Up and atom! This kid construct his own nuclear reactor

Photo: Michael Nicholson/Getty Images

Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s quirks in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.  

This week’s entry: David Hahn

What it’s about: North Korea may be proud of its nuclear program, however it was almost beaten to the punch a years earlier by a teenage young boy. In 1993, 17- year-old David Hahn attempted (and nearly succeeded) to construct a nuclear reactor in his yard, earning him the nickname Radioactive Boy Scout.

Biggest controversy: Like many teenagers, Hahn was both extremely clever and extremely dumb. He was a dazzling chemistry trainee, earning a merit badge in Atomic Energy for collecting every component that exists in nature. He desired to produce a breeder reactor, which (via some science we find equivalent from magic) creates more fuel than it consumes. However, his prepares were prevented when he was pulled over by the cops (for an unassociated “another matter,” which we presume was speeding or something similar), and alerted them not to open the trunk because it consisted of radioactive product. The police quickly turned the matter over to the FBI and Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Strangest fact: While the authorities frown upon building your own nuclear reactor, the just crime Hahn was charged with was stealing smoke detectors. He generated radioactive product for his experiment by taking tiny quantities out of family items—radium from clocks, tritium from gun sights, thorium from outdoor camping lanterns, and americium from smoke detectors. While he bought lots of of these (he used more than $1,000 on batteries to harvest their lithium), when he attempted to develop a second reactor years later on, he took the smoke detectors from common areas in his apartment building, and was charged with larceny.

Photo: Found Image Holdings Inc/Getty Images

Thing we were happiest to find out: His experiment worked. While it wasn’t technically a nuclear reactor (see the Wikipedia page for a detailed description why), it was a successful neutron source, and produced brand-new radioactive material. (Non-fissile, meaning there was no possibility of Hahn building a bomb, which most likely made him some some leniency from the FBI.) Nevertheless, it likewise produced hazardous amounts of radiation, prompting Hahn to dismantle the gadget—he was in the process of doing so when he was captured by authorities.

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Apart from this moment of sparkle, Hahn led a bothered life. In 1995, the EPA stated his mother’s home a dangerous products clean-up website. The year after, his mother died of suicide (it’s not clear whether these things are related). He lacked direction after high school, and after sporadically participating in community college, he signed up with the Navy, serving on the USS Enterprise (the real-life nuclear vessel that appears in Star Trek IV), and was honorably released with the rank of petty officer, 3rd class. However in 2007, the FBI presumed Hahn was trying to construct another reactor.

When they spoke with him, they found out that Hahn been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, and was utilizing cocaine in lieu of his prescribed medication. He also claimed to be afraid of people who “had the capability to shock his genitals with their minds.” His larceny sentence was postponed for six months while he was dealt with at a regional psychiatric hospital.

Hahn passed away in 2016, from the combined impacts of alcohol, allergic reaction medicine diphenhydramine, and fentanyl, the opioid that played a part in the deaths of Prince, Tom Petty, Wilco guitar player Jay Bennett, and rappers Lil Peep and Mac Miller. His death was ruled accidental.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Hahn influenced other young scientists. In 2008, 14- year-old Taylor Wilson became the youngest individual ever to produce nuclear blend. He would go on to win first place at the 2011 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for a project entitled “Countering Nuclear Terrorism,” and the following year satisfied with President Obama to talk about nuclear security. He offered a TED T alk in 2013 about a strategy to construct small nuclear reactors underground (for security) to create a decentralized power network.

Further Down the Wormhole: Hahn’s charge of larceny is a largely outdated one, as that legal term for theft has actually been changed by more-specific categories like break-in, burglary, and scams. America’s legal framework for theft comes from British common law, which was slowly codified to simply plain law. One of Britain’s more controversial laws was the Labouchere Modification of 1885, which made the broad term, “gross indecency” a criminal offense. In practice, that implied sex between 2 guys, even if there was no evidence. Noteworthy gay guys who were punished by the law included Oscar Wilde (prison and hard labor) and Alan Turing (chemical castration). The law was proposed by moralizing MP H enry Labouchere, who was stimulated in part by the pro-gay works of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, a German lawyer who was a leader of the modern gay rights motion. We’ll start Pride Month at the very starting, next week.

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