When the Italian physicist, Enrico Fermi, was a young man applying to college, he was asked to write an essay for his entrance exam about the characteristics of sound. Jaws dropped when the examiners read his paper and discovered the precocious 17-year-old used Fourier analysis — finding the eigenvalues and the eigenfrequencies -- to explain the partial differential equation of a vibrating rod.
I share this with you because the future Nobel Laureate would later become famous for his “pile” — a mound of uranium blocks and graphite bricks so arranged inside a University of Chicago squash court that it could, if left unattended, achieve a self-sustaining chain reaction, heat to unearthly temperatures, and destroy the surrounding city with a Chernobyl-like meltdown.
It was 1942, the Nazis were goose-stepping across Europe, and Fermi was trying to grasp the physics behind nuclear fission and whether an atomic bomb was possible.
When I’m in my barn, thinking or not thinking about eigenvalues, I realized that Fermi and I have much in common because, you see, I too have a pile.
“The typical 1,000 pound horse will defecate approximately four to thirteen times each day and produce nine tons of manure per year.”
I have two draft horses who each weigh 2,000 pounds.
You can do the math.
Fermi would use his six-inch slide rule to calculate when the neutrons were multiplying at a dizzying rate, causing his pile to heat to dangerous levels.
I would use my six-inch hand.
It was September 20th, 2004 at 11:00am when there was banging on our front door. Our historic, 200-year-old barn was “fully-engulfed.” It was all we could do to get the cars out of the garage before they exploded. The Norwich fire department didn’t bother to save the barn; they just sprayed the farmhouse with foam.
(Nobel genius that I am, I took the above photo from inside the house, unaware the siding was melting from the inferno. At any moment the house could have burst into flames.)
“If bailed wet, bacterial fermentation causes hay to heat. When the internal temperature of a bale exceeds 140 degrees F, it can spontaneously combust.”
Had I only known this law of barnyard physics BEFORE I opened my big mouth and invited my neighbors to fill the barn to the rafters with their mulch hay.
Fermi was smarter.
To keep his pile from going critical and transforming a major US city into a glowing Gomorrah, Fermi installed cadmium control rods which could be slid in and out, so the difference between dormancy and Armageddon was, literally, inches.
Sometimes when troubles pile up, your brain heats up, so much so that it seems as if you might self-ignite. If only it were as simple as sliding out a rod — a worry rod — to slow down your mind.
Apparently, Fermi’s pile made no noise. And yet, beneath the surface bubbled the power of an exploding star.
If you were able to free yourself from the slavish rhythms of your three-dimensional body, if all your senses could be turned off for a moment — no taste, no sight, no sounds — would you know if you were still alive? Would you still have awareness that you commanded a place in the cosmos, that you were grasping the Universal subway strap for dear life, that you were made of the stuff from exploding stars? Would you realize that your salvation and your destruction were inches apart, wedded and woven like warp and woof? And would you sense, in spite of all appearances to the contrary, you were, in fact, whole and STILL EXPLODING — at the same time!
Several times a day, armed with my shovel in one hand and a manure fork in another, I watch my pile grow and imagine what forces I might unleash once it reaches a critical mass.
Up from the pile of horse shit, straight up, mushrooms a rising tower of excrement, raining down death and sending wriggling worms flying.