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From the LabLit short story series

João Ramalho-Santos 1 June 2010

Using Wikipedia it might be possible to track their science trees all the way back to Aristotle, at the very least Galileo

The Table of Contents for the forthcoming special issue came out online today. Chad didn’t read it, just printed it out, carefully folded and slid it in a back pocket, as if casting a useless ballot. He would need to be angry at some point before the jeans went in the wash, and turned his by-then forgotten rage to mulch – might as well keep it close.

Throughout the morning it was the only thing Chad could keep close, all planned experiments wasted or put on hold, all lab conversations sleepwalked through. At the catered lunch seminar he just went into opportunist pilfering mode, picking up his allotted slices of pizza and a soda, immediately heading for the inner courtyard, forsaking new knowledge and, more importantly for untenured faculty, wasting one more chance of impressing would-be permanent bosses with well placed and uber-pertinent questions. But the fog had lifted, sun was shinning through spring, the crowded anonymity of the yard trumped any talk. Even considering it was Heritage Awareness Wednesday and loud music from somewhere in the world (India? Nepal? Indonesia? Myanmar?) blared through the speakers. Still better than the familiarity of his lab, nagging at every soft equipment hum.

Chad ate his pizza deliberately, slowing to a crawl as soon as he realized he had forgotten to take napkins. The final crust held up until Patricia came out of the seminar room (good thing: the talk must have been completely uninteresting) and handed him her unused ones. They sat in silence, as much as could be had under the weird hypnotic rhythms, wherever they were from, until Chad took out the Table of Contents and handed it over.

Patricia knew what it was, of course. What it meant. She had read Chad’s Manuscript in its many incarnations, actually suggested that bit of hyperbole he had included against his better instincts. Not that it was important anymore: only the Table of Contents was. It told the real story, hidden in plain sight. The story of Chad’s absence.

Patricia went down the list. A paper by Hodge; he had made the original discovery – whether he had understood it at the time was up to debate, but beside the point. The next by Yuang, Hodges’ former student now starting a career in Harvard, another by Stensen, Hodges’ main competitor in Oxbridge. Then the Chinese group who had done all the screens one could possibly think of. They were led by Li Mei, and who had she done her training with? Stensen first, Hodge later, covering all the bases. Hodge who had trained with Someone who had studied with Watson, Stensen who had trained with Someone Else, who had worked under Crick.

Using Wikipedia it might be possible to track their science trees all the way back to Aristotle, at the very least Galileo.

Then there was ageless wonder Brandt, and he did everything more or less competently at MIT with his little army of robot researchers following any possible new trend.

Brandt probably linked to Aristotle directly.

All of them reported novel findings in mammals. Meaning mice. Stupid critters weren’t even a good model for rodents, let alone humans, but why fight a lost battle. Then there were papers describing the same thing in flies, nematodes, frogs, fish, even plants. Not one to bother with invertebrates and lesser vertebrates, Patricia couldn’t recognize the authors, but the hallowed places spoke for themselves, maybe one odd exception or another just to affirm the rule. Finally the human angle, how this stuff was supposed to explain something, or cure something else. Patricia snickered: even she, a total non-expert, knew the links to human disorders were iffy, at best; what was known right now might certainly help cure and understand mice and flies, nothing else. But that wouldn’t stop people from speculating anyway – you ask the questions you can, not necessarily the ones you want. Unfortunately only those with clout were allowed to spew such platitudes, so the last papers on the Table again featured Hodge and Stensen et al., with a few clinical researchers or evolutionists added in for good measure. No room for dilettantes. And that, in their minds, meant Chad. No room, no room. The three rejection emails he had received from the Journal (the last one stopping short of labeling him a science stalker) were proof of that.

He should have taken up Brandt’s’ offer to collaborate when he’d had the chance. But no. He had felt, nay known, that his work was more advanced, that Brandt was fishing, positioning himself to siphon all credit away from Chad and into his own ever-greedy hands. Chad had thought he could maverick his way to the top.

Patricia didn’t mention any of this, of course – why beat a dead horse? Actually (and following what had been a trend throughout the ordeal) she had been the one to suggest that Chad could survive without Brandt’s poisoned offer, something she hoped his ego had forgotten by now. Patricia merely re-folded the Table of Contents, handed it back. Never one for metaphor outside of her scientific writings, she delivered simple truths with the gusto of acid on an etching plate. It was why Chad hated her; it was why he had picked her for career mentoring. As an established (tenured) presence on campus Patricia could afford as much.

It didn’t matter how long he had worked at this, she whispered as if to soften the blow. That Chad had presented a poster at a meeting before Brandt was even involved in the field was of no consequence (except as a lesson to those who fancy themselves un-scoopable). Or that his two previous papers were actually more complete than most of Stensen’s stuff. Growing interest had brought in the big guns, drowned him out. When confronted with a limit in accepting manuscripts or citing previous literature, editors and would-be authors knew who they had to green light and reference, and Chad was not it.

He had one of two options. Cram his new work in a drawer somewhere and move on. Or publish in some other, respectable, journal, although it would be read as what it was, in the end: a “me too” paper. Like the guy who arrives late at the club and tries to impress departing crowds with frenetic dance moves, making up for lost time. It doesn’t matter whether this poor desperate slob actually created them months ago, in front of his bedroom mirror. The patrons just leave, bored; they’ve seen similar moves all night long.

True, the Journal had made a general call for papers for the Special Issue. But that was really code: it didn’t mean submissions from just anyone, only from those the editors had probably contacted beforehand. Those who talked to editors on a first-name basis. The ones with the perceived landmark papers in store and secret-handshake knowledge.

In fact, those with so much of such knowledge they probably believed it didn’t exist. Or that, if it did, they were entitled to its benefits from birth.

To publish your Manuscript here you needed it to be better than theirs, not just as good, Patricia wrapped up, tired of stating the obvious. You forgot one thing, buddy. The lineage. You have no lineage. Pedigree. Can’t find those in a Sigma catalogue. You might have shared a bathroom break with Watson, perhaps after one of his famously outrageous talks, maybe you fetched Crick some tea once. What else? Who are you, really? Where did you come from? Who did you train under, who do you call mentors? Can you use Wikipedia to trace them back to Aristotle?

Good luck with the rest of your career.

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© 2010 João Ramalho-Santos

With a tip of the hat to George Perry

Other articles by João Ramalho-Santos