Are You Telling Me That This Sucker’s Nuclear? Adventures in Atomic Tourism
2012 Column Contest Winner
Anne Wheeler used to live in the Pacific Northwest and have purple hair and piercings, but now works for “The Man” at a white-shoe law firm in the South. To balance this assault on her soul, and free the ‘90s Goth girl within, she spends her free time working as a cemetery tour guide and exploring the vestiges of the Atomic Era.
Boy Scout Merit Badge.
BY Anne Wheeler
“I’m sure that in 1985, plutonium is available in every corner drugstore, but in 1955, it’s a little hard to come by.” — Doc Brown in Back to the Future.
Did you know the Boy Scouts of America used to offer a merit badge in atomic energy? Well, they did. The badge was first offered in 1963 and discontinued in 2005. The badge was replaced by a Nuclear Science merit badge that same year. I don’t know about you, but Nuclear Science doesn’t sound nearly as cool (dangerous) as atomic energy. Lame Boy Scouts, lame.
Now by this point, dear readers, we all know that I’m a nerdy lady in her early thirties living in present times rather than a teenaged boy living in 1963. But, I’m not going to let this stop me from earning my merit badge in atomic energy, according to the specifications set forth in 1963. Thank god for eBay, fulfiller of dreams, supporter of delusions.
So where did I start? First, I bought an Atomic Energy Merit Badge Series booklet on eBay. My copy happens to be from 1965 and an ex-library book, which makes it more awesome. It still has the pocket in the front of the book where the card was stamped each time the book was checked out. The last time this first-rate digest was borrowed was 1973, which is super sad. To make-up for this lack of love, I stamped it with my rainbow sugar skull stamp, (it’s the only stamp I have) and I didn’t want it to feel lonely anymore. Anyway, the pamphlet outlines the requirements for earning the Atomic Energy Merit Badge, as well as some great information about the Atomic Age complete with super-chauvinistic, grandiose Mad Men style writing.
My plan is to meet the requirements outlined in the booklet, with a friend serving as my “merit badge counselor” (which through some actual connections with the Boy Scouts, he is probably actually qualified to do), and write about meeting all of the requirements. And lovely readers, I’ll share it all with you! Your excitement is palpable.
So what’s this booklet like? I know you’re dying to know. It’s pretty awesome-sauce is what it is.
The first three pages of the leaflet outline the actual requirements for the merit badge. I’ve reproduced the first requirement later in this piece (with my annotations, duh), and we’ll address the rest of the requirements later on. But first, let’s eyeball the Introduction.
The Introduction starts out with a bang:
Every boy in every land in every age of history has been called—first to understand the world about him, and then to use his newfound knowledge to travel forward as a pioneer in search of other worlds and ideas still unknown.
Every, in case you didn’t catch that.
The youth of Elizabethan England learned first to farm and sail and then looked beyond their island shore to the colonies being planted in the New World. Your great-great-grandfathers may have spent their American boyhoods learning to farm, fish and hunt before they tried their skills against the challenges of the frontiers of the West.
Manifest Destiny! It’s our duty as Boy Scouts, and earners of the Atomic Energy Merit Badge, to go forth and conquer. We’re pioneers! Westward ho!
Continuing the Anglophile goodness, the guide combines old-timey language with a shout-out to Lord Braden-Powel, who I guess had a version of the Boy Scouts in England and then we stole the idea and ruined it.1 Kind of like The Office.
Horseless carriages2 had reached the streets of London that day in 1909 when the founder of the Boy Scouts of America encountered one of Lord Baden-Powell’s Scouts in an English fog.
The Introduction moves on providing an observation on Boy Scout fashions of the early twentieth century, noting that the Scouts wore “wide-brimmed hats and canvas leggings.” Sounds scratchy. We then learn that Marconi invented the “wireless” (WTF3 is the “wireless”?) and that when our father was a “Tenderfoot” (an actual rank in the Boy Scouts) he probably had a coal furnace, rode in a “fairly dependable automobile” and whiled away the hours reading Boys Life, shouldn’t he be “scouting”, pamphlet?
The concluding paragraph is my favorite. Mostly because it mentions nuclear stuff, and is kind of… neener-neenery?
You have been born into yet another age—the nuclear age—the age of atomic energy! No, not yet the space age—not yet. For even though men have orbited the earth, space flight as yet affects your daily life nor more than “aeroplanes”(say it like Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles) did your grandfathers’ daily living fifty years ago. Your sons may be born into the space age, but you weren’t!
Basically, you were born into the Nuclear Age, even though you may want to be part of the Space Age, but you can’t, haha because that’s for your sons. TBSS. Exclamation points, sarcastic use of “aeroplanes”4, what the hell is going on here narrator? Are you trying to rally the Boy Scouts to complete the merit badge requirements or just taunting them with the fact that they aren’t part of the “giant leap for mankind” generation? Kinda seems like you’re being a bully.
So yeah. That’s a whole lot of stuff to swallow in an introduction. It’s so grand! So sexist! And just really, really odd, and not related to a merit badge in atomic energy. At all. Not only does it contain Jane Eyre-ish echoes of Gothic Colonialism, it uses the term “manhood” multiple times, not in that way, but it’s still creepy.
Following the Introduction is the Table of Contents. The Table of Contents provides our first glimpse into the booklet’s underlying theme of… guns!, with hits like:
(hahaha, they’re in a bulleted list)
- Atomic Shooting Range
- Using Atomic Bullets Safely
- Instruments for Tracking Atomic Bullets
- Atomic Guns are Big Ones (this is the real name of a section)
The Table of Contents does a bang-up job laying the foundation for a completely armed guide. With all the mentions of guns, bullets, guns and more guns, the booklet is essentially a spent target perforated with mentions of things that go boom.
This weird weaponization continues throughout the guide, and this weaponization is not of the Little Boy or Fat Man variety either. The Atomic Age and weapons certainly go together like Marie Curie and radioactivity, but this booklet and the merit badge in general are geared toward the Atoms for Peace type of atomic rather than the Dr. Strangelove type. That being said, there is this insistence of bringing the “shoot ‘em up” into the whole thing. Now I’ve never been a boy in the nineteen sixties, but I imagine this was quite common. After all, this was the time of Cowboys and Indians and Davy Crocket and Daisy guns of all sorts; “you’ll shoot your eye out!”
After reading the Table of Contents, I had many questions, mainly, what the hell is an atomic bullet? Because I couldn’t be bothered with actual reading, even though this is written for children, I initially took my question to Google, where I found out that this is a type of fishing lure. Somehow, I don’t think we’re talking about catching delicious bass in this section of the book. Turning to the pamphlet, I learned that atomic bullets are radioactive rays or particles. Apparently, these are “shot” (using an Atomic Guns are Big Ones?) at Atomic Targets (apparently the shell structure of an atom; nucleus in the middle—bull’s eye—surrounded by electron orbits), fission or fusion happens, and Bam! (say it like Emeril) we have atomic energy for all the citizens of all the land. Well, it’s not quite that simple, but, you get the gist.
So, now on to the requirements! I know you’re excited. Since this is already getting pretty dangerously close to tl;dr territory, I’m only going to include the first requirement here, there are ten total, which I’ve already completed (Yay!, me! A fifth of the way to earning a obsolete merit badge!). You’ll have to tune in next time to read about the rest of the requirements, and my meeting them, or maybe I don’t? I’m sure the suspense will drive you buggy.
To earn a merit badge in atomic energy, you must:5
1. Be able to tell your merit badge counselor in your own words, the meaning of the following words or terms:6
Alpha Particle: Atomic bullet with a positive electric charge. Paper can stop alpha radiation.
Atom: It is the smallest particle of something. If that smallest particle is divided, the resulting particles will no longer have the characteristics of the original something. I remembered this from school!
Background Radiation: Natural and manmade radiation occurring in everyday life. This comes from things like airplanes, granite (particularly the pink kind), old clock dials, microwaves, household smoke detectors and your mom.
Beta Particle: Another kind of atomic bullet, but with a negative electric charge. Aluminum can stop beta radiation.
Curie: A unit of measure used for radiation. Roughly the activity of 1 gram of the radium isotope. Its continued use is discouraged and it is now (2012) considered an old-fashioned term. Which is sad because Marie Curie was an awesome lady.
Dosimeter: Used to measure the total amount of radiation received by a person. Once, I accidentally put an ex-boyfriend’s (he wasn’t an ex then) dosimeter badge through the washer and dryer and it came out unscathed. I think. Should I have told him about that?
Fallout: Radioactive dust produced by an atomic blast. Also a pretty kick-ass video game.
Fission: The splitting of nuclei.
Fusion: The joining or “fusing” of atomic nuclei to form a heavier nucleus. Accomplished under extreme heat. The sun’s power comes from fusion. Unfortunately, this is not talking about the P.F. Chang’s genus of restaurant, but it is alluding to the Mr. Fusion™ home energy reactor used by the DeLorean in Back to the Future II.
Gamma Ray: This is the type of radiation used on Tillie’s seeds in The Effects of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds. Also another type of atomic bullet with no electric charge. Concrete or lead can stop gamma radiation; it’s the bad kind.
Ionization: The process in which charged particles are added to or removed from an atom. I always confuse this with Martinizing, and I’m not quite sure why. Maybe the z?
Isotope: Atoms of the same chemical element having the same number of charged particles (same atomic number) but with a different number of neutrons (different atomic weights). Some isotopes are radioactive and known as radioisotopes.
Blah, blah, are you guys tired of reading all of this “science” yet?
Neutron Activation: Occurs when a neutron is added to a nucleus, changing the atomic weight, and creating a radioactive isotope. The activation is the radioactive part. I think.
Nuclear Reactor: The booklet says: “A scientific name for an atomic furnace.” Atomic Furnace is also the name of my punk zydeco band. A nuclear reactor is a device in which a nuclear reaction, chain or otherwise, takes place.
Particle Accelerator: Atom Smasher. The Large Hadron Collider is the largest, in case “Large” didn’t tell you that. According to The Gates, a great young adult novel so completely true IRL, using an atom smasher sometimes opens the gates to hell and unleashes demons. But cute ones.
Radiation: The way in which energetic particles or waves move through a medium or space. I know what radiation is, but it’s a little hard to put into words for some reason. I don’t know, but all I can see is that bullet moving super slowly in The Matrix. I’m not sure why. It’s not even remotely related!
Radioactivity: Marie Curie coined this term. See, she’s an awesome lady. The spontaneous emission of charged particles or gamma rays from the center of an atom. So I guess radiation is charged particles or gamma rays then.
Roentgen: A legacy (dead, no longer used except by the US Navy Nuclear Propulsion Program, oddly. Way to stay on the bleeding edge of science, US Navy.) unit of measurement for X rays and gamma rays. The unit of measurement described the degree of ionization, not Martinizing, caused by radiation in a cubic centimeter of air.
X ray: X rays are used to look at your insides. They also harm film, apparently, as noted by the x ray machines at the airports. X rays are created within a vacuum tube when high speed electrons hit a metal target. But still, how do they see your insides?
I guess I’ll have to check-in with my merit badge counselor to be completely sure, but I’m pretty confident I nailed Requirement 1.
Tune-in next time for more exciting merit badge requirements meeting!
1 Now, I don’t know if we’ve ruined the Boy Scouts or not, but seems like something we’d do.
2 For whatever reason, horseless carriages and headless horsemen are interchangeable in my brain. This makes The Legend of Sleepy Hollow a little more steampunk. Totally going to be the next Tim Burton movie.
3 My bad. The Internet tells me this is the wireless telegraph, which apparently played an important role in transmitting the names of the dead immediately following the sinking of the Titanic. Did you know that? Boy Scout booklet, why didn’t you use the word “telegraph” instead of trying to be all street? That would have cleared up a lot of things.
4 For the record, I have “Aeroplane” by The Red Hot Chili Peppers stuck in my head, and now you do too. You’re welcome.
5 Psst! All of these words are helpfully in the Glossary of the guide. Except Neutron Activation. I actually had to read the awesome guide to figure out that one. But, I did try very hard to make sense of all of the terms before just plastering them into this piece of writing.
6 Aren’t “words” and “terms” the same thing? Just checking.
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