Blunder can be found in






BLUNDER

Philip Wylie

THERE IS NO RECORD OF THE exact date. It was probably a morning in late May, or possibly in early June, when Carl Everson and Hugh Dunn rode up from the abandoned nickel mine on its creaky hoist and stood with their hands over their eyes, spreading their fingers apart slowly, to become accustomed to the outdoor brilliance. Late May or early June—since this was the latitude of the "midnight sun" and there had been no dark. Around the two men was an enormous clearing which stretched from a solid wall of spruces to boulders fringing the polar ocean; an expanse of weeds, birches, wild grass and young conifers gradually obliterating a village near the mine and steadily overgrowing high, rusty cones of tailings.

Everson and Dunn had invested their life savings here. The region suited their needs: a mine in hard rock, deep enough, with extensive lateral galleries, close to the sea. Here, moreover, on a Pole-facing promontory of the North Cape, was utter isolation—necessary because some risk was involved in their work and they did not wish to endanger human beings. Indeed, the harming of a person would have ruined their purpose, which was essentially as commercial as it was scientific.

Carl Everson held the Chair of Physics in the Oslo Institute; Hugh Dunn was Dean of Engineering at Glasgow, and a Nobel Laureate, besides. The scheme on which they had long plotted together was ingenious and, basically, quite simple.

It depended upon two facts. First, that volcanic phenomena are radioactive in nature. Second, that certain types—the steam-producing types—are usable as a power source: at least one Italian city had drawn its electricity from steam that gushed out of a volcanic vent, since the 1920s. Everson and Dunn intended to disintegrate a bismuth "bomb" in the mine gallery in such a way as to start a slow, hot, atomic chain reaction. The process, according to their calculations, would not "burn out" for centuries and conjuction of the sea would guarantee production of superheated steam which, they believed, could be "harnessed." As owners of such a source, the two scientists knew that they could furnish to all of northern Scandinavia, and much of Finland, extremely cheap electrical power. In doing so, they would make their fortunes.

The venture had one unfavorable aspect: research in physics was sequestered by individual national governments. For many years, new information had been released only after the security authorities in the "nation-of-discovery" had assured themselves it was no longer, actually, "new." Thus, scientific advances made in Britain, Russia, America, China and elsewhere were not always added to the body of common human knowledge but often retained as "military secrets." Owing to that situation, Everson and Dunn had long argued the wisdom of carrying out their plan.

"Bismuth fission," the Norwegian had often said, "is something new under the sun. We'll be the first to do it— maybe. We think we know what will happen. But are we sure? Evans is apparently working on it. Chandra Lalunal, at Delhi. And Stackpole. Maybe we'd better wait for their further reports. They've hinted at progress—"

And the Scot would generally reply, "Aye. Wait. Wait how long? For the rest of our lives? Wait until generals and statesmen decide the knowledge has leaked, or their spies have learnt it? Suppose we do fail, Carl? What then?"

"Then we'll jointly own a big puddle of hot rock that nobody can approach for centuries."

"Right." The Scot would chuckle. "Right. And be the precious fools of physics, too! Well, get on with it, Carl. Fine times, these, for what they used to call a free man!"

The times. The date. It was May or early June, but the year is not on the record, either. The vague monographs concerning bismuth fission, by Evans and Lalunal and Stackpole, had been published twenty-eight years after the first appalling rainbow of transmuted mass flashed onto (and into) the barrens of New Mexico, U. S. A. The famed "atomic bomb." So the date was a springtime later than 1973. 'Seventy-four, perhaps. Everson and Dunn had offered a questioning paper, too, in the hope of getting more data for their experiment. But it had been held up by Norwegian censorship. That it had finally been released, and was even now in print, they could not know for they had camped in solitude for some weeks.

They stood in the sunshine a moment—in the stillness —in the subarctic morning. The two men could see, now. They put out the miner's lights on their hats and walked, quickly, through the grass, following a cable that snaked from the mine shaft.

They came to a detonator and stood over it, reluctantly: a pair of tall thoughtful men—the Scot redheaded, the Norwegian blond as glass. Good men.

"Touch it off," the Scot said.

"I hate to."

Dunn chuckled and rammed home the plunger. The mine shaft grunted repeatedly. Small shocks vibrated the weedy ground. A wisp of smoke—then a cloud—puffed out of the vertical bowel. The hoits dropped out of sight; the housing over it collapsed. All down the deep intestine, dynamite...

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