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The Canadian Nuclear FAQ  

by Dr. Jeremy Whitlock


Published in the December 2003 issue of the Canadian Nuclear Society Bulletin, Vol.24, No.4.   Artwork by Lorne Whitlock.

Once Upon a Time and Again

by Jeremy Whitlock

Physicists are a hard lot, it is well known. Rough and bawdy, loyal to the core and fiercely fraternal.

Here in Unit 2 of Canada's newest reactors, that old MAPLE mojo is spinning its magic like there's no tomorrow - or maybe it already is tomorrow. The light and space have put a zap on the weird scenes inside this gold mine.

All the greats are in attendance, for this is hallowed ground and going first-critical is a hallowed ceremony. In the corners, by the cabinets, laughing it up by the I-beam, the ghosts of Reactors Past have come to the party. It was here, on this very spot, over half a century ago, that Canada split its first self-sustaining chain-reacted atom.

ZEEP is somewhere else now. Cold, broken, cast aside. The old timers remember, and through wreaths of cigar smoke the stories are retold. Over there, by Shutdown System Two, three of them sit playing cards and shooting the bull, under a gaudy mural of Champlain and his astrolabe. It's happy hour at the Byways but they wouldn't have missed this moment for the world.

Across the room a grizzled pair relax like they live in their chairs, sharing a single malt and singing songs.

In days of old,
When men were bold,
And neutrons weren't invented,
We stoked our fires,
With lone desires,
And felt ourselves contented.

Here is W.B. Lewis drawing an approach to criticality on the blackboard. George Laurence goes by with a sack of graphite. Gib James is fixing something behind the control console. Harry Thode shares a joke with Bertrand Goldschmidt, and Allan Nunn May looks like he has a secret.

Rutherford bleat,
That as for heat,
These atoms were a Bohr,
Then Meitner's muse,
Lit Fermi's fuse,
And the beggars won a war.

The nuclear giant is coming unshackled, bursting forth its milliwatts of power. You can barely see in the control room for the cigar smoke. The card players call a pause and look over, whispering their own suppositions as to why it's taking so long.

Behind a pair of size 10 faded yellow shoes propped on a bank of scalars, a tuneful lament emanates from one not far from unconsciousness.

Millie Kay, Millie Kay,
Dance for me,
You're hardly worth a dollar,
But I'll give you three.

A fight now between two bespectacled lads over the best way to calculate reactivity. Lew Kowarski wades in and breaks it up. Kowarski is here looking for his own reactor, asking how you spell Quonset.

It is especially fitting that Kowarski be present. In his honour a reverse-Polish calculator sits on the main console, untouched.

The moment of truth arrives, passes, and is gone. A trio of old NRX hands by the door are still laughing giddily over a joke about MAPLE's size, and miss the occasion.

Yip hey, yip ho,
Keep them neutrons a-go,
Keep them rolling and twisting,
And send that flux high.

Some linking of arms, some spilling of beer. A flashbulb goes off and the moment is frozen in time.

Yip hey, yip ho,
Out the header below,
Where the Ottawa River flows by.

The milestone put to bed, the room empties like a QA course at coffee break. They disappear on skis, on bicycles, and some go looking for their old bus. They're surprised to find it still in use.

But the Old Guard won't be gone for long. For old physicists never die; they just keep redefining the problem.

Discussion welcome.

©2011 Jeremy Whitlock

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