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Things that don't go boom
June 28, 2005 11:18 AM   Subscribe

Need a power source for your electric car? Be careful building a nuclear power plant in your back yard, or you could be the center of the next suburban superfund cleanup.
And it is perhaps best that he does not work on the ship's eight reactors, for EPA scientists worry that his previous exposure to radioactivity may have greatly cut short his life. All the radioactive materials he experimented with can enter the body through ingestion, inhalation, or skin contact and then deposit in the bones and organs, where they can cause a host of ailments, including cancer.
posted by b1tr0t (19 comments total)

 
Very familiar story in many ways (especially the incredible intelligence on the science side coupled with the incredible stupidity on the personal safety side). The mysterious part for me is

In the fall of 1995, Ken and Kathy demanded that David enroll in Macomb Community College. He majored in metallurgy but skipped many of his classes and spent much of the day in bed or driving in circles around their block.

when it's clear he should have gone to Caltech.
posted by Aknaton at 11:58 AM on June 28, 2005


Wow, what an extraordinary story about "David Hahn, Boy Atomic Scientist"! It seems David Hahn had pathologically neglectful and blindered parents. I so agree with Aknaton, the kid should have been sent to Caltech or MIT, Princeton, anywhere his passion for physics would have been understood and valued.
posted by nickyskye at 12:04 PM on June 28, 2005


An oldie but a goodie.

A lot of time has passed since I first read this story. I'd love to find out if David Hahn has gone to work on something better than "peeling potatoes and swabbing decks".

David, if you're reading, let us know. A lot of us geeks were doing strange things in our youth and went on to do stranger things in our careers :)
posted by Kickstart70 at 12:06 PM on June 28, 2005


I had heard about this before, but thanks for finding the link to the full-text Harper's article. I'm struck by an inevitable post-9/11 horror at how easy this was for him to do, but also in awe of his ingenuity. Doesn't MIT have recruiters the way, say, the UNC Chapel Hill basketball program does?? Wouldn't the US gov't itself--always in need of Americans who actually want to study nuclear engineering--want to award this guy with an internship at Los Alamos and an NSF grant for undergrad?? I hope he uses his GI Bill when he gets out to go to a sufficiently challenging program.
posted by availablelight at 12:15 PM on June 28, 2005


It's a book - The Radioactive Boy Scout : The True Story of a Boy and His Backyard Nuclear Reactor
posted by Carbolic at 12:36 PM on June 28, 2005


I must wonder whether his surname is a coincidence...
posted by Skeptic at 1:08 PM on June 28, 2005


I read this a long time ago. Apparently my skepticism level is a lot higher now.

in Macomb Community College. He majored in metallurgy

Since when does any community college have a metallurgy program? Metallurgy is a very difficult field, and if you are driving circles around the block when you have access to a professor of Metallurgy, it's your own fault.

Doesn't MIT have recruiters the way, say, the UNC Chapel Hill basketball program does

The only thing those people are interested in is grades and test scores, and maybe leadership of high school organizations. The track toward ivy league science PhDs is heavily weighted towards people who are very conservative, very risk averse, people who are going to be insiders, not Unabombers. The desire to expose yourself to radiation in order to get a leg up isn't really a selling point.

I'm not trying to sound jaded, and for sure I realize not everyone in big-name New England science programs is a political conservative, but for sure, they are people with top notch scholastic backgrounds who spent more time doing homework than going to rock concerts, or melting down smoke detectors.
posted by nervousfritz at 1:18 PM on June 28, 2005


The track toward ivy league science PhDs is heavily weighted towards people who are very conservative, very risk averse, people who are going to be insiders, not Unabombers.

The Unabomber was a Harvard Mathematics student.
posted by Kickstart70 at 1:33 PM on June 28, 2005


Well I know that.

Does it not seem ridiculous, "I claim that prestigous science programs should have talent scouts looking for young people who assemble radioactive piles in their back yards"

Good gravy. That would be about 50x easier than scoring in the 99th percentile on the SAT and ACT.
posted by nervousfritz at 1:45 PM on June 28, 2005


The only thing those people are interested in is grades and test scores, and maybe leadership of high school organizations.

Yes, that is exactly what MIT is looking for.
posted by event at 1:55 PM on June 28, 2005


I scored 99th percentile on the ACT. I doubt I could build a nuclear pile though. Unless of course, I had lots of pretty pictures to follow...
posted by sourwookie at 1:59 PM on June 28, 2005


Oh what the hell do I know, maybe it would make a good topic for an admissions essay, providing he had the test scores as well.

Can we discuss the economics of employing a division of travelling talent scouts? No, nevermind, please.
posted by nervousfritz at 2:14 PM on June 28, 2005


There may actually be a business model in a division of academic traveling talent scouts. In the late '90s, some of my classmates noticed that there are a LOT of scholarship dollars for unpopular and obscure majors that the government deems beneficial. I recall specifically laughing at scholarships for nuclear engineering. (I was laughing at Yahoo!'s valuation at the same time)

The flip side is that this kid seems to be the Kevin Mitnick of nuclear physics. Sure, Kevin used social engineering to steal telecom services, broke into computers, etc. David Hahn, however, used the same skills to build a small scale nuclear reactor. Neither seemed to have any evil intent, but both were only steps away from doing some real damage.

Jim Clark had a troubled childhood, didn't make it through high school, and joined the Navy. He later got his PhD in physics and founded three billion-dollar companies, so there may be some hope for David.
posted by b1tr0t at 3:54 PM on June 28, 2005


See also the University of Chicago Scavenger Hunt, which in 1999 offered 500 points to the team who could produce

"A breeder reactor built in a shed, and the boy scout badge to prove credit was given where boy scout credit was due."

... obviously a nod to the exploits of young Mr. Hahn. And the charming part is, the UChicago students actually built one too, as evidenced by the photo linked above, though hopefully they were a bit more careful about it all.
posted by rkent at 4:29 PM on June 28, 2005


Can we discuss the economics of employing a division of travelling talent scouts?

You make it sound like running an Ivy League school is something to view economically. An ET's view of Harvard: a large investment fund, with a tiny, unprofitable sideline in educating students.

Caltech used to send professors out to most places to do high school interviews. Not a policy dictated by economics, I dare say. (They stopped because it was too prohibitive to send them everywhere, and they were worried about unfairness.)
posted by Aknaton at 4:37 PM on June 28, 2005


Not a policy dictated by economics, I dare say. (They stopped because it was too prohibitive

That physically hurts to read. The longer I look at it, the closer I approach a full blown migraine. Could you please put some warning text at the top of your post if you're going to do that please?
posted by nervousfritz at 6:44 PM on June 28, 2005


nervousfritz, you're being obtuse. Aknaton's point is clear.
posted by event at 7:21 PM on June 28, 2005


WARNING Intentionally excising the words "most" and "everywhere" makes you look obtuse. WARNING
posted by Aknaton at 8:23 PM on June 28, 2005


That was a smart kid. But take a second to think about this. Any smart, ingenuous kid who was sufficiently motivated could do what he did.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 8:31 PM on June 28, 2005


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