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How to Build a Home-Brew Radon Detector

Measure radiation with a converted webcam

4 min read
How to Build a Home-Brew Radon Detector
Photo: Jon Holmes

Over the past few years I’ve designed a number of radon detectors; building them is an opportunity to work on multidisciplinary projects with a social benefit. Worldwide, naturally occurring radioactive radon gas seeps from rocks and soils, where it can accumulate in buildings at hazardous levels. The World Health Organization estimates that as many as 14 percent of lung cancers are due to radon exposure. In my work at Carleton University, in Canada, I’ve used custom integrated circuits and specially programmed microcontrollers for my designs, but recently I wondered how I could make a detector with spare parts lying around my basement.

It turns out that you can make a cheap and effective radon detector with five basic elements: a webcam, a funnel covered with copper tape and mesh, a voltage multiplier built from some basic electrical components, a box, and a computer.

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From WinZips to Cat GIFs, Jacob Ziv’s Algorithms Have Powered Decades of Compression

The lossless-compression pioneer received the 2021 IEEE Medal of Honor

11 min read
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Photo of Jacob Ziv
Photo: Rami Shlush
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Lossless data compression seems a bit like a magic trick. Its cousin, lossy compression, is easier to comprehend. Lossy algorithms are used to get music into the popular MP3 format and turn a digital image into a standard JPEG file. They do this by selectively removing bits, taking what scientists know about the way we see and hear to determine which bits we'd least miss. But no one can make the case that the resulting file is a perfect replica of the original.

Not so with lossless data compression. Bits do disappear, making the data file dramatically smaller and thus easier to store and transmit. The important difference is that the bits reappear on command. It's as if the bits are rabbits in a magician's act, disappearing and then reappearing from inside a hat at the wave of a wand.

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