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Radioactivity, Rocks & The Men Who Handled Them


The Atomic Age began in 1945, after which the first atomic bomb was detonated. The discoveries changed the lives and the course of WWII, as well as the lives of scientists. This story hits close to home, as one of those scientists was my husband John’s Uncle Grant (Philip Grant Koontz).

At an early age, John became curious about his uncle’s line of work, but his queries were often met with vague responses. As an adult, he devoted much time and effort to researching his uncle’s history.

The following is John’s perspective of that history, a few stories of the everyday life of the scientists, plus a quick rundown of naturally occurring radiation, including radioactive rocks, present in our lives today.

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Philip Grant Koontz

Uncle Grant met his wife, Florence Eyre while both were undergraduate students at Hastings College in Nebraska where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1927. He earned a master’s degree from the University of Nebraska before earning his doctorate in physics from Yale.

Grant was an associate professor at Colorado State University after graduating. The history is now clouded by secrecy. Sometime during Grant’s tenure at Colorado State, he met and assisted Arthur H. Compton on Mt. Evans studied cosmic rays.

In 1942, Grant was asked by Compton to join Enrico Fermi and the other scientists in Chicago at the “Metallurgical Lab,” for the creation of the Chicago Pile (CP-1). Grant and his family moved to Los Alamos (New Mexico) shortly after Chicago scientists were able to sustain a nuclear reaction. Secrecy had been intensified.

Group photo of guests at Grant and Florence Koontz’s Chicago picnic. Because of the secrecy around their jobs, scientists and their family members tended to limit the circle of their friends to their co-workers. Unfortunately, only Fermi and his family as well as Grant’s family are identified in this photo.
P. G. Koontz took this photo

Science, Secrecy & Real People

Scientists in Los Alamos as well as Chicago worked tirelessly on the Manhattan Project. The Eyre family has passed on several photographs and the history of these scientists to prove that they were real people who had interests and families outside of their labs. While Uncle Grant and Aunt Florence were still in Chicago they hosted a picnic. Enrico Fermi was there with his young daughter, wife and parents.

Grant snapped photos of scientists in Los Alamos who were collecting selenite outside the compound. The rockhounding gene must run in families! The scientists’ families also had a hard time. All mail sent to family and friends was sent through a New York City post office box. It was censored so that it did not mention where the recipients were or what they were doing, nor even the weather. Grant was unable to tell his wife what he did when he disappeared from the site for several days, testing bombs.

Grant loved to tell stories about his and some of his colleagues discovering a hole in Los Alamos’ compound fence once the secrecy had been lifted. Instead of telling authorities about the security breach for fun, some scientists decided to take their dogs outside the compound. The scientists signed out of the compound at the gate and then went to the hole. They crawled underneath the fence, and then proceeded sign out again at the gate.

Atomic Timeline

It’s time to tell the real history of these men. You can do this easily by creating a timeline that shows their achievements.

This culmination was the bombings in Hiroshima, Nagasaki and other cities of Japan on August 15, 1945. These attacks effectively ended WWII. These scientists’ discoveries have shaped our world and are present in every day life.

John Manley, Otto Frisch and other Los Alamos scientists collecting selenite near Los Alamos.
P. G. Koontz took this photo


Radioactivity didn’t just appear in our lives with these discoveries, it was always naturally occurring in our rocks and minerals. Radioactive minerals are most commonly found in uranite (thorite), pitchblende, and carnotite.

One of the byproducts of atomic bomb testing is “trinitite.” Scientists gave this name to the desert sand which fused into glass caused by the heat of the first atomic bomb test on July 16, 1945, at the Trinity Test Site, outside of Alamogordo, New Mexico. Uncle Grant sent several samples to John’s dad, a chemist who cast them into paperweights made of Lucite plastic.

Radioactive Food, Medicine & Household Items

Bananas contain the radioactive potassium (K-40). You would have to eat more than 70,000 bananas in order to receive the same amount of radiation as a chest CT scan. You can also find small amounts in foods like potatoes, kidney beans and sunflower seeds.

Brazil nuts, on the other hand contain radium isotopes in small quantities that are approximately 1,000 times greater than other foods. Some salt alternatives contain small amounts radioactive potassium K-40.

Many generic antidiarrhea medications contain kaolin, which contains high levels of uranium or thorium.

You need not worry, however, because you would need to consume more than 1,000 pounds of kaolin clay per year to reach the maximum exposure limit set by the EPA. This drug’s name brand has ceased to use kaolin.

Smoke detectors that use ionization contain small amounts of americium-241. Do not attempt to disassemble these units.

Bentonite, a clay found in cat litter, is radioactive. It contains uranium and potassium-40. Also, the potassium chloride salt used in water softeners contains potassium-40. Standard 50-lb. A standard 50-lb. bag will never pass the highly sensitive radiation detectors used in nuclear power plants.

Radioactive Timeline

1789: M.H. M.H.

J.J. Berzelius discovers Thorium in 1828

Henri Becquerel Uranium was discovered to have radioactive properties in 1896

1898: Marie & Pierre Curie Radium & polonium are discovered to be elements

1911: Earnest Rutherford Confirms Becquerel’s discovery of radioactivity

Niels bohr discovered electrons in 1913

Earnest Rutherford Protons is discovered

James Chadwick Neutrons discovered in 1932
John Cockcroft & Earnest Walton First splitting of an atom

Leo Szilard invented and patented an atomic-bomb method in 1933

Enrico Fermi, the first to use neutrons in order to confirm and create fission.

Enrico Fermi proposed creating an atomic heap reactor using uranium metal, uranium oxide and other fuels to produce a prolonged nuclear reaction.

1940 – 42: Enrico Fermi, Arthur Compton & Other Scientists Creation of the Chicago Stagg Field Atomic Pile, (CP-1) headed by Fermi. On Dec. 2, 1942, a sustained nuclear reaction occurred.

Scientists involved in the Manhattan Project from January 1943 until July 1945. They developed and tested atomic weapons fueled by uranium (U-239 or U-235), at various sites throughout the United States.

Radioactive Collectibles

Uranium glass items from the author’s collection, with and without UV light. Bowl, rear far left, is Sue’s grandmother’s gelatin bowl. Fancy, stemmed wine glass is one of 6 from Sue’s grandmother. Sue’s grandmother also gave her a knickknack, a Christmas decoration, a stemmed wine glass, a presidential souvenir, and a fruit juicer.

Uranium Glass

Minerals were used by ancient civilizations to color their pottery and glass. It wasn’t until 1896 that uranium or Vaseline Glass, as it was sometimes called, became radioactive. Some earlier glassware did contain radioactive dyes for over 2,000 year. It’s usually fluorescent and yellow-green under UV light. It is radioactive and contains up to 25% uranium dioxide.

Uranium is a collectible glass that was made in many different forms, including everyday glassware, bowls, knickknacks and even souvenirs. The bowl this author’s grandmother used to make gelatin in every week as well as her special occasion stemware is still a part of our family’s collection.

Red/orange Fiesta Ware plate from the author’s collection. Note: This plate has a Geiger counter reading of 3,200 CPM.

Orange Fiesta Tableware

For many years, ceramic glazes have included uranium dioxide to give them an orange-red color. Homer Laughlin Company produced bright orange Fiesta Tableware between 1936 and 1943. Its use ended in 1943 when the company’s supply of uranium oxide was commandeered by the U.S. government for use in atomic weapon production. All of the original pieces are still radioactive. They should not be used as food, but rather only for radioactive collectibles.

Lantern Mantles, Metal Alloys & Welding Rods

There are few non-nuclear applications of thorium compound. The coating on the gas lantern mantles of older camping lanterns is thorium oxide. It’s what causes the lanterns to incandesce at high temperatures. Thorium oxide is added to several types of nickel-based alloys to improve their strength.

Some tungsten based welding rods are also treated with thorium oxide. There are TIG rods that contain a 2% thorium to stabilize the arc and are slightly radioactive.

3M Model C-15 Tape Dispensers

The next time you wrap presents, pay attention to your dispenser. If the dispenser is heavy and old, it could be one made by the 3M Company in the 1970s. These models contained monazite for ballast. Monazite, a mineral that contains thorium, is radioactive.

Gilbert’s Atomic Energy Lab Kit.
Oak Ridge Associated Universities

Other Items

More radioactive collectibles are available than can be detailed, but these are some of them:

• Firestone Brand Polonium Spark Plugs from 1946 to 1953—contain polonium

• Radium watch and clock hands—contain radium

• Glow-in-the-dark gun sights—contain tritium

• Military ballistic projectile penetrators— contain depleted uranium

• Cloisonne jewelry with orange or yellow glaze—contains uranium oxide

• Radio Brand Golf Balls 1910 to 1930— contain radium

• Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab Kit, sold in 1951-1952 as a child’s educational tool, was deemed to be dangerous and taken off the market. They are still available on the internet for upwards of $2,000 to $4,000—contain samples of autunite, carnotite, torbernite & uranite

Plan a visit

There are many opportunities to learn about the Manhattan Project and Atomic Age through planned trips across the U.S. Los Alamos is one of three National Park Service sites. The Bradbury Science Museum is located in Los Alamos. The Nevada Test Site, Trinity Site and other special tours are only available in limited numbers and require registration.

The presence of radioactivity in our world is and will always be a fact. If handled and stored correctly, radioactive minerals can be an exciting addition to the mineral collection of a rockhound.

This article is about Radioactivity previously appeared in Rock & Gem magazine. Subscribe by clicking here. Sue Eyre, Storyteller

The post Radioactivity, Rocks & The Men Who Handled Them first appeared on Rock & Gem Magazine.

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