The Nuclear Reactor in the Backyard
Becoming an Eagle Scout, the highest-level Boy Scout, is much like stamp collecting, except that you have to do particular tasks to collect those stamps, or merit badges as they are called in Eagle-speak. There are over a hundred different areas of interest in which you can earn a badge, ranging from bugling, to dentistry, farm mechanics, Indian lore, orienteering, or textile. An Eagle Scout must earn thirteen core badges in fields such as swimming, sustainability, citizenship in the world and communication, but once the core badges are earned, you can get a badge in almost any other area of interest. That is how a young man in Commerce Township, MI almost build a nuclear reactor in his mom’s backyard; he was just trying to earn a badge in Atomic Energy.
David Hahn was a quiet kid, his parents David and Patty, divorced when he was toddler, and he shuffled between weekdays at his dad’s house and weekends with his mom. His dad, David Hahn was an automotive engineer working for GM, and his mom’s new husband Michael Polasek was a hard-drinking forklift operater for GM. Neither father figures were emotionally open, and David who was an only child, had a lonely and withdrawn childhood. But when he was ten years old, a family friend gave him a copy of The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments, and David discovered a world where he did have friends, only those friends were usually found hanging out in the periodic table of elements.
He may have not been very good at sports, but he was good with a Bunsen burner, beakers and Erlenmyer flasks. The book gave instructions on how to set up a home lab, and soon David was making rayon and alcohol. He started reading anything chemistry related he could find, and by the age of twelve, he was consuming college-level chemistry textbooks with no difficulty. By fourteen, when most chemistry tinkerers are making rudimentary gunpowder, David was producing nitroglycerine. His bedroom in his dad’s house was his lab, but after multiple explosions and fires, David was banished by his stepmom to the basement, which suited him just fine, he felt more comfortable in the company of powdered magnesium and red phosphorous than in the company of people. But a few months later, while his dad and stepmom were watching TV in the living room, an explosion rocked the house. They rushed to the basement to find David unconscious on the floor, his eyebrows smoking. The result was that he would spend the next few months going on regular visits to the ophthalmologist to have pieces of plastic phosphorous removed from his eyes, and his dad forbade him from doing any more experiments at his house.
David moved his base of operations to his mother’s back yard, where there was a rickety wooded shack that no one used. His mom and Michael were impressed with his clear genius, and overlooked the fact that he would often emerge from the shack in the backyard wearing a gas mask, or that he would discard the clothes that he wore in his sessions in the lab that often lasted until 2am.
His father who was desperate to see David socializing with other teens his age and doing normal teen activities, forced him to join the Boy Scouts and work toward becoming an Eagle Scout, but that was precisely what drove him deeper into his lab, as he decided that he would earn a badge in atomic energy. Most boys looking to get a badge in atomic energy would visit the local dentist’s office and learn about the X-ray machine, or perhaps make a poster showing the way a nuclear energy plant works, but David decided to build a nuclear plant, specifically a breeder plant, something never successfully done.
A breeder plant is best understood as a plant that not only makes energy, but makes fuel as well. Imagine a car leaving on a road trip with half a tank of gas, only to arrive at the destination five hundred miles later with a full tank of gas. A breeder plant is the ultimate dream of nuclear enthusiasts because it is totally self-contained. The chemistry is fascinating, and if you’d like to build your own breeder plant in your backyard, I’d suggest doing a little Googling, but I’ll spare the rest of you from a chemistry class you didn’t sign up for. But suffice it to say that a breeder plant is far more complex because it requires a regular fuel source of radioactive material to be surrounded by a “blanket” of a different radioactive fuel, and the interplay between them, while being even more unstable, can theoretically create both fuel and energy for the next few thousand years. And while it sounds great in theory, the three attempts to build breeder facilities in the US all ended in meltdowns and shutdowns. But why should that stop David?
How does a fifteen year old boy from Commerce Township get a hold of radioactive elements, most of which are highly controlled by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission? By reaching out to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of course! David began written correspondence with members of the NRC, claiming to be Professor David Hahn, a physics instructor at Chippewa Valley High School (David’s actual school), and while the people at the NRC didn’t send him any samples, they did tell him where those items can be found. Americium-241 can be found in smoke detectors, radium-226 in antique luminous dial clocks, uranium-238 and minute quantities of uranium-235 in a black ore called pitchblende, and thorium-235 in gas lanterns.
David contacted a smoke alarm company and under the pretext of a school project was able to obtain a hundred broken detectors for a dollar each. But he didn’t know where the Americium-241 was found in the smoke detector, so he wrote to BRK electronics, a smoke detector manufacturer, also under the guise of a school project, and found out where a tiny amount of it is housed in a gold matrix to prevent corrosion, break down, and release of a radioactive element. He then corroded and broke down the gold matrix with a blowtorch to facilitate the release of a radioactive element! He then built a hollowed out lead core into which he deposited his Americium-241 and bored a tiny hole into it, and now he had a particle gun, sending out a stream of alpha particles. He filtered those alpha particles using a piece of aluminum foil, which absorb alpha rays and kick out neutrons, and now he had a neutron gun.
He then obtained uranium ore from a Czechoslovakian firm that sold to universities and laboratories, Thorium-232 by deconstructing hundreds of gas lanterns, beryllium by having a friend swipe it from Macomb Community College’s chemistry lab, and radium by buying up antique luminous clocks. He then concentrated the radium by cooking it with barium sulfate which he got from a hospital x-ray unit he visited while working on his merit-badge. Each new ingredient came along with dozens of new tests, but at the end he had radioactive materials 9,000 times stronger than you can find in nature, and 170 times the level that requires licensing from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
By the time David was ready to start building the nuclear breeder reactor, he was seventeen years old and had spent thousands of hours on chemistry experiments and research, often leaving himself exposed to deadly materials for hours on end. In August of 1994, he finally put the reactor together, and while he had far less nuclear material than a real plant, he knew he was slowly ramping up the radioactivity of his micro-reactor and it was clearly working. His pile of material was consistently getting hotter and hotter, and his Geiger counter was registering significant radiation from as far as five houses away.
As excited as he was to see his dream coming true, he was also smart enough to realize that his little lab on the prairie was rapidly getting out of control and he needed to shut it down. He started disassembling the various parts, and putting them in the trunk of his car, from where he planned to dump the nuclear material somewhere remote.
At 2:40am on August 31, 1994, police in David’s neighborhood stopped him after neighbors called in suspicious activity, and they sure were surprised to see what was in his trunk. David’s whole experiment came crashing to a halt. His mom’s backyard was declared a superfund site, and a short while later, members of the DOE, EPA, FBI, and NRC were swirling around the neighborhood in full HAZMAT gear. The backyard shed, everything in it, and the ground all around it were removed from the property in thirty-nine sealed barrels and sent to a nuclear dump facility in the middle of the Great Salt Lake Desert. David wasn’t charged because he was a minor, but his parents forced him to enlist in the armed services. Today, he is a sailor stationed in Norfolk, VA and fills his free time studying his latest interests; genetic code, antioxidants, steroids, and amino acids. He reckons that he at least took five years off of his life due to exposure to radioactive material, but he doesn’t regret what he did. As a matter of fact, he looks forward to further research, this time in a proper lab.
Interestingly, if you were looking to find those “most likely to build a nuclear reactor in their backyard,” you probably would have found David Hahn on the short list. He fit the prototype to the T. The psychological profiles of almost all pioneering American physicists are remarkably similar. Usually the eldest or only son of remote professional father, they are people who were lonely during childhood, shy and withdrawn, and voracious readers. It will surprise no one, that the HS quarterback rarely grows up to be a Nobel prize winning physicist. It is far more likely to be the boy that either no one remembers, or everyone remembers as “that weird kid.”
The Talmud tells us in Tractate Nedarim 81A, “Take heed with the sons of the poor, for from them Torah will go forth.” This is not to say that Torah can’t come out of the sons of the rich, rather it is more likely to come from the sons of the poor. This is for a few reasons. For starters, they are more likely to be diligent in their Torah study, because they don’t have the same distractions that other people with more opportunities and options have. The quarterback in HS has many distractions, the shy kid in the back of the class doesn’t. Rabbeinu Nissim, an early commentator (1320-1376CE) from Spain, adds that the sons of poor grow up humble and humility is one of the most important traits in acquiring Torah. One cannot fill himself with G-d’s wisdom when he is busy filling himself with self-aggrandizement.
But perhaps there is another reason that the children of the poor are the ones from whom Torah shall go forth, and that is because everything they get, they get through great sacrifice. And when you sacrifice for something, the product is better, distilled through pain and discomfort.
There is an interesting statement in Parshas Vayeishev, where Rashi quotes a Medrash saying that “Jacob wished to dwell in serenity, and G-d said, ‘Is it not good enough for the righteous what is waiting for them in the World to Come, yet they also wish to sit in serenity in this world?’ Immediately, the trouble of the travail of Joseph jumped on him.”
But this seems troubling, as Rav Mattisyahu Solomon asks, because Jacob was not looking to sit back on the beach and relax, sipping a tall glass of lemonade and reading the morning newspaper! Jacob was looking to sit in peace and study Torah! Jacob was the “simple man, living in the Tents [of Torah].” Before being forced out of his home, he sat and studied Torah. After being forced out of his home, he spent fourteen years studying Torah in the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever before heading to Lavan’s home. But then, he spent twenty years in Lavan’s home working tirelessly for Lavan. He came back to Israel and was beset by challenges, his brother coming to kill him, his daughter kidnapped and violated. Now he’s finally settling down and all he wants to do is serve G-d in peace, learning His Torah, and praying to Him. Yet, Ha-shem rejects this and sends Jacob more pain and suffering through the story of Joseph and his brothers. Why? What was so bad about wanting to serve G-d in serenity?
Rav Mattisyahu Solomon answers, that surely it is good to serve G-d in serenity, but the Torah that would come out of someone sitting in serenity is not of the same caliber as the Torah coming out of someone beset by challenge, who has to sacrifice so much in order to be able to study Torah. Ha-shem was setting up Yaakov to be “the sons of the poor,” those beset by troubles because out of them comes the best Torah.
It is no surprise that the leading physicists in the world came out of such difficult childhoods, they were the sons of the poor. And all the more so, when we look at the greatest Torah sages alive today, all of them went through incredible deprivation and challenge, yet stuck to their Torah study.
Sometimes, when we’re trying to do the right thing, and Ha-shem sends us a challenge, we look up and say, “Why G-d? But I’m on Your team? I’m doing for You? Why are You trying to stop me?” But this idea gives us a paradigm shift. Perhaps G-d sees that we are doing for Him, loves what we are doing for Him, and is sending us those challenges to make our actions even better. He wants us to be the sons of the poor so that the product we produce is even better and more incredible!
When we go through challenges and still sacrifice to do the right thing, we create a breeder plant. Not only do we do the right thing, but we create the fuel to do more right things. We create a reality that will give light and energy for thousands of years to come!
Parsha Dvar Torah
In this week’s parsha Yosef reveals his true identity to his brothers. He then asks that they bring down their father Ya’akov and the entire family so that he can provide for them for the rest of the years of famine. The Torah tells us that when Pharaoh heard about Yosef’s family arrival he was very happy. “The news was heard in Pharaoh’s house that Yosef’s brothers had come. This was good [news] in the eyes of Pharaoh and in the eyes of his servants.” (Gen. 45:16) What element of this news made Pharaoh happy? Why would he care wether or nt his viceroy had family?
The Ohr Hachaim (1696-1743, Talmudist and Kabbalist, born in Moroco and moved to Jerusalem in 1733) explains as follows: as long as Yosef’s family was unknown, the only identity Yosef had in people’s minds was as a former slave. It’s shameful for a king’s right hand man and viceroy to be a former slave. However, now that Yosef’s family was revealed and they were actually Jewish royalty, it gave honor to Pharaoh that his viceroy was from royal blood.
We can take this a step farther. All Jews are related. When we disparage another Jew, we are actually bringing shame to ourselves as well through association. However, when we build a fellow Jew up, and praise him, we not only bring honor to him, but to ourselves and the whole Jewish people as well Everyone who is still reading at this point is a wonderful, kind, warm, considerate, spiritual Jew. See, I just gave myself a lot of compliments, and no one is going to look at me funny. What a tool!
This week’s parsha, Vayigash, starts off at the charged moment where we left off last week. Yosef’s special silver goblet had been “found” in Binyamin’s sack, and he was hauled back to the palace to become a slave. The ten other brothers are not willing to see their brother taken. They follow him down, and stand to plea before Yosef. Notably, it is Yehuda who speaks with Yosef because he was the one who guaranteed Binyamin’s return. Yehuda launches into a long explanation as to why it is imperative that Binyamin be allowed to go back to his father. He explains that if Binyamin doesn’t return, their father is liable to die from the anguish.
At this point, Yosef decides that it is the right time to reveal himself to his brothers so he orders all the Egyptians out of the room (so that they not witness the brothers’ humiliation upon realizing the enormity of what they had done). Then he says, “I am Yosef, is my father still alive?” The implication is – why were you not concerned with our father’s health when you sold me and let him think I was killed by a wild animal? The brothers were so disconcerted that they couldn’t speak. But Yosef was not one to rub salt in old wounds. As soon as he saw that his brothers were contrite, he consoled them, telling them that selling him was all part of a divine plan so that he would be able to support the family throughout the remaining years of the famine.
Yosef asks that his family come down to Egypt where he would provide them with fertile land and food. Pharaoh seconds the motion. Yosef sends the brothers back with bountiful supplies and special wagons which were symbolic of the last Torah lesson Ya’akov gave Yosef. These wagons were meant to show Ya’akov that Yosef was still on the straight and narrow.
Ya’akov hears about Yosef’s situation, and he sees the wagons indicating his son’s spiritual position, and his spirit is revived. On the way down to Egypt, G-d comes to Ya’akov at night and tells him that He will be with him, and will make sure that his descendants come out of the land of Egypt.
The Torah then recounts the lineage of Ya’akov’s progeny. It also mentions that Ya’akov sent Yehuda ahead of him to Goshen (possibly the first Jewish ghetto ever), the place the Jews inhabited in Egypt to set up a Yeshiva. He did this because he recognized that the only way the Jewish people would be able to maintain their Jewish identity in Egypt is if they have significant Jewish education, a realization that rings very true today.
Ya’akov and Yosef have a tearful reunion after a 22 year separation. At this momentous occasion, Ya’akov recites Shema, indicating that every joyous occasion should be experienced with G-d. When the family goes to meet Pharaoh, Yosef instructs his brothers to tell Pharaoh they are shepherds, as this way he will leave them alone (whereas had they told him they were warriors he would try to draft them). Pharaoh and Ya’akov share pleasantries and bless each other.
The parsha concludes by telling us how Yosef managed Egypt during the famine. He was the only person who had any grain, so everyone sold him their land. He told everyone they could have land as long as they moved (this way his family wouldn’t feel out of place when they settled in a new place), and that they had to give one fifth of their crops to the Pharaoh as tax. Back then they didn’t charge a Social Security tax, and today they shouldn’t either because there is very little likelihood that I’ll get the benefits by the time I retire, what with the S.S. crisis. But that’s a discussion for a different time. That’s all folks!
Quote of the Week: We all want to be in the city of happiness, but the city of happiness can only be found in the state of mind! ~ Yabag Licnep II
Random Fact of the Week: The trunk of the African baobab tree can grow as large as 100 feet in circumference.
Funny Line of the Week: The face of a child can say it all, especially the mouth part of the face!
Have a Nifty Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham