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THE RADIOACTIVE BOY SCOUT: THE TRUE STORY OF A BOY AND HIS BACKYARD NUCLEAR REACTOR
Christian Science Monitor ^ | Tim Rauschenberg

Posted on 03/17/2004 4:47:34 AM PST by billorites

These days, the phrase "nuclear ambitions" is applied ominously to countries or heads of state. Yet it aptly describes an ordinary teenager in suburban Detroit named David Hahn. His experience is a frightening indication of how easily dangerous materials can be acquired - and hidden.

Despite growing up in an era of no-nukes activism, David wanted nothing more than to join the Curies in the annals of atomic history. That the radium they discovered eventually killed the Curies doesn't seem to have muted his enthusiasm.

David's aptitude for science was phenomenal. From a 1960s-era book of chemistry experiments, he quickly gleaned the principles and skills of manipulating reactions, and expanded his capabilities with long hours of research at the library.

His safety record was literally stunning. Taking only the barest precautions, he remained unfazed by accidents that turned his hair green, burned his skin, or knocked him out cold. Larger blunders alarmed his father and stepmother, but he learned to cover up his failures.

At school, he was a poor student and terrible speller (the wall of his potting-shed laboratory carried the admonition: "Caushon"). His occasional claims of chemical and, later, nuclear research were dismissed by parents and teachers as attempts to get attention.

And so it was that with ingenuity and supplemental information from letters to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 17-year-old David gathered and refined - mostly from household products - enough radioactive material to make a crude breeder reactor in his backyard.

It was small and would never create an appreciable amount of fissionable fuel, but by the time David disassembled the runaway experiment in 1994, his Geiger counter was detecting radiation from several houses away.

Journalist Ken Silverstein gathered material from extensive interviews with David and his family and from police and EPA reports about this backyard experiment. The story appeared as a Harper's Magazine article in 1998, and now Silverstein has expanded it into some 200 pages.

What emerges in that greater space is that David's pattern of grandiose plans followed by accidents and coverups mirrors the larger history of breeder reactors. In theory, breeders make more fuel than they use. In practice, as Silverstein notes, "the few attempts to build a breeder have resulted in some of the scariest episodes in the nuclear era."

Another problem that's agonizingly apparent is the emotional neglect of David by his family. His father spent time with him only on scouting trips. His adoring mother was too lost in alcohol and mental problems to be supportive. The personal tragedy here sounds as disturbing as the potential public disaster.

Tim Rauschenberger is on the Monitor's Web staff.

The Radioactive Boy Scout The True Story of a Boy and His Backyard Nuclear Reactor
By Ken Silverstein
Random House209 pp., $22.95


TOPICS: Miscellaneous
KEYWORDS: bookreview; boyscout; nuclearreactors
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1 posted on 03/17/2004 4:47:35 AM PST by billorites
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To: billorites
If this was Jackson, MI, I would have to say it was my husband.
This is the reason why Public School is a waste for kids. I'm sure that because this kid didn't fit in the round hole, he did not do well in school.
2 posted on 03/17/2004 4:53:30 AM PST by netmilsmom (Jonathansmommie's daughter was born 3-11-04, God Bless her!)
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To: biblewonk; Constitution Day
FYI. This kid sounds like a "stupid genius."

Every home should have it's own small-scale breeder reactor!
3 posted on 03/17/2004 5:23:39 AM PST by Fierce Allegiance ("I" before "E" except in Budweiser.)
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To: Fierce Allegiance; dighton; Tijeras_Slim
Every home should have it's own small-scale breeder reactor!

Absolutely!
This is the kind of D.I.Y. spirit that makes this country great.

(the wall of his potting-shed laboratory carried the admonition: "Caushon")

Or something.
4 posted on 03/17/2004 5:32:13 AM PST by Constitution Day (Go to Hell Carolina!)
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To: billorites
Although this story happened in 1995, I don't remember seeing/hearing/reading about it back then.

I just read the original Harper's article....and just dang.... He's lucky to be alive.

http://www.dangerouslaboratories.org/radscout.html
5 posted on 03/17/2004 5:33:25 AM PST by TheBattman (leadership = http://www.whitehouse.gov/president/gwbbio.html)
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To: billorites
My parents built me a home laboratory in our basement when I was in seventh grade. In it, I:

Made a carbon-arc furnace, boiled glass, projected image of this on wall (no welding glasses);

Isolated two antibiotics from cultures made from spores found in backyard soil. Demonstrated zone of inhibition. Injected into mice (using real hypodermic syringes, ordered through the mail from Fisher Scientific). Mice survived.

Built my own gas supply for bunsen burners, using a mouthwash bottle filled with alcohol, an aquarium air pump and airstone, and some 3/8-inch Tygon tubing.

Made a pulsed rocket engine that (crudely) exploited shockwave interference to compress fuel. Measured its specific impulse.

Built four-bit binary adder out of relays made from wood, nails, paper clips, and copper wire.

Much photography, developed myself. Delighted self with harmonograms made by pointing camera upward at flashlight hung from ceiling on a string, flashlight had paper pinhole baffle over lens, lights off in basement, opened shutter and let it record flashlight movements for ten minutes or so. Beautiful images of mathematics in action.

Some mild explosives "play." No nukes, though.

When I read this kid's story in Harper's, my heart and admiration went out to him. He did much, much more than I, and showed incredible tenacity. It was impossible not to notice the magazine's wierd tone, which seemed to imply that the kid was deeply disturbed, living in a fantasy world that was indicative of some kind of psycho-pathology, or maybe a mild form of retardation. This while simultaneously describing his overall success at demonstrating neutron production and change in atomic weight of some of his reaction product. In other words, he was a delusional nut who somehow accidently did actual nuclear chemestry in his backyard.

I would love to find out what became of him. I hope his health wasn't injured, but, on the other hand, I understand the joy that would have driven him to ignore the risks to pursue his vision.

(steely)

6 posted on 03/17/2004 5:34:26 AM PST by Steely Tom
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To: Fierce Allegiance
"THE LIBYANS!!!". Back to the future.
7 posted on 03/17/2004 6:20:42 AM PST by biblewonk (I now pronounce you man and husband...and dog.)
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To: biblewonk
I have in my book case, all three copies of the rare and dangerous books "Boy Mechanic". Some of the projects are unbelievable, like a radium lamp. It details how to get the parts and materials from hospital dumpsters.
8 posted on 03/17/2004 6:25:38 AM PST by Peter J. Huss
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To: Steely Tom
That is interesting, what do you do now? I mean as far as work, were you able to parley (sp) that enthusiasm into a vocation>
9 posted on 03/17/2004 6:27:08 AM PST by mel (God, help me rid myself of this continuing bitterness and hate for revisioinists)
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To: Steely Tom
Some mild explosives "play." No nukes, though.

In middle school, one of our projects was building and launching model rockets. Naturally, my friends and I started building them outside of school with a few extras. Like warheads make out of low-level explosives. Man, those things were better than fireworks.
10 posted on 03/17/2004 6:32:08 AM PST by July 4th (You need to click "Abstimmen")
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To: billorites
THE TRUE STORY OF A BOY AND HIS BACKYARD NUCLEAR REACTOR
11 posted on 03/17/2004 6:46:59 AM PST by cinFLA
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To: billorites
In practice, as Silverstein notes, "the few attempts to build a breeder have resulted in some of the scariest episodes in the nuclear era."

This guy knows nothing about the nuclear power industry.

12 posted on 03/17/2004 6:54:10 AM PST by cinFLA
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To: TheBattman
David's father, Ken, felt the solution lay in a goal that he didn't himself achieve, Eagle Scout, which requires 21 merit badges.

I thought Eagle required 24 merit badges?

13 posted on 03/17/2004 6:57:43 AM PST by Born Conservative (It really sucks when your 15 minutes of fame comes AFTER you're gone...)
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To: July 4th
Toward the end of middle school, i had a motorcycle & mowed lawns (so i always had an excuse to have about 20 gallons of gas on hand), and was heavily into model rockets, but no longer had a desire for my extensive fleet of tonka trucks, so naturally, what occurred was:

Flaming Tonka's

The d-sized rocket engines epoxied to a tonka nicely propelled a tonka truck laden with gasoline down the street until they inevitably went off course on someone's lawn or against a telephone pole with the rocket engine spewing enough fire to create one heck of a hot spot.

14 posted on 03/17/2004 7:06:18 AM PST by Fierce Allegiance ("I" before "E" except in Budweiser.)
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To: billorites
In an earlier age he could have become another Edison. Now he's just labelled as dysfunctional.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal has a whining article in the Capitol Watch section today about how the Asians are whipping our behinds in math and science, and how we are going to soon be outsourcing "innovation." Look at how we treat our own local kids who could be innovators. Read Rocket Boys (upon which the movie October Sky was based) - those kids would have been locked up in juvenile hall today for what they did then. We claim we want "innovation" but we punish it when it actually rears its head.

15 posted on 03/17/2004 7:09:14 AM PST by valkyrieanne
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To: Steely Tom
It was impossible not to notice the magazine's wierd tone, which seemed to imply that the kid was deeply disturbed, living in a fantasy world that was indicative of some kind of psycho-pathology, or maybe a mild form of retardation.

This is Harper's, remember? The second I read "nuclear" and "Harper's" in the same sentence I knew what the slant would be in that left wing pinko rag.

The editors clearly intend to scare the hell out of their liberal readers by implying that end-of-the-world breeder reactors can be built by any kid next door. By association, if he happens to be an evil Boy Scout working on merit badges, he's probably out to do in the World as We Know It. This is such a predictable hit piece it's almost laughable.

Your early experiments amused me. I recalled my adventures with a well-stocked Gilbert's Chemistry Set many years ago when you could purchase sulphuric acid, etc., at the corner drug store and potassium nitrate in the spice section at the grocery store (they labeled it saltpeter). I made hydrogen, fused glass, cranked out lots of home-built gunpowder, grew crystals, distilled alcohol, made carbide cannons, etc. I did minor damage to some unimportant property but didn't hurt anyone. I grew up to be a productive law-abiding adult with all my original parts. I even owned a Red Ryder BB gun (several, in fact) and still have both eyes.

16 posted on 03/17/2004 7:22:51 AM PST by Bernard Marx (In theory there's no difference between theory and practice. But in practice there is.)
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To: valkyrieanne
"CONTROLLED innovation" is fine.
17 posted on 03/17/2004 7:25:00 AM PST by B4Ranch (Don't be so open-minded your brains fall out.)
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To: Born Conservative
Its been 24 as far back as I can remember.
18 posted on 03/17/2004 7:28:54 AM PST by Rebelbase
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To: Bernard Marx
"potassium nitrate in the spice section at the grocery store (they labeled it saltpeter)."

30 yeares ago I used to get it at the drug store but it cost a lot for a pharmecutically refined bottle so our smokebombs were small, few and far between.

That is until I discovered you could buy it by the pound, bulk at the feed store for next to nothing.
19 posted on 03/17/2004 7:36:07 AM PST by Rebelbase
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To: Steely Tom
I read about this kid in Readers Digest.
He went on to Navy Nuclear school and became a submariner.
20 posted on 03/17/2004 7:42:07 AM PST by Chewbacca ("Turn off your machines! Walk off your jobs! Power to the People!" - The Ice Pirates)
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To: Steely Tom
I made a napkin holder in seventh grade, though it wasn't radioactive.
21 posted on 03/17/2004 8:01:38 AM PST by ocean
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To: ocean
Napkin holder? Fell out of my hi-chair with that one. I made a wooden step stool. Was horrible. When we were ranked for brains, I was always in the "other" listing.
22 posted on 03/17/2004 8:11:57 AM PST by cynicom
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To: Peter J. Huss
When I was young, we called it "Kid Engineering".

The principles of Kid Engineering are few and immutable.

1) A 20-penny nail is the strongest thing in the world.

2) It is possible to climb the tallest tree, as long as you don't run out of wood blocks and 20-penny nails.

3) If the ice supports your dog, it will support you too.

4) There is no theoretical limit of how far one can safely fall, as long as the distance is increased in one-foot increments.

5) There is no mechanical device that cannot be improved by the addition of Estes-BrandTM model rocket engines.

There were other principles, but I have forgotten them over the years.

23 posted on 03/17/2004 8:13:52 AM PST by bondjamesbond (Judge Roy Moore is our Ralph Nader. If you want to live under Sharia Law, support Roy Moore in 2004)
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To: netmilsmom
Too wierd. used to live at 1810 S West.
24 posted on 03/17/2004 8:17:30 AM PST by patton (I wish we could all look at the evil of abortion with the pure, honest heart of a child.)
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To: valkyrieanne
Hmm about the Asains whipping our behinds in math... Funny that I only recently was in highschool and myself met many a forign exchange student... no more intellegent than we Americans... In fact I remember helping one with a few math problems myself... And I am the MOST horrible math student ever... The fact is our kids who excell in American math could whip the pants off the asains... We have the WORST teaching design when it comes to math... The asains and many others teach at least 3 ways of solving a problem. I remember solving a math problem sucessfully a diffrent way and receiving an F because it wasnt the 'taught' way... No wonder we apear to be crappy mathamaticians(sp)... On tha othar hand we is exselent spellars! =)
25 posted on 03/17/2004 8:26:09 AM PST by MisterFIXIT1983 (Wahooooo!!!!)
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To: mel; Peter J. Huss; July 4th; Bernard Marx
Something else I remember about the article. The author speaks from a strange point of view, as I recall, constantly implying that David Hahn was delusional, and that all the things he did were simply the result of his need to feed his delusion. The thing that's funny is that he (the author, Ken Silverstein) also infuses the story with dark paranoia resulting from David Hahn's success. In other words, the author tries to have it both ways, even though the evidence is absolutely clear that he can only have it one way: David Hahn is a highly motivated, driven, committed, passionate young man who did something great under very trying circumstances, as a result of (in my humble opinion) exceptional creativity, understanding of the fundamentals (and well beyond), and most of all, an unbelievable level of energy, tenacity, and constancy of purpose.

I think David Hahn should have gotten a medal from the President.

It was impossible to understand from the article whether David Hahn was actually highly gifted. The author did everything he could to make it sound like David Hahn was just "acting out" a sort of fantasy, like someone who sets aside a room in their house for a shrine to Bjork, and goes around telling people he and she are engaged, etc. The facts say otherwise. It is impossible for me to believe that David Hahn could have done these things without a great deal of pure intelligence. Actions speak louder than words, a concept anathema to Harper's and its readers.

On a personal level...

I had a Gilbert's Chemestry Set too, when I was in third grade. Not the super-big one with three hinged sections; I only got the two bay one. Remember the cobalt chloride? Remember the "deflageration spoon?"

As far as books for young scientists go, I remember these books by a guy named Morgan; they were about 50 years old when I found them in the town library. They described how to make solid and liquid fueled rockets, as well as other things. One chapter I remember well explained in great detail how to make a sail-driven ice-scooter, with sharpened steed blades made from old automotive leaf-springs. This thing was big, big enough for a boy of 10 or 12 to ride on. Extensive drawings, explainations of how to grind the springs into blades, how to make the sail, etc.

I was also heavily influenced by the marvellous "Amateur Scientist" feature in Scientific American. At that time it was "conducted" (his word) by someone named C. L. Strong. I awaited each month's issue with baited breath. Mr. Strong described projects for making several lasers (ruby, HeNe, argon, and CO2), a particle accelerator using a home-made Van Der Graff generator, an infrared specrometer, a gas chromatograph using laundry detergent as a column fill medium, an electrostatic motor powered by an antenna flown from a helium balloon, a supersonic wind tunnel made from a vacuum pump and an old hot water heater tank, along with a Schleren camera for imaging the shock waves that developed around objects positioned in its throat region, and many, many other fascinating projects. I duplicated several of the (less ambitious ones). In those days (mid '60s through early '70's), Scientific American was a fantastic magazine, nothing like the silly left-wing pseudo-magazine it had degenerated into.

Today I am an Electrical Engineer, with a masters degree. I write pattern recognition algorithms for machine vision. I have three patents, with more on the way (if I can find money to pay attorney's fees). My "laboratory" is almost entirely contained in personal computers, which are one of the wonders of our age. I often say that if Leonardo da Vinci or Ben Franklen, or Humphrey Davy were alive today and could see the tools we have to work with, they would say "why aren't you rich?" As, of course, even the poorest of we Americans are, relatively speaking.

(steely)

26 posted on 03/17/2004 8:26:10 AM PST by Steely Tom
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To: billorites


27 posted on 03/17/2004 8:27:57 AM PST by Consort
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To: patton
Do you glow?
28 posted on 03/17/2004 8:31:41 AM PST by netmilsmom (Jonathansmommie's daughter was born 3-11-04, God Bless her!)
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To: Chewbacca
I read about this kid in Readers Digest. He went on to Navy Nuclear school and became a submariner.

I am so glad! Thanks, Chewy, you made my day! What a great resolution to the story! This outcome fills me with happiness.

(steely)

29 posted on 03/17/2004 8:33:41 AM PST by Steely Tom
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To: netmilsmom
Yep. A blueish-green colour, actually.
30 posted on 03/17/2004 8:40:11 AM PST by patton (I wish we could all look at the evil of abortion with the pure, honest heart of a child.)
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To: patton
Wow! Cool!
31 posted on 03/17/2004 8:43:35 AM PST by netmilsmom (Jonathansmommie's daughter was born 3-11-04, God Bless her!)
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To: billorites
This story seems far too strange to be true. I have got to get this book. Absolutely remarkable and fascinating.
32 posted on 03/17/2004 8:47:16 AM PST by Petronski (Kerry knew...and did nothing. THAT....is weakness.)
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To: Steely Tom
I think David Hahn should have gotten a medal from the President.

Why? The kid was great at endangering himself, his family and neighbors. He made NO breakthroughs that are not included in a first year nuclear engineering textbook. He could have saved himself a lot of time by reading one instead of writing 20 letters a day to get the same information that he could have gotten in ten minutes from the local bookstore.

33 posted on 03/17/2004 8:47:25 AM PST by cinFLA
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To: Bernard Marx
I even owned a Red Ryder BB gun (several, in fact) and still have both eyes.

Oh miracle of miracles! How did you ever do that?

34 posted on 03/17/2004 8:54:29 AM PST by Petronski (Kerry knew...and did nothing. THAT....is weakness.)
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To: Steely Tom
I think David Hahn should have gotten a medal from the President.

"I wanted to make a scratch in life," he explains now. "I've still got time." Of his exposure to radioactivity he says, "I don't believe I took more than five years off my life."

35 posted on 03/17/2004 8:54:59 AM PST by cinFLA
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To: Chewbacca; Steely Tom
I read about this kid in Readers Digest. He went on to Navy Nuclear school and became a submariner.

Actually, David joined the Navy and was a seaman aboard the nuclear-powered aricraft carrier, the USS Enterprise. He did not work on any of the ship's nuclear reactors.

USS Enterprise (CVN 65) Crew List

Hahn, David C. SN 1998 - 2001 Served in Deck Dept.

36 posted on 03/17/2004 9:04:41 AM PST by Cooter
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To: Steely Tom
I've got to know: with such an interesting youth, what career did you pursue? My young mad scientist days were mostly filled with horticultural and zoological studies and I ended up a criminal prosecutor (after a brief detour to get a PhD). I envision you as either a physics professor or a dot com millionaire. Am I anywhere close?
37 posted on 03/17/2004 9:06:42 AM PST by Law is not justice but process
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To: valkyrieanne
Ain't that the truth? We should award such creativity. Maybe we could give him Hans Blix's old job?
38 posted on 03/17/2004 9:09:29 AM PST by Law is not justice but process
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To: Chewbacca
"I read about this kid in Readers Digest.
He went on to Navy Nuclear school and became a submariner"

Now that's a happy ending!
39 posted on 03/17/2004 9:12:24 AM PST by Law is not justice but process
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To: Petronski
Oh miracle of miracles! How did you ever do that?

There was a rule that my Dad enforced very strenuously: Don't *ever* do stupid things with firearms, even play guns or BB guns. I didn't.

40 posted on 03/17/2004 9:13:51 AM PST by Bernard Marx (In theory there's no difference between theory and practice. But in practice there is.)
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To: Steely Tom
"I was also heavily influenced by the marvellous "Amateur Scientist" feature in Scientific American. At that time it was "conducted" (his word) by someone named C. L. Strong"

These were compiled into a book about 30 years ago. It was one of my favorites when I was a pre-teen.


"In those days (mid '60s through early '70's), Scientific American was a fantastic magazine, nothing like the silly left-wing pseudo-magazine it had degenerated into."

Amen to that!

"Today I am an Electrical Engineer, with a masters degree. I write pattern recognition algorithms for machine vision."

That answers a question I had in a previous post. Keep up the good work.

41 posted on 03/17/2004 9:19:34 AM PST by Law is not justice but process
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To: Cooter
I stand corrected. It's been awhile since I read the article. Although I did remember he entered the Navy.
42 posted on 03/17/2004 9:40:11 AM PST by Chewbacca ("Turn off your machines! Walk off your jobs! Power to the People!" - The Ice Pirates)
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To: netmilsmom
>>>>This is the reason why Public School is a waste for kids. I'm sure that because this kid didn't fit in the round hole, he did not do well in school.<<<<<


I also think you are right. I went to amazon and see this posting showing what Hahn is doing now for vocation:


from amazon.com ---

I AM AMAZED AT THIS STORY AND BOOK...TOTALLY TRUE,
March 11, 2004

Reviewer: rickeeee (see more about me) from Milputtlu, Germany

David Hahn as a young boy somehow decided to build a nuclear reactor in his mother's garden shed. He came very close. His genius propelled him to secure the right equipment including coffee cans, wire, rubber balloons, common flour, and off the shelve items from Home Depot.

He actually built a real working nuclear reactor. All he needed was radioactive material that he collected from objects suck as glow in the dark paint, smoke detectors, and Three Mile Island surplus.

An overhead satellite that measures radioactivity measured extremely high levels of radioactivity emitting from his mothers garden shed in a little village in Michigan.

Hahn, now a 27 year old, works for a secret origination (EPA) that tracks other countries nuclear capabilities with the same satellite technology that exposed his creation ten years before. Hats off to Ken Silverstein for writing a riveting and radioactive book. A must read for everyone.

It should be noted that Mr. Hahn continues to emit a low level of radiation from four years of exposing himself. We wish him the best. He will never need a night light.

Signed,
Erica Phillips
(My flowers have never grown back)



Not sure if it's accurate or not but is interesting that he's apparently working at something interesting. I read the original story in Harpers a number of years ago and was fascinated, but wondered if he had ever been able to use his OJT attained knowledge.
43 posted on 03/17/2004 10:05:24 AM PST by all_mighty_dollar
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To: all_mighty_dollar
Not sure if it's accurate or not but is interesting that he's apparently working at something interesting.

I would bet that it is NOT accurate.

44 posted on 03/17/2004 10:08:27 AM PST by cinFLA
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To: all_mighty_dollar
An overhead satellite that measures radioactivity measured extremely high levels of radioactivity emitting from his mothers garden shed in a little village in Michigan.

Actually, the were called to investigate possible auto theft and found a toolbox marked as radioactive in his trunk.

45 posted on 03/17/2004 10:16:19 AM PST by cinFLA
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To: all_mighty_dollar
He actually built a real working nuclear reactor.

Not.

46 posted on 03/17/2004 10:17:16 AM PST by cinFLA
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To: all_mighty_dollar
Hats off to Ken Silverstein for writing a riveting and radioactive book. A must read for everyone.

I wonder how many books have been sold based on this latest hyping?

47 posted on 03/17/2004 10:18:42 AM PST by cinFLA
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To: patton
Yep. A blueish-green colour, actually.

Would that be from Cherenkov Radiation by any chance?

I am well versed in that glow from my work with P-32!

48 posted on 03/17/2004 10:21:13 AM PST by Itzlzha (The avalanche has already started...it is too late for the pebbles to vote!)
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To: billorites
There was a guy who fell into an operating "swimming pool" reactor (heavy water, blue Cherenkov glow).

He became so radioactive that he claimed that when he died, he'd have to be disposed of as 'low level nuclear waste'.

As I recall, he made a living of giving lectures on his experience and having people test him with geiger counters...

--Boris

49 posted on 03/17/2004 10:26:57 AM PST by boris (The deadliest Weapon of Mass Destruction in History is a Leftist With a Word Processor)
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To: Itzlzha
Would that be from Cherenkov Radiation by any chance?

I am well versed in that glow from my work with P-32!

No. And what is P-32?

50 posted on 03/17/2004 10:27:20 AM PST by cinFLA
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