Monday, September 18, 2006

Dr. Lincoln La Paz Unknowingly Handles a Chunk of 'Solid Metallic Uranium' Previously Thought To Be A Meteorite

Buried Treasure

Time Magazine
10-1-1951

Lincoln La Paz (Sml)      TEXAS Buried Treasure On a sunny afternoon in Dalhart, Texas last June, twelve-year-old Don Monroe and two friends were swinging Tarzan-like from a tree in a dusty alley back of Don's house. Don noticed a rock-like object half buried in the ground, dropped down to get it out of the way before somebody fell on it. When Don tried to dig it up, he got a surprise. Though only half as big as a small pie, it weighed about 30 Ibs.

Don lugged the mysterious find into the house of a neighbor, George Epperson, a Rock Island Railroad blacksmith. Epperson took it to the shop, but none of the other metalsmiths could tell him what it was. Under an emery wheel it sent off a shower of hot, brilliant sparks; an acetylene torch wouldn't melt it. On the Fourth of July, young Don and his friends found a use for their find: they took it out after dark and put on a fireworks display by knocking it with a hammer. "The only trouble was," said Don, "we burnt a lot of holes in our clothes."

Suspicion Confirmed. The boys played with their strange toy for a couple of months, until they burned a hole in Mrs. Epperson's clothes, too. She then took Donald and the hunk of metal to Albert Law, editor of the Dalhart Texan. Law, in the belief that it might be a meteorite, sent it to the University of New Mexico to have it analyzed by Astronomer Lincoln La Paz, and his research associate, Mineralogist Carl W. Beck. With a vanadium steel chisel and a four-pound jackhammer, La Paz succeeded in breaking off a piece the size of a pea. Beck found that the substance had a density of 18.63 (density of lead: 11.34). A commercial chemist in Albuquerque confirmed their suspicions that the chunk was solid metallic uranium, which does not occur in nature, has to be refined from uranium ore by elaborate processes.

The chemist asked: "Have you been handling this stuff?" When he learned that they had, he advised them to get an immediate medical checkup. La Paz and Beck tried to hide their fear by kidding. Said Beck: "You're going to look good, focusing a telescope with your teeth." Countered La Paz: "And what will people think of one of the country's best bridge players shuffling cards with his elbows?"

Later, La Paz remembered: "We kept counting our fingers every few minutes."

At midnight they woke up a scientist formerly connected with the Los Alamos project, who examined the metal, confirmed the fact that it was uranium, and told them that they need not worry. Uranium's natural radioactivity is too slight to be dangerous.

Mystery Unsolved. Last week the hunk of uranium was in the hands of the Atomic Energy Commission. Where it came from and how it found its way to Dalhart were mysteries. But for Dalhart, the thrills were not yet over. The FBI, after poking around the town for days, found another piece of pure uranium weighing 64 Ibs. on a junk heap only three blocks from the scene of the first discovery. Estimates of the value of the 33-lb. chunk found by Don ranged from $1,500 to $100,000.

See Also: Space Rock is 'No Meteorite' Says Expert

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