Friday, September 17, 2010

"Mr. Clean"

By Jerry Zezima

The Stamford Advocate

If it’s true that one man’s junk is another man’s treasure, I must be the richest man on earth. Or so I thought recently when my wife, Sue, and I embarked on the herculean task -- which even Hercules couldn’t accomplish by himself -- of cleaning the garage.

As it turned out, I’m the man with all the junk. That’s because there wasn’t much to treasure in everything that had accumulated since we moved in a dozen years ago.

I had tried to clean the place a couple of times before, but my efforts were half-hearted and no-brained. Now, Sue said, I had to put my nose to the grindstone, which was hidden in a corner, next to the garage door opener my parents gave us for Christmas 2005, I think, but which we haven’t installed because, let’s face it, why open the door when you can’t get in?

“This place is a mess,” Sue announced as she surveyed the hellhole from the other door.

“It’s not so bad,” I replied as I tripped over a box and almost broke my foot, which would have given me a good excuse to put off the project for another few years.

The box was sitting next to two folding tables, two baby gates, a dog cage, a large wooden board and an oven door.

I found photos of our two grown daughters when they were kids. “Wow, look at these,” I said nostalgically. There also were some shots of Sue and me when we moved into the house. “That was when this mess started,” I remarked.

“You spend more time looking at stuff and reminiscing than actually cleaning up,” Sue retorted.

My main job, I soon learned, was to dig through things that had no earthly value and try to convince Sue that we should keep them. One such item was a book titled “101 Elephant Jokes.” It was in a box with such other literary classics as “How to Eat Fried Worms” and the Britannica Book of the Year for 1971.

Sue, meanwhile, was working diligently to decide what stayed (two old bureaus and a long-lost water bottle) and what went (the aforementioned books and, if I didn’t watch out, me).

We also kept -- for now, at least -- the BubbleMate, a luxury foot bubbler that I don’t think has ever been used; a treadmill that, if we someday decided to get in shape, would give us a reason not to throw away the foot bubbler; and a vintage Christmas record by the Chipmunks.

We also found records by such baby boomer icons as Neil Young, Cat Stevens and Steppenwolf. “I’m putting them on eBay,” Sue said.

I found an open box of tissues that probably dated back to the Clinton administration. “Do you want them?” I asked Sue.

“No!” she shot back. “They’re disgusting. I wouldn’t blow my nose in them.”

Speaking of disgusting, I also found petrified goldfish food. Since we no longer have any petrified goldfish, I threw it out.

I kept four toolboxes, three bicycles, two ladders and a partridge in a pear tree, which was in a box of Christmas ornaments.

By the end of the day, we had filled 10 bags and one box for Goodwill. We also filled several garbage bags and a recycling bin. And we’re still not done, though the place is less of a fire hazard and we are a lot closer to actually being able to fit a car in there.

Now Sue wants to have a garage sale. “How are we going to sell the garage without selling the house, too?” I asked. Sue ignored me.

There are, it seems, a few treasures after all, some of which we will try to sell to other people who like to collect junk.

The garage door opener, which may finally come in handy, is not one of them.

Copyright 2010 by Jerry Zezima

Monday, September 13, 2010

"Down to a Science"

By Jerry Zezima

The Stamford Advocate

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to write a newspaper column, but sometimes it helps to be a nuclear physicist.

Aside from realizing that I’m not smart enough to be either, which is why I write a newspaper column, that’s the lesson I learned recently after my wife, Sue, and I went on a tour of Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y.

We were among the approximately 1,800 people who saw the lab that day as part of Brookhaven’s Sunday Summer Tours. The program allows the public to view virtually every major part of the sprawling laboratory, which is operated in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Energy and has won seven Nobel Prizes.

Our group was welcomed by nuclear physicist Phil Pile, who said, “The world’s most perfect liquid was discovered here.”

“Wow!” I whispered to Sue. “They’re going to serve beer.”

No such luck. Phil was referring to a type of matter thought to have existed microseconds after the Big Bang. This means, I guess, that it was microbrewed.

The Big Bang is the prevailing cosmological theory of how the universe was created and is not to be confused with the Big Band, from which popular music was created.

Brookhaven is famous for the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, aka RHIC, pronounced Rick, which makes the laboratory Rick’s Place. “Of all the lab joints in all the towns in all the world, you had to walk into ours,” Phil didn’t say to the group.

He did say, however, that RHIC, where the origin of the universe is studied, is the first machine capable of colliding ions as heavy as gold.

“Maybe I’ll get some jewelry out of this,” Sue suggested.

Phil said that accelerated particles in RHIC have been known to travel 700 million miles per hour, which is almost as fast as some drivers go on Interstate 95 or the Long Island Expressway.

Phil also talked about protons and neutrons, though he didn’t mention morons, probably because he didn’t want to embarrass me. But he didn’t spare Albert Einstein (e equals MC Hammer), who was shown in a photo riding a bicycle without a helmet. “Not very smart,” Phil said.

Our group then got on a bus headed for STAR, one of two detectors we would see. STAR stands for Solenoidal Tracker At Relativistic. Xian Li, a brilliant doctorate student, told us how heavy ions are smashed together in a structure that looks like a huge roulette wheel. Even more brilliant was a 12-year-old girl named Mikaela Egbert, who showed me how to use my cell phone to take pictures.

Our next stop was the other detector, PHENIX, which stands for Pioneering High Energy Nuclear Interactions eXperiment. Aside from not being in Arizona, PHENIX also is where scientists collide heavy ions. Protons are collided in both detectors as well.

The last stop was the Tunnel, where an accelerator physicist named Mei Bai said the lab spends $600 million on parts.

“Do you go to Home Depot?” I inquired.

“When we need ladders,” she responded.

Accelerator physicist Todd Satogata talked about the Brookhaven Graphite Research Reactor, or BGRR. “It’s affectionately known as Booger,” he said.

Our group was given a tour by Guillaume Robert-Demolaize, an accelerator physicist who also happens to be my future son-in-law. He is even smarter than that 12-year-old girl and will one day win the Nobel Prize. You read it here first.

“This is where the magic happens,” said Guillaume, adding: “The person who asks the best question wins a T-shirt.”

“Can you use E-ZPass in this tunnel?” I asked.

I didn’t win the shirt.

But Guillaume gave a winning presentation, which included a detailed description of the 2.4-mile-long tunnel’s two concentric rings, which are made up of 1,740 superconducting magnets. “They’re not the kind you put on your refrigerator door,” he said.

After the tour, Sue said, “This was like being with Bill Nye the Science Guy.”

The whole day was fun and fascinating. The best thing I learned is that, when it comes to riding a bike without a helmet, Albert Einstein was no smarter than me.

Copyright 2010 by Jerry Zezima