Sunday, September 20, 2015

How I Became a Mad Scientist - Episode 19

Previous EpisodeFirst Episode.

The neutron gun was a surprisingly easy gadget. I found some videos online and got to work. The Americium from the smoke detectors constantly emitted Helium nuclei called Alpha particles. I’d heard these were pretty dangerous, but that they could be stopped by plastic, so I wore gloves and dropped the Americium into a plastic water bottle. I put aluminum foil across the top. Whenever an alpha particle hit the aluminum, the aluminum would get excited and spit out a neutron.

I set up the whole contraption on the picnic table in the back yard. I wasn’t going to start a nuclear reaction inside the house. That would have been crazy. Besides, I was less likely to get caught out here.

When I aimed the neutrons at my uranium, they should start a chain reaction. I got my Geiger counter ready and stuck my neutron generator into the side of the lead-lined box I was using as a reactor.
I got a spike in radiation. I pulled the neutron gun out, and it kept going at the same rate. I wasn’t worried. I knew I didn’t have enough Uranium to let things get out of control, and if I started running out I had backup supplies to feed my mini-reactor. This was going to be the best science project ever. 

I laughed to myself, and then frowned. It stunk that Frank was being such a brat about the whole thing. He should have been happy that I was figuring these things out on my own. Instead, he was too scared or jealous to share in my moment of triumph. But that was fine. I’d show him, I’d show my science teacher, and I’d show the whole school: George Ramondi was not a lackey or a science dunce.

I looked up. That weird little kid was riding down the alley on his bike. He slowed down as he passed my house, waved, and gave me a thumb’s up. I got a funny feeling that he knew exactly what I was doing, and it worried me.

I sat there, taking measurements with my Geiger counter and making notes. I still had to make a poster and type up my reports, but I’d do that the night before the project was due, like I always did. The important thing was the project, and it was awesome.

Three minutes later, I heard the sound of helicopters in the distance. There were too many for a medivac. I figured it was one of those training flights out of Fort Knox that flew over every now and then.

Five minutes later, it seemed like every police and fire siren in town started up. Probably an industrial accident at one of the factories. I hoped no one I knew was hurt. I shrugged, and went back to my notes. 

Six minutes later, I heard something scurrying on the roof. I looked up, expecting to see a squirrel. The roof was covered in men in black armor holding guns. Every gun was pointed at me. All at once, 8 or nine helicopters filled the sky above my house and blotted out the sun. Firetrucks and HAZMAT vehicles blocked the alley. I dropped my pen in shock.  

Handcuffs clicked over my wrists. “Mr. Ramondi,” Frank’s FBI agent said, “I’m afraid I have to place you under arrest.”

Thursday, September 10, 2015

How I became a Mad Scientist --episode 18

“I’m not getting involved in this at all,” Frank said. “I’m going home. Call me when you’ve come to your senses.”

“Fine, go,” I said. “I don’t need a super genius to help me. I’ve got internet access.” 

My first problem was going to be collecting the materials for my project. I could buy uranium ore and a Geiger counter off the internet, but I’d also need Americium, thorium, lithium, and radium. I wouldn’t be able to afford enough for even a small reaction, and I didn’t want to break any laws.

I decided to organize a recycling campaign. I wrote up a few press releases and made some posters.

“Local scout to collect smoke detectors for recycling project,” the article in the paper read. I told them the proceeds from my project would go to support local education. Which they would – a nuclear reactor would be really educational for my teachers and classmates.

The day after my recycling campaign started, Frank showed up at my house. “Oh,” I said as I let him into the living room, “You’re finally going to help me, huh?”

“No, I’m warning you again. Didn’t you ever hear about the “Radioactive Boy Scout?”  The EPA had to come in and bulldoze his house and encase everything in lead. He contaminated a whole neighborhood. Do you want to turn Tell City into a post-nuclear wasteland?”

I shook my head, “Frank,” I said. “I think homeschooling has fried your brain. Everything will be fine. I’m only going for a small reaction. And I won’t even start it before the science fair. That way, it won’t have time to get out of hand before I end it.”

He scowled. “If you don’t give this up before the science fair, I’m telling the FBI,” he said quietly.

“You wouldn’t do that. If you go tattling, they’ll find out that you’ve been breaking your parole.”
“There are worse things than juvenile detention, George. I’m not about to let them happen to you.” 
 He stomped out of the house and slammed the door behind him.

I shrugged and when back to work. I’d borrowed some sulfuric acid from the chemistry lab, and was using it to purify my ore. The problem was that the process released all sorts of fumes, so I had to do it outside. Still, if all went well, I’d have a miniscule bit of actual uranium when I was done. I took careful notes, of course. 50% of our science fair grade was a notebook grade. I’d still fail the class if I didn’t keep good records.

You see, I really was just trying to spice up the science fair a bit and save my grade. Frank had no right to complain. After all, he’s the one who thought the proper response to a scary story was to create a monster. I was perfectly rational compared to him.

By the end of the week, I had plenty of supplies. I’d collected about 50 smoke detectors, so I had plenty of Americium for my project. I ran down to the antique store and bought a lead box. It was pretty heavy, and I figured that I could set up my reaction inside of it to keep the radiation under control. I was being totally safety conscious. Nothing was going to go wrong. 

My plan was simple. I’d start a chain reaction in the uranium, and show how it generated heat. I’d use the heat to boil water and make steam, then use the steam to turn a turbine and generate electricity. It would be safe, too, since I didn’t have enough uranium to trigger a meltdown.

I decided to do a test run of the project on the day before the science fair. I’d make a neutron gun, aim it at the uranium, and record the difference in radiation using a Geiger counter and the difference in heat with a thermometer. I’d have my own miniature nuclear power plant. Nothing could stop me now.

Next Episode.

Friday, September 4, 2015

How I Became A Mad Scientist -- Episode 17

“Um, I’ll be right out,” I said, choking on the words. I took a deep breath and stepped outside to face the agent. “Don’t I get a lawyer or something?”

The man chuckled. “Mr. Ramondi, lawyers are only for people who’ve done something wrong. You haven’t done anything wrong, have you?”

“No sir,” I squeaked. This conversation was not going well. Come on, brain, I thought. Start working. I don’t want Frank to go to jail.

“I noticed that you seem to have constructed a hover board course in your garage. It looks like it was a lot of hard work. Did you have any help?”

“Most of the guys in the neighborhood. Except Frank. He wouldn’t even pound a nail or help with the wiring, because he says it would violate his parole. The other guys were kind of irritated at him. His parole terms are making him pretty unpopular.”

“I see.” The agent’s face remained expressionless.

“Could you, maybe, change them, sir? If he doesn’t get to do anything fun, he could revert to his life of crime.”

“I don’t think ‘reversion’ is likely to be a problem. We’ve heard reports of a strange creature in the Ohio. Did everyone but Frank make that too?”

“You found Bessie?” My stomach flipped a little. “She’s a good girl. Don’t hurt her, please.”

“So you admit that Frank was participating in ethically questionable genetics experiments?”

“No, that was all me. Frank didn’t participate. In fact, he freaked out when he saw how big she got.”

“I see. Thank you for your time, Mr. Ramondi. It appears your cousin’s bad tendencies run in the family. I’ll be watching you closely.”  The agent turned and walked towards my front yard.

“I haven’t broken any laws!” I yelled. “There’s no law against playing around with science!”

He stopped. “You haven’t broken any laws yet, Mr. Ramondi. But I fully expect that to change in the near future.”  He disappeared around the corner of the house. I heard a car door slam and an engine roar down the street. I slumped onto the ground, exhausted from our conversation.

“You handled that well,” a voice said. I looked up. The kid from the river was standing next to my garage. “You’re trying hard to protect your cousin. I’ll remember that.”  He hopped on a bike and rode away.

Chapter 4: The Best Science Fair Project Ever

Summer ended. School started. The power company’s new “Powering the future” educational center opened, and reporters came from all over the country to see the town where any visitor could ride a hover board.

 Between the technophiles coming through to try our invention and the cryptozoologists hanging around to study Bessie, the town was flooded with tourists. The mayor chalked it up to the visitor’s center she’d built a few years back, and local businessmen started planning a new hotel.

Frank and I had made Tell City famous, but we couldn’t tell the papers. It irritated me, but Frank was philosophical about the whole thing.

“We’re having fun and I’m not in jail,” he said as he helped me pack my supplies for the first day of school. “Who cares about being famous?”

I headed off to a new year at the Junior High while Frank was stuck at home. He seemed to be OK with it though. He said his work only took about 2 hours a day, and after that he could read or practice his skateboard or take walks.

Meanwhile, eighth grade science was going to kill me. Apparently, the school board had decided that we needed more STEM in our lives. Science went from ‘fun with science’ to actual problem sets involving math. We had lectures and labs, and we got marked down if we did the lab wrong. We even had weekly tests. I was pretty sure I was going to fail.

Then, at the beginning of September, the teacher announced the science fair. It would be a chance for struggling students to earn extra credit. Suddenly, I had hope. Frank was going to help me win the science fair so that I could pass this impossible class.

I explained my plan to Frank when I got home. “You’re going to help me build a nuclear reactor,” I said. “It’ll be amazing, I’ll win the science fair, and I’ll pass the class!”

Frank seemed skeptical. “You can’t just go and get some nuclear material and make a reactor,” he said. “There are laws…”

“No! I read an article once about a kid who did it. I mean, sure, he’s a genius, but so are you. He just wanders around the desert and finds chunks of uranium or something. We can do that.”

“George, we don’t have a desert. And your mom isn’t going to fly you out west for a uranium hunt. This is Indiana.”

“I’ll come up with something,” I said. “I just need your help on the details.”

“It sounds like you hardly need me at all,” Frank groaned. “Look, why don’t you do something that’s simpler and less attention grabbing? You know, a little wind generator or a mini hydro-electric plant. You’re still generating power, and I won’t get arrested.”

“Nope. My grade is in the toilet. I have to go big or I’m doomed. I’ll figure out a way to get the Uranium. And I’ll do all the work. I just need you around to make sure I don’t accidentally blow everything up.”

Next Episode.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

How I Became a Mad Scientist -Episode 16

I dashed into the alley. If I could stop the truck before it got to the garage, maybe Frank could get away. I wasn’t worried about the other kids. They weren’t going to get in trouble. Frank was the only one of us with a court order that forbade him to mess around with science.

I banged on the door of the truck. The driver rolled down his window. It was Doug Werner from church. That was a relief. Doug was young. He’d only been working for the power company for a couple of years. I went to school with his little brothers. Doug wouldn’t call the cops on us.
“George, there’s something going on at your house. I need to check it out. There could be a wire down or a fire.”

“Or a hover board?” I asked, grinning widely. “Like in the movies, but in a garage?”  Frank had to be gone by now, and if he was around, Doug probably wouldn’t recognize him. “A bunch of us figured out how to made one.”

I led Doug to the garage. He watched, speechless, as one of the guys flew down a ramp, up the other side of the garage, and got far enough into the air to hit the roof top with his hand. The board stopped when its rider crashed into one of the air mattresses.

Doug pulled himself together. “Your mother is going to have a huge electric bill, George. Power isn’t free, and it’s summer. These are peak rates.”

“Told you we should have charged admission,” Joe interrupted. I scanned the garage. Frank was definitely long gone. Hopefully, when his parole officer came looking he’d be curled up on the couch with a book. And he hadn’t touched anything, so he wouldn’t have left a fingerprint on our hover board course.

Of course, if I played it right, maybe Frank’s parole officer wouldn’t even hear about the course.
“Before you make us shut it down, do you want to try it? I mean, not many guys can say they’ve gotten to ride a hover board.” I could tell Doug really wanted to give it a try. “And then, maybe… instead of just trashing it, we could sell it to the electric company? For educational demonstrations and stuff?”

Doug was really quiet. “I mean, if we gave it to you, maybe we could call it even, and mom wouldn’t have to see the electric bill? We worked really hard on it. And it taught us a lot about electricity and safety and stuff. Didn’t it, guys?”  Everyone obligingly nodded and murmured their assent.
Joe jumped in. “Heck, it could sort of become a tourist thing or something. People might come from all over the place to ride the Tell City Electric Company hover board!” Joe always had great ideas about how to put Tell City on the map. He planned on running for mayor as soon as he was old enough.

“Maybe I’d better try it out,” Doug said. “I mean, it would be silly to let all your hard work go to waste.” Someone slid the hover board toward him. He deftly stopped it with his foot, hopped on, and pushed off. All of the kids hooted and applauded as Doug shot off down a ramp, up the other, and into the air. He grabbed his board, did a 360, and came back down. On the next trip, he did a flip. He skated for about 10 minutes, which was more than his fair share, but who was going to kick him off?

 When he stopped, the garage erupted into applause. Doug grinned and wiped his face on his shirt. “I used to be pretty good, back in the day. Thought I was going to be the next Tony Hawk.” The other guys were so busy talking to Doug and congratulating him that I was the only person who heard the pounding on the back door of the shed.

I opened the door just a crack, praying that it was another kid, and not my mom. A man in a dark suit and sunglasses stood there. His arm shot inside before I could close the door again. His hand cradled a badge with the words “Federal Bureau of Investigation” on it. I froze.

 Behind me, Joe and Doug were discussing the best way to move the hover board setup to the electric company, and negotiating riding privileges for all of the kids who’d helped build the course. In front of me, a smooth voice said, “Mr. Ramondi, I have a few questions for you about your cousin Francis. Would you care to answer them now, or will I have to involve your mother in this…situation?”

Next Episode.