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Fiction

Experiment, Part II

From the LabLit fiction series

João Ramalho-Santos 20 April 2008

www.lablit.com/article/373

Never fall in love with your hypothesis: that was one of the best things he had learned in graduate school

Editor’s note: We are pleased to present the final episode of a two-part story about one scientist's significant sabbatical.

It was one of the many old sayings that floated around labs in his heyday as a graduate student: avoid, at all costs, running into the lab’s Golden Boy. Unless, of course, you happened to be him. The idea was that the biggest and brightest Big Bosses, knowing full well that they could not equally promote the careers of all their junior protégés, ended up selecting one of them at a time. By talent, personal affinity, it didn’t matter. But that person would be the one they would really try to help publish better, the one they would recommend for top jobs. They also would be better off staying well away from Golden Boy’s projects, lest they end up doing a lot of the work, just to see him take virtually all the credit. He never really believed it. Favorites? Sure, you can find them in all cultures and walks of life. Everywhere there is power, a hierarchy. But he never once entertained the notion of a Golden Boy in Boss’s lab. Much later, sick of hearing the same moan once again, his wife would tell him his terrible upbringing had let him down.

Golden was a she.

A final-year graduate student, tall, short mousy hair, a double helix tattooed on her left shoulder, the typical scientist-casual style. She was smart, outspoken, hard working, seemed to manage a life and other interests outside the lab. What was there not to like? Although much younger, it was clear Golden could hold the Boss’s attention better than any of his senior collaborators. And she was the only one that important Big Shots who came to visit knew by name. She was Golden all right, textbook case; and later he would chastise himself for not having figured it out. For him, it was just another side project, one that started almost exactly like the first one.

Except Golden’s work-in-progress seminar wasn’t greeted with the usual slew of questions or remarks. Boss stepped in right away, praising it as the most significant piece of work to come out of the lab in recent months, and nobody was about to argue. Boss might only have been vaguely aware of what most of his people were doing, but he was always up to date on Golden’s progress. And he immediately pointed out the exact inadequacy. She had indirect evidence there was a switch responsible for an important change in the cells she was working with. A change that, if not held in check, could lead to the development of some types of cancer. But there was no hard proof. What was needed was an experiment that directly measured that switch. It had to come on right before the change and, if you removed the switch, the change would never happen. That, said Boss, was the ultimate experiment. The one that would put the paper in Cell, Nature or Science. All that was needed was someone to run it. Couldn’t be Golden though, there was a lot else she had to do before graduating. Plus, Boss knew full well that there was someone in the lab who excelled in the technique needed for this particular experiment.

A year later he didn’t remember if he had even been asked to do it. But, then again, he would have agreed on the spot. It may not have been the discovery that cured cancer, but the Boss made it sound as if it could come in a close second. And he would have a piece of it. Just one piece but, he quickly realized, an important piece. Which would be recognized as such by other smart people, who would have wished they had done it themselves.

Naturally, all this came with a price. First he needed to collect a lot of material, and on many of the following weeks he cursed the fact that in a few years some new method would inevitably come around that would either use a fraction of what he needed, or find an easier solution to collect tons of it. Either way, his efforts would then seem meaningless. Again, he told himself over and over, such was Science. What probably was not very scientific was that, not only Golden, but the Boss himself, would come by every single day to check on his progress. His standard answer, that if it were easy it would have been done already, seemed to carry little weight, and elicited no laughs at all after the first week had gone by. It became worse when he turned in his first results. Although promising, they were not conclusive. To be quite honest they showed that Golden could be wrong about her switch. No, the Boss said, the experiment would have to be repeated, with more material. Golden was right, his job was to prove it. OK, so those weren’t the exact words. But that was what he had meant. No pressure, said the Boss, walking away. And that is when he knew he was in trouble.

It is one thing to admire the beauty and simplicity of your hypothesis. But you have to always be willing to let it go if the data don’t support it. Never fall in love with your hypothesis: that was one of the best things he had learned in graduate school. Golden and the Boss might have slept through that particular class, but he knew that was unfair. They were just excited about the project. Such is also Science. And his job was to do his best to prove them right or wrong. And hope they did not blame the messenger if they didn’t like his answer.

In reviewing his lab notebook he conceded the experiment had not been done properly, could be tighter. So he dropped everything, read up on the subject, found other ways to try to interfere with Golden’s switch, collected more material, changed things around, repeated, and repeated. And lied his head off. Determined to not show any results until he was absolutely sure they were legitimate, he brushed off all inquiries into his progress, until Golden and the Boss thought he was either suffering from premature Alzheimer's or an incompetent buffoon. He would never know it, but they actually discussed having someone else take over, just couldn’t quite agree on how to handle it. Golden even tried to sneak a look at his lab notes, only to find that they were in some foreign tongue. If only they had known.

Two weeks earlier he had run the modified version of the experiment. And it had worked. The switch came up when it was supposed to, and if you messed with it, the result was exactly what the theory predicted. He had done dozens of variations, and all had turned out according to the predictions. It was simple, exact, beautiful. It was all that he thought lab science could be. A simple answer for an elegant experiment on a complex problem. For the first time in many years he was ecstatic. So it was Golden’s hypothesis, but this was his experiment. Quoting the Boss, it was the ultimate experiment. And he couldn’t tell a soul. Because he didn’t know if it was repeatable. Science is, most definitely, repeatable. So for almost a month he brushed off all inquiries with the same stern look on his face. “No results yet, come back later”. At the same time wanting to scream out his glorious triumph. He was even more nervous when he ran the repetitions, but that was the beauty of the thing, When you’re right, you can’t be wrong. And all four repeats said the same thing.

The final meeting was nothing short of a religious experience. Boss had actually sighed with pleasure while purring over the results. He cuddled them, looked around the room with starry eyes. And declared the work finished. Golden was off to write the paper, all others should return to their duties.

Well, he did try. But the high had been just too high. He felt no desire to do yet more work on other people’s projects, and it was too late to find his own. At any rate, how could it top the excitement of the ultimate experiment? So he bought presents, packed his bags, was given a farewell party, went home. Reformed his routines. A few days after he left the paper went out, his name a proud second on the honor list. And it was over.

Except it wasn’t. It seemed the ultimate experiment hadn’t been quite ultimate enough. Anonymous readers of all the really important journals shredded the first draft, pointing out its exaggerations and glaring inconsistencies. Things those too close to the work hadn’t been able to spot. Or had talked themselves into believing were irrelevant. There were other ways to address the problem, other techniques that had to be used to prove that the Golden’s switch was actually important. So more experiments had to be done. Such is Science.

And he was far away. So some new person would have to do them. Actually, two. When the second version of the paper was written he was fourth on the list, behind Golden and new people numbers two and three. When that also didn’t fly Boss realized Golden was better off publishing the data in a credible, if unspectacular, journal. Except those can be just as stingy. And demand even more extra work. Once, while checking the latest online version of the submission, he found his name misspelled among a cohort of countless other authors he didn’t even recognize. He wasn’t even sure he knew the story anymore; too many hands had dealt with re-writes, trying to solve too many contradictions. He wondered where his wonderful ultimate experiment had gone. The powerful rush, withered. Did it matter? That became the symbolic mantra for every low point in his life from thence onward.

**********

Back home he moved on to other projects, a slightly different field, Boss and Golden retreating gently into the vast blur of unwanted memories. But the erosion ran deep; he often found himself doing online checks of places the work might get published in, if ever it did move into the real world. That’s how he found the meeting in a town he never had thought of visiting. The one featuring a ten-minute presentation by Golden herself, with a title he vaguely recognized, in a conference room pretentiously named the Hall of Mirrors. The second to last talk in Symposium number twenty-two. Without thinking, without using frequent flyer miles, without shopping around for a deal, he was there.

There. Noting that the Hall of Mirrors really had too many of them, making the room seem more crowded than it actually was; hiding any places in which to hide. And causing the illusion of several elegant speakers walking up to the podium simultaneously, until they all fused into one. Golden in a two piece suit, future Full Professor mode. Then the lights dimmed and it was too late to do anything but listen.

Golden did good. Despite the patchwork it had turned into, the project flowed surprisingly well. The story was the same, with a few caveats here and there. No ultimate experiment, a few solid ones. He even recognized many of the slides although, honestly, he really couldn’t be sure if they had been done by him or anyone in the platoon that had followed. His name was pronounced as if spoken under water, but it was spelled right. And, at the very end, Golden mentioned the work as having just been accepted for publication somewhere. He didn’t catch the name of the journal, but he’d find it, eventually. It didn’t really matter. What mattered was that he could finally see the whole thing for what it was. A good project, reasonably well done. Something that hadn’t wasted lives, but merely was a part of them. By choice. Such is Life.

He left the Hall in a brisk walk, not quite running. His name may have floated after him, uttered by some surprised bystander, maybe even Golden herself. It didn’t slow him down. As he wiggled past the Registration Desk the program book made a gloriously perfect arc, landing with a hollow thud in the wastebasket guarded by the stunned Three Elderly Ladies. The look on their faces made him laugh all the way to the airport. Well, it wasn’t just that. But he could now easily pretend it was. It didn’t really matter. Really.

The badge he kept.

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© 2008 João Ramalho-Santos

The author dedicates this story to Ricardo D. Moreno.

Read other stories by the author on LabLit.com:

Limbo

The Reunion

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