More Tales of the Black Widowers (10 page)

BOOK: More Tales of the Black Widowers
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Avalon frowned portentously, his luxuriant eyebrows hunching over his eyes. “At least that isn't as offensive as the usual Polish jokes I can't avoid hearing sometimes.”

Drake said, his small gray mustache twitching, “We'll try something a little more complicated after the coffee.”

. Avalon darted a suspicious glance in the direction of Puntsch and, with a look of melancholy on his face, watched Henry pour the coffee.

Henry said, “Brandy, sir?”

Puntsch looked up and said, “Why, yes, thank you. That was a very good meal, waiter.”

“I am glad you think so,” said Henry. “The Black Widowers are a special concern to this establishment.”

Drake was striking his water glass with a spoon.

He said, trying to elevate his always fuzzily hoarse voice, “I've got Sam Puntsch here partly because he worked for the same firm I work for out in New Jersey, though not in the same division. He doesn't know a damn thing about organic chemistry; I know that because I heard him discuss the subject once. On the other hand, he's a pretty fair-to-middling physicist, I'm told. I've also got him here partly because he's got a problem and I told him to come down and entertain us with it, and I hope, Jeff, that you have no objections.”

Geoffrey Avalon twirled his brandy glass gently between two fingers and said grimly, “There are no bylaws to this organization, Jim, so I'll go along with you and try to enjoy myself. But I must say I would like to relax on these evenings; though perhaps it's just the old brain calcifying.”

“Well, don't worry, we'll let Tom be griller in chief.”

Puntsch said, “If Mr. Avalon—”

Drake said at once, “Pay no attention to Mr. Avalon.”

And Avalon himself said, “Oh, it's all right, Dr. Puntsch. The group is kind enough to let me pout on occasion.”

Trumbull scowled and said, “Will you all let me get on with it? Dr. Puntsch— how do you justify your existence?”

“Justify it? I suppose you could say that trying to have our civilization last for longer than a generation is a sort of justification.”

“What does this trying consist of?”

“An attempt to find a permanent, safe, and non-polluting energy source.”

“What kind?”

“Fusion energy. —Are you going to ask me the details?”

Trumbull shook his head. “No, unless they're germane to the problem that's disturbing you.”

“Only very tangentially; which is good.” Puntsch's voice was reedy, and his words were meticulously pronounced as though he had at one time had ambitions to become a radio announcer. He said, “Actually, Mr. Rubin's point was a rather good one earlier in the evening. We all do have our private language, sometimes more so than is necessary, and I would not welcome the chance to have to go into great detail on the matter of fusion.”

Gonzalo, who was wearing a costume in various complementing tones of red, and who dominated the table visually more than was usually true, muttered, “I wish people would stop saying that Rubin is right.”

“You want them to lie?” demanded Rubin, head thrown up at once and his sparse beard bristling.

“Shut up, you two,” shouted Trumbull. “Dr. Puntsch, let me tell you what I know about fusion energy and you stop me if I'm too far off base. —It's a kind of nuclear energy produced when you force small atoms to combine into larger ones. You use heavy hydrogen out of the ocean, fuse it to helium, and produce energy that will last us for many millions of years,”

“Yes, it's roughly as you say.”

“But we don't have it yet, do we?”

“No, as of today, we don't have it.”

“Why not, Doctor?”

“Ah, Mr. Trumbull, I take it you don't want a two-hour lecture.”

“No, sir, how about a two-minute lecture?”

Puntsch laughed. “About two minutes is all anyone will sit still for.-The trouble is we have to heat up our fuel to a minimum temperature of forty-five million degrees Centigrade, which is about eighty million Fahrenheit. Then we have to keep the fusion fuel—heavy hydrogen, as you say, plus tritium, which is a particularly heavy variety—at that temperature long enough for it to catch fire, so to speak, and we must keep it all in place with strong magnetic fields while this is happening.

“So far, we can't get the necessary temperature produced quickly enough, or hold the magnetic field in being long enough, for the fusion fuel to ignite. Delivering energy by laser may be another bet, but we need stronger lasers than we have so far, or stronger and better-designed magnetic fields than we now have. Once we manage it and do ignite the fuel, that will be an important breakthrough, but God knows there will remain plenty of engineering problems to solve before we can actually begin to run the Earth by fusion energy.”

Trumbull said, “When do you think we'll get to that first breakthrough; when do you think we'll have ignition?”

“It's hard to say. American and Soviet physicists have been inching forward toward it for a quarter of a century. I think they've almost reached it. Five years more maybe. But there are imponderables. A lucky intuition might bring it this year. Unforeseen difficulties may carry us into the twenty-first century.”

Halsted broke in. “Can we wait till the twenty-first century?”

“Wait?” said Puntsch.

“You say you are trying to have civilization last more than a generation. That sounds as though you don't think we can wait for the twenty-first century.”

“I see. I wish I could be optimistic on this point, sir,” said Puntsch gravely, “but I can't. At the rate we're going, our petroleum will be pretty much used up by 2000, Going back to coal will present us with a lot of problems and leaning on breeder fission reactors will involve the getting rid of enormous quantities of radioactive wastes. I would certainly feel uncomfortable if we don't end up with working fusion reactors by, say, 2010.”


Apres moi, le deluge
,” said Avalon.

Puntsch said with a trace of acerbity, “The deluge may well come after your time, Mr. Avalon. Do you have any children?”

Avalon, who had two children and several grandchildren, looked uncomfortable and said, “But fusion energy may stave off the deluge and I take it your feelings about the arrival of fusion are optimistic.”

“Yes, there I tend to be optimistic.”

Trumbull said, “Well, let's get on with it. You're working at Jim Drake's firm. I always thought of that as one of these drug supply houses.”

“It's a hell of a lot more than that,” said Drake, looking, dolefully at what was left of a cigarette package as though wondering whether he ought to set fire to another one or rest for ten minutes.

Puntsch said, “Jim works in the organic chemistry section. I work on plasma physics.”

Rubin said, “I was down there once, visiting Jim, and took a tour of the plant. I didn't see any Tokamaks.”

“What's a Tokamak?” asked Gonzalo at once.

Puntsch said, “It's a device within which stable magnetic fields—pretty stable anyway—can be set up to confine the super-hot gas. No, we don't have any. We're not doing anything of the sort. We're more or less at the theoretical end of it. When we think up something that looks hopeful, we have arrangements with some of the large installations that will allow it to be tried out.”

Gonzalo said, “What's in it for the firm?”

“We're allowed to do some basic research. There's always use for it The firm produces fluorescent tubes of various sorts and anything we find about the behavior of hot gases— plasma, it's called—and magnetic fields may always help in the production of cheaper and better fluorescents. That's the practical justification of our work.”

Trumbull said, “And have you come up with anything that looks hopeful? —In fusion, I mean, not in fluorescents.”

Puntsch began a smile and let it wipe off slowly. “That's exactly it. I don't know.”

Halsted placed his hand on the pink area of baldness in the forepart of his skull and said, “Is that the problem you've brought us?”

“Yes,” said Puntsch.

“Well, then, Doctor, suppose you tell us about it.”

Puntsch cleared his throat and pursed his lips for a moment, looking about at the men at the banquet table and leaning to one side in order to allow Henry to refill his coffee cup.

“Jim Drake,” he said, “has explained that everything said in this room is confidential; that everyone”—his eye rested briefly on Henry—”is to be trusted. I'll speak freely, then. I have a colleague working at the firm. His name is Matthew Revsof and Drake knows him.”

Drake nodded. “Met him at your house once.”

Puntsch said, “Revsof is halfway between brilliance and madness, which is sometimes a good thing for a theoretical physicist. It means, though, that he's erratic and difficult to deal with at times. We've been good friends, mostly because our wives have gotten along together particularly well. It became one of those family things where the children on both sides use us almost interchangeably as parents, since we have houses in the same street.

“Revsof is now in the hospital. He's been there two months. I'll have to explain that it's a mental hospital and that he had a violent episode which put him into it and there's no point in going into the details of that. However, the hospital is in no hurry to let him go and that creates a problem.

“I went to visit him about a week after he had been hospitalized. He seemed perfectly normal, perfectly cheerful; I brought him up to date on some of the work going on in the department and he had no trouble following me. But then he wanted to speak to me privately. He insisted the nurse leave and that the door be closed.

“He swore me to secrecy and told me he knew exactly how to design a Tokamak in such a way as to produce a totally stable magnetic field that would contain a plasma of moderate densities indefinitely. He said something like this, 'I worked it out last month. That's why I've been put here. Naturally, the Soviets arranged it. The material is in my home safe; the diagrams, the theoretical analysis, everything.' “

Rubin, who had been listening with an indignant frown, interrupted. “Is that possible? Is he the kind of man who could do that? Was the work at the stage where such an advance—”

Puntsch smiled wearily. “How can I answer that? The history of science is full of revolutionary advances that required small insights that anyone might have had, but that, in fact, only one person did. I'll tell you this, though. When someone in a mental hospital tells you that he has something that has been eluding the cleverest physicists in the world for nearly thirty years, and that the Russians are after him, you don't have a very great tendency to believe it. All I tried to do was soothe him.

“But my efforts to do that just excited him. He told me he planned to have the credit for it; he wasn't going to have anyone stealing priority while he was in the hospital. I was to stand guard over the home safe and make sure that no one broke in. He was sure that Russian spies would try to arrange a break-in and he kept saying over and over again that I was the only one he could trust and as soon as he got out of the hospital he would announce the discovery and prepare a paper so that he could safeguard his priority. He said he would allow me co-authorship. Naturally, I agreed to everything just to keep him quiet and got the nurse back in as soon as I could.”

Halsted said, “American and Soviet scientists are co-operating in fusion research, aren't they?”

“Yes, of course,” said Puntsch. “The Tokamak itself is of Soviet origin. The business of Russian spies is just Revsof’s overheated fantasy.”

Rubin said, “Have you visited him since?”

“Quite a few times. He sticks to his story. —It bothers me. I don't believe him. I think he's mad. And yet something inside me says: What if he isn't? What if there's something in his home safe that the whole world would give its collective eyeteeth for?”

Halsted said, “When he gets out—”

Puntsch said, “It's not that easy. Any delay is risky. This is a field in which many minds are eagerly busy. On any particular day, someone else may make Revsof's discovery —assuming that Revsof has really made one—and he will then lose priority and credit, and a Nobel Prize for all I know. And, to take the broader view, the firm will lose a considerable amount of reflected credit and the chance at a substantial increase in its prosperity. Every employee of the firm will lose the chance of benefiting from what general prosperity increase the firm might have experienced. So you see, gentlemen, I have a personal stake in this, and so has Jim Drake, for that matter.

“But even beyond that— The world is in a race that it may not win. Even if we do get the answer to a stable magnetic field, there will be a great deal of engineering to work through, as I said before, and, at the very best, it will be years before fusion energy is really available to the world— years we might not be able to afford. In that case, it isn't safe to lose any time at all waiting for Revsof to get out.”

Gonzalo said, “If he's getting out soon—”

“But he isn't. That's the worst of it,” said Puntsch. “He may never come out. He's deteriorating.”

Avalon said in his deep, solemn voice, “I take it, sir, that you have explained the advantages of prompt action to your friend.”

“That I have,” said Puntsch. “I've explained it as carefully as I could. I said we would open the safe before legal witnesses, and bring everything to him for his personal signature. We would leave the originals and take copies. I explained what he himself might possibly lose by delay. —All that happened was that he—well, in the end he attacked me. I've been asked not to visit him again till further notice.”

BOOK: More Tales of the Black Widowers
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