A couple of weeks ago, I was involved in a video conference in which we were performing a sound check for a forthcoming webinar for which I was to be the host (see Register Now for Free IoT Central Webinar). Every now and then, the sound engineer would ask, “Can anyone hear a chirping sound?” Everyone but your humble narrator would say “Yes” but — as is so often the case — I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. Eventually, we tried muting the participants one at a time, by which means we determined that the chirping sound was originating with yours truly. It took ages for me to realize that they were hearing the Geiger counter sitting on the bookshelf in my office responding to stray radiation events. A few days later, I took part in a video interview with Jaime Villela as part of his Helping Engineers Become Better Communicators mission. One of the tales I told during our conversation was the origin of my Geiger counter.
Screenshot of Quickkway Geiger Counter on eBay (Click image to see a larger version — Image source: Quickkway)
I’ll tell you about this in a moment, but first I should note that this column was sparked by my chum Rick Curl who emailed me earlier today as I pen these words to say that he just took delivery of a low-cost Geiger counter from Quickkway that he’d purchased on eBay. In his email, Rick spake as follows: “It’s not as fancy as yours, but it does work fine. It got me to wondering — if I’m sitting here listening to those occasional clicks and all of a sudden it starts clicking furiously, what do I do? Break out the lead-lined underwear?” I will share my answer to Rick shortly, but first let me bring you up to date with regard to my own device. This all began around 10 years ago when I started thinking about the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant, which is located about 15 miles from my office. I read a lot of science fiction (possibly more than is good for me), with the result that I’m permanently poised for an apocalypse to arrive in one form or another. As a result of my cogitations and ruminations, I purchased a cheap and cheerful DIY Geiger counter kit, which I happy assembled. Unfortunately, when I turned it on… nothing happened. The problem was that I really didn’t know what to expect. At that time, I had no idea how much radiation surrounds us on a constant basis, so I wasn’t sure whether my device was working but there was no radiation, or if there was radiation but my device was dead in the water. I tried contacting the folks at the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant asking if I could meander over to test my Geiger counter against their reactor, but I gathered that they weren’t overly enthused by the idea, so I did what I usually do, which was to write a column about it. A few mornings later, when I arrived in my office and powered up my computer, I found an email from my chum David Ashton who hails from Down Under. David said that if I dropped my Geiger counter in the post to him, he would take a look at it for me. So, that lunchtime, I packed up my device and ambled down to the post office to send it on its way. When I returned to my office, I found a package containing radioactive glass marbles sitting on my desk. These were accompanied by a letter from one of my readers saying that he had more than enough radioactive marbles to satisfy his own requirements, so he was sending me some of his surplus to enable me to test my Geiger counter. Have you ever had “one of those days” — the sort where you start the day with a Geiger counter but no radioactive source, and you end the day with a handful of radioactive marbles but no Geiger counter? I don’t know about you, but this sort of thing seems to happen to me more often than not. Happily, David found what was wrong with my Geiger counter and shipped it back to me, at which point it started to chirp merrily whenever it was brought into close proximity with my radioactive marbles, so all was well in the land of Max (where the butterflies are bugger and brighter, the flowers are more colorful, the birds sing sweeter, and the beer runs plentiful and cold). But that’s not what I wanted to tell you about.
PRM-9000 Geiger Counter (Click image to see a larger version — Image source: Mazur Instruments)
Sometime after my homegrown Geiger counter experiences, one of my old colleagues, Vince Mazur, the founder of Mazur Instruments, called me to say that he’d read my columns and that one of their PRM-9000 Geiger Counters was winging its way to me as we spoke. This is the little beauty that is currently chirping merrily away in my office. A word to the wise: However enthusiastic you are about monitoring radiation levels while flying to visit your dear old mom in England, it seems that airport security takes a dim view of finding an active Geiger counter chirping away in your luggage. Of course, it may have been that they were just having a “bad hair day” (I know I was after they had taken the time to detail their thoughts on the contents of my baggage). Returning to Rick, I asked if he had tried holding a banana next to his Geiger counter, and also a salt substitute based on potassium chloride, because both of these little rascals are a little radioactive. Rick replied that he will do so this afternoon. And finally, with regard to Rick’s question as to his best course of action should his Geiger counter suddenly start clicking furiously, I told him to call me immediately and I would show him how to panic (it’s just one more service I offer).