Teaching Nuclear Science to bright, open-minded, questioning teenagers
Some of you might have been missing irregular, but frequent, updates here on Atomic Insights for the past few weeks. You may have wondered why most comment threads have been closed. You may have even noticed that the Twitter tool in the right hand column didn’t include any new tweets for days on end.
I have a good excuse for my nearly complete silence in the virtual world; since the beginning of July I have been teaching a course in Nuclear Science as part of the Duke TIP summer program. Here is the course description as listed on the organization’s web site.
Nuclear science plays a vital role in the lives of Americans, providing approximately one-fifth of our energy and diagnosing and healing millions of patients with nuclear medical procedures. Nuclear science is used to enhance the food we eat, control pests, track materials flow in industry, date archeological artifacts, and identify chemical compositions. Through hands-on activities, computer simulations, and discussions, learn the science within the atom, study the history of key discoveries in the field, and debate the ethics of nuclear weaponry. Apply Einstein’s famous formula E=mc2, and learn about atomic structure, isotopes, half-life, radioactivity, nuclear reactions, fission, and fusion.
Even with a good level of knowledge, teaching 17 really smart young people for six hours per day, 5 days a week plus 3 more hours on Saturday is a time consuming challenge, especially the first time through. I’m sure I’m not saying anything new to the admirable people who teach others full time, but preps and follow ups add a considerable effort to the 33 hours of face time. I’m glad there is no grading requirement for this kind of summer program.
The term is coming to an end. I’ll have some interesting stories, new ideas, and thoughts to share with you about the experience. For example, have you ever heard of a neutristor? Before beginning my TIP experience, I had no idea that it was possible to hold a neutron generator in the palm of your hand.
I will, of course, be eventually getting back to a more regular publishing schedule, but it might take a few weeks before that happens. It is, after all, still the heat of the summer and everything moves a little more slowly in the southern US during late July and early August.
Rod – thanks for this post, and welcome back! I look forward to your upcoming posts.
A tiny niggle – the neutron generator is a “neuTristor”, not a “neuristor”. The term “neuristor” is used by the computer and electronics community for devices that act like neurons; the hope is to build high speed neural networks that emulate neural ganglia and brains. I was momentarily quite confused, but the story you linked to cleared that up.
That technology for generating neutrons is new to me, though I have been aware for a long time of the alpha emmitter plus berylium neutrons generators that have been around since the 1930s.
One interesting application of those is well logging in the oil industry where they look for the interactions of the neutrons with the rocks surrounding a borehole to determine what kind of rock is at what depth. As a geophysicist I had known about this, but only when I heard this podcast, http://www.scienceforthepeople.ca/episodes/bruno-pontecorvo , did I learn that the Bruno Pontecorvo had pioneered the technique in the late 1930s & early 1940s before being recruited for the atomic bomb project.
A side note of personal interest as that I should be 3 degrees of separation from him, since Pontecorvo worked at the Chalk River labs in the 1940s & my father worked there in the 1950s, so they would have both known people who worked there in both periods.
Perhaps, but I’m not qualified to teach any of them. Since I’m quite ancient, I’m not eligible to be a student either.
The second topic, “Energy, Conservation, and Green Technology,” was already covered in the TIP summer program. Please see “Through the Wormhole: The Past, Present, and Future of Science Fiction.”
Now, now – there’s certainly real science about those topics. Better insulation materials and building construction techniques, LED and LCD lightbulbs, nuclear energy including current generation designs and next-gen designs. Better battery technology for electric cars being developed based on new nano-materials such as graphene, cabon nanotubes, etc.
The neutristor even looks a bit like the pictures of the early bipolar transistors developed around 1947. Maybe the old science fiction movies with the neutron ray guns are not too far off. Perhaps nuclear reactors will be controlled like electrical amplifiers in the future rather than the crude motion of control rods.
This may a be a good product from a government sponsored lab.
Thanks for sharing this information. Those kids could not have had a better instructor.
“teaching 17 really smart young people for six hours per day, 5 days a week plus 3 more hours on Saturday”
I’m super impressed. That’s a lot of effort!
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