Joshuah Bearman’s father, a nuclear physicist, has worked for most of his professional life at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). He lives in Pasadena. Joshuah’s first interview with his father appeared in McSweeney’s #4, and the second, dealing with the possibility of life on Mars, appeared in McSweeney’s #5.
Last December, four men posing as military officials and JPL scientists falsely requisitioned $1.6 million in gold for their “experiments.” They put a sign on the door of a small, dingy, recently rented office across from a storage yard in east Pasadena, labeled it JPL NEUTRON ACCELERATOR PROJECT, called Stern-Leach, a large precious metals processor, and ordered substantive quantities of gold sheets and wiring. The one who made the call said he was Sergeant Michael Jeffries, from the Department of Defense, and that they needed a rush job on their gold delivery, as it was “going in the shuttle.” The plot was thwarted, not least of all because when the heisters’ purchase order came in soon after the initial call, “sergeant” was misspelled twice. Stern-Leach contacted federal authorities, and the four men, believing their plan unspoiled, arranged the delivery over the next couple weeks. Among other curious details, the name they specified as the receiver of the gold shipment was Charles Schultz. Dr. Charles Schultz. The gold came, the men were arrested, and as the story of the scam spread, other precious-metals firms realized they may have fallen for this same scam in the past year.
ME: Now, tell me about the gold heist.
DAD: It wasn’t actually a gold heist.
ME: So tell me about the gold caper.
DAD: It wasn’t a caper either.
ME: What was it?
DAD: It was a scam. A pretty good one too, in theory.
ME: Why was it a pretty good scam, in theory?
DAD: Because we do use gold a lot at the lab.
ME: And how did you get involved?
DAD: Well, I don’t know anything about the scam—
ME: But you were at the JPL hospitality desk when the press called.
DAD: Not the hospitality desk. We don’t have a hospitality desk, and I wouldn’t be there if we did. I walked into the public affairs office, or the public education office—I actually don’t know what they call it anymore. But I went in there because a friend of mine had gotten some photos for our nex t door neighbor’s son—I was going to give them to him for Christmas—and the woman in there was on the phone, talking to a reporter, and she asks me, “what do you know about gold at JPL?” And I say, “We use it for thermal control and electrical contacts.” So she says, “Here: talk to this guy” and she hands me the phone.
ME: So these guys, the scammers, they pretended to be scientists and ordered gold. And they’d done this before successfully, apparently, so there is some believability to the story, right?
ME: How is gold used in science?
DAD: Gold is used in electronics, among other things. You often have gold plated contacts. Gold doesn’t oxidize; it doesn’t tarnish. When a contact is made from a material that tarnishes, it gets oxidizing layers on it, and those layers don’t conduct as well as regular metal, so you get ground loops and you get conductive resistances—various hindrances—and you don’t want that. So people like to use gold. We use gold on spacecraft for just that reason.
ME: Is gold the best material for that then?
DAD: Yeah. Gold is really primo. No tarnish. Did you ever have to shine gold?
ME: But why do you have to buy gold when you can make as much of it as you want from lead? Isn’t that all you’re doing in there anyway?
DAD: Yeah, right. In the Philosopher’s Stone department? Transmutation doesn’t get much funding.
ME: But you can actually make gold out of lead these days.
DAD: Well, yes, technically transmutation is possible. It’s just not very practical. It costs far more to make gold out of lead than it does to just go out and buy gold—and the difference would be in the billions of dollars if you’re talking about a lot of gold.
ME: How do you make gold out of lead exactly?
DAD: Oh, you just… uh… transmutate… some lead. I don’t know exactly, I’d have to look in my—
ME: Book of incantations.
DAD: No, no, no. In the periodic table. You would fire neutrons at it, break it up, do a little something—and then you’d get a little beta decay, change a neutron into a proton, or something like that and—wsssht!—away you go.
ME: How big does your cauldron have to be?
DAD: No cauldron.
ME: Anyone at JPL with the title “Abstractor of the Quintessence?”
ME: Quintessence is no longer part of the scientific discourse, then.
DAD: Actually, they’re starting to talk about quintessence again in cosmology, I think.
ME: Really? How so?
DAD: I’m not a cosmologist, so I can’t really say.
ME: Let’s get back to the heist for a second. These guys were buying raw gold, but you don’t really do that at JPL. Was that the tip-off?
DAD: No, that’s not right really. Mostly we buy scientific instruments with gold in them. But we also buy just gold. Gold sheets. Gold foil. Gold wiring. Gold wire is used for doing chip bonding; foil can be—
ME: Chip bonding?
DAD: If you have an experimental chip of some sort that you’ve made and you want to bond out the electrical contacts, you use gold wire for that. But we don’t buy gold bars. That we don’t need.
ME: Is the gold foil the same kind of thing used in filigree?
DAD: No, no. Oh. Yes, yes. Sorry, I was thinking of teeth. Yes. The foil is like what they use for filigree—What is that sound?
ME: That’s this thing. My laptop.
DAD: Oh yeah. I kept hearing this fan noise, and looking around for it, but it’s right here.
ME: Yeah. There’s a fan in here.
ME: Don’t worry about it too much. You have these things at JPL, right? These computer gizmos?
DAD: Yes we do.
ME: Gold is also a good reflector.
DAD: Yes. We use gold with thermal control. One of the biggest problems with spacecraft is that they get too hot or too cold. And if you’ve ever seen pictures of spacecraft, you’ll notice that they always have these shiny gold blankets on them. Those are called thermal blankets. And when their reflective surface is gold they have a low emmisivity, which means it doesn’t emit much IR radiation. In other words, it doesn’t emit much heat, so it preserves warmth. But at the same time, gold has a high reflectivity, so it reflects the sun and keeps the spacecraft from getting too hot. This is important on a spacecraft, because there’s no other heat sink to control temperature. You have to figure out a way to radiate the heat out into space. So that’s thermal control in a nutshell.
ME: Now, the robbers, or scammers rather, claimed in their requisition letter was that the gold was for a project called the JPL Neutron Accelerator.
DAD: Yeah, that would have been a big tip-off, since there’s no such thing.
ME: And moreover, they said they needed the gold foil right away because the project was for “the shuttle.”
DAD: Did they say that?
ME: I think so.
DAD: That’s cockamamie.
ME: And the delivery was supposed to go to Charles Schultz.
DAD: What morons.
ME: And their letter to the Stern-Leach misspelled the word “sergeant.”
DAD: Well, that’s pretty stupid too. Even if they spelled it correctly, we’re not a military installation. Haven’t been since 1958, when NASA was formed.
ME: So you don’t have sergeants?
DAD: No, no. Of course not.
ME: And you don’t have a neutron accelerator at JPL?
DAD: No: it’s not even possible. And everyone around the lab gets a laugh when they hear about that one. “Oh yeah, let me just check on my neutron accelerator.” Stupid.
ME: Why is it not possible? No charge?
DAD: Right. You can’t accelerate neutrons. Hello? Particle accelerators work by moving charged particles in an electromagnetic field. And neutrons have no charge. Hence the name: neutron. As in neutral particle.
ME: So you wouldn’t get much acceleration there.
DAD: You wouldn’t get any.
ME: But you could theoretically move neutrons around, right?
DAD: You can manipulate neutrons because they have a quadropole moment. You could steer them with that, I think, but not accelerate them.
ME: Quadropole moment? What’s that? Particles have moment? Sounds … .
DAD: Oh jeez. I don’t know how to explain that.
[few minutes pass]
ME: The ineffable moment.
[few more minutes pass]
DAD: I don’t know how to explain moment. I know what it means, but you need to know all kinds of—
ME: We don’t have to get too into the moment.
DAD: Well, suppose you take an assembly of charges. And you can describe the field at any one point as linear combinations of the fields from other electrical charges—suppose you have a half a dozen of them arranged in some pattern. Then you look at the field from some distance away. It’s the linear combination of all the individual fields. And then you ask, “how do I describe this thing?” Well, as you get further and further away from this set of charges, they tend to look more and more like a single charge with a bunch of properties. And that set of properties is written out in expansions called moments. There’s a dipole moment, a quadropole moment, an octopole moment, and so on. And whether you have these properties depends on the assembly of charges, whether there’s symmetry or a certain type of arrangement. And the same thing is true for magnetics. There’s magnetic dipoles and so on.
ME: I don’t know about all that, but what’s it like walking around with all that stuff in your head? Do you feel different having so much detail about the physical world available to you?
DAD: No. Only every so often when people say really stupid things about science do I realize that I’m different, if that’s the way to put it. But most of the people I deal with every day are scientists, or least engineers and technicians, and in that environment there is no difference. We all speak the same language. And that’s why we all giggle when we hear about the “special gold delivery” for the JPL Neutron Accelerator.
ME: Well, I’m out of questions and tape, so I guess that’s it. Thanks a lot.
DAD: No problem. Are you staying for dinner?
ME: What’s on?
DAD: Then clear this stuff out and set the table.