by P. Orin Zack
Alexandra took another sip of Kona, tickled the trackpad to highlight a few words, and turned the laptop towards the more casually dressed woman across the small table from her in the noisy coffee shop. “Is this a typo in your Abstract? Did you spell it that way on purpose, or did you intend to characterize your findings as an ‘allergic reaction’?”
Faye chuckled and shook her head. “Well, I suppose you could describe it that way, but it’s not really the same sort of thing that happens when an oyster makes a pearl to keep a speck of sand from itching.”
The two had been close friends since they roomed together at college, but this was the first time Faye needed a professional favor. The juxtaposition of their divergent interests, with Faye being a science geek and her former roommate being a linguist, had sparked a lot of humor between them over the years, most of which was incomprehensible to either one’s co-workers. So when Faye finally completed the research project that had swallowed her life for the past few years, she decided to ask Alexandra to help polish her paper before submitting the results.
“Are you sure it’s even a word? Your spell-checker’s called it out, too.”
Faye bit her lip. “I know, Alex. And that’s the most complete dictionary module I could find for my field. But it’s the only thing that accurately describes what happened.”
“Okay,” Alexandra said after a long pause, “let’s take a different tack. How well do you know the journal’s editorial guidelines? Are they sticklers for using accepted terminology? I mean, if they’re likely to reject your paper because they don’t like your choice of words, maybe there’s some other way to describe whatever it was that happened.”
“Like what?” She glanced nervously around the shop, at a knot of customers by the counter who were chatting excitedly with one another, at the guy at the next table who was staring intently at whatever was on his screen, and at the woman by the door who was so caught up in a phone call that she didn’t realize she was splashing coffee on someone. “I’ve had my head into this problem for so long I’m not sure I could explain it to any of these people.”
Alexandra reached across the table and covered her friend’s twitching hand. “Then explain it to me… in plain language. Forget about the paper for now. Don’t bother going into detail about the science, or about the technology, or about anything else that might get in the way of explaining whatever it was that had so entranced you for three years that you lost track of your friends. I know it was important to you. Make it important to me.”
Faye sat back and closed her eyes. “I’ll try,” she whispered. After a few minutes, she leaned forward again and gazed right through Alexandra as if she was looking at something a million miles away. “Imagine,” she said softly, “that we were thousands of light-years from here, cruising through the planetary system of some star. People couldn’t survive such a trip, so imagine that we’re the brains of a robot spacecraft sent to explore the planets in this system.”
“Good opening gambit,” Alexandra said, smiling. “I’m with you. Go on.”
“Thanks. So here’s our problem. We’ve only ever seen the results of life arising on one planet. That doesn’t tell us much about what might happen elsewhere, especially if conditions are different. But there are some things we can guess. For instance, if there’s a nova or supernova close enough to affect the planet, but not close enough to destroy it, we can predict the sort of stress that the planet will be placed under. And unless physics and chemistry are different there, we can also model those stresses in a lab. That’s what my experiment was about, stressing the simulated environment on a hypothetical planet to see how it reacts.”
“I can see why you got caught up in the project, Faye. Those are pretty big questions. Before you continue, though, I’m going to have to beg a bathroom break. I’ve had way too much caffeine today, and I’m feeling the results of it. Could you order us a round of something unleaded while I’m gone?”
Alexandra had gone to the counter and was about to place their orders when her attention was snatched by a screech of tires, a blaring horn, and the heavy thud of something banging into the door. She turned in time to see a man in the doorway gesture rudely at a driver, who by that time was probably in no position to see the profanity.
“Watch where the hell you’re going, moron!” he yelled, backing unsteadily into the shop.
The woman on the phone lowered it briefly. “You okay?” she asked.
He whirled to look at her, squinting into the glare from the window, and sneered. “Jerk driver… can’t even stay off the sidewalk.” His speech was slurred, and she flinched from the smell.
Another customer stood up and started to offer assistance, but the guy pushed him aside and stumbled towards the counter. When Alexandra tried to step out of his way, he grabbed her wrist and held it up. “Don’t you raise your hand to me,” he said, his slur giving way to the relative clarity of adrenaline-fueled anger. “I’ve had enough of you self-righteous libocrats telling me how to live my life.” When she tried to pull away, he leaned into her and breathed down her blouse.
“You’re drunk,” she said indignantly, “and I doubt that car jumped the curb. Now let me go and get the hell out of here!”
When she yelped in pain from his tightened grip, the man at the next table snapped his laptop shut, leaped to his feet and lunged at the intruder. While he was grabbing the drunk’s free arm and twisting it behind him, another patron pried the guy’s hand open and got Alexandra clear of him. The two rescuers glanced at one another and nodded. The one with a lock on the intruder pointed him towards the door. “Here’s your choice, dipwad: walk out of here under your own power, or we’ll hold you until the cops arrive and have you charged with assault.”
Alexandra rubbed her arm and thanked both of them. As the drunk made his unsteady way out the door, a round of good-natured chatter swept the shop.
Faye lightly touched her shoulder and asked what all the commotion was about.
“Nothing important,” she said, showing the remains of the red handprint on her wrist, “just some idiot a bit too far into his bourbon.” She grinned at her rescuers. “You could say that these gents here edited him out of our afternoon. Speaking of which, we ought to get back to your paper.”
Faye nodded. “Did you have a chance to get our orders in?”
“Already taken care of.” It was the barista, who had come over with a large iced melon special in each hand. “Oh, and they’re on the house.” He glanced at the two men who had intervened. “Yours, too. That was a great act of community solidarity you two demonstrated just now, and I’d like to reinforce the feeling.”
After the two women returned to their table and luxuriated in about a third of their iced melons, Faye tapped her nails against the table a few times. “I’ve been thinking about what you said.”
“About the editors?”
She shook her head. “No, about the word I might have made up. Allegergic. You took it to be a misspelling of ‘allergic’, and I hadn’t realized that it could actually make sense to refer to it that way. It’s just that the reaction itself is so different from what people think of as an allergic reaction that it would just confuse the issue.”
“Well, I was thinking that I could frame the effect as if it were a kind of allergic reaction, and then focus on what makes it different from one. That way I could ease into the new word, and my readers would have a way to assimilate it.”
“You know,” Alexandra said, swirling her drink, “you still haven’t explained what sort of reaction it was. I’d have a lot better idea of how to tweak your paper if I knew what it was really about. That reaction, whatever it was, is like the climax of a novel, after all. If you don’t sell that sizzle in your abstract, you’re not going to get as many people interested in digging into the details of your paper. You could think of your abstract like the preview of a new movie. If you don’t hook them and get them into the theater, they’ll never see the film.”
“All right, all right. I get the idea.”
“So what happened? How did your lab planet react to the explosion, and what the heck does that word of yours mean?”
Faye took a long slow drink of iced melon before replying. When she did, she had a faraway look in her eyes, as if she were gazing lovingly at her simulated planet. “I went into this with a whole lot of expectations. I thought about all the chemical reactions that could happen in my ‘soup’, and about the experiments that have been conducted to try to tease out what might have happened right here on Earth. Stir some lightning and some gamma rays into an ocean of primordial stew, and voila, suddenly you have self-replicating molecules, the precursors to RNA, DNA and everything else we know about life here.”
“Mmm-hmm. And you got something entirely different?”
“No, not really. And yet I did. I mean, I got all manner of chemical reactions. Add that much energy to a system, and there’s not much choice in the matter. Chemistry happens. It all went by the book. And yet there was something else I hadn’t expected.”
Alexandra laughed. “I suppose you’re going to tell me you created life.”
“Well, yeah. But that’s not the point.”
“Hold it. Wait. You created life, but that’s not the point? What could possibly top that?”
“When I was in the bathroom,” Faye said with a faint smile, “I heard a commotion out here.”
“Sure,” Alexandra said, puzzled. “That drunk who barged in. What about it?”
“By the time I finished, there was a concerted effort to throw him out underway.”
“How did that happen? Did those two men who pulled him off you stop to discuss it, or did they just act spontaneously?”
The man at the next table turned his head in curiosity.
“They just acted I guess. Is this relevant to your experiment?”
“Weirdly, I think it is. Forget that this is a coffee shop for a minute and think about it as if was a system, like an ecosystem, or the Earth.”
“Or your simulated planet. Okay, I get it. But why?”
“That drunk,” Faye said, glancing at the door, “was a kind of stressor for our little coffeehouse system, just like the simulated nova was for my experiment. Now, you’d expect certain kinds of reaction.”
“Like the woman who interrupted her call to help the guy as soon as he stumbled inside?”
“Yeah. The usual kinds of reaction are as predictable as billiard balls if you know all the particulars. But something else happened here. Two men spontaneously came to your rescue without even thinking about how they’d collaborate. How did that happen?”
Their neighbor grinned in amusement.
Alexandra shrugged. “Heck if I know. Is it important?”
“You bet it is. Their concerted reaction was evidence that one effect of the stress put on our little system here was information. A physical cause triggered a symbolic, or allegorical reaction.”
“An allegorical reaction? I don’t understand.”
“The symbolism is inherent in emergent behavior. Like the seemingly random activities of a colony of ants building an incredibly complex structure. Its everywhere in nature, and yet we’ve overlooked the real importance of it, because one of those emergent behaviors is the integrated living system of our planet: Gaia. That’s what happened in my lab!”
“You created life. You already said that.”
“No. We created a living system. There were no emergent behaviors in our simulated planet before we exposed it to the effects of a nearby nova. That shock pushed the system over some kind of energy threshold. It gave birth to a relative of Gaia in our lab.”
“And you’re saying that was kind of like an allergic reaction?”
“Yes. I mean no. It’s an allegoric reaction, a symbolic one. The reaction was the creation of information, a new state of organization, the reversal of entropy in a manner of speaking.”
Alexandra splayed her palms on the table. “So this new term, this ‘allegergic reaction’, means that the system responded to stress by sneezing out an idea?”
Faye laughed happily. “Exactly. But how do we get this past the editors?”
“Well, you did create life, in a warped kind of way. So how about coming right out and saying it? In the beginning, light created Gaia, and it was good.”
“Come on. Be serious. I can’t do that.”
“Then how about this.” She woke the laptop and typed as she spoke. “The shockwave from the simulated nova added enough of the right kind of energy to thrust the simulated planetary environment across an informational threshold into a more organized state. That higher order of organization expressed itself as a smaller version of Earth’s ordering principle: the newly created biological and chemical replicators began forming interlocking systems. We therefore conclude that the result of our experiment was the birthing of a higher order of life, only the second one of its type known to exist. For now, we’re referring to it as Gaia’s niece.”
Faye raised her cup in a toast. “Now that I can live with.”
The man at the next table raised his own in response. “Glad I could help.”
Copyright 2011 by P. Orin Zack