A Tempering of Dreams, Chapter 10

A TEMPERING OF DREAMS is a novel: pure fantasy with imaginary characters, and no effort whatsoever at historical accuracy. It is based on remembered images of a bygone time, and has no particular purpose beyond enjoyment. It will appear serially as each chapter is completed; there is no schedule. MG,Jr.

A Tempering of Dreams, Chapter 1
8 May 2022

A Tempering of Dreams, Chapter 9
25 May 2022



Classes resumed the first week of April. The weather was balmy, wet or dry, and it was a joy to walk across campus, from the Men’s Quad, down Locust Walk, across Campus Green, and then down lower Locust Walk to the Engineering Building, and across the street to the Physics Building, for Sergio’s classes. And it was nice to go with Elena to all their favorite eating places, from Rocky’s Market way out west, to the food trucks along 38th near the Quad and 40th near Smokey Joe’s, The Underground, and sometimes downtown for fried shrimp when they took SEPTA in to visit the Philadelphia Museum, or taking picnic lunches to eat while sitting on the grass in the parkland along the Schuylkill River.

The harrowing flight Apollo 13, originally intended as the third Moon landing, captured world attention because of its seven days of intense suspense, everyone wondering if the three NASA astronauts would manage to survive in their spacecraft, heavily damage by a fiery explosive equipment malfunction, and return to Earth, making a successful reentry through the atmosphere without being incinerated to death. It was a squeaker, and Sergio was glued to the news about it.

The following Wednesday, 22 April 1970, was Earth Day. The first seed of Earth Day had been planted by Rachel Carson with the publication of her book, ‘Silent Spring,’ in 1962, which caused a vast expansion of pubic awareness about the natural environment. Carson wrote about how the massive use of the chemical insecticide DDT in agriculture had led to its leaching into the environment and tainting the food ingested by birds, which caused them to lay eggs with severely thinned and fragile shells, thus leading many species, like the magnificent Peregrine Falcons and Bald Eagles, rapidly toward extinction. Public outcry caused DDT to be banned in the United States.

The 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill was a massive ten-day outpouring of crude petroleum from the blow-out of a submerged drill rig suspended from an above-surface platform. It was the largest oil spill ever to be seen in United States waters up to that time, and fouled the beaches and coastline all along Santa Barbara County, and on the Channel Islands on the opposite side of the Santa Barbara Channel. The thick oil and gummy tar washed up along the shoreline killed thousands of sea birds, as well as dolphins, elephant seals, sea lions, otters and many others forms of marine life, and despite the spontaneous and desperate efforts by hundreds of volunteers from the public to clean off heavily tarred birds, and to block the oil’s movement and then absorb it with masses of straw. This catastrophe would have very long-term deleterious effects to the naturally gorgeous environment of coastal Southern California. Public consciousness had been awakened to a new concept: ecology, the interconnectedness of all natural environments, and the great harm to their integrity that could be caused by toxic chemical pollution.

That new public awareness of ecology sparked the rapid growth of the intensely felt Environmental Movement in the United States. Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson, who was an ardent conservationist, sought to capitalize on the new public sentiment to preserve and protect the environment. He gathered like-minded activist-organizers and political operatives to help craft a nation-wide campaign of teach-ins to be held on hundreds of college campuses, to agitate for a national environmental initiative, and to debate the Vietnam War, on a single day: Wednesday, 22 April 1970.

The Earth Day event scheduled for Campus Green was certain to be big and popular, everyone on campus was enthused at the prospect. Classes would still be held that day, and Finals would only be a month away, so Sergio and Elena planned to meet at Campus Green on the afternoon of Earth Day after their academics were done for the day.

Sergio attended a long review of his Nuclear Physics course, conducted by Professor Whales himself and not just a graduate student. Whales brought all the disparate elements of the material: transuranic elements and isotopes, alpha decay, beta decay, nuclear fission, nuclear fusion, gamma emission, neutron emission, radioactivity, half-life, neutron activation, transmutation, critical mass and radioactive shielding, into three cohesive practical applications of that science, which he set about to describe.

The first was about boiling water fission reactors: masses of uranium in a pile submerged in water, and whose quantity of mutually fission-causing radioactive emission and bombardment — by thermal neutrons — and degree of bulk heating of the nuclear pile, were controlled by the withdrawal or insertion of thermal neutron absorbing control rods made of boron, through an array of bore holes passing through the body of uranium pile, and this whole assembly contained within a thick-wall steel vessel through which water was pumped, cooling the core by heating itself, and that hot water then exited to drive conventional stream turbines that turned electric generators. And all of that had to be contained within a thick-walled concrete silo to shield the outside world from any radioactivity that would leak out of the primary steel container and its metal piping in the event of an equipment malfunction or explosive failure that breached the steel containment. It did seem rather prosaic to use a complicated technological system for safely containing a highly toxic, expensively refined dangerously radioactive pile of metal whose rate of nuclear fissioning was to be precisely controlled remotely by the accurate positioning of absorptive control rods and the pumping rate of cooling water, just to generate steam for driving electric generators in the same way as had been done since the days of Nikola Tesla.

The most potent application of nuclear power by fission, made so far, has been for the construction of atomic bombs. The object here is to compress a mass of uranium that was highly enriched with its most radioactive isotope, uranium-235 — from 0.7% for natural ore to over 85% for bomb-grade uranium — so rapidly that the uranium mass was driven from being a subcritical mass to becoming a supercritical mass before the rapidly accelerated rate of fission reactions and neutron emission, due to the rapidly diminished proximity of uranium nuclei from each other, would heat the metal to melting and falling apart. As a supercritical mass, each fission reaction by a uranium nuclei was certain to have its emitted thermal neutrons initiate fission reactions in more than one other uranium nuclei they bombarded. This process was a runaway chain reaction, and would in less than a microsecond lead to a nuclear explosion. The city of Hiroshima was devastated by a uranium fission bomb based on these principles, and the city of Nagasaki was devastated by a fission plutonium bomb — plutonium being an artificially created transuranic element — in the very last days of America’s war with Japan in 1945.

So how would you make a fission bomb? Professor Whales drew a chalk circle on the blackboard to represent a sphere of uranium or plutonium. Then he drew a larger circle around that, and labeled the intervening space between the circles “high explosives.” Then he drew a series of short lines outside close to the outer circle and parallel with its surface, spaced around the circumference, and labeled those “initiators.” Off to the side of this assembly, he drew a little box, and labeled it “neutron generator,” and around the entire assembly he drew another enclosing contour and labeled it “case.” Atomic bomb engineering was all about getting the masses and dimensions of all these elements into the right proportions, and wired to act in the proper sequence, to create an exploding supercritical mass. Prior to use, an atomic bomb has to remain as a subcritical assembly, with a minimum of spontaneous fissioning so it can be stored and transported as safely as such a thing can be handled. The neutron generator would be triggered electrically to emit a short burst of neutrons to initiate fissioning within the bomb’s core. The initiators would be triggered electrically to cause local explosions at points on the periphery of the mass of high explosive material. By the appropriate shaping of that mass, the expanding shock waves of those local explosions would merge into one implosive wave, which would compress the radioactive core and rapidly drive it to supercriticality, and ultimately produce the atomic explosion that would burst its containment vessel and then send out its energy and radioactive emissions in all directions in the external world.

Sergio and the other physics students were all fascinated. Whales paused for a moment to look at the now elaborate chalk sketch, then turned to the class, saying, “What a thing to talk about on Earth Day.”

The last process for extracting energy from nuclear reactions is the most common one used in the Universe: nuclear fusion, which powers the stars. The only successful terrestrial application of nuclear fusion so far had been to boost the explosive power of fission bombs. A small golfball-sized sphere filled with a gas made of radioactive isotopes of hydrogen — deuterium and tritium — would be embedded at the very center of the radioactive metal core of an atomic bomb. This gas sphere was called the “spark plug.” The implosion of the metal core would compress the gas of the spark plug to the point of driving deuterium and tritium nuclei to fuse into each other creating helium nuclei, and each such reaction emitting an extremely energetic neutron. Such fusion neutrons could penetrate deeply through the incoming compressed mass of metal, knocking into many uranium or plutonium nuclei and vastly enhancing the rate of fissioning and the emission of fission energy, thus exponentially increasing the explosive power of the bomb.

Controlled thermonuclear fusion was the idea — and so far only a dream — of building chambers wrapped with many types of high current coils for generating magnetic fields within those chambers, which would contain hydrogen gas that had been so infused with electrical energy that its neutral atoms had been ionized — broken apart — into a swarm of free electrons, negatively charged particles, and positive ions, the bare nuclei of hydrogen atoms stripped of their orbiting electrons. This was a plasma. The charged particles would be confined by the magnetic fields, by electromagnetic forces and interactions very well understood since the 19th century. It was hoped that by pulsing the coils in the right sequence with huge currents to squeeze down the magnetic fields that the plasma could be compressed to the point of fusing the nuclei, and that the resulting emission of fusion neutrons could be captured in a blanket of neutron absorbing material that would then heat up and in turn boil water for steam. Experimental facilities to develop such a technology had been in operation since at least 1955, and by 1970 very large and elaborate ones existed in the United States, Russia, England and other sites around the world.

The fundamental problem with controlled thermonuclear fusion by magnetic confinement was that no matter how the “magnetic bottle” was squeezed, the plasma always found a way to quickly ooze out before any fusion reactions could be initiated. It was like having toothpaste always squirt out between your fingers no matter how you went about trying to squeeze the tube in hopes of propelling a controlled stream onto your toothbrush. The belief of controlled thermonuclear fusion research scientists was that “fusion is fifteen years in the future.”

It was all so fascinating. Class was over for this course, and all its physics students had left to do was study for the final exam. Sergio picked up his books and wandered out onto the street, where poor Koppelman’s body had been loaded into an ambulance ten weeks earlier, and Sergio crossed the street to enter lower Locust Walk. He could hear amplified outdoor speeches being given in the distance, punctuated by bursts of applause, as he walked toward Campus Green. If scientists and engineers could only make controlled fusion possible then we would be able to get away from the use of coal and oil, whose extraction had been so destructive of the environment of both coal mining and oil drilling regions, like West Virginia and the sea and shores of the Santa Barbara Channel, and whose use so hideously fouled the air, as smog and acid rain. Then the United States might be able to provide its citizens with abundant and inexpensive electrical energy to power their homes, businesses and creative endeavors. This would also mean freeing the country from the threat of political manipulation by foreign suppliers of energy resources the United States might become dependent on in a future without fusion technology. However vast the domestic natural deposits of coal, petroleum, natural gas and uranium might appear today, in 1970, they were nevertheless finite and steadily being depleted with their consumption to generate electrical power and combustion-driven torque for transport vehicle motors, like Sergio’s beloved Ferrari cars. The prospect of having the United States becoming dependent on Saudi Arabian oil in the near future, for example, was not appealing at all. With an abundant domestic production of electricity from fusion reactors, so much of American transportation could be electrified, and even possibly peppy long-range electric cars could be developed.

If it really was only 15 to 20 years in the future that fusion energy would be widely available, Sergio thought, then he was in a perfect position to train for becoming one of the first generation of fusion power plant engineers, a technical person helping to bring about a technological revolution that could help lift billions of people out of poverty while ensuring a clean environment. Could such a dream be possible? Could he make that a career? It was impossible to know in advance, but he could plan for the best and train for that possibility, to be ready to catch that revolution if it actually materialized, and ride that wave for all it was worth as a fulfilling life. And if that energy revolution did not materialize, then at least he’d be well-educated enough to get some kind of decent engineering job. So that was the dream, the North Pole now pulling the needle of his career compass into the direction he was going to follow.

The Campus Green that Sergio walked onto that afternoon had been transformed into a little Woodstock Festival. The earlier speeches had given way to balladic folk music being performed and sung from the stage in front of the College Hall steps. The Green itself was covered with people immersing themselves in the collective sense of wider awareness and peacefulness that pervaded the whole event. The broad wide low-stepped plaza that extended down from the Library doors was dazzling hot with the direct fall of sunlight on it, and with the reflection of light and heat from the sheer glassy vertical sun-facing wall of the Library behind it. The Green extended away from that stepped plaza as if a placid sea topped with an intricate patchwork of rippling colors each animated by human breath, extending from the foot of a solidified white beach out to a far horizon at College Hall. People were sitting in small groups and talking, some were lying on their sides reading while letting the weight of their heads fall through a hand against the ear and down along a forearm to an elbow and upper arm pressing into the ground, others were lying on their backs and just looking up at the sky, and some people were blowing large soap bubbles that floated slowly off with the glinting and shimmering of their transparent rainbow-colored iridescence shifting as the bubble skins oscillated and wobbled in their hovering flights.

And there she was, at the opposite end of the Library plaza walking through the lounging crowd toward him with a big smile, and the sun backlighting her lilting form rimming it in radiance. They walked toward each other in a merged experience of recognition that was a perfection of wordless purity. When they met they just put their books down by their feet and embraced into a deep kiss that was the totality of their lives for those moments, a true perfection.

A speckled fall of burnished silvery full moon light splashed through broadleaf foliage into the limpid half-dark of evening below arching tree limbs enclosing a fresh hush of dappled shade along the smoothly surfaced flagstone walkway, and dashed along the slightly swaying undulating contours and waving folds of a field of flowers sunny meadow clothe print coursing down that corridor of enchantment. Elena was a moving vision of loveliness, an elegance of the play of light across the features of her face, the scintillating shimmers of her cascading black hair, and the wafting of her many-colored floret-besprinkled softly draping spring dress. She and Sergio were walking, unhurried, along the new continuation of Locust Walk, west, beyond the Superblock construction site, for a dinner at Napoli Ristorante. This was their Earth Night, a celebration of realizing one’s purpose, of being in love together, of luxuriating in being alive, and of being grateful they were immersed in such existential beauty.

This evening’s dinner had been planned days before along with the rest of their Earth Day schedule. After their afternoon at Campus Green, they had each gone to their respective college dorms to dress in some of their more refined casual attire, before Sergio returned to Hill House to escort Elena on their walk to Napoli Ristorante. This was her first visit to it. The dining room had parties of people sitting at many of the tables, but not all, and wide crenulated glass bowls filled with lit candles casting their mellow glow onto their tables and the faces leaning over them.

Claudia was their hostess, and she recognized Sergio.
“You’ve come to visit us again.”
“Yes, Elena and I have planned for this evening.”
Claudia took in Elena’s tasteful presentation, from her brushed wavy clasped and layered fall of dark hair and pearl earrings, and the light gracefulness of her knee-length dress, to the delicate leather cross-lacing of her open-weave sandals, which spiraled up to her ankles. Sergio wore a open collar beige faintly patterned button-down shirt and crisply creased charcoal gray slacks falling over burgundy brown zip leather boots; and he wore a lightweight men’s herringbone sport coat.
“Let me give you this nice little table in the corner,” and Claudia having decided they merited it, led Elena followed by Sergio to the seating. There, Sergio walked around them both to pull out the chair for Elena, and she settled herself onto it, then he seated himself. Claudia noticed. She turned her head slightly over her shoulder and briefly whisked up her hand, with the index finger slightly extended, then turned back to her young guests and put menus down on the table. A man in a starched white shirt and black baggy pants rushed up and poured ice water from a pitcher in the empty flat-bottomed glasses on the table and lay down a basket of crusty Italian baguette. Cruets of olive oil and wine vinegar were already on the table.
“Would you like something else to drink while you look over the menu?”
“What do you think, Elena, Asti?” She gave a happy vibratory nod in the affirmative.
“Asti Spumante.”
Claudia seemed to approve and she went to get that.

As Elena and Sergio were debating what to get and how to share, they were started to hear “ZUPPA DI CLAMS!” called for from a boisterous well-dressed obviously Italian older man sitting with an animated party of four well-dressed likely Italian older men and four not old evening-gowned, bouffant coiffed and jeweled ladies, seated around a rectangular table. The waterboy rushed over and the jovial man, clearly the leader of his party, gesticulated as he declared that they just had to have zuppa di clams for the table, it was unthinkable not to have zuppa di clams to embark on their feast. Claudia appeared, carrying a round tray with glass flutes and a chilled bottle of Asti Spumante, stopping by that big table and confirming with just the word “zuppa” with Mister Jovial, then flicked her head sideways to signal the waterboy to hop back to the kitchen with her message “dillo a Gino, Zuppa Di Clams, presto!”

Claudia brought Sergio and Elena their wine, uncorking the bottle and pouring out two glasses. She waited for Sergio’s reaction to the first taste, which was “very good!,” and then as Claudia was about to withdraw Sergio exclaimed “AH!” shooting his finger up pointing to where he heard the music coming from, saying “Di Stefano!”
Elena, Claudia and Mister Jovial had been startled by this and now looked at Sergio, Elena with amused surprise, Claudia and Mister Jovial with interest. As if to excuse himself to Claudia, Sergio explained what he had heard playing, “Torna a Surriento, with Di Stefano.”
“You know Di Stefano?”
“My father sings this, he always wanted to be a tenore lirico, on stage. Di Stefano is one of the best, always reminds me of papa.”

They settled on an order: Zuppa Di Clams to share, and Veal Scallopini each. Sergio was sure they would want tiramisù for dessert, so he asked for two to be saved. Zuppa di clams arrived at Mister Jovial’s table and that octet turned to their bubblingly happy feasting but without undue explosiveness of expression, and soon after Sergio and Elena’s zuppa di clams arrived. It was so good, and they soaked pieces of bread in the broth once the clams were gone, to enjoy it fully.

The zuppa bowl was removed and veal scallopini platters placed before them. Then Claudia came over, putting down two wine glasses and a bottle of Chianti, which she set about opening.
“Wait! I didn’t order that.”
“It’s a gift from him,” Claudia said flicking her head slightly in the direction of Mister Jovial, who said as Sergio looked over to him, “Chianti Classico! It goes with everything!”
“Thank you!”
It did indeed go well. As they ate their meal and drank their smooth wine — Mister Jovial knew which one to pick — Sergio told Elena of his realization of purpose, discovered that day. And she was so sweet to be such a good listener, and for understanding how Sergio’s technical vision connected to an Earth Day consciousness. She, too, was coming to a focused vision of her purpose, which was to apply the writing of stories of real life, news but much more than news, a sense of life, to try opening people’s minds to better attitudes, greater justice, more connectedness, more compassion. Sergio understood that this was how her literary vision was connected to an Earth Day consciousness.

As they were thus engaged Sergio noticed Giuseppe Di Stefano was singing ‘Dicitencello Vuie,’ and that the music must have been changed since the zuppa, because instead of the earlier mix of popular Italian tunes it was now a continuing sequence of Neapolitan songs and lyric arias all sung by Giuseppe Di Stefano.

In time, they finished their meals and sat back, saying little but smiling their satisfaction to each other across the table. The waterboy cleared their table and Claudia came over.
“Are you ready for tiramisù?”
Two of those soon arrived on Claudia’s round tray, along with two little glasses of limoncello.
“These are my gift,” Claudia said as she put the glasses of limoncello down.
“Ah! Thank you!, and we still have chianti.”
“These go much better with tiramisù. Gino can cook with chianti you leave.” And it did, and he did.

The bill came and it wasn’t as brutal as Sergio expected, no doubt because of the gifts, but it also seemed the zuppa was discounted. Sergio put down cash and a decent tip, because he thought of the waterboy and knew what it was like to work at minimum wage, and figured the tips were shared out. Claudia picked up the cash, and Sergio waved palm down “no change.” Claudia looked at them smiling and said, “You come back and visit us.”
“We will.”

The moonlight still splashed through the leaves, splotching them with islands of lights spilling across them as they went hand in hand along the flagstone walkway. In Paine-103, tired from the day and drowsy from the wine, they undressed and got into bed cuddled like nested spoons, Elena nuzzling her back into the press of his chest, with his right arm under her pillowed head and his left arm wrapped around that side of her body and she pressing his hand into her full breasts with her arms crossed over it. And so they fell into the contented sleep of the just.


A Tempering of Dreams, Chapter 11
29 May 2022


2 thoughts on “A Tempering of Dreams, Chapter 10

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