Published: Saturday, March 23, 2013

How to split atoms at home

DID you read about the man who tried to split the atom at home? I wish I’d thought of that. I read the report out loud to the family: “Science fan Richard Handl attempted nuclear fission on the kitchen table at his flat in Sweden.”

Then I looked up. “Shall we try it?”

My daughter headed to the kitchen, reappearing moments later with the bread knife.“I got a knife. Have you got an atom?” she asked. “Loads,” I said. “Everything’s made of atoms. But I don’t think you can split them with a bread knife. Probably not sharp enough.”

Unable to do any proper research because of my severe TL affliction (terminal laziness), I phoned a scientific friend to ask for guidance: “We want to split an atom as a kind of home science project. We have loads of atoms around the house which we’re not really using.”

There was a stunned silence.

Then he told me that he had never before heard of anyone splitting atoms as a way of de-cluttering their homes. “Atoms are pretty small,” he said. “It might take a while to make any appreciable difference to the clutter in your house.” (He’s been to my home, once.)

He said ordinary household atoms were hard to split. “You have to get a Uranium 235 atom, because they have crumbly nuclei. You’ve probably already got some. It’s one of the components of household smoke detectors.”

Yay! This was looking good. So all we had to do was open up the smoke detector, find the uranium and split it. But what with?

He said: “The only way to cut an atom is to fire a neutron at it with a neutron gun.” I told him that the only neutron gun we had was a plastic one in my son’s toy box, which was probably not fully functional, although it cost a whopping US$14.95 quite a few Christmases ago.

“You can make a neutron gun,” he said. “Hospitals store this stuff called radium. Get a doctor to get you some, put it into a tube, and drill a tiny hole: neutrons will shoot out.”

And that was it. How amateurs can split an atom.

It really works, in theory.

I had visions of beautiful but tiny mushroom clouds rising over my table — what a cool dinner party trick that was going to be. But then an intractable problem arose in the shape of my wife, who always puts the kibosh on my pet projects thanks to this weird women-only mental trait she has called “common sense.”

Folding her arms, she strictly banned us from splitting atoms of any kind on the dining table. “You might stain it,” she said. “If you have to do it, do it out on the balcony.” We turned our eyes to our tiny, damp terrace. It was raining heavily. We decided to shelve the project. “The atoms will be wet,” my daughter pointed out. “The neutrons will slide off the uranium atoms.” We played Monopoly instead.

Still, it was a good learning experience.

We now knew the basics of atom splitting and could now understand why the tsunami caused problems when it hit the nuclear power plant in Japan. The Fukushima No 1 Nuclear Plant boss would have found it hard to split atoms with all that water sloshing around.

And his wife probably wouldn’t let him use the dinner table.

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