MISBEGOTTEN PLACES #15
The Nuclear Sceptic
They met as undergraduates in college, and despite a very disappointing spring break they became a couple. Because they both were majoring in nuclear physics, they liked to say they were “radiocarbon dating”. Thus began a love affair born of the laboratory.
After they married, they earned their PhDs and both were hired by the prestigious Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. She worked on the solar probe project, while he helped design the study of the moon’s magnetic regions.
They were both very sweet, caring, interesting people who had a loving but (radio)active relationship. But as close as they were, they were each first and foremost a nuclear physicist, which pretty much defined their lives together. Whenever they went out to dinner or to a friend’s house, for example, they would discuss things like alpha-decay, electromagnetic radiation and Newton's 2nd Law for Uniform Circular Motion.
The fusion of these two individuals was, in their words, “a perfect formula of equations and algorithms.” He affectionately called her his “Charmed Quark”. When she was happy with him, she’d call him “My Darling Particle Accelerator”.
But on those occasions when they quarreled, which was not infrequently, she would call him “You Dumb Fuck Neutrino!”, and he would counter with “You’re such a Quantum Asshole!” These nuclear reactions typically had a short half-life, and often ended happily with a Big Bang.
One night, over a dinner of take-out Chinese and a bottle of pink zinfandel, as they were discussing the advancements in the solar probe operations and the lackluster pace of lunar magnetic analysis, they brought up an idea that had been lurking like a black hole in the back of their minds for a long time:
“Let’s finally quit our jobs and get to work on that ‘Self-Contained Energy Producing Titanium Isotope Cell’ that we’ve been talking about forever!”
What this meant was that on their own time the couple had devised what they believed to be a foolproof plan to build a mechanism that would output more energy than it consumes. At least a hundred times more energy. The idea was to concoct a mixture of an isotope of titanium and a pint of heavy water, secure it in a paper bag, and then submerge a negatively charged palladium electrode and a positively charged platinum electrode. As a small but precise electric current passes through the solution, Presto! - a massive amount of controlled electricity would be emitted. Massive!
According to them, this Self-Contained Energy Producing Isotope Cell (SCEPTIC) was guaranteed to work. They were confident in their calculations, having gone over them hundreds of times. It was a sure bet that deuterium atoms would attach to the palladium electrode and instantly fuse. Fusion! In a paper bag!!!
If it worked, which they thought it would, they would become famous! And rich! Probably win a Nobel prize. This invention would place them among the ranks of Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Enrico Fermi, Stephen Hawking. Even Carl Sagan!
The only unanswerable question at this point was which isotope of titanium would do the job: 44Ti with a half-life of 60 years, or 52Ti with a half-life of 1.7 minutes. It was crucial that they choose correctly. The wrong isotope would initiate a massive uncontrolled fusion reaction leading to a nuclear event (ie. explosion) of immense and unimaginable magnitude. Not a good thing.
And so, on the morning after their Chinese dinner, they submitted their resignations to the Applied Physics Lab and began working full time on SCEPTIC. Always on their mind however was the fact that one of the isotopes would produce copious amounts of electricity, while the other would doom the earth in a mushroom cloud of radioactivity and hellish destruction, ending all life forever in the blink of an eye.
But as they needed to show something for their efforts, they pressed on with their work.
First they smuggled out the electrodes from the Applied Physics Lab as they left for the last time. That was easy. Then they obtained the heavy water from a shady contact that they found on the internet. They quibbled over which paper bag to use and finally compromised, settling on one from the local Wawa Food Market. But they continued fretting over the choice of isotopes, and that soon led to intense arguments, which would crescendo into a high-decibel shouting match, which in turn would give way to bitter name-calling and recriminations so nasty and vile that their marriage, instead of the earth, seemed to be doomed to that hellish destruction.
Without the isotope, SCEPTIC would come to a halt. So they decided to take their chances with 52Ti because it was considerably less expensive than 44Ti, and of course now that they were unemployed every penny counted. Their department store credit cards were already maxed out.
The big day soon came. Back in their kitchen laboratory, the pair carefully began to assemble SCEPTIC. They felt humbled by the enormity of the moment. (Or at least that’s what they told themselves.)
He held the bag steady as she lowered the glass jar filled with the heavy water, making sure not to spill even one precious drop. Then the two electrodes were carefully inserted and wired to the electrical source.
At this point, they stopped briefly to consider the momentous act they were undertaking - for the first time in history, a safe and affordable means of producing an unlimited supply of energy was about to occur. A feat that was sure to change the world. That would solve nearly all its problems. The gravity of the moment did not escape the couple as they imagined what awaited them, and what awaited the world on the other side.
They looked once more at each other with this understanding, but with some trepidation too, for without saying a word they were thinking of the risk they were taking. They hoped and indeed prayed for the first time that they had chosen the correct titanium isotope. There was only a fifty percent chance that they were right. The unspoken fear lingered in their minds that they might have chosen the path to disaster that would leave behind nothing on this earth but a void. An empty, lifeless, smoldering planet.
“Here goes,” she whispered. “Here goes,” he replied.
They gently poured the titanium isotope 52Ti into the jar, watching as it floated on the surface of the heavy water before slowly sinking to the bottom. After it settled, while holding their breath and with their hearts pounding, they placed their hands together on the switch that would begin the process. The switch that would alter the course of mankind, and indeed all of earth’s wonderful creations, forever. There would be no turning back once that switch was thrown. At that instant, either their invention would revolutionize the energy paradigm, or all existence would end immediately.
They paused for a minute or two, and then she looked at him and said, “Let’s do it, my darling particle accelerator.”
He smiled and replied, “Here we go, my charmed quark.”
And with that, the countdown began:
“Five… four… three… two… one…