Science cannot progress without curiosity. But curiosity often kills – or must.
John Hammond had experimented all his life: with snails and the exact quantity of sodium chloride it would take to turn one of them into ‘snail solution’ in precisely thirty seconds; or a housefly dissected till its six jointed legs settled into rigor mortis. He always allowed the dismembered insect to be borne away by soldierly ants and accorded what he thought of as a ‘martyr’s funeral’: death in the cause of science.
His investigative mind eventually took him to his own research laboratory at the Institute of Fundamental Life Sciences in the middle of the Nevada Desert.
In 1961, he had worked as a graduate student under Prof Walter Karnes. During his first lecture Professor Karnes stated, “You will one day actually crystallize a pure virus with whatever modifications you may want. And it will unerringly reproduce its kind. Think about it.”
Hammond was still thinking about it as the decade and some progressed, and he moved from graduate student to head of his own lab.
Many things had changed by then. The moon, for instance.
It was no longer either the poet’s golden raccoon, or the lyricist’s apple whirling silently in space. Five years ago a man in a reflective helmet and custom-made spacesuit had, for the first time in history, floated over its unreal, unhandsome surface.
Hammond was now working on ‘tailor-made viruses’ as part of ‘Project Mikrovio’. One evening the Director of the Institute sent for him and his colleague, Philip Kruger. “Within the next ten years, the United States of America will be putting a whole research station into space. Astronauts will spend days, weeks, months, may be a year or two on location. The point is we have no idea of what they may encounter there in the reaches of our solar system – what microbes, for instance. So you, Hammond, will create viruses and you, Kruger, the drugs to combat them with so that our scientists may be sent up well-equipped. Use your imagination, Hammond: engineer such viruses as do not exist on Earth…”
Hammond ran his tongue over his lower lip.
Eleanor joined his team the following spring. By late summer they were dating. It was easy enough to do that: she had an acute brain beneath an untidy stack of honey-coloured curls, and full lips as pale as a corpse’s. The day she cut her finger on a broken bit of test tube, he applied Betadine to it and said, “Would you like to have dinner with me – and a drive after that?”
The desert pulled them miles away from the Institute campus. The sand was the colour of camel skin and the hills a mass of darkness conversing with itself. He parked the car and watched the shadows settle on the hazel of her eyes. He looked up. The summer triangle of stars seemed remoter and more majestic in Nevada skies than elsewhere. “If I believed, I’d call it ‘God’s Diamond Dust’.”
“And do you?” she asked.
“I said, ‘If’. I believe in experiment, observation and inference, and that everything can in some way be measured and data obtained. And you?”
“Science. And…men of science.”
He looked deep into her eyes. Their intensity almost sucked him in. “Eleanor, would you accompany me to interstellar space? There to work, live, perhaps die? There’s a strong possibility that we might some day in the not too distant future need to colonize the universe. The Earth’s running out, you know that.”
“Yes…I want to be buried on the moon, in a lunar cemetery, John.” He drew her close and felt her breath condense on his skin. He wondered if love could be quantified.
They drove back. He turned on the car radio. A voice curved out of the speakers. The singer might have been in the car with them; you could hear her deep intake and exhalation of breath: “I’ll love you to the moon and back. And back. I’ll love you to the moon and back….”
The lyrics curled around them.
In his journal entry of 25th August 1975 John Hammond wrote:
I’ve arrived at a conclusion though, for once, I do not have any measurable data to go by: Eleanor Aberbach loves me unremittingly.
I have a question: can love be measured? Here are some theories I have perused on its origins and nature:
Anthropological: According to these, love exists because it helps ensure the reproduction and, therefore, the perpetuation of the species. (I have never experienced the need for the perpetuation of my genes and chromosomes – let alone those of the human race.)
Psychological: These include the attachment theory which maintains that love is a by-product of a human being’s relationship with childhood caregivers. (I was a posthumous child with a mother as remote as Pluto. So I know nothing of this.)
Physiological: These theories are based on explorations of the changes in physiological parameters registered as romantic relationships progress. Social psychologists claim that scans carried out on people newly in love or after the ‘perfect date’ show that a complex system in the brain is activated and that is essentially the same as happens when a person takes cocaine.
It is this last theory that interests me – not because of the potent nature of love but because it is a natural phenomenon. I wish to measure love in order to understand it. Nothing, I believe, is either to be feared or craved. It is only to be understood.
I’ve already thought of a unit for love: the ‘amore’.
On a scale of one to ten, how much does Eleanor’s love for me measure?
In his precise handwriting Hammond made an entry for Feb 8th 1976:
They arrived today – four extremely rare orange howler monkeys from the Amazon rainforests. Harker, our wild life biologist who procured them for us, has a hunch that they carry a virus which could be engineered so as to produce a contagion hitherto unknown on earth.
Harker warned us that the howlers might sicken and die out of sheer ‘climatological shock’ before we got around to isolating the virus we are looking for. So we’ve rehabilitated them in a man-made, micro-version, of the Amazon rainforests the setting up of which required sheer genius because in Nevada we are far removed from the tropical Amazonia.
Eleanor and I stood in ‘the forests’ last night. We caught a glimpse of their vivid fur as the monkeys scampered through the branches. They do not remain still except for the two-minute naps that punctuate their days and nights.
We heard them in the moonlight, their throaty cries thrown back at us by a wall of trees. No wonder they call them ‘howlers’….
March 25th, 1976
Our ‘Amazonians’ will serve as the reservoir supplying us with the virus we are hoping to isolate. So we will temporarily house them in the experimental animal room. For the actual trials guinea pigs and common species of monkeys will suffice.
On a drive to the ghost town of Nipton, the other day, Eleanor said, “I’m like a virus. I’m alive only when I am with you. The rest of the time, it’s a kind of suspended animation. And if you were to leave me, stop loving me, John – I’d be completely dead.”
I gathered her up and kissed her. Eleanor’s metaphors are unusual. But then, so is she.
So are both of us….
I often lie awake worrying about the final stages of our experiment. It is one matter to assess the effect of an engineered virus on experimental animals. But it is the safety of our astronauts that is our ultimate objective. Therefore, what, will we do about human trials?
An idea is forming in my mind.
But, first, I must assess Eleanor’s love for me – its integrity. And I believe that it is her brain that I need to explore.
May 29th 1977
Our first breakthrough after months of unrelenting effort. We have isolated it: the Orange Alouatta Caraya Virus! And now it appears that it was ridiculously simple.
Harker had made a singular observation about the howlers which ought to have led us. He’d said, “This may sound like an Indian superstition, Hammond: but the howlers appear to grow agitated every full moon; and to all intents and purposes they go quite mad. They lose their balance and develop un-coordinated movements. Some even plummet out of trees and die. And they howl incessantly. In every case, the animal was found to be free of suspected hydrophobia. The Ameriana Indians, as a matter of fact, call them the ‘mad ones of the rainforests.’ All this, I have observed, intensifies as the full moon rises. A traditional case of lunacy, you may say.”
But it was Eleanor who set me thinking when she remarked, “Do you think we ought to investigate the nervous system of our howlers on a full-moon night? It is believed that the moon does have an effect, sometimes adverse, on life here on Earth. Perhaps we might find something of interest in their brain or spinal cord tissue….some alterations perhaps?”
“You mean that we study their behaviour and look for the footprint of unusual viruses in their cerebrospinal fluid? That’s an idea. We’ve looked elsewhere: saliva, blood, the gastrointestinal tract. And we’ve never factored in the moon….”
Eleanor proved scintillating. A month ago, for the very first time, we studied the cerebrospinal fluid of the howlers under our electron microscope. It was teeming with dark brown, sharply outlined, pathognomonic bodies. They were unlike any microbes we were familiar with. So we realized that they must be the orange alouatta caraya viruses that we’ve been pursuing for so long!
Outside, the campus was silvered by a full moon.
We kept the monkeys under observation and made a discovery that really shouldn’t have surprised us: the viruses proliferate on full-moon nights, but the rate of replication decreases significantly as the moon wanes. Further, these microbes undergo spontaneous modifications in structure under the influence of the waxing moon, but revert to ‘normal’ as new moon approaches.
It was Harker’s conjecture that they are ideal for ‘engineering’ because they are easily given to structural changes. I agree with him. And it is my guess that the viruses also suit our mission because of the distinct shaping influence of an astronomic body on their genetic material and rate of replication.
That explains the aberrant behaviour of the monkeys in which these pathogens are endemic!
Something else occurred to me: do the pathogens themselves undergo periodic phases of ‘insanity’?
However that might be, the first glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel is perceptible.
September 30, 1978
Last week serendipity offered me a singular opportunity to study Eleanor’s brain. The perfect pretext. It was spillage of the alouatta virus from a test tube she was handling. As simple as that.
The Lab Safety Regulation Team insisted on putting her through a barrage of tests – including a cerebral angiograph. She refused sedation; said she wanted to be part of all investigations on herself. She only asked for me to be present.
Just before the procedure began, she whispered, “I love you to the moon and back, John Hammond. I love you to the moon and back. And back.”
I kissed her briefly but intensely. The dyes began to course through a catheter and into the blood vessels of her brain. They slid her onto the patient table.
Then I turned to look at the x ray photographs captured on a screen and for the first time I saw the brain of Eleanor Aberbach.
The ‘reward pathway’ along which the stimulus of love and sex always travel was a trail of blazing white involving several parts of her brain and concluding in a miniature mushroom cloud at the prefrontal cortex.
I recall that here was a sharp intake of breath from the chief neuro physician. “Something unusual, doc?” I asked.
He indicated the screen, “Just look at that! The levels of dopamine release are twice as high as when one injects cocaine directly into the bloodstream…It’s like a miniature atomic explosion! We’ll have to keep her under observation.”
I could have told him that he was wrong. It had nothing to do with any virus. It had only to do with love: we were looking at Eleanor Aberbach’s unalloyed love for John Hammond. It was terrifying in its purity.
October 24th 1978
They discharged Eleanor after two weeks in isolation. We are back to our reconstruction of the alouatta virus and a classification of its properties.
We stained the engineered pathogens midnight blue and were studying them under the lab’s electron microscope when Eleanor exclaimed, “Poetic! See, John, how they’ve changed from their clumsy predecessors to spherical moon-shaped microbes. Our lovely blue moons!”
We introduced the restructured alouatta into spinal cord tissue from a guinea pig. A week later I noticed something for the first time in the host cells: a string of molecules floating by like icebergs on parade.
“Look what we’ve got here, Eleanor: seems to be an enzyme released by our engineered friends. And its structure is unidentifiable….”
More drama was to follow.
In three days, the cell material of the host tissue had vanished from view. All that was left were reconstructed viruses replicating themselves with efficiency, and an enzyme capable of dissolving animal tissue.
Eleanor suggested that we subject the viruses to heat. We stood by as the temperature climbed wickedly from one hundred to one thousand degrees Fahrenheit and higher.
This is what we recorded in the research journal: The reconstructed virus can resist temperatures of over one thousand five hundred degrees Fahrenheit. This has far reaching implications. Virtually heat resistant? Further, even if the application of heat were to impair the virus’s infective potential, would it completely destroy its genetic material?
We examined the engineered pathogen over a full lunar month and made a further discovery: the moon had the same shaping influence on the restructured alouatta as on its parent virus. I recall watching ‘blue-moon’ viruses flicker incessantly on the monitor, streams and streams of them when Eleanor asked, “Does the engineered alouatta still carry traits acquired from its parent RNA?”
The time has come for us to proceed from single cells to mammalian hosts.
3.30 a.m. January 31st 1979
Last night Eleanor and I entered the animal room and were greeted by a distinct odour. I wondered what it was.
The howler monkeys were ossified into silence. Not a ghost of a movement – unless you counted the tremors that passed through their bodies, and the slightest chattering of their teeth. Then Eleanor pointed to the guinea pig cages. The animals, twelve of them, were in various stages of rigor mortis. Some were actually undergoing complete dissolution.The enzymes released by the virus are evidently capable of the complete destruction of living tissue.
Now I knew why the howlers had ceased all activity -they had picked up the odour of mortality.
Three days ago, we had injected the first modified pathogens into our guinea pigs. They appeared in perfect health – till sometime yesterday.
I believe we will make a complete breakthrough with human cells within the next two years. And human trials are imperative. I have no idea about the ethics involved or the Law. But neither concerns me.
It’s taken me two weeks to commit this to my journal – even though I plan to destroy it before my own death, whenever that should be.
Two weeks ago I remarked to Eleanor, “We are at the concluding stage of our project. Where do you see yourself hereafter?”
She looked up from a microscope. “I’m not sure. But, with you I hope. I have reason to expect so…John?”
The time, I knew, had come to reveal myself to Eleanor and let things take the turn which I intuited they would.
I replied, “I respect you, Eleanor. But I do not love you.”
She grew as still as the howlers had been in their cages.
I continued, “I have tried. But I am not made for love, any more than the moon is made for man’s poetry.”
The fact remains that Eleanor Aberbach was merely the object of my scientific interest – not of my affections. Of the latter I have none. I do not blame myself.
There was the slightest quiver of her lips. I thought I saw the little girl of long ago in Eleanor Aberbach. But all she said was, “How did I guess? Nevertheless I did. There was always something so…so hypothetical about your love.”
Then she walked to the Master Room where specimens of our newly engineered virus are kept under the strictest security. At the doorway she hesitated. I often think she was hoping I’d intervene; bar the way, perhaps…
“If I can’t make you care for me, then at least I can make you value you me in a way you will never forget, John Hammond.” She was the colour of the ashes of roses as she straightened her shoulders and walked through a door she would never walk out of again.
Without my love, Eleanor had repeatedly declared that she would be ‘dead’. Not literally, of course. Therefore, it would have been murder to administer her with a lethal virus in order to study its effect on the human body. Wouldn’t it? However, if she administered it to herself, completely unaided by me, what then?
Her last words before the deed were, “It’s not suicide, John. It’s for you – a loving, envious sacrifice.”
If it works for the advancement of science, that’s all I ask for.
I have it now -the measure of Eleanor’s love. It scored a Perfect Ten Amore.
There end his diary entries.
John Hammond was a profile in courage as he supervised the obsequies.
“My deep condolences, John”, the Director shook hands with him while the sealed cadaver pouch was slid into the crematory tray. “We’ve lost a fine scientist, but you’ve lost a significant someone in your life.”
Hammond told him that it was Eleanor’s longstanding wish was to be buried on the moon. “Her ashes dispersed in the lunar atmosphere would be a fine tribute to her.”
“There’s a Russian mission in a month, John. We could arrange for them to convey her there, I’m sure.”
Hammond had no idea why he mopped his forehead.
Three days later he collected her ashes and had them transferred into a capsule embellished with a plaque engraved with her name, dates of birth and death and, as a poetic touch, modified lines from Shakespeare: “When she died, I cut her into little stars and scattered her on the moon. The world will thereafter love the night for a beauty not its own, but for that of my sweet Eleanor.”
On a Saturday afternoon two months later the phone rang. It was the Director, “John, I expect you’ve been following it in the newspapers about Eleanor…her ashes?”
“No, I haven’t. Well?” Hammond put his beer down on the cabinet. He didn’t say that he’d been strictly avoiding all references to Eleanor.
“As it turns out, there were other burials scheduled on the same mission. So only some of her ashes were dispersed on the moon. Apparently it’s a question of far too much debris in the lunar atmosphere. Something we at the institute never thought of. Well, the upshot is that the rest…of Eleanor has been brought back. So I’ve decided to have the remains scattered over the institute because here’s where she spent her most productive years. Where she belonged. I felt I needed to discuss it with you. Would you like to go up in the helicopter, be part of it?”
“I understand, John.”
“When’s this going to be?”
“As soon as possible. May be as early as tomorrow seeing that the capsule’s already arrived. Doesn’t seem respectful to keep it lying on a shelf.”
A distant chop chopping told him that the helicopter was on its way. He’d caught the sound of it above the voice of the announcer on his living room radio.
It was close now: chop-chop chop-chop. Hammond thought he saw fine ash being scattered over the institute campus.
Scarborough Fair Canticle disappeared over air waves and the radio voice announced, “And now we have Bonnie McCrery with the all time favourite: ‘I’ll love you to the moon and back’!”
Hammond, looking over the institute campus, was almost sure a mote of dust had landed on the window sill and floated in.
A voice, intense and immediate, curved out of the radio: “I’ll love you to the moon and back. And back. I’ll love you to the moon and baaack….”
The singer herself might have been in the room.