Here at the University of Utah, where I teach, a couple of chemistry professors have blown the scientific world wide open by apparently producing the power industry's dream: nuclear fusion that takes place at room temperature. I'm a bit peeved by the publicity they're getting.
OK, so they drew more energy out of the experiment than they put into it. That's wonderful. But how come nobody has ever noticed that we folklorists always find more legends coming out than are put into circulation at first?I'm calling this folklore fusion now. But we've known about it for years.
According to the time-tested theory, the process begins modestly: A person with a story to tell - say, an urban legend - tells it to someone else.
In your classic folklore dissemination model, the second party tells it to a third, and so on in a linear manner. Eventually you begin to hear variations of the original story.
The prototype for the process thus viewed is the party game called "Telephone" or "Gossip." In this game, after the original word or phrase has been passed in whispers around the group, you compare what went in with what comes out, and you discover that a different version has developed.
But in everyday life, oral tradition is not whispered one-on-one in circles. Instead, each person tells many people, often with several other people hearing each telling, so the stories and their variations spread exponentially.
You always get a lot more stories out of the system than are fed into it by the original source.
It's folklore fusion! And this kind of fusion takes place at room temperature too, with a free source of input - people and their imaginations.
What the state of Utah hopes to do, as the chairman of the Board of Regents phrased it, is develop the Salt Lake Valley as the local version of California's Silicon Valley. They'll call it "Fusion Valley."
To that end, the Legislature met in special session just two weeks after the announcement of the fusion breakthrough and voted the scientists responsible $5 million for further research and development.
I'd like to see the Legislature also recognize folklore fusion with a modest grant of - oh, say a million or so for starters.
After all, the press conference announcing the new fusion took place on March 23, which happens to be my birthday. A folklore fusion grant would be a lovely late gift.
Our local newspapers, which have sported headlines like "Cold Fusion, Hot Topic," could print something like "Folklore Fusion: Another U. Bombshell." Or: "Story In, Stories Out - Brunvand Proves It."
I admit that I have the same problem with my theory as the fellows in the chemistry department do: working out the commercial applications. That's where a grant would help.
I do have one profit-generating scheme: I could plant a bit of positive information or an encouraging rumor: "The state of Utah gives every visitor a share in its fusion project." As this idea spreads exponentially, our tourist industry would boom.
Of course, there's the possibility that the rumor would vary, and eventually indicate something like this: "Utah puts all visitors on a treadmill to power its fusion generators."
So I'm working on the plan to harness folklore fusion as a clean, reliable rumor mill. All I need now is a grant.