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Jack Smith

Seen 2 Betas Lately? Or a Werewolf or 2?

January 19, 1988|Jack Smith

I have a letter from Caltech pointing out that while I have recently written sympathetically about whales, porpoises and other endangered species, I have not said a kind word about werewolves.

The letter is unsigned; but from the letterhead and certain internal clues I am sure it comes from my friend Herb Henrikson, the physics engineer.

I don't know whether his not signing the letter was merely a careless oversight, or whether he didn't want to be identified in any way with werewolves. A man in Henrikson's line of work doesn't like to be thought of as a crackpot.

He is always engaged in some esoteric project that involves the isolation of subatomic particles, such as the elusive neutrino. He doesn't like me to write about what he is doing because he knows I don't understand it, and I make it look as if he doesn't either.

I had breakfast the other day with Henrikson, after receiving his cryptic note on werewolves, and afterwards he invited me to stop in at the lab to see what he was up to. I'll probably get this wrong, but he's into double beta decay. He had a big copper pot, about the size of a large wine cask; dozens of cables led from it to a computer and then to a monitor, on whose screen squiggly lines, not unlike the trail of the exploding Challenger, twisted off from a common blob.

The pot was full of xenon, a stable gas with an unstable isotope (xenon-136) that decays, giving off two betas. This is known as double beta decay. This phenomenon is so rare, however, that in 10-to-

the-20th-power years (more than a thousand million billion), only half the xenon-136 isotopes in the pot will have decayed.

The little accidents I was looking at on the monitor were not what Henrikson was looking for. They just looked something like it. The computer was screening out meaningless activity. I wondered if Henrikson and his colleagues expected to sit around for googol years waiting for the right thing to happen.

He said they were expecting a shipment of concentrated xenon that contained a great many more 136 isotopes than ordinary xenon. Eventually, he said, the work was going to be transferred to a Swiss tunnel under a mile of granite, to protect it from cosmic rays.

Up to now, he said, the only person who has ever seen a double beta decay is a scientist named Alan Hahn, at UC Irvine. It was this single sighting that caused Henrikson to compare the study with a current inquiry into the incidence of werewolves.

He thought it curious that at least 250 werewolves have been seen in the United States alone, while in the whole world only one instance of double beta decay has been seen.

Henrikson's letter had enclosed a clipping from the Pasadena Star-News reporting that since the Fox Broadcasting Co. set up a werewolf hot line, more than 346,000 persons have called the toll-free number to report sightings or to inquire about werewolves.

It quotes "world-renowned werewolf expert" Stephen Kaplan, an instructor of parapsychology for the New York City Board of Education, who not only estimates the werewolf population at 250, but says he has seen 15 of them face to face.

"Our Werewolf Research Center does not believe in the supernatural," he is quoted as saying, "but we find that we have to redefine what is 'natural.' "

We are all familiar with werewolves (those of us who haven't actually seen one) from the classic 1931 "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and its numerous offspring, including "I Was a Teen-age Werewolf."

In popular superstition, a werewolf is a man who changes into a wolf (or half-wolf) at night, devouring human flesh, living or dead. Sometimes he induces the transformation himself, as Dr. Jekyll did; usually it is involuntary, during a full moon.

I don't know whether to be astonished that there are so many werewolves left in the United States, or alarmed that there are so few. I tried calling the werewolf number to ask which side of this dilemma they were on, but a recording said the number had been disconnected.

If Henrikson finds his double beta decay, don't worry. It won't mean anything except that a lot of theoretical physicists will have to start all over again. "It would be a lot of fun," he said.

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