The Dance of the Electrons
Dr. Jonathan Briggs's train from Toronto was stopped and boarded by armed men twice before it reached Ann Arbor. It was almost enough to give him second thoughts about his journey.
In Windsor, the VIA New International was halted on the main line, in a right-of-way corridor flanked by walls of green trees. Customs & Revenue agents swept the train with bomb-sniffing dogs and chemical-sniffing wands. The agents were polite and quietly professional, and their sidearms remained invisibly holstered. In less than thirty minutes, they had satisfied themselves that it was safe to send the train on through the tunnel below the Detroit River.
In Detroit, what had become the Amtrak New International was diverted to the edge of a deteriorating concrete sprawl in front of a towering ruin of a train station. Looking out his window, Jonathan could hardly believe it was the same season--everything was a depressing bombed-out brown.
But it was clearly not the same country. Homeland Security officers carrying unslung automatic weapons herded the passengers off the train and into the shabby structure for processing. More men with assault rifles looked on from the rooftops, and a three-meter-high fence topped with razor wire steered them in the right direction. After two hours, their keepers had still not satisfied themselves that it was safe to allow the passengers into the country.
"Is it always like this?" he asked a fellow passenger as they waited together in a plywood-walled cubicle to be called to their interviews.
"Since the trouble at the Ambassador Bridge," the man said with a bob of his head. "But it's worse trying to cross the border in a car. You Canadian?"
The stranger grunted. "Aren't you headed the wrong way, then?"
It wasn't the first time he'd been asked that question. His mentor at the University of Toronto, Dr. Bernard Hoffman, had tried to talk him out of applying for the neuroscience post at the University of Michigan.
"You should be catching an elevator going up, Jonathan--not an elevator going down," Hoffman had said. "I can think of ten schools where you'd be better off, and at least half of them would be happy to have you. Hell, there're probably a half dozen research labs that'd be interested, and you'd get paid twice as much and not have to teach."
But Jonathan had his reasons, and he had prepared for his interview with Dr. Elizabeth Froelich as diligently as a presidential candidate preparing for a debate he could not afford to lose.
The train finally reached Ann Arbor in late afternoon, giving him time to walk through the campus and spot some of the blemishes that the official tour would bypass. The obvious blemish was hard to miss: the red brick and wrought-iron "castle wall" going up all around the main campus, turning it into an island fortress in the middle of the city.
Though he was curious to see it, the wall was not a surprise. The Observer and the Michigan Daily had thoroughly documented the violent year on campus, the worst in a decade-long deterioration of the atmosphere on and near campus. There had been shootings on the Diag and in the Law Quad, two dozen rapes in the dorms, and four murders.
The perpetrators were nearly all outsiders, many from Ypsilanti and points east. But the victims were nearly all students. Even so, it had taken a student strike, a donor revolt, the exodus of several key professors, and--finally--the glare of national publicity to break through the denial and force the decision to create a closed campus.
It was clear to Jonathan that the "Harvard of the Midwest" reputation of the university and the cosmopolitan cachet Ann Arbor had once enjoyed were both on the wane--victims of the general economic blight and the violence that had crept westward from Detroit until it engulfed both. The new wall was a symbol of the new realities: Ann Arbor was no longer a place where graduates strove to linger, and the university no longer quite the magnet for top talent it had once been.
But that was not enough to keep him away. In fact, as he wandered, he counted it as a reason to hope.
Card scanners kept him locked out of the Medical Science Research buildings, but he roamed through the University Hospital and most of the Kresge labs unmolested. At the Taubman Medical Library, he took over a terminal and spent half an hour sizing up the collection and the connections. Along the way, he struck up conversations with anyone who seemed receptive--half a dozen students, a cheerful clerk in Research Administration, and a pair of facilities engineers on their dinner breaks.
As night was falling, he wandered out into the city, scouting the storefronts, browsing at Borders and Ulrich's. When hunger seized him, he indulged himself with a massive deli sandwich, a Vernors, and a poisonously rich dessert at Zingerman's. He took his time eating, eavesdropping on the students and townies at the other tables and scrolling through the free papers he'd downloaded at the counter--an arts calendar, a sex-classifieds rag, and an eccentric alternative paper called the Iconoclast.
By the time he returned to his hotel room, he was already starting to feel that he was where he belonged. The only obstacle left was to persuade Dr. Froelich of that.
Though barely five feet tall and elfin in face and build, Dr. Elizabeth Froelich had a sharp, sure mind and a quick tongue that earned her all the authority her appearance tended to deny her. She was friendly but focused during the tour of the medical center, and even her casual questions seemed meaningful. In the privacy of her sun-bright office, her questions were pointed, probing, and hard to answer with interview glibness. More than an hour spun by before she showed any interest in the details of his vita.
"You worked for Dr. Hoffman at the University of Toronto?" she asked, lifting one corner of a paper on her desk, then letting it drop.
"And did your masters' work with James Anderson, at MIT."
"Yes," Jonathan said, shifting in his seat. "He retired the spring I graduated, or I would have stayed there."
"Fine letters of recommendation. They were both obviously impressed with you. As I am, to be honest. Jonathan, can I be blunt?"
"Why do you want to come here?"
He cocked his head at her. "What do you mean?"
"Your credentials are excellent. Your recommendations are glowing. Your thesis is interesting and probably publishable. The field is healthy enough that someone like you has lots of options," Froelich said. "I'd like to have you here, but I don't want to bring in someone who thinks hanging out for a year or two at Michigan would be a great way to cozy up to a biomedical company."
"Dr. Froelich, it's probably a character flaw, but I hate the idea of letting some MBA or marketing guru tell me what I'm supposed to be interested in," said Jonathan. "If I wanted that, I could have gone into making widgets, or politics."
She laughed, startled. "I've lost a senior professor and three associates in the last eighteen months. I don't want to bring in someone who sees this as a stepping-stone to what they really want. So I need to know what you really want."
"I want to see your other triaxial SQUID," Jonathan said, sitting forward. "After I've seen it, I'll be able to tell you the rest."
"The other one? You already saw the one that's available."
"I saw the one that already has a date for the prom. I want to see the one that's been sitting home alone."
Shaking her head, Froelich flashed a quizzical smile. "You know, I've had candidates try to hold me up for university cars, free housing, and the department secretary's phone number, but this is the first time I've ever had someone ask me to fix them up with a dead SQUID," she said, her smile broadening at the punch line. "But, all right--let's go get the key from Charlie. We've been keeping your date locked up in the basement."
The BioImaging SuperSQUID superconducting quantum interference device was a triaxial 3-D scanner design based on the 2005 New York University prototype. By using compact fast-response "warm" superconductors licensed from IBM, BioImaging had cut the size and cost of the system in half.
Even so, the guts of the machine occupied four gray cabinets the size of dormitory refrigerators and required a control station worthy of a small research reactor. The cabinets, the crates of cabling and auxiliary equipment, and the several file boxes of manuals nearly filled the little windowless storeroom.
Froelich stood by the door and looked on silently as Jonathan removed plastic dust tarps and peered through the slatting of the crates. "Is it all here?" he asked finally.
"As far as I know. Are you going to tell me why you're so interested in it?"
Jonathan straightened up and looked back at her. "There are nineteen SuperSQUIDs in Canada, and they're all still front-line diagnostic machines with three-month waiting lists," he said, brushing at a smear of greasy dust on the sleeve of his dark blue suit coat. "But there're more than 160 of these beasts in the United States, and most of them are considered two generations behind the technology curve. This is one of three that aren't being used at all--the other two are at NIMH and Cambridge Neuroscience."
She nodded uncertainly. "The University Hospital replaced this one with a META scanner a year ago. They tried to sell it, but the offers were so pathetic that the U decided to keep it. I offered it to the department, but no one had any use for it. So it's waiting here to be cannibalized for parts--we'll probably end up selling it a piece at a time."
"I have use for it," he said, and started making his way back toward her. "You asked me what I want. What I want is for you to take this thing off the market and have it moved into a lab with my name on it. I can't take the work I want to do any farther without this equipment, or the freedom to modify it in ways that'll probably make it useless to anyone else."
His boldness took her by surprise. "What problem do you intend to work on?"
"The same one you addressed in your master's thesis. The problem of consciousness. Is consciousness a metaphor? An illusion? Or a process? How does the brain experience itself? What is it that thinks, and even thinks about thinking?"
Despite herself, Froelich smiled, pleased and surprised. "That's another interviewing first for you. They've always read my last paper, but my master's thesis--well, you are thorough. Go on."
"Everyone's interested in disease, because that's where the money is. Neuropsychiatric disorders and neurotherapy. Alzheimer's and alcoholism. Learning disabilities." He was gesturing animatedly with his hands. "Well, I already told you I'm not interested in going into business. I'm interested in the healthy mind. I want to reopen some of the questions the Denote school closed--individuality, personality, personal identity."
"Metaphors," she said. "Not neurological meaningful."
"You didn't believe that eighteen years ago."
"Eighteen years ago I was--younger."
He pounced on her answer. "But there's something inside you providing continuity between then and now, something that connects yesterday and today--the I, the ego, the self. Something endures. That's what I want to look for--that something."
"I see now where your doctoral work fits into that. But--"
"Dr. Froelich, I want a chance to show that personality isn't just a psychological metaphor. I want to look for the neural signature of human individuality, the DNA code of our uniqueness. I think it exists. I think I can find it. I think Anderson vector matrices are the key. And this machine is the key to mapping them."
She nodded slowly and pursed her lips. "This is a serious question, Jonathan--if such a signature exists, why is it still waiting for you to be its discoverer?"
"Maybe because no two people think alike--"
"You're assuming your conclusion," she said with a hint of a smile. "Not a good start."
"Maybe because no one else has looked for it. Everyone's written off consciousness in favor of neurochemistry. And, yes, they've made wonderful discoveries--but what they've discovered doesn't cover all the bases. A program needs more than code. It needs structure."
"So--you want to use my department as a base from which to declare war on Clement Harris and the materialists?"
"That sounds like a jazz band," Jonathan said, wrinkling his brow. "Dr. Froelich, I am a materialist. But I'm not satisfied with the answers we have to the paradox of consciousness. Are you? Don't you feel like a 'you' exists? Don't you speak and act and think of yourself as though there were something more to experiencing than some complicated set of electrochemical levers inside the skull?"
She frowned and crossed her arms. "Yes."
"Even what we're doing right now--is this a conversation between two minds, or two neurochemistries? The Denote disciples would say there's no distinction. Dr. Froelich, what do you say?"
She was looking at him oddly. "Two minds," she said. "I would vote for two minds. We share the same universal neurochemistry and we still think differently."
"Exactly," Jonathan said. "Because there's something sitting on top of consciousness, mediating experience."
"Cogito ergo sum."
"Yes! Nothing enters the mind without first being translated by the consciousness. So that's where I have to look to see what a human being really is."
"Then you're looking for nothing less than the soul--the ghost in the machine. Do you believe in souls, Jonathan?"
"No," he said firmly. "Do you believe in ghosts?"
She thought for a moment. "Yes," she said. "I have no choice. If I say no, I deny myself. Tell me, do you have any idea what it is you're chasing?"
Words had been pouring out of him, but that question stopped the torrent for a moment. "I really don't know," Jonathan said slowly. "I imagine it as some kind of dynamic synthesis--thought, experience, hormonal cravings, sensory responses, all captured in the vector matrix. I could see it being an elegant organic program that starts with biology alone and then overtakes it, becomes self-modifying and starts grabbing the biological interrupts. But, the reality--"
He raised his hands in surrender. "If I knew, I wouldn't need this job, or this machine. Dr. Froelich, how many candidates are you interviewing?"
"How many of us have you already seen?"
"As it happens, you're the last of them."
"Do you have a timetable for making a decision?"
Dr. Froelich pursed her lips and sighed. "Jonathan, I don't think you even realize that this conversation would have blown your chance to get hired at ninety-nine out of a hundred labs."From the Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Vectors by Michael P. Kube-McDowell. Copyright © 2002 by Michael P. Kube-McDowell. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.