||Modified image of Judith Shea's "Post-Balzac" from The Hirshhorn Sculpture Gardens, Washington, DC. Photo by Brian Nelson.
THE OWL AND THE HORSESHOE CRAB
|Chapter 1: The Red Shirt
|May 14th, 2017
"The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom. It is not an attempt to violate any laws; it is something, in principle, that can be done; but in practice, it has not been done because we are too big."
— Richard P. Feynman, 1959
A dried out horseshoe crab sat on the shelf above Eric’s computer, its deep brown dome and long spiked tail melding with the stain of the wood beneath it. It looked out of place there, surrounded by the chaos of Eric’s apartment, an organic thing set reverently apart from the chaos. The place was a mess, the floor was littered with books: programming manuals, chemistry texts, Quantum theory, Catenae Design, an open copy of The Non-Spooky guide to Spooky Action. Scattered among the books were at least a dozen pen drives, a cannibalized motherboard, empty cans of Coke, some loose change and an old DVD-RW drive. Running the entire rim of the bookshelf were yellow post-it notes: diagrams of molecules, formulas, sketches of assembler designs, web addresses, and other reminders: download pirate software here, read Doc Elzheim’s thesis, eat.
As Eric and Lily slept on the other side of the room, the computer’s screen saver silently transitioned through a series of photographs: Eric receiving his degree from Boston University; Eric and Lily at a formal, laughing at some forgotten play on words; Eric at age two dressed up for church in a powder blue suit and squinting in the sun; Eric holding up a trophy at his high school State Championship; a shot of Lily from the second grade toothlessly grinning; and an image of Bill Hopkins with a superimposed caption—“When I grow up, I wanna be just like Eric Hill.” Under the desk was the cpu—a plywood box with a single red switch, above which was scrawled THE WHOPPER in permanent marker.
In (and scattered around) the trashcan were corporate recruitment materials: Become a part of the Pfizer team; Accelerate your career at GE Aircraft Engines; Merck: Join the fight to eradicate disease; Raytheon Defense Systems, Helping Protect America Since 1936.
A complete mess.
The phone rang.
Lily moaned. Eric nudged her. You get it. But she rolled away from him. He had forgotten to turn off the ringer. He was about to get up when she rolled out of bed. “If it’s that asshole from Merck…” she threatened.
Eric looked at the clock. It was 7:00 a.m. Saturday morning.
“Hello.” She shot him a look: you’re gonna get it. Her eyes turned up to the ceiling as she listened. She was in her oversized Moral Hangover concert tee shirt, her long black Chinese hair falling to her shoulder blades. “He’s not interested.” click. She thumbed off the ringer and climbed back into bed.
He knew she would be asleep again in minutes, but he, he was up now. Thinking. Always thinking. Planning the day. Not interested. He was a month away from graduation and he wasn’t interested. He had twenty-one job offers. Twenty-one. The first one came during his very first semester of grad school. Six figures, corporate car, eight weeks vacation, profit sharing, write your own ticket. How many times had he heard that? They must have all said it. Most of his friends were gone, few had bothered to graduate, they’d gone pro, hit the majors. They called to say how great it was, that he was a fool for staying. Who cares if the suffix after your name is only M.S? The offer from Merck, that was the sweetest. He could pay off his student loans in six months.
Not interested. But he was interested. He was obsessed. He was obsessed by one possible job that might or might not exist. He was obsessed with finding Bill Hopkins.
For the past year many of the greatest minds in nanotech, artificial intelligence and genetics had been disappearing. Two of his Stanford professors and one of his professors from Boston had recently taken extended sabbaticals and moved away. He didn’t know exactly where they had gone or what they were doing. He only knew that the disappearances had come shortly after a rumor began that Hopkins was going to work on a big project for the government; then, he too, had suddenly dropped out of sight.
It had to be self-replication. It had to be. That was the roadblock, the linchpin. Things were moving much faster than even Hopkins had predicted. Moore’s Law had been shattered: processor speeds were now doubling every nine months instead of every eighteen as nanoscientists refined new molecular processors hundreds of times more efficient than silicon chips. The forecasts that were made in 2010, that a functional self-replicating nanosite would take twenty–five years, had been reduced. Now futurists were predicting 2025. And once that happened, once they figured out self-replication, the nanotech revolution would really begin. Because those first assemblers would be the ultimate tool, capable of doing anything. The way that everything was done would change: medicine, manufacturing, agriculture, aerospace, defense. No single scientific advance in history would so dramatically separate the world of the past from the world of the future. The government had finally gotten wise (or at least the Pentagon had) and were doing their best to control the revolution. And Eric was sure that the man they had hired was Bill Hopkins.
There was an electronic click from the answering machine. “Hi, you have reached Lily and Eric, no one can…” Lily moaned and swatted at him with a pillow.
“Hello, this is a message for Eric Hill, my name is Jack Behrmann…”
Eric was up and scrambling, throwing the covers aside, stumbling, recovering, and grabbing for the phone. “Dr. Behrmann?”
Doctor Jack Behrmann. A quarter of his bookshelf held volumes either by or about this man. The first scientist to manipulate catenane through chemical self-assembly. MacArthur Foundation Award Winner. National Medal of Science. Brilliant. Possibly the most brilliant nanotechnologist in the world. But more than brilliant, he was Bill Hopkins’s best friend. Wherever Behrmann was, Hopkins had to be close by. “Hello, Eric, I hope I am not calling too early.”
Eric was still fumbling about. The phone was still on audio and he was searching desperately for a shirt that would make him look presentable. It was rude to leave the cam off for too long. “No, sir,” he lied, “I have been up for a while now…getting some work done.” (Sir, he couldn’t remember the last time he had called anyone that.) He pulled a polo shirt over his head and sat down at his desk to hide the fact he was in his underwear. “What can I do for you, sir?”
Two thin legs folded out from the sides of his phone. He set it on the desk and switched on the cam.
The image of a man appeared on the small screen. He smiled warmly at Eric. It was Behrmann all right. The father of molecular engineering. There was the thick gray beard, the soft eyes, and the bald head. Although he could only see Behrmann’s head and shoulders, he was reminded that he was a very big man. Not obese, but tall and strong. Eric could feel the man’s size in his voice—a deep, comforting sound.
“Eric, I’m calling to make you a proposition,” he said. And with no more preamble than that he offered Eric a job. No resume, no references, no interview. He simply invited him to join a team that he was leading, but, he said, unfortunately, he could not tell him any other information about the job except that it was near Washington, DC and “cutting edge.” When Eric hesitated, but Jack spoke gently: “Eric, I know I am asking you for a leap of faith here, but you will be working with the top people in nanotech, biotech, and other related fields.”
Eric pressed him as delicately as he could: what were the goals of the project? who was running it? how long would it last? He had to be sure.
But Behrmann wouldn’t budge; he only smiled warmly. “To all those questions I can only say that the project is very important and that it will last as long as it takes to be successful.” Talking to Behrmann, Eric realized, was not like talking to the recruiters from Merck and Raytheon. Even though Behrmann was offering nothing, he knew he was offering the most. You could hear it in his voice.
Behrmann was sitting in front of a green screen. The newer phones had selectable backgrounds in case you didn’t want the person to see the real background. Instead, you picked the location you wanted to “call” from: your office, your house, Cancun. The fact that Behrmann’s phone was set on green meant that he didn’t want anything in the background to reveal where he was. Eric glanced at his caller I.D., unknown area. The secrecy, the integration of multiple technologies, the East Coast, it made sense, but Eric had to be certain that Hopkins was there. “I’m afraid there is a specific opportunity that I am looking for and this doesn’t appear to be it.”
“Ah,” Behrmann said and there was a long pause. Eric’s heart sank, thinking that he was about to hang up.
What Behrmann said next made him realize that they—whoever they were—had done their homework. They hadn’t asked for a resume because they already knew all they needed to know; they hadn’t asked for references because all the people who knew his work had already been contacted. “Well, that is a shame,´ Behrmann said. “I told the program manager that I was going to be calling you, and he was hoping that you and your red shirt would be joining us.”
At that, Eric’s mouth expanded into a gleeful grin. Mention of the red shirt was the seal of authenticity: Hopkins was with Behrmann.
The red shirt:
Eric had first met Hopkins at the Annual Technology conference in Las Vegas three years earlier. It was Eric’s first public reading, coming after his big break the summer before: an internship at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, the prestigious think tank run by the Nobel physicist and octogenarian Otto Mayer.
Just before the conference, Lily gave him a present. “Oh, a nice pink shirt,” he had said, while simultaneously thinking, there is no way I’m wearing this.
“It’s not pink, silly. It’s red. This is pink,” she said picking up a magazine with a bubblegum cover.
“Oh…yeah, you’re right.”
“I want you to wear it for your conference in Vegas. You’ll look so handsome.”
“You’re so thoughtful.” How am I gonna talk about Bucky balls and nanoarms wearing a pink shirt? “But if I look THAT handsome won’t you worry about all those chemistry groupies throwing themselves at me?”
She laughed. “Uh, yeeeaaah, I’ve seen the people that attend these things. I think I can trust you.”
He was slated to give his paper at 8:30 on Tuesday morning, the last day of the conference. This took a great weight off his shoulders as he knew that most of the conference crowd would be overserved during their last night of partying and in bed late into the morning. The night before, he had practiced his speech in his hotel room. He could do this, he kept telling himself. He could hear his father’s voice in his head, talking to him as he had done when he was a boy, giving him a pep talk. Assuring him how smart he was, how smart he must be, simply because he was a Hill. “The Hills have always been great thinkers,” dad always said. Eric had always been skeptical, but his father believed; knew the whole family history—the long string of scientists, astronomers and philosophers who had carried his genes. How George Herbert Hill had been commissioned by the English Royal family to design ships and cannon. How the Hill mind was special, a playful, ornery, and meddlesome thing. The kind of mind that would search for a mathematical connection between jet streams in the atmosphere and the phosphorescence made by porpoises at night. Even his sister Ellen, who his father had said had soooo taken after her mother and was moving recklessly toward a career in literature!, still did time-value-of-money calculations while watching car ads.
Eric had always resisted his fathers prosthelitizations; he didn’t want to hear that he had was genetically programmed, and he certainly didn’t want to hear that he had a destiny. But now here he was. Trying to be a scientist. He had tried to get away from it but found he had just run a circle. In the end he had done what his father had always told him to do: accept your strengths. Accept them and build on them. He wondered what his father would think if he could see him now.
The shirt hung on the door, staring at him like a scarecrow. But by now he had been won over. It really was red. And it was a smart looking shirt, a fashionable cut. Very sharp. Not pink. Definitely red. And if he didn’t wear it, she would know. As sure as geeks wear pocket protectors, she would ask with glowing eyes, did you wear your new shirt?!!! He couldn’t lie. He was an awful liar and she knew it. Any hesitation, any shifting, and she would know. No, the shirt was red and he was going to wear it. It would give him luck, and he would give a great paper.
His predictions of the conferencees drinking habits were well founded. The auditorium held 600. When 8:30 a.m. finally came, less than thirty people bothered to show up. He gave his paper, all the while assuring himself, you look good, you look good, lucky red shirt. He fielded only two questions and was making a beeline for his room when someone called his name.
“Mr. Hill, I very much enjoyed your paper.” Eric turned and his heart skipped a beat. In front of him was a handsome older man with short gray hair gone white behind his temples. Philanthropist, inventor of Vortex, ClayLogic, and the foremost expert on assembler theory. Bill Hopkins. He couldn’t believe it. For him to even attend Eric’s lecture was like a visit from Mt. Olympus.
Eric stood speechless for a moment with a rather drained look on his face, then remembered himself. He wiped the look of astonishment of his face, and moved forward to greet Hopkins properly, to shake his hand, but in the process only stumbled over a chair. Hopkins smiled enthusiastically, exposing deep crow’s-feet. His face was calm, intelligent, and brimming with good will. He was so disarming that Eric found himself instantly at ease. He was dressed in a gray three-piece suit with a red tie and, unlike most scientists who tried to dress up for conferences, he looked quite comfortable in it. He seemed the model of a gentlemen. The type of man who might walk with a cane (which he sometimes did).
“Otto tells me that you have some very progressive ideas and that you do good work,” Hopkins said.
"That is very kind of you to say, Dr. Hopkins,” Eric said, am azed that Otto Mayer even remembered who he was, let alone mention him to Hopkins.
Then he added. “I like your shirt.” Eric smiled. And because Eric felt so comfortable around him or maybe because he had wanted to talk with this man for so long, he told him all about Lily and his reservations about the shirt. He talked until he was embarrassed for himself.
“Oh, no, definitely red,” Bill said, then glanced at his watch. “Oh, it looks like I’m late. I have to meet a friend for drinks,” he said. “Best of luck in Palo Alto,” then he disappeared into the lobby.
Drinks? Eric thought. He looked at his watch. It was ten after nine.
At noon they began the closing plenary session for the conference. On a platform was the podium, flanked by tables on each side that held the conference’s big hitters: Bill Hopkins, Jessica Berg, the Austrian geneticist, Adrien Zimmer, and Cynthia Willis. There was a lot of fanfare and self-congratulations about how far the world had come in the past 50 years, then the CEO of Bellwether Micro, Randy Jenkins, came out and gave a speech on the “Future of Technology.” Blah blah blah, the future will be great. Blah, blah, blah, Bellwether will lead the way. Blah, blah blah. The problem with having a heavy corporate presence at these conferences is that you have to put up with all the selling, Eric thought. It’s worse when the products are shitty, like at Bellwether’s, and run by an asocial megalomaniac like Jenkins. Even Bill Hopkins looked bored; Eric caught him putting him stifling a yawn and checking his watch. Soon Eric found himself daydreaming about the things he had to do: call Lily to let her know how it went (had he really just met Bill Hopkins?), check out of the hotel, get a cab to the airport.
Jenkins finished his speech to thunderous applause, then began to field questions. They were the most asskiss questions: How does it feel to be compared to Thomas Edison? The Jenkins Foundation gave 500 million to African children’s programs, what is your next humanitarian quest? Etcetera. Etcetera.
Eric yawned and stretched. “Yes,” he heard Jenkins say as he fielded another question. Eric admired his shirt. I do look handsome, don’t I?
“You. In the back.” Eric suddenly had an uncomfortable sensation. He looked up. Most of the crowd had turned towards him. He turned too. He was in the last row. Shit. “You, in the pink shirt.”
Oh, no. He did not just call this a pink shirt. Eric stood up, waiting until everyone was quiet. “Yes, uh, Randy, I’m sorry, I was just stretching, but you should know that this shirt is red.” There was some laughter, which Jenkins did not seem to appreciate. “It’s pink,” he insisted.
“Red,” Eric said.
“It’s red.” But the words hadn’t come from Eric’s mouth. It was Damitha Bandara, one of the big hitters just to the right of Jenkins, and he said it in his thick Indian accent. “Definitely red,” he repeated. There were nods up and down the table. “Red,” Cynthia Willis said. It was suddenly important—scientists with something to fight over. The famous chemist Jessica Berg was sitting next to Hopkins and she picked up her conference folder and showed it to Jenkins. “This is pink!”
Jenkins looked at them, now unsure— he was trying to decide if he should defy them, his eyes going one direction, his lips the other. A quiet had come over the crowd, awed at the sight of their gods feuding.
“The shirt is red.” Hopkins said. And that was the end of it. Jenkins might be Achilles, but Achilles was still no match for Zeus. “Fine, it’s red,” he said, his face taught with annoyance. Everyone cheered. Hopkins gave Eric a wink. Then Jenkins laughed as if it had all been by his design. “Now are there anymore questions for me?” There were none.
That had been three years ago.
Now Jack Behrmann was smiling back at Eric over the phone cam, offering him exactly what he had been dreaming of. The job. “So can I tell the project manager that you will be joining us?” he asked.
Eric looked to the bed. Lily was sitting up, watching him closely, holding the sheets to her heart. She could sense a change.
“Yes,” Eric said.