Fitbit, Magnets, and Uranium Enrichment

My Fitbit metrics show I was awake again for 30 minutes between the hours of 3 and 4 AM. I don’t remember these minutes, recorded in my sleep stages totaling 6%. I’ve only known of this deviation for the last month, since my wife purchased this death clock as a semi-retirement present. You have to start moving around, she says. Apparently 10,000 steps and leafy vegetables is not just a thing for millennials, the flag wavers of expensive green shits and data analytics; they’ll have a USB connection on their taints before they know it.

My wife is right. I haven’t been taking the best care of myself. That stuff kind of just gets away from you. I’ve spent most of my days working at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The site is named after Ernest Lawrence, the inventor of the cyclotron and later the calutron that was used at Y-12 in Oak Ridge to enrich uranium. Calutrons did this by using magnetic fields to separate the lighter uranium-235 atoms from the heavier uranium-238s. The 235s are the isotopes responsible for creating the first atomic bomb, Little Boy. I imagine General Leslie Groves sneaking into the lab, whispering in the ear of Oppenheimer, Keep working, Oppie. Trust me, I’m the son of a pastor. The offspring of clergy—so commonly the case—for future contrarians, skeptics, great thinkers and rebel rousers, sometimes dipshits.

Who are you talking to, my wife asks, pushing me out of bed. She begs for coffee.

Everything I can tell you about Lawrence’s calutrons or the separation process they used during the Manhattan Project is available with an internet search. However, that process of enriching uranium, uranium in general, isn’t used much anymore—it’s plutonium now, baby—unless your recreating the process in a country trying to develop a nuclear program. As the magnet guy, I’ve become important as of late because of the gas centrifuge process that is used to separate U-235s from U-238s the old way. Simply: Centrifuges do this by spinning fast enough to separate heavy things from lighter things. Centrifuges spin at 90,000 RPM and one flaw is enough to send the whole thing kablooey. The optimum centrifuges float on magnetic bearings to keep it all frictionless. That’s where I come in; I calibrate and design the magnetic capabilities of those bearings. Until centrifuges, we Mag-Knights were mostly associated with refrigerator kitsch. Think…ICI Plant Protection Laboratories—Pesticides Division—until the discovery of VX Gas.

The coffee is brewing, and I watch out the widow as the men pull into my driveway who have been assigned to take me to and from work; this is a new thing. My wife loves that my work has become useful for once—her being the real doctor, helping people—and she’s watched enough prime-time television to believe in the plausible fear of spies abducting me. There was that one time at Wholefoods, she reminds me. And the woman who lives up the street with the perfect family and their hypoallergenic dog-poodle-thing, totally suspect. Even in Berkeley.

What is scary about building centrifuges for countries with checkered pasts is that the centrifuge process is the whole process; there aren’t any more steps between enriching uranium for energy or for nuclear weapons. It’s a couple more spins. Think the extra cycle on your house dryer. As long as the magnet bearings are properly designed with organization and calibration, they shouldn’t get wonky in later cycles. My predetermined malfunctioning bearings on the other hand is exactly what the guys outside don’t want me talking about. The government’s idea of keeping an eye on things is by making sure things go wrong. When the centrifuges fail, they’ll know who’s been naughty. Not the best method; but what do you expect from our administration?

At first, it was hard for me to design something to fail; it goes against everything I am as a scientist. I’ve never been asked to make something that doesn’t work. What community would see the point in that? You also wouldn’t believe how hard it is to build something to fail on specific terms. Most failures are the result of ineptness, myopic foresight or greed. Designing failure takes a little bit of known-how. A little bit of care.

Because my wife and I are never here, our home is decorated with Philodendrons. The impossible to kill plant. Though California is one of the most idyllic places for growing anything beautiful, our living room might as well be the insides of a quantum computer.

I fill the pourer and begin watering the plants that are hanging in the windows; they look imperil of course, but the best thing about Philodendrons is they forgive your shittiness. By afternoon, they’ll be as lively and straight as born-again Christians. My wife scoots by me with her favorite coffee mug, the one where all her fingers fit comfortable in the handle. She puts her arm around my shoulder and kisses me on the cheek. I’ll finish watering, she says. You need to get ready for your appointment. She kisses me again. It’ll get easier, she says. You’ll beat it.

Before I leave the house, I check my Fitbit steps: I’ve taken 743 steps already this morning; it’s going to be a 10,000-step day. I greet the men in the driveway; the one holding my door open is named Bill. He carries himself in this awkward-lean, like a newborn elephant who doesn’t quite know how to stand. One of my sons used to do that, but he grew out of it. Ted never gets out of the car; he’s the driver. Together they are Bill and Ted like the movie about stoners, which I only know about because time travel movies are among the favorites at the lab and we have to watch them before we vote them on our running list of the best: Time After Time, Planet of the Apes, Primer, The Philadelphia Experiment, Interstellar, Back to the Future and yes…Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Which was Gregory’s vote, from the computational chemistry department, but that’s because he’s wife—whose work is also more important than his, helping people—studies marijuana for THC and CBD research as a biologist. Greg likes to lick the beakers.

I love the drive at this time of the morning through campus, winding among oak and redwood trees. My building is at the top of the Berkeley Hills. From there, you can see San Francisco straight out. We get tourists up here looking toward the city of the future that no one can afford to live in. The city that disappears in the fog. You can look down on it from here, where the bay meets the ocean; see the red tube running across the sky, into the vein of society, the dripping sun setting between the towers.

We enter my building and take the elevator to basement level 2. There are multiple basement levels in this building and I haven’t investigated half of them in forty years, except to find a single-stall bathroom. I ask Ted how his weekend was. He responds and Bill shakes his head at him. The elevator doors open, and the hallway seems longer than I remember. For some reason I feel exhausted. I check my Fitbit: 1,256 steps.

Seems like a lot. We reach the door of my lab, where Bill and Ted usually stop, but today, Ted grabs the handle; sandwiched between the two of them, I go through the threshold. There is man I’ve never seen before, sitting at my desk, spinning in my chair.

Without introducing himself, he goes into questions about ring magnets for IR-1 centrifuges. Before I finish answering, he’s onto another question about Barium/Strontium ferrite magnets. We go like this for a while, eyeing each other, answering and asking questions, him spinning and spinning until finally he asks me something about Doxorubicin, or was it Daunorubicin—I’m not sure anymore what we are talking about. He tells me about ISIS and I want to confirm we are speaking about the Institute for Science and International Security, but I don’t care any longer; talking to this guy is useless.

After a dramatic pause, the impenitent man stands and tells me something I’ll never forget for no other reason than it is the sorriest things I have ever heard. He says, sometimes you have to kill both the good and the bad so the good can make some headway. And true, this doesn’t always work, sometimes by killing the good, we make things worse. But at this point you don’t have any other options, so we should continue with the treatment.

All magnets have two poles, a north and south. There are no such things as magnetic monopoles. If you cut a magnet in half, the ends will always be opposite poles. Things are classified as having a level of magnetism by electrons spinning together more than not, making the atoms magnetic. However, it isn’t until one strongly magnetic substance enters the magnetic field of an existing magnet that things become truly magnetized. All things become changed this way…through contact…I suppose.

The man doesn’t ask any more questions and Bill and Ted lead me out of my office, the man still spinning in my chair. We head back toward the elevator, and I’m so exhausted now, I don’t put up a fight. I just want to go home. I look at my Fitbit: 5,347 steps.

Really? When the elevator doors open, I see a staircase leading down inside, not the inside of an elevator. Bill nudges me in the back. I take the first step down, but the distance seems stretched like I’m walking with green Gumby legs. I turn back to Bill and Ted, but the distance between us has grown by what appears to be a few hundred stairs. They’re waving at me to keep going. The light at the bottom of the stairs becomes bright and I can make out white tile flooring there. It has an effervescent glow, like bubbling champagne. When I reach the level, the flooring is made up of thousands of finely cut hexagons, a pattern familiar from the honey bee, not office flooring, though it makes sense to economize. The floor curves down at the wall, rounding the surface for this hexagonal pattern, which makes it easy on the knees. The best tile pattern for flat surfaces is non-regular pentagons. Three professors at the University of Washington Bothell discovered a new non-regular pentagon last month.
And flooring has never been so exciting.

Somehow Bill and Ted have managed to beat me to this floor and they are standing at the end of the long room. It must be the size of a football field, the hexagonal pattern really playing with my eyes fifty yards out. The man from upstairs joins them. His head seems twice the size of his body; his voice comes toward me in rolling waves. You’ll feel better soon, he says. I give him a look of disgust. The room splits by cutting across the middle then pivoting out to ninety degrees before raising up. I look down on them through a glass roof like my wife’s lasagna pan has been placed over them to dry. Then their floor moves again, and I can’t see them anymore. It’s all walls now, bright shiny walls that glow with a liquid quality. They’re moving closer to me, the room slowly shrinking. I feel smaller too. Not small enough to vanish, not yet. Then she’s there, my wife standing in the corner. I hear something circling us, turning faster and faster, and I feel like a silly fool, tricked by God.

Joseph Rakowski received his bachelor’s degree in criminology from Florida State University and completed his MFA in fiction at the University of San Francisco. His short stories have been published by Witness Magazine, PANK Magazine, The Baltimore Review, and Literary Orphans.