||Modified image of Judith Shea's "Post-Balzac" from The Hirshhorn Sculpture Gardens, Washington, DC. Photo by Brian Nelson.
|Chapter 3: The Horseshoe Crab
|Alexandria, VA and Washington, DC
Phase I Deadline – 15 months, 7 days
By the mid-21st century, our world will have been totally redefined by nanotechnology. No longer will any structure— a building, a car, a stereo—be built by taking a chunk of cement, aluminum or plastic and molding it into the desired shape. In the age of nanotech, everything will be constructed from the atom upward by microscopic machines. Manual labor will become a thing of the past. Most diseases, including viruses and cancers, will be cured or controlled by nanosites, tiny man-made organisms that will live in your bloodstream. All of your food will come out of a little box about the size of your microwave, assembled atom by atom at your request. You will pay your food bill every month, just like you pay your water bill. But most fascinating of all is that these microscopic workers will be able to create marvelous new inventions that we cannot even begin to fathom. Quite simply, in the age of nanotechnology anything that can be imagined can be invented.
– Otto Mayer, 2002
“They’re gonna fire me, I know it, ” Eric said.
“ I’m not cut out for this. I should have been a dentist or something. All my publications were flukes.” He was in the new apartment with Lily and he felt awful. Nothing was going right. Just that morning one of the Marines had given him a security infraction for bringing in an old Ipod. No recording devices allowed. Three strikes and you’re out. All day he had been having daymares about his fate: If they don’t fire me, he thought, they’ll downgrade me to what was affectionately called “Morlock status”—stuck in a basement or in a Quonset hut, rarely seeing the light of day, doing the menial synthetic chemistry and engineering work that made life easier for everyone else. What were you thinking coming here in the first place, a voice in his head said. You know you can’t hang with the big boys. Now you’re gonna get fired from The Self-Replication Project, from Longbow . No one will want you after that. He pulled at his hair. It all came down to the carbon lattice problem. He simply couldn’t figure out how Jack and Arundhati’s equations worked. “Oh, I’m a goner.”
Lily came out of the bathroom. She was putting up her long jet-black hair and had one of her Chinese hairpins in her teeth. “You wanna know what I think?” she asked. He didn’t really. He just wanted sympathy, but he nodded. “I think the problem is your attitude.” Eric, exhaled. He did not like where this was going. “Back in California you always pretended like you were smarter than everyone else, how did you say it, the Nanotech Ninja. Okay, you weren’t,” she said ruefully, “but you had an attitude that made you work different—a confidence. You used to sit at the kitchen table and play with ideas. You used to go, YES! and make that goofy laugh when you figured things out on your own. You don’t do that anymore. Instead, you’ve let yourself get intimidated by all these people, especially Olex, when you shouldn’t. You should be confident that you’re smart enough for this. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t be here.”
He gave a dubious nod. Maybe part of what she said was sorta true.
The next night, he bent protocol and brought home a copy of Arundhati’s research. He spent all night sitting at the kitchen table checking and recalculating. Plugging and chugging. In the end it wasn’t that hard. The equations were tough, but not that bad once he took the time to work them out. He realized that the complexity of the thing had frightened him. But it also reminded him that one of the reasons he had been successful at Stanford was because he never assumed anything. He questioned all existing methods and procedures and often tweaked them or designed his own, and most times his methods turned out better than the originals.
And that is where he found the answer (at least part of it), in their assumptions. At first he thought he had missed something, it must be him, but after he double-checked it several times he realized that Arundhati had made a very controversial assumption. It was right there on page one: that the leptons (electrons, muons, and neutrinos) would all have a spin quantum number of one half. But it was known that some leptons could have different spins. When he gave the muons and neutrinos a spin of 3/2 and 5/2, respectively, he found he only had a .004 percent rate of error as opposed to their 16 percent. It was that simple. The team had been working on the problem for so long that no one had bothered to review the basics. But he waited. He had to figure out that remaining .004 percent before he shared his ideas with the team.
It took him several more weeks of working on the problem. In the end Eric got the answer from the same place he got so many of his ideas for Nanotech: from the horseshoe crab. That is to say, he got them by looking at how nature did nanotech , because all organisms were, after all, made by nanotechnology. A bird, a blue whale, a man. They were all machines, but not the antiquated notion of machines, not clunky steel boxes; these were molecular machines, with billions of synchronized parts, machines made from protein, using the DNA/RNA/ribosome system. DNA is the program, RNA transmits the data to the ribosomes, which, in turn, build all the protein molecules that make up our bodies.
The assemblers that he was designing were meant to grab and rearrange atoms in any way that man wished. Certainly complex, but something that our proteins and enzymes did within our bodies already—taking nutrients out of our food, moving iron across a cell wall, and breaking down ATP to ADP to fire our muscles. Nature had been doing nanotech for billions of years. And once scientists like him figured out how to program and replicate assemblers based on the model that nature had given them (and made their own artificial version of DNA) they could do anything. After all, the difference between hazardous waste and seawater, the difference between cancerous and healthy cells was merely the arrangement of atoms. The awesome power of nanotech would come from this versatility. As Bill often said, “Anything that can be imagined can be invented” or even made better, because nature was good, but it could certainly be improved upon. This was because evolution started with protein and, once started, there was no turning back. No creature could exchange its calcium bones for steel or its dendrites for copper once the program had been hardwired for protein.
Nanotech. He still marveled at it. It had always been with us. We knew it was there, for thousands of years we saw it in ourselves, saw our wounds heal, our food become energy, our bodies age. We saw it in the gait of the lion and the growing of the trees. We saw it, but we didn’t. It was literally too small to see. Like coal and steam were before the industrial age—these sources of power that had been lying around untamed for centuries—we didn’t make the leap, didn’t see how to harness it.
But now its time had come.
The horseshoe crab was Eric’s reminder of the roots of his science. It sat in his cube. Lily had never liked it, she said it stank. But it had been with him forever. Wherever he had been, it had been there: junior high, high school, college, grad school, now the Naval Research Lab. The workspace changed, but the crab remained.
He was nine years old when he got it—on the Hill family summer vacation to Cape May, New Jersey. Ellen, who had just turned six, was wading in the shallow water with Dad when she stepped on the poor brute. She had literally jumped out of the water, screeching as if she had skinned both knees and elbows at once. She had tried to bolt for shore but Dad had held her by the wrist, perhaps knowing exactly what had frightened her. Intrepid in the name of science, he had fished through the sand with his free hand. A moment later, he pulled up a handsome specimen of the Precambrian arthropod. He held it proudly from its spiked tail. Its spindly legs moved in the air like typing fingers while its armored plates clanked and flapped about. Ellen shrieked with renewed vigor at this monster that was now joined to her father—who was still joined to her.
“Settle down,” Dad said, or some such thing. Ellen was having none of it. She squirmed and screamed until she was free and tore up the beach to beat Jesus—already crying and pouting—straight to her mother. Dad had shrugged and lumbered up the beach after her, still holding his struggling prize. “Eric, I want to show you something.”
Eric took the opportunity to juxtapose Ellen's girlie cowardice with his bravery—Cool!—eager to do anything that grossed girls out. He and his father would do dangerous things together. Be tough guys.
Under the distrustful eyes of Mom and Ellen, Eric and his father examined the crab. It had been marvelous to him even then. Dad had explained everything. Its beauty was in its simplicity, he said, an armored exoskeleton with toothed ridges that protected its sensitive belly, primitive gills that had only evolved in horseshoe crabs: book gills—each with one hundred leaves. Water was circulated over them by the movement of the legs. The long tail, the telson, was used to right itself during mating. Simple. Perfect. And Eric listened, storing every word so that later he might impress his father with his memory…so that he might suddenly hug him like he sometimes did and say, Yes! That’s it. I am so proud of you. They poked and prodded the thing for hours until Ellen, still keeping a safe distance, came over to watch them.
When they returned to the beach the next day there were more horseshoe crabs, and the next day even more until it was impossible to go to the beach, impossible to throw out a blanket without it landing on a horseshoe crab, and impossible to bear the smell. It was the spawning. They had reclaimed the beach. Mom had boiled; Monty must have known that this was mating season. He denied it, but took Eric back to the beach several times so that he could teach his son about science and nature. By now thousands of carcasses lay still in the sand. Many of the males were too weak to fight the surf and were washed back upon the shore to die. The gulls were in a constant frenzy, feasting like harpies. Trying to help, Eric would grab a weak crab by the tail and, spinning like an Olympian, throw it into the water only to have it wash back onto shore. Over and over he did this (and his father did too) until Eric was angry. “Swim you stupid …you’re gonna die.”
“It’s all right,” his father said. “They are supposed to die now. That’s how they are programmed. They have survived for so long because their genes treat their bodies as expendable. Just remember that every crab that dies will have spread its genes to thousands of eggs.” But this did not make sense to him, why would something be made to die when it didn’t have to? He doubled his efforts, working until he felt like crying.
On the last night of vacation, his father brought him to the beach at twilight. Eric would never forget it. The sky was so full of sunset that it turned the tides blood red, and the coastline seemed to curve in and out forever—an endless beach covered in the dark brown forms of the horseshoe crabs. At nine years old he could only assume that this was happening on every beach in the world. He would remember the sight, but it was the sound that he remembered most: between the splash of the waves and the cries of the seagulls there was a clicking as the crabs tapped against each other. Even though his father had probably pointed out the wonder of it at the time, it wasn't until he was much older, after a decade of having the scene return to him in dream and daydream that the power of it swept him up: that he was seeing a ritual that was more than four hundred million years old, and the clicking, he remembered it like a language, a code, calling across time.
Eric sat back in his chair. The horseshoe crab had been with him even before he understood its meaning, before he had fallen in love with nanotech. This he took as a sign—proof of the destiny that awaited him. He told himself that he must have known—that odd sort of knowing that only a child could have—that his time on earth would be intertwined with man's quest to unlock the mysteries of how life was made.
Now, as a nanosite designer, he looked on the horseshoe crab as the quintessence of masterful engineering. It was a living fossil, which meant it had been made right the first time. Most protein machines such as humans, other mammals, fish, insects, etc., had to be continually redesigned, upgraded, and tweaked to ensure their survival. By comparison, the trilobite-like crab was a beta version—release 1.0 —a molecular machine so perfectly constructed that it did not need to change to the pressures of the environment and so, over time, it had outdistanced—lapped and then relapped—all the other creatures that we consider primitive: The horseshoe crabs had seen the dinosaurs come and go, they were older than hammerhead sharks, older than the crocodiles, older than the cockroach and the dragonfly, and older than the splitting of Pangea.
He suddenly caught a whiff of it: the fishy decay. Lily was right. It did smell.
He tried to focus on the problem. You can do this, he told himself, trying to shut that other cynical voice out. You have the Hill mind. This should be easy.
If the .004 percent margin of error persisted, then replication could never take place. The key to making assemblers was volume. A hundred assemblers, each able to move one million atoms per second, would still take a decade to construct something the size of a dime. No, if you were going to build a car or even a toaster you needed trillions of assemblers, and a .004 percent margin of error would not do. It had to be way lower. But how did nature do it? How did the horseshoe crab handle errors in its cell replication? What was different?
Then he knew. And he was mad he hadn’t thought of it before: an error-checking program. In horseshoe crab cell replication (in all DNA replication, really), the ribosomes copy the parts within a cell then the cell pinches itself in two. Yet the copied DNA in most of these cells makes less than one error in one hundred billion or .0000000001 percent. The key to that accuracy is that certain enzymes, like DNA polymerase I, proofread the DNA copy and correct it for errors.
He had the answer. A subgroup of assemblers would need to be designed that mirrored the error-checking enzymes in the natural world. Then Arundhati and Jack’s margin of error would be within tolerable limits.
For two weeks he worked on a general design for an error checking nanosite, getting help from Jane on the biology of existing proofreading enzymes. He had no doubt that it would work; he had covered every base. But he had to be tactful. To go into the meeting and announce his conclusions would look like bravado, conceited, as if he was flaunting his knowledge, a common enough occurrence, but that wasn’t him. Worse, he imagined that after so long without contributing anything that it would look suspicious. One part of the problem was impressive, but two? He feared that Olex would accuse him of stealing the ideas from God knows where and that by the sheer force of Olex’s station and conviction, Eric would be instantly tried and convicted—exiled from the project and sent packing. And wasn’t it true that he himself still felt unworthy of his own discovery? He was already detached from the part of himself that had figured it out. He’d just been lucky. The Eric Hill who would try to defend the discovery was not the same Eric Hill who had made it two weeks earlier. He had to reassure himself that, yes, this was all his work, all his original ideas, he had not cheated, not stolen.
Finally, he went to Jack’s office and asked if perhaps, just perhaps, he and Arundhati might have made a mistake in their assumption about the lepton spin (not always being one half). Jack’s eyes narrowed for a moment, thinking. Then he grinned a grin that pushed his cheeks up into his eyes. “Oh, yes,” he said. “Yes, that would bring down the error to less than five in ten thousand.” Eric nodded. “Excellent.” Jack laughed and his beard seemed to grow whiter as his face turned red with embarrassment. “I certainly should have seen that before.”
Then a couple of weeks later in the Tuesday Talk when the discussion was heating up about the remaining error of .004 percent he, at last, spoke up. Olex’s eyes bore down on him like a heat ray.
He proposed slowly and deliberately—a speech he had rehearsed five times the night before with Lily—how the error-checking nanosites were the only way to get the margin of error within acceptable parameters.
Olex scoffed. Preposterous. But Eric could tell by the nods, by Arundhati’s reserved smile, by the way that Jack folded his arms with an expression that might have been pride, that he had won them over. A ritual had been played out. An initiation. After a few questions went around that reinforced the merits of his idea, Olex gave a grunt. A conditional acknowledgement. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut.
* * *
That night he and Lily had celebrated. It was she, after all, who had helped break him out of his funk and renew his confidence. They had gone out to dinner in Bethesda, drunk too much wine, and come home and made love. For the first time since coming to DC five months earlier everything seemed in place. For the first time it felt like this might be the place for him after all.