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Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science

Table-top fusion controversy heats up In small Massachusetts town


By Martin Bridge

beauty parlor

In a startling development in the world of tabletop fusion, a controversial experiment at Oak Ridge National Laboratory appears to have been confirmed at a beauty parlor in Swampscott, Massachusetts. (The Oak Ridge experiment, reported in the March 8 issue of Science, claimed to achieve fusion in a beaker of deuterated acetone. Bubbles were created in the acetone by a pulsed neutron beam, and these bubbles were made to expand and then collapse catastrophically by applying an intense sound wave to the liquid.)

Patrons of Gladys's Hair and Nail Salon on Main Street in Swampscott were atwitter to discover that their everyday establishment had been catapulted into the forefront of cutting-edge scientific research.

"You'd think we'd found the Higgs Boson or something," said Emily McTavish, who has been having her hair done at Gladys's every other Wednesday as long as anyone can remember. "This tabletop fusion stuff just seems to send the press completely off the deep end." And indeed, hordes of media, their notebooks and cameras ready, could be seen prowling through every inch of the small salon with its four vinyl-covered chairs, old fashioned hair dryers, and small waiting area strewn with out-of-date Readers' Digest and Woman's Day magazines.

Rodney Colquist, a physics teacher at Swampscott Community College, was the one who discovered what was going on when his wife, Samantha, came home after her appointment at Gladys's in a frenzy of excitement and disbelief. She had sat down in the number-one chair, and confided to Gladys that she wanted to change the color of her nails from deep red to bright pink. Samantha's nails had been deep red for years, so Gladys, figuring that it might be hard to get the layers of polish off, brought out a new brand of "Can-do heavy-duty nail polish remover" imported from Canada.

"Little did Gladys realize," Colquist explained, his eyes dancing in appreciation of the irony of the situation, "that heavy-duty meant made with heavy water that had been left over from filling the vessel of one of Canada's nuclear reactors. The stuff was almost pure deuterated acetone."

Gladys carefully removed Samantha's watch from her wrist, and dipped the fingers of her left hand into the bath of polish remover.

Colquist explained that Samantha's watch was an heirloom, handed down from her mother, with an old-fashioned radioactive dial that glows in the dark. "The numbers had been getting dim, so I took it down to the lab to repaint them just last week," he said. "I must have used some pretty powerful paint, because, even though it was a few inches away, that watch was irradiating the acetone and creating lots of tiny bubbles inside the liquid."

Then Gladys started telling Samantha the latest gossip about how old man McGillicuddy had left his wife of 51 years and run off with a young waitress from Marblehead that he'd met on a fishing trip the month before.

Samantha could not contain her surprise.

"Hooo-EEE!

Did Louise have any idea? Hooo-EEEE!"

Gladys was just about to tell Samantha that Louise McGillicuddy was actually glad to be rid of the old weasel at last, when she noticed a strange expression on Samantha's face.

"Gladys," Samantha said, her voice a hoarse whisper. "Something weird is going on. When I screamed just now, this polish remover heated up a good ten degrees. And when I screamed again, it got really hot!"

Gladys dipped her own hand into the liquid. It still felt warm.

"Go ahead," she said, "do it again."

"Yeee-HAW!"

Samantha screamed with all her might. Heads turned clear down to Roy's Bait and Tackle Shop two blocks away. Both women hastily pulled their hands away as the polish remover started to boil.

Asked what he planned to do next, Colquist said he had originally thought of reporting the results in a paper for Physical Review Letters.

"PRL is a journal that physicists really respect," he said. "But then I thought the better of it. Why risk getting the paper rejected by the referee? I decided to submit it to Science Magazine."

© 2002 by Martin Bridge. Reprinted with permission.



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