Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Little Laboratory Work; a short story


The following story appears on the Third Sunday Blog Carnival for June 17, 2012!

[My inspirations for this piece came from the following articles in Natural History Magazine:  “The Longest Winter,” by Gabrielle Walker (April, 2003, pp. 44-51; about the “Snowball Earth” theory of the Cambrian Explosion); and “A Plenitude of Ocean Life,” by Edward F. DeLong (may, 2003, pp. 40-46; about how Archaea and planktonic microorganisms are much more abundant in the oceans than anyone had realized)  I retained some notes at the end regarding how I got my names.]

A Little Laboratory Work

by Lorinda J. Taylor


       … a large room containing the work stations and equipment of the scientist …the transparent ceiling reveals a dark sky densely strewn with stars, whose light is caught and concentrated in luminous wall panels …  A door opens and someone enters …
       “Crescent, is that you?  Glad to have you back!  How was the conference?”
       “Amusing, as always!  The University never fails to put on a good show!  But it’s nice to be back in familiar territory!  Sorry I was a little late getting here.  I stopped home to check in with Nifti.”
       “She was fine when I saw her at the lattice-ball tournament.  She won three matches and hit her intersections 32 times – more than any other competitor!  Did she tell you about it?”
       “It was all she talked about!  I don’t think she missed me much!”
       “Oh, I can’t agree with that!  I was there and she mentioned a couple of times how she wished you could have attended because she has never performed better.”
      “Well, it’s a shame, but she is old enough to understand about my work – how important it is.  I’ll be sure to view the transimages with her.”
       “So did you learn anything at the conference that made it worth the waste of time?  Must have seemed odd not to be making a presentation.”
       “A relief, really.  It allowed me to focus on what others had to say instead of worrying about how I was going to be received.  It was the same old group, displaying the same old cantankerous dichotomies.  At one extreme, the reactionaries – at the other, the progressives like myself.  The cosmic physicists, who think everything should be left alone and merely observed, versus us molecular biologists, who believe nature ought to be actively improved and enlarged.  The Noli Tangerines vs. the Revolutionaries!  And then there is always that gang in the middle that I call the Tinkerers … those old-line life scientists who have very little imagination and prefer to simply fudge along cautiously the way they have always done.”
       “I suppose it’s too much to expect reconciliations.”
       “Definitely!  Mimito, I couldn’t keep myself from speaking out.”
       “Was that wise?”
       “Well, everyone knows where I stand.  I found old Afarinand’s harangue so annoying that I stood forth and said that if she had her way, either chaos would prevail or change would be obliterated, and that it was up to us bioengineers to make sure neither of those things happens.  Then Kaihanga, whom I rank among the Tinkerers although she likes to think she is progressive, said that certainly change was necessary but that my approach was far too extreme.  I countered by asserting that being innovative didn’t mean forsaking careful thought and appropriately documented research.  We live in such a fragile environment that simply abandoning it is out of the question, but we daren’t just loiter along in infinitesimal steps, either.”
       “Oh, I quite agree with you, Crescent!  You know that!”
       “Of course I do!  But I think I’ll go check out my creatures.  They are a little like my offspring, you know.”
       “You’ll find them in good order.  I made sure of that!”
       … presently …
       “The little characters are coming along swimmingly!  Ha, ha!  Swimming is all they know how to do!  I want to set up some fresh experiments on how they react to varied exposure to different types of radiant energy – determine if anything has changed while I was gone.”
       … later …
       “Everything looks good!  I also ran analyses on their response to increased levels of carbonic acid in their culture medium and to abrupt alterations of temperature, and there were no surprises.  If everything continues to proceed at this pace, I should be ready for the field trial long before it’s scheduled!”
       “Oh, that reminds me!  You have a message from Metod about the target area.”
       “Curses!  Let’s see here – what does the Division Chief have to say now?  … Well, we’ve been over all this before!  ‘We continue reluctant to authorize the utilization of Target Area 3075/444-3, which is demonstrating characteristics that limit its suitability, to wit, a tendency to be subject to radical climate shifts.  We strongly suggest that you search out a target area with a lower incidence of tectonic activity.  Your work is too significant to throw it into an environment where the probability of life-failure is high …    Humbug!  I’ve factored all those so-called flaws into my calculations!  In fact, they’re the main reason that I selected this area!  But these obstructionists simply aren’t willing to concede that my hypotheses could have any merit!”
       “I have to say – I can see some grounds for Metod’s position … ”
       “Mimito!  Even you?”
       “Now, don’t take it like that – you know I’m your biggest advocate!  That’s just it – I’m really in awe of your work, Crescent.  What if it does fail?  The characteristics that you’ve engineered into your lifeforms are so difficult to achieve that you haven’t been able to grow many of the creatures.  That means that you will have to implant the whole colony in order to have any chance of success.  With nothing in reserve, you would have to start from scratch if they die out.  Likely you would not get permission for that.  Then what will happen to your goals?  How will life suffer?”
       “It’s not going to fail!  If ice does come to dominate the target area (and I’m positive it will), it won’t last forever, and these creatures are structured to withstand all kinds of extremes and to flourish under conditions of radical change.  Really, you’re becoming a bit too much of a reactionary yourself, Mimito!”
       “No, I protest that statement emphatically!  But I’m not the genius that you are, Crescent.  I haven’t passed beyond photosynthetic slime mats.  I suppose I must admit to being one of those old-line biologists you were talking about … one of your Tinkerers, if you will.  I can’t grasp the long-range prognosis the way you can and I don’t have your innovative imagination.  I’ve always said it:  if you can pull this off, you will be the leading candidate for the next Zibentak Prize.”
       “Well, I’m flattered.  You’re a good friend, Mimito, and I apologize for my testiness!  And I assure you that I mean to do everything possible to prove all your fears unfounded!  But now I suppose I’d better get down to work and formulate a rebuttal to Metod’s cavils.  It must be Area 3075/444-3; I investigated literally thousands of locations and, in spite of her complaints, it’s the perfect place to test my theories.  Maybe I should just threaten to abandon the project altogether if the University doesn’t go along with what I want.  No – better not do that!  They might take me up on it!”
       … a great while later …
       “Mimito, I’ve got it at last!  All my reasoning and nagging and heckling have finally paid off!”
       “They’ve authorized Target Area 3075/444-3?  Crescent, I’m thrilled for you!  When can you make the implantation?”
       “As soon as I can get my project inserted into the light transference schedule.  The area is in a pretty obscure sector, so special transportation is required.  But it can’t be very long now!”
       “We’ll have to celebrate!”
       “Nifti and I are going to the Social Hall tonight for some dancing.  Do you want to come along?”
       “I won’t be in the way?”
       “Of course not!  It’ll be Nifti who does all the dancing anyway.  I’m getting a little old for such flitting around.”
       “Well, that makes me feel good, since we’re the same age!  But I guess I’d better accept your invitation.  I hate to think of you sitting alone while she is out capering.”
       … The Social Hall, lit by floating balls of luminescent gas …
       “Isn’t she beautiful, Mimito?  So graceful …  It really was worthwhile taking the trouble to have an offspring.  At the time I was rather grudging about how it distracted me from my work, but now I’m glad.”
       “I believe it was the experience of propagation that gave you some of your ideas, Crescent.”
       “Oh, maybe a little.  You ought to try it.”
       “Oh … I don’t think so.  It’s not my style.  I’ll just remain bound to my piddling little experiments with the slime mats.  But, Crescent, I’ve always wondered what your opinion is about something and somehow this seems like an appropriate time to ask.  About the old deity thing … ”
       “The deity thing?  You mean, that theory that an Almighty Power sits off somewhere and manipulates our lives?  You’re surely not serious!”
       “Well, nobody can really prove what came before … you know, before the First Burst … or what will come after everything drifts back into the dark … ”
       “And I suppose our University is just a speck in that Power’s culture dish, and that Power itself is just a thought in some greater Power’s mind, and so on to infinity!  No, I think we are what is, Mimito – we and the control we exert over our environment.  That’s the truth as I see it, and it quite satisfies me.”
       … Mimito may smile and nod agreement, but in her soul she is not sure …

*        *        *
       … the Great Hall of the University, set among glowing dust …
       “Fellow members of the University Assembly, colleagues, friends:  I greet you all!
       “I could declare that I never expected to be standing before you accepting the Zibentak Prize for Significant Contributions to the Development of Life, but I will not make that statement because it would be a falsehood.  I always had great faith in my hypotheses and I knew that if I could prove them, honors would follow.  And time has justified my faith and verified those hypotheses – that if the life-codes of certain photosynthetic microorganisms could be manipulated so as to confer the abilities to withstand the extreme conditions of volatile planets and to adapt rapidly to environmental change, a process would be set in motion that would result in a biosystem that differed from anything ever envisioned.
       “Target Area 3075/444-3 was one of those locations where a previous generation of cosmic physicists sought to create a closed atmospheric and hydrological system during their investigations of the interactions of gravity and matter.  Their work with satellites of Star 3075/444 succeeded admirably in the case of the geologically dynamic third planet, although it failed in the case of the smaller fourth world, which lost its electromagnetic field too soon.  Hence, the planet under consideration provided a good area to test the earliest experiments with corporeal lifeforms; its oceans were long ago successfully cultured with archaic sulfur- and nitrogen-converting microorganisms and then with chlorophyll-bearing slime mats. 
       “However, as with most of our experiments, the resulting biosystem remained stagnant.  So I set about infusing its oceans with my engineered microbes and then I waited for certain climate changes to take place.  And just as predicted, the shifting of this active planet’s tectonic plates nudged its continents into an equatorial alignment that ensured a universal freezing of the oceans.  The rampant volcanism, however, provided open holes and undersea hot spots that gave my extremophiles just enough edge to allow them to endure.  Several subsequent intervals of melting and refreezing took place before the continents drifted once more into a configuration that permits the maintenance of higher atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.  Now the ice is retreating toward the poles and the seas have been boiling with carbonic acid reactions – quite an interesting sight!  The elevated carbon dioxide levels have allowed my lifeforms, along with a few of the planet’s original microorganisms that managed to survive the ice, to burgeon and release a huge burst of oxygen gas into the atmosphere.  
       “The scattered configuration of the continents should persist for hundreds of millions of the planet’s cycles – long enough to ensure that the target area remains a suitable natural laboratory in which my theory can be further tested, or rather, where the results of the introduction can be monitored.  The newly enriched oxygen atmosphere is providing a protective shield against certain hostile stellar emissions, and the content of dissolved oxygen in the oceans is increasing.  Within this positive new milieu my lifeforms are diversifying and adapting quickly.  They have already begun to form a multitude of distinct organic forms and even cooperative multicellular creatures with specialized parts … and they are reproducing prolifically – one of my foremost goals!  A few are beginning to take advantage of this new fecundity by abandoning photosynthesis and acquiring their energy from the process of engulfing fellow organisms, utilizing the abundance of dissolved oxygen to metabolize their corporeal content.  Yes, you may shudder, but it seems that a variety of life a step removed from dependency upon radiant energy is in truth manifesting itself!
       “But the most remarkable feature observable in these phenomena is that the changes are taking place entirely on their own!  Those organisms that are especially adept at transforming themselves to utilize new resources grow larger and more dominant, while less able varieties cease to exist.  Before now, the potential of evolution as a sculptor of lifeforms was only a controversial theory, but now it may be emphatically stated:  The theory of evolution had been conclusively proved!  The lives of us Shapers in the University’s Biodiversity Program have just become immensely easier!  No longer will it be necessary for us to tortuously craft every molecule of every minute creature, only to fall into despair as we watch 95 percent of our endeavors fail.  My persistent labor has yielded far more than the successful results of a single experiment.  It has produced a whole new method by which biodiversity may be created!
       “I cannot accept this honor without acknowledging the work of those prodigies who came before me, who first conceived the possibility of corporeal, carbon-based life and then engineered it into reality.  My contemporary colleagues also deserve my gratitude, especially my friend the Shaper Mimito, whose successes in refining the action of photosynthesis in chlorophyll-bearing organisms are at the foundation of my advances.  I would also like to thank my offspring Nifti for her patience with my single-minded devotion to my task.  She herself is now studying to become a Shaper of Life, and I expect great things from her a few million cycles into the future. 
       “When that future comes, I would hope that we can all hover together above the laboratory world called Target Area 3075/444-3 and view the consequences of the handiwork of the Shaper Crescent of Galactic Division #3075 of the 9th Parallel University.  Perhaps we will observe beings there that are something like miniature, corporeal versions of ourselves:  with brilliant minds that speak to one another … with ten limbs and seven eyes … with fleshed offspring budding profusely all over their integuments … evolved in the image of their Creators!  And yet perhaps no such outcome will occur:  time may reveal to us something entirely different – even more incredible and totally unforeseen.  Can any prospect be more exciting?  It is what makes the kind of science that we practice more rewarding than any diversion ever devised by any of us supreme beings since the Burst first spawned us.
       “And then there is the possibility that one of us (perhaps my offspring – who can say?) will venture to carry these achievements farther yet – to contrive ways of implanting seeds of this new evolutionary life-system on less receptive worlds, or even to produce corporeal lifeforms that can endure outside the nurturing milieu of water.  Perhaps one day creatures will be able to absorb dry oxygen and glide across the barren rock as easily as we Shapers dance through the void between the stars.  Perhaps novel ways of engineering life from elements other than those we have come to call organic will make the most intractable of matter throb with life!  Likely by that time I will have slipped back into the starlight, but that does not make the possibility any less exhilarating to me! 
       “And so I conclude with a challenge to you all – forge forward!  Do not idle in self-satisfied complacency!  Strive to make us Shapers worthy of that appellation that some of us believe to be our due:  the Omnipotent Masters of Creation!”

END

Notes:

This was written in August of 2003.
In English “crescent” derives from the Latin crescere, to come forth, grow, akin to creare (see create).  The word “create” is from Latin creare, from IE base *krī, to grow, cause to grow, cf. cereal.
In Maori, Kaihanga is Creator; Atua is God.
In Hungarian, Creator is teremto.
In Finnish, to create is luoda or laatia
In Farsi, Creator is âfarinande, while Creation is âfarineš
In Sanskrit, one word for to create was mimita
Last but not least, in Beowulf a word for Fate, Creator, or God is Metod.
Zibentak is adapted from Sieben Tag, German for “Seven Day,” thus the last division of creation.

2 comments:

  1. Nice! I particularly like the description of what they hope the intelligent species will look like... turns out it would resemble shaved gibbons instead (if I may quote Miéville). ;)

    Also, the story reminds me of Pratchett's "Science of Discworld". Which is a good thing, heh.

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  2. Haven't read Terry Pratchett. there are only about 5 million books in the world that I'll never get read before I die.
    I'm glad the story made sense, because I didn't do much explaining of what the reader was looking at. It gets somewhat less murky near the end. I visualize Nifti playing soccer with comets or asteroids. Crescent displays a certain familiar arrogance, a bit dangerous in a creature with the power of a god, or one who believes she has it.

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