photo via fastcompany.com
“Not everybody gets a private tour of Argonne National Laboratory.”
“I know. Thanks for showing me around.”
“Will you remember this when you go back to school?”
“Of course.” Annette smiles up at her uncle.
They turn a corner and enter command central. Rows of black-capped processors fill the expansive computer room. Theo waves his hand at the machines.
“This used to be the Sequoia Blue Gene Q. I modified her to run at 20.1 petaflops, and renamed her ‘Mira,’ after your aunt. She’s now the most powerful supercomputer in the world. Mira has 49,152 compute nodes, and 70 petabytes of disk storage – the fastest to date. And this is confidential,” Theo says, stooping to whisper. “I secretly programmed her to calculate the correct M-theory of the universe.”
Theo scans the room for late-working lab assistants. Seeing none, he continues. “The 11-dimensional string theory, birdie. The quantum structure of the universe.” He chuckles and taps Annette’s head. “Soon we’ll have the theoretical physics equation which will perfectly describe universal reality.”
“Soon?” Annette says, ducking her head.
“By my estimations, Mira will gift us with the equation tomorrow. Then Theo C. Stout will be recognized as the most accomplished and celebrated scientist in history. And science – as we understand it today – will be turned up-side down. Nothing will be the same.”
They stroll between the towering computer cabinets.
“So what’s that pretty head of yours thinking?”
Annette shrugs. “ ‘Knowledge is power,’ as Sir Francis Bacon famously said.” She smiles up at her uncle.
“You’re close, dear,” he says, running a finger along a casing. “The correct phrase is ‘Scientia potentia est,’ and we have the philosopher Thomas Hobbs to thank for that gem. Have you passed your Latin courses yet, sweetie?”
“I’m not taking Latin.”
Theo stops abruptly and blinks at Annette. He bursts out laughing. “You almost had me fooled there, dolly. Imagine that.” He playful tugs at her ponytail.
Annette frowns as Theo polishes the casing with his sleeve.
“Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Annette purses her lips. “And I know Lord Acton said that.”
“I suppose that would pass at your university. But his proper name is ‘John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, 1st Baron Acton.’ And the un-butchered quote is, ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ You say you’re a humanities major?”
Annette’s face reddens, and Theo pats her head.
“Yes. But I-I-” Annette stammers, “I’m in my second year.”
“I’m sure they keep the city library open all summer. A solid self-education can fill in the gaping cracks and holes of an institutional education. What’s on your summer reading list, dear?”
“Well, I’m keeping up with the major authors – I mean, the top-sellers in fiction – so I can better understand the, uh, sociological impact of… of popular culture.
Theo raises his brow.
She bites her lip. “You know – John Grisham, E. L. James. Well, I kinda flipped through ‘Fifty Shades… ’ Borrowed it from a friend. Didn’t much care for it.” Her face reddens again, and she turns away and studies a processor rack.
“You know, you should think about cracking open a practical book now and then,” Theo says. “You’re welcome to borrow any of the computer science and physics books in my office library.”
Annette’s gaze sweeps over stacked silver trays and black and white wires. “Would any of those books tell me what’s inside Mira? The inner workings?”
“Sure. A few of them might give you an idea of the mechanics, but to learn what’s really going on inside Mira, you’d have to spend decades studying everything from advanced software engineering to quantum mechanics.”
Annette sighs. “Well, I was more interested in what Mira actually looks like on the inside. I’m taking an independent art class in the fall and was hoping to get inspiration – a peek at the guts of a supercomputer. I want to see something none of the art students have seen.”
“I can let you have a peek inside, right now, if you’d like.” Theo winks at her. He takes a multi-tool from his pocket, unscrews the top two screws of a cabinet, and carefully flexes the plastic casing back a couple inches. He switches on the flashlight extension and hands the tool to Annette.
Grinning, Annette positions the flashlight and peers into the crack.
A slight jumping movement. She focuses, and sees a large black spider tensed on a webby mass of white wires. Annette frowns and steps back.
“Well? Did you get your inspiration?” Theo says, snapping panel back into place.
Annette is silent.
“Do you need another look?”
She clears her throat. “No. Thank you.”
The next morning, Annette is quiet at breakfast.
“Something on your mind, dear?” says Theo.
“I was just wondering,” she says, “If an insect somehow got into Mira, would that potentially affect her M-theory calculations?”
“A bug? Mira is one-hundred percent bug-free. I coded a customized anti-bug subroutine into her software. Even with the quantum calculations she’s doing, there’s no way a software bug could pop up.”
“I don’t mean a software bug. I mean a spider.”
“Of course!” Theo says, laughing. “Mira has a web crawler constantly scanning the academic libraries for the latest research in theoretical physics.”
The phone rings, and Annette answers.
“Uncle Theo – it’s Charlotte. She says there’s an emergency at the lab.”
Theo grabs the phone. “Charlotte? Theo here… What? Actual spiders? Is this a joke?… Okay. Thank you.”
“Charlotte told me the lab is quarantined,” Theo says, trembling. “Filled with spider webbing and… millions of spiders. Can’t even open the doors. The spiders spun layers of webbing over everything.” He collapses on the sofa and pulls back the window curtain. “Snow? In July?” Theo crouches behind the sofa back and peers out the window at a glinting white landscape. “This catastrophic global climate change is happening faster than anyone predicted.”
Annette stoops and pats Theo’s head. “That’s not snow.”
|Thanks to Albert Berg for this flash fiction challenge!|