Heat, Part II

From the LabLit short story series

João Ramalho-Santos 1 June 2008

After an undistinguished career as a non-thinking technician, she was happy to finally be in charge of something important

Editor’s note: We are pleased to present the second episode of a three-part story about an ex-scientist who stumbles over her past in a very unexpected place.

In essence Blue had been her Masters Thesis. Following the instructions of her morose senior supervisor Isabelle, who was particularly keen on avoiding her underlings, planning months of work in a two-minute meeting, Allison had memorized everything there was to know about Blue’s internal machinations. After an undistinguished career as a non-thinking technician, she was happy to finally be in charge of something important. Blue measured the exchange of heat in chemical reactions, the natural heat that is either released or captured as molecules come together. Natural heat. For other monitoring devices you needed to add something to help measure whatever it was you wanted to measure. At Allison’s previous stop that something had been radioactivity and, despite all safety assurances, she really hadn’t liked the concept. Heat was part of the system, part of the exchanges that made up life, something as natural as the molecules themselves. Endless chains of energy transfer that made things go round, and back. Heat. The prospect of such clean science kept Allison stoked for her three months of reading, note-taking, planning.

When Blue finally arrived, late, Allison learned her first non-scientific lesson as a graduate student. If a mission was crucial enough, supervisors tended to hand it out to several collaborators simultaneously, just in case. So, when Blue came Allison met her true, junior supervisor, Rael. Straight from his Prestigious Old Science University, ready to set the world on fire. Rael who had read the same books, had taken mostly the same notes, knew mostly the same things. And he had been with Isabelle longer. Plus (Allison hated to say this, but there was no way around it) he was a he. Unbalanced, neurotic. But a He. Those days Allison wasn’t even Allison yet. So she let Rael plunge in with (Allison thought) Isabelle’s shameful blessing, and waited in the wings for his impatience to kick in. Then Allison would snuggle against Blue, trying to calm the box down.

Heat was a fickle thing. How did one know the minute energy bursts were coming from the molecules whose interactions were being monitored? Heat could just as easily sneak in or out from a blip in the air conditioner, a warm summer wind slipping through the cracks, a forgotten icebox close by. Blue had to be fully isolated from the outside world, an autistic machine that would only respond to the heat generated or consumed by what was fed into its own buried guts. In a word, they needed to establish reliable baselines. Blue needed absolute stability before any experiment was started. Otherwise the information would be unreliable, useless.

Baselines. How deceptive were they. As she tried to coax Blue, Allison thought of the many ways to make something an unchanging baseline. People in her life had been baselines, but of very different sorts. With some nothing had happened at all, no sparks, no peaks, no valleys. Energy never in, never out, no heat, nothing, a perfect baseline. Others had been vibrant, dramatic, excruciating. Energy drained, heat exploding. The baselines, in essence, artifacts; falsely stable states born of pulling and pushing in opposite directions. With Blue, as with her life, the latter were much more interesting, more pliable to respond to stimuli, to yield valuable information. But keeping a baseline straight in those experiments was a challenge only trumped by the other one.

Simplification. After two months of wasted, unreliable, baselines, Allison realized that the experiments Isabelle had commandeered were impossible to perform, and could only have been suggested by someone who, having bought Blue, did not really know what Blue was about. To monitor anything in the havoc that is life Allison had to isolate one phenomenon, put it in a very simple setting, limited components, few variables. Finally she managed a perfect heat signal from the big blue robot. Her strain was now to remember that the purified myosin chains whose heat exchanges she was monitoring had come from a biopsy. That had come from a muscle. Which was part of a leg, That had worked in an organism. This was her science. Taking apart a system to monitor heat exchanges in one of its components. And then trying to put it all back together again, hoping information from one crucial protein would help inform the behavior of the whole.

Except when Allison finally had it all figured out, always-looming Rael came back from wherever he had been despairing. Rael had priority. Of course. Because his Ph.D. studies trumped her Masters; and because, as Allison already knew, he was Rael. But that would have been tolerable, a reasonable hierarchy. On top of this Allison’s family had prepared her for a legion of mediocre self-important egomaniacs with good pedigrees that thought anything they did, no matter how banal, was crucially important to the Human Race. And watching Rael lustfully caress and coo Blue as he carried out his experiments was reward enough.

The problem, as someone had put it (her existentialist college roommate, channeling Sartre but neglecting to say so), were the Others. All the others. Researchers at the Institute who started swooning in, knocking on Isabelle’s door, begging to use Blue. Enticing her with carrots of easy papers, knowing full well that a novel technical approach can add much-needed veneer to otherwise drab research. A new machine wrapped in cryptic instructions and unstable baselines may not be worth the trouble; but a new machine that has been set up and is ready to deliver results is a totally different animal.

Despite Isabelle’s constant (and slowly precise) spins to a growingly impatient Allison, the wait had honed her skills: the problem was not that everyone asked, but that Isabelle never said no. To anyone. Except her own Masters student. Well, that wasn’t quite true either. It implied that the Masters student actually had a voice to ask. Directly, unflinchingly. She hadn’t. Rael had been Rael, but Allison would only start being Allison in another few years

So Rael did his experiments on Blue, taking up days at a time. Leftovers were occupied by whomever Isabelle had said yes to last. And Allison’s misery rubbed in as every single one of them turned to her when their own crucial experiments didn’t turn out right. Lord knew they weren’t about to bother Rael. For almost a year Allison moaned, her only act of rebellion had been escaping the lab to avoid being asked to fix other people’s messes (and ending up fixing them the next day).

Until an anonymous bar-hopping friend asked the fatal question, deep into a Friday night.

[Continued next week]

Related information

© 2008 João Ramalho-Santos

The author dedicates this story to Cristina Pereira da Silva.

Read other stories by the author on

The Experiment


The Reunion