Welcome to the Wasteland

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a piece of Nevada that America decided was expendable. It had eaten countless settlements, boomed and busted so many times with the precious metal of choice, and the taken the lives of settlers with it. We then sacrificed it on the altar of national security and science, to forever be removed from the world, burning it with nuclear fire. The Nellis Bombing Range, AKA Nevada Proving Grounds, then renamed the Nevada Test Site (NTS), and now known as the Nevada National Security Site. Because for most of my life, certainly during the period when I worked in the complex, it was known as the NTS that is what I will refer to it as in this post.

NOTE: I once held endorsement to go to the Nevada Test Site in an official capacity but never actually made it out there. This was the first time I ever made it there and it was as a member of the public, not as the privileged and clearance holding.

ICECAP Test Assembly Tower (photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration Nevada Site Office)

ICECAP Test Assembly Tower (photo courtesy of DOE/National Nuclear Security Administration Nevada Site Office)

I was lucky enough to get to take a public tour out there back in March. If you have the slightest interest in the desert and Big Science, or you’re just an atomic tourist, you owe yourself putting your name in the hat to take one of these tours. Slots normally open up in June, so keep on eye on the the DOE/NV Site Office Website for further announcements about tours. Yes, you will need to do some paperwork and possibly use a fax manchine. If you aren’t an American citizen, you may need to do even more.

Your tour begins at the Atomic Testing Museum at UNLV, which I’ve previously discussed, at 7:30 in the morning. Why so early? Because the next thing you do after collecting your badge is to climb on a bus as it drives an hour north of Vegas to the south entrance of the NTS. As a matter of entertainment, you’ll pass by Creech Air Force Base and have an opportunity to watch an air field that seems devoid of humans but with drones buzzing by regularly. The nearby town is boarded up, but the skies are humming.

I should add that I didn’t go alone on this trip. I was accompanied by my mother and sister, my Lovely Assistant, and Test Subjects Mortician & IT to Porn. This was a trip I had tried to organize before my father passed, but it took a couple extra years to get it all together. Some of the observations I’m sharing are collected from the larger group.

Once you actually arrive at the NTS, your first stop is badge check at the main gate. Just because you got issued a badge already doesn’t mean someone that shouldn’t be there hasn’t snuck aboard in the last 50 miles of lonely highway, so they check. This is the location that most of the old “No Nukes” protestors probably remember best as this is where the civil disobedience arrests used to take place. Our minder related his memory of when things had started to get a bit rowdy and there were too many people at one time to easily deal with, so they built a holding pen out there. Funny enough, the sherrifs discovered if you put too many likeminded people of a certain age together, of opposite sexes, bored, and possibly (very likely) stoned out of their minds… well, you need to build two holding pens. As described, it sounded like practice for future Burning Man camps.

Our next stop after going through the gate was the small town that is Mercury, NV because we’d been on the road for over an hour already, and there wasn’t going to be another good bathroom stop for quite a while; remember, this place is big, as in comparable to some states in New England. The more I think about it, town is much too generous a term for Mercury. It’s a quasi-military encampment that been there for decades, but it has a post office and zip code, therefore the place has to have a name and the original postmaster dredged up one of the old ghost town names for the area. Honestly, ghost town is a really good description for what Mercury was like. Other than the cashier in the NTS Cafeteria & Steakhouse, I saw one other person in Mercury who wasn’t on our tour.

Regarding the Steakhouse & Cafeteria, the Steakhouse wasn’t open when I was there, but I did peek through the window on the heavy wooden door. It reminded me of the fake rustic doors of old 1970s Italian restaurants you find in mini-malls, the ones with the tiny watery glass window with bars over them. On the inside, well, it wasn’t impressive. It reminded me of some of the less cared for VFW hall bars, except it lacked the character that comes with the old soldiers adding memorabilia and decor. Trestle tables, plastic table cloths, and a menu featuring Sam Adams as it’s microbrew. While it doesn’t look great, I’m to understand the steak is quite good, especially after a 12 hour long training exercise.

In the cafeteria proper, we who had woken up far too early for the tour had a chance to get desperately needed coffee. This was a mistake. A venerable government machine urinated into a cup for us. Test Subject Mortician took a sip, made a face, and said, “Tastes like its filled with scalding sadness.” I similarly winced and agreed with him, while my mom looked on and laughed at us for, truly, nothing had changed. The term she’d learned at Harris Technologies for this, circa 1970, for the magical machines that dispense coffee, tea, and chicken noodle soup, which all came out tasting identically horrible, was “Let’s get some kerosene”.

We then piled back into the bus with our snacks, to head out into the desert. Our minder for the tour was a former program director through 1980-90s for the non-nuclear experiments at NTS, so we got some interesting insights and tales of experiments that we might not associate with the place. For example, answering questions like “If you were to successfully shoot down a SCUD missile with a Patriot, which is POWERFULLY unlikely, and it’s loaded with chemical weapons, would the results of the interception be any worse than not doing anything?” or “If I wanted to try to weld a pipe onto the side of leaking chlorine rail car that’s leaking DID I MENTION THAT IT’S LEAKING to try to safely offload the contents, is there a way to do that without starting a chlorine fueled metal fire?”

Our next stop was the three mile line for the the Plumbob test series where, in addition to doing bomb performance studies, we were also doing survivability tests for different architectures and materials of typical infrastructure. We piled out of the bus and then looked up at the desert rusted heavy steel structure of the box girder train trestle, bent from blast forces, bolts sheared or yanked out of the concrete. The circle of concrete pediments continued at three miles from ground zero. We then kept driving and saw pummeled concrete domes, blasted houses, quansit huts. At the three mile mark most things survived; at the one mile mark, even the strongest, thickest, reinforced dome bunker looked like it had been smote from above.

The last stop I want to tell you about, because I want to leave some surprises for your own trip, is ICECAP (see photo above). In 1992, President Bush the First signed a temporary nuclear test moratorium. It’s still temporary, but the original 9 month moratorium has now become the more or less permanent 23 years and counting. Like anything that’s an ongoing process you bring to an end, not only is there something that has to be the last one but there also was going to be a next one. ICECAP is the nuclear test that never happened.

Depending on who you ask, ICECAP was either days, weeks, or months away from being ready for testing. It was intend to be what’s known as a String of Pearls test where more than one device was tested/disposed of at once, one stacked on top of another. But in particular it was intended to be a test of a British nuclear device where they were interested in perfomance in freezing temperatures, so there was an integrated freezer unit. They had the hole drilled, all the cabling and the diagnostic equipment prepped, and devices in preparedness to be loaded down the hole.

Why would we be testing a British nuclear device in Nevada? Once upon a time, the UK used to test in northern Australia until it got pointed out that the wind patterns weren’t great, hey, how about we test your stuff underground in Nevada instead? We’ve got a lot of Nevada, it’ll be great.

And then the moratorium took effect. Allow me to assemble a sarcastic, abbreviated year of diplomacy for you:

Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE): We really wanted our test.

US: We just put a moratorium in place. Sorry.

AWE: That’s your moratorium. We didn’t sign any of moratorium. We want our test.

US: Well, test away. Just not in Nevada.

AWE: We spent many, many millions of pounds for this test!

US: Cool.

AWE: NOT COOL! We want our test! We want our money back!

US: [whistles to itself walking around the desert]

AWE: C’monnnnnnnnnn

US: Nope.

And this is how a Smithsonian grade museum exhibit of late 1990s nuclear testing capabilities came to be in the middle of Nevada Site. Thanks, British government!

You will also get to see the Sedan Crater (which is the very large physical remains of the Plowshare Program), visit the nuclear waste facility where the remains of the Manhattan Project are slowly buried one football field worth at a time, and drive through Bilby Crater so you can say you’ve been to Ground Zero of a nuclear test. I cannot stress what a wonderful history and atomic archaeology nerd once in a lifetime experience this is. My only regret is no pictures, I have to hold it in my head as a dear memory.

Carbon Dating Primer

That Feeling Of Relief Which Comes With Really Good Rant

That Feeling Of Relief Which Comes With Really Good Rant

This was originally written on June 16th, 2012 after my family’s Father’s Day viewing of  “Prometheus”. It was then published in the final issue of Coilhouse. The editor of Coilhouse, Meredith Yayanos, immesuarably improved my words by adding excellent illustrations, such as the one to the right.

Hollywood, we need to talk about your dating habits. In particular, how important it is to have a reference to verify ages before you get in trouble. No, I’m not talking about the hypersexualization of 12 year old girls trying to pass for 18. Nor am I talking about the 60-somethings trying to pass for 18 as well. That is a totally separate head shaking situation.

I would like to blame the movie Prometheus for this rant, but they’re hardly the only guilty party; it’s just the one that finally made me snap. Hollywood, you don’t understand how carbon dating works, that there are other dating methods that sometimes work better, and that the true (unattainable) goal is to find the perfect point of reference to scale them all against. But underlying all of that is a body of scientific work and assumptions that you’ve conveniently ignored in the interest of “character driven plot”. But I have news for you: your characters and your plot make less sense when you take these shortcuts. And when you do this people become confused as to what science and technology actually are, to the point that we have to deprogram juries and judges of the CSI Effect in capital punishment trials because Reality. Just. Doesn’t. Work. Like. That.

You have science advisers. You ignore them at your peril. To quote Atomic Robo‘s Brian Clevinger, “What’s particularly frustrating is that it takes so little effort to find the intersection between plausible science and your fiction such that the audience will go along with everything.”

I’m here to help though. I’m giving you this quick primer on dating methodology, and the humorous ways they fail, for free. Of course, you get what you paid for.

We start by discussing cosmic bombardment. No, not “Nuke ‘em from orbit” Ripley-style, although I like the way your mind works, but rather the continuous rain of high energy particles blasting from The Great Beyond.  By far the biggest source is our own sun, but that just because it’s so close. But we also have all our neighboring suns of the Milky Way, many of which are much larger and energetic than ours, and the monstrous galactic core belching stripped nuclei at relativistic speeds at us. Oh, then there’s the entire rest of the universe, supernovae, black holes and all, sending nuclei (mostly hydrogen & helium) at us at 99.999% of the speed of light, exploding in particle physics collisions with our atmosphere. The atomic fragments of this are still energetic to have a half dozen more of these collisions. This is what is known as the “cosmic ray air shower”. NOTE: at no point in the process do you create the Fantastic Four.

Next, let’s tackle radioactivity and isotopes. For any given element, its chemical properties are dictated by the number of protons, and thus electrons, that it has. Chemically speaking, you can have any number of neutrons you want in the nucleus and it will still be the same element; those different mass nuclei with varying numbers of neutrons are known as “isotopes” of that element. However, nuclei with too few or too many neutrons are unstable and they will shed energy, in the form of light or ejected particles, to try to achieve a stable nuclear arrangement. This is radiation. An isotope that emits energy in this manner is “radioactive”.

For the bonus round, the particles generated by the cosmic rays can interact with the stable nuclei of the atmosphere to create new radioactive isotopes. Carbon-14 (or as I will shorthand it from now on, C-14) is one of the many naturally occurring isotopes, in this case generated in the atmosphere due to the cosmic ray bombardment of nitrogen-14 with neutrons. Cosmic ray bombardment of Earth does vary with latitude and the Earth’s magnetic field but due to atmospheric and water mixing, the ratio of radioactive C-14 to plain old stable C-12 is considered to be constant through in the environment.  When an organism dies, no new C-14 is taken into its tissues and it starts to radioactively decay away.  We can date thus things based on the changing ratio, relative to the half-life of C-14 (5712 years).

“How does this all relate to dating?” you may ask. Through some rather painstaking observation, we’ve been able to establish that any given radioactive isotope decays away to stable ones at a constant rate (the time until only half of the starting amount is left is known as the half-life). If you know how much of the radioactive isotope you started with and observe what’s left, you can then calculate how much time has passed. Simple, right? All I need to do is go measure how much C-14 is left compared to normal non-radioactive C-12 and, bam, I know old the thing is. Let’s examine the underlying assumptions of let C-14 dating techniques. Please remember that anytime the words “every”, “always”, and “only” appear in assumptions, one should be wary:

  1. A living thing has the same concentration of C-14 in it as everything else in the world, right up until the moment it dies.
  2. C-14 concentrations are the same everywhere on Earth and always have been the same.
  3. C-14 is being created in the atmosphere at a constant rate by a cosmic ray bombardment that has always been the same.
  4. Cosmic ray bombardment is the only source of C-14 production.
  5. We have a KNOWN C-14 reference point in time to calculate against calibrated to our calendar.

To seemingly completely change gears on you, My Lovely Assistant found this article regarding the oddity of the Dry Valleys near McMurdo in Antarctica.  I would like to bring your attention about two thirds of the way down to the picture of the Most Important Seal Carcass EVAR.  “Why is this most important seal carcass”, I hear you ask, “Do you have the brain worms again?”  No, I don’t but let me explain myself.  It is important because:

  1. It is a good example of the danger of doing science and not questioning your assumptions.
  2. It is used as a basis of support for Young Earth Creationism (YEC) that is less shaky than the idiocy of carbon dating dinosaur bones and I want you to be able to call bullshit on it.

Carbon dating is not perfect.  First, you need to calibrate the carbon “clock”.  We’ve done this by comparing the carbon ratios in organic matter that we are pretty sure of the age of, such as tree rings.  In particular, we tie specific events we know the date of, like volcanic eruptions in the historical record, and a particularly ashy tree ring. Sadly, we have no trees older than ~6000 years.  Second, your ratio is only as good as your ability to detect AND count the beta radiation from the decay of C-14.  The amount of C-14 in the environment is minuscule, hard to detect, and it doesn’t get any easier as there is progressively less of it.  After about ten half-lives (~60000 years for C-14), we in the radiation detection game declare a radioactive isotope to be effectively gone.  Really good mass spectrometry equipment can see beyond that, but the error bars on the measurements get progressively larger as you have less and less material to work with.  For this reason, we add spikes of C-14 to bring really old samples out of the background noise.

For these reasons, carbon dating is best used within the last 6000 years or so and gets progressively less accurate the further back you go.  Beyond 60000 years, your dating is more or less useless.  If anyone tells you they carbon dated something and got a date older than 60000 years, you are allowed to call bullshit on them or you should closely examine their method and decide if you need to award them the Nobel Prize.

This should go without saying, but carbon dating is useless on something that wasn’t organic material to begin with.  If you want to be really, really picky you could point out that limestone and calcite, both being calcium carbonate, were originally teeny tiny organisms’ shells so they’re organic material, right?  I would give you the finger for being a smartass, albeit a correct one.  However, it tends to take more than 50000 years to create a limestone deposit.  Sure, I can go hit the tops of coral reefs for samples but I don’t have to drill very deep on the reef to find coral too old to accurately date.

Back to Antarctica…

Down in the Dry Valleys, there was a researcher had been passing by this seal corpse every day and decided “Dammit, I want to know how old this thing is” and took a sample for dating.  The corpse read as being about 10000 years old.  This was somewhat mindblowing as the specific seal carcass was a modern seal. The problem cropped up when they dated a bit of seal from a recently collected sample to help calibrate the carbon dating “clock” for the local area.  The fresh sample, from a living seal that unhappily flopped away, dated as being 2000 years old.  Uh oh…

Sharing these results, this turned into an immediate proof for refutation of carbon dating, and thus all science that might suggest an Earth older than Bishop Usher’s estimate, by the YEC believers.  A simultaneous contradictory thought accepting carbon dating commonly held by YEC that carbon dating of dinosaur bones shows them to fall in the last 10000 years.  They generally fail to discuss the likely contamination from sample collection (say, perhaps, plaster…) and that DINOSAUR BONES ARE FUCKING ROCKS, NOT ORGANIC SAMPLES. Sorry, I get excitable about these things.

Scientists, on the other hand, were very puzzled by the discrepancy.  They repeated the experiment several more times.  Except for elephant seals and orca, every time they sampled a local organism, they kept getting an anomalously old carbon date.  The exceptions were what broke the mystery; every other organism they sampled did not leave the Southern Ocean on its migration.  From this, we learned to question the underlying assumption of carbon dating, that the C-14/C-12 ratio was constant in the environment.  It’s not.

Imagine, if you will a place that is very cold, and isolated from the global carbon cycle due to the austral circumpolar flow of air and surface water.  Relative the carbon cycle, it is an island.  There is deep flow of the cold water along the ocean floor to Antarctica, but it takes centuries to get there.  The low intensity of the high angle cosmic ray bombardment on Antarctica means there is less locally produced C-14 inside of the isolated area.  Antarctica is a naturally C-14 poor environment.  Relative to the carbon dating calibration curves of the rest of the world, everything looks ancient.

From this we also learned that our numbers get skewed in the vicinity of volcanoes; they’re big CO2 carbon output from very old carbon locked in the Earth’s mantle that ends up saturating the local environment. So, while it’s great to use that nice ash layer in a tree ring to help set your chronology clock, you might not want to carbon date that specific ring when choosing your samples. Also, we figured out that we have completely screwed up carbon dating for the future (without creating major correction factors) by dumping huge amounts of most venerable carbon into the global cycle by burning fossil fuels.

Humanity also kind of, sort of, if you want to be really picky, manufactured a bunch of C-14 through nuclear testing that we’ve blasted into the atmosphere that negates the assumption that cosmic ray bombardment is the only source of C-14. For this reason, when we do carbon dating “The Present” is defined as January 1, 1950. It’s the consensus date the scientific community could agree upon where, after that, we’d muddied the waters with nuclear blasts too much to do dating. Because I’m funny that way, I created a word to describe this: nuclearche, the onset of nuclear activities that are widely observable in the geologic record. Truly, we live in the Anthropocene Epoch and the pulse of interesting isotopes and their decay products will be the signpost that the geologists, anthropologists, and paleontologists of the future uplift raccoons society will use to study our times.

(I might be wrong about the raccoons. It could be crows. It pays to be nice to your future corvid overlords now.)

To bring this all back to complaining about the science of Prometheus, all of this goes out the window when you leave Earth. All those assumptions don’t hold true 100% on Earth, much less another planet. We established the primordial radionuclide dating system thanks to meteorites, which we assume (assumption 1) are made from the same uniform mixture of starstuff (assumption 2) that condensed into the solar system. These systems might work for Mars, but you have no idea what an alien solar system’s chemical and isotopic make up is. We have no signposts for alien worlds. Sure, we could take the time to establish what the C-14 generation rate on a given planet is, but we have no frame of reference when we first get there.

THE (SPOILERY) CONCLUSION:

When the good doctors date the corpse of the Engineer’s head and body they discovered with the Magical Dating Stick of Science, they immediately come up with 2000 years. The only way that possibly makes works is if he was born and bred on Earth, made of atoms from Earth, went to LV-223 in a vessel with no cosmic ray bombardment, and then died promptly on arrival without breathing or eating much of anything on that moon.

And this all is what went rattling through my brain and distracted me from the rest of the otherwise very pretty movie. Not nearly as bad as when I stood up in the middle of The World Is Not Enough and yelled at the screen, “THEY NEVER LOOK LIKE THAT!” at scantily clad Denise Richards when she introduced herself as an IAEA nuclear physicist.

But that’s a rant for another time.

New Things, Departures, & Fun

Alright, I’ve good news, better news, great news, and a small bummer for you all.

The bummer: my roaster of choice for my Panama declares end of season. Accordingly, it has been removed as a selection on the radio buttons when you’re placing an order. It will be missed, as it always is, and hopefully will return to us in six months or so, El Niño and blights permitting.

The good: I am pleased to announce that the BBotE Embassy of Dublin, Ireland is now active again! Jonathan, who you can contact by email bahrae [at] yahoo [dot] com, is stocked with 1L bottles for €70. His case should arrive tomorrow if you want to lay claim to some of his sweet caffeinated bounty.

The better: I got to play with Lego and hang out with fun people! Norm and Will at tested.com have a segment that I am quite fond of called “Lego With Friends”. As I am a friendly person, with impeccable Lego credentials of insobriety thanks to the Liquor ‘n’ Lego tradition, they invited me on. The first episode of the series of five is free for the world to see, though the subsequent ones are premium content. For those of you that’ve been reading the blog all along, some stories may sound familiar. These are the same two guys that have previously run the Octobercast fundraiser that I joined them on at  stupid in the morning two years ago, but luckily there was BBotE.

PERFECTLY NORMAL COFFEE

PERFECTLY NORMAL COFFEE – Approved for filthy mammal consumption.

The great: THERE IS A DR. DINOSAUR LABEL FOR BBOTE!!! Folks have been asking if this could happen since… well… conservatively speaking, since the Tesladyne & Atomic Robo labels first appeared. In thanks for the support over years and to celebrate Atomic Robo Volume 10 kicking off online, half a page a day, every day, Scott & Brian gave me their blessing to make up a Dr. Dinosaur label. And here it is, DR. DINOSAUR’S PERFECTLY NORMAL COFFEE!

I would also like to extend tremendous thanks for this label existing to Test Subject Miller who did tremendous amounts of art & graphic design work so that this label could see the light of day. Scott may’ve created Dr. Dino, but cramming his goofy therapod butt onto a label wasn’t easy, she wow’d Scott & I with her tinkering, and now it’s finally here. If you wish to see her other arts, some of which are quite naughty so can’t say you haven’t been warned, you can go hit her deviantArt page here.

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.

_______________

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.

And Back Again – A Phil’s Journey.

Approximately 3300 miles, many people visited, things seen, and cocktails drank later, we’re back and the coffee engines are running again. Fresh order slots are up for the production window closing 7/12, the Ambassador of NYC is active again and an old friend, Guatemala Nueva Vinas, is available again as one of your flavor options.

CROSS-COUNTRY TRIP 2014 VITAL STATISTICS

Death Toll:

  • Untold thousands of insects. Seriously, in Louisiana near sunset it sounded like rain so many were splattering on the windshield.
  • One small incautious bird in Arizona.
  • Two Hertz rental vehicles for the exact same maintenance/mechanical failure.

Relating to one of my favorite posts to dredge up over and over again, good job Hertz, you’re now on my customer service education list. I was treated extremely well by the counter staff at both Jackson, MS and Albuquerque, NM airports where I did my best to swap failing cars. Every phone call with Hertz HQ was misery with a side order of policies that hamstrung the counter staff’s ability to help.

Arrests: Nearly one. Los Alamos National Laboratory really needs to redesign their entry portal.

Whataburgers Consumed: None. I was able to demonstrate that this was the establishment that Beavis & Butthead worked in, disguised for legal reasons as Burger World, thus showing this was Mike Judge’s first foray into documentary film. The Lovely Assistant was unwilling to set foot inside. Making the connection to Beavis & Butthead probably didn’t help.

National Parks/Monuments Visited: Carlsbad Caverns, Petrified Forest (passed through), Grand Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains (technically we were in the boundaries). Honorable mention goes to Barringer Crater even though the US government doesn’t own it.

Best Rest Stops:

  • Pyote, TX – This rest stop succeeded in a goal no other rest stop has ever achieved: it made me want to stop, deviate from my planned trip, and explore the local history the rest stop highlighted. I actually want to go back to West Texas, visit, and learn more about Rattlesnake Bomber Base.
  • Mississippi I-20 Eastern Welcome Center – It was wonderful to not be in the sultry Gulf air of Magnolia State and be inside instead. As the Lovely Assistant said in a whining voice, “I can taste Mississippi.” Mississippi reminds me a lot of Hilo, HI minus the tropical flower smells.
  • Pooping +1?

    Pooping +1?

    Every Goddamn Rest Stop In New Mexico – When you visit rest stops in the State of New Mexico they have these handy buttons to press and vote whether you approve of this rest area. I am pretty sure New Mexico might have the grounds to sue the shit out of Reddit, Facebook, and Google for stealing their ranking system.

Best Named Store: A marijuana dispensary and head shop in Roswell, NM called “Area 420”. I can only assume they have amazing reverse engineered ALIEN BONG TECHNOLOGY. While I am not even remotely their target audience, I kinda regret not stopping and going in.

Most Irritating Thing: No-see-ums in South Carolina. It seems I react to those far worse than I do mosquito bites. I swear I’m going to have scars from them. In fact, the only thing comparable were the sand fly bites while hiking in New Zealand. Little bastards.

How I Destroyed History: While hiding in George Mason Memorial Park to escape school groups that had been at the Jefferson Memorial and in the wake of listening to all the fine southern accents, my brain decided that Thomas Jefferson sounded like Matthew McConaughey’s character in “Dazed & Confused”. I then rewrote the Declaration of Independence to begin “ALRIGHTALRIGHTALRIGHT! I keep getting older, but these rights are always inalienable.” I can no longer read the founding documents of my country without hearing his voice in my head.

VACATION TIME

Alright, that’s it folks. All the orders for the production window ending 5/17 have now shipped, including a restock case for the BBotE Ambassador of Chicago. I opened the next production window for people that want to make absolutely sure they’re at the head of the line for when I get back from the grand road trip, but as you may notice, that window closes on June 28th and production doesn’t even resume until the 12th. That goes for Steins of Science as well as BBotE, can’t very well take the drill press with me. Rest assured, I won’t be silent while I’m out there, though you’ll like have to be paying attention to my poop jokes and puns on Twitter.

That said, if you drop me a line and your needs just happen to line up with what I’m making for myself, it’s possible I can get a bottle or stein out the door before I hit the road on Thursday. You can always ask and the worst that can happen is that I’ll say “Nope. Time is too tight.”

And with that…