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Back to the Past

Episode Nine of Blinded By Science

Harrison Bae Wein 31 August 2006

Harrison Bae Wein

Editor’s note: This is the ninth and final episode in a series of 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 our cumulative glossary browse Harrion’s glossary, but it’s not necessary to enjoy the story.

Adam was having some beers with his thesis advisor, Professor Fluke, at the Orbital pub near campus. The Orbital was famous for its old British-style shepherd's pie, kidney pie and blood pudding, and also for its selection of 357 microbrewed beers on tap.

Adding to The Orbital's appeal was its policy of giving a free hotel room down the road at the Motel 11 to anyone who drank to the point of passing out. At first, this had been a problem for The Orbital, as graduate students from Rural Tech routinely faked passing out to get the free night at the hotel. The Orbital put a stop to this by instituting higher standards for the free rooms: the individual must not only have passed out, but also fulfilled one of the following criteria: vomit, a body temperature under 96 degrees or no discernible pulse.

Fluke enjoyed the Orbital, and Adam accompanied him there regularly to listen to him reminisce about the good old days, way back at the turn of the century when he was just starting out. Truth be told, Fluke had never really had any good old days – at least not since he'd gotten his tenured position. He'd never married, for one, and was a very lonely man who lived for the lab. He'd let himself completely fall apart physically: thin, with a large pot belly which was always displayed quite prominently, pressing tight against his worn dress shirts and hanging over the waistband of his ratty corduroys. He was balding, but never seemed to cut what hair he had left on his head. His beard was a similarly wild, woolly graying mess that seemed ever attempting to hide his small mouth.

As for the lab work to which he'd devoted his life, his research had never lived up even to his quite modest expectations and he was, as a result, a middling scientist at a middling college somewhere in the middle of the country. He inevitably got middling scores on his grant applications as well, ensuring that most of his time was spent teaching undergraduate science classes and dull graduate seminars.

"It was different in the old days," Fluke was saying in a slurred voice, slumped over his half-eaten artichoke-pesto personal pizza. "People had ideas back then. They had passion!"

Fluke took another gulp of his stout. It was only his fourth pint – Adam had been counting, as usual – but Fluke never did have much of a tolerance for alcohol. He slammed his glass down, then fell face-first into his pizza.

Adam checked his watch. "An hour and a half," he said to himself. "Not bad. Now I can go home and catch Babylon Nine."

He stood up and woke Fluke enough to get him to stand up and lean on his shoulders. They started walking toward the door, Fluke half-conscious, when Adam heard someone call his name. He looked around and spotted his old friend Olaf sitting with two other graduate students. Adam and Olaf had actually been casual friends back in high school, but had lost touch in college. They were both surprised to see each other on Rural Tech's campus one day, and over the following couple of years they'd renewed their friendship.

"Adam," Olaf said. "Come join us."

Adam dragged Fluke over to the table. It was covered with empty pint glasses. They, like him, had drunk at least five pints each. His own total that night was seven. "I'd love to, Olaf," he apologized, "but I've got to get my advisor home. He's passed out, but he still doesn't qualify for the Motel 11 room."

"Why don't you throw him in the back room? That's where we put ours."

"Oh. I didn't know you could do that."

"Sure. Talk to Suzie behind the bar. She'll show you where to put him."

Afterwards, Adam joined Olaf and his friends. They were both guys, too, which was disappointing to Adam, since he hadn't spoken to a woman socially in several weeks. But they seemed nice enough. They spoke about their advisors and all their neuroses at first, but soon the conversation turned to their own research.

"It's just not as fun as I thought it would be," Adam admitted. "When I entered grad school, I thought you got an idea, you did experiments to pursue it. But it's really all just paper pushing. All the work is contracted out. We don't actually do many experiments ourselves."

"We don't either in our field," Fred, one of Olaf’s friends, said. Their field had something to do with physics, as far as Adam understood, but the details of it were completely beyond him. "All the technical expertise is in the corporate world now. We just get to direct it."

"But that's where the excitement is!" Olaf said.

"No, the excitement is in doing it," Fred insisted.

"They're just technicians," Olaf argued, shaking his head. "We're the idea people. We're the intellectual firepower behind these developments. They couldn't do anything without us. Like our time machine, for instance."

"Olaf!" hissed Barney, Olaf’s other friend.

"Oh my gosh, I'm so sorry. I wasn't supposed to talk about it."

"Time machine?" Adam gasped, astonished.

"Yes, yes," Olaf admitted. "We've designed a time machine."

"That's incredible."

"Yes, it is, I guess. I never really thought about it."

"Can I try it?" Adam asked.

"No," Barney insisted. "The Institutional Review Board is still debating what kinds of experiments we're allowed to do."

"Oh, give it a rest," Fred said. "Let's just try it."

"He has a point," Olaf considered. "Who would know?"

"What if he disappeared?" Barney asked.

"Who would miss me?" Adam argued.

"What about Sheila?" Olaf asked.

"She dumped me."

"What about your parents?"

"They're still not talking to me."


"They really wanted me to go to medical school."

"Well, that settles it, then," Fred said. "Let's try it!"

"But what about Fluke?" Adam suddenly asked.

"Don't worry about it," Olaf said. "Suzie will wake them up before closing. We'll just leave her some cab fare."


Adam would think for the rest of his life about all the mistakes in judgment they made that night. Doubtless it was their pure scientific excitement that had blinded them. The prospect of using the machine had so enthralled them that they had been unable to think straight. All the beers they had downed probably didn't help, either.

It was certainly a very impressive machine – a smooth, gun-metal grey cylinder towering over seven feet with no windows or any discernible markings on the outside, except for a small "Intel Inside" sticker. It was perfectly smooth, and they found it felt very satisfying to stroke. Perhaps it was made all the more impressive by the dingy surroundings of the lab, which aside from the time machine standing proud and erect in the center of the room, was really just a bunch of old metal desks strewn with papers, dirty coffee cups and science magazines, illuminated by dim fluorescent lights from the ceiling. There were some wires leading from the base of the machine to a small digital console, but otherwise nothing else in the lab would alert the casual visitor to the fact that they were in one of the most advanced laboratories in the world.

As they stood around the machine, admiring the equipment, gently caressing its surface in their inebriated state, a mouse ran by, making them all scream.

"Oh my god," Fred said once they had recovered their nerves. "Let's send the mouse through to test it."

"That is an excellent idea, Fred," Olaf said, and they chased the mouse under a desk. Barney found a cardboard box, and they were soon able to lock the mouse in the time machine.

"This will work!" Olaf said.

"I hope it'll work," Adam said.

"No, don't you see?" Olaf answered. "We know it works, since we already found this mouse scurrying around on the floor. Let's set this for five minutes earlier, so we know it works."

"Great idea!" Fred said.

Thus, they put the mouse in the machine, set the program running, and listened as the machine hummed and then abruptly stopped with a crack. They pushed the door and, when it popped open, found that the mouse had, indeed, disappeared.

"All right!" Fred shouted. "It works!"

This was their first mistake, as Adam would later realize. For that mouse couldn't have been the same mouse they'd sent back in time. They hadn't actually found it in the time machine; it had been scurrying across the floor. How could the mouse have gotten out of the machine by itself? But in their excitement, none of them considered this.

"Let's do it, Adam," Olaf said. "Are you ready?"

Adam took at deep breath. "I'm game," he said, feeling a bit nervous even through the alcohol buzz.

"All right!" Olaf beamed. "See you five minutes ago."

"Wait a minute," Barney said. "He didn't show up five minutes ago."

"That's because we haven't done it yet," Olaf reminded him.

Barney normally went to bed very early, and the late hour combined with all the delicious golden lager he had downed conspired to make Olaf's explanation sound perfectly reasonable to him at the time. This, the careful reader may have already deduced, was their second mistake. Since Adam had not appeared five minutes ago, they should have known that the experiment hadn't worked as planned.

But Adam said good-bye and stepped into the machine. They set the program, as with the mouse, to send him five minutes into the past. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

There was a big flash so bright he could see it through his closed eyelids, and a deafening crack. Other than that, Adam didn't feel a thing. For a moment, he thought nothing had happened, but when he opened his eyes, he found himself in an empty, newly minted biology lab with glass flasks and pipettes. There on the floor a few feet away, looking at him with bemused pity, was the mouse they had put in the machine earlier.

"Oh my god!"

Panicking, Adam ran to a lab bench and looked in a notebook that lay on it. The date on the entry: September 22, 1956.

The third mistake, you may note, was the lack of contingency plan to rescue Adam if something went wrong. And while we're listing them, the fourth, and related, mistake was not even working out a way for Adam to contact them if things went wrong. But it must be said that their really big mistake was that they had sent Adam seventy years into the past rather than just five minutes.

Frantically, Adam wrote notes to all of them and stuck them in the bottom drawers of all the desks at the end of the lab benches. Nothing happened. Apparently, somewhere in the interim, the desks had been cleared out. That was unusual in a laboratory, Adam considered, but certainly possible in a seventy year time period.

Adam sighed and tried to calm himself down. Well, he considered, there really were so many possibilities when you thought about it. It might not be so bad to live knowing future events before they happened. He could invest in Microsoft. He could invent the spreadsheet He could warn UPN about Star Trek: Voyager, or even talk to George Lucas about Jar Jar. He could see it now, an anonymous letter: "Jar Jar bad. No try. Alienate fans."

But no, what Adam decided he really wanted to do was help shape the direction of scientific research. At first, he thought he would take all the glory for himself, but then he considered the pain of going through graduate school again to get a degree. Instead, he decided to become a technician, working behind the scenes to nurture young grad students and postdocs.

The image of Fluke blubbering over his pints came to Adam's mind, and he resolved to seek him out early to help his career along – when he was old enough, that is. That would be Adam's first priority. Fluke, who'd been so generous to him, wouldn't be passed out drunk in the back of some back-road pub at the height of his career if Adam could help it: he’d be winning the Nobel Prize.

But he needed a new name, an alias. Who was a great mentor? He thought for some time until Yoda came to mind. Nobody knew who Yoda was yet – those movies wouldn't be out for 25 years or so. But once they did come out, the name wouldn't be very dignified.

What about Yoda in reverse? Adoy! It sounded almost like Adam. He would be Adoy, he resolved.

He took a deep breath and determined to do what he'd always wanted to do: make a difference in the world.