In Memoriam Isaac Asimov

 

 

(Petrowich, Russia : 1920 – New-York, April 1992)

______________________________

 

 

 

Coma

Part 5

 

They had entered another elevator,

 

something he had scarcely bothered to notice, and they were now on another level. He looked about him and recognized characteristics that seemed to transcend national differences.

 

– Are we in a medical wing – he asked.

 

– A hospital – said Boranova –. The  Grotto is a self-contained scientific complex.

 

– And why are we here?  Am I ...  –. He stopped suddenly, as the horror of the thought smote him. Was he to be drugged or, by some other medical means, made more compliant?

 

Boranova had walked on for a moment, then stopped, looked back, and came towards him, saying snappishly:

– Now what is frightening you?

 

Morrison felt ashamed. Were his facial expressions that transparent? :

– Nothing is frightening me – he grumbled –. I am simply tired of walking aimlessly.

 

– What makes you think we are walking aimlessly? I said we were going to see Pyotr Shapirov... We are walking towards him now –. Come, we have only a few steps left.

 

They turned a corner and Boranova beckoned  him to a window.

 

He stepped to her side and looked in. It was a room and there were a number of people present. There were four beds, but only one was occupied and it was surrounded by equipment that he did not recognize. There were tubes and glassware extending towards the bed, and Morrison counted a dozen functionaries, who might be doctors, nurses, or medical technicians.

 

Boranova said:

– There is Academician Shapirov.

 

– Which one – said Morrison –?  His eyes travelling from one of the figures to the other and finding  no one who seemed similar in appearance to the scientist he recalled having met once.

 

– In the bed.

 

– In the bed? He’s ill, then?

 

– Worse than ill. He is in a coma. He has been in a coma for over a month and I strongly suspect it is an irreversible state.

 

– I’m terribly sorry to hear that. I presume that is why you referred to him in the past tense before lunch.

 

– Yes, the Shapirow we know is in the past tense, unless ...

 

– Unless he recovers? But you just said the coma is probably irreversible.

 

– That’s true. But neither is he brain-dead. The brain is damaged certainly, or he wouldn’t be in a coma, but it is not dead, and Konev, who has followed your work closely, thinks that some of his thinking network is still intact.

 

– Ah – said Morrison, the light breaking –, I began to understand. Why didn’t you explain this to begin with? If you had wanted to consult me on such a matter, and had explained, I might have been willing to come here with you, voluntarily. Yet, on the other hand, if I were to study his cerebral functioning and tell you :  “ Yes, Yuri Konev is right ”, then what good will that do you?

 

– That will do us no good at all. You don’t yet begin to understand, you see, and I can’t explain exactly what it is I want until you understand the problem. Do you quite realize what is buried there in the still-living portions of Shapirov’s brain?

 

– His thoughts, I suppose.

 

– Specifically, his thoughts of the interconnection of Planck’s constant and the speed of light. His thoughts of a method for making miniaturization and deminiaturization rapid, low-energy and practical. With those thoughts, we give humanity a technique that will revolutionize science and technology – and society – more than anything since the invention of the transistor. Perhaps more than anything since the discovery of fire. Who can tell?

 

– Are you sure you’re not being overdramatic?

 

– No, Albert. Does it occur to you that if miniaturization can be tied in with a vast acceleration of the speed of light, a spaceship, if sufficiently miniaturized, can be sent to anywhere in the Universe at many times the speed of light. We won’t need faster-than-light travel. Light will travel fast enough for us. And we won’t need anti-gravity for a miniaturized ship will have close-to-zero mass.

 

– I can’t believe all that.

 

– You couldn’t believe miniaturization?

 

– I don’t mean I can’t believe the results of miniaturization. I mean I can’t believe that the solution of the problem is permanently locked in the brain of one man. Others will eventually think of it. If not now, then next year, or next decade.

 

– It’s easy to wait when you are not concerned, Albert. The trouble is we’re not going to have a next decade, or even a next year. This Grotto which you see all about you has cost the Soviet Union as much as a minor war. Each time we miniaturize anything – even if just Katinka – we consume enough energy to last a sizeable town for a whole day. Already, our government leaders look askance at this expense and many scientists,  who  do  not  understand the importance of miniaturization  or who are simply selfish, complain that all of Soviet science is being starved for the sake of the Grotto. If we do not come up with a device to save on energy – extreme saving , too – this place will be shut down.

 

– Nevertheless, Natalya, if you publish what is now known of miniaturization, and make it available to the Global Association for the Advancement of Science, then innumerable scientists will put their minds to it and quickly enough someone will devise a method for coupling Planck’s constant and the speed of light.

 

– Yes – said Boranova –, and perhaps the scientist who will obtain the key to low-energy miniaturization will be an American or a Frenchman or a Nigerian or a Uruguayan. It is a Soviet scientist who has it now and we don’t want to lose the credit.

 

Morrison said:

– You forget the global fellowship of science. Don’t cut it up into segments.

 

– You would speak differently, if it were an American who was on the edge of the discovery and you were asked to do something that might possibly give the credit to one of us. Do you remember the history of the American reaction when the Soviet Union was the first to put an artificial satellite into orbit?

 

– Surely we have advanced since then.

 

– Yes, we have advanced a kilometre, but we have not advanced ten kilometres. The world is not yet entirely global in its thinking. There remains national pride to a considerable extent.

 

– So much the worse for the world. Still, if we are not global, and if national pride is something we are expected to retain, then I should have mine. As an American, why should I be disturbed over a Soviet scientist losing credit for the discovery?

 

– I ask you only to understand the importance of this to us. I ask you to put yourself in our place for a moment and see if you can grasp our desperation to do what we can to find out what it is that Shapirov knows.

 

Morrison said:

– All right, Natalya. I understand. I don’t approve, but I understand. Now – listen carefully please – now that I understand, what is it you want of me?

 

– We want you – said Boranova, intensely –, to help us find out what Shapirov’s thoughts, his still living and existing thoughts, are.

 

– How? There’s nothing in my theory that makes that possible.  Even granting that thinking networks do exist, and that brain-waves can be minutely analysed, and even granting that I occasionally get a mental image, possibly imaginary, possibly an artifact; there remains no way in which the waves can be studied to the extent of interpreting them in terms of actual thoughts.

 

– Not even if you could analyse, in detail, the brain-waves of a single nerve cell that was part of a thinking network?

 

– I couldn’t deal with a single nerve cell in anything approaching the necessary kind of detail.

 

– You forget. You can be miniaturized and be inside that single nerve cell.

 

And Morrison stared at her in sick horror. She had mentioned something like this at their first meeting , but he had put it aside as nonsense ; horrifying , but nonsense, since miniaturization, he was certain, was impossible...

 

But miniaturization was not impossible and now the horror was undiluted and paralysing.

 

To be followed

 

 

 

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