or something. It just wasn’t meant to be, that’s my point.

I wasn’t the anomaly among my peers, using my homework to prop up my Cheetos bowl as I spent my evening watching Quantum Leap instead of doing anything that might lead anyone to believe I was a child science prodigy. I was no Taylor Wilson.

When Taylor Wilson was fourteen years old, he built a working nuclear fusor. When I was fourteen years old, I was playing harmonica along with my Bruce Willis album. Don’t judge me.

Wilson won a $50,000 award at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, an event I’m barely scientifically qualified to write about. He invented a cheap Cherenkov radiation detector that cost only a few hundred dollars. At this rate, he’ll figure out how to develop a $1.99 radiation-detecting app for the iPhone before he’s twenty. Resisting the urge to use his powers for world domination, Wilson wants to devote his time to combatting terrorism and making the world a better place.

He is presently 18, and has had more money thrown at him in the form of prizes and scholarships than I have earned as a government cog over the last five years.

On the slightly less-successful side of the nuclear coin, we have David Hahn.

To be clear, David was anything but a failure. In 1994, when he was seventeen years old, he aimed to build his own breeder nuclear reactor in his mother’s backyard shed. He was a Boy Scout – it was in his training to be prepared for any eventuality, like the sudden need to have a nuke-powered sub at the ready. Just in case.

Sure, David had to blow a few things up in his basement to get the hang of the whole science thing, but he was committed. He plucked americium out of his smoke detector, extracted thorium from his camping lantern, found radium in his clocks and for a neutron moderator he used tritium from a gun-sight. I can’t get over how brilliant this is – I don’t even know most of those elements. If I were to guess, I’d say a neutron moderator is some guy who ensures you don’t hurt yourself whilst performing the Neutron Dance.

David posed as an adult scientist (probably by using a white lab coat that he’d obtained through illicit means) to gain the trust of actual scientists who had attended actual science school. Sure, his letters to them contained a lot of spelling errors, but scientists aren’t known for their mad English skills, right? The grown-ups were sufficiently fooled, and helped David build his supply of nuke-ingredients.

He never quite brought his project to critical mass, but he was able to successfully spew radioactive air-bits into his neighborhood. A dangerous amount of air-bits, actually. A thousand times the number of radioactive air-bits you’d normally find in the background of any random backyard. David started taking things apart in a panic. Unfortunately, he wasn’t quick enough.

In his haste to dump the goods, he got pulled over by the cops. Maybe the trunk of his car was glowing, or maybe it was the sweaty community of radiation burns toasting the pores on David’s face. Before long he had the FBI and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission knocking on his door, asking why he was giving the gift of cancer to his unsuspecting neighbors.

David had hoped to pursue a career as a nuclear specialist, but it hasn’t panned out yet. Despite dropping out of community college, David didn’t give up his dreams of playing with nuke-toys. He was arrested in 2007 when he was 31, for removing smoke detectors from his building’s hallways. He got 90 days for attempted larceny, and finally underwent treatment for the buckets of radioactive creepy-crawlies that had been oozing through his bloodstream for the past 13 years.

I won’t speculate as to David’s intent. Maybe he was looking to design something that could thwart America’s most nefarious enemies, or maybe he had visions of super-villainy dancing through his active brain. It doesn’t matter – he was defeated twice, and no superhero was called upon to do it.

Speaking of superheroes, I can’t forget to mention Atomic Man.

Mild-mannered Harold McCluskey was inadvertently exposed to the highest levels of americium ever recorded. He was using one of those funky sealed boxes with the gloves to reach inside, delicately adding a dash of nitric acid to a resin and americium-soaked column, when the chemicals exploded, blowing the leaded glass of the box apart, probably in awesome slow-motion.

The radiation coursing through his bloodstream was downright news-worthy. McCluskey shouldn’t have survived, but after months of treatment, he pulled through. When he went out in public – now as a local celebrity – his neighbors avoided him, worried either that the radioactivity would creep through the air and infest them, or that the sub-dermal tentacle the radiation had produced would leap through his abdomen and ingest their crania. It was the late 70’s – drugs had unleashed a powerful imagination among the populace.

Sadly, there was no tentacle. There were no latent super-powers either, at least none that McCluskey made public. Though if he had been secretly turned into some sort of super-human, it would make sense that his identity would have remained anonymous. The papers dubbed him ‘Atomic Man’, but no record of a super-suit was ever spotted in or around Hanford, Washington, where McCluskey lived.

McCluskey lived another eleven years, finally succumbing to coronary heart disease in 1987. The nuke-juice hadn’t killed him – which could be evidence in itself that it gave him some sort of super-strength.

Sorry mom, a career in science will never happen at this point, as I’m sure you could tell by my use of the term ‘nuke-juice’. But as long as people keep trying to conquer the mysteries of those funky periodic elements, the world is going to be an interesting place.

Just not in my neighborhood, okay?

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