Scientist Found His Life's Passion in Nevada - 8 News NOW

Scientist Found His Life's Passion in Nevada

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Billy Smith in Greenland. Billy Smith in Greenland.

LAS VEGAS -- In the 1960s, one Las Vegas man's love for science turned into a meaningful career. Billy Smith took what he didn't understand and found the answer in a job that saved lives in Nevada.

A stroll through the National Atomic Testing Museum is a trip down memory lane for Smith. The 71-year-old's story begins in Texas when he became frustrated he couldn't answer seemingly simple questions.

"Why is the sky blue? Why is there gravity? Why doesn't the sun burn out?" Smith said.

His curiosity led him to major in chemistry in college and later join the army where he responded to a an airplane crash in Greenland involving nuclear weapons. It was that assignment in Jan. 1968 that changed his life.

"I was an army officer and I was a chemical core officer," he said. "I figured it was simply an exercise, because we had to perform any exercises just like they were real things, but when we got there, we found out that it was real."

A plane went down in the Arctic Circle killing one crew member. The explosives inside the nuclear weapons on the plane were detonated. The event forever changed Smith's perception of the power of science.

"We started our scientific surveys to determine exactly what had happened to the weapons."

Smith moved to Las Vegas and became the first black health physicist to work for REECO, the major contractor at the Nevada Test Site. His job was to help keep the workers and their families from suffering exposure.

"We wanted to make sure that although they may have been working in radiological environments at the test site, they didn't bring any radiological materials home with them that would expose their families to some sort of risks," Smith said.

As miners, drillers and teamsters shielded Nevada from atomic warfare, Smith's team protected them from radiation hazards with protective gear like respirators and requiring workers wear devices called dosimeters which gauge radiation exposure.

Smith says he always loved science and wishes he saw more young people with the same passion.

"A lot of students, our black students, shy away from math and science. I don't know why."

Smith spends time volunteering in schools hoping to encourage more students to go after their dreams and learn as much as they can.

"Everybody maybe can't be a scientist, everybody can't be a mathematician, everybody can't be a professor, everybody can't be a carpenter, everybody can't be a mechanic, but everybody can be something," Smith said.

Smith did open the door for many minorities to work at the Nevada Test Site, now called the Nevada National Security Site.

He doesn't like to be called a pioneer or trail blazer. He just considers himself a curious little boy who  happened to be in the right place at the right time.

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