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Geiger Counters

August 13, 2002

A public radio commentary

Today Geiger counters sell so briskly that manufacturers can't keep up with demand. They're popular with people worried about nuclear terrorist attacks. But when Hans Geiger invented it, it was just a way to make his life easier.

Geiger worked in 1907 with the most prominent scientist of the time: Lord Ernest Rutherford. Geiger and Rutherford wanted to measure the number of subatomic particles, called alpha particles, emitted by radioactive substances like radium. Amazingly they did this by counting the particles by eye. Alpha particles are too small to see, so Geiger created a special screen that magnified, in a sense, an alpha particle: It flashed when a particle hit it. This was an exhausting business that had to be done in the dark - Geiger recalls his lab as a "gloomy cellar", where he sat for long periods with his eyes glued to a microscope. And his concentration was often broken by Lord Rutherford wandering through the lab singing "Onward Christian Solders."

Geiger counted particles for five years, then left Rutherford's lab in England to teach in Germany. It no surprise that there he perfected an automatic way to count these particles -- the Geiger counter of today. Instead of using a screen that flashed light, he passed the alpha particles through a gas that created a current, which he then amplified into the familiar clicks we heard today.

Today his counters are in demand partly because of fears that terrorists will set off what's called a "dirty bomb." That's not a nuclear bomb, but a conventional explosive loaded with radioactive contaminants, which are dispersed when the bomb goes off. The feeling is that if you have a Geiger Counter you can get enough notice to take an antidote or flee the radiation.

This isn't the first time, though, Geiger Counters have become popular. You can chart the tenseness of our country's mood by the sales of Geiger's Counter. They were bought in large quantities when the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant released radiation in 1979. And during the Cuban Missile Crisis in the 1960s fallout shelters were stocked with them. And of course, they came into prominence in World War Two right after the atomic bomb was dropped. Our response, then, was different: Geiger Counters became part of a love song. Here is Doris Day, in 1949, singing the Geiger Counter Song, in which she compares her love to the tic, tic, tic of a Geiger Counter.

"I tic, tic, tic, why do I tic, tic?

What amazing trick makes me tic, tic, tic?

I tic, tic, tic, an electric tic

When I feel a realistic tic.

You're such an attractive tic,

You give me a radioactive kick;

It's distractive the way you stick,

But love, love makes me tic.

I tic, tic, tic, and my heart beats quick, How can anything go wrong?

When I'm list'nin' to that Geiger Counter song,

Ya tic, tic all day long."

Copyright 2002 William S. Hammack Enterprises