The Brookhaven National Laboratories occupy about six square miles of Upton, a small rural community in the center of Long Island. The Labs were built on the site of an old Army base in 1947 in collaboration between academic researchers and the government to promote basic research in selected aspects of the atomic sciences. Adam remembered that much from a high school field trip to the Labs. He especially remembered the eye-opening demonstrations: sparking Tesla coils and humongous cyclotrons, which left his teenage mind with a lasting impression—a place full of disheveled and wide-eyed mad scientists. Quivering electric arcs surrounded them while they staggered about in their cluttered laboratories, switching on all manner of convoluted, dark and noisy machinery.
And then of course, there was the sewn up body lying lifelessly on a belted gurney.
"How much farther?"
Adam blinked his eyes. "Just a few minutes more and we'll be at the front gate."
Linda shook her head. "What were you thinking about?"
"The last time I was here … as a student in high school. It was on a field trip. Did you know who made the first video game?"
"Wasn't that one of the first Atari games? Pong? Maybe around the 1970s?"
"Yeah, good guess, but Atari wasn't the first."
Linda rolled her eyes and Adam added, "Some people think it was Magnavox, with their Odyssey systems in the mid-seventies." Linda shrugged her shoulders and eased back into her seat as Adam went on. "Actually, I saw the first video game here at Brookhaven on that high school field trip. It was 'Tennis for Two', invented by a guy named Higginbottom, or something like that. It was an analog computer system, knobs and dials, and all of it took place on a five-inch oscilloscope screen. And that was back around 1958, almost twenty years before Atari or Magnavox."
Linda interrupted his soliloquy with apparent disinterest, which in a subtle kind of way disappointed Adam. "We're here."
A large sign indicated the entrance to the Labs. As they turned into the driveway leading to a gatehouse, Linda said, "It was Higginbotham."
Adam gave her a double take. He pulled down his window to greet the gatehouse guard.
Dr. Percy Wild pulled up at the gatehouse in a golf cart and stopped just in front of the two waiting there.
Adam waved. "Dr. Wild?"
"Quite, quite. I presume you're Dr. Dove … and the lady?"
"Yeah, that's me and the lady is Dr. Linda Garcia. We're both from Schill University as you may know. I believe George Freedman called you?"
Either his lab coat was too big or Percy was too small, or some nerdy combination of the two. His hands barely protruded from the starchy white cuffs and his face was half-hidden by the collar. It reminded Adam of the oversized winter coats his parents forced him to wear.
Don't worry dear, you'll grow into it.
Percy pushed up his glasses with his free hand, suggesting that even the eyewear was too large. Despite a diminutive frame, his voice was surprisingly deep and carried with it a tone of authority. "Yes, yes. Good to meet you. Hop in and I'll take you to my lab."
Three-across seating in a golf cart made for a distinctly perilous ride, especially as Percy enjoyed making sharp turns at every intersection. Along the way he pointed out that they were headed to the RCIBI lab, short for Radiotracer Chemistry and Instrumentation for Biological Imaging. He explained that the RCIBI was where most of the innovative instrumentation was developed. It was in that lab that Adam hoped the medallion would reveal its secrets. They scooted past several multi-story buildings, some with metallic spheres alongside reminiscent of water towers. Brookhaven was a city.
Percy pointed out some of the notable landmarks. "We're passing a few of the physics facilities here. Those round towers hold liquefied gases, mostly helium and nitrogen. Many of our efforts at the moment are to complete the RHIC, that is, the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider. It's a roughly circular track about two and a half miles long wherein heavy atoms will be accelerated to near light speed and crashed into each other."
Linda asked, "To what purpose?"
"To see what matter is made of, of course." At the next turn in the road Percy could not hide a trace of disdain in his voice. "The RHIC will be ready later this year. In fact, it's really a prototype for something much bigger being built in Switzerland."
"The LHC?" asked Linda.
Adam looked at Linda with wildly growing respect, while Percy mouth went agape.
He stuttered a reply. "Quite, quite. The Large Hadron Collider. It'll be about seventeen miles in diameter." He collected himself enough to sit up straight, then added, "We've got teams here working on some of the magnets and detectors the LHC will use."
The golf cart came to jolting halt alongside a white-washed two-story cinder block structure whose square windows were sunk into a plain concrete façade. When they got out of the cart, they followed Percy's diminutive five foot frame to the building's entrance.
Adam asked, "How does your work fit in with all this collider stuff?"
Percy slid a card through a reader at the door. "Technical support and spin-offs. We come up with ways to measure things that have never been measured before. That's the support part. And these efforts lead to new discoveries, spin-offs, inventions which find themselves useful for a variety of purposes."
They walked to the middle of a long center hallway and stopped in front of another set of double doors. Percy pointed to a metal box inset into the wall. "If you have any magnetic objects like watches, jewelry and so on, please drop them in the container."
Adam threw him a concerned frown.
"Don't worry, they will be safe here."
They emptied their pockets of loose change, cell phones, a gold rod and an old Luger. When Percy's eyes locked in on the gun, Adam said, "It's a long story." Percy nodded as if he understood. Adam added his laptop to the box. The double doors swung open as Percy inserted a card into a slot at the side.
"This is my lab. The TMS lab."
Adam read the placard above the doors: TRANSCRANIAL MAGNETIC STIMULATION. The lab was filled with a variety of what looked to Adam like conventional MRI instruments—Magnetic Resonance Imaging, the kind that hospitals use to help visualize soft tissues. They gave the impression of cylindrical half-coffins to Adam, with large round heads designed to rotate around one end of a patient's body. Magnetic resonance imaging had come into vogue since it surpassed standard x-ray imaging in detailing internal organs. Based on detecting protons in different environments, and not on absorbing x-rays, MRIs were a great deal safer as well.
They seated themselves at a workbench on one side of the lab. Percy pushed up his eyeglasses, looked at Adam and asked, "Can I see your medallion?"
Adam reached into his shirt and detached the medallion from its chain. "But isn't it dangerous to have this medallion in your lab because of all the magnets in here?"
With the artifact in his hand, Percy held it up to the fluorescent lab lighting, pausing long enough to turn it a full 360 degrees. "Gold is essentially nonmagnetic. So there's no danger as you put it. Hmmm, George tells me you found it in a piece of coal, and that it contains microscopic particles of carbon-13. Is that right?"
So much for keeping secrets.
Adam responded, "Er … Yes. And it's the carbon-13 that has us stumped. It appears that these C-13 particles are arranged in some order and they may be of different sizes."
Adam pulled out a mangled sheaf of photos from his lap top case. "George was able to obtain these photomicrographs of the object. You can see the carbon-13 particles there."
Percy nodded and craned his head for a closer look.
Adam added, "Tell me. How can you help us?"
"I assume you are familiar with the workings of an MRI?"
Linda and Adam nodded in unison. "Then you know that we apply an energy field, a radio-frequency field tuned to the energies of protons, to an object or a patient. And by moving this field over the object and detecting how much of the field is absorbed by protons aligning with it, we detect those protons. Thus, the instrument provides us with an image of the location of different types of protons in the sample."
He sure likes listening to himself.
Percy continued, "We can tune the field to a number of different types of atoms. Besides protons, other elements were susceptible to MRI imaging, and among these is carbon-13.
"So, you can get the MRI field to image carbon-13. But, these are very small particles. Is your instrumentation really that sensitive? Especially as the particles are embedded in gold?"
"Actually, gold, or any metal for that matter, usually presents a challenge. Although it's not magnetic, the applied rf field will generate Eddy currents in gold which can result in so much background noise that analysis becomes impossible."
Percy suddenly raised his hands in nerdly triumph. "However, we have a very sophisticated set of electronics here that can dampen those Eddy currents by pulsing the sample at the right frequency. It's a question of whether we can generate a detection window wide enough to visualize the carbon-13."
"And what about the particle size? These are very small … maybe on a micron scale."
"That's where the TMS technology comes in."
Adam recalled the sign above the door.
Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation.
Percy arose, and beckoned the pair to follow him as he walked over to a corner of the laboratory. What looked like a mini-MRI sat at the end of an elongated table. The silvery cylinder was the size and shape of a 1950s era beehive hair drier turned on its side, except this one had a chaotic array of multi-colored wires sprouting from its head. The sight made Adam look about the lab, half-expecting to see a hunchbacked assistant limping in through the doors.
"This little guy started out as a brain-scanning application. We now refer to it as a micro-MRI. It is capable of detecting and imaging very small particles, normally limited to a millimeter-sized resolution because of the inherent movement of live biological tissue."
"Like the brain in someone's head, for example," Adam offered.
A living brain, that is.
"Exactly. However, in your case, the medallion is not going to move and we may be able to get the resolution down to micron levels."
Adam finished Percy's thought aloud. "Small enough to get a clear picture of the C-13 patterns in the medallion."
Linda and Adam were purchasing coffee from a vending machine in the hallway when an undulating and ear-splitting screech cut off their conversation. Next, an overly loud mechanical voice blared instructions for everyone to calmly proceed to their designated safe zones. Not knowing where their safe zones might be, they started back to the TMS lab when Percy appeared in the hallway. He waved for them to follow him to a heavy metal door emblazoned with the universal black and yellow pie-wedge radioactivity logo and big black letters spelling out "SHELTER." A number of other scientists and technicians were fast-walking their way in the same direction. They descended the stairway to a large and windowless basement room. The blaring above them continued interspersed by a calm robotic warning. Then silence.
Percy turned to the two visitors now that things had calmed down and he could be heard. "That was an automatic alarm set to engage when we detect an unusual amount of radiation." He paused to look at the digital display on the wall near the stairway entrance to the shelter. An oscillating green line illustrated the recent emission. "Based on the energy scaling factor it looks like … neutrinos. A peculiar pattern—the burst occurred a few minutes ago, and now it appears it has ceased. Nothing more. Curious."
Adam asked, "You can detect neutrinos?"
"Deep underground we have a very large system that can do just that."
Linda asked, "Are they dangerous?"
Percy explained, "Not at all. Neutrinos are very small. They hardly hit a thing at the atomic level. Actually, most pass right through the Earth with no problem."
The shelter was not designed with comfort in mind, and the proximity of so many people in such close quarters spurred Adam to look more closely at Linda. She looked pale. Adam asked, "How long do we have to stay here? The neutrinos look like they have stopped, so can we go back up?"
"Only after the all clear sounds. We need to wait a while. It's really unlikely that this type of radiation, that is, neutrinos came from our labs, although we could produce some, I suppose, by subjecting certain elements to a high energy beam of sub-atomic particles. Most of the work here generates much heavier particles, and the usual radiation would take the form of x-rays, gamma rays and such. We are shielded from that kind of radiation. And in any case, like I mentioned to Linda, neutrinos do not pose a health threat. In fact, millions of neutrinos generated by our sun are racing through your bodies right now. The real danger may lie quite far off … something like a supernova, and if so, we should expect a killer burst of heavy radiation any moment now."
Linda moved closer to Adam. "It's all right." He brought an arm around her shoulders. Adam was well-aware of the possibility of a local supernova wiping out all life, not only here, but for a large chunk of the galaxy, with the only warning being a surge of neutrinos preceding the ionizing barrage of deadly radiation. Neutrinos would be the first to arrive since they were subatomic particles with nearly no mass travelling at near light speed.
Leave it up to Brookhaven to come up with a way to detect them and provide a warning system to boot.
After a few minutes, the mechanical voice announced that it was safe for everyone to return to their workstations. As people began climbing up the stairway and casual conversations resumed, Adam glanced at the radiation monitor's display and took notice of the exact time the neutrinos appeared. Color had returned to Linda's face. When they arrived at the TMS lab, they found that Percy had fitted the medallion in the beehive scanner and the MRI's output was displayed on a computer screen.
Adam pointed at the screen. "Is that the medallion we're looking at?"
"It certainly is Adam. Let me show you something."
Percy used his keyboard mouse to maneuver the medallion's image on the screen. With a gentle tap or two on the keyboard, the image enlarged, and the patterns of the carbon-13 particles began to emerge. As Percy continued his tapping, these tiny specks enlarged. The honeycomb pattern found throughout the medallion gradually morphed into linear strands of bright white spots on the screen.
"Take a look at this." Percy pointed with his free hand at one of the strands of particles. "Notice anything unusual?"
Linda jokingly quipped, "You mean you've found something even more unusual than the fact that this gold medallion contains all these carbon-13 bits?"
Adam fought down a grin. "It looks like these particles are not all the same size."
"Quite, quite. In fact, there appear to be four distinctly different sizes." Another mouse movement formed a box around a row of particles. "I've been running the data into our analysis systems. When I zoomed in, it became apparent that the particles lined up in a kind of spiral pattern—sort of like on a phonograph record or CD."
Percy pointed to another screen nearby where a continuous line of peaks streamed by, reminiscent of an EKG strip, but here the peaks were of four sizes.
Adam asked, "Is there a way we could see if there is some kind of pattern behind these four sizes?"
Percy beamed. "That's just what I was thinking. In fact, that's what the analyzer system is doing right now. It would take quite a while to look at all of the data, but I can check out a substantial amount by manually isolating a number of the rows on screen."
"How much exactly?" asked Linda.
"Oh, say a couple of million peaks."
As Adam pondered over these findings, a thought occurred to him. "By the way, were you doing anything out of the ordinary at around one-fifteen this afternoon?"
"That was about the time when I was setting up your medallion for analysis."
"What exactly did you do to set up the analysis?"
"Well, I was positioning it in the MRI chamber."
"Not much. I just fired up the MRI."
"What does that mean, 'fired up'?"
"Well, the machine goes through an automated alignment procedure. After a short x-ray scan, the radio frequency detectors …"
"X-rays?" Adam interrupted. "You subjected the medallion to x-rays?"
"Quite. Quite. I used the x-ray image for the alignment. The x-rays are not harmful. Sort of like the kind you might get using a fluoroscope. Perfectly harmless."
Percy looked at Adam's face and realized the possible coincidence. A few key strokes later, he added, "The log indicates that the x-ray scan ran at exactly one-fifteen."
How crazy is that?
Linda followed the line of reasoning. "Why would x-rays cause the medallion to emit neutrinos?"
Percy pushed up his spectacles.