As with many scientific discoveries, this one began with a most unscientific proclamation.
"What the hell?"
After the initial shock, a much more urgent, slightly more scientific proclamation: "Check the instruments; I'll check the recorder logs." And then a frantic but quiet sound: the clacking of keys on keyboards.
"Uhh, superconductors operating at 99.72 percent efficiency, entering normal shutdown phase. Lasers have merged on targeted location as planned, and the radiation detectors are going absolutely crazy." She was answering her colleague and fellow student in the Washington State tokamok platform.
"Recorder logs are showing energy output -- how many kilowatts is that? Wow. And it hasn't stopped yet," he marveled. "That's impossible. The reaction ended a full minute ago," she said.
"Impossible or not, there it is: right in the center of our magnetic containment field."
"Keep the field up?" she asked. He could only nod. They were both shell-shocked.
Her name was Najla Imelda Thomas, an immigrant from India. He was Paul Michael Brown, a native of Pullman, Washington, USA. She was a junior at Washington State University, he a senior. His senior thesis was this experiment, right here in the "Wazzu" tokamok fusion lab. At 4 a.m. on a cold winter day. The roads had been snowed in, so they had walked in hours ago to avoid missing their appointment. It had taken their professor weeks -- and a few academic favors to other professors and deans -- to get them a slot; they weren't planning on disappointing him by not using the time.
And of course, they were dating. Professor Hickman, a British doctor of physics, had to really bend the rules to let her in here. But she knew her stuff -- and was a much calmer head than Paul was, the professor found out in interviewing her for the pass.
They certainly weren't going to disappoint the professor now. Paul's experiment was simple. Hydrogen fuses into helium at a certain temperature. By using magnetic fields and lasers, they could compress hydrogen and heat it sufficiently to force it to fuse. But even the fusion reaction takes a little bit of space to happen in. Paul was, in this experiment, forcing the hydrogen atoms into a space smaller than a single hydrogen atom could exist in by itself -- and faster than the hydrogen atoms could fuse normally.
They didn't know exactly what to expect. It was uncharted territory at the quantum level. The experiment itself didn't make much sense mathematically, but it caught Professor Hickman's eye. He figured, why not? He was curious himself. And so, on his authority, he arranged for the tokamok time.
They conducted a dry run in a vacuum with no fuel. The magnetic field constricted quickly and the lasers blasted powerfully into the smallest space man had ever attempted to capture. The magnetic field passed through itself as a series of waves; and the lasers passed through the center point to splash on the walls of the tokamok normally. So far, so good.
Then they placed the deuterium pellet (hydrogen atoms with extra neutrons) in the center of the tokamok, and began the test again. Four minutes later, Paul said those magic words:
"What the hell?"
And history changed forever.
Three hours later, at 7:00 a.m., Professor Hickman wandered into the tokamok building. He was surprised to see the six o'clock appointment, Professor Jameson, pacing outside the lab. "Arne, what's going on?"
"It's your damned kids, that's what's going on, Mikhail," Arne Jameson replied haughtily. The big Polish professor was not happy. "They say they've found something exciting, and they won't get out of my way. I have to set up for a nitrogen-hydrogen fusion experiment!"
That's right, Hickman thought, and you're always thinking you own the bloody place. "If they've found something exciting," Hickman replied tactfully, "in an experiment of this nature, surely your nitrogen atoms can wait a few minutes."
"But my appointment ends in three hours! The safety and decontamination protocols themselves take two and a half!"
"So your experiment gets scrubbed, Arne. So what? It's not a fatal delay. I'll tell you what; I've got another time slot three days from now. The student unfortunately has dropped out of my class and the university, and no one else has claimed his time slot. So if you want it, then by God, it's yours."
Arne Jameson harrumphed and said, "I'll take you up on that. Good day, Professor Hickman."
"Good day, Professor Jameson. And watch out for the staircase outside; there's some black ice out there." My God, Hickman thought, that man's putting out more black smoke in here than a coal train. Jameson always was an angry, impatient man. Hardly the ideal of science. Ah, well. Time to find out what his students had discovered.
"That's the last one," Najla said. "Fully operational."
"Then it's really there," Paul said. His voice spoke with a wonder altogether different than before: a childlike wonder. A reminder of how much a child he still was at the tender age of 22.
The door opened behind them, the loudest sound they'd heard in hours. "So, kids, what's going on? Professor Jameson isn't too happy with you." An even louder sound came when Professor Hickman closed the door.
Neither of them looked up at him; highly unusual for both of them. Instead, they looked at their tokamok interior videofeed. "I think we can safely put Dr. Jameson on the back burner, Professor," Paul said, the confidence in his words buried behind the quiet wonder. "We're getting ready to run our experiment again, confirm the results. We've been in shutdown running diagnostics for the last two hours."
"What results?" Professor Hickman asked, curious.
That got Paul to finally turn around in his swivel chair, pick up one piece of paper, turn a bit further, stand up, and walk gingerly to the professor. Hickman took it, read it, and muttered, "This is impossible."
"That's what we thought, sir. But every piece of equipment checks out."
Hushed, Hickman asked, "And you're ready to run the test again?"
"Yes, Professor," Najla chimed in. She was tapping a few more keys on her keyboard.
He nodded his silent, shocked approval. Forty minutes later, they had successfully duplicated the experiment.
"I think we'd better publish," Hickman said. "I'll contact the press office. We'll get the French and the Russians to help us confirm this one."
Eighteen days later, they had that confirmation. Nine months later, Hickman won the Nobel Prize. Thomas became an associate professor at Washington State University in very short order. Brown received a better offer from Cal Tech.
As for what they had discovered, it was such a little thing. Nothing really to write home about. This little spark of light in the center of a highly focused electromagnetic field -- which put out 489.0761 times more raw energy than the magnetic field and the deuterium pellet's mass converted to energy, combined. When they'd shut down the magnetic field, the energy source disappeared.
It was the beginning of a new clean energy industry. It was technology no one on Earth had ever seen before -- not the Terrans who grew up there, not the Arions and Velorians or the occasional part-Galen or Geheimite.
Earth had suddenly become a lot more interesting than it had ever been before.