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From the LabLit short story series

David L. Clements 14 May 2011

We were in permanent lockdown, forbidden from talking to colleagues, press, students, family, or, if taken literally, pets, about anything connected with the Experiment

A piece of paper was lying on my keyboard when I got back from lunch. Curious, I unfolded it and found the dreaded words “Report immediately to the Experiment’s Management Board.” My pulse raced. The paper quivered in my trembling hand. The Inquisition had come for me. But why?

My views about the Experiment’s communication – or lack of communication – rules were well known. We were in permanent lockdown, forbidden from talking to colleagues, press, students, family, or, if taken literally, pets, about anything connected with the Experiment. I didn’t think it was a good way of doing science – an outside view is always useful – and had fought against it. But the Management were adamant. We would only announce final results, so that preliminary releases couldn’t damage our reputation or allow competitors to take half processed data and scoop us. They had some points, but the measures we were required to take were extreme. In trying to change things I’d caused a fuss and been demoted. Maybe this was their final revenge.

I left my office, dodging past my bicycle, its sad, flat tyres pleading for re-inflation. I really needed that new pump. I walked down the corridor to the room allocated to Experiment staff. I unlocked it and typed in my personal access code. Only those working on the Experiment were allowed in. Not even the cleaners could enter for fear they might have received backhanders for inside information. The place was always a mess – whoever heard of postdocs clearing up after themselves.

I nodded to two of them and picked my way between piles of papers and discarded pizza boxes, wondering if one of them had reported me. I might have tenure, but if I were thrown off the Experiment my grant would be handed to someone else. Maybe someone in this room. They’d get to run the group and I’d be relegated to service teaching in another department.

It had already happened elsewhere on the Experiment, and there were rumours that ambitious postdocs were gathering dirt on their bosses to boost their careers. Some of my colleagues had seriously suggested gathering blackmail material on their postdocs by way of protection.

That wasn’t my way. I got into this business to do science, not to play political or espionage games. But, as entered the videoconference room and sealed myself behind the soundproof, lightproof door, I briefly pondered which of my postdocs might be out to get me.

The Experiment might be far from ideal, but, for my research, it was the only game in town. After my attempt to change things failed, I signed the agreement, swore I would abide by the communication rules, and registered my DNA and thumbprint. And I had abided by the agreement, following all their paranoid rules.

But the Management Board had long memories. Maybe now they were ready to ditch me. As my hands tingled with the adrenalin rush, I keyed the number and called them.

The Inquisition appeared before me on the screen. Eight old, grey men, each in a separate window. They’d been waiting for me – not a good sign.

“Good afternoon, Anna,” said the board’s Chair. “Thank you for responding so quickly. We have a serious matter to discuss.”

“What...” My voice faltered. I coughed and started again. “What seems to be the problem?”

“We believe you’ve been talking to someone from the theory group.”

I stared for a moment in surprise. Theorists were part of the Experiment, but were prevented from accessing the data to ensure they produced predictions unaware of the actual results. This was because the Experiment would make nearly all the observations that would ever be possible in the field. A theorist with access to the real data could produce a perfectly fitting model just by adding needless epicycles to a pre-existing theory. By keeping it from them, their models would be motivated by underlying science and not by the results. This would ensure a cleaner test once the data were fully analysed and compared to a final set of independent models. It was part of the methodology I actually agreed with.

“I’ve not done that. There isn’t even anybody working on theory here!”

“We have pictures,” croaked another member of the board, an elderly scientist who always enjoyed making life hard for his juniors.

One of the screens showed me a mobile phone photograph. It must have been taken by an ambitious postdoc. I remembered the incident some days earlier on my cycle commute to work.

“The picture shows you giving something to this woman, someone you should know is on the theory team,” he continued.

She had been familiar, but I hadn’t suspected she might be working on the Experiment.

“We can’t see what it is but it’s either a data stick or a set of notes.” His voice was getting louder, more strident with each word, his waving hand punctuating the sentence. “Or perhaps a hard drive full of our most valuable data!”

I looked at the men on the screen, their eyes hard, faces rigid with anger, with a determination that old scores would be settled. No matter what I said, the decision had already been made.

“What did you give her?” the old man demanded.

I knew the prosaic truth couldn’t save me, but I told them anyway.

“A bicycle pump – she had a puncture!”

Other articles by David L. Clements