The Perils of Dr. Laura Whitfield
by Channie Greenberg
Table of Contents|
chapters 1, 2, 3, 4
Chapter 2: Mentioning the Aliens
Laura liked to think she was honest with herself; it was everyone else she lied to. Her lone exception was when it came to her mentioning the aliens. It felt imperative, to her, to inform kith and kin, as well as strangers, that she had espied something very strange on the fifth planet.
She had noticed life, likely intelligent life, on Jupiter. She had observed, using her souped-up, personal, Orion 9 × 50 achromatic telescope, a large crustacean on that planet’s surface. Although her handheld device was a far cry from the types of instruments she had used at the Mount Wilson Observatory, where she lectured in the annual spring astronomy series, her personal gizmo had utility.
Mount Wilson, on balance, was a wonderful employer, one that allowed her, outside of the season of the series, to use her time as she saw fit. Laura mostly developed radio instruments using MATLAB and Simulink. She also spent a significant hunk of time pursuing research on extraterrestrials.
The instruments granted her prestige among her physics and astronomy colleagues. The extraterrestrials yielded her notoriety among members of such watch groups as the Aerial Phenomena Enquiry Network, the National UFO Reporting Center, UFO-Norge, and Kosmopoisk.
Her status in those domains, though, did nothing to quell the disquieting notion that she had seen a fiend with three sets of eyestalks, ten thoracic appendages, a large tail, and a carapace. Given that the image repeatedly blurred, she was not sure just how many antennules the space critter possessed.
Regardless of its antennule count, it was eerie that the creature had deigned to stare back at Laura. Without so much as blinking, that beast, which swam among the tropopause’s layers of that far-away sphere, had dared to look at the astrophysicist through a strange instrument. Laura was sure the creature had looked with purpose.
The giant monster returning her glance had acted wrongly; lobsters were supposed to be dinner, not potential collaborators. In other circumstances, spiders and other wild, properly-sized arthropods guarded her garden and kept her kitchen free of pests. A right-minded arthropod ought not to be able to dream about — let alone conceptualize — becoming a research partner.
When Laura and the space lobster had gone eyeball to eyestalk, she had almost stopped breathing, but then she evoked what her yoga teacher had taught her. While slowly exhaling and keeping her eyes closed, she counted, with her mind’s eye, first the fingers on her right hand and then the ones on her left. Finished, she gasped anew.
Members of the subphylum malacostraca lacked such extremities, at least to the best of Laura’s recollections of her biology lessons. She had liked Cellular Biology best, enjoying both learning about membrane permeance and taking pleasure in attending recitation classes held under the watchful blue eyes of Hans Sozoa, a doctoral candidate.
Although Laura aced all of the tests on the movement of proteins within cells and on the differences among lysosomes, mitochondria, and vesicles, she was never asked out by that teaching assistant. Rather, Jesse Spring, who was sleeping her way to class salutatorian, dated and eventually married Hans.
Meanwhile, it continued to be mystifying and maddening as to how an organism that appeared to be made of something analogous to chitin was able to manipulate an implement. Animals with ladder-like nervous systems were not supposed to be sophisticated entities.
However, having grown up on a diet of Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, and Le Guin, Laura possessed a great imagination. She had made room in her life for outlandish possibilities. Such thinking enabled her time and again to triumph in statistical mechanics, nuclear and particle physics, and in theoretical astronomy. Equally, she was staid when seriousness was called for.
Laura served on the board of directors of the American Astronomical Society and had been given an award by the International Astronomical Union for Physical Cosmology. Furthermore, NASA had recently funded a University of Cambridge sabbatical for her.
During that break from her regular duties, she had taken delight in sitting in on Professor Abraham Reinfeld’s talks on planet-induced spirals, protoplanetary discs, scattered light, and so on. Laura’s greatest status, though, came not from her scholarship in Cambridge, but from her Harvard University Press publication, The Possibility of Crustaceans Around the Galaxy. She was an esteemed scientist.
Since she was respected and since she wanted to maintain that status quo, a short time after having a good look at the Jupiter lobster, Laura called up her friend, Dr. Hormel Padmani, head of MIT’s Center for Ocean Engineering and her buddy, Dr. Janice Tracey, head of the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve.
Dr. Padmani had spent the last three decades trying to prove that crustaceans possessed some small portion of intelligence and could be trained, like chimps, to communicate crudely with humans. Dr. Tracey had spent a similar amount of time investigating the mating and territorial behaviors of millipedes.
On the one hand, Dr. Padmani’s work was ridiculed by the elite members of the American Zoological Society. On the other hand, after each national congress of that society, he was among the most sought-after of the attending scientists. Even his most public nay-sayers were fascinated with his idea that krill and barnacles might be tool-using and might be able, albeit doubtfully, to link with humans. If Hormel couldn’t advise Laura on the probability that space lobsters might be cognitively endowed, then no one could.
Depending on how Hormel weighed in, Janice’s insights would be more or less meaningful to Laura. If the space critters were smart, Laura wanted to learn how to connect with them. She assumed that the lobster with whom she had gone eyeball to eyestalk was not an isolated individual. Jupiter might be hosting entire pods of sentient crustaceans!
Hormel’s secretary answered Laura’s call. Hormel was on leave. What’s more, he was stricken with a bad case of avian influenza and had been warned by his primary care physician not to use his voice. As for electronic communications, old-fashioned Hormel never employed emails or texting. Telecommunications application software, too, was of no interest to him; his scholarly ancestors had made do with field notes written by hand. It was sufficient for him that he relied on a typewriter and a telephone.
Laura was referred to Hormel’s senior research assistant, a post-doc student whose specialty was the various manifestations of anxiety in the crayfish found in the Louisiana intracostal waterways. Not only was that young lady a smarty, but she was patient with Hormel. Also, she had lived in a home that had sheltered both her maternal grandfather and her paternal grandmother. She was accustomed to and not troubled by the idiocentricities of the elderly.
As at ease as she was with Dr. Padmani, that young one had no interest in “wasting” her time jabbering with his friends. The best Laura got from her was an email file full of the young woman’s dozen most recent co-authored papers. Hormel, who knew that research assistants made nearly no money, worked in earnest to help them step up to tenure-track positions.
As for Janice, her vacation message, on both her personal and professional email accounts, announced that she, her hubby, and their twin daughters, had taken the summer off to explore the wilds of New Orleans. Subsequently, she meant to use her long-overdue sabbatical to research the bayous near Intracostal City. Frequently, she and Hormel’s assistant shared research notes.
Friends, family, and colleagues were invited to send Janice email with the stipulation that they realized that she would not be checking her inbox for weeks at a time. She wanted to guarantee that her family would receive her full attention. Swamp tours, airboat tours, dinner cruises, plantation sleepovers, and French Quarter Segway tours all were on her agenda.
That night, when Laura was again aligning her finder scope, she maintained that she once more observed a denizen of Jupiter gazing back at her. Deftly, she hooked her digital camera to her digiscoping adaptor and took photos of that event. Laura then texted her twin sister, Dr. Phlox Hakha.
Phlox was tenured at Yale. Although that university lacked a research program in Exobiology, it had funded a chair in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, for Phlox, as a means of keeping her on its faculty. Professors of Phlox’s ilk were invaluable to universities; such scholars brought good press with them.
Laura’s twin had written, produced and anchored Depths Beyond Imagination, a weekly television documentary that focused on the possibility of undiscovered life forms both beneath the Earth’s aquatic surface and in the bowels of space. That show had been telecast on the Annenberg Channel for nearly ten years.
Bland as her conclusions seemed to the academic community, Phlox had succeeded in stirring the public’s imagination. As a result of her broadcasts, less-educated folks demanded more and more data on odd Earthly residents and on aliens. Consequently, Phlox had been able to sell enough tie-ins to her show to create a fund for girls interested in undergraduate degrees in biology, physics, or environmental science.
Her media celebrity was a type of alchemy rare to the Ivy League boards of directors. If Phlox had not stayed at Yale, she could have been tenured at Princeton or at Brown, as they, too, had courted her.
Phlox’s value to her sister, Laura, was of a different nature than was her value to university administrators. She could restore her twin to some semblance of serenity faster than a bucket of water could suppress the output of obnoxious computational machines and their periphery devices.
Phlox and Laura understood obnoxious computational machines. When they were young, input to computers had consisted of stacks of cards prepared on keypunch devices, Once, when Laura had tried inputting to a UNIVAC 9400, the machine’s 777 laser printer, which had been complete with 9000 watts of fuser lamps, powered by thyratrons, had burst its paper into flames. That incident had startled and upset Laura.
Fortunately, Phlox had been standing nearby. She poured her cup of coffee on the flames, causing lots of smoke, but no end to the fire. Hence, she grabbed Laura’s cup of coffee and poured that, too, onto the printer. The machine, fortunately, had sizzled and died.
The twins were summarily tossed out of Stanford and had to complete their studies at The University of Texas. In addition, Phlox and Laura’s parents were served with bills from the Stanford Fire Department and the computer lab, respectively.
Fatefully, at the same time that their family home was being remortgaged, Phlox was being courted by Johns Hopkins’ Biology Dept. She left the University of Texas to complete her doctorate and, eventually, a post-doc there. Texas gave her tenure, making her one of the youngest permanent members of the school’s biology staff. Only later was Phlox’s time bought by American University’s Center for Environmental Policy and then by Yale.
All of those shared and separate histories notwithstanding, Laura needed Phlox. Phlox answered her sister’s summons with a Skype communication. For half of an hour, the two made strange faces at each other by sticking out their tongues, raising their eyebrows, “beeping” their noses, and more. At last the revelry was pierced by Phlox, who asked, “What would your alien think of our planet if she observed you now?”
Following a moment of silence, Laura nearly hugged the screen. “You believe me!”
“Why not? According to entomological statistics, it’s as probable as it is improbable that you’ve stumbled on intelligent life.”
“So you believe the figures and not me!”
“No, I doubtlessly believe you more than do your peers.”
“I haven’t told anyone.”
‘Then why was a write-up of your ‘findings’ presented at The Seventh International Symposium on Molecular Arthropod Science? And why was an article about such tosh — I mean, about such creative research — published in the one and only Scientific Journal of Arthropod Systematics & Phylogeny?”
“Okay, so I called a few colleagues.”
“Phlox! Don’t go high and mighty on me.”
“Nothing doing. In fact, I’ve been working on booking your passage on the USS Exploring Eagle.”
“Interplanetary ships are strictly unmanned.”
“I could die in a million different ways.”
“Would you miss me?”
“Of course. But, you’d help me become part of the payload, anyway?”
“Some. I’ll help you get grants for making the interior habitable and I’ll give you connections to people I know in Washington.”
“The work is yours to do.”
“You won’t remain the only girl in our family with notoriety.”
“Didn’t think you cared.”
“Don’t really. I just want to know how a shelled critter can use a telescope.”
“I’m sending you a link to some of my files. Contact the three agencies looking to fund this sort of project.”
“Huh? Missions like this have always been automated.”
“Yup. No one has ever been crazy enough to try to ride a rocket through space and time. You’ll get listed as achieving a lot of firsts.”
Copyright © 2015 by Channie Greenberg