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Saturday, 19 September 2015

When School-Children Asked Me How To Make A Bomb

As many students do, I spent a summer abroad doing a charity thing. Don't get me wrong, this was no posh-boy's year out, I raised pretty much all the money myself and it was via a university society which specialised in overseas aid projects.  But yes - it was one hell of a good time. I got to go to Nepal, which as a keen mountaineer at the time was a dream come true, if a little frustrating - I had a couple of thousand pounds to spend on my two months there, most of which was spent on flights, trains and directly to a school in Sundarijaal, just outside Kathmandu, and the lovely local family who housed and fed us.  Fancy actually going mountaineering in Nepal? Well you're going to need somewhere in the region of 100 times the money I had available for the project. I could see the classic summits from my books, but there's no way I was going to even set foot on them.

On the other hand, we lived and worked with some wonderful people, and helped lay the groundwork for a new school building, mostly by carrying saplings over the same two mile route up a hill and planting them to stabilise the land the school had been able to buy with, in part, the funds we raised from drunk people in Edinburgh.

But we also had a few days in the main school itself, which was incredible.  The kids were the best behaved and most intelligent you can imagine by UK standards. On my first day in the school the head teacher asked me what my area of interest was - science, and in particular physics, as you'll realise if you've read much of this blog.

So I was introduced to a class of around 30 kids, all around 14 years old (and bear in mind I'd just turned 18), and I expected to maybe help out as a bit of a classroom assistant.

"Hello class, this is Mr Robbins, he'll be teaching you science for the next hour."

Then she left.

"Mr Robbins?  Oh. Oh crap.  That's me."

So I'm left with my first, and to date, only classroom full of children who are looking at me and expecting something cool.

So fair enough, I realise, I'm kind of here as a novelty lesson, but at the same time I don't want to mess up any existing plans the teacher has.  So let's find out what they've been learning about so far.

As it turns out, a bit of everything - optics, basic electrical and electronic stuff, simple mechanics, everything you'd expect from a science class of the same age in the UK. Nothing, in particular, is a particularly important focus as far as the kids are concerned. Probably a good thing, because if they're really focussing on atoms and I start throwing quantum tunnelling into the mix just to be funky and interesting then they're all going to confuse the examiners at the end of the day.

"OK. So what do you want to learn about?"

One hand went straight up. "How do you make a bomb?" - the rest of the class seem to be in delighted agreement.

Which leaves me with a bit of a problem - because bombs are both deadly, and dead easy. There's an unspoken agreement between almost every geek on the planet that we don't generally talk about how to make bombs, because it's so damn easy to do. Especially in a country where you can buy reasonably large quantities of certain chemicals without suspicions being raised. UK, Nepal, wherever. Maybe a bit easier in Nepal in the 1990s than the UK today, but there's not an enormous difference.  And I quite like these kids, I don't particularly want to see any of them losing arms and legs, however much they enjoy my lesson.

On the other hand, there's one particular style of bomb that they can't easily make, but which has some lovely theory surrounding it. Atomic structure, chain reactions, a little bit of E=mc^2.

Yes, I spent the best part of an hour teaching kids how to make nuclear weapons.  And if anyone thinks that this is a fundamentally bad thing, I'll point out that at the time of writing a kid of the same age in the USA has been arrested for taking a home-made "breadboard" style electronic clock to school, on the grounds that it "looked a bit bombish".

Frankly, kids deserve better. I knew how to make a bomb, and had access to the materials, at around 14 too. Almost every kid of that age who can, doesn't.  Because being smart enough to build it means you're smart enough to not build it.  Arrest every kid who could and you end up with kids who aren't willing to admit they're smart, they just go and flip burgers for 20 years. And then they snap. And build their bomb.

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