The first startling thing Joy White saw out of her bedroom window was a man running toward her door with an M16. White’s husband, a physicist named Bob Lazar, was already outside, awakened by their barking dogs. Suddenly police officers and men in camouflage swarmed up the path, hoisting a battering ram. “Come out with your hands up immediately, Miss White!” one of them yelled through a megaphone, while another handcuffed the physicist in his underwear. Recalling that June morning in 2003, Lazar says, “If they were expecting to find Osama bin Laden, they brought along enough guys.”
Don't Try This at Home
By Steve Silberman
Don't Try This at Home
By Steve Silberman
The target of this operation, which involved more than two dozen police officers and federal agents, was not an international terrorist ring but the couple’s home business, United Nuclear Scientific Supplies, a mail-order outfit that serves amateur scientists, students, teachers, and law enforcement professionals. From the outside, company headquarters – at the end of a dirt road high in the Sandia Mountains east of Albuquerque – looks like any other ranch house in New Mexico, with three dogs, a barbecue, and an SUV in the driveway. But not every suburban household boasts its own particle accelerator. A stroll through the backyard reveals what looks like a giant Van de Graaff generator with a pipe spiraling out of it, marked with CAUTION: RADIATION signs. A sticker on the SUV reads POWERED BY HYDROGEN, while another sign by the front gate warns, TRESPASSERS WILL BE USED FOR SCIENCE EXPERIMENTS.
Science experiments are United Nuclear’s business. The chemicals available on the company’s Web site range from ammonium dichromate (the main ingredient in the classic science-fair volcano) to zinc oxide powder (which absorbs UV light). Lazar and White also sell elements like sodium and mercury, radioactive minerals, and geeky curiosities like aerogel, an ultralightweight foam developed by NASA to capture comet dust. The Department of Homeland Security buys the company’s powerful infrared flashlights by the case; the Mythbusters guys on the Discovery Channel recently picked up 10 superstrong neodymium magnets. (These come with the sobering caveat: “Beware – you must think ahead when moving these magnets … Loose metallic objects and other magnets may become airborne and fly considerable distances.”) Fire departments in Nevada and California send for United Nuclear’s Geiger counters and uranium ore to train hazmat crews.
A former employee of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the 47-year-old Lazar radiates a boyish enthusiasm for science and gadgets. White, 50, is a trim licensed aesthetician who does herbal facials for local housewives while helping her husband run the company. When the officers determined that Lazar and White posed no physical threat, they freed the couple from their handcuffs and produced a search warrant. United Nuclear’s computers and business records were carted off in a van.
The search was initiated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a federal agency best known for instigating recalls of faulty cribs and fire-prone space heaters. The CPSC’s concern with United Nuclear was not the uranium, the magnets, or the backyard accelerator. It was the chemicals – specifically sulfur, potassium perchlorate, and powdered aluminum, all of which can be used to make illegal fireworks. The agency suspected that Lazar and White were selling what amounted to kits for making M-80s, cherry bombs, and other prohibited items; such kits are banned by the CPSC under the Federal Hazardous Substances Act.
“We are not just a recall agency,” explains CPSC spokesperson Scott Wolfson. “We have turned our attention to the chemical components used in the manu-facture of illegal fireworks, which can cause amputations and death.” A 2004 study by the agency found that 2 percent of fireworks-related injuries that year were caused by homemade or altered fireworks; the majority involved the mishandling of commercial firecrackers, bottle rockets, and sparklers. Nonetheless, Wolfson says, “we’ve fostered a very close relationship with the Justice Department and we’re out there on the Internet looking to see who is promoting these core chemicals. Fireworks is one area where we’re putting people in prison.”
In the past several years, the CPSC has gone after a variety of online vendors, demanding the companies require customers to prove they have a license to manufacture explosives before they can purchase any chemical associated with making them. Many of these compounds, however, are also highly useful for conducting science experiments. Sulfur, for example, is an ingredient in hydrogen sulfide, an important tool for chemical analysis. Potassium perchlorate and potassium nitrate are widely used in labs as oxidizers.
The CPSC’s war on illegal fireworks is one of several forces producing a chilling effect on amateur research in chemistry. National security issues and laws aimed at thwarting the production of crystal meth are threatening to put an end to home laboratories. In schools, rising liability concerns are making teachers wary of allowing students to perform their own experiments. Some educators even speculate that a lack of chem lab experience is contributing to the declining interest in science careers among young people.
United Nuclear got its computers back a few days after they were hauled away, and three years passed before Lazar and White heard from the authorities again. This spring, the couple was charged with violating the Federal Hazardous Substances Act and shipping restricted chemicals across state lines. If convicted, Lazar and White each face a maximum penalty of 270 days in prison and a $15,000 fine.
The lure of do-it-yourself chemistry has always been the most potent recruiting tool science has to offer. Many kids attracted by the promise of filling the garage with clouds of ammonium sulfide – the proverbial stink bomb – went on to brilliant careers in mathematics, biology, programming, and medicine.
Intel cofounder Gordon Moore set off his first boom in Silicon Valley two decades before pioneering the design of the integrated circuit. One afternoon in 1940, near the spot where Interstate 280 intersects Sand Hill Road today, the future father of the semiconductor industry knelt beside a cache of homemade dynamite and lit the fuse. He was 11 years old.
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See Also: The Strange Behavior of Bob Lazar (Alleged Former Area 51 "Scientist")