Montclair State University Hosts Neutron Trail

Students with Olivia Fermi after her Neutron Trail presentation at Montclair State University March 23, 2011. From left to right: Mariam, Stephanie C. Lear, Merari Mejia, Olivia Fermi, Binta Jalloh and Marianela Parra. Photo: Stephanie C. Lear

Students and faculty from the colleges of science and art at Montclair State University in New Jersey welcomed me to their campus last week. Both my Neutron Trail – Elemental presentation, a keynote to launch their Second Annual Physics and Art Exhibition (Wed, March 23) and Neutron Trail workshop (March 24) were well attended and enthusiastically received.

The Deans of Art and Science hosted the Neutron Trail events in conjunction with my participation as a provocateur in performances of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange’s The Matter of Origins. Said Carrie Urbanic, Community Engagement Director, Arts and Cultural Programming, “It was a tremendous experience for us, and your participation was so important to our interactions with students and faculty.”

In the Neutron Trail workshop, twenty honors and graduate students, who also attended the talk, explored themes of legacy, power and influence in an interactive format. It was a personal thrill to launch the first-ever Neutron Trail workshop, which I had been gestating for months.

Students reported positive shifts in how they view their own power and the power of others. Many left with new insights about volition and their capacities to recover from adversity. Exercises offered mental challenges and physical interaction along with discussion. With the Neutron Trail material as fuel, it was natural for me to utilize my experience as a facilitator, trainer and martial artist to create this type of workshop. I loved working with the students and am looking forward to offering more.

My whole stay has been punctuated with delightful meetings both planned and random. Professor Peter Lax, the Abel prize winning mathematician, and his wife Lori, violist, host me in Manhattan. They were my guests at a Matter of Origins performance last Thursday. Peter said, “The dance was outstanding.” Lori remarked, “that’s why I like modern dance and I don’t like ballet. Ballet has a sameness about it. Modern dance offers something new. It’s much closer to the here and now of the human soul.”

At a faculty lunch last week, I met Mary Lou West, physicist, who has a special interest in cosmology, asteroids and magnetism. We spoke of nuclear fission, nuclear fusion and the power of the sun. Our conversation highlighted some of the most troubling implications of our nuclear legacy — the struggles for greater power in spheres human and high-tech.

Fission, the splitting of heavy atoms like uranium, is what today’s nuclear power plants and fission (uranium) bombs use. Fusion combines the lightest elements releasing far greater power than fission.

“Our sun and all the stars generate energy via nuclear fusion,” explained West. It is fusion energy from the sun 93 million miles (150 million km) away lighting our days and giving us warmth.

Bringing the sun’s energy to Earth is almost unfathomable. Yet the United States and Soviet Union did just that in the 1950’s creating the first fusion (hydrogen) bombs. In their Cold War race to create ever-greater weapons, they harnessed forces capable of ending life as we know it.

Today research is ongoing into how to take plentiful hydrogen and turn it into what could be the cleanest, most efficient energy production method ever devised. “We’ve made a few hydrogen bombs, but we’ve yet to make a hydrogen power plant. We’re just taking baby steps,” commented West.

When I read a draft of this blog post to Peter Lax, over breakfast this morning, he stated, “Fusion is full of instabilities. I don’t think it should figure into our [near term] policy for a source of energy.” Stewart Brand, the environmentalist and futurist, are more optimistic about fusion as part of the solution to our energy crisis.

Learning more about the potentials and pitfalls of cleaner, safer nuclear energy is a priority for me on the Neutron Trail. At the same time, I’m keeping my central focus on us how we evolve in groups. How might we change our own behavior — in communities, corporations and as countries — to adapt to the challenges of peak space on Earth? Peak resources? To human-induced climate change on a planet chock full of us homo sapiens.

Keeping a balance on the Neutron Trail between people and science is only part of it. I also have a firm commitment to play along the way.

Going to dinner alone last Tuesday, I saw (and heard) a double table of seven guys and one woman, talking, laughing and lively. As I walked by, one of them called, “You looking for a group?”

Banter ensued. I asked what they were doing here at a hotel on a strip mall highway, in New Jersey. “Tires. Well we’re tired too, but really we’re at a tire convention.”

Someone else asked me, “What kind of tires do you have?”

“I’m in a car co-op,” I chirp proudly.

“You’re one of those!” A quiet young man, at the end of the table, invited me to join their group and I did.

Another of the group, Shawn queried me about what was I doing at this hotel. “Neutron Trail,” I replied.

He wanted to know what the Neutron Trail is, but the conversation flowed in another direction. More jokes went by about this and that.

Shawn asked again, “What is the Neutron Trail? Is that about science or the environment?”

“You figured it out,” I told him, “It’s both.”

It didn’t stop there. Pretty soon Shawn, who studies physics as a hobby, and Patrick, who is Italian-Irish, had gotten out of me about Enrico Fermi, my famous physicist grandfather. Flipped out the two of them and left the rest of the table cold. I’m used to this.

“Don’t worry,” I said, “Most people haven’t heard of Enrico. On we went. With humor and wit they enticed me to share my story, asking all sorts of questions about my talk and the Neutron Trail. Patrick, Shawn and Rick wanted to come to the presentation and seemed disappointed when they learned it conflicted with their tire convention duties. “Why don’t you be my warm-up act?,” I said, “You know the Tire Trail.” We all laughed.

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