By Isaac Asimov
Copyright © 1982
All right reserved.
"No good!" said Lamont, sharply. "I didn't get anywhere." He had a brooding look about him that went with his deep-set eyes and the slight asymmetry of his long chin. There was a brooding look about him at the best of limes, and this was not the best of limes. His second formal interview with Hallam had been a greater fiasco than the first.
"Don't be dramatic," said Myron Bronowski, placidly. "You didn't expect to. You told me that." He was tossing peanuts into the air and catching them in his plump-lipped mouth as they came down. He never missed. He was not very tall, not very thin.
"That doesn't make it pleasant. But you're right, it doesn't matter. There are other things J can do and intend to do and, besides that, I depend on you. If you could only find out-"
"Don't finish, Pete. I've heard it all before. All I have to do is decipher the thinking of a non-human intelligence."
"A better-than-human intelligence. Those creatures from the para-Universe are trying to make themselves understood."
"That may be," sighed Bronowski, "but they're trying to do it through my intelligence, which is better than human I sometimes think, but not much. Sometimes, in the dark of the night, I lie awake and wonder if different intelligences can communicate at all; or, if I've had a particularly bad day, whether the phrase 'different intelligences' has meaning at all."
"It does," said Lamont savagely, his hands clearly bailing into fists within his lab coat pockets. "It means Hallam and me. It means that fool-hero, Dr. Frederick Hallam and me. We're different intelligences because when I talk to him he doesn't understand. His idiot face gets redder and his eyes bulge and his ears block. I'd say his mind stops functioning, but flack the proof of any other state from which it might stop."
Bronowski murmured, "What a way to speak of the Father of the Electron Pump."
"That's it. Reputed Father of the Electron Pump. A bastard birth, if ever there was one. His contribution was least in substance. I know."
"I know, too. You've told me often," and Bronowski tossed another peanut into the air. He didn't miss.
It had happened thirty years before. Frederick Hallam was a radiochemist, with the print on his doctoral dissertation still wet and with no sign whatever of being a world-shaker.
What began the shaking of the world was the fact
that a dusty reagent bottle marked "Tungsten Metal" stood on his desk. It wasn't his; he had never used it. It was a legacy from some dim day when some past n habitant of the office had
wanted tungsten for some long-forgotten reason. It wasn't even really tungsten any more. It consisted of small pellets of what was now heavily layered with oxide-gray and dusty. No use to anyone.
And one day Hallam entered the laboratory (well, it was October 3, 2070, to be exact), got to work, stopped shortly before 10 A.M., stared transfixed at the bottle, and lifted it. It was as dusty as ever, the label as faded, but he called out, 'God damn it; who the hell has been tampering with this?"
That, at least, was the account of Denison, who overheard the remark and who told it to Lamont a generation later. The official tale of the discovery, as reported n the books, leaves out the phraseology. One gets the impression of a keen-eyed chemist, aware of change and instantly drawing deep-seated deductions.
Not so. Hallam had no use for the tungsten; it was of no earthly value to him and any tampering with it could be of no possible importance to him. However, he hated any interference with his desk (as so many do) and he suspected others of possessing keen desires to engage in such interference out of sheer malice.
No one at the time admitted to knowing anything about the matter. Benjamin Allan Denison, who overheard the initial remark, had an office immediately across the corridor and both doors were open. He looked up and met Hallam's accusatory eye.
He didn't particularly like Hallam (no one particularly did) and he had slept badly the night before. He was, as it happened and as he later recalled, rather pleased to have someone on whom to vent his spleen, and Hallam made the perfect candidate.
When Hallam held the bottle up to his face, Denison pulled back with clear distaste. "Why the devil should I be interested in your tungsten?" he demanded. "Why should anyone? If you'll look at the bottle, you'll see that the thing hasn't been opened for twenty years; and if you hadn't put your own grubby paws on it, you would have seen no one had touched it."
Hallam flushed a slow, angry red. He said, tightly, "Listen, Denison, someone has changed the contents. That's not the tungsten."
Denison allowed himself a small, but distinct sniff. "How would you know?"
Of such things, petty annoyance and aimless thrusts, is history made.
It would have been an unfortunate remark in any case. Denison's scholastic record, as fresh as Hallam's, was far more impressive and he was the bright-young man of the department. Hallam knew this and, what was worse, Denison knew it too, and made no secret of it. Denison's "How would you know?" with the clear and unmistakable emphasis on the "you," was ample motivation for all that followed. Without it, Hallam would never have become the greatest and most revered scientist in history, to use the exact phrase Denison later used in his interview with Lamont.
Officially, Hallam had come in on that fateful morning, noticed the dusty gray pellets gone-not even the dust on the inside surface remaining-and clear iron-gray metal in their place. Naturally, he investigated.
But place the official version to one side. It was Denison. Had he confined himself to a simple negative, or a shrug, the chances are that Hallam would have asked others, then eventually wearied of the unexplained event, put the bottle to one side, and let subsequent tragedy, whether subtle or drastic (depending on how long the ultimate discovery was delayed), guide the future. In any event, it would not have been Hallam who rode the whirlwind to the heights.
With the "How would you know?" cutting him down, however, Hallam could only retort wildly, "I'll show you that I know."
And after that, nothing could prevent him from going to extremes. The analysis of the metal in the old container became his number-one priority, and his prime goal was to wipe the haughtine from Denison's thin-nosed face and the perpetual trace of a sneer from his pale lips.
Denison never forgot that moment for it was his own remark that drove Hallam to the Nobel Prize and himself to oblivion.
He had no way of knowing (or if he knew he would not then have cared) that there was an overwhelming stubbornness in Hallam, the mediocrity's frightened need to safeguard his pride, that would carry the day at that time more than all Denison's native brilliance would have.
Hallam moved at once and directly. He carried his metal to the mass spectrography department. As a radiation chemist it was a natural move. He knew the technicians there, he had worked with them, and he was forceful. He was forceful to such an effect, indeed, that the job was placed ahead of projects of much greater pith and moment.
The mass spectrographer said eventually, "Well, it isn't tungsten."
Hallam's broad and humorless face wrinkled into a harsh smile. "All right. We'll tell that to Bright-boy Denison. I want a report and--
"But wait awhile, Dr. Hallam. I'm telling you it's not tungsten, but that doesn't mean I know what it is."
"What do you mean you don't know what it is."
"I mean the results are ridiculous." The technician thought a while. "Impossible, actually. The chargemass ratio is all wrong."
"All wrong in what way?"
"Too high. It just can't be."
"Well, then," said Hallam and, regardless of the motive that was driving him, his next remark set him on the road to the Nobel Prize and, it might even be argued, a deserved one, "get the frequency of its characteristic x-radiation and figure out the charge. Don't just sit around and talk about something being impossible."
It was a troubled technician who came into Hallam's office a few days later.
Hallam ignored the trouble on the other's face-he was never sensitive-and said, "Did you find-"He then cast a troubled look of his own at Denison, sitting at the desk in his own lab and shut the door. "Did you find the nuclear charge?"
"Yes, but it's wrong."
"All right, Tracy. Do it over."
"I did it over a dozen times. It's wrong."
"If you made a measurement, that's it. Don't argue with the facts."
Tracy rubbed his ear and said, "I've got to, Doe. If I take the measurements seriously, then what you've given me is plutonium-186."
"The charge is +94. The mass is 186."
"But that's impossible. There's no such isotope. There can't be."
"That's what I'm saying to you. But those are the measurements."
"But a situation like that leaves the nucleus over fifty neutrons short. You can't have plutonium-186. I You couldn't squeeze ninety-four protons into one nucleus with only ninety-two neutrons
and expect it to hang together for even a trillion-trillionth of a second."
"That's what I'm telling you, Doc," said Tracy, patiently.
And then Hallam stopped to think. It was tungsten he was missing and one of its isotopes, tungsten-186, was stable. Tungsten-186 had 74 protons and 112 neutrons in its nucleus. Could something have turned twenty neutrons into twenty protons? Surely that was impossible.
"Are there any signs of radioactivity?" asked Hallam, groping somehow for a road out of the maze.
"I thought of that," said the technician. "It's stable. Absolutely stable."
"Then it can't be plutonium-186."
"I keep telling you, Doc."
Hallam said, hopelessly, "Well, give me the stuff."
Alone once more, he sat and looked at the bottle in stupefaction. The most nearly stable isotope of plutonium was plutonium-240, where 146 neutrons were needed to make the 94 protons stick together with some semblance of partial stability.
What could he do now? It was beyond him and he was sorry he had started. After all, he had real work begging to be done, and this thing-this mystery-had nothing to do with him. Tracy had made some stupid mistake or the mass spectrometer was out of whack, or-
Well, what of it? Forget the whole thing!
Except that Hallam couldn't do that. Sooner or later,
Denison would be bound to stop by and, with that irritating half-smile of his, ask after the tungsten. Then what could Hallam say? Could he say, "It isn't tungsten, just as I told you."
Surely Denison would ask, "Oh, and what is it, then?" and nothing imaginable could have made Hallam expose himself to the kind of derision that would follow any claim that it was plutonium-186. He had to find out what it was, and he had to do it himself. Clearly, he couldn't trust
So about two weeks later he entered Tracy's laboratory in what can fairly be described as a first-class fury.
"Hey, didn't you tell me that stuff was non-radioactive?"
"What stuff?" said Tracy automatically, before he remembered.
"That stuff you called plutonium-186," said Hallam.
"Oh. Well it was stable."
"About as stable as your mental state. If you call this non-radioactive, you belong in a
Tracy frowned. "Okay, Doc. Pass it over and let's try." And then he said, "Beats me! It is
radioactive. Not much, but it is. I don't see howl could have missed that."
"And how far can I trust your crap about plutonium186?"
The matter had Hallam by the throat now. The mystery had become so exasperating as to be a personal affront. Whoever had switched bottles, or switched contents, must either have switched again or have devised a metal for the specific purpose of making a fool of him. In either case, he was ready to pull the world apart to solve the matter if he had to-and if he could.
He had his stubbornness, and an intensity that could not easily be brushed aside, and he went straight to G. C. Kantrowitsch, who was then in the final year of his own rather remarkable career. Kantrowitsch's aid was difficult to enlist but, once enlisted, it quickly caught fire.
Two days later, in fact, he was storming into Hallam's office in a blaze of excitement. "Have you been handling this thing with your hands?"
"Not much," said Hallam.
"Well, don't. If you've got any more, don't. It's emitting positrons."
"The most energetic positrons I've ever seen. . . And your figures on its radioactivity are too low."
"Distinctly. And what bothers me is that every measurement I take is just a trifle higher than the one before."
Excerpted from Gods Themselves
by Isaac Asimov
Copyright © 1982 by Isaac Asimov.
Excerpted by permission.
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