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.”

Next Episode.

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.