jump to navigation

Chapter 07

Ted gets to the office around 9:30 and has a couple of things to do, apparently, before he is ready to go. Mostly these things seemed to involve touching base with every single (or married, for that matter, or straight or gay, left- or right-handed) person in building. He says “hey” to the guy who’s fixing the copy machine for the fifth time that week. He asks the janitor if he saw the Patriots play on Sunday. He asks the woman who does the books how her dog is doing and if she has a check for him. He asks Sid if he has the report he requested earlier that week, but reminds him that there’s no hurry.

Watching him I wonder briefly if he is running for some sort of office, but he doesn’t do it like he’s selling himself or anything in particular. He really seems to want to just check in with people and let them know he knew they existed, that he cared, even if it was just a little. I find myself watching and wishing that I could do what he is doing. And then I find myself wishing that I didn’t have to think about stuff like this all the time. And I find myself telling myself that what Ted is doing is something that everybody really should do. And then I find myself telling myself that I really should be doing it every day. And then I start criticizing myself for not doing it. And, thankfully, Ted shows up to stop me from further reprimanding myself.

He listens to some voice mail and writes a couple of notes, grabs a stack of mail and his jacket, stops to tell the receptionist that we are going to be out the rest of the morning, and we make it another few steps before we see some more people to chat with.

By 9:55 we are out in the parking lot, where I see that Ted has parked right next to the guard shack, on a cross-hatched no-parking zone. There is not ticket on his car, though. We climb in and he makes short work of the journey to campus. He seems to cover more distance more quickly than I usually do, despite the fact that he negotiates almost ever intersection and turn with other drivers. He waves them in front of his car, he waves to others to be let into traffic, he holds his hand out and they stop for him. There don’t seem to be any rules to the road at all with Ted behind the wheel. Everything is ad hoc negotiation with others. I am exhausted just watching.

Luckily there isn’t much opportunity for conversation with him. He has already touched base with me. Now he has to meet the rest of the world and let them know he would like to take them out to lunch sometime.

I am about to say something about the parking lot nearest the building having been taken over by mobile homes but I realize that he must have some plan, because he comes to the engineering compound three or four times a week. He drives straight up to the guard shack in front of the lot and I’m expecting some sort of glib lie or mumbo-jumbo, maybe something like Obi-Wan Kenobi did in Star Wars, waving his hand and saying “you don’t need to see our parking pass,” but he just pulls to the side and parks on a plot of grass between the guard shack and a tree.

Ted waves his hand at the guard, who is taking down somebody’s license plate on the road leading to the compound and the guard looks up, clearly uncertain about who is waving at him, and holds his finger up. It is clear that the guard wants us to wait, but
Ted grabs his stuff out of the car and simply walks through the gate. We check in with the guard inside and continue on our way.

“Do you have a deal with the parking guy?” I ask.

“No,” Ted says, “I think he’s new here.”

I wonder if the strategy would have been different had he been here a while, but it seems as if the whole thing has been just like the drive across town—negotiated as it happened. He seems to simply know what he wants and have no compunction about asking for it in such a way that it is assumed that he will be given whatever he has requested. He seems to lead a charmed life, in certain ways. But I couldn’t possibly do what it would take to collect the goods.

Ted steers us directly to the main engineering conference room, where there is a huge table with only two people around it, waiting for us.

I am about to apologize for being late, for it is obvious that they are waiting for us, that the meeting was scheduled for 10:00, which we passed about fifteen minutes earlier, but Ted says something to both of them individually that seems to make them forget about that.

“So, I am here with our newest staff member, Mr. Neal Slater, no wait, Doctor Neal Slater,” you can almost hear the air-quotes around the word ‘doctor’ as he says this, “who is going to help us think about foundation funding for some of the exciting new nano-stuff you guys are doing. Dr. Slater, meet Professor Marisa Pinella and Polymer Engineering Chair Jack Takeda.”

I make the appropriate noises and they settle down into their chairs. There is coffee in the room, apparently from an earlier meeting, and I grab a cup while Ted tries to get them to explain nanotech without being technical.

When I sit down Takeda has taken the lead and is already explaining to Ted. “It is really about controlling every atom, putting them exactly where you want them to go. You know, when you make, like, a wrench or something, you pour the molten metal into a mold or something and then end up cutting off bits that shouldn’t be there and polishing it so that it shines?”

I nod at this, because I’d read a little about it in a science magazine a few years earlier.

“But the thing is you have to figure out ways of controlling bazillions of them all at the same time, otherwise you can’t make anything very big or cheap out of them.”

I look over at Professor Pinella and she is clearly, but patiently, frustrated with the Chair, willing to let it ride a little, not wanting to correct him. So I step in.

“I heard that things were really different when you work with really small molecules, or small groups of them or something,” I start, a little vaguely and lamely. “This guy told me once that if you slice up a piece of gold into nano-size chunks, it will change color. It won’t look like gold. It’ll look red. Like the Golden Gate Bridge does. Or was he having me on?” By this time everybody is staring at me like I’m a bug and I get so self-conscious that I stop dead in my tracks.

“No, that’s right. Things do work very differently when they are that size,” Pinella says, to save me a little. “There are lots of different reasons for that. The important thing is that there are some real difficulties working with materials that size, because they don’t seem to respond to the same physical laws that everything you normally experience does.”

“What, like gravity and thermodynamics and stuff?” I ask, thinking to myself that nano-sized particles sound a little like Massachusetts drivers, or like Ted.

“Actually, yes, gravity, a little. I mean they respond to gravity, but other forces can make gravity irrelevant at that scale.”

“Hmm. But that’s good, right. So there are opportunities, too?”

Takeda jumps in, “Tons of opportunities, every major industry is going to feel this shift. It will be a revolution in materials science.”

Clearly the guy is waiting for us all to nod at his wisdom, and Pinnella obliges him by nodding shyly as Takeda looks over at Ted. “Can I show you that email from Dickinson that we talked about yesterday? He seems to want something completely different that what you two had talked about.” They don’t even bother to check with us, simply stand up together, wave their hands and exit.

I look at Pinella, who is a thirty-something Italian-looking woman. Black hair, a little on the short side, with narrow glasses, attractive. Apparently unmarried, at least not wearing a ring. She klunks her forehead down on the conference table a few times as if she is knocking on a door. Her glasses click on the surface of the table each time. Then she looks back up, shakes her head.

“I’ve trained him to talk to the people from NSF and from the local delegation, but it all seems to fly right out of his mind as quickly as I get it in there. Luckily they are used to that sort of thing from administrators.” She gets up to grab a coffee, turns back to me.

“And Ted is nice, but doesn’t want to understand this stuff either. Anyway,” she shrugs, “we don’t have many people working on this stuff yet, but we are planning to bring in a few more this year. We have a good nucleus of people working on projects that could really benefit from structured research at the nano level.”

“Do nano people have specialties or something?”

“At this point it is more like people in the traditional disciplines having an interest in nano stuff, a specialty in nano.

“So what sort of experiments are you running, or what did you work on before your nano specialty?

“I’ve done a lot of work in dispersion, which has been gradually moving into the nano dimensions for about ten years.”


“Yes. So, there are regular sorts of dispersion problems, problems that you are probably familiar with.”

“Like . . .”

“Like when you put ice cube trays in your freezer at home, does the ice form more rapidly if the water is from the cold water tap, or does it form faster if it is hot? That’s a dispersion problem, in a way.”

“Obviously the cold one, because the hot water has to be made cold on its way, so you’re just starting closer to ice with the cold water.”

“But that’s not what happens.”

“Oh, I thought . . . So what does happen?” I ask, suddenly curious.

“Well, in most cases, and we did this test in my high school when I was a sophomore, the water froze faster when it started out hot.”

“What’s the deal with that, then?”

“The rate of freezing is highly dependent upon air flow. Unless there are currents in the freezer moving the cold air around and into contact with the water, it takes a long time. So the hot water helps to set up some currents, and it can even trigger the fan to come on, which really speeds up the process.”

“So that’s normal dispersion.”

“Right. In fact there are some refrigerators at supermarkets now that use that circulation to their advantage, they rotate bottles of cola and they can remain open. You don’t have to open a glass door to get the product, and they still save energy. It’s more efficient because heat transfer without the air-flow is a function of the square of the temperature difference. The air flow overwhelms that function, just as gravitational forces are overpowered by other types of forces at the nano-scale, forces we don’t understand so well. So we have to look at the Van Der Waal forces and the molecular structures involved and do experiments to understand dispersion. Otherwise we don’t have any hope of being able to control what these materials do in a solution, say,” she says all of this as she’s putting cream in her coffee and watching the way it diffuses and changes the color.

“I just saw some pictures. Um, I mean I met this biologist earlier this week, Ned Kolbe. Do you know him?”

“Is this revenge for the trick question about the ice cubes? I’ll say no.”

“He was showing me close-up pictures of a squid squirting ink into the water. And they made really strange patterns.”

“Oh, that’s interesting. Strange, how?”

“They made little designs that you could only see when he blew the picture way up. They looked like symbols or something.”

She nodded and bit her lip. “I’ve seen something like that. Ned Kolbe? And he’s in bio?”

“Yeah. I’ve got his number here somewhere. You should look him up.”

“I’d like to see the pictures. But surely dispersion isn’t really his area of research. I would have run into him.”

“No, he does this aquaculture stuff. But he’s interested in pretty much everything. He’s got a squid there in his office. A big one. Dangerous one.”

She chuckled a little. “Dangerous?” she said, as if she didn’t fear squids of any kind.

“It’s like fifty or sixty pounds,” I say, arms wide. And her eyes get big at that, but she smiles.


“So how were you thinking that I could help the nano program here?” I ask.

“I wasn’t, not really. The Chair and the Dean were hoping, but they don’t know that much about foundations. We might want to go for a building campaign or something in ten years, maybe, if we get the nod from the state for economic development or something. Right now we could use some equipment money.”

“Well, there’s Keck, of course. But they really are just looking for blue-sky types of scientific research. They problem with doing this from the engineering perspective is that it is always with an eye to industrial use, or almost always.”

“Thought so, but I had to ask.”

“And I’ll keep my eyes open. But my sense of nano is that the major players pretty much all know each other at this point. If you guys are doing this stuff publicly, then chances are they’ll come looking for you when they need something. And the “they” will probably be corporate.”

“Well, then our work here is done. I’ve got to meet a student. So give my best to Ted and what’s-his-name,” she says, getting up and flinging her hand towards the Chair’s office.

“I will. Have a good one.”

And I find myself alone in the engineering complex. I wander over to the windows and look out at the hill. Campus is inordinately quiet for this time of the morning. Usually you begin to see the heavier traffic of lunchtime, struggling up the hill for some much-needed calories at the cafeteria complex. The people who are out an about seem a little listless.

And then I look over to the construction site on the hill. It’s a little puzzling. Where there should be excavation activity there is no activity at all. In fact, since I last checked some of the fences have been taken down and heavy equipment moved from the site. I wonder if this is a pause in the construction or whether they have completed the elevator shaft. I look around for a campus newspaper and see only brochures for graduate schools and the detritus of faculty meetings. I don’t want to barge in on the Chair and Ted, so I get some more coffee and think a little bit about strategic planning again, trying to sketch without any notes an outline of what I will present on Tuesday.

Eventually I hear Ted’s booming voice coming out of the Chair’s office. He is checking in with the Chair’s secretary as he leaves, asking the score of her son’s soccer game and asking her to give his best to her Mom, recovering from something in the hospital.

“Hey,” he says, acting as if he didn’t expect to see me, “How did it go with Marissa?”

“Mareeza,” I correct him. “It went well. She’s a pretty sharp one.”

“All of our faculty are sharp,” he says. No hint of criticism in his big, booming voice, but maybe a trace of irony. But I know that if pressed he would not be able to name one faculty member whose work he doesn’t have the deepest respect for. Although he will agree that there are a few who should probably be committed.

“You had lunch?” he asks.

I guess that must be truly living in the moment, because not only does he know that we both arrived together and at the same time, it is still only eleven thirty or so. I take the hint.”

“No, you want to stop by the cafeteria?”

“Sure,” and he leads the way. I realize then that this will be the longest trip I have ever taken to the cafeteria, as he stops ever few steps to chat with whoever we meet. I’m glad that there aren’t a lot of people on campus, because we would not have made it in time for lunch.

“Did you hear anything about them finishing work on the elevator shaft?” I ask him as we get a little closer to the hole.”

“No, they didn’t finish. They ran into something. . . . Hey Tom, how’s the golf swing?” he shouts at some guy.

I can’t hear the response, but it doesn’t matter. It is all in tone of voice and body language.

“They ran into some sort of strange geological formations or something on the way down. The geologists were there for a while sorting things out. And then the people with OSHA got involved, because there was something toxic in the rocks, so they wanted to make sure everyone was wearing the right gear and enclosing the site well enough. Hey Chief!” Another call and response.

“Then they brought in the Anthropology Department. They were thinking that they must have run into some sort of burial site or something. I still don’t know how that one turned out. But then somebody called the State Historical Preservation Board and the Chancellor is meeting with them today.”

“It looks like they are taking all of the digging equipment away, though.”

“Yeah, that is a little strange. Maybe it’s leased and they decided to cut costs by returning it until this all blows over.”


We walk in silence for a few seconds and finally reach the cafeteria.

I order the pasta, mostly because it’s cheap and you can shovel your own parmesan cheese onto it. Those habits from graduate school die hard. Ted orders a Cesar salad with chicken, something he says he can’t do when he meets with prospects, because they are messy and noisy to eat. There’s hardly anyone in the cafeteria, and since Ted

Is behind me in line I find a seat that is away from the few people eating at the tables.

I ask Ted a few leading questions about the administration, which he answers at length, and at first I’m paying attention to him. But after a while I’m looking at this guy who came in after us.

He looks to be in his early to mid fifties and he has a full head of straight, white hair that is parted on one side. He is dressed a little shabbily, but not remarkably so. Male faculty have a wide range of acceptable clothing that includes everything from the thrift store to Burberry. This guy is close to the bottom of it but in a way that looks like he is making an effort. Wool pants and a sports jacket that look to be of nice material and sewn together in the forties. His hair in the front hangs a little in front of his face and is discolored, as if he was a chain smoker.

But it is not his looks are distracting me from Ted’s meandering discourse on the University but what they guy is doing. When he comes in he brings this stack of folders, the manila kind, that are held together with an immense rubber band. He slips the rubber band off and then sets the stack to one side, pulling one of the pieces of paper out of the pile. He folds it a couple of different ways and then tears part of it off in a straight line. Then he folds intently for about a minute, very carefully, lining things up just right. And even this would normally distract me a little. It is when the piece of paper disappears that I find I can no longer hear Ted at all.

The guy doesn’t look around at all when this happens. I expect him to turn toward me and show that he has nothing up his sleeve, maybe do a little bow, but he does nothing of the sort. He simply stares at where the paper was for a second with these sunken, haunted eyes, and then pulls another from the stack.

While he does the preliminary folding and tearing on this one I make a few cursory nods in Ted’s direction. I shake my head incredulously at an appropriate phrase. Then I am riveted once again, looking at this lunatic folding paper behind Ted. He stops before this one disappears and gets up, walks to the counter where the condiments are kept. He looks at it as if he can’t quite make out the purpose for some of the ketchup dispensers or the little containers of cream. Then he selects a small salt container, the kind made of paper that has two little corrugations housing the salt, and he takes this over to his little origami project.

Carefully tearing the end off the salt package he empties it into the piece of paper that he had previously been folding. And then he continues to fold it. As this piece follows its predecessor into oblivion I notice that Ted is staring at me.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I got distracted for a moment.”

“S’okay,” he says, mouth full of food. “Whattareya watching?”

“That guy over there,” I say, nodding my head in his direction. I don’t want him to notice I’m watching him, or Ted to blow my cover, but the guy is completely oblivious to us. He looks around the table, for the salt, I presume, and then selects another from the stack and shakes his head in disbelief.

“Kyle?” Ted asks.


“That’s Kyle Riddell, from the Mathematics Department.”

“How do you know him, then?” I ask, because Ted knows almost everybody from the University except the faculty of departments that don’t bring in corporate money.

“He and some of his students have been working for a company that makes emergency parachutes in Japan. They showed them how the material could be compacted in such a way that the entire parachute fits in a space about the size of a beer can. Most amazing thing. And it never, ever, fails to deploy the right way. He made a mint off a couple of other projects like that a couple years back.”

“Check out what he’s into now,” I say, and Ted turns around in his chair, resting his arms on the back.

This time Kyle has taken out a larger sheet of paper. This one looks to be eleven by seventeen inches, and it takes him a while to make the first few folds. He is being much more careful this time.

Ted turns around to look at me and then twirls one finger around his ear and makes a face.

“No, keep watching,” I say.

Kyle pauses after one fold and seems unsure of himself, holding the paper in the air. Then he carefully licks a corner and tears one side from the rest. He places this one aside as he had the others. Then he completes the process up until the point where he put the salt in the last one and takes instead a piece of the paper scraps he had produced earlier. He folds this carelessly and sticks it in the paper he is currently folding.

Ted’s patience looks to be taxed and he fidgets a little, but he is watching, at least.

Then the piece of paper disappears.

He turns to me. “Did you see that?”

“Yeah, you see why I was distracted. You think we should ask him about it?”

But Ted is already up and walking over to the guy.

“Hey, Kyle, howrya doing anyway?” he says, and Kyle jumps about an inch off his chair. He had been staring in sort of a reverie at a spot on the table.

“Oh, Ted. Good. How. How are you?”

“Fine, Kyle, I’m just fine. That was some trick with the paper. The new guy and I were just watching you. And I couldn’t see where the hell it went.”

“Yeah,” Kyle says breathlessly. “I couldn’t tell either. Although I’m coming up with some theories. If I could just get some sleep I’m sure I could figure it out.”

By this time I’m over with them and Ted introduces me.

We are all looking at the table, though, and the stack of paper. Formalities seem so pointless.

“So you don’t really know what you’re doing?” I ask.

“Well, I know parts of it. This is sort of my specialty, this mathematics of folded spaces and such. It’s just that I never had any of it actually disappear before. Not that I ever tried, but I didn’t really think it was even an option, really. I mean theoretically it should be possible, but. . . .”

I look up at Ted and he’s as slack-jawed as I am at that point. We both sit down.

“Can you show us again?” I ask, in sort of a pleading tone of voice.

“Oh, sure.” And he goes through the routine again without the salt or the extra paper or anything else, like he did the first time I saw him. We are trying to figure the whole thing out, but it seems so simple until the last step, when he makes this fold and is suddenly empty-handed and staring at a point, with Ted and I, on the table.

“I had this dream the other night, you see. And it didn’t really seem to be very interesting at all, but I was doing this, this paper folding thing. And it was really tiresome in a way, you know. Like when you are trying to work out a problem from your job or something and you do it over and over all night and you are not getting good sleep at all because of it?”

We both nod.

“Except when I finally woke up I was missing half a notebook, and there were scraps of paper all over the floor of my kitchen.”

Ted says, “Hey Kyle, have you thought any about the commercial implications of this?”

“No, I’ve just been toying with it, really, just working it out, playing with it.”

“Well we should meet sometime soon. When you have a chance to think about it. I don’t know what they would be either, of course. I’m going to be thinking about it, though. I’ll give you a call.”

“Okay, great. Thanks,” Kyle nods. He seems happy enough, but totally exhausted and mystified, rummy.

Ted looks around and sees that nobody else has been watching. Then he stops again.

“Hey, Kyle,” he calls, and walks back to the mathematicians table. “You might want to keep a lid on this thing until you figure it out all the way. You wouldn’t want somebody to come along and steal the idea away from you, would you?”

“Oh, no. Oh, thanks, Ted. I wouldn’t want that. Your right, of course.” He looks around but is clearly more weary than wary. “I’m going to go home and try to get some sleep, I think.”

“Sure you can find it all right,” Ted says jokingly, as Kyle takes the papers and scurries away. Kyle just nods, though and keeps walking.

“He lives right at the bottom of the hill. The University keeps talking about eminent domain but they never do anything about it. He is a pretty valuable faculty member. They don’t really want to piss him off too much.”

Ted and I finish our lunch at a pretty leisurely pace. We don’t talk much because we are both a little weirded out by the show. So we mostly stare into space and eat in silence. Then we both walk back to his car, which seems impervious to tickets, somehow. And even though we finished with our engineering meetings by 11:30 we don’t get back to the office until 2:00.

I spend the rest of the day digging into weird foundations for Lisa and then looking into the faculty of the squishy departments. After asking around a little, Sid tips me off to a cache of old campus faculty/staff newsletters in the storeroom. I spend a couple of hours scouring them for names of faculty who have done noteworthy research. I am just grazing, though, and not really trying to remember much—just trying to get the feel of the place. Then it is suddenly five o’clock, and time to go. I’m really going to have to work quickly on this stupid strategic plan if I’m going to have something presentable by Tuesday, I tell myself as I walk out the door.

Take me to Chapter VIII




No comments yet — be the first.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: