1928 - Alderson High School - 1968

 


How Boys from Greenbrier County Split the Atom
or
What Really Made Einsteinís Hair Stand on End
by A. A. Asbury - Submitted by Paul Bland

 

Prologue 

The following events took place in the surrounds of a small town, Alderson, West Virginia in Greenbrier County, and I am writing this under the pen name A. A. Asbury to protect my identity. I want to be able to walk the streets of Alderson in the future without fear. The names of the players in the story have been changed to protect both the innocent and the guilty. Some of the people involved in the story still reside in Alderson while others have gone on to a greater reward. If you currently live around Alderson, then as you read of the events, you may think that you know the identities of the participants and you are invited to guess. But I can only say that you will probably be wrong. Even if you think you know who I am, I can neither confirm nor deny your suspicion, anymore than I can give up the true identities of any of the characters. Even though the names of the participants in the story have been changed, facts in the story have not been altered nor have they been embellished. On my best Scoutís honor, I assure you that the story is true. However, the conversations are approximations, passed on to me by an old-timer in Alderson who must also remain anonymous.

 

Mining on Flat Top Mountain

 

In the summer of í57 or somewhere thereabouts, Boozer and Fuzzy were working for Laird Cash mining sandstone rock on Flat Top Mountain. The back edge of the mining site was only 10 to 15 feet from the edge of the cliffs on the mountain and one had a beautiful view of the Greenbrier River from the cliffs.

The mining site was covered with about 4 feet of dirt, rock and small trees, an overburden that had to be removed before the sandstone could be exposed. To remove the overburden, the boys had an end loader and all the dynamite they needed. They also had a jack hammer to loosen the overburden when removing it became too difficult with the end loader. They would drill a hole, load it with dynamite and a dynamite cap with long lead wires, retreat to a safe place, touch the wires to a car battery and set it off. The blast had the unfortunate effect of throwing small slivers of rock upward, often hitting the high voltage power lines that passed over the work site. So Laird brought a heavy 4X4 foot steel plate to cover the blast hole and solved that problem. The boys mined the sandstone, cut it into strips with a hydraulic press and loaded it onto a truck to take it off the mountain. The Cash truck had almost no brakes and the gear shift was floor mounted with the usual shaft with a shift knob on top. So whoever was riding ďshot gunĒ had to lean back in his seat, press his foot against the shift knob and hold the truck in a gear the boys called ďbull dog.Ē In this gear the truck would make only 3 to 4 miles per hour even going downhill. When going down the mountain, the understanding was that if the truck popped out of gear, then the truck would be abandoned and left to its own devices. Fortunately, everything along these lines worked out well during the summer, although rapid heart beats were the order of the day on each trip down. Laird Cash could always be trusted to provide only the best equipment! 

 

Letís Make Some Home Brew

 

During the summer, Fuzzy and Boozer had cleared a mining spot approximately 30 by 50 yards and they had built a small pole shed in some trees close to the cliffs to relax in during lunch. This was just 4 poles stuck in the ground a couple of feet with a canvas stretched from the corners of the poles. One day while eating lunch, the conversation turned to making home brew. 

Fuzzy: Letís make a batch of home brew.
Boozer: I donít know how to make it.
 

Fuzzy: Well, weíll go to the Master Brewer to find out.
Boozer: The Master Brewer?
 
Fuzzy:  Yes, Brier Graymet at the Pool Room in town.

 

So that afternoon after work the boys stopped off at the Pool Room to get a recipe for home brew from Brier. They spotted Brier playing 9 ball and the following conversation took place. 

Fuzzy:  Brier, how do we make home brew? 

Brier: Easy. Get a 6 or more gallon crock, add 5 gallons of water, 5 pounds of sugar, a can of Red Top Malt and two cakes of yeast. You can add peaches, apples, strawberries, or anything you like to give it taste. If you add nothing, then it will taste something like beer. 

Boozer:  How long do we have to let it set?  

Brier: Itís not how long, you have to judge when itís about to stop working. Boozer: How do we do that?
Brier: You put your ear down close to the top of the crock and listen to the fizzle. The fizzle indicates that the yeast is working. When you hear just a little fizzle, then its ready to bottle. But donít let it set too long or there will be no fizzle and the brew will be flat.
 

Fuzzy:  Well, what do we do to keep it from going flat? 

Brier: Get some canning jars and canning lids, fill the jars and seal them with the lids. You have to be careful not to seal the jars too soon or they will explode. Thatís the fine art of finishing off making home brew. 

During the next couple of days the boys came up with a suitable crock, the ingredients and set the home brew under a tree on the mountain. They covered the crock with a clean cloth and after it had almost stopped working they poured the brew into canning jars and sealed them up. The jars didnít explode, so they must have judged everything just right. One day after work, they took a jar to town for Brier to taste. Brier screwed open the jar lid, took a swig and exclaimed, ďNot too bad.Ē ďI think you boys will have something if you can put a head on your brew." Brier didnít give the rest of the jar back to the boys as they left. He kept it for himself, so it must have been pretty good stuff.

 

After leaving the Pool Room:

 

Fuzzy: I think it tastes pretty good just as it is without a head. Boozer: Well, you said Brier is the Master Brewer, so I think we should listen to him. We want to make a good product. In fact, we might come up with something good enough to sell and go into business for ourselves. Maybe we can even put Fall City out of business, at least in Alderson and maybe even in Greenbrier County. Hell, we might even end up rich! 

Fuzzy:  Ok, letís see if we can figure out how to put a head on the brew. 

 

Putting a Head on Home Brew

 

Boozer and Fuzzy studied a couple of days on this problem and couldnít come up with anything on how to put a head on their brew. They discussed it every day while working and under the pole shed during lunch. They came up with several ideas only to discard them after further consideration. One day Laird came by while they were eating lunch and talked about the problem with them.

 

Boozer:  We just canít figure out how to put a head on our brew. 

Fuzzy: I like the taste without a head, but Brier, the Master Brewer, says that we need one. 

Laird With A Big Wild Laugh He Was Known For: Boys, if you want to put a head on your home brew, then youíll have to split the home brew atom. 

Both Boozer and Fuzzy were puzzled by this and they discussed it everyday while working and while eating lunch. Then one day: 

Boozer: I think I know how to split the home brew atom! Boozer had had physics in high school and thought he had figured it out. First, we have to use the end loader to drag the steel plate we have been using to cover the blast hold over to the pole shed. Then we need to drill a small dimple in the plate. After that we have to take a short piece of tool steel from the jack hammer and sharpen it to a fine point and polish the point with fine grit sand paper.

All this was done. The tool steel was sharpened to a point at a machine shop in town and the boys finished polishing the point with sandpaper during their lunch hours. You could actually see your face in the polished steel when they were finished. After that, the procedure during every lunch hour was always the same. They would drag the steel plate to the pole shed, Boozer would use an eye dropper to put a drop of brew in the dimple in the plate and he would then carefully place the point on the tool steel in the dimple. At this point, Fuzzy would hit the top of the tool steel with a hammer. The theory being that if the point of the tool steel rested exactly on a home brew atom, then it would split. This went on for days and days. They knew, or at least thought, that everything had to line up perfectly for the splitting to take place. They also thought that it might take a while for this to happen, so they werenít discouraged by failure after failure. They figured that if they could split the first atom, then they would become more efficient with time and practice. But Fuzzy had reservations: 

Fuzzy: I donít see how splitting a home brew atom under the pole shed will cause a head to appear on the brew in the jars. 

Boozer:  Itís like gravity. 

Fuzzy:  Gravity? 

Boozer: Yes, itís an action of an unseen force at a distance. For example, if you stand on a tree stump and jump off, gravity causes you to fall to the earth. Thatís an unseen force acting at a distance between you and the earth. My theory is this, if we split a home brew atom under the pole shed it will cause a fizzle. Because the atoms in the brew in the jars and the atoms we trying to split are from the same batch of brew, they are connected. When we split one of the atoms this connection will set in motion an unseen force acting at distance and a head will appear on the brew in the jars. 

Fuzzy: Ok, it works for gravity, so maybe it will work when we split a brew atom.

 

A Budding Mathematician

 

Boozer thought he was going to be a mathematician. He had taken algebra and trig in high school and he wanted to see if he could develop an equation that would describe the process of putting a head on home brew. At first, he came up with the equation, E = mc; where E stood for the effervescence of the head, m stood for the mixture in the brew and c stood for the concentration. He was satisfied with this equation until he learned that the atom had to be split. That changed everything, so he thought about it for quite awhile and came to the conclusion that if the atom was to be split, then this would split the concentration in the mixture. He reasoned pictorially, writing down the expression c becomes c times c. With this his equation became E = mc2.

He pondered this equation for some time, even though he didnít exactly understand what it meant. However, he finally convinced himself that the equation did represent what could be expected for the effervescence on the head of the brew when a home brew atom was split. So the boys just needed to split a home brew atom. 

 

A Really Big Explosion


The boys kept after it day after day, trying to split a home brew atom. On one occasion Laird came by at lunch and observed the process. With a big laugh,
he said, ďGet a bigger hammer, boys, get a bigger hammer.Ē Lairdís solution to every mechanical problem, even for putting a square peg in a round hole, was to get a bigger hammer. Fuzzy took this to heart and the next day he came to work with a 12 pound sledge hammer. What happened next is unbelievable and to this day no one knows exactly how it happened. During lunch Fuzzy hit the tool steel with the 12 pound sledge and a tremendous explosion took place. I canít be sure, but I expect that a stray dynamite cap was captured under the steel plate as they dragged it to the pole shed. Apparently, the cap went off when Fuzzy hit the tool steel and this produced a concussion that set off 2 cases of dynamite that were sitting under the end loader. The explosion blew the end loader into the Greenbrier River and defoliated about 3 acres around the work site. Boozer ended up in a hay stack about 100 yards away and most of the clothes were blown off Fuzzy. It was by the grace of God that neither suffered any lasting damage. The blast did shake the jars of brew that were located some distance away and the shaking put a slight head on each jar of brew. The boys observed this and thought that splitting the brew atom was what put a head on the brew. In that light, they considered the experiment to be a successful demonstration of the action of a force at a distance.

 

The story got out and everyone in Alderson thought that the explosion was caused by the boys splitting an atom and the boys thought so too. They didnít know that the explosion was probably caused by the dynamite exploding. As the story circulated even Boozerís equation E = mc2 somehow became known to the locals. As time went by the story was picked up by a local paper published in Ronceverte and then by the Beckley and Charleston papers. The story in each paper carried the headline: 

 Greenbrier County Boys Split the Atom and Develop Einsteinís
 Equation E = mc2.

Eventually, the story went national and was reported by Walter Cronkite on the evening news.

 

 The Princeton Institute for Advanced Study

 

All the national attention turned the boys into celebrities. They were like rock stars. Even Elvis Presley, who was playing at the nearby state fair grounds that fall, didnít get as much attention. They were followed around by press reporters who hung on every word that they said. ďWhat comes next, boys?Ē

ďHave youse guys applied for a patent for your process?Ē ďCan you split the atom at will?Ē  ďIs it easy to do?Ē  ďDo you think you can harness the engery released to make electricity?Ē

It wasnít too long after that that Boozer and Fuzzy received an important letter. It was an all-expenses paid invitation to The Princeton Institute for Advanced Study to discuss their process with Albert Einstein. Of course they went, decked out in their finest. Boozer wore levis, white bucks and a tee shirt and Fuzzy had on his bibs, a tee shirt and boots.

When the boys arrived at the Institute, they were ushered in with quite a bit of deference and seated before a large blackboard. They waited for awhile and then Einstein entered the room. He was a small man with piercing dark eyes who was dressed somewhat sloppily but his hair was neatly combed, lying close to his head. Einstein didnít waste time. He got right to the point. 

Einstein:  Da, tell mest how you splintered an atome. 

Fuzzy. Well, we did it with a big hammer and a piece of tool steel. Einstein smiled at this thinking that the boys were just joking.

Einstein:  Vhat vas der temperature during the splitting. 

Boozer: It was ambient temperature. How in the world Boozer came up with a ďbig wordĒ ike ambient canít be explained.

Einstein: But das ist cold fusion. Einstein was quite startled by this revelation and his hair shot up as if full of static electricity.

Boozer: Well, thatís the way it was done, no temperature was involved other than that of the surrounding air. The hotter it was during the day, the faster everything worked. 

Einstein:  Vhat vas der critical mass? 

Fuzzy: We didnít use mash, it was just a standard mixture of brew. Einstein often couldnít form his words well in English, and Fuzzy confused mass with mash. Fuzzy thought that Einstein thought that they were making moonshine. 

Einstein: Vhat of der equashun E = mc2: 

Boozer: Boozer went to the black board and drew some pictures and wrote down the equation. You see, I came up with the equation thinking pictorially. 

Einstein: Ya, Ya, a thought experiment. Einstein was amazed that his equation had been developed by someone using a method completely different from the method he had used. 

Boozer:  Yes, I did think about it quite a bit. 

The conservation went on like this for about an hour with neither side tweaking to the fact that they were speaking of different things. After the meeting was over and the boys were walking down the street: 

Fuzzy:  Well, what did you think? 

Boozer:  I liked Al. 

Fuzzy: Since he was so interested, I think we should send him a case of the brew. 

Boozer:  Good idea, a case it is then. 

Fuzzy: I think we had an effect on Al. Did you notice that at one point his hair shot up. 

Boozer: Right on. I think he was surprised to learn that we could actually split an atom. However, we never did discuss the concept of an unseen force acting at a distance with him. 

Fuzzy:  Weíll save that for our next meeting.

 

Postscript
 

Over time the notoriety enjoyed by the boys diminished and they were never able to split a home brew atom again. However, it was not for lack of trying. For several years whenever they made a batch of brew for their own consumption, they would give it a try.

The fact that Einstein thought that the boys had discovered cold fusion had a profound effect on him. His hair was never to lie flat to his head again and he spent the rest of his life working on a Unified Field Theory, a theory connecting general relativity and quantum mechanics. Einstein hoped that his theory would, in part, help explain the fusion that the Greenbrier County boys had discovered. Even to this day this discovery has not been forgotten. Scientists around the world continue to work on a fusion process with the expectation that vast amounts of clean, cheap energy can be obtained if nuclear fusion can be stabilized. Thanks, Greenbrier County boys.