The Boy Who Played With Fusion: Extreme Science, Extreme Parenting and How to Make a Star by Tom Clynes

The Boy Who Played With Fusion: Extreme Science, Extreme Parenting and How to Make a Star by Tom Clynes

Author:Tom Clynes [Clynes, Tom]
Language: eng
Format: epub
Tags: Biography & Autobiography, Science & Technology, Education, General, Family & Relationships, Parenting
ISBN: 9780571298150
Google: OffSCQAAQBAJ
Amazon: B00WDE2L30
Publisher: Faber & Faber
Published: 2015-06-22T16:00:00+00:00

18

ATOMIC TRAVEL

NOW IT’S TIFFANY who drives, north along U.S. Highway 84 toward Los Alamos. Taylor, now sixteen, has convinced his mom to bring him to New Mexico for a few days to hang out with Carl Willis, who has become, as Taylor describes him, “my best nuke friend.”

Cocking my ear toward the back seat of the rented SUV, I catch snippets of Taylor and Willis’s conversation.

“The idea is to make a gamma-ray laser from stimulated decay of dipositronium.”

“I’m thinking about building a portable, beam-on-target neutron source.”

“Need some deuterated polyethylene?”

Taylor and Willis have invited me along on their latest “nuclear tourism” junket. The plan is to visit the historic nuke sites in and around Los Alamos, prospect for uranium, and scrounge through the desert in search of the still-radioactive detritus strewn — by plan or by accident — by atomic-weapons developers and deployers.

Taylor and Willis first met in person when Taylor was twelve, when the family stopped in Albuquerque on a cross-country road trip. At that point, Taylor had collected most of the parts for his reactor, and he and Carl were communicating regularly about the finer points of fusor construction.

“I think by then you’d found a source of tungsten wire for the grid and brought it with you,” Willis says, “and we were trying to figure out a way to fabricate it.”

They were drawn together by their shared passion for nukes, and their age difference quickly became a nonissue. “We always had these great conversations, not just about the technical stuff but about the history and philosophy of nuclear stuff,” Taylor says. “I never felt like a normal twelve-year-old around Carl; I felt like a peer.”

“Taylor, let’s face it,” Willis says, laughing, “you never were a normal twelve-year-old. Even back then, you knew more about the things I was interested in, more enigmatic nuke stuff, than any PhD or postdoc I knew.”

Willis is thirty now; he’s tall and thin and much quieter than Taylor. When he’s interested in something his face opens up with a blend of amusement and curiosity. When he’s uninterested, he slips into the faroff distractedness that’s common among the supersmart. Tiffany asks him how his work is going, and Willis says he’s thinking about leaving his nuclear engineering job at an Albuquerque company that makes particle accelerators to develop neutron generators at a small R&D company. “Whatever I do, I want to stay in Albuquerque,” he says. “It’s a good climate; there’s lots of labs, lots of uranium, lots of radioactive stuff. And there’s lots of history out here that’s tangible and collectible — as long as you come with a Geiger counter.”

Taylor and Willis typically get together two or three times a year. They scavenge for equipment, visit research facilities, prospect for uranium, or run experiments. As we drive, they talk about taking their next atomic adventure farther afield. Willis says Taylor would love Chernobyl (Willis has visited twice), where “there are still pockets of surprising radioactivity.” Also high on both their lists is Shinkolobwe,



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