What is Trillium?


What is Trillium?

Jason bent over, picked up one of the rabbits, and as he began to stroke it asked, “What is trillium?”

What is Trillium?There was a grown man conversing with a boy outdoors of a tidy middle class neighborhood. The grown man had a few pets, some lawn sculptures and was well known in the area for being good entertainment for children for between half an hour to one and a half hours.

The reason that he was so much fun was mainly that he was strange. He was not an evil person, but he was very unusual.

So, Jason asked him again when the man seemed distracted by the motion of his weather vane at the top of his house, “What is trillium?”

“There is more than one kind,” the man said.

“Go on,” the boy said, petting the bunny and holding it to him when it struggled briefly.

“Please support the rabbit’s feet properly,” the man replied.

The boy did so.

“There are trillium which are flowers,” the man began. Jason thought he spoke as if he had been asked to explain the entire world and everything in it.

The boy looked at the grown man, and tilted his head. Jason then turned and looked at the weather vane. Sure enough, the arrow floating on top of a metal rooster was changing direction.

Really, the man needed people to talk to. When he had moved to the town he had not predicted that half of his friends would actually be children. He viewed himself as a solitary but friendly fellow.

He was not really sure why he had no wife or serious girlfriend except that, when he thought about why not, he realized that he had never tried. All of his married friends and sought out partners with fervent interest – many of them for years before settling into anything permanent, but always either chasing after someone or dealing with someone.

He had not really done that. As the wind pushed his weather vane, he had to admit to himself that he was really probably single for lack of trying.

He had come out for some fresh air, to take a break from his laboratory only to find that yet again, there was a neighborhood boy in his yard playing with one of his pet rabbits. He realized that this was probably his big chance to have social contact for the day. He was grateful but still felt strange that the guest was about 10 years old.

The kid was looking at him strangely, with a mixture of curiosity and something nameless.

The man felt self-conscious. He straightened up and took a deep breath. “Trillium is also an atomic element,” he told the child. The boy had a reputation for being reasonably clean and responsible as well as friendly. He had come to visit this solitary man – usually just outdoors in the yard for nearly a year.

“No it isn’t,” Jason said. “I have memorized the Periodic Table of the Elements for school and there is no such thing as trillium.”

The man laughed. He was very slender, so he seemed to almost bow in the breeze like a sunflower. “That’s just it – what did you say your name is again?”

“I’m Jason,” Jason said.

“That’s just it, Jason,” said the man. “Most people don’t know about ‘trillium the atomic element’. I’m impressed, that you’ve learned the Period Table at your age,” he added.

Jason let the bunny rabbit go. It hopped a few feet away. The adult’s lawn was very complicated. He had a vegetable garden that included a movable fence, so that – when things were mature enough, he would make them available to the rabbits.

Then, there was a lot of mowed grass. He had at least 4 metallic and rubber sculptures in his yard that were taller than Jason. There were at least 2 that were taller than he was. There was a stone wall around most of it, but it was low, nowhere more than three feet high.

It seemed as if the man wanted kids to come around because he had placed attractive features around: not only was there the art and the pet animals but he left toys out. There were also a few plants – one tree and some vines, that were cultivated as if for no other reason than to encourage neighborhood children to use them to climb into his yard.

“I’m making trillium, Jason,” the man said with a sigh.

Jason’s eyes grew big. This was quite a claim. He thought of his parents and his eyes narrowed, now suspicious. “You’re teasing me,” he thought aloud.

“No,” the man said, “no I’m not.”

“Is there any way you can prove this?” Jason asked, using everything his family had taught him about how to be skeptical.

The man chuckled and again gazed at his weather vane. This took his eyes off the boy in his yard. He breathed deeply.

“Well,” he said, after a while, “that’s the real question.”

Jason looked up at him and decided the fellow was a bit strange. Everyone in the neighborhood agreed with this assessment. No one had known the man to ever harm anyone or anything. He seemed gentle and responsible. It was just that he was very narrow and off to himself much of the time and he seemed chronically preoccupied and no one was sure where he worked.

He was known for at least trying to be friendly. He had guests. Normally he did not bring any children into the house unless they had a parent along or something. He was entirely safe but felt that parents should be cautious about letting their children hang out with mysterious adults and so he was careful. His efforts were typically understood correctly but there was always something awkward about it. Perhaps he was just shy, or wasn’t sure what to do with people when he finally had company.

“That’s a very good question, Jason,” the man said, at last bringing his gaze back from the weather vane.

“The answer is that I do hope so. I very much hope so.”

Jason wrinkled his nose. The wind changed direction and tiny speckles of dirt threatened to hurt his eyes. “Are you telling me you’ve discovered, or invented trillium?”

The man jerked nervously, perhaps he was just rather stiff. He coughed slightly. “Uh, yes, yes. Actually, yes, er Jason. That’s exactly what I am telling you.”

The man flashed an intense gaze at the boy, but kept it extremely brief. He flashed his gaze to something else, the ground, his little garden walls, the stones behind the visitor, the grassy ground and the toes of his own brown shoes. He seemed almost embarrassed.

Jason hopped off the rock. He realized that he knew a few kids like this at school – really shy kids, a little strange but once you got to know them they were actually perfectly nice. Most of them used the Internet a lot or had very intellectual parents. “You’re really a scientist, aren’t you?” Jason said.

“Yes, well, really that is part of it. I mean, not all of it,” the man began to look slightly desperate, as if he were a child called on in class by a teacher at a very bad time, like when someone is writing on the desk and the teacher suddenly calls their name and they nearly have a heart attack and aren’t sure whether to answer first or to just desperately apply their eraser to what they’d been writing on the furniture which is not allowed.

“Um, can you show me?” Jason asked.

“The thing is,” the grown man said, “is that its not done and its in the house.” There, he had said it.

“I want to see,” Jason said.

The main sucked in air through his teeth as the breeze picked up. He did view the child as a friend. “If you bring your father with you,” he said to the boy,” if you come back with your father then I’ll show it to you.”

Jason looked at him funny. “Why won’t you let me see?…and what if its my mother or my older sister?”

The man peered at him briefly again and then back at the ground. He tapped his brown shoe. “No, Jason,” he said, deciding not to explain. “I won’t show you unless you have an adult with you, so you’re big sister is not good enough. I’ll tell you what though – whether its your father or your mother; as long as you have another adult from your family I’ll show it to you, but please try to bring someone who doesn’t talk too much.”

“What do you mean by that?” Jason asked.

“I mean that I don’t want a journalist with you,” he said. “I’m not ready for the newspapers to know or anyone like that but since you’re one of my friends I’ll show you, but since you’re a kid…I just don’t like to have other people’s kids in my house unless I know its okay with their parents. It has to do with insurance coverage.”

“Oh,” said Jason. Now, he knew what the guy was talking about. He knew people like that, one of the girls and at least a couple of the boys around – tell them anything and the whole world knows about it, often in less than two days.

“Well,” said Jason, “I’ll have to see then.” He moved away from the stone he had been sitting on. “I have to go now,” he told the adult neighbor.

“Okay,” the man said. He still seemed ‘a little funny’ to the boy but that was normal.

With that the boy left; he climbed over the vines that grew over the wall. It wasn’t really necessary but the kids seemed to love it like that. He traversed the lawn. He needed the fresh air and the break from his work, but it wouldn’t last long.

Sure enough, within half an hour he headed back through his front door into the relative darkness of his home. He took a flight of stairs that led down into a darker, damp place. Around the smell of faint mildew and water retardant he returned to his laboratory. The lab itself was a miracle of fiscal efficiency.

As if often the case, even with the best science, it did not really look like the man was doing much other than hanging around odd little lights and fussing with machinery and mumbling over read outs and making notes. There was not even the excitement of a Bunsen burner for onlookers.

This strange man really was simply a lone human investigator into the mysteries of the material world. His aloneness was in part real, but in other respects an illusion. He had frequent communications with others in his field and had funding. There was rarely ever anyone else in his lab but he did make at least 5 treks a year to conventions with others working in the same field.

Trillium was his big success story, maybe. If, that is, his research proved to be true. He was reasonably certain that he had found this element, but now had to run years of tests to figure out more precisely what it was and how it had come about. He knew of course, that without proper documentation it would be entirely useless as a contribution to the world’s knowledge banks. He tried not to think about it too much, mainly because the one time that he had, he had cried and cried.

There were people who knew who this man was. They realized he was extraordinary. The majority, however, could not distinguish him from the others except in that he was a bit shy and awkward and did not date much. That was about it.

Women in the town liked him once they knew that his yard was a safe place for their children to play after school mainly because it gave them enough time to do the dishes and make a phone call in peace.

Part 2: the real secret

Jason knocked on the door as his father stood behind him. It was after school, just two days after his neighbor had told him he had a scientific breakthrough going on. The father felt, well, a little perplexed. He had had lemonade with this man before. After chatting over automobile maintenance during the previous Summer the man had invited him in and served him tall, sweet lemonade in a very large old fashioned foyer. It had been shadier and cooler inside, of course.

He had not stayed long. He was good at reading people. He could tell that the man was used to being either left alone for long periods of time and possibly treated as strange – but not bad or dangerous. It seemed to Jason’s father that the man was just slight of build and shy and extremely bright but in very limited ways.

The door finally opened. There was the same man, he looked only recently dressed and was mumbling apologetically. Jason peered up at him. The man was unusually tall for the people in the area. The boy knew that human-size tended to have quite a range, and whenever two totally different normals were put together, suddenly no one looked normal. Jason was very glad that his father was there.

“Hi,” Jason said to the man who was his neighbor.

“Hello Jason,” he said. He looked to the other grown man and smiled, “Hello,” he said.

The father smiled slightly. “Jason here tells me that you’re up to something, but that its something good,” he said. “He came to me begging me to come over so that you can show him or us something.”

“Yes,” the man said, “but I have a policy about children.” He shrugged. “It’s for everyone’s safety. Please, do come in.”

“Its just that you’re a single man,” the father said, entering the house with his house.

“Yes,” the man said. “That’s all it is. Still, people should be careful and really, I never know with boys,” he shrugged again. “I really don’t know.”

The father looked at the other fellow who was not a father and chuckled. “I see,” he said. “Well, if its anything to you, I don’t let him play with my tools in the garage and he’s a pretty big boy now, as you can see.”

“That’s true,” Jason hrumphed. “I go to high school,” he told the man, “but he still treats me like a boy.”

“Oh,” the man said. “Well, you really are still more boy than man. Uh,” he said, “that doesn’t really change all at once.”

He looked at the boy sympathetically. “If it helps at all, you know even once you’re a man it still is not okay to just get into everything everywhere without asking. Usually, you have to have someone more experienced with you for a long time – even when you’re a grown man,” he repeated.

“Oh,” said Jason.

Jason’s father chuckled. “That is actually true,” he said thinking of everything he’d learned as a grown man. Most of it he had been taught, and a little bit he had figured out for himself messing with things – but that was only because he spent money to make his own workshop. He could not do that where he worked, not even after 15 years of dedicated service to the company.

“Well, are we going to take forever or can I see it?” asked Jason. After all, it was the man who wanted to show it off to him.

Jason’s father looked at the other man and raised his eyebrows briefly. “So, what is this thing?”

The man suddenly felt himself to be the center of attention. He had taught a few classes, and tended to enjoy it when it didn’t detract too much from his research. He took a deep breath and stretched himself to his full height. “It doesn’t look like much,” he said. “I’m afraid it might be anti-climactic.”

“But Jason said you were so excited about it,” the other grown man said.

The scientist fidgeted briefly with the cuffs of the shirt and blazer he was wearing. “That’s just it,” he said, “I am, but to you it may seem anti-climactic.”

“I see,” the man said. “I think I know what you’re talking about.” There was another breath, “No, I mean, I don’t know – can we find out please? But I know what you mean.”

Jason looked at the other man and scrunched up his nose. “Oh,” he said again.

With that the man turned around and led them to the back of his house. The first floor was actually quite spacious and long. It was done in a strange style. In certain ways it seemed like the set of an old television show or movie. The flickering light, the early 20th century design; the large fireplace. The leather chairs and little glass table where they had had lemonade the year before.

At the back, in the kitchen, the man led the boy and the other man down into his basement. The odors changed, as they often do when such places have not been very carefully waterproofed. There was some kind of office down there, and what appeared to be a laboratory. The lab was set into a ready-made container as if to keep off the mold. It was easy to tell roughly what it was.

There was glass, and tubing and machines and the faint hum of computers and a ticking noise. Out of the lab set up there was a very large table and then a jumble of papers, notebooks, readouts from the machines and partially built models from Styrofoam and cardboard or thick paper. Jason’s father laughed, just because it reminded him so much of children’s science projects at schools.

“Well,” muttered the grown man, “here we are.”

“Where’s the trillium?” Jason asked.

Jason’s father raised his eyebrows again. “What’s trillium?” he asked. He buried his hands into his pockets. He was a hands on man but felt he would need to keep his hands to himself in a science lab. This wasn’t just a brake job.

“I think it’s actually an element,” the man replied breathing strangely, almost as if he’d just kissed a woman in secret. In truth his heart began to race as he spoke. It was a bit like a clandestine romance – he had only the faintest memories of such things, but Jason’s father was a married man deeply rooted in his own ongoing romance.

Jason’s father licked his lips. “You mean like in chemistry? The Periodic Table – elements?”

“Yes,” the other man seemed to start sweating and his hands trembled.

Jason and his father both raised one eyebrow at their nervous neighbor. “The reason this is so exciting is?” the boy asked.

“Jason!” Before anyone could say anything, the father had lashed out and tapped his son on the back of the head with his hand. It was nothing so fierce as to leave a bruise or anything, but enough to send a message.

“What, Dad?” the boy asked, reaching up and shielding the back of his head. He was not hurt. His father was never brutal but was physical at times.

The other man really was sweating. “The reason its so exciting,” he stopped and licked his own lips, “there are two major reasons why its so exciting,” he said.

“One reason, is that I haven’t created it – usually nowadays this would have done using a particle accelerator and some collision.”

“Oh, I stuff about that in a documentary,” the boy said.

“Yeah,” said the father. He reached out again, took his son’s shoulder and gently pulled the boy closer to him, “I think maybe we watched a few shows like that at home together. Particle accelerators. Okay.”

“The other reason this is so exciting is due to where it fits into the chart.” When he spoke he was perfectly clear but then at the end he suddenly gasped as if he’d been caught squeezing an angry cat.

“Why’s that?” the father asked. He was sort of excited, a little bit interested, the way someone is when they won’t be interested for very long but briefly its quite good.

“It isn’t well,” the man glanced back and forth at his guests, “normal” he concluded.

“So what do you mean?” the father asked.

Jason looked at him, with increasing suspicion. It was a specific sort of suspicion and it was going to prove to be correct. “Can I guess?” Jason asked.

The other man looked slightly nonplussed. “Boys,” he said out loud to the father.

“Sure,” said Jason’s father, giving the other man the nod, “go ahead Son.”

“Is it completely different or does it fit into where there is already something else? It’s really that they might have to redesign the way the chart looks to fit it in – I mean, if you’re right. This isn’t going to turn out to be like cold fusion is it? I mean, that turned out to be a bit of a letdown…but not until after the whole world got wildly excited about it.”

The man looked at the father. “How does he know that? Does he act like that at school?”

“Yes, I do act like that at school – what does that have to do with anything?” Jason felt that somehow the man had really “gotten his goat” but didn’t understand why he felt defensive and flustered by such a simple remark.

“Is that really what it is?” Jason’s father asked. “Is the boy right?”

“Really yes,” the scientist replied, blushing.

“Wow,” Jason’s father said.

He looked at the man again, from top to bottom and then bottom to top. “You were able to figure that out in here?” he gazed into the man’s eyes and then scanned the room.

“Most of it,” the man said. “Not all of it, no.”

“That’s good,” Jason’s father said in a mysterious yet wise tone of voice, “I’d have thought maybe I was losing my mind.” He was relieved that he had not severely misjudged the complexity of what the other man had just told him.

“Can you show us any?” Jason asked.

“Maybe,” the man said.

Jason’s father’s breath hissed outward through his teeth.

The scientist fussed over his equipment for a mysterious amount of time. Time is such a strange creature. If waiting for a pot to boil fifteen minutes is forever, when engrossed in thought it may be the flick of an instant. Perhaps it is not enough time to run an errand, or maybe it is a painfully long wait. Jason and his father were not sure how long they just stood there watching the other man until finally, he made an announcement.

“Come here, please, come here,” he waved them towards him. He was standing over a microscope that was pulled high and back away from what seemed more like a small jar than a petri dish. Like the Petri dishes, it looked very ‘prepared’.

They each took turns peering through the microscope. Jason’s father dug his hands into his pockets again after having his own look. He rose and sank in his shoes. The man was looking at him, desperately trying to read the other’s face. “I think I might have seen something,” he told the scientist. “It looked very tiny, and possibly metallic.”

The other man actually leapt slightly into the air, gazed upwards, clapped his hands together and cried out “Yes.”

Jason waited until the man seemed slightly calmer. This really was a big excitement. “I saw pretty much the same thing as my father.” He sighed. He had hoped for greater magnification.

The man was delighted, “Hopefully its because that’s what’s actually there,” he said to the boy.

“Anyways, Gentlemen,” he was still sighing and trembling slightly, “that, I think, may actually be Trillium. Of course, once they get hold of it – well, then the whole thing will be out of my hands. If I am very lucky then I will have some control over the name.”

“Congratulations, Sir,” Jason’s father said, again taking his boy by the shoulder and reeling him in. “I know that doesn’t look like a whole lot from here, but that really is amazing. A previously unknown element – wow….and you would really show us that.” He tapped his son’s shoulder, “Now Jason, you make note of that. That’s very unusual and very kind. This one’s quite a nice man, actually. Really. You will do well to grow up to be such a good man yourself, Son.”

Jason really felt this. That’s what his father is like. “You’re a really good neighbor,” he said to the man. “You let me pet your rabbits and let me see your incredible scientific breakthrough. May I just say ‘Wow’?”

“Please don’t tell anyone else,” the man pleaded, “about the Trillium.”

“No, mum’s the word until you tell us its okay to talk,” Jason’s father tapped his son’s shoulder again, but in a more rapid rhythm. “I’ll just tell Margaret you had a new kind of motor oil you wanted me to see,” he added, giving a ridiculous smile.

The man looked very serious. “She would believe this?”

“No, I don’t think so, but she knows it’s not an extramarital affair and I don’t want to talk about it,” Jason’s father said.

The man showed the other two out. The afternoon light was strong. For a moment it seemed glaring but then a cloud passed before it and the man felt relief. After showing them out he stayed out in his yard for a little while. He checked the sculptures. When the cloud passed he was able to take the light as long as he didn’t look right into it. He checked the weather vane. There was a rather steady breeze in these parts. Sometimes it was so steady that he had doubted the weather vane was even really working, but it was.

In two months, the review board would check his research. He had already submitted an article about it to the university. One of his colleagues had given it the okay to be sent on. By next year, he would know whether or not his Trillium was as real as he hoped and believed.

The man checked the rabbits and reviewed his miniature feeding garden. There were two more rows of mature vegetables. He moved the little fences for the rabbits, grateful for the fresh air and activity then headed back inside to check his equipment and results. For a scientific finding to be valid is has to be able to be reproduced. He wanted to make sure he could provide all of the necessary information to the others, to ensure success.

Element 117 discovered?

A paper just published (5 April 2010) in Physical Review Letters by Yu. Ts. Oganessian and others claim the synthesis of a new element with atomic number 117. The abstract states “The discovery of a new chemical element with atomic number Z=117 is reported. The isotopes 293117 and 294117 were produced in fusion reactions between 48Ca and 249Bk. Decay chains involving eleven new nuclei were identified by means of the Dubna Gas Filled Recoil Separator. The measured decay properties show a strong rise of stability for heavier isotopes with Z>=111, validating the concept of the long-sought island of enhanced stability for super-heavy nuclei.” Read more:

WebElements: the periodic table on the WWW [http://www.webelements.com/]
Copyright 1993-2010 Mark Winter [The University of Sheffield and WebElements Ltd, UK]. All rights reserved.

1 Comment
  1. Avatar of Andy Bachman
    Andy Bachman says

    Thanks, Miriam!
    This was a great read.
    I left another comment on an article you wrote (can’t remember which right now, but something about how you got started on this magazine). Will be keeping an eye on you.

    BTW: how is it for an American woman to live and work in Germany (Jerry-Mania, as my father used to call it, lol)?

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