Category Archives: Adventure & Radiation

Advice to a Young Scientist/Engineer

HINT HINT HINT

When you are insane with genius, time management skills are the first thing to go. (Dr. Dinosaur courtesy of Scott Wegener & Brian Clevinger)

I am starting to build a backlog of incomplete posts, for which I apologize. For the TL;DR version: I went to the Nevada Test Site and it was awesome, the BBotE order slots for the window ending May 30th are now up, and a new label for the bottles is coming that I’m very excited about.

But today, I wish to grant the wish of a someone that made an order and asked “I’m a 23 year old engineer aspiring to make a difference in the world. Can you enlighten me with your wisdom through the telling of a story?” So, here you go, man. I do indeed have some advice to share.

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You are a wizard. No, really. You have Wisdom of Things and can tell the future of how they will work, or won’t as the case may be. Somewhere, somewhen, in Middle Ages the line between philosophy (natural philosophy being the old term for what we’d call the sciences) & magic got a bit blurred and it’s been hard to disentangle them ever since. Clarke’s Third Law that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic is just a reflection of that old confusion.

And that’s the trick as a scientist or engineer; it isn’t magic to you.

In the long, long ago, in the beforetime, I was a physics undergrad functioning as a TA for the Academic Excellence program at UC Santa Cruz, which had the dedicated mission of trying to help minority students in the sciences stay in them, with a grad student functioning as our supervisor. The grad student ditched out of the program very early on, leaving my fellow TA and I with a hard choice: do we fold up the physics program as we have no one in charge, or do we team teach it as best we can as undergrads? Neither of us had ever had a teaching gig of any kind before this one and no one taught us anything about pedagogy. We were second quarter sophomores for fuck’s sake; we’d just started taking upper division classes, having finished the dedicated physics major version of the lower division courses we were now teaching other students, who were usually older than us.

And they let us do it. They never made an effort to hire a new grad student for the next two and a half years. Our supervisors trusted that, hey, they’re physics majors, of course they can do it. We did and we did it well. Every single one of our students passed with B or better and the only one that had bailed on the program had to do it for health reasons, not because he wanted to.

But that trust is what I want to focus in on. Think of all the people in your life that have decided that math is frightening, that there is simply too much in the world to know. You have been equipped with the tools to tear apart the toaster of reality and take some good guesses how things actually work. When you can do that, I find people react in one of two ways: unwavering trust or fear. That trust put two undergrads in charge of 60 students that the system expected to fail. And they might have, if I hadn’t intentionally broken my students’ trust.

While giving a review lecture for mechanics about rotation and changing inertial reference frames, I made a sign error. Normally, this isn’t a big problem but when you’re bouncing between reference frames, things start getting weird fast. I decided to just roll with it and keep going, as no one had called me on it, just to see how far I could go with patently bizarre and wrong math on the board.

At the 40 minute mark, I capped my dry erase marker, put it down, and turned to the class. “I made a mistake over a half hour ago and none of you caught me. If you did, you didn’t say a word and let me keep going.” There were stunned and angry looks. Most of my students were pre-med, which means they were used to a steady stream of rote memorization from a year of biology and chemistry. With sad understanding in my voice I told them “Memorizing won’t work here. There are too many formulas and you can’t possibly hope to memorize the infinite permutations of them for every possibly scenario. The Laws of Motion and energy conservation are conceptual tools that help you build the tool you actually need for any given problem. Let’s start again, but now I’ve taught you an even more important lesson: I make mistakes too. Being a physics major doesn’t make me infallible. NEVER accept what what the person at the board is doing as absolute truth, you have to keep thinking. This ain’t a church and I’m not the pope. Pay. Attention.”

They never let me get away with it again. Thinking harder about the world and getting  more familiar with using the tools they’d been handed, rather than just memorizing their shapes for organization on the pegboard in the tool shop, started making them much better in their other classes too. To the point that after three quarters, when I put up three blackboards worth of scenarios asking “For each of the following, using what you have learned since the fall, please explain why Phil didn’t die.” that they were able to answer them all.  They were a little concerned that each of those scenarios was a real story, but that’s another matter. I actually got one convert who decided that physics was the major she should really be doing. It’s been almost 20 years and that’s still a moment in my life I look back on with tremendous pride.

You aren’t going to be able to do much about the people that are afraid of you for what you know and seem to be capable of (see also: the fate of almost every wizard in folklore), but you can try to get the people who blindly trust to join us. No one’s ever going to master everything, but the point is to get people interested enough to try; case in point, I’m shitty at drafting and never will make a good engineer, but that doesn’t stop me from staring lustfully at the CNC machine.

I would like point you at the old World of Darkness game Mage the Ascension, specifically to the Technocracy’s updated Convention sourcebooks. This isn’t just because Brian Clevinger managed to sneak my name into the 2013 revision of my favorite of them, the Void Engineers. They were traditionally portrayed as the adversaries in that game, with the “heroes” trying to keep the ancient mysteries alive and reassert them as dominant paradigm in the world. I had a hard time with this as the Technocracy were clearly the heroes trying to advance and awaken humanity as a whole, not just pursuing a personal and hubris driven set of obsolete beliefs. The lone wizard in the tower, looking for the secrets of yore in ancient tomes is doing it wrong. The wizard teaching an army of apprentices to wield magic in their own right for the common weal, that is noble.

Probably not a Nobel, but if you’re doing it for prizes, you’re in the wrong field. I’m not telling you to get out there and become a science teacher at your local school, but take every opportunity you can to explain what you’re doing and why to anyone who will listen.

An April Fools Cautionary Tale

TL;DR moral of the story: do not prank emergency responders. We will play it straight and you won’t like it.

Once upon a time, several years ago, a grad student decided to call the spill response line and call in a spill in a non-radiological control area. Because my name is first in alphabetical order on the receptionist’s list, the call got routed to me rather than the co-worker of mine he was hoping to prank. When I showed up to the lab, heavy spill kit and normal work bag in tow, and was directed to the break room where the there was a spilled mug of coffee, student declared, laughing, “APRIL FOOLS!”

I didn’t laugh. I remained stonefaced. I asked, “Is that the radioactive spill?”

Fainter laughing from student, “It was just my coffee, man.”

With continued stoneface, but a trace of concern in my voice, “So you drank it then?”

Student, now with concern in his voice, “Look, it’s just coffee.”

I opened the spill response kit and started to take things out. “Do you know it wasn’t contaminated?”

Student, stammering, “C’mon man.”

I handed him a bioassay kit. “When you’re finished here, I’ll need you to give a urine sample to verify there’s been no uptake.”

Student, “What?”

I gestured to the kitchen and desk areas of the lab “Once you’ve made a documented survey and decon’d this entire area, because I see several other mugs of suspicious fluid and evidence that the spill has been tracked through here, THEN I will need do do a urine bioassay to verify that you have not ingested any radioactive materials.”

Student, getting angry now, “THIS IS BULLSHIT! I’m not doing this.”

I did not smile. “If you don’t, then I have to. This is a spill response. And if I have to respond to a spurious spill, you will then get to explain that charge to your PI when it makes it’s way though the accounting in about a month. We always give the lab a chance to clean first during spills before we get involved. Your choice.”

About this time, while it was now dawning on student #1 that once you trigger the safety response script it has to play out, another student walked into the office area to come get something from her desk. I firmly told her “Stop right where you are. You have just entered a contamination area.”

She just rolled her eyes and said “Yeah, right.”

I blocked her way, handed her a pair of tyvek booties, and hit her with full force of Command Voice I can summon. “Stop. Remove your shoes, place them in this bag and put these booties on. This is not a request. When he verifies they’re clean, you can have them back. Meanwhile, you!” I gestured to Student #1, “Get the rad tape up. You don’t want anyone else entering the contamination area.”

Eventually all nine grad students of this lab were participating in an item by item survey of the kitchen and office area, and a complete on-your-knees survey of the floor of the entire lab space. Luckily, I had brought extra meters in the spill kit so it was easy for everyone to take part. Four hours of verifying zeroes later, I congratulated them at the end for running an exceptionally good decon drill and that I trusted that they would be well equipped for any future response.

That lab’s students skittered away from me from then on when ever they saw me in the halls.

A New Ambassador and Another Rant: Art Safety

GOOD NEWS, ALBUQUERQUE! The people of the Atomic City (not to impugn the honor of Arco, ID and Los Alamos, NM of course) now have a BBotE Ambassador of their own. When not evangelizing ultracoffee, Lee is an professor of electonic arts at the University of New Mexico. He’ll be receiving his first case next week, so drop him a line at bboteABQ[at]gmail[dot]com if you’d like to place dibs on a bottle.

Probably more important to the rest of you: the November 8th pre-order window is now open. Go for it.

And now, a rant I’ve been thinking about for a while. Let me open by saying this is hasn’t been brought on by any particular event, but enough things from all over have piled up that I want to try to put my thoughts together in hopes that it helps someone.

The rise of the maker, as social media is very happy to tell me about constantly since I theoretically am one, is nothing really new. To me it’s more a matter of people remembering that tinkering in the shop is fun, despite a world full of disposable things that are cheaper to replace than repair. Also, that it’s a good idea to have a separate building to store your highly flammable but non-potable liquids and tetanus inducing rusty tools that you don’t actually live in. Despite the abusive work practices of our grad students bringing cots and sofas to labs so they can sleep during long data runs, people rarely live in their lab spaces anymore than a machinist sleeps in the machine shop.

However, the live-work artist studio is a cultural staple. Just close your eyes, and you can imagine it. The high ceilings, the canvases stacked in the corner, drop cloths on the floor, the flowers growing from wine bottles in the windows, paint spattered coffee mug for coffee that looks identical to the paint spattered coffee mug for brush cleaning, a half finished sculpture over there on the table overflowing with magazines. Your imagined space may vary depending on your exposure to dancers and other more exotic visual artists.

But now I want you to imagine that space again with my eyes. That coffee mug for brush cleaning, is that water that for dipping the brushes into or is it turpentine? Either way, don’t want anyone drinking that because I’m looking at the paints now and it’s been a while since mercury-based vermillion was on the market, where did you even get that? Oh, you found it in a discount bin at Goodwill, of course. Is that Strip-Eaze? Holy shit, that’s the old methylene chloride based formulation. Why is your woodworking tool box bloody? Exactly how many gallons of lacquer do you have stored in the corner over there under the space heater? That sure is a lot of old fishing weights…oh, of course, you’ve been melting them on the stove and making new sculptures in cast lead using an pre-Norman Conquest technique from Exeter. No, no thank you, I don’t want any food prepared here until we decon and gut this space.

Okay, back to reality. This is not because artists are ignorant of science & technology, goodness no. They usually have a deep and intimate knowledge of their tools and medium. Sometimes entirely new tools have been made to do a thing no one even thought of before, or existing things brought together in a novel manner to make something new. But that creation can come at the cost of wider vision, the ability to see consequences. When you are focused on making the performance come together at the theater, especially if you are dealing with students, you can forget little things like fall protection working above the stage in the rafters of your 100+ year old theater.

The more concerning artistic idea that sends a shiver up my spine are people that create things with a willful disregard for consequence, that want to “challenge people’s vision and see how the world changes once I set my art free”. That is a quote from a student here at Cal. That’s fine if your creation is a painting; it is less fine if your creation is a giant kinetic sculpture made of rotating parts crush injuries and it never occurred that this might look a bit like a jungle gym to kids.

Then there is a cultural matter that I feel comes into play that I wish would stop: suffering for your art. If you feel bad that your project isn’t coming along and that drive toward self-loathing helps wrench a chunk of your soul out and present it to the world, well, that sounds horrible but thank you. NOTE: the trope is “suffering for your art”. It is not “heavy metals poisoning for your art”, “accidental amputation for your art”, “electrocution and arc blast injuries for your art”, “laser burns & blinding for your art”,  or “plummeting to your death for your art”. While I understand and sympathize with the terrible toll on mental health artistic pursuit may lead to, it’s my job to try to minimize the physical toll.

The thing is, I don’t want artists to stop doing dangerous art. I would just like them to be willing to listen to the people that are trying to keep them alive, rather than rejecting this advice as authoritarian bullshit (another student quote). At the very least, I would be happy if they’d be merely as resistant as the average chemistry researcher.

PLEASE Don’t Open That – A Rant on Generally Licensed Materials

Let’s start this out right by terrifying people. If your home hasn’t had any major renovation since 2001, I can almost guarantee you have radioactive materials in it. I’m not talking natural occurring radioactive materials like the uranium & thorium in your granite countertops, the potassium-40 of your concrete, or the radon in your basement if you live on nice old cracked igneous rock. I’m talking transuranic materials here, ol’ Americium-241 (Am-241), originally a byproduct of the nuclear weapons program that we’ve put to good use. How can I make this guarantee? Because you’d be violating the building & fire codes if you didn’t have at least one smoke detector. You may have heard about this before due to several precocious Boy Scouts cracking them open over the decades to try to get the old Atomic Energy merit badge.

Now, some of our less enlightened citizens at this point normally reply along the lines of “OH MY GOD THE DEADLY RADIATIONS ARE IN MY HOME. MY BABY AND DOG ARE GOING TO GET CANCER. WHY IS THE SHADOW GOVERNMENT CONSPIRACY DISPOSING OF RADIOACTIVE WASTE IN MY HOME!?!?!?!” Aaaaand this is why I don’t go to Berkeley City Council meetings anymore. Once was enough.

But seriously, why would you bring radioactive materials into your home? To answer that question, you first need to know the radiation safety philosophy for ionizing radiation dose minimization called ALARA, which stands for As Low As Reasonably Achievable. Note, this is not “As Low As Possible” or “As Low As Achievable“, both of which have been been used as one point or another. The problem with these words is that Reasonably, Possible, and Acheivable are very subjective concepts. Many legal, regulatory, and scientific careers have been built arguing them since the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 was signed. What is a bankrupting expense for very little reduction in dose for a small company may be normal business operations for a national laboratory.

There is a flip side to the coin of ALARA: we take no ionizing radiation dose without commensurate benefit. At a purely mercenary level, this is why the annual radiation dose limit for public exposure is 100mrem, versus the occupational radiation worker dose limit of 5000mrem. In addition to being better trained and cognizant of the hazards, I’m receiving a paycheck in return for my willingness to take additional dose. What benefit is there to bringing Am-241 into your home? It’s what makes your smoke detector actually work (tiny amounts of smoke blocks the alpha particle emissions of the Am-241, which causes the alarm to go off when the alpha detector stops seeing them). We’ve judged that the hazards to life and property from fire are much more immediate than potential problems with small amount of americium sealed up in a plastic box, on your ceiling, not being messed with.

NOTE: newer smoke detectors are laser based rather than americium. No radioactive materials, but you end up changing the batteries much more often.

But did you actually know that there was radioactive material in the smoke detector in your home? Did the contractor that demolished that building over there know? Did all the people the contractor hired know/were they trained/did they listen or understand? How many smoke detectors got to the landfill in the loads of rubble? How many times has this happened over decades? Whoops, we’re back to panic at the city council meeting again.

When you buy a new smoke detector, there are messages all over instructing you to return the old one to the manufacturer, with a self-addressed, pre-paid postage box. They have to accept the old one. It’s part of their general license for use of radioactive materials under the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The NRC is quite picky about what they let people put radioactive materials into and then let be sold to the public without controls. That item has been sold and licensed for that very specific use. It is certified as safe under normal operation and certain easily anticipated failure modes in consumer use, e.g a fire.

What is NOT covered by the general license is cracking them open, yanking the source out and starting to build new apparatus with them. The general license, in short, says “This specific use with that specific source is fine. Anything else and all bets are off.” I say this keeping in mind that I built an x-ray fluorescence unit as a physics undergrad using one of the many small Am-241 sources the lab manager had collected for class purposes. If I had a time machine, on my list is to go throttle that lab manager for his many, many transgressions. Screwing with a general licensed item is, technically speaking, a federal offense under the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 punishable by up to a $10000 fine or 10 years in prison. The moment you pop the case open, the general license for this source vanishes like Robocop’s Directive 4, which means you now need an actual license to possess this radioactive material and work with it.

And that is not something you can buy for a dollar.

A Reactor Accident Cocktail

Once upon a time, there was a nuclear reactor in England that was air cooled like a 60’s Volkswagen Beetle, called Windscale. It worked about as well as the average 60’s Beetle too.  One day, oops, the fuel and graphite moderator caught on fire. Who’d’ve thunk it, that dry graphite being pure carbon would burn readily…amazing! After this happened, this region of England was told not to drink milk for a good long while, about a month, but the terror stuck depressing dairy for years.

In order to get vital calcium and vitamins to children in the Cumbria area, a fortified version of the beverage called Ribena was created for use in the schools. If you are not British, you can be forgiven for having never heard of this demon nectar because your government didn’t have to find a way to prevent scurvy for an entire nation during WWII. I find it less palatable than Manischewitz as, to me, black currants ≠ food. About seven years ago, they finally demolished the Windscale reactors, which had long since renamed Sellafield to help with the public relations problems.

But, I came up with a drink and consumed it so that YOU DON’T HAVE TO, just like the my friend Ben “Benchilada” Stone eats the collective culinary errors of Asia. Much like Jesus died for your sins, I created two variants of a cocktail I call “The Windscale” and drank them for you. I don’t recommend consuming either of them.

Windscale Reactor One: 
    Equal parts Ribena and gin (for a double dose of British fluids)
    Stir, chill, and serve.

VERDICT: Revolting

Windscale Reactor Two:
    Two parts Ribena
    One part green chartreuse (for that concerning “plutonium in solution” look)
    Shake in a tumbler with ice and serve.

VERDICT: Stomping on a week old corpse probably makes liquids this color…possibly this flavor.

I was not willing to waste precious absinthe to create a Windscale Reactor Three after the results of the previous two. The remaining Ribena was safely disposed of down the drain. If magic worked, I would inscribe a Ward vs. Ribena on the door to prevent it from entering my house again.