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Not With A Bang

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                          Not With A Bang

                           by John Walker 
                         December 20th, 1989

The ravine baked in the sun of a cloudless June afternoon.  The pickup
and the three people it had brought provided the  only  evidence  this
was  a world dominated by humans and not less dangerous creatures such
as the rattlesnakes and scorpions that so outnumbered  them  in  these
parts.   The  truck  sat  next to a field of boulders, each almost the
size of its cab.  Kurt Matson was calibrating an array of  instruments
piled  on a folding table beside the truck.  The truckbed was littered
with the  shipping  cases  Matson  had  spent  the  last  three  hours
unpacking  as he arranged and connected the equipment according to the
diagram on his clipboard.

Sam Friedman, who'd finished lowering the gadget into the borehole  an
hour  ago, sat on the tailgate of the truck and adjusted his straw hat
once again to keep the sun off his face.  Wes French, sent by the  lab
director  to  provide at least symbolic representation of Policies and
Procedure  at  this  highly  irregular  yet  urgent  field  trip,  was
recording the proceedings with a handheld video camera.

French  scrambled  down  the  hill  where he'd been shooting some wide
angle views of  the  borehole,  the  equipment,  and  the  cable  that
connected  them.   When he got to the bottom, he mounted the camera on
the tripod he'd brought so it could record the  experiment  while  he,
Matson,  and Friedman watched the instruments.  ``I can't get over how
much all this looks like those Manhattan Project home movies  you  see
every  now  and  then in documentaries.'' he remarked, peering through
the viewfinder.

``Yeah,'' Friedman commented, ``we should'a got you one of  those  old
hand-crank  movie  cameras  and some scratchy black and white film for
the right effect.'' Matson looked up from  the  chart  recorder,  ``Of
course  the  truck's  a  Toyota,  the  generator's  a  Honda, half the
instruments are from Germany, and we aren't  here  to  split  atoms.''

``No,  not to split atoms,'' Friedman said, as he hopped down from the
truck and walked up  and  down  the  instrument  table,  checking  the
readings and scanning the firing panel.  ``You ready?''

``Just  about,''  muttered  Matson,  whose finicky attention to detail
never failed to irritate Friedman, yet helped insure  the  success  of
the  many  projects  on which they collaborated.  He continued to tick
off items on the checklist they'd  prepared  in  the  wee  hours  that
morning.   ``O.K., primary instrumentation recorder to high speed, all
channels reading at background, backup recorder  running,  20  minutes
tape  available.   Firing power on.  Wes, you got that camera going?''

French indicated readiness and walked over to the  table,  whether  to
observe  more closely or to be in the picture, Friedman hadn't a clue.

Matson scanned the table one last time.  ``Ready?  All right, safe and
arm  switch  to  arm position.  Yellow arm light is on, firing circuit
continuity indicator is green.'' He stepped back from  the  panel  and
motioned  Friedman toward the small black button at the bottom, ``This
was your idea, Dr. Friedman.  Let 'er rip.''

``Shouldn't  we  count  down  or  something?''  French  said,  amused.
Friedman  placed his finger on the button, ``Sure.  Zero.'' and pushed
it.  There was a muffled thud, an almost imperceptible shudder in  the
ground, and a little puff of dust from the top of the borehole.  A few
rocks landed near the hole, making little tick-tick sounds.

Matson stopped the tape reels and the three gathered around the  strip
chart  recorder.  Even before the paper was torn off and spread out on
the table, they knew that French's camerawork would find  a  place  in
some future documentary about this day.  Friedman could barely contain
his excitement, ``Neutron counters one, two, three, and four  offscale
high.   Counters  five  and  six  right in the middle of our projected
range.  Backup counters confirm.  Pulse length  looks  like  about  10

French  was  taping  all  of  Friedman and Matson's examination of the
charts and their reactions.  He broke in, ``No  radiation  back  here,
was  there?'' Matson glanced at the rightmost line on the strip chart,
``No.  We'll live.''

``But in a very different world, I  suspect.''  said  Friedman  as  he
started  disconnecting  the cables and packing the instruments for the
four-hour ride back to the lab.


Later, bumping and jostling over the dirt road across the empty basin,
heading  back  to  the  lab,  Matson  driving:  French  looked over at
Friedman, who'd been admiring the dust plume they were raising in  the
still  New  Mexico  afternoon.   ``You two are going to be famous, you
know.'' ``Sure, Wes,'' said Friedman, ``just as soon as all this  gets
declassified.  Remember who we work for?  Would you like to bet on the
year?'' French turned to Matson, ``But didn't you say driving out that
all this should be obvious from the open literature?''

Matson responded, ``It was obvious enough to Sam.  When all the ruckus
about `cold fusion' hit the street, almost  nobody  noticed  that  the
Soviets  reported  neutrons  from  fracturing  a  crystal  of  lithium
deuteride  back  in  1986.   Hammer  fusion.   It  looks  like  either
deuterons  are  getting  accelerated along propagating cracks, or else
little pockets of plasma are appearing that enable fusion.   Think  of
it as the subatomic version of crunching a wintergreen Life Saver in a
dark room.  All this `cold fusion'  stuff  involves  packing  a  metal
crystal with lots of deuterons, and that's known to cause all kinds of
cracking and disruption in the lattice.''

``So when Fleischmann and Pons reported  it  was  a  volume  effect,''
Friedman  expanded,  ``and  they  burned  up  a chunk of palladium, we
wondered if  they  weren't  seeing  a  runaway  version  of  the  same
mechanical  fusion  process.   And  when  others had trouble making it
happen,  that  pointed  right  at  something  very  dependent  on  the
properties  of  the  metal.   Now the Soviets are seeing neutrons when
they crush fragments of titanium with steel balls in a bath  of  heavy
water.   We  wanted  to see how this scaled with volume and density by
explosively  compressing  a  chunk  of  deuterium-saturated  titanium.
Fortunately the director agreed.''

``After  you  scared him to death with the prospect of basement nukes,
which  you  gentlemen  appear  to  have  invented  this  fine   spring
afternoon.'' French interjected.

``But not a nuclear explosive.'' Friedman  responded,  ``This  process
generates  plenty  of  neutrons  but  little  or  no  gamma  or  other
electromagnetic energy.'' French looked at Matson, then  at  Friedman,
``So  the  Eighties  brought  us  the  personal  computer,  and in the
Nineties  we're  going  to  have  personal  neutron  bombs?''   Matson
shrugged, ``Looks that way, doesn't it?''

``Is there any way to  restrict  access  to  the  materials?''  French

``Not  really.   Titanium's an industrial metal available all over the
world, and we didn't use any  special  purity  or  fabrication  steps.
Besides,  other  transition  metals  may  work just as well, and maybe
ceramics or something will  work  even  better---we  don't  understand
enough to guess at this point.''

``But  heavy  water?   That's  subject to all kinds of controls, isn't

``In industrial quantities, sure.'' Matson replied, ``But  our  gadget
doesn't  need the tons of it you use in a reactor, just a couple cc's.
You can make that,  if  you're  patient  enough,  in  your  garage  by
fractional  distillation.''  ``Yeah,  start  with  acid  from  old car
batteries,'' Friedman added, ``it's already way enriched in  deuterium
by differential evaporation.''

``Marvelous...where are you two planning to publish  anyway,  `Popular

Friedman thought for a few seconds.  ``It's not that  great  a  terror
weapon,  really,  other than the cachet `nuclear blackmail' has in the
media.  You can kill a lot more people a whole lot  easier  with  bugs
and  chemicals  right  now---and  none  of that stuff is controlled at

They rode along in silence for a while, watching the play of light and
shadow  on  the  desert  as the sun sank toward the hills behind them.
Matson broke the reverie, ``It'll stop tanks.''

``Tanks?'' Friedman said.  ``You mean, like Sherman tanks?''

``Sherman, M-1 Abrams, Soviet T-72, you name it.  Remember the neutron
bomb  Carter  decided not to build?  That was a little artillery-fired
fusion bomb optimized for neutron production.  You  pop  one  above  a
tank  column  and  suddenly  you  have  a  bunch of tanks full of dead

French broke in, ``But there was one little catch.  You  still  had  a
couple of kilotons of fission and fusion explosion, and as they say in
Germany, the towns are only a kiloton apart.''

Matson continued, ``Yeah, but look at what  we  saw  today,  the  same
thing  the `cold fusion' people have been reporting---lots of neutrons
and no gamma rays or blast.''

``How much would you have to scale this thing up to make  a  weapon?''
French asked.

``Ours  would  have  taken  out a tank column.  That's why we fired it
three thousand feet down  the  borehole.   And  we  threw  this  thing
together in two days from spare parts.''

French  contemplated  this  for  a  minute  or so.  ``Yes, but you had
access  to  explosive  lenses,   synchronized   detonators---all   the
resources of a weapons lab.''

``Handy,  but  unnecessary.  Given the reaction rates we saw, I'll bet
gunpowder and a piston would work just fine.''

``So let me get this straight,'' French said, ``when we  get  back  to
the  lab,  I'm  going to walk into the director's office and report to
him that we have crowned our achievements of the last forty-five years
by inventing a nuclear pipe bomb?''

``One  that stops tank assaults.'' Friedman remarked.  ``You know, the
original work on fracture-induced fusion was done in the Soviet Union,
and  one of the authors was an East German.  They're the ones with all
the tanks.  They've gotta be thinking what we're thinking.''

``Yeah,'' Matson said, as the shadows lengthened and the  truck  began
to  climb out of the valley toward the lab, ``I'll bet the Berlin Wall
is down before Christmas.''

Damned if it wasn't.


Klyuev, V. A. et al., Sov. tech. Phys. Lett. 12, 551 (1986).

Fleischmann, M., Pons, B. S., & Hawkins, M., J. electroanalyt.
  Chem. 261, 301 (1989); and erratum, 263, 187 (1989).

De Ninno, A. et al., Europhys. Lett. 9, 221 (1989).

Menlove, H. O. et al., Los Alamos Nat. Lab. preprint LA-UR 89-1974.

Cohen, J. S. & Davies, J. D., Nature 338, 705 (1989).

Derjaguin, B.V., Lipson, A.G., Kluev, V.A., Sakov, D.M.  & Toporov,
  Yu.P., Nature 341, 492 (1989).

Goldanskii, V. I. & Dalidchik, F. I., Nature 342, 231 (1989).

Cohen, J. S. & Davies, J. D., Nature 342, 487 (1989).

                 (C) Copyright 1989 by John Walker 
                         All Rights Reserved