Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Know Circuit - Interlude - Part 1.0

Mark Balfour

“I can solve the world’s energy problems in one year.”

The statement was bold, bold enough to raise the eyebrows of a cynic like Lewis Janicki. Mark Balfour could tell neither Janicki nor Lydia Carlisle believed him. Why should they? Neither of them knew him or his work beyond casual greetings on the campus grounds and faculty scuttlebutt. He was just one of hundreds of professors conducting major research at the University of Colorado. He had only joined the faculty a year before and had been relegated to an office and lab space in the Engineering Center despite most of his research projects being funded by NASA and its corporate partners through the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. He knew where on the scientist pecking order he stood, somewhere down near the grad students and non-tenured professors, stuck teaching first-year physics to hungover business school students who couldn’t tell the difference between an electron and a proton. The fact that much of his research involved attempts to mesh superstring theory with real-world applications made many of his more traditionally minded colleagues regard him as the scientific equivalent of a snake oil salesman.

He’d done his homework, however. The night he woke from a dream in a cold sweat with his mind bubbling with solutions to equations he’d just barely formulated, he had realized he would need help with this research. He would need another set of eyes on the applications; a set of eyes not jaundiced by pig-headed prejudice nor constrained by the rigid hierarchy of the university’s research guidelines. He’d need scientists so hungry for breakthroughs that they’d jump at the chance without worrying about the rules. He’d jacked into the GlobalNet and found his former student and friend Michael Freeman. They had stolen all the personnel files of the university's research faculty and pored over them in a marathon cram session, searching for just the right combination of theoretical skills, application experience and willful disregard for procedure. In all, five candidates presented themselves. He’d stepped from the crèche physically exhausted, but inwardly renewed with a sense of purpose he’d not felt for years. When he invited Lydia to coffee after classes, he had to convince her that he was not asking her out on a date. “It’s purely professional, Dr. Carlisle.” The skepticism was plainly evident on her features, but she agreed. The three had met in an off-campus coffeehouse frequented by other faculty.

“That’s a very bold statement, Dr. Balfour,” Janicki responded. “You’ll forgive my skepticism, but I’m aware of your field. Superstring, correct? Have you suddenly discovered the energy dimension? Or magic energy fairy strings?" He barely contained a derisive giggle. Lydia frowned at the man with the goatee, but her sympathy did not signal agreement.

“There’s no need to be dismissive.” She gave Balfour a cautious questioning glance. “I’m sure Dr. Balfour would not waste our valuable research time without good reason. Let’s hear him out.”

Balfour nodded and began to explain his breakthrough. He scribbled frantic equations on napkins until the table was a tableau of paper scraps loaded with scribbled formulas. Somewhere after the fifteenth napkin, Janicki began to sit up and take notice, adding his comments and notes in the margins. His excitement became palpable by the time Balfour had finished. Though Lydia had taken slightly less convincing than Janicki, her calm exterior never quite broke into the ravenous enthusiasm Janicki displayed. But Balfour could see the twinkle of barely contained excitement in her green eyes.

Convinced fully at last, Janicki sat back with a huff, rubbing his shaved head with a hand that shook slightly. “Where did you come up with this? It’s… it’s not just incredible, it’s goddamned revolutionary.”

“It came to me in a dream,” Balfour said with a sheepish grin. Janicki scoffed. “No, really, I woke up and the formula was burning a hole in my brain.”

“I’d like a sample of your sleeping pill prescription,” Lydia joked. “We’ll need to run simulations to be sure, but on the surface, the math seems sound.” A serious mood gripped her, darkening her expression noticeably. Her next question was hesitant, as if she already knew the answer but did not want to face its implications. “Why tell us? Why not submit a research proposal?”

Balfour’s expression hardened into a mask of resolute determination. “This is too big for protocol, too important. I need scientists of a particular skill set. I need you two and a few others and the chances of actually getting all five of us approved to work on the same project this decade is next to nil.”

Janicki squinted. “What others?” Balfour could see the ambition in the man, the naked greedy desire to share as little credit for this discovery as possible.

“Quon Wong, Carl Bullock, and Sven Rolfsberg,” Balfour replied flatly.

“Rolfsberg?” Janicki shouted. A few of the other patrons turned their heads at his shout. He asked again in a low whisper, conscious of the attention. “Rolfsberg? That guy’s an asshole. I worked with him last year on some cybernetic enhancements for the moon mission. His materials fabrication is spectacular, but his math…” He waved a dismissive hand. “Why him?”

“His materials work is good, as you said.” Balfour didn’t want to tell either of them that they’d all been chosen as much for their willingness to work off the books as for their work. “I’m sure his personal attitudes and mathematical deficiencies will not be a hindrance. Dr. Carlisle, can I rely on you to recruit Wong?”

The furtive look in her eyes confirmed the campus gossip as well as the entries in her personnel file. Lydia and Wong had been romantically involved last year while he was still her graduate assistant. The affair had been fleeting, ending many months ago, but the mere mention of his name made Lydia tense. Balfour worried for just a moment that he’d chosen his comrades poorly, but her resolute nod quelled his doubts. “And I will recruit Dr. Bullock. His work with holographic wireless communication systems and point-to-point energy transfer will be invaluable. We’ll work off the books, on our own time, using as much borrowed lab time as possible. My lab in the Engie Center is big enough for all of us, and everyone there ignores me. Too theoretical for the Engineering Department.”

Within a week, his team had been assembled and work began in earnest.

Go to Interlude Part 2.0

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