Atomic Number Generator

ANG installation, ISEA 2012. The book is a large mathematical table, rigorously proven, perversely or hilariously, to contain absolutely no information -- an anti-table. Instructions for its use read like a card trick. It contains random digits from an anti-oracle, an electronic device that produced noise. Rand's machine was a difficult challenge for the time, but the "high quality" random numbers were sorely needed for theoretical work on nuclear bombs, amongst other things.

My Atomic Number Generator, and the Rocks and Code installation it was designed for, directly reference that event; what was done, why, and what it means today. It's a starting point for me to look at some fundamental limits of knowledge, amongst other things that will unfold later.

ANGIn 2009-2010 I completed a machine that emulated the algorithms of the original Rand machine, beginning with the sketchy information on the tables' production outlined in the book. That beginning led to some research on the Rand project which I laid out in reasonable detail in my MFA thesis, also called Rocks and Code.

(In 2011 continuing research and thought has taken the larger project -- Rocks and Code -- further along a divergent path; my Gas Tube Noise Generator begins with Rand's actual 1948 electronic design and deals with some fundamental exploration of scientific objectivity and human subjectivity (or is that fallibility).)

the uranium decay machine

This first machine is based upon radioactive decay of natural uranium as the source of randomness. The numbers so generated are uttered vocally (rendering them umm let's say less than useful).

That is not however what Rand used for their randomness source; though very well known at the time as an excellent and easy source for randomness, Rand instead chose a more difficult and troublesome randomness source, a gas thyratron electron tube. Why this more complex choice?

And why the need for random numbers in the first place? For post-war development of atomic ("nuclear") bombs; for hydrodynamic simulations. To make a long story short, 1948 was only two short years after the horrific bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even Americans who thought it necessary do so were appalled by the effects. My research sort-of convinced me that Rand wanted no association with the destruction, and chose the "cleaner" albeit more technically difficult path. I have no way to verify this; Rand recorded little information on this project, and I've read all that is known to exist on the matter. Since my goal is artistic and not historical accuracy I am fine running with this assumption to see where it leads me, even if just for my own amusement..

At this writing (November 2011) the installation has been set up only once; there is no documentation of it. In addition to the information on this page there is a Youtube "" video showing the Atomic Number Generator in a small, standalone context, and this brief video:

Construction of the ANG; stuffing the assembly in the box, layout and fabrication of the front panel.

First pass at a front panel layout. Rectangularity is OK to work out space issues, but it's boring, and not the easiest to use.

Much better use of space. Just lined up by eye.

Detail documentation.

Detail documentation.

Fitting the guts into the box. Clockwise from upper left corner: Arduini Diecimela, power supply, audio and lamp driver, mail board; black object is the HV supply.

Rear panel; Arduino USB access, WPS serial buss, AC power.

Detector tube connector detail. It's a BNC chassis female. I didn't have high-voltage cable (the detector tube runs at 1400V nominal), just ordinary PVC 300V wire; so I stuck it in some flexible sheathing. Now it's mostly air insulated.

Junk in the box, with front panel controls dangling, awaiting front panel fab.

The front panel drawing is taped to the panel for centerpunching.

I worked up a detailed front panel design in Inkscape; it has hole location info in red and the silkscreen artwork in black. However, the printer was out of red ink so that didn't print.

It was easier to use a compass to put interval marks in pencil on the spiral loudspeaker porting than it was to figure out how to do this in Inkscape.

After centerpunching.

Front panel holes drilled and panel sanded with 320 grit paper.

This is the detector tube, likely a minor variant of a Geiger-Mueller tube. This was made in 1946 almost certainly by Fermi's techs in the University of Chicago's euphemistic "Metallurgical Laboratory", which was the site of the first "atomic pile", so-called because it was assembled as a huge, filthy, stack of unranium metal and graphite bricks. It still works! I've got a stack of these but the rest have hand-inked 1948 "Argonne Lab" stickers.

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