My Remarkable Meeting with a Remarkable Man
By Cassandra Muvo, New York World Magazine
I had just gone by airport security at LAX. What a pain! It’s getting that you almost have to undress in public, what with removing the shoes, the belt, any over-garments. And that’s the third tube of toothpaste I was requested to leave behind at a security desk this year. When will I finally learn? The 75 ml size is okay – the 100 ml is too much. It struck me as just ridiculous how they could be so arbitrary.
On the more positive side, I was able to manage an upgrade by giving the check-in clerk a charming smile and finding an excuse to bend over for a few minutes so that he could indulge in a leisurely peek at my cleavage.
I entered the business class cabin and noticed only one place still unoccupied, which I quickly guessed must have been mine. Sitting in the adjoining seat was a huge man with a red face and a full head of pure white hair. As I approached, it seemed he was completely absorbed reading what looked like some scientific journal
I placed my carry-on into the overhead compartment and immediately noticed his leather carrying case, a fine old specimen he must have treasured for many years now. Attached to its worn handle was an exquisitely crafted gold identification tag, inscribed: Nobel Prize – Biophysics (1996). Inside the frame was an equally handsome gold plate bearing an inscription identifying its owner, Professor Charles K. MacMillan, PhD, FRSB, ASB, California Institute of Technology, United States of America.
As I squeezed past his enormous frame to take my window seat, he looked up and gave me a tepid smile. Not at all the look I’m used to receiving from men. There was not the faintest hint of interest in me as a woman. I concluded that he must be happily married or very much in love – or perhaps both.
Immediately after we took off, the flight attendant arrived to take our pre-dinner cocktail orders.
“Make mine a Johnny Walker Blue,” mumbled the professor absently, still very much focused on what he was reading. Then he suddenly lifted his eyes from the page. “A double if you don’t mind.”
After requesting my usual dry martini, I turned to him, suddenly curious to learn what might be bringing a Nobel laureate to the Big Apple.
“Are you staying in New York or continuing on?” I asked politely to initiate conversation.
He looked up, seeming not to comprehend that he was being asked something. Finally, he refocused, this time on me and my question.
“I’m sorry young lady. Did you say something?”
“No, it’s I who should apologize for interrupting. Please go on with what you were reading.”
Just at that awkward moment, the drinks arrived and the professor quickly downed his double scotch, even before I had the chance to taste my cocktail. He then quickly waved his hand attracting the attention of the flight attendant.
“One more please, if that’s not too much trouble.”
She steered a peevish look at him that she somehow managed to turn into a forced smile and returned to the galley.
“I’ll be there the whole week,” he replied. Then a few moments passed before he seemed to finally realize that courtesy required him to show interest in my travel plans as well. “And what about you?”
“Oh, I live there. I’m a journalist from the New York World magazine, returning from assignment here in Los Angeles. Are you attending some sort of conference?”
“Yes, I suppose you could say that.”
His second double scotch arrived and he somehow was again able to down it in but a few quick gulps, motioning with his hands for yet another. I was astounded at the man’s resilience given his age that seemed to be somewhere approaching sixty. Now, his demeanor changed noticeably and he placed his journal on the armrest and leaned back a comfortable distance in his seat.
“You see, I’ve been asked to give a presentation to the American Society of Ethicists in Medicine,” he said exhaling deeply, as if relieved to finally have this fact out in the open.
I was intrigued.
“I’m sorry to be nosy, but I couldn’t help noticing from your baggage that you’re a professor in biophysics. Why would medical ethicists be interested in your type of work?”
I regretted these last words instantly but he seemed to let my rudeness pass without much notice.
“I’m there to present my ideas about some unusual work we’re undertaking – research which seems to have ruffled quite a few feathers.”
“Really? Do you mind if I ask what type of research?”
“You said you’re a journalist, is that correct?” he asked studying my face carefully as if to gauge my sincerity.
“In what area, may I ask?”
“Actually, I cover the environment. I’ve been in L.A. assessing the steps the new Governor is taking to reduce carbon emissions. California seems to be moving to the forefront in our country in finally taking decisive measures to confront climate change. The people in Washington are hopeless- either complete imbeciles or in the pockets of the oil industry. Sometimes, when I travel abroad, I’m embarrassed to tell people I’m American.”
“Interesting” said MacMillan raising his eyebrows and clearly looking at me with newfound respect. “Very interesting indeed. Well, then sit back young lady and please read this if you will. It may serve to answer your last question and allow me to focus on my drink.”
With that he thrust his journal into my hand and I found myself looking at an op-ed piece apparently about the research work he said had ruffled many feathers. It was known by the acronym PANDA, standing for the Project for Accelerated Neural Development in Anthropoids. I read through it, soon realizing that this research aimed to stimulate the intelligence of babies while they were no more than a fetus.
My eyes quickly became riveted on one sentence in particular: Professor MacMillan has the audacity to claim that his unique molecule can vastly increase the rate of neural cycling in a fetus. The end result, he says, would be a baby born with extremely high levels of intelligence that might make even a genius like Einstein seem unremarkable by comparison.
I finished the piece whose tone was highly critical of PANDA and swallowed the rest of my cocktail, glad to have its contents numb my shock at what I’d just read.
“I see. So, professor, it seems you’ve developed a process to make people – I mean babies – more intelligent. Please forgive me for being so direct, but how did you ever come up with such an incredible notion?”
Professor MacMillan finished the last of his third Scotch that had arrived while I was still reading. He then paused for a moment as if lost in contemplation of past events.
“Do you believe in accidents, Miss …?”
“Muvo. Cassie Muvo”
“More specifically, Miss Muvo, do you think events occur entirely at random?”
“I suppose it depends on what you mean by an accident.”
“Well, let me tell you my answer to this question. Nature abhors disorder, which we in the scientific community refer to as entropy. For example, you create a vacuum by some artificial process. All physical properties from then on try to undo this by causing air and debris to be sucked in until the pressure on both sides of the vacuum vessel is equalized.
“The same goes for any form of artificially induced disequilibrium such as temperature difference. Look at these ice cubes in my glass. They’re melting as we speak. Even on a microscopic level, processes are now taking place in our bodies aimed at reducing the disequilibrium caused by the alcohol in our drinks affecting brain cells.”
I was puzzled by these remarks and it looked as if the professor could see this on my face.
“I mention these examples, Miss Muvo, because I believe that literally everything that happens to us is part of a natural process aimed at establishing maximum order in the universe. The only difference is that most of us choose to disregard the evidence. Very few adjust their lives to respond appropriately to what is happening around them.
“Let me give you one personal example. About ten years ago, I was flying to London and found myself seated next to an old colleague I had not seen for eons. His trip to London was to visit a sick relative and was completely unconnected to my reason. I did a quick analysis and estimated that the odds of our meeting after all those years and under such circumstances were only about one in thirty million.
“Nevertheless, in spite of these long odds, most people in my situation would probably have dismissed this as just another one of those extraordinary coincidences that happen to all of us now and then.
“Instead, I decided to explore this chance encounter more deeply. I suggested to him that we meet again for dinner once we had returned from our trips. Maybe we had run into each other for some special reason not yet apparent to either of us. On the particular evening we selected for our dinner, it turned out that my friend had bumped – again by accident – into his younger sister from San Diego.
It seemed she had no plans of her own so he decided to bring her along figuring it would enliven the evening for everyone. Let me tell you, young lady, from the moment we laid eyes on each other, we both fell deeply in love. She became my wife within six months and we’ve been blessed with happiness ever since.
“So, was our chance encounter that evening only the happy final outcome resulting from two old friends meeting on an airplane? Or was it really nature finding the best way to unite two people who were ideal for each other? Two people whose new life together would represent the maximum state of order for nature?”
I was not overly impressed by his example.
“Professor, every week there’s a lottery in New York where the chances of winning are only about one in fifteen million. Yet there’s often a winner. In spite of the odds, these so-called incredible accidents are happening all the time. Doesn’t this diminish the significance of what you’re saying?”
“Not quite,” replied MacMillan without hesitation. “You have to consider in your example that there are many millions of tickets sold for every drawing. My example would be equivalent to such a lottery where only one ticket is sold and yet turns out to be the winner. Now how many lifetimes do you think it would take for such an event to occur?”
My face took on a sheepish look, as it became clear that I had forgotten even the most basic lessons of my high school mathematics. The professor seemed not to notice and was already continuing.
“Now, as for my work on PANDA which seems to be raising such alarm in the medical community, it’s important to understand how it all started. And why I’m so convinced that it too was not purely an accident but rather part of some grand design. I believe that the process I’m researching has been going on now for hundreds of years. Have you ever stopped to consider, Miss Muvo, what makes a genius?
“For example, how can we explain that at a time when his average countrymen couldn’t even build a functional wheelbarrow, someone like Michelangelo was able to design a structure as complex as Saint Peter’s? Or what about Mozart? In an era when the typical person couldn’t sing a song he had heard many times, Mozart could listen to an entire choral concert once and then reproduce virtually every single note.
“Do you think the existence of such extraordinary people is nothing more than a random event? Or was it due to some process – at that time not understood – which it was intended that we eventually learn about. That we then exploit to the ultimate benefit of mankind and our natural universe?”
I was mystified by what he was referring to and adjusted myself in my seat in anticipation of what I was about to hear next.
“When I was a university student in Scotland, I shared a dormitory room with a young man from Germany. His name was Fritz. He was a quiet type, extremely shy. Maybe they paired us up because I speak some German. I never found out. But in a few months we had become the best of friends. This young man could only be described as a genius along the lines of Einstein or Mozart.
“Not only did he speak many languages, all I might add without any trace of accent, but he also led the university in every single subject. This, in spite of seeming to spend every class in a state of utter boredom. For example, I often noticed him staring off into infinity during the most complex classes in calculus. I wondered if he was hearing any of what was being said. Then, by God, in our room at night he was somehow able to repeat absolutely everything from that day.
“With my interest in biophysics and particularly my thesis in the field of cell growth dynamics, I was extremely curious how this young man could have become so impossibly clever. Now, Miss Muvo, I have come to learn that what made people like Fritz so remarkable was nothing more than the simple fact that he was exposed, while in the womb, to a unique molecule ingested by his mother. How this molecule originated I have not yet been able to establish. But my research confirms that it exists and has been produced in nature for hundreds if not thousands of years.
“I would stake my reputation that what I say is true. And what’s more, I’m also convinced that my sharing a room with Fritz at university was much like meeting my wife – predestined. Nature had somehow found a way to pair together a young scientist with a passion for understanding cell growth with one of only a small group of people with highly advanced brain function. How could this have been a purely random occurrence?
“That’s why I became so passionately involved in my work. I have come to view it as nature helping us find a way to stop its senseless destruction. By allowing us to harness the full potential of our almost limitless intelligence. To find solutions to climate change, imminent pandemics and mass extinctions. It’s again an example of the universe seeking to restore order where there is chaos. But unlike observable phenomena, such as the diffusion of molecules, this is being done far more subtly and well below the radar of normal human perception.”
There was a lengthy pause now as the professor waved to the flight attendant who seemed to have anticipated this and was already approaching with another glass of scotch.
“Professor MacMillan, if most doctors won’t accept what you propose on ethical grounds, why not approach the government with this information? Get them involved to provide whatever support you need to continue your research.”
“Miss Muvo, let’s not be naïve. What government would agree to support such work and then share it with the rest of humanity? No, that’s unlikely. Rather, it would end up being used for the sole purpose of achieving military or industrial supremacy over others.
“Most people in power detest anything which increases the intelligence of those they govern. Look at most twentieth century dictators. These tyrants deliberately kept large segments of their population backward and isolated by preventing them from learning to read and write and denying them access to information. Throughout human history, those in political power have ruled as a result of ignorance, not knowledge. You said yourself that many people in Washington are either half-wits or motivated only by greed and power.
“Then, there are also powerful conservative elements in this country and elsewhere who have expressed disapproval of what I’m trying to do. They claim that what I propose is the equivalent of biological heresy – a sin against divine creation. But I believe that the idea of an expanded human intelligence threatens them. It only serves to reveal the shortcomings in what they have to offer as solutions to the daunting problems now facing mankind.
“No, in spite of the potential impact of my research on averting an apocalypse, those who control public finances and moral opinion are united in their fury at me.”
MacMillan paused and looked squarely at me.
“Miss Muvo, may I ask you something? How was it that you ended up being seated here? Had you selected your seat in advance?”
I hesitated, embarrassed to admit that my magazine was too stingy to foot the cost of sending me across the continent in business class.
“I suppose you could say it was the result of another of your so-called ‘accidents’. I just happened to find a male check-in clerk who was only too willing to succumb to my womanly wiles.”
“I see,” said MacMillan, raising his eyebrows and shifting his eyes discreetly toward my sweater’s plunging neckline. “And does this technique bear fruit on a regular basis?”
“To be truthful, in my five years at New York World, it’s never worked before – until this morning.”
MacMillan’s massive frame rose suddenly from his seat. He stood a few moments looking down at me, his mouth ajar but not saying a word. Then he grabbed my hand, shaking it vigorously.
“That was no accident, Miss Muvo. That was destiny. Don’t you see? You may have been selected by the forces in nature to make my research known to the American public – even if you can’t yet believe it or accept it.”