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A scientific fairy tale

From the LabLit short story series

Albert Pergande 27 June 2010

I can pretend to like him, and if he insists on showing me his slide rule I can dump him

Once upon a time, long, long ago, a Young Man decided to become a scientist and discover all the secrets of the universe. He studied very hard and went to the Big Science University. He did all his homework and all his extra credit work and all his team's lab reports, and even completed his Thesis on time. His Thesis Advisor patted him on the head, gave him a shiny new Science Degree and told him he was now a Young Scientist and he should go forth and Serve Science. So the Young Man took his degree and a kilogram of bread and a liter of water and went forth into the wide, wide world. He wandered from town to village, from conference to symposium, and from university to college.

One day he came upon a Haggard Old Woman proofreading some galley prints alongside the road. "Oh, sir," she said to him, "I haven’t had any food or drink in a week. Could you spare an old woman a morsel of bread?" The Young Scientist took pity on her and gave her his bread and water. The old woman eagerly ate and drank, and when the bread and water was consumed she said, "I am but a poor old woman and I have nothing to pay you with but this magic rock. It's hard and flinty and I don’t know what it's good for, but I got it from an ancient wizard many, many years ago." And she gave him the rock, which resembled a small, dark, nondescript piece of igneous basalt from the Late Permian period.

The Young Scientist took the rock and said, "Thank you, Haggard Old Woman. You wouldn’t know where there might be a university or research center looking for a Bright Young Scientist?" She thought for a moment and said, "There's an obscure old laboratory on a hill down that thorn-infested path. I don’t know if they are accepting applicants, but it can’t hurt to ask." She then disappeared in puff of acrid smoke, leaving the Young Scientist standing there with a small rock in his hand. He put the rock in his pocket and headed down the path.

After walking for hours though brambles and thorns and climbing up rocks and down through small wetlands, he came to a rambling old stone castle with a sign that said "Big Science Laboratory." A small button said, "Push me," so he did, and in the distance he heard a long, low bell chime. After a while, when he thought there was no one home, the door creaked open and a balding man in a rumpled white coat appeared. "I am a Big Scientist. May I help you?"

"Oh, Dr. Big Scientist," the young man began, "I have graduated from the Big Science University and have a 3.8 GPA and 4 letters of recommendation and a Curriculum Vitae and a shiny new Science Degree and I'm looking for a Major Laboratory where I can apprentice."

"Well, well, let's see what we have here," said the Big Scientist. He read the Letters of Recommendation and the transcript and noticed that the Young Man had 15 refereed papers from journals that were all in the Big Scientist's field. The Big Scientist accepted him on the spot. "I can't pay you anything and you'll have to sleep under a bench and wash test tubes and write my papers, but this is a great opportunity for a Young Scientist like yourself." They shook hands and the Young Scientist was very excited.

In the laboratory the Young Scientist found an Old Assistant who came from a Community College and didn’t have any refereed papers and insisted on being paid cash every week. The Old Assistant worked hard and built apparatus and fixed the roof and dealt with the tradesmen and he told the Young Scientist that the Big Scientist was working on a Major Breakthrough and might even win the Nobel Prize. The Big Scientist had already won several Prestigious Awards and the last time that happened, he shared the stipend with everyone in the lab. The Young Scientist was even more excited and worked as hard as he could, staying up all night washing test tubes and writing papers and doing other Important Science Stuff.

Now The Old Assistant had a beautiful young Daughter. She was headstrong but he loved her dearly as she was all he had in the world. The Old Assistant and his wife had been separated in the Horrible War, and he didn't know where she was or if she was even alive. He wanted the Daughter to marry well and get a famous husband so he wouldn’t feel like an outcast in the Land of Science, and he thought the Young Scientist was Going Places and would be a good match. So the Old Assistant invited the Young Scientist over for dinner, and when he got home he told the Daughter to prepare a fine meal for the Young Scientist, and put on her special dress, and not to blow it like last time.

By now the Young Scientist was doing Real Work for the Big Scientist and soon he began to understand what the Big Scientist appeared to have discovered. But one thing bothered him: whenever the Big Scientist or the Old Assistant did experiments they got Positive Data, but whenever the Young Scientist did the experiment, he only saw Random Numbers. Ashamed to admit this to someone as important as the Big Scientist, the Young Scientist wrote a letter to his Thesis Advisor asking for advice. It was one of those long, complicated letters that you have to re-read several times to make sure it’s correct, and the Young Scientist had a dinner invitation so he stuck the letter in his pocket and went to dinner at the Old Assistant's home.

At dinner, he met the Daughter and fell in love with her immediately. The Daughter was indifferent; she had met many of these Bright Young Scientists that her father had dragged home, and found them all distracted and overly analytical and not really What She Had In Mind. Still, this once seemed nice enough and she thought, "Well, I can pretend to like him, and if he insists on showing me his slide rule I can dump him." So they had a nice conversation and he politely made a pass at her and she politely turned him down and they agreed to meet again at some indefinite time in the future. While they were talking, she mentioned that her father had helped the Big Scientist in ways he didn't know, and was very proud that his work made the Major Breakthrough possible. The Young Scientist thought this was odd since the data looked awful and the Old Assistant lacked the math to understand the Major Breakthrough.

By now, word of the Big Scientist's discovery had leaked out and the Thesis Advisor decided to visit the Big Scientist and see his wondrous experiment. He was wandering the countryside looking for the Big Scientist's Laboratory, when he happened to meet a Haggard Old Woman. "Oh, sir," she said, "I haven’t eaten or drunk anything in a week. Could you spare an old woman a morsel of bread?" The Thesis Advisor had lost his grant and had no food or water, and was unable to help her. She was philosophical and said. "It's just as well; I gave my last chunk of late Permian magic basalt to a Young Scientist a fortnight ago and sent him down that thorny path over there." The Thesis Advisor decided he would follow that path as well, and see where fate took him.

On the path the Thesis Advisor was surprised to meet the Young Scientist as he returned from his dinner at the Old Assistant's house. They found a Cozy Bar to discuss Science, the Major Breakthrough, and the Meaning of Life. The Young Scientist showed the Thesis Advisor his letter, and the Thesis Advisor corrected some spelling errors, noted a missed step in a derivation, and chided the Young Scientist for not referencing one of his own papers. As they parted, the Thesis Advisor gave the Young Scientist a piece of advice that involved a quacking duck. Walking down the thorny path, the Young Scientist though about quacking ducks but then he met the Daughter and she seemed more interesting. He asked her what she was doing out so late, and she asked him the same thing so it turned into a long, long night.

The next day the Young Scientist was late to work, and the Big Scientist was very angry with him. But before the Big Scientist could think of a suitable punishment, the Thesis Advisor appeared and introduced himself. He had heard marvelous things about the Major Breakthrough, and wanted to see for himself. The Big Scientist was flattered that someone as important as the Thesis Advisor would come so far, and gladly offered to show him the Major Breakthrough. As the Big Scientist and the Old Assistant and the Young Scientist worked to set up the experiment, the Young Scientist did something he never thought he could do: he slipped the Most Important Part of the Experiment into his pocket, and replaced it with the magic rock. No one saw him. The experiment began, and everything was going along fine. The Old Assistant and the Big Scientist were busy showing the Major Breakthrough, and the Young Scientist was sent to get coffee and donuts. As he left, he slipped the Important Part into the hand of the Thesis Advisor.

When the Young Scientist returned with the coffee and 12 assorted, the experiment was nearly over. All the data was just as a Major Breakthrough would predict to a 95% confidence interval and the Big Scientist was beaming and the Old Assistant was as happy as could be and all was right with the world. Then the Thesis Advisor looked at the Young Scientist significantly, and produced the Most Important Part of the Experiment. "Is this Important?" he asked innocently.

A deadly silence filled the laboratory, and there was as sinking feeling in the pit of the Big Scientist's stomach. "Where did you get that?" he inquired cautiously, but it was too late. The Big Scientist realized that the Old Assistant had fooled him or the Young Scientist had fooled him, or most likely he had fooled himself, but no matter what, he was screwed and nothing he could do would save his career, not even a Mea Culpa on A dark cloud passed over the sun, and in the gloom, he saw his star crash and burn.

The Young Scientist felt just as bad and slunk away, ashamed that he had destroyed his employer, but somehow reassured in a bitter way that he had Done The Right Thing For Science, and the pay wasn't all that much anyway. He retired to the Cozy Bar to drown his sorrows, and soon the Thesis Advisor arrived. "That was a brilliant piece of Science you did," the Thesis Advisor declared. "I think I'll write it up when I get home." The Young Scientist thought for a moment and said, "But I did all the work. Why shouldn’t I publish?" The Thesis Advisor replied "You've destroyed a famous man's career, so no one will publish you now. But because you’re my friend I'll cite you as a reference. By the way, can you pick up the bar tab? I left my wallet at the Big Science University, and I have a coach to catch."

The Young Scientist had lost his wallet as well, so the bouncer beat him up a little, just to remind him not to be so forgetful, and threw him into the thorns. As he staggered though the woods, he saw the Daughter and asked if she would marry him, but she said her father forbade it. "You are tainted and have no more career in Big Science and I'll bet you end up as some lowly engineer in that awful gasworks in town. Besides, you kiss like a cold fish and smell of ketones and polycyclic aldehyde groups."

The Young Scientist was heartbroken, and eventually ended up at the Gasworks doing monthly reports in a windowless cubicle. He worked so hard that he never read the Thesis Adviser's landmark paper in a Prestigious Journal discrediting the Major Breakthrough. A few years later the Thesis Advisor went on to write the Standard Text on some Significant Topic or another, and by then The Big Scientist had retired to his study to build matchstick replicas of the great cathedrals of Europe. The Daughter, who had always possessed a piece of Late Permian Basalt, recognized the stone and found the Haggard Old Woman was her mother. Unfortunately, they both had attachment issues and never reconciled.

And no one lived happily ever after.

The End.