Four Neutrons

Ice, leaf litter, acrylic, sound.

2016

Four neutrons can really determine the direction of your life.

Four neutrons are all that separate the stable isotope Caesium-133 from its volatile and radioactive relative Caesium-137. Caesium-133 is reliable- it’s used in the atomic clocks that run our world. It’s intrinsic to our experience of the world- its oscillations define the international standard unit of time, the second. In our modern and shiny world, time ticks according to the rhythm of dependable Caesium-133.

In the natural world things are a little different. The presence of decay is a testament to the passage of time. The world cycles through birth, life, death, decomposition, life again in a continuing stream. However, when two different types of decay interact, time can appear to freeze.

The forests surrounding the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant were infiltrated in 1986 by large quantities of Caesium-137, a radioisotope with a half-life of 30.17 years. Populations of microorganisms in the forest dropped following the nuclear disaster, leaving fewer and fewer of their number to facilitate the natural processes of organic decay.

The result is a forest suspended in time, filling up with leaves that are dead but cannot decompose. All that can be done is to wait for the Caesium-137 to decay- a waiting game that is marked second by second by the oscillations of stable, well-behaved Caesium-133.

© 2020 Felicity Townsend