Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Notes From My Knapsack 10-9-05
Jeff Gill

Mushrooms and Pumpkins

John Aristotle Phillips was an undergrad C student in physics at Princeton in the mid-1970’s. Sure, he had Freeman Dyson of the Manhattan Project as his advisor, but he was more interested in his pizza delivery business aborning than quantum mechanics.
Then he had a major project due that needed to make a big splash to overshadow his otherwise lackluster acdemic record, so he decided to design an atomic bomb using public record documents.
When John finished his design, Professor Dyson widened his eyes and was vague about whether it would work or not, but the project passed . . . and the government classified it shortly afterwards, which sounds like the Nuclear Housekeeping Seal of Disapproval to me.
Oh, and after some publicity got out about what he’d done, he kept getting late night phone calls from Pakistanis.
I’ve never forgotten that last fact, and how the otherwise ebullient Phillips was unnerved by the interest from a small, poor, hungry country for the design of a superior killing machine. His book, "Mushroom", came out in 1978 and reviewing it was my first paying piece of writing for print. The book is, sadly, out of print, but the reality remains: an average physics major can, with a little diligence and desperation, design an atomic bomb.
Getting the fissile material requires desperation of a different sort, but fellows with guns or box-cutters have proven remarkable adaptable in the last 25 years.
Speaking this Thursday night at Denison’s Swasey Chapel is Sen. Sam Nunn. With the still serving Sen. Richard Lugar (a graduate of DU), they worked hard at creating a program to secure Russian nuclear materials, an effort that is shamefully underfunded and generally unsupported. Since starting in 1991, the program is only half done.
8:00 pm on Oct. 13 you can hear Sen. Nunn, introduced by his friend and colleague Sen. Lugar, talking about this state of affairs and his movie . . . yes, and it stars another former senator, Fred Thompson of "Law & Order" and Watergate fame . . . a movie made by Nunn’s "Nuclear Threat Initiative" organization called "Last Best Chance." It will be shown repeatedly on HBO from Oct. 17, and the more people who watch it, the more public pressure that can be brought to bear on Congress and the Bush administration to secure ourselves from the threat of nuclear terrorism.
If you can get some of the Soviet surplus stuff in your homebuilt bomb, a nuclear reaction may be almost as easy as ordering a mushroom pizza. Let’s make sure we’re not making it that simple. And don’t even ask about dirty bombs. Come hear the senators, watch the movie, and let’s get this nailed down; a Princeton kid showed us the problem in 1978, and I’m thinking we should have it solved by now.
If you want a scare of a more transitory sort, head down to Devine Farms just east of Rt. 37 and US 40, right there on the National Road west of Hebron. The Lakewood Drama and Fine Arts club is running concessions for the weekends through Oct. 30, and they’re getting ready to put on "Meet Me in St. Louis" Nov. 18 & 19 (and I love their new logo with the knight’s helmets in a comic smile and dramatic frown).
Ralph and Charla have the barrel train rolling, plus plenty of other activities especially for small children, and the prices for both pumpkins and other stuff is great – the Little Guy goes for the armband every time, and runs amuck.
And after the children are put to a sound sleep after running around at Devine Farms, you can write a letter to your Congressfolk and tell them the only mushrooms you want to see are on your pizza.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; if you have news or notes to pass along in this space, send them to

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