How I won the highest award but might have doomed the human race.

Submitted into Contest #137 in response to: Write a story about a scientist.... view prompt

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Science Fiction

Memoirs of a Scientist – Chapter 6

There have been many significant points in my life and some memorable highs but it would be dishonest if I were not to record the most important failing, an incident that still gives me nightmares over what might have happened due to my unreasoning reaction to a new PhD student, if she had not reacted as she did.

Despite that it is appropriate to start this chapter over twenty years later.

“Professor Sokolov, congratulations on being awarded the Nobel Prize. How does it feel?”

I smiled a little. “It is a great honour, though I feel that my part in the research was quite small.”

“You do not feel aggrieved that you must share this award with a student and an engineer?”

I had thought of several questions to which I might need to phrase an answer carefully but that was not even in the fringes of my mind.

“Doctor, and I emphasise that word, Doctor Newcombe may have been my doctorate student many years ago but you need to understand that I am truly honoured to be included at the same time as she, and her husband, Alan. Megan Newcombe is the most outstanding scientist and physicist of the century. She is, in my view, the equal of Einstein.”

“But without your support she would never have been able to complete her work, Professor.”

I was tempted to be extremely rude. The reporter, I reminded myself, was not a scientist but had worked close to the science community for decades. How could he be so ignorant as to the background to our award?

Presumably he was trying to find a headliner. Probably, I thought, it was a good thing he had not been present when I first met the young woman, who was now someone I felt proud to call a friend, over twenty years ago. That was a scene I have frequently played back in my memory, a meeting that I still feel shame over.

On that occasion I failed to retain the mental approach that every scientist must have if they are to be called a good or true scientist. In attacking the then Ms Newcombe on a personal level, I remember, sadly, that I demonstrated a lack of simple scepticism – closing my mind to the idea that her theory might be valid.

It had been in the conference hall at CERN when Megan, then a new PhD student had outlined details from the dissertation that had formed the major part of her first-class honours degree at Cambridge. I can remember almost every word of my unnecessary interruption.

“Herr Lentenov, is it necessary that we waste time on this rubbish? This poppycock? We know that these particles are almost certainly random muons! This…this…science fiction approach to our research will simply make us look fools to the outside world!”

Professor Yuri Lentenov headed the particle research unit of which I was a senior member. We might have had mutual respect but he, rightly I know now, was not amused at my words. “Grigor, I am well aware of your views on the issue and still await some supporting research from you and your team. In the meantime, please give Miss Newcombe the courtesy of hearing her full presentation.”

When I think now about what might never have happened had Megan not shown a maturity beyond her years as she proved by her own response, I shudder.

“Herr Professor, I understand your concerns and you are not the first to suggest that my work sounds like science fiction.”

“It is. Rarely have I heard such propositions within the science community. Perhaps you should write a book!” I know I was staggered by her words but not as much as by her follow up to my unreasoned and angry response.

“Herr Sokolov, I am prepared to have my theories disproved if they are wrong. Are you prepared for yours to be wrong? Would you be ready to work with me to find the correct answer?”

I was backed into a corner and forced by my colleagues to add this upstart to my team, almost as an equal.

For many months we did work together trying to understand what the mystery particles were. I say together but, though I would not then have admitted it, it was apparent that Megan was brilliant at a level most of us could only dream of. It was also quite disturbing that that brilliance was supported by an often-uncertain approach. Megan never sought to force her views on any of us but would often come out with ideas that even she suggested that I and others would feel that she was again edging into the realms of science fiction. Yet our research rapidly proved, again and again, that her version of sci-fi was definitely more sci-fact.

It must have been almost a year after that fateful day when the event occurred which, I now know, was to change the future of the human race.

“Grigor, if these figures are correct the final energy and temperatures will risk the entire accelerator. We must talk to Yuri and his team before they complete a full run.”

Megan’s words were interrupted by another member of our team. “Professor, they started a run only twenty minutes ago! Did you not know?”

“We must tell them to abort. Now! Go!”

Megan had grabbed her mobile and started calling Yuri. When he answered Megan quickly passed the message to abort and then added “Kill the containment fields below the air vents and clear those areas fast.”

Lentenov, to his eternal credit did not question why, and we could hear him yelling to his team to carry out her instructions. We also heard someone cry out. “The temperatures are off the scale.”

Moments later the building shook to the sound of metal shrieking under immense pressure. Then just as suddenly, and more disturbingly, silence fell. What had occurred that day has been well documented by others but there was a video call later that day that has never left my thoughts.

Yuri was contacted by NASA who wanted to know what had killed one of their geostationary satellites. The recordings from that satellite, before it died, from a second satellite and a recently launched lunar orbiter were stunning. The NASA operations director explained that a bright object with a temperature of forty thousand degrees had risen from an area close to Geneva travelling at over ten thousand kilometres per second as it passed the satellites’ orbit. It had slowed but still struck the lunar surface less than an hour later leaving a crater half a kilometre across.

A year before I would have laughed Megan out of the room if she had made a suggestion such as she now did, after I had had to admit that I didn’t have a clue what had happened. Looking back now, her words were frighteningly obvious but, as ever, she took her time before answering.

“I can suggest a possible solution but, and I mean but, it will need a lot of work to confirm.”

“Go on.” We all demanded in unison.

“We were considering the results of earlier aborted accelerator runs when it happened. My thoughts are that we might be close to replicating the conditions that are surmised to have existed at or immediately after the post big bang expansion period of the universe. On a small scale, of course. All our theories suggest highly energetic, and possibly short-lived, particles must have formed then but this is way beyond anything I imagined.”

Now you see why I consider Megan Newcombe to be on a par with both Einstein and Hawking.

The first question we had to address was, could we repeat the experiment and, then, if successful could we find a way to harness such energy?

A happy outcome of the difficulties we faced was that the aerospace community provided major support to assist in developing the materials needed to contain the plasma formed. In particular there was a young engineer specialising in exactly that field – Alan Piper. His input and leadership of the team that developed the earliest material capable of holding the exotic particles in a container has often been overlooked. Later improvements followed, due mostly to his tenacity.

Our combined research at CERN and, largely at Bristol, England, would eventually lead us to finding ways to utilise the energy to counter climate change and then to power the first starships. In the end the only human starships.

Alan had often wondered how the world could come together to fund our work, now as the first mammoth ships, carrying some six thousand people, left for Saturn before engaging their warp drives, the reason became clear. A huge fleet of alien ships had split and attacked the Saturn space station only hours after the larger ship, Einstein, had reached a safe distance and vanished into its own universe.

I was one of the lucky few who were on Mars as Earth despite mounting a massive defence was reduced to a smouldering wreck of a planet. More ships were heading our way and all looked lost until the third starship, Europa, signalled the settlement to evacuate and join them as they tried to escape.

Today, I sit in one of the science labs on board this wonderful ship writing my memoirs, though I wonder if they will ever be read.

It is now almost ten years since we escaped and despite having reached countless star systems with planets, none have been habitable for us. We can only keep trying, we have no home to return to now and I can only be thankful that my shameful actions did not turn that brilliant scientist away from her love of science. Had I managed that then there would be no human race. Because of her the three starships carrying an admittedly pitifully few thousand humans have escaped and can search for a new home. Should the Europa fail there is still the hope that our other ships will succeed. I pray that that will happen.

March 17, 2022 20:49

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1 comment

Michał Przywara
22:29 Mar 23, 2022

The first part of the account could almost be a horror story, with the petty politics and giant egos threatening to strangle progress. Given our protagonist, it turns into a hopeful story for science. It all reads believably too, and I like the detail of the reporter fishing for a hook. The reveal was a little jarring, but I guess it mirrors the surprise attack by the aliens. Either way, the story ends very differently than it started, and there's lots of interesting places it could go in the future. Thanks for sharing!


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