The Ins and Outs of Geiger Counters, for Personal Reasons

There are times in one’s life when circumstances drive an intense interest in one specific topic, and we put our energy into devouring all the information we can on the subject. [The Current Source], aka [Derek], seems to be in such a situation these days, and his area of interest is radioactivity and its measurement. So with time to spare on his hands, he has worked up this video review of radioactivity and how Geiger counters work.

Why the interest in radioactivity? Bluntly put, because he is radioactive, at least for the next week. You see, [Derek] was recently diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and one of the post-thyroidectomy therapeutic options to scavenge up any stray thyroid cells is drinking a cocktail of iodine-131, a radioisotope that accumulates in thyroid cells and kills them. Trouble is, this leaves the patient dangerously radioactive, necessitating isolation for a week or more. To pass the time away from family and friends, [Derek] did a teardown on a commercial Geiger counter, the classic Ludlum Model 2 with a pancake probe. The internals of the meter are surprisingly simple, and each stage of the circuit is easily identified. He follows that up with a DIY Geiger counter kit build, which is also very simple — just a high-voltage section made from a 555 timer along with a microcontroller. He tests both instruments using himself as a source; we have to say it’s pretty alarming to hear how hot he still is. Check it out in the video below.

Given the circumstances, we’re amazed that [Derek] is not only keeping his cool but exhibiting a good sense of humor. We wish him well in his recovery, and if doing teardowns like this or projects like this freezer alarm or a no-IC bipolar power supply helps him cope, then we all win.

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Killed by a Machine: The Therac-25

The Therac-25 was not a device anyone was happy to see. It was a radiation therapy machine. In layman’s terms it was a “cancer zapper”; a linear accelerator with a human as its target. Using X-rays or a beam of electrons, radiation therapy machines kill cancerous tissue, even deep inside the body. These room-sized medical devices would always cause some collateral damage to healthy tissue around the tumors. As with chemotherapy, the hope is that the net effect heals the patient more than it harms them. For six unfortunate patients in 1986 and 1987, the Therac-25 did the unthinkable: it exposed them to massive overdoses of radiation, killing four and leaving two others with lifelong injuries. During the investigation, it was determined that the root cause of the problem was twofold. Firstly, the software controlling the machine contained bugs which proved to be fatal. Secondly, the design of the machine relied on the controlling computer alone for safety. There were no hardware interlocks or supervisory circuits to ensure that software bugs couldn’t result in catastrophic failures.

The case of the Therac-25 has become one of the most well-known killer software bugs in history. Several universities use the case as a cautionary tale of what can go wrong, and how investigations can be lead astray. Much of this is due to the work of [Nancy Leveson], a software safety expert who exhaustively researched the incidents and resulting lawsuits. Much of the information published about the Therac (including this article) is based upon her research and 1993 paper with [Clark Turner] entitled “An Investigation of the Therac-25 Accidents”. [Nancy] has since published updated information in a second paper which is also included in her book.

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