DIY Science: Should You Try This at Home?
When Richard Handl was arrested for attempting to split the atom on his stove, he joined a growing band of home experimenters cooking up all kinds of trouble behind the kitchen door
Ängelholm is a pretty southern Swedish town, famed for its clay cuckoo manufacturing, a clay cuckoo being a kind of ocarina, which is a kind of flute. The crime rate here is practically zero. Except one of its residents was last year arrested for trying to split the atom in his kitchen. His name is Richard Handl and he buzzes me into his first-floor flat.
I wanted to meet Richard because I keep seeing reports of home science experimenters clashing with the authorities. There’s been a spate of them this past year or two.
I glance into Richard’s kitchen and recognise his cooker from the news. It was horrendously, alarmingly blackened then, but it’s clean now.
“So, you aren’t currently doing any experiments?” I ask him.
“I’m banned,” he says.
“By whom?” I ask.
“My landlord,” he says. “And the Swedish Radiation Safety Authority.”
Then we sit on the sofa and he tells me his story.
When Richard was a teenager, everything, he says, was fine. “I had friends. We’d go partying. I have Asperger’s, so I was a bit of a nerd, a geek. My interests were chemical experiments. I’d make solutions that changed colour. When I was 13, I made some explosives in the garden, using gunpowder, stuff I got from a paint store and from my father’s pharmacy. He had sulphuric acid, nitric acid. Visiting my father in his pharmacy was very exciting.”
His father assumed Richard would grow up to be a pharmacist, too. He was, Richard says, happy and proud of his son, as it was his dream to raise a boy to follow in his footsteps. But something unexpected happened to Richard 14 years ago, when he was 17: “I became very aggressive to people,” he says.
“In what way?” I ask.
“It was towards my father,” Richard says. “Sometimes I hit him.”
“In response to what?”
“Very small things. Like if he was late and didn’t call.”
“Was he worried about you?”
“Yes, he was quite worried about me. He took me to the hospital, so I could talk to psychiatrists. They said I was depressed. And I had some paranoid disorder.”
“And all this just came from nowhere?”
“It just happened,” he shrugs.