31 December 2005

Radium Ore Revigator


One thing I did while visiting Louisiana with family was go to a rural museum where they had lots of artifacts from the area from the '30s through the mid-19th century. There was one particularly interesting one (from a rad health point of view) was a "Radium ore revigator" which, according to this website, put vigor into "tired or wilted water," which, amusingly enough, isn't far from the modern-day quackery that you'll find in ads in the back of popular science.

24 December 2005

So random

Gmail decided that the following advertisement was relevant to my email:
Are you a Random Badger?
Then you will feel at home in the comforting glow of Badgerville.
I just... don't get it. It would be hilarious but I think I've stumbled upon something so random it's just more "huh?" than "ha!".

I like vacation.

06 December 2005

Reactor startup

Today I had the fun of being a reactor trainee operator. Exciting. Procedures: unlock the SS scram buttons, engage magnet power, withdraw transient to 100%, withdraw RR to ~40%, start withdrawing shim safeties in gang until reactor reaches critical (not exceeding a 20 second period while doing so), withdrawing SS until 1 MW power, ignore John the ex-Navy annoying senior operator's comments and false alarms and coffee spills, engage servo. Oh yeah! I completely forgot about getting to announce over the PA that the reactor is being engaged and/or steady. It made me feel important. On the way down, disengage servo, hit alarm silence button, lower SS in gang along with TR and RR. And, of course, continue to ignore John.

I also made a microwave s'more. It was gooey.

It is also very cold outside (at least for Texas; it's in the high 30's). I need gloves, a hat, and a heavy coat. Because, biking in this weather? Brrrrrr.

11 November 2005


Today we were supposed to pulse the nuclear science center's reactor -- that is, to blow $1.50 worth of a control rod (called the "transient rod") out of the reactor, making about a 15 ms pulse of 1000 MW of energy at peak. Well, in order to do this according to our guidelines, we need to have the reactor critical at 300W with the transient rod all the way in. Unfortunately, the reactor operators had turned the reactor on that morning at exactly at the right time to put us at the peak of the Xenon curve. This added enough negative reactivity to prevent our reactor from going critical even with all four shim safety rods and the regulating rod out. So, we turned the reactor up to 1MW in an effort to burn off some of the Xe-135, but that also increased our fuel temperature which also lowered the reactivity of the reactor.

In sum:
  • To get the reactor critical at 300 W, we had to remove all rods but the TR completely, and remove the TR to about 5%, which is about $0.20 of reactivity removal.
  • When we took the reactor up to 1MW, where the fuel temperature is about 600 deg F instead of 100 deg F at 300 W, we managed to burn off at least $.02 of Xenon, but of course the thermal reactivity coefficient made our reactor a lot less reactive.
  • We inserted the SS rods back to about 92% and the TR back to 0% to bring the reactor power back down.
  • At about 300 W, we took the shim safeties out again, in the hopes that our reactor period would be positive (a slightly supercritical configuration instead of a subcritical one). Alas, our period was still the -80.6 second one characteristic of the longest-lived delayed neutron group.
  • Therefore, our reactor is lame because it doesn't have enough fresh fuel in it.
This is the first time I've been really sad over missing out on a lab like this. Pulsing the reactor is awesome to watch, and I've been looking forward to this lab for months, actually.

03 October 2005

Quote of the day

Girl is talking about how at the farm, she had to once stick her gloved hand up a cow to check to see if it was pregnant.

The dude in front of me, incredulously: "Why didn't you just put your ear right next to it and listen for a little moo in the big moo?!"

That guy cracks me up.

27 July 2005

Nuclear weapons and ball lightning

Today I attended a very interesting lecture (and a free, very tasty lunch) given by the vice president of our branch of the Sandia org chart who just retired two weeks ago.

He started the lecture by discussing the prisoner's dilemma, and noting that traditionally the most effective method is that of "tit-for-tat," where responses are based on previous actions. He said that once 40% of a population uses this method, a stable system develops where 7% always rat out/trade a null bag and the remainder always cooperate. This led into him talking about wars and how that method no longer works when "tit" means the destruction of both entities.

Last year, the PRC launched its first of a new class of nuclear missile submarines. They are also, apparently, in the process of constructing two more, a fact that didn't make any major news source (according to him) because of our close trade relationship with China. Not good, especially when they're making crazy threats about nuking the U.S. if we get involved in a war between them and Taiwan.

He also believes that within the next 3-5 years, another country will give an Islamic terrorist organization a ~6 kiloton nuke which they will detonate above the Pentagon, causing the U.S. to withdraw completely from the Middle East.

Among other things, the vice-pres mentioned an interesting study correlating the ratio of males over 18 to males under 18 and a nation's willingness to go to war and sacrifice larger numbers of the male population.

Most of that, along with some stuff about needing more energy, was given as reasons that Sandia exists and needs to continue to exist. He talked a lot about the future of pulsed power as the only feasible fusion energy source, as economically, laser-induced ICF and Tokomak as producers of energy won't happen. I'm personally dubious that they'll be able to get pulsed power ICF to work reliably and continuously, but that's beside the point.

Then he went totally off-topic to talk about a research project he's been pursuing in his own time. He's interested in the kind of ball lightning that doesn't happen anytime near a lightning strike (though usually sometime around a storm). There are stories of this kind hovering around for 20 minutes, doing all sorts of crazy things. One account took place 130 years ago in Ireland, witnessed by one Fitzgerald, of a "lightning ball" about 5 feet in diameter. It moved about a meter per second down a hill, and went into and out of the ground, finally going into a stream and exhausting itself after running into the bank. The crazy part is, everywhere it touched the ground (which was peat) left a huge hole about 4 feet (or meters, I can't remember) deep, so it carved huge tracks in the ground and in the bank near the stream. No mention in the account was made of piles of ground where it might've dug it up, or of steam rising from the ground. I wouldn't believe this at all, but the vice-pres actually went to Ireland and found the place where it happened. Since peat grows so slowly, the holes it allegedly carved in the bank were still there.

Another extraordinary anecdote was in the '70s in England. A lady was in her house when a 6 inch diameter ball hovered up to her and contacted her polyester miniskirt and the underwear underneath it, which a part of vaporized or vanished. She had swatted at it with a hand with a ring on it, and in the moment of time where her hand passed through it, the ring was heated to "scalding temperatures." The vice-pres calculated that if this were due to a powerful RF source, it would have to be outputting about a gigawatt of power. And, since she wasn't vaporized or heated up in contact with it, the band in which it emitted would have to be significantly less than the 2GHz water dipole resonance frequency like in microwave ovens. A physicist allegedly examined the portion of her dress that disappeared, and didn't see any singing or melting or anything. It didn't burn the woman, either.

One thing he's done recently is, using his powers as vice-president, obtained satellite data from Los Alamos of low microwave band emissions over the last several years. There are some anomalies in the data, one of which is a signal that translates to at least a 500MW output in the ~130MHz band over several minutes. He's hoping to use radio towers located all over the U.S. to triangulate a signal such as that if it ever comes around.

Now, personally, I don't know what to believe about those stories. A ball of hovering, glowing substance that emits power in the megawatts per cubic centimeter range for minutes at a time and can mysteriously make huge amounts of mass just disappear? Sounds impossible. My best guess? Demons, because I doubt even aliens could even pull these ridiculous stunts.

05 July 2005

Popsicle sticks

popsicle sticks

This (creating spring-loaded but stable configurations of popsicle sticks without adhesives or glue) is one thing I did today.

01 July 2005

Z tour

I got to tour the Z machine today. It turns out that the fusion experiments that they do are based on high-pressure plasma uniformly ablating the outside of a deuterium pellet (wait, how can deuterium be a pellet? a good question to ask). I think they said they only need to increase the current input by only a factor of 4 or so to reach the fusion break-even point. This only takes raw energy into account; it doesn't factor in thermodynamic inefficiencies or even the possible increase in energy they might get from using, say, a material that has an exothermic reaction with neutrons in the coolant.

The most interesting part was watching the assembly of the wires. They vary in size from 4 to 11 microns, and they (up to 600) must be assembled/threaded by hand (up to a 11 hour process). Apparently men don't have the patience/coordination to do it.

Each shot (about 220 a year) costs about $100 000 in people/equipment. Crazy.

22 March 2005

Light pollution

Another issue that's been bugging me recently is the relatively great amount of light pollution that such a small town as College Station produces.

What is light pollution?

Light pollution occurs when an outdoor light shines not just at the ground but also into the air. An example would be the glowing spherical lights on a pole; roughly half of the light it emits goes straight up in the air.

What is wrong with light pollution?

Mainly two things.
  1. It's a waste of energy. If the light pointed up were reflected down, that would increase the intensity of the light on the ground by roughly a factor of two; or, they could turn the power usage down to half and still get about the same brightness on the ground as the original lamp configuration.
  2. It destroys the night sky. I'm not familiar with the exact numbers, but the magnitude of the stars that are visible in the sky drops dramatically. The weekend before last, I went to Enchanted Rock (a state park, plenty of distance away from bright cities), and when I took a look at the sky after it was dark, I was absolutely stunned by the sky (it had been a while since I had last been camping or far away from cities with a clear sky). At A&M, on the other hand, you look up on a clear night and you'll see a few stars and planets; on a cloudy day, you'll see a pink glow. From several miles away from the campus, you will still see a pink glow over where the lights are. This is not good.

What can I do to make light pollution go away?

Probably nothing. You could try petitioning the different people in charge, but sadly, chances favor their not caring. If they were to pay attention, you would tell them to modify their lamps so that they didn't shine straight up in the sky.

End of poorly assembled rant.

24 February 2005

On Death and Doornails

My roommate and I were having another of those n-times-tangential discussions (ranging from bagels to Schrödinger's Cat to puppies to cookies) when I recalled the phrase "dead as a doornail." Since when are doornails dead? Wouldn't it be more accurate to say "Unalive as a doornail?"

22 February 2005

Fallout shelter

fallout shelter sign

Every time I see and stop to think about one of these, I can't help but shake my head in awe of the era that our generation so narrowly missed. I have (and it's archived on the internet) a "Duck and cover" educational video from the 1950's targeting grade-school children. It warns them that should the bomb detonate, they might get very bad sunburns, that they need to hide under their desks should it happen at school... I just watched it again, and it is frightening. I can't imagine having to be a kid in that era and watching that video. That must have messed those kids up.

I'm amazed and terribly grateful that the era of fear of large-scale nuclear war has passed from an ever-present danger into the history books.

19 February 2005

New blog

I've been predicting the decay and downfall of MetaJournal for some time, what with the lack of admin support, the database problems, unreliable servers, and the decreased person quality. Ergo, I've finally made up a new Blogger journal (I'm not going to try to revive Black Smokers) to which I'll probably start posting any time soon.

View my old blog