A wildly improbable tale of a Boy Scout out to win a merit badge by building a leaky breeder reactor, told with steady grace and enveloping dread.
David Hahn was not like the other boys on his suburban Detroit block in the ’80s and early ’90s, writes L.A. Times reporter Silverstein (Private Warriors, 2000): his eccentricity was an obsession with chemistry. He had a great yearning for it, too, and a willingness to forge past the blasts and burns, a knack for obtaining radioactive materials, and a talent for pulling the wool over his parents’ eyes when he waded into dangerous waters. Silverstein explains that this wasn’t much of a stretch, as his parents were carrying around enough emotional baggage to make Hahn look like a Boy Scout, which, indeed, he was. Silverstein beguilingly stirs a witch’s brew of elements into a boy with a mission: There was the Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments, with its amazing obliviousness to the volatility of its information; there were the Boy Scout and Department of Energy’s propaganda handouts on nuclear energy, which allowed Hahn to rest “comfortably cocooned within the confident optimism of the 1950s and 1960s”; there was the sense of control and predictability in chemistry that was so absent in his home life, and the pleasures of notoriety and attention, so absent from his social life, that his chemistry mishaps brought him. As the story creeps along, inevitably toward the reactor craziness, Silverstein fills in background information from a helpful introduction to the necessary chemistry and nuclear physics to an unclouded look at the history of the atomic energy military/industrial complex in the US. Hahn got the reactor running, then hot, too hot, and it would have been funny if it hadn’t endangered 40,000 people.
A preposterous story kept in check by a restrained (if incredulous) voice and by situating it within the folderol of the Cold War nuclear fraternity.