Good morning, students.
Today ends our intensive course. These past ten days we have discussed specific methodologies in applied astrophysics: initial long-distance sighting, probe selection, plotting orbits, principles of space simulation programming, various recent developments in the field—I believe I glossed all the main technical aspects. Both this institution and I myself expect you chosen few will go on to great things with the knowledge and skills you have acquired here. Best of luck.
Well then, having more or less finished with our planned curriculum as of yesterday, I’m sure you all must be wondering, why this one leftover lecture today? Students generally try to psyche out their teacher before they ever get down to study, a tendency that is especially pronounced in honors students. Here you are solving assignments with ease, formulating flawless hypotheses without stepping outside the laboratory, you probably think that lab work is all that matters. Such attitudes have fostered much learning—and lost even more.
To counter this tendency, I wish to dedicate this last session to the value of keeping in touch with society—even in highly specialized discipline such as ours. I would even go so far as to say that we scientific researchers must seek out the blessings and obstacles of our fellow man. Such is the subject of this lecture.
That’s right. Enough theory. I think you’ve got that down. All of you find yourselves here precisely because you have no problem with theoretical issues, though off the record I’d like to say I’m not necessarily one-hundred-percent in agreement with this institution’s selection policies . . . Ah yes, the eternal assistant professor spouting off again, I can almost see your scornful expressions. No, it must be my imagination; you wouldn’t think that. Still, so as not to waste your precious time on any of my humbug, let me assure you that those who wish to leave at this point will suffer no strike against their attendance record. Nor will this material be covered in tomorrow’s exam. Suffice it to consider today’s lecture as my little protest against this institution’s sacrosanct policies. To borrow the words of an ancient Chinese sage, zuofan youli: “opposition makes its own reasons.”
Now what was I saying? Ah yes, I’d like to offer an actual instance of scientific research in direct contact with society. No a priori principles, there are things in this world that can only be illustrated by concrete example. Thus, I propose to discuss what can only be related empirically. How unscientific! The reminiscences of an old fart. Well, well, I’ll bet you rational souls weren’t expecting this today, now were you?
Twenty years ago, when I was your age, I was invited on an asteroid-observing expedition. Should anyone be interested in our concrete findings, you can check them out at the library. Simply put, however, the aim of expedition was to see if an asteroid might emit gases.
Now as you all know, asteroids are too small to have atmospheres. They are cold lumps of rock, devoid of any internal activity—at least that was the prevailing wisdom. To find gas emissions would be like admitting the existence of the Little Prince and his volcano.
Yet these were ideas that fascinated a certain Latvian astronomer—my mentor—then resident at the University of Hawaii. Based on a photograph he himself took before while manning the UH Mauna Kea Observatory’s seventy-inch telescope, he conjectured that a certain Asteroid X might have an atmosphere and even show volcanic activity. He had been making a photographic sweep of the heavens, very unglamorous work, when he noticed one curious frame. Viewed side by side with a photograph of the same quadrant taken the year before, he saw an object that hadn’t been there—either a comet or an asteroid. Nothing unusual in itself, though closer inspection revealed a trace of haze tailing nearby. A cloud that stretched tens of thousands of kilometers, which moreover seemed to issue from the rock surface, not away from the sun like a comet. An asteroid with a volcano?
Naturally, a veteran researcher wouldn’t think of publishing a paper from only that one photograph. He needed exhaustive observation work. He took more photographs the same way, but failed to obtain similar results: the object was obscured by the faintly glowing body of gas, there was no getting a clear image. If at all possible, he had to see that volcanic cloud or whatever illuminated in isolation. That’s right, you’ve got the idea—he needed an eclipse. If he photographed the very instant the asteroid hid in the shadow of the moon or the instant it re-emerged, he’d get an image of the cloud itself. Which analyzed spectrographically would tell him its composition. And if by some fluke the results indicated volcanic elements, he’d have the find of the century.
Whereupon he calculated the trajectory of the asteroid. Cases where researchers encounter chance good fortune often tempt iffy notions of divine intervention or what-have-you, but as it just so happened his Asteroid X was due for an eclipse in only three months. Yes, he lucked out not having to wait another five or ten years. On the down side, however, the window for observing this eclipse was extremely narrow. Juggling the relative positions of the earth, moon, and mystery object—the three players in the eclipse—yielded a tight east-west swath in the western Pacific not so very far from Hawaii.
The only dry land along those bearings was a small island republic. In principle, of course, it was possible to observe the eclipse from a boat; the logistics of trying to observe a fleeting phenomenon from a rocking deck, however, seemed insurmountable. Not to mention the prohibitive cost of securing a boat in addition to all the equipment required. For the same reason he passed on the idea of an airplane, despite the arguable advantage that flying at the same speed as the moon’s shadow would prolong the visibility. He didn’t have that kind of money. He barely squeezed enough out of the university to budget basic equipment and a modest staff, including himself, of course, as team leader.
I was still a postdoc when I was selected for the mission, though as I shall tell you in due course, I played a vital role. Just how far afield my contribution was from scholarly pursuits may seem as laughable as it is in fact germane to my essential message today.
But I digress. The equipment was readied and first transported to Guam. From there it was three days by freighter to the island in question. The professor arranged to go by plane, but I, being the youngest member of the team, got put on board together with the cargo. As a fledgling astronomer, it was the last thing I expected. Taking a premodern conveyance like that—tossed about on the waves, terrible food, no women, seasickness—gave me a good taste of the hardtack reality that astronomy is not all telescopes and number crunching.
On the fourth morning, we pulled into port. Huge crowds had turned out to meet us, so many people to see so few passengers and watch each piece of cargo unloaded. Dark skin, bright eyes, the islanders were a picture of easygoing contentment. I scanned the crowd for familiar faces, and spotted the professor, assistant, and technician all waving up at me. As quick as they could secure a gangway, I was off that relic, only too happy to be reunited. Soon our crate was landed and loaded onto a commandeered pickup truck.
Still, we made it to the underground parking area of our hotel safely, crate and all, checked in and showered, then regrouped for dinner. Here in the capital of this tiny country of seventy thousand, the hotel was the only high-rise building. The restaurant on the top floor, overlooking all the sleepy little palm-thatched huts and occasional two- or three-story shop house, was one of those 360° revolving affairs. Only this one wobbled and jammed, the vibrations knocking over beer bottles. We didn’t dare ask what was wrong with it.
Over a leisurely, if shaky, evening meal, we reviewed our plans. We, meaning the professor, chief assistant Peter Uema, techie Giannino Marinetti, and Miss Xaviera, a young woman from the island Science Council who was to act as mission coordinator.
One thing you should know about the professor, he had a bit of a problem. Not a real problem to anyone acquainted with the situation, but here was a man inseparable from drink. Don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t a reprehensible alcoholic. Yes, the professor could lose his social graces and make a public fool of himself, and yet the better part of his genius seemed to burst forth unannounced from behind that fog of alcohol. Anyway, we students understood this side of his character only too well; seniors always briefed any new faces first thing at his seminars. “The professor may look stupefied, but don’t let your eyes fool you. Under that thick atmospheric layer of ethanol, beneath the crusty surface of his person, there’s a great inner dynamic under intense heat and pressure fast at work.”
Well, that evening, as usual, the professor was plastered. While we others had freshened up and changed in keeping with the civilities of mealtime, the professor wasted no time in ingesting copious quantities of liquid ethanol in order to crank his head into a creative state. That much we could tell the minute we met him in the revolving restaurant.
So it was Japanese-Hawaiian sansei Peter who did the talking. Another inspiring figure for me, task-manager assistant to the transcendental professor, Peter outlined preparations for the eclipse only three days hence. The equipment I minded on the boat over consisted of a large CCD spectroscope fitted with a recording device, a computer to drive the system, and an electric generator to run the computer. No telescope as such. Preliminary investigations had discovered a twenty-inch reflective telescope here on the island in one of the high schools, and we’d negotiated in advance with the Science Council to use it the night of the ellipse. Miss Xaviera, a teacher by profession, often used it to instruct her high school students. Originally installed by the Japanese manufacturer and handled with care ever since, the piece was in reasonably good shape, she informed us. And if it was a little out of kilter, well then our Giannino could fix it straight away.
Adjusting our equipment to the twenty-inch presented no problem; everything could be set up the next day. All we had to do was to align the spectro, load the high-speed recorder, and wait for the asteroid’s hide-and-seek night. Detailed analyses of the recordings would keep until back in Hawaii where we had access to a mainframe computer. Giannino, never one to trust local conditions, had insisted on the generator in case the island power grid failed.
There was not one foreseeable obstacle to our observation. That much clear, we cut short the shop talk for more casual conversation. Or rather, the professor holed up in his own little world, while Peter and Giannino bandied about their technical jargon—which was all those two ever talked about anyway. Here they’d come to this exotic island and found themselves at the same table with an obviously bright young woman, and they couldn’t be bothered to give her a second glance. Which left me to attend to this Miss Xaviera.
All right. I see those knowing grins. May I remind you this is a university and a lecture on astrophysics. Neither the time nor place for wasting time on my more personal memories.
Now just a minute. I do believe this institution has rules against heckling during lectures. Still, one must be prepared to compromise, whatever the situation. So without going into any private words shared with Miss Xaviera, let me relate a little of what she told me about that island republic. A fascinating topic not wholly unrelated to our astronomic observations there, so I see nothing out of place in spelling out that much.
The tropical ministate achieved independence not so long ago after a history of rule by Spain, Germany, Japan, and the United States. A nominal independence, however, as foreign aid accounts for most of the national budget. But with plenty of food from the fields, from the sea, barter is just as common as dollar-pegged paper economy. If they didn’t want industrial goods from developed countries, they’d have lived happily ever after.
As the restaurant window creaked slowly around, I eyed the city below. Street lamps came on along the main avenue alive with headlights. An evening vista not unlike Hawaii. This was where we’d conduct our observation.
That was it for the evening—and I do mean just that. The professor retired to his room with a bottle of bourbon, Peter and Giannino each bundled his share of technical issues back to his respective room, and I retreated to mine with thoughts about the days ahead on the island. Miss Xaviera, I suppose, went home. I know nothing more than that, so please be quiet. Life isn’t as romantic as you all seem to believe.
The following day we finished setting up during daylight hours. The high school telescope was amply serviceable, as Miss Xaviera had said. We attached a terrestrial eyepiece to its eight-inch guide scope and trained it this way and that. A church cross on a lesser island shone over crisp and clear, despite the shimmering heat. Luckily, our eclipse was at two in the morning, when the air would be nice and still. Not much call for Giannino’s technical prowess. The moon and planets would move in due course, the equipment was all set and waiting to go, everyone assumed our mission would go like clockwork.
Only later did we notice anything amiss. That night, we decided to do a dry run when our Asteroid X rose in unison with the moon. We took an early nap to adjust to staying up late, waking at 12:50, eighty minutes before the appointed hour. We knew the professor wouldn’t stir, so we younger members of the Asteroid Team set out walking from the hotel to the high school on our own. Miss Xaviera met us at the gate and let us in.
Before installing the spectroscope, we did naked-eye test sightings. That’s a hard and fast rule. Giannino was the first to put his eye to the eyepiece. He squinted hard and long and didn’t say a word. Peter likewise peered at it for a while, then gave it over to me without comment. Shining stars swam beautifully into view, then I too saw the problem. I resigned the eyepiece to Miss Xaviera, who took a quick look, then glanced up at the three of us.
That’s right, the focal plane was too bright. The moon wasn’t high in the sky and mostly in shadow—the eclipsing last sliver of moonlight posed no problem, especially with so little airborne matter about. No, the problem was a ground flare, some light from below. Upon inquiring with Miss Xaviera, we learned that very likely, given the angle, the glow came from the Presidential Villa. The fountain out in front was always kept illuminated until dawn.
The offending lumens, moreover, posed no simple inconvenience. A constant glare we could compensate. But reflected and refracted by every little droplet of spray, there was just no way. We had to do something or our gaseous phenomenon—the briefest glimmer of a halo—would prove nigh impossible to observe. We decided then and there: somehow we had to get the lights shut off the night after next (and if tomorrow night as well, so much the better for practice). That was the extent of our evening; we each retired back to our rooms.
The following morning at 9:00 Peter and I met Miss Xaviera in the hotel lobby. We were determined to appeal to the appropriate authorities to turn off the fountain lights for two nights. The professor was useless at this sort of politicking and Giannino not much better. This left Peter to negotiate and me to lend moral support. Miss Xaviera took us to her Science Council, little more than a one-room schoolhouse really. Or not even that: their entire Science Council consisted of a clerk, a Mr. Madaliagi at his desk, and whatever local science teachers from outlying schools managed to convene an annual general meeting.
It was immediately apparent that this ghost of bureaucratic conjuring was utterly powerless to shut off the fountain lights. The only thing the “Council” could do was accompany us to the Bureau of Foreign Affairs (he pulled a little seniority over Miss Xaviera) and help explain.
The Bureau turned out to be just across the road, a bungalow the size of two classrooms where a score of young men and women languidly pushed papers. Three telex machines in the corner gave the place a little bit of an international air, but otherwise it could have been a rural town hall. Mr. Madaliagi had assumed that because we were foreigners this would be our rightful venue, but no sooner did a Mr. Uhup hear us out than he determined ours was not a “foreign affair.” If anything, it was domestic, something for the Home Office. Reasonable enough. Facilitating our mission would in no way alter American policy toward this island nation nor increase Japanese ODA a single decimal place.
We set off for the Home Office with Mr. Uhup in the lead. True to its station, this Home Office was the size of three classrooms, thatched and shaded by palms, really a pleasant setting. Mr. Uhup, Mr. Madaliagi, and Miss Xaviera all tried to chase up our rightful counterpart. This Capital District Officer, a Mr. Juan Nerome, duly informed us that the power plant had a direct line to the fountain at the Presidential Villa, hence the switch to turn off the lights must certainly be theirs to control. For while nominally the power plant was Home Office jurisdiction, in actual practice it was a budgetary rubber stamp; the power plant effectively operated as an independent agent. We left at once.
By now, dear students, I’m sure you will have remarked that passing the buck is the staple fare of bureaucracies everywhere—and believe me, this institution is no exception. One significant difference in their genre of the runaround, however, is that officials there are so very cooperative that even if a case is not theirs to resolve, they will personally escort you to wherever they deem to be the appropriate office. Thus, there were now six of us en route to the power plant: myself and Peter, Miss Xaviera, Mr. Madaliagi, Mr. Uhup, and Juan Nerome. With the solution now so near at hand, we were feeling pretty sure of ourselves.
The power plant was a big structure, plainly visible above the harbor. At the plant office we met with an Australian technician named Stevenson who’d manned the generators a good fifteen years. All smiles, surely he’d be receptive to our request. A mistaken assumption. Granted the power to run the fountain and lights as well as to supply all other local electrical needs were diesel-generated on site, the power to switch the lines on and off wasn’t his.
Well, then, whose was it? He flipped open a directory and found the line in question billed to the presidential administration. So now seven of us—Stevenson included—were ready for our last trek. But having traipsed after red tape all morning, it was getting on noon, time to break for lunch. We agreed to rendezvous two hours later in the lobby of the hotel.
The Presidential Villa perched on a bluff a short distance from town, sheltered by a seafront grove of cocoa palms. The administrative offices apparently occupied the same building. We took two cars. En route I asked Miss Xaviera about local politics. According to her, the new President was not very popular, whereas the former President had started off well but overstepped his mandate and lost the election. A short trip gets a short explanation.
Out in front of the Presidential Villa, sure enough, was a huge fountain with eight spotlights all around. Over my shoulder, through the swaying palms, I caught glimpses of the high school telescope dome. Close, a little too close. These lofting jets of spray were situated in precisely the worst possible alignment to interfere between the telescope and our objective.
The Villa itself was immense. A whitewashed two-story colonial pastiche with galleries reaching out from either wing to embrace a central courtyard, it was considerably more daunting than any of the other government offices. We debated among ourselves who should present our case. Juan Nerome with his Home Office rank claimed to know someone inside, so he was volunteered to brave inside.
We filed in after him and waited while he disappeared to seek out his colleague. Presently Juan Nerome re-emerged in the company of a very dark, prepossessed man in a proper suit and tie (I forgot to mention, all other officials up to now wore either aloha shirts or those pleated Filipino guayaberas.) Now this man would be able to help us, he dressed the part.
Introducing himself as Mr. Gregg, he heard us out, each in turn. The simple thing would have been to start from Peter and myself, but no, that’s not how they did things there. Protocol worked backward from Stevenson and how he came to be involved, followed by Juan Nerome and the rest on down the line to us.
Explaining how astronomical observations benefit the average person can be difficult, but Peter did a valiant job, drawing an analogy to how data from weather satellites helps us know when a typhoon is approaching. (Placed in the same situation, I sincerely wonder just how eloquent you all would be, dear students. Such eventualities can and do test relations between our studies and society, yet another instance of today’s theme.)
Likewise, Mr. Uhup offered how seafarers, from ancient times, all navigated by the stars. The very ancestors sailed their canoes from island to island consulting the heavens. Was this not a vital opportunity for their island nation to help steer greater world society today?
The expositions went on for an hour or more, Mr. Gregg listening silently through it all. Then, once we’d talked ourselves out, he spoke. They could not turn off the fountain spotlights. It was a fundamental policy of the present administration to observe all laws, edicts, statutes, and regulations to the letter. Presidential Edict No. 231 explicitly stated that the fountain was to operate twenty-four hours a day, illuminated from sunset to sunrise. End of discussion.
Crestfallen, we left the Presidential Villa, everyone sounding off—the former administration would never have been so straightlaced! This President’s surrounded himself with fools! Gripes and grumbles, not one constructive proposal to the lot of us. Before disbanding, Peter expressed thanks to the officials for their efforts on our behalf and launched into an impromptu speech. We would strive on to the best of our abilities under the circumstances toward obtaining findings that would prove useful to mankind . . . rather moving, actually. Everyone perked right up, beaming over a very meaningful day’s work.
That evening at dinner, Peter related the day’s events to the professor. At this rate there was little hope for observing anything at all. That idiotic fountain was an obstacle to science. It flew in the face of our belief (and yours too, I’m sure) that science was the key to open all doors. Nonetheless, Peter and Giannino were adults; at least they realized that science does not exist in isolation, that research only yields results in keeping with society. And like it or not, we now found ourselves operating under the constraints of a small island community.
It was then the professor brought a Copernican revolution to our predicament. Words of greatness filtered through the alcoholic fog: If they won’t shut off the lights, then it’s up to us to pull the plug. Peter and Giannino were stunned; it was the solution to all our problems. That was it! We’d kill the lights ourselves. But how? There had to be a switch for the fountain spotlights somewhere in the Presidential Villa, all we had to do was find it. Turn it off fifteen minutes prior to our eclipse, and then turn it back on afterward. No one would be the wiser. No guards around the fountain, day or night. The real issue was sneaking into the Presidential Villa. Was there someone who could lead us to it?
Alternatively, Giannino suggested, the circuit might work on a photocell. Which would make things a whole lot simpler. The switchbox would then be somewhere nearby the fountain. Point a flashlight at it, the cell would think it was morning and shut off the spotlights. That much said, such boxes are usually placed up high, so we’d need a ladder and run the risk of drawing attention. In any case, it had to be easier than infiltrating the Villa itself.
Nonetheless, the following day brought disappointment. I strolled to the grounds and nosed around, but found no switchbox anywhere. So it wasn’t activated by photocell. Would I have the courage to steal inside the grand edifice and meet up with Mr. Gregg in some dark hall? That night, thinking ourselves right back where we started or possibly even worse, the professor cut loose another lightning-bolt idea: Why niggle with just the spotlights, when we can black out the whole town in one go? All we have to do is shut down the power plant.
The three of us were dumbfounded. He had a point. Entering the power plant surely had to be less of a felony than breaking into the Presidential Villa. A middle-of-the-night blackout, in a small town—not even a big city—hardly anyone would be awake. A few street lamps would fail, the fountain would stop, the spotlights would go out. Our modern hotel probably had its own emergency power system and the telephone exchange could get by on batteries. We, of course, packed a gas generator. Twenty minutes of darkness at the most, a momentary return to the days of preelectrification. No hospital operation under the knife at that hour, no mainframe computer running a backup. It would inconvenience precisely no one. Or was it all just selfish rationalization on the part of us outsiders?
Well, no sooner did the professor say “shut down the power plant” than Giannino and Peter both turned to me with a you’re-the-expendable-one look. Unfortunately, before switching to Astronomy, I’d majored in Electrical Engineering—and they knew it. Our little Asteroid Team didn’t really need me on the observation end. I resigned myself to my lot.
Late that night, one hour prior to the Estimated Time of Observation, I took leave of the other three and headed off alone to the power plant. This as you recall was near the harbor, the shorter the pipeline needed to pump diesel from the tankers. In the vicinity were only warehouses and loading yards. The occasional street lamp here and there, but no cars on the road. Our mission was in my hands. Miss Xaviera was to meet the others at the high school observatory. What would she make of my absence? How would they explain?
I wish Stevenson could have briefed me on the power plant during the day. I knew there were three diesel generators; two typically operate in rotation or in tandem to meet peak demands; the third was a spare. But was there someone on duty twenty-four hours? Did it run the late shift on automatic? I hadn’t a clue. I just knew I didn’t want to wrestle a night watchman to the ground like some common burglar.
Lights were on at the power plant, probably flouting conservation measures in a boast of self-sufficiency. Middle-of-the-night electrical demands ought to have been low, but one generator was chugging away on high. There was a wire fence all around, but the front gate was ajar. Wary of watchful eyes, I raced over to the building at a crouch and fell back into the shadows. Just like in the movies, I couldn’t help thinking. If only there was a cinematographer! The doors were wide open. Apparently they only shut them during typhoon season.
I’d noticed on our one and only visit that the control room was on the far right—little did I imagine I’d be breaking into the place—so I followed the right-hand wall all the way around to the back. Still cautious at first, I dodged from behind one object to the next, but soon realized no one was looking. No one cared. Who on that island would think of sabotaging a power plant? Nothing there to steal, no place to bring a date. Short of a coup d’état, who’d force their way in? Who’d have foreseen a reckless astronomer on the prowl?
I peeked into the control room, sweating what I’d do if I came face-to-face with someone. There wasn’t a soul. These modern apparatuses don’t require round-the-clock maintenance, but still. Any trouble, a spare kicks in or a warning device summons help. That much just figured. So now the task at hand was to shut down the plant. Straightforward enough, a flick of a switch. Starting up again, however, was different story. With all three generators down, you’d have to switch on the reserve batteries to send a charge to the induction coil and power up one of the motors, then engage the generator. But that wasn’t my job; all I had to do was turn things off. Tell the machines, Good night, the people don’t need your electricity. And the generators would say, All right, we’ll take a breather.
One last question: after shutting down the mains, how many minutes did I have before anyone came? Assuming there was a guardhouse on the premises. I made one quick survey—not even a hammock where a lone staffer might be sleeping.
I choked up my courage and entered the control room. The control panel was self-explanatory. All I had to do was throw a breaker lever and hope I’d have five minutes before they answered any alarm. Would I have to lock anyone in? I doubted the professor expected that much of me. My best bet was simply to pull the plug and run.
I hid under the control panel until the appointed hour. In one corner of the cosmos, a young man waited to switch off a generator; in another, an asteroid waited to plunge into moon shadow. Sunbeams would bathe those fairy whisps erupting from flying rock and a CCD unit mounted on a terrestrial telescope would capture the image on floppy disk for analysis.
1:57 AM, fifteen minutes to go. I stood up and faced the control panel. I pressed a few buttons, I threw the breaker. The diesel turbine started to wind down, slower and slower. The noise level dropped, the ceiling lights dimmed. Performed correctly, I thought. The mechanism ground to a complete halt. I made sure no other machine was revving up, then left the building and hid by a side of the road to see if anyone came. Or rather more to the point, to see that no one came too quickly. Fifteen minutes, ten minutes on the inside, that’s all I wanted. Just enough for our asteroid to stray behind the moon and spew a little gas for the camera, then let any workman come jumpstart the generators.
I lay down in the grass maybe a hundred meters from the plant, gazing up at all the stars. Please, just thirty minutes until the generators come back online, I wished. Let the observation go well . . . Around the twenty-minute mark, I heard a car. So there were people on night duty after all. I looked at my watch; we were in the clear. I was just about to head back to the hotel when another car arrived. Things were escalating. I felt a little uneasy and beat a quick path out of there. I entered the hotel through the underground garage and made straight for my room. I’d pocketed my key, so no one at the front desk saw me return. The others weren’t back yet, so in imitation of the professor I ingested a small quantum of alcohol to calm my nerves, then went to sleep.
At eight in the morning they came to arrest me.
There was a knock on the door. I was still half-asleep, but managed to drag myself out of bed. I remembered I was in a foreign country and I remembered what I’d done night before. Half-expecting Peter or Giannino or maybe even Miss Xaviera, I opened the door to find a strange man in sunglasses with several uniformed youths behind him. Mr. Sunglasses asked my name, confirmed that I was one of the Asteroid Team, then declared me under arrest. The matching green guayabera boys grabbed me by the arms. I put up no resistance. I told them to tell Peter I’d been arrested, but they weren’t listening. Might I at least have breakfast? I asked. Mr. Sunglasses gave it a moment’s thought, then marched us to the hotel dining hall and ordered two take-out breakfasts. Why two? I wondered.
I was taken to their headquarters, a two-story wooden building surrounded by a high fence, with jail cells on the upper floor. They handed me a can of orange juice and my hotel breakfast neatly packed in a white box, then they locked me up. My cell was floor-to-ceiling iron bars, but at least there was a large window high on the wall, so I got plenty of air.
I finished eating, but nobody came. I considered my captors. Who were they? They’d arrested me, so they had to be some kind of police. No, there was something odd about them. Aside from Mr. Sunglasses, they were all so young, barely teenagers the lot of them.
Around 11:00 I finally heard footsteps. It was Giannino and Stevenson, both visibly relieved to see me unharmed. Giannino assured me they’d get me out in no time. Thanks to my crime, the data had been duly recorded and transmitted back to UH. Mission accomplished.
Next, Stevenson stepped forward to fill me in on the circumstances leading up to my arrest. If all had gone well, my little escapade would have meant only a brief blackout. But unfortunately the President was in the habit of getting up to take a leak at 2:15 AM every night. He noticed the lights were out and called Stevenson, ordering him to go investigate on the double. Stevenson jumped out of bed and was at the power plant not five minutes later (the first car I’d seen). Didn’t matter who shut down the generators, he’d have them up and running in no time. He could do it in the dark. He started up one of the diesel turbines, made sure the output voltage and frequency were stabilized, and was heading home.
When just then, the President himself drove up (the second car I’d seen). Did electrical generators stop dead in the middle of the night all by themselves? he shouted. What the hell caused the failure? Wanting no blame for incompetence, he told the truth: obviously someone had thrown the switch. The President flew into even more of a rage. That’s a criminal act! It’s the ex-President’s henchmen! He began pacing the control room looking for clues—and he found one. Stupidly left behind by yours truly, a tear sheet from a UH memo pad proudly noting the exact hour and minute of the eclipse. Now it had reached the President’s ears that a so-called research team had come petitioning to get the fountain spotlights turned off. This was clearly incriminating.
The following morning, the President mobilized the Civil Security, his underage goon squad led by the man in sunglasses, who then rushed to the hotel to arrest the first of our Asteroid Team they could find. That I just happened to be the culprit was pure coincidence. Why they couldn’t be bothered to apprehend all four of us, I’ll never know.
The next few days found me still in jail. The hotel catered my meals; they even rang up to ask how I liked my steak cooked. Yes, I’d have to say imprisonment agreed with me.
Meanwhile, the morning of the second day, Peter came to tell me, sorry, but they’d all be leaving the country. In the professor’s judgment, it would be more effective to return to Hawaii and exert pressure via the U.S. State Department. I only hoped he had a sufficient amount of alcohol in his system when he arrived at that decision.
Came evening, Stevenson dropped by with Juan Nerome from the Home Office. There didn’t seem to be any fixed visiting hours. We talked a good two hours. Apparently no one had any real plans for how to punish me. I was learning how things went on the island.
Then the following evening, Juan Nerome brought Mr. Uhup from the Bureau of Foreign Affairs, together with a six-pack of beer. We called the hotel to order snacks and spent a pleasant four hours chatting. The more I heard about the country, the stranger it all seemed.
The evening after that, predictably, Mr. Uhup brought Mr. Madaliagi from the Science Council and two six-packs this time. I told them my colleagues were probably all back in Hilo celebrating by now. So they upped the festivities by sending some of the green guayabera boys out for more beer. Soon half the Civil Security were drinking with us. Prison life had turned into party. As he was leaving, Mr. Madaliagi whispered that tomorrow he’d send over Miss Xaviera-all by herself.
The next evening was more subdued. Not beer but a bottle of wine was Miss Xaviera’s offering to set the mood for a quiet tête-à-tête. Any more than that, you’ll just have to surmise for yourself. If as postgraduates you’re unable to venture a guess, you might do well to reconsider what you’ve been doing with your life up to now. Which is exactly the point I’ve been trying to make: that science loses all meaning when it strays from humanity.
Miss Xaviera came visiting again and again for several evenings after that. Delightful soirées, though by the same token, talk of my release seemed to lag further and further behind. I had no idea what charges were to be pressed, nor what it would take to appeal an arrest made on presidential order. If they charged me with breaking and entering, I’d assert that the door wasn’t even closed. If my crime was shutting down the generators without authorization, I’d deny it flat out; their only evidence was a scrap of paper in someone else’s handwriting (little did they know, it was Giannino’s). Purely circumstantial grounds, not that the President would care to reverse a sovereign decision. That put a cap on everything.
The solution was visited on me from an unforeseen direction. After lunch on the tenth day, several of the green guayabera boys came to unlock my cell and pull me out. There was no sign of Mr. Sunglasses. They escorted me down the stairs in committee and into a car. And just when I’d been planning to pop an extremely important question to Miss Xaviera that very evening! Where was I being driven? At this rate, I might easily be shot without a trial. Looking out the car window, I could tell something was amiss. The whole town seemed on edge; people were standing around on street corners talking animatedly.
I saw we were headed for the airport. Something of a relief—at least no firing squad awaited me—it made me feel terribly alone. If the sole purpose of my release was to boot me away, what joy was in that? Especially as these last few days I’d seen so much more to life on this island than ever I’d expected. At the airport, scores more green guayabera boys had subautomatics slung over their shoulders. Probably none of them even knew how to use the things. A strange scene indeed. What was going on? I asked the boy beside me in the car. His answer explained everything and nothing: The President was dead.
So that was it! Why my fate had taken this sudden turn. My crime never happened. And I myself a bothersome detail, just send me away. Even though now I’d really rather have stayed on. Not that I was in any position to choose. I shall return! I vowed, I’ll say those things I have to say to the person I have to say them to. I boarded the plane knowing I must hie back here and quick, so much was at stake.
I imagine you all must be curious how it all turned out: whether or not I returned to the island, or said what I had to say to whomever. But alas, as I’ve repeatedly underscored, today’s lecture only goes to show that research can never be divorced from humanity, that science is but a mode of social self-expression. The really big questions . . .
Now wait just a minute! No heckling at this institution. I will ignore the innuendo and try to summarize. As to our findings, the professor was right on the mark. Asteroid X did show volcanic activity, i.e., it possessed a superhot core and a serviceable atmosphere. A handy little heavenly body, ideal material for revising our views on the solar system. That’s right, our Asteroid X prompted them to build the Hubble Telescope you all know so well.
Did my criminal caper change the face of astronomy? I wouldn’t go that far. Nonetheless, it did topple my ivory tower. Ultimately, science is an outpouring of human thought, and we humans have been known to think in lots of places. Even places like tiny South Sea island power plants or well-ventilated detention cells. So limber up and keep your heads loose.
This concludes my lecture. Have a nice summer vacation.
First published as “Asteroid no Kansokutai” in Switch, July 1993; collected in book form by Bungei Shunju, 1995. A “lost chapter” from Matias Guili no Shikkyaku (Shinchosha 1993), to be published in English translation in 2006 as The Navidad Affair, or the Downfall of Matias Guili. Copyright 1993 by Natsuki Ikezawa. Translation copyright 2005 by Alfred Birnbaum. All rights reserved.