Chapter 19a


Cambridge, November 7, 3 PM


Before traveling south and west, the four friends decided to pay a visit to Cambridge, where Newton did his most important work and which was not far south of them in the general direction of London and Paris beyond.


There are two most prestigious schools in England, Cambridge and Oxford.  Both names imply a river crossing, and it makes sense that a significant town be on water.  But there is a subtle difference in the names.  Oxford implies a ford in the river suitable for driving oxen across.  The town sits where the Isis and Cherwell join to form the Thames, and that may be why there was a ford.  The name is a detail about the river and implies a community traveling mostly along a river, although in ancient times the people actually lived on higher ground nearby.  Cambridge implies a bridge over the river Cam, although it, too, was a ford at one time.  The back sides of the colleges do beautify that river.  But it is a detail about a road and implies a community traveling by road.  From the names alone, it would appear that the town of Oxford is the older, from a time when more people traveled by river than by road. 


The schools at Oxford and Cambridge are not as old as the towns, but Oxford is the older.


They arrived and made a tour, inspected the backs of the colleges and the bridges, and then Jon declared that he wanted to talk with another geneticist.  There was still something troubling him that Aden had not explained.  Jon established come contacts.  They asked around and were directed to a visiting professor from Germany.  They were soon speaking with Professor Ebener Joachim. 


“That is correct,” Joachim was saying in a German accent.  “There is no harm whatsoever in mixing as many genetic lines as you will within a species.  It only makes your population better.  There are good effects for mixing different varieties of one gene in an individual.  The greater variety makes the population itself more resilient to change, and any bad genes are diluted so that their effect is lessened.”


“We have been looking at some codes,” said Jon.  “Here, see.”  He took the messages out of the briefcase.  “These are coded messages.  And the codes change.  That means we have to find the new key.”


“Yes, of course.”


“Well there is a genetic code, is there not?”


“Yes.  This is well known.  But the genetic code does not change.  It is the same for you and for me and for the bacteria in our mouths.  It is a constant in biology,” said the professor. 


“How many genes are there in a human?”


That is still a matter for debate, but for purposes of discussion let us say thirty thousand.”


“And these genes change, they mutate,” said Jon.


“Quite so.”


“How fast do they mutate?”


“That varies from gene to gene.  Some are larger and present bigger targets so they mutate faster.  Some presumably have more critical dimensions so they are more likely to have a significant mutation.  And the natural function of the DNA that composes your genes can involve methylation or acetylation.  Basically a carbon or two may be tacked on.  For all we know the chemical change, temporary though it is, may have a local effect on mutation rate.”


“How fast?” Jon persisted.


“Let us say one mutation per thirty thousand genes every generation.  Almost all of them are lethal of course.  Of mutations of any significance, only the rare one permits the organism to develop at all.”


“So that means one lethal mutation per … no that doesn’t work.”


“Ah but it does,” said the professor.  “The average is one per person, or per fertilized egg.  But some get none and some get more than one.  It takes a few months on average for a woman to get pregnant, so your suggestion is quite plausible.  While she is trying to get pregnant she is making zygotes that have a lethal mutation load.  When a lucky zygote is made, pregnancy can commence.”


The others were beginning to get glazed eyes, but Jon continued feverishly.


“But there is another kind of code.  There is a way one gene sends a signal to another gene or its product.”


“Yes, cell signaling is a matter of much current interest and research.”


“When you build a self assembling device,” (oops, shouldn’t have said that) “If you could build a self assembling device the communication between the components would be very important.”




“But you would have a great deal of choice in the precise form that a signal took.  I mean it would just be a number, really, and you could choose any number you wanted to.”


“Yes, I see.  This is outside my field.”


“But the body is a self assembling device.  It has to build itself, an ear there, a nostril here,” said Jon.


“Now I see,” said the professor.  “Yes, that would be true.  One cell must signal another or there might be a signal from one piece of DNA in a cell to another.  There are multiple ways the signal could be passed so it is necessary to tune the receiver and transmitter together.”


“Yes,” said Jon.  “That is why it’s so frustrating to keep getting codes in different ciphers.  Look here, for instance.”  He pulled out the code he had been working on.  “See, the letters are in groups of three.  Now the first letter is ‘I.Suppose the first letter of every group is just the letter it is meant to be.  The first letter of the second group is ‘n’ so the fourth letter of the message is ‘n,’ which is the fourth letter in Ivan’s name…  Now let us decide that the second letter of the group is a simple substitution cipher like the ‘typewriter code.’  You notice there are semicolons and a bracket but no ‘a’ in the second place of any group … mmm.  I’m getting off my subject.”


“No.  Do go on. Please.”


“How many cell signaling systems are there?”


“It is very complex.  The number three thousand has been suggested.


“And the DNA for those system is just, as it were, generating a number.  It can be smaller segment than the DNA for an actual gene.”


“That sounds reasonable,” said the professor patiently.


“So what is the mutation rate for a cell signaling system?”


“Nobody knows.”


“Let’s say its one per three hundred thousand.  It could be one per three million for all I know.”


“No,” said Professor Joachim.  “I can live with one per three hundred thousand.  If you go many orders of magnitude up, you are implying a smaller and smaller piece of DNA.  There is a limit to how far you can go before there is not enough information in it to specify one of three thousand necessary different signals.  Also the DNA would be so stable that evolution could not have happened over the time scales we know are involved.  But I am mystified at what your drift might be.”


“One moment.  Genes vary.  So these signaling systems, the signals themselves must vary.”


“Logical.  Not tested.”


“Assuming they do, then each transmitter must be fine tuned to each receiver within the time it takes for a significant mutation to arise.”


“I think I see where you are going with this.”


“Of course.  If the population is very big, it will take many generations for a transmitter that was once in the same person as the relevant receiver to find the same receiver again.  On average, the number of generations will equal the size of the population.  If the population is so large that many mutations have happened to receivers and transmitters in that time – during all those generations  then each time there is a fertilized egg, at least one of the transmitters won’t be able to talk to one of the receivers and you get no taxpayer.  I mean the fertilized egg will not develop normally.”


“That is a theory.”


“And the number of generations between mutations happening somewhere in the DNA for all transmitters and receivers is about a hundred, or three thousand years for a human, which is a long time.  But it means the maximum population size is on the order of one hundred, which is not a very big population.  Anything bigger ultimately dies out.  I mean perhaps anything over a thousand.”  Jon was struggling to follow his own logic as he talked.


“Are you saying that you wish to become my graduate student and work this out?” asked the professor.


“Are you saying that it hasn’t been worked out?”


“Quite.  Nor is it likely to be any time soon.  Your idea is just too far fetched.  I’m sorry.  Your interest is evident.  But there are so many promising directions of research these days that nobody is going to take it up.  They could burn up a career and never find anything of interest.  I would not even encourage my own graduate student to do it, unless he had passion for the question.”


“Thank you, professor.”  Jon rose. 


“Would you like me to look over that code with you again?  I think it should not require a lifetime to figure that one out.”


“No, professor.  We must be off.  Many thanks.”


They got up and walked out.  Professor Ebener Joachim sat back in his chair and listened to their footsteps recede.  Then he got up and peered down the hallway after them.  They were gone.  He closed the door and went to his desk to make a telephone call.


“Boss, you will not believe what just walked into my office.”


On the way out Jon decided to see whether his contacts could secure him yet one more interview.


They met with Ulf Scandius, a visiting professor of paranormal psychology from Sweden.


“Professor,” Jon began, “Some spooky things have been happening.”


“Life is spooky,” said the professor pleasantly. 


“I won’t go into the details...”


“That would be appreciated.”


“But I would like to have some sort of handle on it.”


“What would you like to know?”


“There are rumors that things like clairvoyance, mind reading and knowing things at a distance are real.  Is that true, professor?”


“There are many anecdotes, but the bottom line is no.  There is no scientific evidence that such a thing exists.  None I accept anyway.”


“But there are non-scientific lines of evidence?”


“Not that would do you any good.  You see science is the study of things we can all agree on.  Things that can be objectively measured in controlled trials.  If we can’t all agree, it isn’t science.  If you can bring me a person with the ability, say to predict the fall of a card, and we can all agree that your subject can do it, it becomes a matter of science.  Then it is no longer a paranormal phenomenon.  It is just something we don’t yet understand.”


“And nobody has such a power.”


“To date.  No.  Not really.”


“You qualified that,” said Jon.


“There are peculiarities.  For instance there is a kind of blindness caused by damage to a certain part of the brain.  The victim frequently will be unaware of how serious his problem is.  He thinks he can see.  But if you test him, you find he cannot reliably identify things he is looking at.”


“Yes.  So?”


“It turns out that if you hold up fingers in front of him and ask him how many there are, he cannot say.  But if you ask him to guess, he will be correct more commonly that you would expect on the basis of chance.”


“And so he does have a way of getting information other than through his eyes.”


“No.  If you blindfold him he does no better than chance.  That is what I mean by not really.”


“Then why is life so spooky?  Why do strange coincidences seem to happen so often, professor?”


“There are a number of theories, for instance in the case of the blind person, there is nothing supernatural about it.  He is aware of something without knowing he is aware of it.  It probably happens more to normal people.


“Of course the powers of a normal person make it harder to test.  And paranormal powers, if they exist, are quite weak.  Even if a person could, by supreme effort of will, bend a spoon, it would not be as useful as your ability to bend the same spoon with your fingers.  That takes so little effort.”


“I am an engineer.  And we have been talking about codes and signals.  And a signal has a characteristic frequency.  Any form of information transfer has some characteristic frequency or frequency range it uses.  Could the same thing be true of people?  Could we somehow, on the basis of timing alone, get in tune with each other so-to-speak?  Could we anticipate each others actions because we knew, without knowing we knew, when that other would make a move?”


“That is an interesting idea.  And I am becoming intrigued with what your experience may have been, but let me continue.  If you are suggesting some sort of harmonic interaction between conscious minds, there must be a basic frequency as you suggest.  And certainly there are biological mechanisms for establishing and holding a frequency. 


“But that frequency must be some real number.  Let us say it is as long as a day.  You have as a mammal the ability to estimate the length of a day, so you get sleepy at the same time and wake up at the same time – hangover permitting.


“But those biological clocks drift.  You can change your daily rhythm by an hour a day and suffer no ill effects.  So if your sense of another’s timing is based on timing that way, then there will be an error rate of perhaps three or four percent per day by which your two clocks will drift apart.  After several days you are no longer synchronized.


“Musicians probably have developed their sense of timing the best of anyone.  A musician can confidently identify a note played on a well tuned keyboard.  It is called ‘perfect pitch.’  But in the test I have never found a musician who could detect a change of as little as one cycle per second unless he was comparing two tones.  So again, after a few moments, even a fine musician will fall out of sink with another fine musician at least to the extent of one cycle per second.  That is, of course, unless they can hear each other, in which case their ability to stay in harmony can be quite impressive.”


“So it’s not just timing.”


“So far as I have been able to tell, no.  The biological clock simply is not as good as a quartz crystal at staying on the beat.”


“What then?”


“As I said, we have the ability to know things without knowing we know them.  That may account for a lot of the weirdness we experience.  But there is an even greater mystery.  Like the blind man unaware of his blindness, we think we are aware of things but are not.”


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