Thursday, September 27, 2007

Rocket Boys Meet the Radioactive Boy Scout

[Crossposted from WAAGNFP]

Until I began to build and launch rockets, I didn't know that my hometown was at war with itself over its children, and that my parents were locked in a kind of bloodless combat over how my brother and I would live our lives. I didn't know that if a girl broke your heart, another girl, virtuous at least in spirit, cold mend it on the same night. And I didn't know that the enthalpy decrease in a converging passage could be transformed into jet kinetic energy if a divergent passage was added. The other boys discovered their own truths when we built our rockets, but those were mine.
-- Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam

Rocket Boys was made into a movie, “October Sky,” the title being an anagram of Rocket Boys, and I’m still charmed by it. I’ve found that the film is much beloved in some quarters, but I found it to be a disappointment, as so many such films are, because the book had the texture of truth, while the film had the texture of Hollywood. Relationships were generified, characters were stereotyped, you know the drill.

There have been a number of historical paths whereby the bright kid gets out and up in the world. Rocket Boys is a description of a new path: Rocket Scientist, exemplified by Hickam himself, but also, to my reading, the more important character, Quentin, the hard scrabble kid who uses his brain and big words to protect himself from his circumstances, and who decides that Hickam, the son of the mine superintendent, has access to the resources they would need to start a rocketry club.

In 1957, the town of Coalwood, in West Virginia, is cut off from the world in ways that are simply unfathomable today. For example, a major point in the book is when their science teacher, through considerable effort, manages to procure for them a book on rocketry. One. Single. Book. Is it possible to picture such a time today, when Amazon.com and Abebooks.com are universally available? I’ve lived in towns nearly as removed as Coalwood, but I have to work very hard at imagining (or remembering) what it was like. It’s simply another world.

One running joke through Rocket Boys are the crazy ideas that Quentin gets, like when he and the rest of the club are talking about making out with girls, considering the wonders of the female undergarment, and Quentin begins to speculate that it might be an efficient thing to combine stockings with panties into a single garment. Or when he’s considering orange juice and instant coffee and wondering if it would be possible to produce some product like instant orange juice.

In the epilog that follows where the rocketry club boys wound up, a goodly number of them became engineers. One can only speculate how many of them became science fiction fans.

The dark side of the teenage geek can be seen in the story of the Radioactive Boy Scout, the story of David Hahn, who, as a teenager in suburban Detroit, managed to accumulate a large collection of radioactive materials, plus build a homemade neutron source that he used to irradiate thorium and uranium, in hopes of building a breeder reactor. What he got was a decontamination team from the NRC, who hauled away the shed in which he’d kept his material and a tour in the Navy, where he wasn’t allowed to work near nuclear reactors, because he’d already substantially surpassed the allowed lifetime exposure to radiation.

The book is based on an article from Harper’s magazine.

I’ll note this warning about the book, which often speaks of how “advanced” was David’s knowledge of radiation chemistry. In reality, Hahn’s knowledge was pretty spotty, which is what you’d expect from an autodidact. At one point he’s shown to be baffled as to why he doesn’t get a Geiger counter reading from polonium (it’s a pure alpha emitter and alpha radiation cannot penetrate the counting tube). He seems to have only the vaguest understanding about neutron moderation and implications on fissile fuel breeding, and, needless to say, the concept of radiation health safety is pretty much beyond him.

To be fair, I don’t know how much of this ignorance is Hahn’s and how much of it is the author’s, or, more specifically, how much of the author’s obvious ignorance is also the case for Hahn.

I’m given to muse a bit on both the upside and the downside of the geek effect. Is the difference in outcome between Rocket Boys, and The Radioactive Boy Scout merely one of luck? After all, the rockets were far from safe, and did nearly cause damage a time or two (though it must be observed that the fatalities in Coalwood were invariably from the coal mine, not the rockets). More importantly, I think, comes the observation that, if you’re going to go off into the wild blue yonder, figuratively or literally, it helps to have some friends in it with you, just to keep you grounded.

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