Thursday, May 21, 2009

A Story, and another plug!

As I am sure you are aware, I also run a website publishing my original fiction, and I know for a fact I entertain at least three people beyond myself. To give myself a little protection, I put the fan fiction (usually GI Joe or Star Trek) out for everyone, and keep the original stuff in a members only section so I can monitor who reads it. This story appears in the Members Only section, but the wonderful woman who provided me with marvelous advice on making the whole thing seem more real asked if she could link to it. Both wanting to please her, and always looking for free publicity, I am posting the story here. If you do enjoy and would like to see more, please go to the website linked above and see how to become a member, or drop a note to Otherwise, please enjoy:

Thinking Cap

by Daniel T. Foster

On Thursday evening, Doctor Randall Goodwin went to visit the home of his friend, Doctor Geoffrey Curtis. Both men lived in Tucson, Arizona. Both men were researchers and teachers at the University of Arizona's physics program. The two men had originally met ten years before when finishing their Ph D. programs at Cambridge. Doctor Goodwin was the type of man who used his knowledge of physics to win bets in bars; a scientist-cowboy who was as comfortable appearing on the Today show to discuss recent developments in string theory and quantum mechanics as he was in front of a classroom or as he was singing karaoke in front of a group of drunken strangers. Doctor Curtis was his opposite. A family man, devoted to his wife, less comfortable in a classroom than a library. His focus was infamous; on occasion while demonstrating an equation on the white board, the math would take him and he would drift away lost in the calculations, finally turning back to the class to find empty chairs. Their friendship was unlikely, but true, and the men often relied on each other, and as a pair of physicists were nearly unequaled.

Together, Goodwin and Curtis authored several papers, and now had names bandied about in the same circles as Hawking, Mermin, or Cohen. Together, Goodwin and Curtis moved to Arizona to work with bright students. Together, Goodwin and Curtis were Nobel Prize winning physicists.

Together, they came to realize all was not well with Geoffrey Curtis's infant son. Adam Curtis barely made a noise before he was a year old. Adam Curtis sat quietly, no gesturing, no words, no “ga” or “goo.” Even when they spoke directly to Adam, it seemed he looked everywhere but at the person addressing him. Both Randall and Geoffrey, and Geoffrey's wife Jean, tried their best but nothing brought Adam out of his shell. Then they noticed his repetitive behavior. The only thing he showed interest in was drawing. At 20 months, he would sit, a single black crayon in hand with a ream of paper, and would put a single dot in the center of each page. Then he would turn the ream over and start again on the blank side. A single dot on each page.

Geoffrey and Jean took Adam to the pediatrician. Though Geoffrey shared the title “doctor” with Theresa Walker, she was the expert in this realm of science. She administered the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers- the MCHAT. Afterwards she explained the test was known to give false negatives, but almost never gave false positives. The positive result they had received was not conclusive but likely. As time went by it became more than likely; Doctor Walker diagnosed Adam with autism.

As Doctor Goodwin locked his Acura and walked to Doctor Curtis's house, he remembered long hours sitting with his friend, discussing the possible reasons Adam had this condition. Geoffrey wondered if his own complex focus problems somehow passed to his son, if he might be responsible. For about a month after Adam turned two (and finally began speaking, albeit only in pairs of words, strung together in simple expressions of want or need) Geoffrey and Randall would sit in their shared office at the U of A, long after student hours. Randall would drink from a bottle of Scotch he kept in his desk, while Geoffrey lamented. It was one of those nights Randall was struck by Scotch influenced inspiration.

“So, autism is about connections, right? The connections in the brain?” he asked. Geoffrey, as always sober, nodded, then shook his head, his mind racing somewhat faster than his gestures and speech.

“Yes, it, well no. And yes. See, parts of the brain don't talk to each other enough, other parts suffer from hyper-connectivity. It's a different type of wiring. Some people don't even consider it a handicap, just a different type of thought.” Randall drained his glass before he continued.

“So think about it- where there should be yes, there's no. Where there should be no, there is yes. Now, think about this- what do we deal with every day? The whole basis of quantum mechanics is states of flux. SchrÅ‘dinger's cat isn't alive or dead, it's both and neither. What if we applied that to Adam's brain? What if we got his synapses to work like that? Wouldn't observer effect dictate his synapses would work the way everyone expected?” Geoffrey was quiet for a moment. Then he walked out, barely remembering to mumble goodnight as he left. Randall was used to that from his friend. Hell, in college he had to remind him to shower.

A month before Adam's third birthday, Geoffrey walked in on Randall, and was smiling. Randall was supposed to be answering questions for a web article, but it was a pretty vapid interview asking questions about causality any decent Star Trek fan could answer, much less someone with a Nobel prize in Physics. Geoffrey never smiled, so Randall was immediately intrigued. Geoffrey sat at his desk, and for a moment looked at the pictures Adam had drawn pinned around his office walls. Some time ago, Adam had abandoned his dot obsession in favor of circles. The dots had gotten progressively larger on the paper, and eventually Adam had stopped filling them in. He drew concentric circles, or just spheres- some where so round they almost looked manufactured. Randall had considered getting Adam a child's compass for his birthday, but decided the boy didn't need one. Finally Geoffrey opened his notebook, and pushed a set of drawings and equations across the table. Randall was confused at first. “What's this?”

“You were right,” Geoffrey responded. Randall still wasn't sure what he was looking through.

“I was right about what?”

“You can apply quantum field theory to the way Adam thinks. We can build it.” More than two years later, Randall still smiled when he thought about Geoffrey's enthusiasm. Ringing the doorbell, he only wished it had all played out with more success.

Jean Curtis opened the door. There was a time, years ago, when Randall had considered the idea of dating Jean, but once he saw her meet Geoffrey he knew it wasn't going to happen. Jean understood Geoffrey in ways no one else would. To this day, she was his interface with the real world. Randall knew she managed the mortgage, the checkbook, Geoffrey's calendar; pretty much anything which involved her husband dealing with responsibilities to society. In the last three years she had become something of a lay expert on autism herself. “Hello Mrs. Curtis! You are looking as lovely and delightful as ever this evening...” She smiled at Randall's trademark flirtation, but unlike most nights did not return it.

“Hey Randall, c'mon in. Can I get you anything? Geoff's in his office.” Jean was the only person he knew, including himself, who called Geoffrey Curtis 'Geoff.' Maybe she was the only one who really knew him.

“I don't know-- I am still trying to figure out if this is a social call or if I should maintain a clear head.” He followed her down the hall toward the large office space Geoffrey kept in the back of the house. It was actually where the two had worked out the math for their last book. Jean looked a bit tired.

“When you hear what Geoff tells you, you will need a drink, either to keep the joke rolling or dispel your horror; I'm not sure which.” She cut into the kitchen to pour two fingers of the scotch Randall always bought for his own usage but kept at the Curtis house. Randall went on toward the office.

He walked past Adam's room, which was as always ridiculously meticulous. Everything exactly where it should be, and only the favored toys of the moment out. In this case there was what looked like a battalion of toy soldiers, probably some type of GI Joe figures. Probably five hundred figures stood on the floor. They were arranged in perfect formations, and seemed almost to be having some kind of ceremony. Randall felt disquiet for a moment with all those little plastic faces looking his way, but then was amused at his own discomfort. Adam often arranged his toys in lines or rows. Elsewhere in the house, he could hear Adam's five year old's voice making growling noises of some sort. After a moment trying to figure out what Adam was thinking, and then abandoning the idea, he knocked and went into Geoffrey's study.

Geoffrey sat in near darkness, his desk mostly cleared, but some of Adam's things on the surface. He was rocking slightly, a frenetic little nervous tick he usually only displayed when deep into “theorizing” as he called it. “Geoffrey- what's going on?” The other man didn't respond for a moment, and then looked up.

“Oh, Randall, sorry. I called you right? I mean, I called you on the phone to come here and talk, right?” Randall came the rest of the way in, and sat in his customary chair across the worktable from Geoffrey. About that time Jean came in with Randall's drink, and quietly excused herself after a nervous glance at Geoffrey. Randall took a sip.

“Yes, Geoffrey you called, me, now what's going on?” Geoffrey again glanced over the toys and drawings on his desk.

“Do you remember the day we tried the cap on Adam?”

Of course Randall remembered. Nine months of working with the neural pathology department to make an interface which would allow electric readings and feedback to and from the subject's brain. They had basically jumped on a device meant to allow paraplegics to control a computer with their thoughts. The original “BrainGate” device as it was called required surgery; a sensor interface implanted in a subject's brain. Neither Geoffrey nor Jean had wanted to implant anything in Adam's head, so the next step was contacting the Honda Corporation in Japan. They had been working on the Brain/Machine Interface, or BMI for short, as a method of using thought to control their Asimo robot. Though not as integrated as the BrainGate, it used electroencephalography and near-infrared spectroscopic sensors to transfer thought information. Once Randall was able to convince the Honda development team they were not simply committing industrial espionage, and that a young boy's ability to think was the subject at hand, they were happy to help. After trial and preparation, the then nearly four year old Adam came to the University with his father and mother. Adam had visited the campus before, but this was supposed to be special.

Adam was very quiet, and repeatedly stroking a small stuffed animal Randall remembered Jean had bought for Adam in the University gift shop. It was supposed to be a microbe, something you'd find floating in a brackish pond. It was the type of toy only a science nerd would buy, but it was the latest focus of Adam's attention. His fascination with circles and spheres had passed, and now it was microbes and bugs. Randall remembered at that moment really feeling that empathy and sympathy that had led him to come up with this idea in the first place.

Geoffrey and Randall led Adam into the small chair connected to a larger console with controls, and a small cap which would fit over Adam's head. Geoffrey had been meticulous in making sure the process would not be frightening nor uncomfortable for Adam. To be safe, there were two representatives from the neuropathology department, as well as Dr. Walker, the pediatrician. Randall had convinced her to be there, and shown her there would be no physical discomfort whatsoever. Indeed, once the interface was established, all Geoffrey would really be doing is transmitting equations into Adam's brain. She glazed over a bit when Randall told her the Schrődinger equation defined how the Hamiltonian observable energy would itself define how time evolution occurred within the environment of Adam's brain. Hell, half of his students would have glazed over at the explanation too. She agreed however, and helped them convince the University's governing board this was not human experimentation in the classical sense. To someone who didn't get off on doing math for hours on end as recreation, it would nearly appear to be magic; the math would tell Adam's brain it was fixed, and so it would be.

Adam sat, Geoffrey typed. Adam continued to stroke the toy, supposedly a stuffed version of the bacteria believed to be early life on Earth from a Martian rock. Everyone waited.

No one knew what to really expect, but no one had expected the effects which had manifested; none. Adam continued to communicate when directly asked questions, but no spare speech ever came from him. He continued to demonstrate obsessive behavior focused on themes and objects. He continued to periodically go into the refrigerator and line up all the condiments by colors in the spectrum. Months went by, and though the project had definitely made breakthroughs for the Neuro Pathology department and had helped them move forward with a neural interface for prosthetic limbs, Adam seemed exactly the same. Jean, Geoffrey, and Randall had almost gone through a small mourning process based on their disappointment, but had gone on. Adam was still the wonderful child they enjoyed before, and a blessing to them despite his being different. After all, they were Nobel prize winning scientists; weren't they different in their own ways? Ask any of the students who periodically had to sneak out of Geoffrey's mathematical fugue states. So they coped, and the day they used the “thinking cap” as Jean called it was left behind...but never truly forgotten.

“Yes Geoffrey, I remember using the cap. Why? Have you seen a result?” A warm flicker of hope tickled Randall's stomach, but perhaps it was the Scotch. Geoffrey picked up one of Adam's old drawings.

“I've been thinking. Look, this is Adam's first theme he perseverated. We had pages of nothing but a spot on a page.” He traded out for another drawing. “Remember these? His concentric circles drawings. Every now and then, there would be a spot along the circles.

“Then this,” Geoffrey said, holding up the stuffed microbe Randall remembered from the day of the Thinking Cap. “This was what Jean called his bug phase. That's kind of misleading- he didn't really look at insects until later. He would perseverate amoebas and parameciums, and I think somewhere we have a stack of pages where he traced the diagram of protein peptides out of the encyclopedia. Then look. His plant phase, his dinosaur phase.” Geoffrey punctuated the dinosaur phase by holding up broken dinosaur toys. “He'd never broken his toys, but one day he decided there wouldn't be any more dinosaurs, and he went out back and smashed them all with a rock. That was when he started carrying this.” Geoffrey picked up a stuffed monkey, which had seen better days. Much of it's fur was plucked out.

“See, he liked monkeys, then he decided it needed to lose its hair and become like a person. That's when he started asking for action figures like his GI Joes. Do you see the pattern?” Geoffrey looked a little obsessive himself. Randall emptied his scotch, and had to admit he had no idea what Geoffrey was talking about.

“It's what Adam plays with. Typical autistic behavior, bouncing from object to object or subject to subject, demonstrating obsessive behavior. What pattern?” Geoffrey shook his head.

“No- the spots. That's the cosmological zero point. The concentric circles; those are atoms, then solar systems. Then microbial life, turning to plants, then the reptiles, mammals, and finally man. This is the history of the world playing out in his head.”

“So what?” Randall replied. “You have no shortage of books in this house, you're a professor. Your wife might as well have her doctorate. He absorbed things you weren't expecting, why is that bad?” Geoffrey got up and started to pace now as he continued. This was usually reserved only for his most concentrated theorizing sessions.

“What if we made a mistake? We've been looking at how the thinking cap would affect Adam's brain, his behavior. We never considered how his brain would affect the science.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

Exasperated, Geoffrey continued. “Randall! For thirty minutes, we shoved half the theoretical concepts defining how the universe is made up into a four year old autistic brain. We expected observer effect and waveform collapse to help him think, but look what we did- we made him the observer! We opened him up to states of quantum flux and entanglement, and dear Lord, even anentropic stasis outside of time/space! We planted the keys to the kingdom in his head, opened the door to infinity!” Geoffrey was almost ranting, and Randall was becoming annoyed.

“You're usually a better scientist than poet. You really think your son is having some effect on the universe as a whole? How does a four year old affect events billions of years old?”

“That's my point! If we opened him up to states of existence where time is either fluid or non-existent, then we made him timeless. Picture it in your head. If you are traveling on a highway, but then get in a helicopter and hover high enough to see the whole highway, its like observing the entire journey at once. Now instead of a highway, think of it as linear time. Once you step out of linear time, the observer will always have been outside of linear time. The observer can affect things before the observer appeared in the timeline because the observer now predates, postdates, surrounds time itself. Any observer who leaves time becomes infinite in scope!”

Randall was still unconvinced. “Even assuming there is a 'doorway to the infinite' to have opened and shown to Adam, how does a four year old human mind or consciousness possibly affect the entire universe, much less evolution on Earth?” Geoffrey went to his whiteboard, pulled the cap off a dry erase marker and began to sketch out an exponent series.

“The mind would then have time to develop- well, that's a misnomer, there wouldn't actually be time, but there would be a infinite amount of 'now' to become whatever it wanted. The observer mind could evolve endlessly, with no temporal or physical constraint. It begins to observe itself as something greater, and the observer effect starts working like two mirrors facing each other, continually passing the observation.” His number sequence done, having reached enormous quantities through exponential multiplication, Geoffrey collapsed back into his chair. The two men sat silently. Finally Randall spoke.

“You're trying to tell me the mind of God is that of an autistic four year old.”

Geoffrey slowly nodded. “I just don't know if he's still connected to that plane, or if the Adam who touched infinity now exists independently from all of us.” Randall wished he had more scotch.

“Geoffrey. You're being irrational. You're a scientist- we tried to help your son, and it didn't work, so now you are transferring your guilt into fear. Just stop. Take tomorrow off and play with your son, hang out with your wife. I'll cover your two o'clock. Rest up with your family, and we'll get together on Saturday to laugh about this, OK? Just get some rest. Adam is a good boy. You need to stop feeling guilty about his autism, and about not being able to help him. You need to let it be Geoffrey. I will see you Saturday.” Geoffrey remained quiet for a moment more.

“Before you go, you should know. Adam stopped playing with his GI Joes today. He set them up in a last formation to be deactivated.” For a moment, the scene of the meticulously placed toys flashed in Randall's mind's eye, then he dismissed it.

“Bye Geoff. Relax, OK?” Randall got up, and turned to the door. Adam was standing there. He didn't quite look at Randall, almost as if embarrassed. He was in his pajamas, and held a strange little doll, a four armed creature of some sort with reddish skin and a huge head.

“Hi Adam. What do you have there?” In response to Randall, Adam held up the toy for a better look. Pretty grotesque. “What do you call it?”

“This is specimen JS5467. He was genetically engineered by humans to go to space. Instead he takes over the world and makes more like him. He's the next step.” As was typical, Adam would respond to a direct question, and provide technical reasons for his answer. If Randall had said, “what's new with you?” Adam would likely have listed new toys in purchase order.

“Cool. Go tell your mom I am leaving and I will call Saturday, OK?” Adam nodded, and padded away in his little footies, JS5467 in his hands while Adam stroked it like a pet.

Randall let himself out, and went back to his car. For just a moment he looked up into the warm Arizona night sky. Even in a city like Tucson, the skies were usually clear enough to make out most stars. Randall compared them in their universal journey for a moment to the crayon circles of a child. Then he got in his car and went home.

Doctor Jorge Suntila had champagne for lunch in Helsinki, Finland about the same time Doctor Randall Goodwin arrived home. He was celebrating. For the first time, his attempts to combine recombinant DNA into an amalgamated life form had maintained stability for more than a few minutes. Nearly six hours had passed before the protein bonds let go, and the labelled petri dish then held the equivalent of the primordial soup. This was a victory; the bonds were getting stronger. Soon, he would be able to get them to stick- he could create bio-forms which would convert CO2 into oxygen faster than plants, or eat oil and excrete water. Perhaps he could engineer bio-forms which could go into environments in which humans could not survive and work; the reactors of nuclear plants, the bottom of the ocean- even distant planets where they could explore for us. He'd been working so long at it. He glanced at his sample label on this last one-- JS5461; well over five thousand attempts. Nonetheless, he would start work on JS5462 tomorrow. Just a few more experiments, then he could show his findings. He could feel it- no more than a couple more steps. From there, who knew what he could accomplish.

The End


Anonymous said...

Oooooh ~ THAT is freaky.

Dan ~ you are an extremely talented storyteller. I couldn't stop reading that story and am anxious for part two. I have to say, your mind and imatination are very deep.


Anonymous said...

imagination, not imatination!