Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Skin Of Our Teeth

The title of this entry comes from a re-reading Thornton Wilder's play, something very much in my mind after my experience of the last two weeks. As you may recall, I was invited (more coerced, actually) to take part in an ultra secret meeting stemming from the American professor Matilda Hatt and I had hurried out of Libya, along with his research findings. The operation was not without costs -- for me, a bullet in the thigh -- but was ultimately successful.

The research was contained in computer memory sticks. I had one, Tilly another, and my employer, Sir Harry, the third. It had become apparent that each stick comprised one-third of the data, and would be useless without being combined. Hence the meeting, and for security purposes, took place on a Trident submarine, Ohio class, submerged -- well, I never did find out.*

It is not in my power to give exact details of what the research illustrated, not so much for security reasons as it is for the simple fact that I had only a glimmer of understanding of what was under discussion. I am not exactly stupid, but there are limits.

Three physicists were in attendance: the professor we had zipped out of Libya, a second from Cambridge, and a third from China. Discussions centered around such terms as 'event horizon' 'black holes' 'anti-matter' 'string theory' and a slew of other terms that escaped me. Tilly, who has a certain way with members of the opposite sex, managed to at least get the gist of what the research was all about. We bunked together (a Trident is not exactly a four star hotel) and this gave us an opportunity to talk.

"How did you manage to get any of the boffins to open up?" I asked her. We were perched on our bunks in shorts and Tee shirts, submarines being a bit warmish.

"Oh," she replied, "they said nothing. But I got to know the Captain."

"No doubt in the Biblical sense," I replied wryly.

"Anything for my country. Besides, he's rather cute. Anyway, what there all rabbiting on about is a new energy source, something about combining matter and anti-matter."

"Tilly, even I know that would explode all over the place."

"Precisely. But the professor has worked out a possible way to contain the energy, and control it. At little cost. Available to all. The Chinese guy was particularly interested in this -- all those idiotic coal mines.

"The oil companies will love such a new source of energy.," I said.

"Not the boffins' problem. And the oil barons can always be co-opted. But that's not all. What has them really excited came about as a by-product to the research. Something to do with anti-matter and magnetism. In short, it may just be possible to bend space, as if you could take a flexible wire and bring the two ends close together. A flight to Mars in about the same time as it takes to go from New York to Rio."

"No shit."

"Mind you," Tilly continued, "the Captain told me the problems are immense, and resolving all the issues will take some time."

"Like about 500 years."

"You may be surprised."

It was then that Wilder's play surfaced in my mind. His thesis, that the human race comes extremely close to catastrophe before avoiding it, seems entirely apropos. Our energy needs were surpassing our ability to meet them. Something, somewhere, would give. Let us hope that again we can escape by 'the skin of our teeth'.

At this point we were informed that the meeting had drawn to a close. Good. I had had enough of close quarters. After signing yet another oath of secrecy, we headed for port.

Before we disembarked, the American professor, who looked somewhat drawn and tired, approached me, and thanked me for my part in the Libyan adventure.

I acknowledged this, then asked him what was next. His reply startled.

"Younger people can take it from here," he said. "I'm too old to be always at someone else's beck and call. Need a new job."

"Any thoughts?"

"Yes. A greeter at Wal-Mart. Then I can say forcefully, "TAKE THE DAMN CART!"


* Somewhere near Carbis Bay, off the Cornish coast and not near any sea-lanes. The Captain was most helpful. -- Matilda Hatt

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Herewith An Hiatus

Tilly Hatt called, all excited.

"I hear your going! Should be more fun than a barrel of monkeys."

"Not really," I replied. "How can two weeks of mental gymnastics be fun? This will be more like a mathematical root canal."

"Spoil sport," Tilly sniffed. "Just think of all those young Brits, the opportunities, the fact that there will be no escape. Fun, Simone, fun!"

What the good Matilda Hatt was referring to was an ultra secret meeting between the CIA, MI6 and a number of scientific specialists. The purpose? To make sense of the material obtained from the Libyan desert. The location? On a Trident nuclear submarine somewhere in the North Atlantic.

When Sir Harry wanted security, he didn't cut corners.

My invitation only came begrudgingly. My engineering degree is more mechanical than anything to do with nuclear fission or fusion, but I did have possession of one of the memory sticks that had been retrieved. Apparently the Professor was not as absent-minded as I had first thought. He had split the data into three, and hence my memory stick was at issue. Which meant that I was at issue.

Tilly informed me that her immediate superior was dead set against my attending. Tilly suspected that was because her immediate superior wasn't allowing her to go. Also, Tilly further mentioned that this woman, a political appointee, was a bit batty in the head. She knew this because the woman always referred to her breasts as "Abercrombie" and "Fitch."

I thought this overly twee, and for a fleeting moment wondered what I might call my own. Given a rather handsome return I had recently engineered with respect to sugar beet derivatives, I thought "Goldman" and "Sachs" might be appropriate. Then the fleeting moment thankfully fled.

The various secrecy oaths I have sworn forbids me to state just what will be under discussion. What I can tell you is that a new energy source is at issue, involving matter coming together with anti-matter. Hence the desert location. Apparently there was a small chance of creating a medium-sized black hole. Acceptable perhaps in a desert location, but not near any large urban area.

This little get-together is expected to last two weeks, during which time I will be incommunicado. But never fear -- I, like General MacArthur, will return. And given that science is the main topic under examination, I leave you with this, from Jacob Bronowski's The Common Sense of Science:

"Science is the acceptance of what works and the rejection of what does not. That needs more courage than we might think."

Discuss among yourselves.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Writing On Rites And Rights

Yesterday, pace The Beatles, really does seem so far away. I had just settled down to write my usual weekly entry, comfortable in my fluffy robe and eager to share with my readers the nature of the material lifted from the Libyan desert, when my gardener and housemaid Consuela burst in and said that I really must see a visitor.

Now these days Consuela is totally absorbed in attending to the recent arrival of her baby, the little girl Maria Aisha. (This name came about owing to Consuela's marriage to my driver and handyman, Ahmed. Consuela was still a confirmed Catholic, and while Ahmed was getting less certain by the day where Islam is concerned -- he has, for instance, discovered Voltaire -- he nevertheless wanted his child to at least reflect his Middle East heritage.) But something had interrupted Consuela's fixation on her child, and I wondered what it could be.

"He's waiting for you in the Conservatory," Consuela said. "He really wants to meet you."

"Who really wants to meet me?"

"The new parish priest at Our Lady Of The Sorrowful Chains. Father Martin."

"Oh, Consuela, I really don't think --"

"You see, My Lady," Consuela continued, oblivious to my hesitation, "he's been to that convent. The one where the nuns don't really believe in the sacraments." She shuddered a bit when saying this.

"You mean, the Little Sisters of Poverty and Pain."

Consuela nodded. "He....has some questions. When he learned that you were the chief benefactor, and that I worked for you, he requested that perhaps a meeting could be arranged."

I threw in the towel. "Oh, all right. But just this once. Tell him I'll be down in a moment. I'm not really dressed for company."

Consuela left, and I headed for my rooms, where I opened my closet and reviewed things. For a fleeting moment I considered my Catholic schoolgirl outfit, but decided that would be a bridge too far. Besides, that outfit only came into play when the Compte de Rienville was in town, and enough said about that. I selected a white blouse, and slipped on a black hemp jumper my son Sebastian had designed for me. Looking in the mirror, I decided that would be quite Catholic enough.

In the Conservatory, I greeted the new parish priest, Father Martin. The man was tall, and very, very thin. I had to suppress a smile when the thought occurred that the man, as he made his way over the flagstones at the front of the Manor, might well have disappeared into one of the cracks.

"Well, Father, welcome. Perhaps some...ah, I see Consuela has already attended to tea."

"Yes, she is a very considerate woman." His voice surprised -- a deep bass with real power.

"That she is. How can I help you?"

He got up from his chair, and began to pace. Since I know from The Trade that silence is the most effective way to encourage talk, I found a chair, sat demurely, and waited.

The man was obviously shaken, and it was some time before he began to speak. "The nuns at the Convent. Not what I expected."

"What did you expect?"

"I'm not sure. But not what I found. The Sisters are definitely atheists, but they are doing really fine work. They do not force their view on others, and indeed never let on to those who seek their help that they are not quite what they seem. Yet the Bishop would rather they would just go away."

"The nuns might hold the same thought with respect to the Bishop."

A slight smile briefly flitted across his face. Good, I thought. The man had at least the semblance of a sense of humour.

"Yet it somehow is monstrous," he continued. "A Convent is a Godly institution, nuns are, in a very real sense, brides of Christ, and yet they --"


"Yes, they Minister. And do it well. Very well."

I said, "So let's restate the issue. We have some atheistic nuns, who are doing God's work, and doing it very successfully, and thereby supporting the tenets of Catholicism. I fail to see that there's a problem here."

"That's the issue. The more I think about it, I don't see it as problematical as well, although I might wish that the nuns not pretend to be what they are not."

"Actually, Father," I said, "If asked, they will say exactly what they are. Or, put differently, they let others see them as they want to. I mean, you wouldn't want them to be untrue to themselves, would you?"

"I...I have to think about all this."

"Thinking is good."

He rose. "I appreciate your taking the time to see me. When I have thought a bit, I wonder if we might talk again?"

"Certainly, Father. And I pass on to you a little saying I find helpful: "Going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than going to a garage makes you a car."

At this he laughed.

There is hope for us all.