[painting by Carl Dennis Buell]
Little Billy Dembski jetted breathless across the campus of the Minne-toba Tropical and Marine Biology Institute. He was late for his tutoring session, and to keep Dr. Myers waiting on his birthday! Billy was mortified. The whole city of Morris was buzzing with preparations for the party. Intellibrooms were sweeping the streets and orchestrobots tuning up. Holobillboards throughout Morris were blinking “Happy 349th!” It was quite an occasion. Dr. Myers wasn’t the oldest person in the world. That honor belonged to some gentleman named Buell who lived in New Yellowknife. But Dr. Myers was certainly the oldest, and most revered, person Billy knew. The thought of keeping history’s only simultaneous winner of the Chemistry, Medicine and Peace Nobels waiting! He glided up the steps of the Benthic Studies department, and down the hall into Dr. Myers’ teaching theater.
Billy flung open the door. “Happy birthday, Dr. Myers!” But Dr. Myers was busy, vivisecting a golden retriever as a group of rapt third-graders took notes. “Well hello, Billy!” boomed Dr. Myers. “My canine neurobiology seminar is running a little late. I’ll be right with you!”
From its mat on the operating table, the dog looked up. It saw Billy and wagged its tail. “Hi, Billy!”
Billy was dumbfounded. “That’s… that’s unbelievable! Your hyperdog work has been more successful than anyone ever imagined!” Dr. Myers turned color just a bit. “Well,” he said, pleased, “I do have to admit it’s quite a triumph, designing a hyperdog so impervious to pain that he can experience unanaesthetized surgery, and still hold a normal conversation! It’s certain to be a breakthrough in humane vivisection.”
Dr. Myers turned to the third-graders. “Well, that about covers it for now, kids. Don’t forget, your up quark tunneling microscopy projects are due tomorrow, and remember what I said: no Power Point.” The children groaned good-naturedly and filed out of the room. Dr. Myers moved the surgical control console up to the dog’s face. “Mind finishing up here, Rusty?” “Sure thing, PZ!” said the dog, setting the autodoc to reimplant his sciatic nerve.
“You know, Billy, you really don’t have to make a big deal about my birthday,” said Dr. Myers as they left the theater. “I hardly pay attention to them myself.” Billy and Dr. Myers walked down the long, brightly lit hallway, and Billy marveled once more at the scientific opulence of his surroundings. “My parents and I really appreciate your helping me with my studying, Dr. Myers.” Myers chuckled as they entered the lobby. “Oh, that’s no trouble at all, Billy. It helps me pass the time. And besides, if it wasn’t for your great-to-the-fifth grandfather’s generous endowment, none of this would be here.”
Dr. Myers gestured as he spoke at a burnished plaque in the main lobby. Billy had read the holoinscription a thousand times. He could recite it by heart. “This building is dedicated in gratitude to PZ Myers by a grateful William Dembski. Thank you for showing me the error of my ways. For your patience and kindness this gift is but paltry restitution.” Next to the words was a small figure of a man on his knees, weeping, hands folded in supplication.
“Your ancestor was a very gracious and generous man,” said Dr. Myers. “Without his belated enthusiasm for evolutionary studies, we never would have been able to launch the Pharyngula.”
“The unmanned submersible?” Billy said, knowing full well the answer to his question.
“The very same,” said Dr. Myers, as they entered his private laboratory. “And without that innovative, quintuple-reinforced submersible, we never would have been able to plumb the mysterious depths of the Java trench. And without that expedition…”
“You wouldn’t have discovered Megaloteuthis myersi,” finished Billy.
“Exactly,” said Dr. Myers, grinning broadly. “And it’s hard to imagine what our world would be like today if we hadn’t. Isn’t it?”
“Jeepers,” exclaimed Billy. “It sure is!”
“That’s my boy,” said Dr. Myers, one of his arms draped familiarly over Billy’s shoulder.
One whole long wall of Dr. Myers’ gleaming lab was taken up with a large marine tank, its thick composiglass walls so transparent as to seem invisible, yet permitting light to travel through it only one way: from the tank out into the lab, thus simulating the darkness of the depths of the Java Trench. The tank was a hundred feet high and a thousand long, and yet still seemed diminutive next to Dr. Myers’ gargantuan laboratory bustling with hundreds of graduate students. As always, Billy was entranced by the tank’s contents. A few luminescent anglerfish flitted by, along with what were once quaintly, long ago in the 21st century, called “giant squid.” A mere forty feet from nose to tips of tentacles, they were as children’s bath toys next to the truly large Megaloteuthis.
Billy shook himself from his reverie. What was he thinking? Twenty-fourth century children’s bath toys were nothing to sneeze at. Billy still remembered fondly the fusion-powered submarine his father had given him in kindergarten, which worked just like the real historic model.
Dr. Myers looked at the paperwork on his desk and sighed. “More nuisance lawsuits! Fools. It’s the twenty-fourth century, and people are still swayed by the ravings of hucksters! It’s almost as bad as the old days, back when people were religious.”
Billy was puzzled. “What are the lawsuits about, Dr. Myers?”
Dr. Myers cut off his rant in mid-sentence, then chuckled. “Well, as you know, Billy, when we brought the first Megaloteuthis back to the laboratory we found that it had a remarkable metabolism, especially including…”
Billy cut him off eagerly. “Including a cocktail of modified cytotoxins in its bloodstream that played a role in the squid’s immune and nervous systems, and which proved to have a marked beneficial effect on human health. Golly, Dr. Myers! I’m not in kindergarten anymore!”
“Ah, yes, I remember,” said the kindly old biologist. “Fourth grade, is it? Did you know I wrote this into the Minne-toba third grade curriculum myself? Never mind. As you’re so learned, young man, why don’t you just tell me the rest of the story then.”
Billy took a deep breath. “The cytotoxins were involved in Megaloteuthis’ ability to glow in the dark, uh, bioluniniescence?”
“Bioluminescence,” Dr. Myers corrected him.
“Bioluminescence. They also protected the squid from bacterial and viral pathogens, and from… um… uncontrolled tissue growth, by killing invasive, or infected or damaged cells.”
“That’s right! We used to call that last one cancer, incidentally.”
Billy was pleased that Dr. Myers approved of his recitation. He so looked up to his tutor. “And when a method was found to make the cytotoxins safe for human consumption, a massive worldwide distribution program was set up, and that brings us to today!”
“Not so fast, my bright young friend!” Dr. Myers waved a chiding arm at his student. “What was the conversion process we found to make the cytotoxins safe?”
“Oh, wait, I know this: administering them in a high pH medium with a high concentration of the crosslinked amino acids ornithinoalanine and lysinoalanine.”
“You’re among friends, here, Billy. You can speak plain Hyperenglish.”
“You put it in lutefisk.”
Myers beamed. “A happy accident that was, I have to say. And then what happened?”
Billy thought for a moment. “A lot of things happened. The cytotoxins prevented all communicable diseases and that… cancer? And that’s how we discovered aging was actually a disease caused by a cryptopathogen. And they had some beneficial effects on the nervous system too, they cured depression and we all… well, we all got smarter.”
Dr. Myers grinned. “That’s right! You’ve been studying, my boy! Keep talking, Billy. I’ll just sign these affidavits while I listen.”
Billy continued. “So we got smarter and we learned more about the physical universe, and in 2157 those physicists at New Berkeley disproved the existence of… what did they call it? God?”
“That was one name for it,” said Myers. “I still remember the hangover I had the next day. But Billy, aren’t you leaving out the social impacts? You know biology shapes society, and the other way around.”
“Well,” ventured Billy, “people were happier, and so they wanted fewer possessions, which meant less industry and less work to make money to buy things, which in turn made people even happier, and so we were able to migi… migi…”
“…mitigate the ecological damage of previous centuries.”
“And what else?”
“The cytotoxins sharply reduced fertility,” remembered Billy.
“Which was a good thing because…”
“Because we hardly ever die anymore.”
“Exactly! Well done! And don’t forget: freed from the burden of contraception, unwanted pregnancy, and child-rearing, women the world around made remarkable gains in political and personal autonomy.” Dr. Myers gesticulated happily. At that precise moment a pale purple light shone from a fifth of the giant tank. It was Megaloteuthis, seeming to agree with Myers in his accolades. “But Billy, you left out my favorite part of the whole thing, remember?”
“Well, we bioloo…bioluminesce! now. Which means we don’t need artificial lights at night, which means most power generating plants shut down the year after your discovery…”
“…because much of the 21st century electrical grid was devoted to lighting. You pass the quiz, Billy! Bravo.” Dr. Myers kept signing sheet after sheet of legal document. “You know, Billy, I’m sure glad I can write with two hands at once now,” said the revered biologist. “With this many legal documents to sign, the old one-handed way would take me forever.”
“But why do people sue you?” asked Billy.
“Oh, it’s nothing, really. There’s a small group of people who’ve stopped taking the drugs, and as the intelligence-enhancing effects decline they’ve reinvented the old pseudoscience of homeopathy. They claim to have an alternative to the cytotoxin serum that has fewer effects.”
“But all those effects are good things!” exclaimed Billy.
Dr. Myers was down to his last dozen affidavits. “Well, they’re talking about what we used to call ‘side effects,’ negative effects of the drug.”
“There are negative effects?”
Dr. Myers’ left pen made sudden scratching noises on the paper. “Damn this legal mumbo-jumbo!” said Myers. “My pens seem to run out of ink twice a day lately!” He opened the pen barrel, brought it down to an opening low in his lab coat, grunted once and brought the pen back up full of ink. Signing the last of the affidavits he wiped his brow with his third arm and picked up a cup of coffee with the fourth. He took a long sip. Setting the cup back down, his long, tapering arm made little popping sounds as its suckers let go of the ceramic. He turned, focusing one eye on Billy and the other the giant tank across the lab.
“Negative effects?” Dr. Myers thought for a moment. “I never found any negative effects.”