If you ask a normal person to pick a random number, they’ll usually just blurt out a number. But if you ask a math-savvy person for a random number, you’ll probably get a lecture about how hard it is to pick a truly random number. But if you ask [Valerio Nappi], you might just get a banana.
His post, which is in two parts, details how what computers generate are actually pseudo-random numbers. You can easily make sure that every number has the same probability of selection as any other number. The problem is that you have to start with something — usually called a seed. For the purposes of playing games, for example, you can grab some source of entropy like how many microseconds since a hardware timer last rolled over, the number of input pulses you’ve received from a mouse lately, or how long you had to wait for the enter key to depress after asking the user to press it. But if you know that seed and the algorithm you can perfectly predict what number the computer will generate next so it isn’t truly random.
Do you have anything radioactive in your house? Most people will say no, but they are probably wrong. A host of things ranging from glow-in-the dark timepieces to smoke detectors have some amount of radioactivity. But as [Wheeler Scientific] points out, so do some old Scotch tape dispensers. You can watch the video, below.
The dispenser in question is the C-15 which was very common around offices, military bases, and homes for years. They were made up until the 1980s. You have to wonder why a tape dispenser would be radioactive, and [Wheeler] has the explanation.
When you pull tape from the dispenser, you don’t want the dispenser to slide around the desk, so it needs to be heavy. But no one wants to have a giant dispenser nor do you want to pay for one made from a dense metal. So the plastic dispenser contains a ballast to make it heavier. In the case of the C-15 that ballast is thorium-containing monazite sand. A vintage counter shows the radioactivity which isn’t much, of course, but still way less than the ordinary sand used in newer models. You can also see in the video that the material is paramagnetic.
Monazite used to be a primary source of lanthanides but getting rid of the thorium led to alternate sources in the 1960s although it is still used as an ore for thorium. We know some lenses are radioactive. If you want to search your home for radioactivity and you don’t have a Geiger counter, you don’t need much to build one.
We think of radioactive material as something buried away in bunkers with bombs, power plants, and maybe some exotic medical equipment. But turns out, there are little bits of radiation in the water, our soil, bananas, granite countertops, smoke detectors, and even some camera lenses. Camera lenses? A few decades ago, camera companies added rare elements like thorium to their glass to change the optical properties in desirable ways. The downside? Well, it made the lenses somewhat radioactive. A post by [lenslegend] explains it all.
Exotic elements such as Thorium, Lanthanum and Zirconium are added to glass mixtures to create the high refractive indexes necessary in sophisticated lens designs. Selection of premium quantities of glass from the large glass pots, stringent spectrophotometric tests after stress and strain checks provide the valuable raw glass for ultimate use in lens elements. —Konica Hexanon Lens Guide, Konica Camera Company, 1972
According to [lenslegend] the practice started in 1945 with Kodak. However, by the 1980s, consumer distaste for radioactive things and concern for factory workers ended the production of hot camera lenses.
Cloud chambers are an exciting and highly visual science experiment. They’re fascinating to watch as you can see the passage of subatomic particles from radioactive decay with your very own eyes. Many elect to build small chambers based on thermoelectric Peltier elements, but [Cloudylabs] decided to do something on a grander scale.
[Cloudylabs] started building cloud chambers after first seeing one in a museum back in 2010. The first prototype was an air-cooled Peltier device, with a cooled area of just 4x4cm. Over the years, and after building many more Peltier-based chambers, it became apparent that the thermoelectric modules were somewhat less than robust, often failing after many thermal cycles. Wanting to take things up a notch, [Cloudylabs] elected to build a much larger unit based on phase-change technology, akin to the way a refrigerator works.
The final product is astounding, consisting of a 32x18cm actively cooled area mounted within a large glass viewing case. A magnet is mounted underneath which causes certain particles to curve in relation to the field, as well as an electrically charged grid up top. The chamber is capable of operating for up to 12 hours without requiring any user intervention.
You may have heard the phrase “flip-chip” before: it’s a broad term referring to several integrated circuit packaging methods, the common thread being that the semiconductor die is flipped upside down so the active surface is closest to the PCB. As opposed to the more traditional method in which the IC is face-up and connected to the packaging with bond wires, this allows for ultimate packaging efficiency and impressive performance gains. We hear a lot about advances in the integrated circuits themselves, but the packages that carry them and the issues they solve — and sometimes create — get less exposure.
Let’s have a look at why semiconductor manufacturers decided to turn things on their head, and see how radioactive solder and ancient Roman shipwrecks fit in.
Radioactivity stirs up a lot of anxiety, partially because ionizing radiation is undetectable by any of the senses we were born with. Anytime radiation makes the news, there is a surge of people worried about their exposure levels and a lack of quick and accurate answers. Doctors are flooded with calls, detection devices become scarce, and fraudsters swoop in to make a quick buck. Recognizing the need for a better way, researchers are devising methods to measure cumulative exposure experienced by commodity surface mount resistors.
Cumulative exposure is typically tracked by wearing a dosimeter a.k.a. “radiation badge”. It is standard operating procedure for people working with nuclear material to wear them. But in the aftermath of what researchers euphemistically call “a nuclear event” there will be an urgent need to determine exposure for a large number of people who were not wearing dosimeters. Fortunately, many people today do wear personal electronics full of components made with high purity ingredients to tightly controlled tolerances. The resistor is the simplest and most common part, and we can hack a dosimeter with them.
Lab experiments established that SMD resistors will reveal their history of radiation exposure under high heat. Not to the accuracy of established dosimetry techniques, but more than good enough to differentiate people who need immediate medical attention from those who need to be monitored and, hopefully, reassure people in neither of those categories. Today’s technique is a destructive test as it requires removing resistors from the device and heating them well above their maximum temperature, but research is still ongoing in this field of knowledge we hope we’ll never need.
When featuring cool hacks repurposing one thing for something else, we prefer to focus on what we could get our hands on and replicate for ourselves. Not this one, though, as nobody else has the misfortune of being responsible for 2,000 square kilometers (772 square miles) of radioactive contaminated land like the government of Ukraine. Trying to make the best of what they have, they’ve just launched a pilot program working to put up solar power farms inside the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.
This is sure to invite some jokes in the comments section, but the idea has merit. Thirty years of weather has eroded the worst aftermath of the Chernobyl explosion. That area is no longer immediately lethal and people have been making short visits. Spanning from safety inspectors, to scientists, to curious adventurers with questionable judgement making television shows. Supposedly, by following rules on what not to do, it’s possible to keep radiation exposure of a short visit down to the level experienced by frequent fliers. But that’s still too much radiation for long-term stay. That means no homes, office parks, or factories. No agriculture either, as plants and animals grown in the area should not be eaten.
Well, next to the defunct power plant is the electric distribution infrastructure it used to feed into, and photovoltaic power generation requires little human oversight. Some maintenance will be required, but hopefully someone has worked out how to keep maintenance workers’ cumulative exposure to a minimum. And if this idea pans out, clean renewable energy would start flowing from the site of one of the worst ecological disasters of our era. That makes it a worthwhile hack on a grand scale.