Thursday, February 21, 2008

Fun with Radiation!

Well, it came a little bit too late for the great 2008 science fair experiment, but after two months of waiting, our Uranium came in the mail!

There's nothing quite like living in a country where the Postal Service will gladly deliver your box of radioactive material without even requiring an adult signature!

My son opened the box, held the rock, and said, "I don't feel radioactive." I had to explain that even at lethal doses, one doesn't generally "feel" radiation. We checked out the otherwise unremarkable rock, both (I think) equally impressed that we were the only people we knew with our very own Uranium.

Now, before you all go calling Homeland Security on me, I should explain a little bit. The sample was obtained from a source I maintain in Niger for whenever I need my yellow cake urani... er, I mean, it was ordered perfectly legally from a scientific supply company. (You know, just like you could order Anthrax and Botulism back in the good ole' days before overly-nervous housewives and radical Mohammedans ruined all our fun.)

One of my son's science fair projects was to try to re-create a smaller version of Wilson's 1911 Cloud Chamber. Why? Because radiation is cool, and because not enough people know about good ole' Wilson. For starters, we know Wilson was a cool guy because in addition to being a physicist, he was a mountaineer. In fact, the inspiration for his cloud chamber came to him while standing on the summit of Ben Nevis. Wilson's cloud chamber allowed the scientific community of the time to learn all sorts of stuff about cosmic rays and radioactive particles. My son's cloud chamber had a somewhat less lofty goal: He needed an "A."

Unfortunately, we didn't get our sample of Uranium in the mail quite on time, so we had to scavenge for other sources of radiation. (No, I'm not going to tell you where I finally found some radiation, but the first person to post a comment correctly identifying the sample below gets a free subscription to my bi-monthly newsletter.) Anyway, here is the Totel Cloud Chamber as it appeared in the science fair:

So... the science fair is over, the experiment is taken apart. The grade has been assigned, and I have this chunk of radioactive ore and nothing to do with it. Don't worry, though, I'll think of something. Until then, the next time you are over having a beer or the next time you find yourself in the neighborhood, ask to see my Ore.

Oh, and for all the nervous-nellies out there who are freaking out that I let my son play with radiation, here's a recent picture to prove that he's just fine: