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Sam Markowitz ’53
Photo by Martin Benjamin

Sam Markowitz and the “Hot” Baseball

It all started with a baseball.

A “hot” baseball, that is, that led to the discovery of radioactive fallout in Troy, N.Y. The fallout was the result of a nuclear bomb test on April 25, 1953, in the desert near Las Vegas. The test, code-named Simon, occurred atop a 300-foot tower. The detonation caused a mushroom cloud to rise higher than expected into the atmosphere, where it was carried by strong winds to the Northeast. Thirty-six hours later, a severe rainstorm in Troy washed much of the fallout into the ground.

When Sam Markowitz ’53, a star first baseman on Rensselaer’s varsity baseball team, went to the Blaw-Knox lab after practice, he tested (just for fun) a muddy baseball by placing it next to a Geiger counter. The telltale “tick-tick-tick” indicated that something was up.

Markowitz and his roommate, Bernard Keisch ’53, checked the ball with three different counters and got the same result. They brought it to the attention of their chemistry professor, Herb Clark, who encouraged them to do further testing. With Geiger counters in hand, the two drove north to Skidmore (where Keisch’s girlfriend attended), stopping every five miles along the way to take ground measurements. They found above-normal readings.

Markowitz told the story of that thrilling discovery while back on campus for Reunion ’03 in June. Although his roommate, Bernie Keisch, didn’t make it back for Reunion, the two reunited later in the summer at Keisch’s wedding in San Diego.

Another classmate, Frank Cesare ’53, also took part in the discovery. “I did some of the measurements and exposure of film of radioactive materials on leaves of plants. Quite an exciting day in radiochemistry lab,” recalled Cesare.

The occurrence was also recounted in a recent book, A Good Day Has No Rain (Whitston Press), written by Albany author Bill Heller.

“We were not worried because a Geiger counter can detect one single atom’s nucleus decay — it is therefore extremely sensitive,” said Markowitz. “If we can ‘count’ it on a Geiger counter’s most sensitive scale, there is little health hazard.”

Markowitz is a longtime professor of chemistry at the University of California at Berkeley. He’s taught freshman chemistry and a lab course in nuclear chemistry, which he says he was inspired to create by his mentor, Herb Clark.

“Prof. Clark was a truly inspiring teacher — as were many in RPI’s chemistry department in those years. I would like to return to be a freshman at Rensselaer and also a first baseman. It was truly a wonderful four years.”—TL

Rensselaer Magazine: Fall 2003
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