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Young African Leaders Initiative, 1,000,000,000,000,000 Watts and more

Michael Barnes

SCHOOL: President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative reception. Let me first make it clear that this was not an event attended by the U.S. head of state. It happened on the same day that President Barack Obama made a whirlwind tour of Austin’s Paramount Theatre, Magnolia Café, Franklin Barbecue and at least one private home, but Air Force One was long gone by the time Eugene Sepulveda and Steven Tomlinson welcomed 50 or so guests at their Craftsman-influenced Aldridge Place home. I guarantee, however, that at no other Austin party would you have the opportunity to speak at length, as I did, with engaging folks from Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Malawi and the Seychelles, all at the University of Texas for training and networking this summer. Christopher Lespoir of the Seychelles gave me the thorough rundown on efforts to import lessons learned in aviation training to medical facilities. Anissa Arune of Mozambique talked about the fight against domestic abuse, outlawed only two years ago in her homeland. David Gezana, who immigrated to here from Zimbabwe many years ago, spoke about developing cakes of biomass and mine tailings to produce cooking heat at pennies a pop. Those were only the most memorable stories I heard from this distinctly impressive group of future leaders.

SCIENCE: 1,000,000,000,000,000 Watts. From Joe Hanson’s story in Alcalde: “If you descend two stories beneath Robert Lee Moore Hall, down into the basement, and stroll through a dim corridor covered in faded safety posters—several of which display “DANGER” in large, red letters—you’ll eventually find yourself face to face with a set of brown double doors emblazoned with “Texas Center for High Intensity Laser Science.” Behind those doors, once an hour, for the briefest instant, shines one of the brightest lights in the universe: the Texas Petawatt Laser. The Texas Petawatt Laser, known around these parts as simply “the Petawatt,” was fired for the first time in 2008, and until recently, in true “everything is bigger in Texas” fashion, it ranked as the most powerful laser in the world. Inside, physicists create some of the most extreme states of matter, spawning nuclear fusion, accelerating particles to 99.99999 percent the speed of light, or replicating conditions usually reserved for exploding stars. On the day that I visit the Petawatt, a team of physicists from Germany is zapping microscopic spheres. One at a time, they magnetically levitate these orbs, each poor particle unaware that it’s about to meet the standard fate of things placed in the crosshairs of the Petawatt’s immensely powerful beam: complete and utter destruction. To say that the Petawatt is powerful doesn’t really do it justice. In terms of pure energy, the beam carries (only!) as much energy as a pro tennis player’s serve, but that energy is focused and compressed onto the most miniscule of points in an unfathomably short amount of time.”