Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Radioactive Bowl

Radioactive Bowl in Lead Sheets. Doesn't look scary does it?

Being married to a computer/science geek offers me many learning opportunities. For example, since being married to my husband, I've seen people shrink quarters with lots of electricity and some copper wire, I know some bits and pieces about Linux and why it is better than Microsoft, I also know many different ways to put out a fire.
Recently, a friend of my husband's, we'll call him Gary, was shopping at an antiques store. After some time spent rummaging around the store, looking through loads of useless and uninteresting items, he spotted something that made his geek brain jump for joy, releasing large quantities of dopamine, seratonin, and any other happiness neurotransmitters that just happened to be lying around. (Or so I imagine, I wasn't there).
What was the object, you may ask.
An old radio? An antique cell phone the size of a brick? A dilapidated computer?
No, none of these things.
What he found was a red bowl created by the Fiesta company.
Now, before this experience, I would have never guessed that a computer/science geek would have any interest in old ceramics, but I would be, and was, wrong.
You see, in the 1940s Fiesta glazed their dining ware with Uranium oxide, specifically the colors red and ivory. Not only is uranium oxide highly radioactive, it also causes heavy metal poisoning. On dish wear. Which you eat off of. (In a side story, the US government eventually took Fiesta's stores of Uranium oxide, not because it was toxic and they were putting it on dishes, but so that the government could build the atomic bomb).
So, with this knowledge and the desire to impress his friends, Gary bought the red bowl.
A few days passed, and Gary decided to show off his new purchase to a group of friends. The friends, all being geeks themselves, viewed the bowl with a mixture of awe and trepidation. (Again, I wasn't there, so this is just how I imagine it going).
Quickly, a Geiger counter was pulled from one of the numerous shelves. It beeped in alarm, warning the gaggle of geeks that this bowl has high levels of radiation. Higher than say, normal background radiation, which we all experience on a day-to-day basis.
Another gadget was pulled from the shelves. This one to indicate the amount of alpha particles the bowl emits. Normally, around low level or background radioactive items, this gadget would not beep at all, or if it did, not very often. Around the bowl, however, it beeped about twenty-five times a second. This is exciting for many reasons, one because it means that there is a lot of radiation on the surface of the bowl and that anyone near the dish is being exposed to high levels of radiation. Secondly, Uranium decays into a large number of fun elements, Radon being one of them (see decay chain of Uranium 238 here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uranium-238#Radioactivity_and_decay). Did I say exciting? Read disturbing.
Alpha particles being detected with a Ludlum 1" Alpha Scintillator 

“I'm not comfortable with that in my house.” One of the wise geeks proclaims.
My husband, being young and apparently unafraid of radiation says, “Can I take it to work and analyze it?”
The wise geek whose house they were at tried to convince my husband that he would not be able see much, even with more advanced meters and detectors.
My husband was unmoved.
Gary tried to hand my husband the bowl, at which point he jumped back, his hands up so as not to come into contact with the dish.
“I'm not touching that. Put it in a plastic bag.” My husband's logic to this statement, as he told me later, is that alpha particles can not go through paper, and therefore are unlikely to go through plastic.
It is at this point in the story where I must stop and contemplate my wedding vows. I have to wonder if normal run of the mill wedding vows are sufficient for men and women marrying computer/science geeks. Should there be addendum? Something like, I promise to love, honor, and obey. May be void if you build sex robot to replace me, blow up the kids, or bring home highly radioactive material (see bananas (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banana_equivalent_dose) for definition on “high radioactivity”). Anyway, I digress.
Because it's fusion.
My husband takes the bowl to work, with much the same result, only this time his manager insists that someone immediately wrap the bowl in lead sheets. According to my husband, the manager offers himself up, because he's older and has less to lose than say, my husband, the one who has been touting the dish around all day.
The night after my husband took the bowl to work, we are driving to dinner.
“Oh,” he casually mentions, “did I tell you about the radioactive bowl?”
“Radioactive bull?”
“No,” he scoffs, as if I'm the one being ridiculous, “radioactive bowl.”
“Oh. No you didn't.”
He then fills me in on the previous day's events.
One question, and really only one question matters after he tells me about his friend's cool find. “Where's the bowl now?”
“At home in the garage.”
“You mean where I park my car?”
“It's okay. It wrapped in lead sheets! Perfectly safe!”
My husband, it seems, has missed the point.
“Uhh, sweetheart, next time you decide to bring home something with higher than background radiation, at least give me a heads up. Okay?”

As much as I love my husband, and I do love my husband, sometimes I just have to take a breath, smile, nod, and walk away. And in this instance, if I didn't walk away I might go the way of Marie Curie.

Please tell me I'm not alone in this strange world of geekdom, and other readers who are romantically involved with geeks have bizarre stories like mine. Submissions of the same may be left here (of course, don't forget to wrap them in lead sheets....).


  1. I don't have a radioactive story to share but here is my hubby's latest adventure, which also took place in the garage. He completely took apart his laptop because a) he became convinced ants were inside, preventing his screen from illuminating, and b) he assumed that he could put the laptop back together since he tears down and reassembles cars. For the record, he was wrong on both counts. No ants. And sadly, no more laptop. Thanks for sharing your hubby's adventures! Makes me feel better about mine. :-)

    1. Funny enough that's where the term "computer bug" came from. Grace Murray Hopper in 1947 found moths between his relay points, which were causing the primitive computer to stop working. He sent word that his computer had been "debugged" and thus the term was born. Now the question is, why did your hubby believe there were ants in his computer? Did he spill sugar on it? As Sterling Archer would say, "That is how you get ant's, people!" while drinking a Green Russian, of course.
      Thanks for your comment.

  2. Oh man how cool. I've wanted a geiger counter capable of reading residual radiation in such artifacts for a long time. What model, and where did you get it, and how much?

  3. You know, this isn't my geiger counter, it's my husband's friend's. I'll ask and get back to you when I know. :)
    Thanks for leaving a comment by the way.

  4. The geiger counter is a Ludlum model 18 analyzer with a 2 inch NaI scintillator and a 1 inch alpha scintillator. My husband's friend bought them from Ludlum for around $2,000. I hope that answers your questions.

  5. Ludlum - thanks! Checking it out, they have an excellent reputation.
    this opens up a new world of geekdom. And perhaps profitable employment; where I live, no-one screens imports for radiation, but plenty of people are paranoid about it...

  6. I'm not sure how accurate these are, but this is also something you might be interested in.