Friday, August 21, 2009

The Radioactive Boy Scout

Last summer, in one of my many attempts to stall any kind of productivity in my life, I found myself reading the Wikipedia article on Commerce Township. I expected to find the usual things, of course. Demographics, geography, date of establishment, populations, all the boring numbers. However, what I was hoping to find was something weird and striking, something that would shock me, something that would make my rich, white, waspy, hometown stand out from other rich, white waspy towns. I didn't expect to find much, maybe a story about the infamous wall in Walled Lake, or something about the history of Native Americans in the area. What I didn't expect to find was this paragraph:

"In 1994, David Hahn, a 17-year old Eagle Scout, constructed a makeshift nuclear reactor in his backyard in Commerce Township, exposing himself and his neighbors-and maybe even as many as 40,000 people in the area-to radioactive materials and drawing the attention of the EPA. The event became a short-lived media sensation, and a book by Ken Silverstein called The Radioactive Boy Scout was written about the incident and published in 2004."

Holy shit! Can you believe that? This kid lived in Golf Manor! Like a two minute drive from my house. This is the subdivision just west of CHS where most of my friends went to middle school. The subdivision gets its name from Edgewood Country Club where I used to work. Also, to put that "40,000 people in the area" figure into perspective: as of 2000 there were less than 35,000 people living in Commerce Township. That number must have been far reduced back in 94, which says to me that many people outside of just Commerce (such as the residents of White Lake and Walled Lake) must have also been effected.

So, what drives a 17 year old boy to the isolation of a potting shed, reducing gas lantern mantles to thorium-rich ash in his senior year of high school? The answers are all in Ken Silverstein's book, and luckily for you I've already read it so you don't have to.

David Hahn, first of all, had a naturally experimental and inquisitive streak. When he was four years old he recalls mixing his first experiment while alone in the bathroom using chemicals under the sink. Obviously it's not exactly safe for a four year old to be playing with dangerous household chemicals, but a lack of parental supervision was absolutely key in all of David Hahn's experiments. His father Ken was an engineer at GM who worked long hours and paid very little attention to his son. His mother Patty was the source of affection in his home life, and the two were very close when David was little. Unfortunately, around the time that David was six his mother was diagnosed with depression and paranoid schizophrenia for which she was briefly institutionalized. Upon her release, Patty developed a drinking problem and the marriage came to an end when David was nine.
Obviously, a depressed, alcoholic, paranoid schizophrenic is going to have a hard time hanging onto custody rights, so David was sent to live with his father in Clinton Township. Though his father remarried shortly thereafter, David's stepmother seems to have been nearly as aloof as his father and David's family life quickly disappeared. With all this instability in his life, it isn't surprising that David turned to something that he could control and manipulate to his liking.
The most dangerous possession that ever fell into David's hands, even more dangerous than the radium, thorium and americium he was able to get his hands on later in life, was a textbook called The Golden Book of Chemistry. This was a severely outdated textbook from the 1960s that spoke optimistically of the nuclear age as a thing of the future, and as the way that humanity would solve all of its energy crises. It was also the kind of book that showed children performing dangerous science experiments without gloves or masks, just happily working away without regard for their own personal safety. This book, meant for children, would have brought down the fury of God in the form of angry mothers' lawsuits if it were released today. A short and simple recipe for chlorine gas (a chemical weapon used to kill tens of thousands of soldiers in WWI by stripping away the mucus linings of their lungs and letting them drown on their own blood) was provided for anyone who wanted to try it. The book also urged young scientists to perform their experiments in the garage or the basement, somewhere private. In other words, away from parental supervision.
By the time David was twelve he was making his own hair dye and experimenting with homemade tanning solutions. He would show up to school with his hair streaked blonde green and black or sporting skin the color of a carrot. He was also working with a very serious grasp of chemistry. When his father encouraged him to join the Boy Scouts (this in itself an effort to deter him from his increasingly dangerous experiments) David was briefly banned for concocting a batch of moonshine while on a trip. His real pride, however, were the sparklers, fireworks and smoke bombs he was able to throw together with chemicals like magnesium and potassium nitrate. Even at this young age, his confidence in his ability and seemingly harmless nature proved incredibly useful when it came to getting his supplies, no matter how difficult it may have seemed to come across them.
When David was in high school, he decided that he would find a way to collect all of the elements of the periodic table. When he told his assorted science teachers what he intended to do, he was met with the kind of disbelief that marked his entire life and always made it easy for him to slip by undetected. Some teachers brushed him off as a lying kid looking for attention. Others assumed that he would stick only to the simpler elements. None ever dreamed that he would go after radium, and none after thought that he would actually collect it.
Actually, back in the 1920s and 30s, radium was found in a lot of places. Radium was used as paint to make clocks and toys glow in the dark. Some of the radium painters actually used to paint their teeth in order to shock friends, and for this reason many radium painters later died of cancer. Obviously such practices were discontinued, but the clocks can still be found, and David found them. He also managed to get thorium, as I mentioned earlier, and he was able to extract americium from smoke detectors. About a hundred smoke detectors, actually, which he bought at bulk price.
So why a nuclear reactor? How did he go from making hair dye and smoke bombs to irradiating up to 40,000 people in Commerce Township and beyond?
One of his sources of inspiration was the institution that was supposed to deter him from such activities: the Boy Scouts. Their out of date pamphlets on atomic energy (that phrase itself being outdated) were terribly optimistic, downplaying disasters like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island and exaggerating nuclear promise and potential. David was, in fact, completely adverse to any negative literature on the topic, feeling that reading negative criticism of his obsession wasn't really worth his time.
Another fact that seemed to suggest he would actually able to build a breeder reactor in a shed in his schizophrenic mother's backyard was that Marie and Pierre Curie operated in much the same way when they discovered radium. Also, it must have appeared to him that he was absolutely unstoppable. This is a kid who couldn't spell the word "millions" when he wrote letters to government nuclear companies and professors around the country, and yet he was able to collect his radioactive materials and all the information necessary for his grandest experiment. So, from a outdated blueprint in one of his father's chemistry books, David Hahn attempted to build a nuclear reactor.
What's weird about this story (or, I guess, weirder) is that David came about as close as anyone has ever come to making a breeder reactor. (A breeder reactor is a reactor with a uranium core and a plutonium shell. When the uranium passes through the plutonium it's supposed to create more uranium which goes back to the core, and in this way the energy breeds itself and is perpetual.) No one has ever made a breeder before, ever. No country, no matter how many millions of dollars it spends, has ever done it. David didn't create nuclear fission, but he was getting reactions and the radioactivity of his materials grew at an alarming rate. So alarming, in fact, that even he realized how dangerous it was and had to dismantle it. The materials were only found when a random encounter with the police led to a search of his trunk, which held some radioactive materials, and this led to a subsequent search of his house, which revealed the rest.
So where is David Hahn now? Google his name and you'll see. The picture that comes up is his mugshot from 2007 when he was caught trying to steal smoke detectors from his apartment building. The pockmarks on his face were allegedly from radiation exposure, but I read an interesting blog that theorized Hahn has become a meth addict. As the article points out: he knows he can't build a reactor, he knows he doesn't have the materials, and frankly, he knows his shit when it comes to chemistry. Why would he be trying to get the tiny bits of americium out of a few dozen smoke detectors? This indeed does not seem like the actions of a healthy mind.
What's most sad to me about the entire ordeal is that afterwards, all the people he had been trying to impress, his teachers and peers, treated him as more of a pariah in light of his accomplishments. This is a 17 year old kid we're talking about here. He hadn't even graduated high school and he was able to create the basis for a breeder reactor, something that people with limitless supplies and resources do just about as well as he did. All anyone ever wanted from David Hahn was to hide his passion, hide his talent, and follow the rules like everyone else. He was never offered any guidance and encouragement, though to me he clearly shows signs of a savant at work.

You know, since I've been away from Commerce, I've found one truth to be consistent and inescapable: people from Commerce Township are weird. Upon arriving at college, I immediately gained a new respect for my hometown along this line of thinking: at least the people there are interesting. It's difficult to explain. You may say that I stuck with the friends I had, and that all people are interesting once you get up close and personal with them, but I beg to differ. For example, Scott Kilby was a perfect stranger to me when I moved to Kalamazoo, despite the fact that we attended school together and that he lived a mere ten minutes away from me. We became fast friends not because he was familiar, I had no idea who he was or what he was like. We became friends because he was the kind of person to be playing a digereedo outside the dorms while everyone else stood around smoking. And this kind of behavior, this pattern of strangeness worthy of characters in a novel, is relatively consistent in the people of Commerce Township, whether you love them or hate them.
Now, there are a lot of possible explanations for this. One is that the area's mixed level of wealth (from extreme affluence to lower-middle class) and the area's lack of anything fun to do (but not so desolate and stickish that heroin was allowed to completely run amok,) made for a batch of resourceful and interesting people who were afforded a great amount of leisure time in which to creatively entertain themselves. Not a bad theory.
My theory, however, is that David Hahn accidentally turned us all into borderline super heroes when he attempted to create a homemade breeder reactor in a shed and unwittingly exposed us all to radiation.

No comments:

Post a Comment