In the early days of the Manhattan Project, nuclear scientists encountered a unique problem.
There were two types of bombs being built; one, Little Boy, used enriched uranium, which was being produced through a distillation process in Oak Ridge, Tenn. The other, more-powerful weapon, named Fat Man, used plutonium that came from a breeder reactor in Hanford, Wash. The breeder worked by having uranium fuel rods bombarded with free neutrons, creating a reaction that "bred" the transuranic byproduct. (Nothing over the atomic number of 92—uranium—exists in nature and can only be created in a reactor or lab.)
The Hanford reactor had been built to specs about which the scientists weren't entirely certain. Within a few hours of starting up, the reactor ground to a halt.
As the scientists frantically tried to troubleshoot the problem, the reactor suddenly started back up on its own, only to grind to a halt again a few hours later.
The problem was that uranium does not always neatly break up into barium (56) and krypton (36) when it fissions. (The numbers have to add up to uranium's 92.) It would also break up into iodine (53) and yttrium (39). Without going into a lot of detail, the iodine had a radioactive isotope, iodine-135, which, after a few hours, decayed into a previously unknown "daughter" product, xenon-135. The xenon-135 would soak up all of the free neutrons, thereby shutting down the reaction. After a few hours, the xenon-135 would itself decay into yet another, nonabsorptive, daughter product, allowing the reaction—and the cycle—to start all over again.
I've always thought that this was how Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's brain worked.
Before we go too far, I have to warn you that if you're talking about the aforementioned problem at Hanford during lunch or on Facebook, be sure not to confuse it with Wigner's disease (or, as it is sometimes called, Wigner's poisoning). Named for Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist Eugene Wigner, the poisoning happens when a graphite rod that is being bombarded with neutrons stores the added energy by rearranging its crystal lattice, causing the rod to swell and get stuck in the fuel-element channel. If you accidentally confuse those two problems, nerds will suddenly appear through wormholes to ridicule you.
Now, back to Brewer. She is probably not the worst Arizona governor of all time, which says more about the other governors than it does about her. She is barely competent, rarely inspiring and almost always an embarrassment. I honestly believe that if you throw too many ideas at her at one time, she just grinds to a halt like the Hanford reactor.
However, in the tradition of the blind squirrel that occasionally finds a nut, last week, she did a good thing. And so, in this particular case, I come not to bury Jan Brewer, but to praise her.
In a stunning rebuke of one of the more disturbing tenets of modern-day, right-wing dogma, Brewer vetoed yet another ridiculous backdoor attempt to send Arizona careening down the slippery-sloped road to Voucher Hell.
The Arizona State Legislature—the motto of which should be, "We're not corrupt, but we are dogmatic, intrusive, pushy and often downright stupid"—passed House Bill 2626, which would have expanded the number of students eligible for Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, a program that is currently available only to parents of disabled students (and is almost certainly unconstitutional). These parents are given a debit card backed by taxpayer money, worth 90 percent of what the state would have paid a public or charter school to educate the child. The money can be used for a wide variety of educational expenses, including books, tutoring, therapy or even private-school tuition.
The original program was a shameless attempt to use handicapped kids to get the Voucher Viper's foot in the door. This latest abomination would have added minority kids and kids who are currently attending crappy schools. Eventually, the Legislature will have worked its way up to the middle- and upper-class white folks at whom these vouchers have been aimed all along.
Brewer vetoed HB 2626, citing the same budget concerns that she mentioned when vetoing a measure last year that would have given corporate tax breaks to entities that gave money to private-school scholarship organizations. But this year—bless her heart!—she went a step further, citing deeper philosophical concerns about whether the bill would skew things in favor of private schools over public schools under the purported guise of promoting school choice.
Parents already have all the choice in the world. They can send their kids to any public or private school in the state, or not send them to school at all. Moreover, the vast majority of Arizonans do not want public-school funds used to help send kids to private schools.
Brewer, in a letter, said that while she supports the concept of school choice, she rejected HR 2626 because "there is a careful balance we have to maintain." So, for this one moment ... way to go, Gov. Jan Brewer.