Bookmarks Issue: 

The True Story of a Boy and His Backyard Nuclear Reactor

A-RadioactiveBoyScoutMeet David Hahn. He’s a lousy student. He can’t even spell properly (the walls of his backyard laboratory are emblazoned with the warning "Caushon"). So when David mentioned he was undertaking nuclear experiments in his tiny lab for his Boy Scout "atomic-energy badge," friends and family in his 1990s Detroit-area suburb rolled their eyes. They underestimated David. This tale offers not only technical explanations of how a suburban teenager built a nuclear reactor with the help of smoke detectors, lantern mantles, and a 1960s-era textbook; it also paints a disturbing portrait of a neglectful family that failed to notice a functioning reactor in their potting shed.
Random House. 209 pages. $22.95.

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"[Hahn’s] experience is a frightening indication of how easily dangerous materials can be acquired – and hidden. … The personal tragedy here sounds as disturbing as the potential public disaster." Tim Rauschenberger.

Detroit Free Press 4 of 5 Stars
"File The Radioactive Boy Scout under ‘cautionary tales, parenting,’ and make sure you know what the neighborhood teens are up to." Marta Salij

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"Silverstein paints a rich and entertaining portrait of the boy and his hapless parents and stepparents who tolerated frequent explosions and damage around the house from his chemical experiments. … [He] is at his best when he shows that David’s naive approach to radioactive experimentation and his disregard for personal safety reflected our early gung-ho attitude toward atomic energy." Mark Johnson.

Seattle Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"At times, the book becomes bogged down with overly technical jargon, explanation of chemical processes and even a section on the history of the Boy Scouts, but [Silverstein] attempts to make Hahn’s story accessible for the layman. While I found myself skipping some of the more technical explanations, The Radioactive Boy Scout is an interesting retelling of David’s experiments, and an astonishing look at how a teenager built a nuclear reactor in his back yard." Rebecca Taylor.

Rocky Mountain News 2.5 of 5 Stars
"[Silverstein] rants and raves like, well, like it’s 1979, the year anti-nuclear feelings were at their zenith—and eventually makes a reader think that the reason he wrote the book was simply to create an anti-nuclear platform for himself. … In all, that makes it an interesting, if unsettling book, albeit one that should come with a warning: Don’t buy it for any obsessive kids in the family. It might give them ideas." Scott C. Yates.

Critical Summary

When EPA men in radioactive bodysuits descended on their suburban home, the Hahns panicked and chucked some of their son’s homemade nuclear waste into the garbage, never to be found. Reviewers were uniformly stunned by events that took place in Hahn’s home and backyard laboratory. Silverstein, who published a short version of this story in Harper’s magazine in 1998, gathered enough material from Hahn’s family and police and EPA reports for both a sitcom and tragic novel. Silverstein’s technical jargon alienated some reviewers, his screeds against bad parenting annoyed others, and a few rolled their eyes at his long digressions. But his story is compelling and fascinating—and will certainly encourage you to ask your neighbor’s children about their hobbies.

On the Flip Side

A-OctoberSky.epsOctober Sky A Memoir | Homer Hickam (1998): Fourteen-year-old Hickam conducted a different kind of backyard science project: building rockets outside his coal-mining West Virginia town. He grew up to be a NASA engineer, and this warm biography recalls the friends, family, and town that supported him.