The Radioactive Boy Scout: The Frightening True Story of a Whiz Kid and His Homemade Nuclear Reactor – Ken Silverstein, 2004

David Hahn was a bright kid, fascinated with chemistry, who fell in love with the romance of radioactivity. Unaided and unguided, he recreated the 20th century’s discoveries and mistakes, handling the dangerous substances he got his hands on with the cavalier approach of his heroes, the Curies. The Curies, of course, didn’t know any better; David chose not to take the risks seriously–but he was a teenager, after all. Silverstein tells the story exactly right, letting events unspool with the perfect amount of background, context, and suspense. He uses a book which fascinated David, The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments (1960), as a lens to examine the hubris of mid-20th century technology. David raised himself as a throwback to the era when we thought pills could substitute for food and the only problem with nuclear energy was how cheap it would be. The saddest aspect is the many adults who failed David by not recognizing or encouraging his special gifts–especially his father, an engineer who saw David’s chemistry experiments as “a breakdown in discipline” and instead pressured him to become an Eagle Scout. As a result, David’s incredible resourcefulness and persistence were devoted to acquiring–legally or illegally–quantities of antique clocks, smoke detectors, and lantern mantles so he could extract enough thorium and americium to build a working reactor. A mind-boggling and wonderful read.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.