Saturday, May 31, 2008

Never Lost but Found

While looking for something of great value (a picture of a former professor in a rather embarrassing costume, for his retirement party) I found two other things. The first, a sample of Trinitite, is below the fold with an explanation. The second was a set of notes scribbled in the back of a program for the inauguration of a university president circa 1980. [I was part of the pomp and circumstance, in full academic regalia, for a ceremony that was a hundred times better than the president turned out to be.]

Academic humor:

One of the speakers (my notes don't say who) listed the primary concerns of the three constituencies of any university:

  • Alumni: football tickets
  • Students: sex
  • Faculty: parking places
The entire audience went wild, howling with laughter.

Nearly 30 years later, with an entirely new generation of students, faculty, and alumni, I don't think that has changed one bit. I also suspect that it was true 30 years earlier.

Trinitite is a quasi-man-made mineral.

It is dirt (mostly sand in this case) that was converted to a greenish glass by the explosion of a nuclear weapon, in this case the "gadget" detonated out on the Journado del Muerto near Alamagordo NM in July 1945.

This particular item was a gift from a fellow grad student, who picked it up in a store in Los Alamos during a visit there. I have no idea how or when it was collected by the people who packaged it, but the site is now open to the public every year. However, since it is a National Monument, removing anything would be illegal today. I'm guessing it was collected by someone working at or near the site when other samples were collected for scientific study.

When I got it, the first thing I did was check the claim that it had "lost" its radioactivity. It hadn't, but the levels were quite low. (Now that I have found it, I will check it again with a meter we have at work.) I never did put it in front of a high quality gamma spectrometer and try to figure out what isotopes were present.

Obviously this item was taken through an airport (actually, several airports) long before anyone was looking for radioactive materials in your luggage!

And a third item. Oh. My. God.

I also found a photocopy of something I thought was gone forever: A detailed breakdown of the grade distributions, by college, at Enormous State U for one particular school year. This was part of the data included in a massive notebook (at least 3" thick) I was given when I was a member of a major academic policy committee as a grad student. [That was the reason I was in full regalia at the inauguration described at the top of this posting.] It also has the passing rates for the math and english placement tests given every freshman, again broken down by college, and historical data on the university-wide GPA from the 50s, showing a phase transition (physics lingo) after the Vietnam protest years.

I anticipate some writing on this subject. Now if I could only get the same data for the current year. That would be interesting.


Rebecca said...

Dr. Pion, you have all the cool stuff -- the model Cray I, and now trinitite!

CarlBrannen said...

One of my roommates picked up about 20 pounds of trinitite. At that time, the site could be visited on only one day per year. There is a regulation that you're not supposed to take stuff from it, but this is not enforced much I guess.

At that time I was a student at university in Socorro, which was also the state's school of mining, hence the concentration on mineral collecting. My roommate put himself through school by collecting and selling minerals for collectors.

My recollection is that it was greenish and glassy. I was told that the site had been bulldozed in order to put most of the stuff underground but that one could still pick up pieces of it.

The collector's mind is naturally led to the question of putting together a complete set. That would include "Hiroshimite" and "Bikinite" and more than 1000 other US tests. A full set would include samples of the glass residue from the various Russian, French, and Chinese tests.

Doctor Pion said...

Thanks for the info. Maybe the piece I have was collected by your roommate!

Interesting idea for a collector, but only blasts near the surface would produce this sort of melting. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were air bursts, around 10,000 feet. The heat from the flash burned off paint and flesh, but I doubt if it melted the soil.

There might be a chance to find something in the underwater crater formed by the early thermonuclear tests, such as the now-missing island of Elugelab. I think some of those areas are now open to divers, but all surface contamination was cleaned up.

plam said...

I've heard that line about faculty parking before. But I know quite a few faculty who walk or bike to campus.

Personally, I bike all the time, and selected a place to live based on easy bike access to school and to the city center. Walking would be possible (30 minutes), but exceeds my attention span.