Wednesday, July 24, 2013

M.L. Weaver #3: The Lightness of Dust: Chapter 11 Excerpt

Here is the final of three excerpts today from M.L. Weaver's Lightness of Dust!

If you'd like to read the excerpts from Chapter One, and Chapter Eight head there first!

Chapter 11: Underestimation

By focusing only on Amanda’s paperwork Jake had the necessary approvals to put her to work the next Tuesday.  She was, he thought, a godsend.  In less than a week she decided to research pathological mineralization.  Which disease, she didn’t know.  Kidney stones, maybe, or atherosclerosis.  Even FOP, a disease that Jake found both fascinating and hellishly cruel.  In any case, as a subfield of biomineralization her research on the pathological would require instrumentation that he had already researched but not yet ordered.

“Here you go,” he said, handing her a list.

Amanda read through the page quickly.  “What is your budget?”

Jake hesitated, but she had to know if she was going to help.  He told her.

She nodded and skimmed the page again.  “Your funds are insufficient.”

“I know.  I’ve requested supplemental funds but they haven’t come through yet.”  He hoped the additional money would be approved.  If he had to make do with what he already had he would be forced to truncate the list severely.  His ability to do research would be crippled from the beginning.  “Education budgets are a bloodbath right now.”

Amanda nodded.  “I will take care of it.”  Her confidence amused him but he let any comment pass unsaid.  There was something else he needed to deal with.

“Amanda…here’s a little rule I have.  Well, it’s actually someone else’s rule.  I borrowed it from my Latin professor.  Undergrads call me ‘Professor.’  Grad students call me ‘Jake.’  Okay?  Over the next few years it’ll save you tens of thousands of syllables.”

“Okay…Jake.  We will meet this afternoon after I have a chance to review this,” she said, indicating the list.

By the end of the next day she had selected and ordered, with Jake’s approval, optical and atomic-force microscopes, chemicals, glassware, and various other laboratory supplies.  Jake was impressed, especially so by the shrewdness with which Amanda had shopped.  He’d priced much of the equipment himself and found that he could barely afford the basics with the start-up grant provided by the university.  He hadn’t expected a raw student to do any better than he had, though he also hadn’t looked into used equipment.  Amanda, however, had found more equipment, with more features, at better prices.  So much better, in fact, that after the orders were placed Jake would still have a comfortable cushion of funds.  Not a lot, but enough to cover a research assistantship for Amanda for six months if he had to.  Since students were guaranteed teaching assistantships during their first two years, though, he didn’t expect to use the money for a while.
It took another two weeks for boxes to start appearing in the lab, but even Amanda couldn’t speed up shipping.  Jake entered the lab one morning to find her carefully unpacking boxes of chemicals and dividing their contents between cupboards and flame cabinets along the south wall.

“Chemicals first?” he asked, intrigued by the fact that the microscopes lay nestled in unopened boxes under a table.

“Mmm-hmm,” she replied.  The box cutter between her teeth prevented a more detailed response.  She set it on the floor and stood holding two jars of calcium chloride, which she placed in a cupboard.  “I need the chemicals to use the AFM, and I need the supplies to use the chemicals.  So the…fun… part comes last.”

It was, Jake thought, entirely logical, even if it wasn’t helping to sustain his kid-on-Christmas-morning excitement about getting the equipment in the first place.  “Need some help?”

“Sure.  Do you want to hook up the Milli-Q?”  She referred to the filtration system that would produce the ultra-clean water necessary for her work.

By the time Jake figured out how to connect the system and had installed it, Amanda had the supplies sorted out and was unpacking the microscope.  He picked up the base and examined it.  “A Nanoscope III! Where did you find this?” he exclaimed.  “It’s the same model I used in school! Doesn’t have a lot of the features that newer ones do, but it’s a great machine.”

Amanda bounced on her toes.  “It is not just the same model, Jake.  It is the same microscope!  Your old professor has no one to use it, so he gave us a great price.”

Together they assembled the base, scanner, and optical head and connected them to a computer.  “Would you like to calibrate it?” she offered.

Jake was tempted but knew that Amanda should be the one to get it running.  Figuring out its eccentricities for herself would make her life a lot easier later on.  “No, you go ahead.  I need to apply for some grants.”
Before the end of the month she was running experiments and collecting marvelous datasets.  Secretly impressed, Jake wished that his first year of grad school had been so easy.  It had taken almost nine months for him to produce real images instead of tip artifacts.  Looking back, he had to admit to himself that his advisors had been more patient than he’d had any right to expect; he had been so sure that the images were real.

His only source of dissatisfaction with Amanda was her inability to find time to talk to other potential recruits.  Nothing held as much currency with students as the opinions, whether positive or not, of other students.  That, plus she was hard to find sometimes.  Even considering her teaching duties, she was gone from the lab so often, and for so long, that Jake found himself secretly examining her imaging logs and data files.  Everything seemed in order, though, and Jake had to admit that whatever she was up to wasn’t interfering with her work.

Amanda quickly claimed his lab as her own.  In fact, she began to display signs that, in her mind, at least, they had passed from a purely academic relationship to friendship.  Every once in a while she brought him a soda, or packed a big lunch to share, claiming ‘leftovers’ as an excuse even though the only food he ever saw her eat otherwise was packaged and reheated in the microwave.  While sharing leftovers on a wet winter-quarter day, Amanda handed him a flash drive.

He picked it up.  “What’s this?”

She swallowed another bite.  “My paper.”

“Your paper.”  Jake didn’t believe it.  “You’ve only been working on this project for a few months.”


“Don’t you think it’s a little too soon?”

“How long, exactly, should it take?  I can bring it back to you then, if you like.”  She looked at him without the slightest hint of sarcasm or guile.  So innocently, in fact, that Jake thought she might be serious.

“All right,” he said.  Tread lightly…either she’s going to come out of this looking like an idiot, or I am.  “Tell you what.  I’ll read this over, and tomorrow at lunch we can discuss it.  Be warned, though.  If I don’t think your conclusions are solid, or that you don’t have enough data to back them up, we don’t even edit this.”

“And when you find that it is ready?”  There was no challenge in her words, only a firm self-assurance.

“Then we talk about the next direction for your research.  And I buy lunch tomorrow,” he replied, not really expecting he would have to do so.  The next day, however, found them ordering at the Silo Pub from a young man wearing black slacks with a vest over a ruffled white shirt.

“I take it my paper meets with your approval,” she said.

“More or less.  I have a few small changes for you to make, but overall it’s a nice piece of writing.  They’re on the drive.”  He handed it to her.  There wasn’t really anything that needed to be changed, but Jake had spent the night thinking about an exchange he’d had with Jim while writing his own first paper.  Jim had given Jake some changes to make, and less than an hour later Jake had been back in Jim’s office.

Jake stood in the doorway while Jim opened the document, read a few sentences, and closed it again.

“I’m not going to read the rest of it.”  Jim handed the disc back to Jake.

“Why not?” Jake didn’t understand.

“You didn’t make the change I wanted in the first sentence.  Go try again.

The humiliation of that experience had instilled in Jake the importance not of getting things right, but of what one could learn from getting them wrong.  Amanda deserved the same lesson, so he’d come up with a few things for her to rewrite.

Amanda slipped the drive into her knapsack.  “I will correct them this afternoon.”

Their waiter returned.  “Chicken Marrakesh?” Jake raised his hand to indicate that it was for him.  “And the mushroom-and-tofu sandwich must be for you,” the young man said to Amanda with a smile.

“I’ll have another Sudwerk Marzen.”  Jake slid an empty bottle to the table’s edge.

“Would you bring me a glass of wine?” Amanda asked.

The waiter nodded.  “Of course.  What would you like?

“Surprise me.  Something red.”

When they were alone again Jake teased, “Are you even old enough to drink?”

“Without a doubt.”  She quickly changed the subject.  “I know where I want to take my research next,” she said between bites.

“That’s great.  Where?”

“Well, not the exact questions that I want to answer, but in general.”  She took another bite and chewed slowly while Jake waited.


“Oh.”  She seemed surprised by his prompt for more information.  “I have spoken with Professor Matheson in Anthropology and Archaeology.  Do you know him?”

Jake did not.  He’d barely met everyone in his own department.  He was nearly overwhelmed already with proposals for joint research to review and requests for him to join this committee or that.  “After tenure,” he would reply to such invitations, silently blessing his own advisor.  Jake had been dubious when Jim told him that this was the best way to avoid wasting on committees time better spent on meeting tenure requirements.  He’d been sure that insisting tenure precede committee work was certain to cost him goodwill, if not tenure itself.  Surprisingly, no one took it particularly badly.  Even Bill, the mentor assigned by the department to help Jake navigate through his first year, had not brought up his refusals when laying out the plan for Jake’s path to tenure.

“The past few years Matheson has excavated on the coast of southern Turkey,” Amanda continued.  “He has boxes and boxes stuffed with artifacts from a newly discovered settlement.  He says it was a port city of some size and importance, but that he can find no historical references to any significant population in that area.  In any source!”

“Interesting,” Jake said.  He tried to sound disinterested.

“Fascinating, is more like it!  Matheson says it was destroyed in some great cataclysm.  A tsunami, or an earthquake!”

Jake found her enthusiasm infectious but naive.  He wondered if she had any idea how complicated archaeological science could be.  He, too, had once dreamed of doing the same kind of work that she now proposed.  Working with fragments, hoping that just one out of hundreds might contain some organic residue, or that the chemical profile of a metal tool could be matched to a specific geographical area?  And there was another problem.

“He says there is evidence of a harbor.  They have not been able to go underwater, yet.  The political situation has been getting worse in light of the war.  Western researchers have had a lot of trouble getting paperwork approved.  They may not be able to go back next summer, if ever.”  Words spilled out of her in a torrent, and her eyes stared through him as though she saw something wonderful in the distance.  “And the best thing…they found copper.  Tools, jewelry, artwork. Copper everywhere, at least by ancient standards, but no evidence of smelting.  There is no evidence for mining or refining for a thousand miles.  And even there, not on the necessary scale.”

“Amanda, I admire your enthusiasm,” Jake interrupted her.  As fascinating as it was, there was no way this could work.  “But I really don’t have a lot of the equipment for that kind of work.   Any of it, for that matter.
I’m sorry, but…” He didn’t know what else to say.  He braced for her reaction.

“Just buy it.”

Jake squelched his irritation with effort.  “I don’t think you understand.  I don’t have the instrumentation you’d need.  I don’t have the money to buy it, either.”

“Buy it.  You have the budget now.”

“In fact, I don’t have the money to buy the equipment, because I spent most of it on equipment for your research.  Research you selected.”  His voice rose as he punctuated you and your with his finger.  He stared at her.  Each bite she took stuck in his own throat.  She calmly watched his eyes as she ate.

“There is no problem,” she finally said.  “We can still buy it.  And it is your research, too.”

“No, it’s not!”  He felt his patience rapidly slipping out of his grasp.  “My research is in crystal growth.  Goddammit!” Jake rose.  “You…”

“Sit down, Professor.”  Amanda pointed firmly at his chair.  He obeyed.  “Matheson has extensive skeletal remains boxed up in his lab; we can examine some of them, too.  We may discover evidence of gout.”
Jake’s irritation began to be supplanted by scientific curiosity.  Finding uric acid crystals in ancient bone fragments would make for an exciting paper, indeed.

“Matheson is willing to pay for some of the equipment.  Plus, I got a grant.”
Jake sat.  “A grant.”

“Mmm-hmm.”  She swallowed the last of her sandwich.  Jake thought she looked eerily like a viper swallowing a bite of apple, tempting him to taste.


“Easily.  I filled out some forms.  Described my research.  Asked for money.  All in an application packet.  Someone read it.  Liked it.  Sent money.  Something like that, I guess.  The money is in an account with the department.  You should have been notified by now…”

“You’re a student.  You can’t possibly have gotten enough money for this!”  Jake had spent half a year writing proposals.  Six months of his life begging every government department and private foundation he could think of with nothing to show for it.  He knew that pent-up frustration over his failure colored his judgment but at this point he didn’t care.  Jake would win this; when he did he would bow to his fury and throw this impudent girl out of his group.  “Or have accelerators for neutron analysis dropped in price recently?”  That would show her!

Amanda stared at Jake with what seemed to him a mixture of contempt and pity, with just a salting of malice.
“What we can purchase, we purchase.  Other things, like neutron-bombardment, we can pay for.  There are at least two facilities with the capability I require within a hundred miles.”  She smiled at him.  “Never underestimate me, Jake.  I will tell Matheson to expect your call.  Get in touch with him.”

Amanda tried again to drink the merlot but grimaced and wiped it from her lips with a napkin instead.  “Thanks for lunch.”

Jake stared after her through the empty doorway for a while, numbed by the feeling that he, Professor, Principal Investigator, had just lost control of his own lab to a first-year graduate student.  The restaurant began to clear out.  Jake nursed his beer until it was warm and flat then gulped it down.  He wanted to go home.  No.  He needed to.

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