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Big Bang

From the LabLit short story series

Nik Papageorgiou 22 January 2011

Laughs, snickers, nudges and grins erupt across the audience, and my presentation – nay, my dignity – is in tatters

Scientists are busy people. It’s a law of nature, an axiom worthy of Newtonian significance. But notice the two monikers here: Busy – yes. And people – yes, again. Where the two collide in cute hadronic interplay, the outcome is a black hole. Subatomic boom-boom. Event horizon.

Allow me to demonstrate. Those were my last words before the Big Bang. Two hours ago, I was about to give the interview of my career. Two hours ago, I had my dream job in sight, locked on and going for the kill. Epic win. Two hours ago, I was still on a parallel universe where I was a respectable scientist with a respectable presentation with respectable data at a respectable institute.

It’s 4 pm, in a European capital. It’s hot, stuffy, an unprecedented heat wave that has suddenly come to cuddle normally icy lands. The time, the temperature, the generous yet obligatory put-it-on-the-institute’s-tab three-course lunch that no amount of caffeine-related adenosine receptor inhibition will lighten, the summery period of holidays real and imagined – all these are factors that will contribute to the Big Bang, and all because, well, scientists are busy and scientists are people.

I’ve been waiting my turn, patiently. The lounge is air-conditioned and the 16 oz white wine-dressed steak with mushrooms, peas and chips that I idiotically wolfed down as my sacrifice on the altar of professional politeness hasn’t had a chance yet to anchor me down with nuclear calorific meltdown. Instead, I sit on the sofa, gazing at the wonderful view outside and going through my slides in my head.

But here’s the key: I’m a shoe-in. Sure, I’m one of six shortlists. Sure, they’re all great researchers – one’s even beaten us all to the mythical Nature paper, which he matter-of-factly namedropped during lunch. Yeah, okay. We get it. But there’s more than impact factors to getting a research job.

There’s also being qualified. There’s also having the right lab and people skills.

There’s also being told that “you’re our ideal candidate” by one of the interviewers who’s had a little too much Gewürztraminer with his half-roast garlic chicken and bumps into you in the restaurant’s bathroom.

There’s that too.

It’s the same interviewer that sits at the front row, straight across me when I go in for my presentation. With a little basic research I’ve found out that the institute favours Macs instead of Windows and my Keynote slides draw some appreciative aaah’s from the audience. I just smile and shrug to the row of interviewers – PowerPoint? What’s that? – though I’m surprised to be given a heavy long bamboo cane instead of a laser pointer.

Slides 1-6 go down like the strawberry cheesecake we had for dessert – smooth and sweet. I’m in the middle of slide 6, talking about a crucial part of my methodology – in aggregating the peptide, we found that increases in the buffer pH were proportional to the actual size of the aggregate. Allow me to demonstrate – and then comes the noise, straight across me, from the front row.

Heat wave. Gewürztraminer. Three-course meal and, lest we forget, scientists are busy people. Busy people who get tired, hot and tipsy. Busy people who might have stayed up the night before reviewing grant applications. Busy people who, caught in the torrent of the hadronic interplay of such cosmogenic forces, can only fall back to their most natural instincts and do nothing but…


Let me qualify that. Snoring is often allegorised by reference to the humble motor boat. So, imagine a motor boat. Now imagine that motor boat going off inside a huge, metal, hollow tank. Now imagine that in the tank is a meat grinder set to BEEF GENOCIDE. Now imagine that in the meat grinder is a live squealing cow whose dying wish is to go out playing Guitar Hero: Metal Edition. And finally, imagine that you’re sitting right next to all this and, naturally, you pull out a chainsaw and begin to hack the whole hellhole into shreds.

It shakes the place. That bad. And I think we’d all be courteous enough to ignore it, except that he’s going at it on a loop. Laughs, snickers, nudges and grins erupt across the audience, and my presentation – nay, my dignity – is in tatters. From “ideal candidate” I am demoted to “snooze-inducer”. From shoe-in, I’ve fallen from grace to shut-eye.

I have to act fast now – can’t let this embarrassment drag on. With hardly a second thought, almost a reflex, more anger than professional politeness, I bring down the bamboo cane and I “accidentally” let it drop vertically through my hand and bang loudly on the wooden floor.

I only meant to startle him. To wake him up. Everyone could see it.

In retrospect, I should’ve done some more basic research.

Sure, he woke up – woke up so hard actually that he fell back on his chair, lost his balance and collapsed on the floor, taking the head of the department down with him.

You’d think that was the Big Bang. And who’d blame you?

But wait.

So here some chaos, limbs flailing, nearby’s rushing in to the rescue, all dignity and presentation gone, and I’m just standing there staring, the long, heavy bamboo cane in my right hand like a hunter Cro-Magnon awed by the sizable mammoth he’s just put down; like a warlock looking down at the demonic destruction he wrought.

But wait.

Then, silence. As I begin to wonder if I should slowly make my way out, someone says, “Call an ambulance, he’s not breathing.”

I suppose that at a certain age, white wine, heat and being a busy people scientist don’t collide well. Especially if you throw a congenital heart condition and a bamboo cane in the mix.

Two hours later, I’m at the local hospital, a bouquet of flowers where the bamboo cane was two hours before. The flowers are pointing to the floor as the department head shakes his head and tells me something about bypass, hopefully, and early retirement.

I’m thinking about my CV, cover letters, Nature papers, and inducing heart-attack in the hand that feeds you.

As the department head turns to leave, he stops and turns back to me. I know he wants to say something about the interview, about the presentation, about the job, about me. Instead, he thinks for a while and then he says, “You know, we really should get a laser-pointer.”