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The Coli

Episode Eight of Blinded By Science

Harrison Bae Wein 30 July 2006

Harrison Bae Wein

Editor’s note: This is the eighth episode in a series of nine original stories, each written in a different style, following the career of a scientist called Fluke from graduate school to Nobel Prize. If you are curious about any technical words, you can browse Harrison's glossary, but it’s not necessary to enjoy the story.

When I first set out to write this magazine article, I never dreamed it would result in what you are about to read. I was supposed to write a pretty straightforward story about the adventurous, Nobel-winning scientist known only by the name of Fluke. The image of him is now almost as familiar as Einstein's, of course: lab coat and face shield on, rubber tubing and pipetman always in a holster at his hips. Fearless, quick, and brilliant beyond belief. Fluke earned his place in textbook history by completely reconstructing by computer all the genetic and protein interactions in a yeast cell. Using a variety of genetic tricks virtually unique to this experimental system, Fluke and his collaborators were able to use a computer to actually simulate an entire cell within a computer. Fluke's career up to that point was certainly nothing to sneeze at, of course – he had dabbled in many a different scientific field, all successfully, and founded the Institute for Monotonous Presentation, world-renowned for its innovative techniques in teaching scientists to eliminate all traces of subjectivity or humor from their delivery of important scientific information. But this was the crowning achievement of his life. When I first met Fluke, I couldn't help but be awed by the genius behind the firm, clear voice. Fluke had aged from the pictures I'd seen of him. His hair was a peppered grey; his eyes were tired, his face chiseled with years of hard thinking and worry. Still, when Fluke opened his mouth, I could just sense the intellectual power. "The practice of science is not so much a Science," he declared during our first meeting, "as an Art." Fluke likened the scientist working at his bench to the painter with his palette. Just as a painter chooses the correct brush for the size stroke he desires and agonizes over the correct shade of color, so the scientist chooses the correct centrifuge to use and agonizes over which speed at which to set the instrument for the desired results. In the end, Fluke said, what they are doing is the same. The scientist looks at life and develops models just as an artist creates drawings or paintings. Both are interpretations of life. Both reveal hidden truths.


My intention when I started out on this assignment was somewhat vague. I intended to write a general profile of Fluke and his laboratory, interviewing all its members to find out what made this brilliant intellectual center tick. It was just after my brief introductory interview with Fluke, however, when I stumbled on what was to be perhaps the most bizarre story of my journalistic career. Vincent, a tall, thin, awkward young man, was a postdoctoral researcher in the laboratory. Spotting me, he nervously signaled me to follow him into a little room barely bigger than a cubbyhole, and he locked the door behind us. "Look," he said, "I'll show you how science is really done. I'll give you insights none of the others will. But you have to promise me that you won't write about it until I agree that the work is ready to be publicized, or if something happens to me. What I'm working on is too important for the world not to know." I shook his hand. To understand the inner workings of such an extraordinary laboratory group, it was a bargain I could hardly refuse. But I don't think Vincent could have known just how prophetic his words would turn out to be.


Vincent and I were to meet later that evening, so in the meantime I decided to speak to some of the other people working in the laboratory to get a flavor for how it worked. To begin with, there was Jane Baxman, a research associate who had been in the laboratory for over ten years. I sat down with her, eager to hear her insights on the secret to Fluke's success. As the most senior member of the laboratory, Jane explained, she'd seen Fluke rise from simply a good scientist to a great scientist. Yet the secret, she insisted, was not so much in Fluke himself, but in the extraordinary cast of scientists he constantly brought into the lab. "So Fluke's real talent," I tried to confirm, "is in his brilliant selection of people." "Not at all," Jane corrected. "Once you've got a name in this business, that's all you need. Good people just come to you. I mean, Fluke is the last person responsible for his success. We're the ones who do all the work, yet he always gets all the glory." "So you think there are some inequities in the system of scientific research?" I prompted her, but Jane was suddenly holding her head. I didn't know what was wrong. "I'm sorry," she breathed slowly, "but my brain is starting to hurt. Too . . . much . . . talking," she managed to say. "Need . . . coffee." I encouraged Jane to go out and buy herself some coffee. I looked out for her for the rest of the day, but was unable to locate her and continue our interview. It struck me for the first time during this episode just how much thought must go into the scientific endeavor. Jane pondered so hard over the intricate work she performed that she simply couldn't think about something else for very long. It was the sign of a truly focused mind at work, and was perhaps one of the keys to Fluke's extraordinary success.


A thin woman appeared out of nowhere almost as if she were a ghost. She wore protective gear – latex gloves, a lab coat, and a full face shield – and carried a spray-bottle of glass cleaner in one hand, a stack of paper towels in the other. "Excuse me," I said, but Lorrie, as I later found out was her name, began to intensely spray the top of the centrifuge with the cleaner, ignoring me.

"Excuse me," I repeated. "I'd just like to ask you a few questions." "Very well," she said, wiping the centrifuge. "What would you like to be cognizant of?" "Well, to begin with, can you tell me what you're doing?" "Absolutely," she said, but then said no more, going about her work, satisfied with her answer. These scientists are so literal, so exacting in their language! "Please tell me what you are doing," I slowly articulated. "I am utilizing these paper towels,” she said, “in an attempt to disinfect the surface of this mechanical contrivance." "And does that improve the quality of your research?" "Oh, certainly," she said. "Every surface of the laboratory must be thoroughly disinfected to prevent the contamination of experimental protocol devices." "So you're saying," I continued as she moved to one of the benches and started to spray it, "that the lab needs to be clean for good science to take place? You realize," I explained myself, "that I'm writing for a general audience and that I need to put this into plain English." "Oh, I certainly would not wish to be an obscurant," she said carefully, measuring her words. "I am completely obstreperous when it comes to aiding the members of our press," she smiled. "May I ask what you think is the key to Fluke's success?" "You may," she answered simply, and I realized once more that I was not being precise enough. "Tell me," I rephrased the question, "what you think is the key to Fluke's success." She stopped her cleaning to consider. It was a long time before she finally said, "Immatulantness. It's the immatulantness of the lab." "Immatulantness?" I questioned, confused. "The cleanliness," she explained, impatient with my ignorance. Scientists tend to use a whole different language than the rest of us, I was beginning to learn. Lorrie must have been using a scientific term for really really clean, a term we would never have a use for outside the laboratory environment. In our daily lives, obviously, we could never get anything completely immatulant. Only in a high-powered, top-flight laboratory such as Fluke's could they accomplish such a thing.


Vincent and I met that evening outside the laboratory building, and he walked me over to his studio apartment, which was only about five blocks from campus. The dingy place was small and cluttered. There was no TV, no stereo, no books or magazines. Just a lot of clothes and empty food cartons strewn about – and two massive metal pods in the center of the room, connected to each other and to a central computer terminal by some very thick cables. "What do you think?" Vincent asked me, pointing to the pods. "What is it?" I asked, completely befuddled. "It's a prototype teleportation device." "Teleportation?" I protested. "That's science fiction." "Science fiction," Vincent declared valiantly, "is only fiction until science figures out a way to make it real. Then it becomes science." "You've got this to work?" I asked skeptically. "Yes, I have." Vincent fired up the central computer. "What does Fluke think of all this?" I asked. "Fluke? He doesn't know about it. He'd be upset if he knew I was working on a project outside the lab." Vincent distractedly fiddled with some knobs on a homemade-looking control panel beside the keyboard, and I decided to look around some more. There was a small kitchenette, but no food aside from a box of sugary cereal in a cabinet and two beers in the refrigerator. Unpaid bills were piled up on the tiny kitchen table. "I'm ready," Vincent called to me. He was adjusting some knobs on the outside of one of the pods, and I marveled at how he could have constructed these huge metal and glass oval receptacles, like giant eggs big enough for a person. "What are you doing now?" I asked him. "Just making some final adjustments. . . . Now, what can I use?" He looked around the floor and, spotting a pair of underpants, snatched it up and tossed it into the pod. Then he went to the computer and started typing. "Here," he said to me, holding out a pair of sunglasses. "You'll need these. Now watch very carefully." There was a bright flash from both pods, a loud whine, and suddenly it was over. Vincent went to the other pod, opened the door, and there were his underpants, looking every bit the same as before. "It's amazing," I gasped. "It's actually been transported from one pod to another. "And the story's all yours," he assured me. "An exclusive." "I'll win the Pulitzer for sure!" I exclaimed, but then I took a closer look at the underwear and realized . . . it was inside out. There went my story. "I'll fix it!" Vincent insisted. "You'll see. It'll perform perfectly in a day or two." I would reserve my opinion until I saw the experiment actually work.


In the meantime, I continued to observe the workings of the laboratory. I was starting to get a real sense of the intense mental discipline in this laboratory, but it wasn't until I met with Fluke again for a more in-depth interview that I understood the great genius that went into creating this brilliant work. The arrangement of Fluke's office is the most complex I have ever seen. The mind that could employ such an intricate filing system, I speculated as we spoke, must be absolutely unparalleled. There were piles of books and papers everywhere: covering the three desks, spilling from the bookcases, strewn across the floor. After meeting Fluke, I realized that he needs this kind of elaborate filing system – a normal, linear filing cabinet simply would not serve the breadth and depth of his thinking. Fluke finished up something on his computer and turned to greet me. On the screen were the bright colors and shapes of what must have been some complicated computer modeling system. It struck me as remarkable that the shapes looked almost like little spaceships. Fluke had the absolutely most sophisticated computer system in the laboratory. This was the hub, I realized, the intellectual center of the brilliant work being done here. And before me was the genius at the helm, Fluke himself. "I want to know what makes this successful lab tick," I asked him. "What makes it go in the morning? Why are you able to make such astounding leaps all the time, from year to year?" "I would say," Fluke answered, "that it's in the organization. You've got to run a tight ship, keep all your workers in line, and keep track of what they're doing. If someone veers off course, you've got to redirect them. Give them the illusion of independence so that they have the impression they are working for themselves, but if they steer in the wrong direction, make sure they correct their course. Then you take their bounty." "Bounty?" "The goods. The paper. As the head of the laboratory, my name goes on every paper, no matter how small my contribution. And there," he concluded triumphantly, "is the secret to my success." "So let me get this straight," I said. "You plant the seeds in each person, let them develop and grow your ideas, and you simply have to water them, add fertilizer when necessary, and then take the harvest when it comes in." "Absolutely. It's like an anthill. Each worker ant pushes a little piece of dirt. Sometimes they don't have any idea what they're building. They just keep pushing dirt. I'm the queen ant. I see what they're building, and try to make it seem valuable to the outside world, no matter what shape it's taking." "And what about your adventures?" I prompted him, thinking he would want to talk about all the legendary stories that surrounded his career. "What about all your amazing adventures?" "My adventures are over," he lamented, shaking his head. "That's all in the past." I got the distinct feeling that our interview was over.


Vincent had me come over to his apartment again two days later to demonstrate his new "improved" machine. "O.K.," he said, eagerly putting his underwear in the pod. He handed me the glasses and turned on the machine. A flash, a whine, and he flung the door open to reveal a transported pair of underpants – and this time, they weren't inside-out. "But now," he said, "for the pièce de résistance." He went to the refrigerator, got a beer, and placed it on the floor of one of the pods. "Check this out." A flash, a whine, and the bottle of beer was in the other pod. He took it out and popped the cap. "Try it." I took a sip and suddenly spit it out. "That's disgusting! Your machine did something to it!" Vincent ran to the refrigerator and got out another bottle of the same stuff. "Try this. Untransported." I tried the fresh beer, and it was equally disgusting. "What the heck is this stuff?" I looked at the label: Strawberry Pickle Brew. Another one of those damned microbrewed concoctions! But the important thing, I realized, was that the transporter had worked. Vincent was going to be famous. And so was I.


Vincent insisted that I keep things under wraps until he could transport an actual living thing through the pods. "Think about it," he urged me. "Think about the difference this will make in transportation – no cars, no trucks, no buses. You've got to wait until I've demonstrated I can transport living things." I conceded. In the meantime, I continued to make my rounds, interviewing other people in the laboratory. The next person I interviewed was Fluke's wife Monique, a striking Frenchwoman with long hair, big brown eyes you could lose yourself in, and beautiful, expressive lips. Monique runs much of the day-to-day business of the lab. She told me unabashedly that she was the key to Fluke's success. "I drive him to succeed," she said, "and I make his success possible." Monique didn't mince words. She said that she guides all the projects in the lab, and deserves most of the credit for Fluke's success. I couldn't argue one way or the other, but what was clear to me was that this laboratory ran like a well-oiled machine. Despite the constant declarations of how hard everyone was working, in my time there, I'd seen precious little laboratory work actually take place. It's a sign of an outstanding laboratory, I have learned, that you can't even tell when or where the work is being done. This is a model of efficiency such as I have never before witnessed, and it is no wonder that Fluke is considered the absolute genius that he is.


Soon after my interview with Monique, I met Jeff, a postdoc who has been in the lab for seven years. Completely unshaven, he wore torn pants and an old threadbare T-shirt. Many graduate students and postdocs adopt this sort of appearance. It is a sign of their dedication to science that they sacrifice the visual aspects of their character. Much like members of some religions, these scientists do not want to be distracted by visual attractions and therefore make themselves as unappealing as humanly possible. When I shook Jeff's hand and said hello, he grunted, looking down at my hand as if it was a foreign object. We sat down and I asked him the same question I asked the others: "What makes Fluke tick?" Jeff stared at me, but couldn't find the words to answer. "Do you like working for such a legendary figure?" I asked. He grunted. "Are you capable of speech?" Another grunt. It dawned on me that Jeff had lost all function in the speech center of his brain. He had spent so many years in the laboratory and worked such long hours that he had simply lost the ability to communicate. This, I realize now, is the future of science – the next step in the evolution of the Scientist. All the power of the brain directed into the study of Science. The future of Science has arrived, and once more, Fluke has paved the way.


But this narrative can no longer focus on Fluke and his secret to success. Perhaps Fluke's training was what allowed Vincent's brilliant work to take form, but it was still Vincent's work that was to lead to one of the most spectacular and disturbing results in scientific history. It was past eleven at night on Wednesday, October 9th when I got that fateful call. The phone rang, but when I picked it up and said hello, no one answered on the other end. "Hello?" I repeated. Finally I heard a high-pitched whine, that of Vincent's machine, and I knew something was wrong. "Vincent, I'll be right there!" I shouted into the phone. I rushed over to Vincent's and knocked on the door. At first there was no answer, and the possibility ran through my mind that I might have to call the police to break the door down, but I finally heard one of the locks being opened and, after some apparent struggle with the door, the tall, lithe Vincent appeared before me . . . with a towel over his head! "Vincent," I said breathlessly, "is everything OK? I was really worried when I got your phone call. Did you just get out of the shower?" Vincent shook his head no. "Vincent, take that thing off your head so you can talk to me." He shook his head no. "What's going on here?" Vincent shuffled uncertainly toward the computer and pointed to the dot matrix printer. It was printing something:

Horrieble mistake. didin't sterilisze chambers. Help me. go to lab, ask jeff for allk kind media plates. Must not tell wqhat happened.

"Vincent, what's this all about?" He pointed me to go. "Will Jeff be there now?" I asked. He nodded. I took the printout and headed to his lab. The silent Jeff was still working, as predicted – I later found out that he doesn't even rent an apartment, but lives out of his desk in lab, sleeping on his lab bench. Jeff asked no questions when I told him what Vincent wanted, simply complying without so much as a grunt. I returned to Vincent's apartment with four stacks of media plates in plastic bags. Vincent was still wearing the towel over his head and still refused to say anything to me. To all my questions, he merely pointed toward the door. "OK, Vincent," I conceded, "but if you need me, you know how to reach me." He pointed insistently toward the door again, and I left, hoping to hear from him soon.


The next evening, I called Vincent several times, but there was never an answer. I figured I'd give him a couple of days and then go to his apartment demanding to be let in. But the next night, I received a phone call and heard the teleporter in the background. When I got to Vincent's apartment, I knocked on the door but no one answered. I tried the doorknob and, finding it open, let myself in. The place was a shambles. Vincent's pods were smashed and broken into pieces, the parts scattered everywhere. Vincent was sitting by the computer, his head hung down in dejection, the towel still covering it. Then I noticed that his left arm was gone now, the stub oozing a brown, gelatinous substance. "Oh my god," I gasped. "What happened to your arm?" Vincent seemed to come to life then, and he pointed with his other arm to the printer. Here is what the printout said:

Hopelesss. No hople. hope not. Didin't sterilize chamber. DNA miks with E. coli. bring meeeeeee to lab... tAke pllates. tell noone . Must help me destroy myself!

"Destroy yourself?" I said. "I can't do that." In response, Vincent whipped the towel off his head, and I saw the most hideous thing I have ever encountered. Rather than a head, he had a huge, white-yellow, pockmarked blob atop his shoulders. It smelled putrid. I screamed. Vincent put the towel back on and I tried to calm myself.

"Can't you do anything?" I asked. He shook his head no. "Don't you think there's some sort of cure?" Another shake. "What if I asked Jeff to help?" A most emphatic shake of the head. I grabbed the stack of plates – they were covered with patches of all colors and textures now – and, confused and scared, reluctantly led Vincent through the deserted streets to the lab, careful to avoid being seen. Vincent directed me to a room in the hallway and brought me to a giant autoclave machine. He set the controls and signaled to me how to close the door, lock it, and turn it on. "I don't think I can do this, Vincent." He nodded his head emphatically. "No, it's too much for me," I pleaded. "I'm just a reporter." He took off his towel again. I pushed him into the autoclave, completely disgusted. Vincent didn't resist, yielding willingly and taking the stacks of plates in with him. I closed the door behind him, locked it, and turned on the machine. I left the room. I didn't want to hear if there was any struggle inside. I had reacted, I realize now, exactly as he had intended.


Ss far as Vincent was concerned, all the evidence of his fabulous discovery had been destroyed. But unbeknownst to him, back in his apartment I had taken one of the media plates and slipped it into my pocket, curious of what I might find there. I walked into Fluke's lab with it and searched for Jeff. When I found him, I asked him if he was free, and he grunted in what I took for the affirmative. "I was wondering if you could take a look at this for me and tell me what's on it." Jeff took the plate and looked under a microscope. He slid it around under the light and looked pensive. "Hmmm," he said, the most coherent thing I had ever heard from him. He took a toothpick out of a drawer and poked it gently into a black, fuzzy colony on the plate. He then swirled it around in a drop of water on a slide and covered it with a coverslip. He carried both the plate and the slide into another room, and I followed him as he set up the slide on a microscope there, putting the media plate down on a table. It was a quiet room, and as I watched Jeff I could swear I heard a faint cry in a thin, very high voice. As Jeff focused the microscope, I finally pinpointed where the noise was coming from: the plate! I picked it up, lifted it to my ear and must have gone completely pale when I heard the voices calling out, "Help me! Help me! Help me!" "No," Jeff suddenly exclaimed as he backed away from the microscope. I was so flustered from my realization about the voices, I didn't even notice that I had just witnessed Jeff articulate an actual English word. "What is it?" I asked, but Jeff had heard the voices from the plate as well, and he was now looking at me in horror. I got up and looked into the eyepieces of the microscope. I will never forget what I saw then, what had shocked Jeff so. There were a dozen little heads floating around, shouting in agony, and they all looked exactly like Vincent. Jeff grabbed the media plate from my hand and yanked the slide off the microscope stage. I followed him back into the main room of the lab and didn't try to stop him as he lit a Bunsen burner and held the black colony up to the flame to scorch it. He then took a pair of tweezers and used them to hold the slide in the flame. When it was all done, Jeff turned to me and stammered in his defense, "Ab-ab- abomination." I reluctantly agreed, of course, but I also realized that one of the most astounding discoveries in the history of science was now lost. Not only was the chance to study this amazing new hybrid organism lost in that moment, but so was my chance to win the Pulitzer. Now, no matter how hard I plead, Jeff acts as if nothing ever happened. He's back to his old self, working long hours in the lab, never speaking to a soul. If only he would validate my story, maybe someone out there would believe me. As it is, I can hardly believe what happened myself.

Teaser for the final episode of Blinded by Science:

Back to the Past. What's Fluke doing drunk and passed out in the back room of a pub? Finally, learn the real secret to Fluke's success.