© 2021 Deborah Strod
Chapter 1: The Discovery
Drake tore into his grandfather’s store and raced to the back room, dropping his backpack on a wooden chair just inside the door. He didn’t notice the last customer checking out, he didn't notice the new comics, he didn’t notice the twinkies by the cash register which beeped open as Grandpa Louis gave change to the elderly black woman. She slowly turned and headed for the door that already had the “closed” sign showing to the rest of the world. Grandpa Louis escorted her out, then shut the door with the final tinkle of the little bell and twist of the locks, and turned and looked back down the aisle to Drake.
Drake had stopped his headlong rush in a small back room staring up at a large map of the world taped to a wall, covered with red and blue and green markings in Washington, Denver, and their home of Philadelphia. Drake's finger pointed right to the city: “We’re going to go visit the Mint, G-Poppa! Next month – you’ve got to come!”
Louis labored down the aisle with dignity, “Wonderful” he called, “wouldn’t miss it.” He stopped by the register, unlocked it with a key and carried the tray into the back room where Drake’s breathing was finally starting to calm down. Behind him on the desk were dog-eared, wrinkled copies of books on coin collecting, history, geography, and metallurgy.
“What’ve we got? Let me see!” Drake stepped over to the desk where the old man had placed the change tray.
Louis pulled out a large chart, and said, “Record the date, Drake. Let’s not lose track of ourselves.”
Drake grabbed a magic marker and wrote “6/16/2000” on the next line in a large chart which faced the map from the other wall. The columns said “Year,” “Mint," “Number Expected,” “Number Found," and “Significant Events.” The Number Expected column was filled in for all the years, and all the colums were completed for the last 60 days. Drake and Louis each grabbed a handful of pennies from the drawer, and started to sort them by year and by the small letter under the date. It was slow going to enter the numbers on the chart, but they had fun together, Louis calling out the information and Drake entering it.
“Wow, that’s old.” He pulled out a tray in which were neat rows of coins under a glass cover. "We don't have that one yet! All right!!"
“Splendid, add it to the collection. Hmm, 1944. Now, what do you think was going on then?” asked Louis.
“Horse drawn carriages?” Drake teased, but actually half-serious.
“No, we had cars by then, planes, too. We were using the planes in a war – one of my wars. Can you guess?”
“Well, you were in those Asian places, Japan and Korea and all that… I think that this is the first one, though, right? World War II?”
“Well done, young man. We didn’t know it, but the war would be ending soon. Right then, though, I was scared out of my mind not knowing what was going to happen.” He paused, then picked up another coin. “Do you think people were traveling a lot then or not? Would we expect to see a change in distribution due to coins traveling with people?
“Prob’ly not – they were just working on war stuff all the time, right? So, the ones here would be mostly from the Philadelphia Mint, since we're right here, and they made most of the pennies that year." It was rare to find coins from another mint in their home, since one of the major producers of coins was located there.
“I agree with your analysis, Drake,” said Louis. Then he examined the new coin in his hand. “1963, Seattle. How about that one?”
“Well . . . oh yeah, a president got shot."
“That’s right – do you remember his name?”
“Kennedy – Josh, no – John, right?”
“That’s right,” Louis said. “Do you think that might have changed how people traveled?
“Not so much. They might have been sad and all, but probably still took vacations and stuff.”
“I believe you are correct.”
They kept it up for a half-hour – picking up coins, taking turns writing, talking about what happened. This was Louis’s way. He engaged with his 11-year old grandson, taught him history, geography, economics, all based on observing what was right in front of his face. “All you have to do is keep your eyes open and do some careful thinking,” he would say. “It’s not such a mystery, what’s going on in the world, if you just pay attention.” So far it had worked to keep Drake out of harm’s way in the afternoons after school, and had kept him interested in learning despite the lack of textbooks and teachers at his local school.
Louis had gone to college on the War grants after his service, and was going to help his grandson see the value of staying sharp and informed earlier on in life. “They’ll try to tell you you’re stupid, or you don’t know what’s going on, but don’t you ever let anyone make you feel that way inside," he would say. "You’re a smart kid, and don’t waste it on irrelevancies – you make sure you pick up on all the signs around you. And take action if you need to.” He didn’t preach often, but he preached clearly. No hidden agendas, just the honest support of one kid’s mind and soul.
They’d been recording the pennies left in Louis' change drawer for two months, and today was the day to look at all the data they had collected. Pennies were easy to spare because they didn't have great value anymore, but they were still plentiful, so they'd kept out the special ones for a collection from each year. It would be of no great worth to collectors since the coins were worn, but the value for Louis and Drake was beyond money. It gave them time together, and learning about more than coins.
Drake started to gather up the extra pennies to put them back in the change drawer for the morning.
"You know, they say pennies last about 30 years, but these look like they're doing just fine."
"Well, that's part of what we're testing with our prediction of how many coins we'll find from each year. If we're wrong - or rather, if the Mint is wrong - then we'll find more coins around from the older years than our model predicts. Come, let's look at our data." It was always harder to get from the coins themselves to the abstract information about them. But Drake always made it, eventually.
"Why are some pennies darker than others?" Drake was holding two coins from 1970 which had caught his eye. "They're made of the same metal, and after 30 years what could be different in how they've been worn down?."
"I'm not sure, Drake. Perhaps some got wet and some didn't, some oxidized more than others - why don’t you look that up on the US Mint Website the next time you are at the library." He was still fingering the first coin, from the 1940s. "Amazing the way they last. Better than the rest of us…" he said, looking at his cane. Something about it held his attention, something more than memories, he felt - but he couldn't quite tell what it was.
Drake had already moved on. "I read yesterday that pennies made before 1982 weighed more than the ones made after 1982, when they increased the amount of zinc in them. Can we test it with these? Can I use your spice scale?"
"Certainly, you may" said Louis, glad for the easy gateway to an experience in measurement. "Why don't you bring 10 from before and 10 from after 1982 down to the scale with you."
Drake grabbed a stack of 1970's and a stack of 1990's. He was careful to leave out the coins from 1982 itself, because that year was the transition year and coins of both weights were made that year with no distinguishing features.
Drake came to the scale with his printout from the US Mint Website, which discussed the weights of coins. "It says here that the ones from before '82 weighed 3.11 grams, and the more recent ones weighed 2.5 grams."
"How much is a gram, Drake?"
"I don't know, I guess about half of a new penny."
"Try it out." Drake zeroed the small digital scale, then put a penny in the center. The scale still read zero. "Hey G-Poppa, why does it still say zero? I've got something on there. It should say 2.5 grams."
"Ah. The amount is too small. The scale can't register amounts that small."
"I guess I can't test it then…"
"Yes, you can," countered Louis. "Try another angle on it, keep thinking it through. One penny might not be enough to register, but what about, say 2, or perhaps 10?"
"But I just want to compare 1 to 1, so what does it matter if I know how much 10 weigh?"
"Drake," Louis looked at him firmly. "What is 10 divided by 10?"
Drake felt like rolling his eyes, but he knew that his grandfather usually had a good reason for asking simple questions.
"10 divided by 10 is 1," he started, "but what - ohhhhh. I think I see what you are getting at: 10 of the light pennies should weigh 25 grams, and 10 of the heavy pennies should weigh 31 grams." He was proud of himself at that moment, but then his voice picked up pace even more. "And even if the weights don't come out exactly like I expect, I can divide by 10 and see what one of them would weigh by itself." Then in a sly but triumphant voice, Drake added, "at least the average one."
To Louis' delight, apparently Drake had learned something in a prior discussion about the difference between the average, a way of describing a bunch of things, and the individual things themselves. Drake soaked in the pleased expression on his grandfather's face silently, then buried himself in counting out the right number of coins.
Drake placed a random splat of 10 of the recent pennies on the scale, then peered at the readout: 25 grams, exactly. He swept the new ones off and put 10 of the old pennies on the scale: 31 grams. Exactly as expected! Drake thought it was really neat to see something he'd just read about in words turn up right in front of him on the scale. It made him have more faith in what he'd been reading.
"G-Poppa? Remember when we went to the Lincoln memorial, and they said that the statue was shiny because thousands of people touched it, and the metal was getting worn off? Does the same thing happen with pennies? I mean, if I weigh older coins, will they weigh less because they're more worn?
"Why don't you try it with some other coins from before 1982. Try some from the 50s or 60s." So Drake went back to the desk and counted out 10 1960's coins and 10 1950s coins. He came back to Louis and the scale, zeroed the scale and put them on. The 60's were 30 grams, one gram less than 10 of the 70s. That made sense – just enough had worn off of each individual coin that the difference could be seen in ten together.
“I bet the 50’s are 29 grams then – we’re going down a gram a decade, right?” said Drake.
“Go ahead and perform the experiment, Drake. I’ll be interested to see the results,” said Louis.
Drake placed the 10 coins onto the scale. “Yup, there is is – 29 grams. Do you think the 1940s are going to be 28 grams?” He started to run back to the back room to get the next set.”
“Quite likely, it seems, Drake. But I don’t think we’ll have enough coins from the 40s yet to test with – you may have to wait a few weeks to collect enough.”
“No sir, there are plenty – I saw the pile when I grabbed the 50s and 60s,” Drake called as he reached the back room. A swipe of his hands and was back at his grandfather’s scale. “Here we are! I bet I’m right, I bet it’s 28!”
He dropped the coins on the scale, scattered a bit. The scale read 29 grams. “Hey grampa, hey look! The 40’s are 29 grams like the 50s – that’s not what I expected! What did I do wrong?” Drake was nervous, and disappointed in himself.
“This is where it gets interesting, Drake,” Louis said, a sparkle in his eye and lilt in his voice that caught Drake. “You didn’t do anything wrong. You just found something out. Variance from your prediction. You just found a reason to do some more research.”
“But where should I start? Why should there be a difference?" he asked his grandfather. "I mean, did they just not get worn as much? Were people handling pennies less then than later on?”
“It is true that you have assumed a constant rate of wear for each penny, on the average. It may be the case that there was some reason pennies got less wear for some years, perhaps they were being hoarded and therefore were handled less, being out of circulation.“
Drake added, “Like when they changed from the wheatback to the building on the back – lots of people just kept rolls and rolls of the wheatbacks to wait for them to get more valuable as they fell out of circulation.”
“Exactly. But I don’t remember anything similar in the 40s with pennies. Just remember, Drake – you didn’t do anything wrong. You were being thorough in testing the 1940s, and you found something new. Let’s keep your observation in the back of our mind as we continue with our plan. Let’s get back to filling in our chart.”
They collected their piles and returned to the back room. Drake looked up at the number predicted column, and down at this hand. “G-Poppa, you were right! There’s too many from the 1940s. We'd be lucky to see maybe five, but we've got fourteen. Do you think that's random? What do you think?
“I’m not sure. But we worked out our numbers very carefully, remember. If there are about three times as many as we expected, the chances of that happening are about 100 to 1. Let me see those coins, Drake.”
Louis fingered the coins one by one, flipping them from front to back, sniffing them. “They’re in awfully good shape for being 60 years old, too, don’t you think?” he said to Drake.
“I guess so,” the boy replied.
"And see here, and here" he said, holding two coins on edge. "They're worn in the same manner, one edge almost twice as wide as the other, and all the pockmarks have the same size and depth on each coin. It's like they were all worn down by the same pairs of hands. But that can't be - they should have traveled all over the country. Reminds me of those pre-washed jeans they used to sell - all rough and torn but they all look the same because they went through the same laundering process to get that look. I don't know what to make of it," he concluded, with a thoughtful look.
“Now that’s THREE things that are weird about the 1950s coins – they weigh too much and there are too many of them and they are all worn the same.
"Good job summarizing our findings. Tomorrow at the library, why don't you check the mint history for the 1940's to see if there were any changes in the coin composition, or hoarding or usage, that we've not taken into account. Other than that, we'll see if the trends continue when we’ve collected enough coins from earlier years. Maybe it is something that was true of all coins prior to 1950. We won’t know until we do more research. Good work young man, very observant.” Louis was happy with the afternoon’s events, and proud of his grandson. “All right, off to homework and dinner with you. Give your mom my love."
Drake plucked his backpack off the floor and walked up the back stairs. “See you tomorrow – and save that date for the trip to the mint next month!” he called. He wondered about the odd things they had observed. What had they discovered? Was it a fluke of statistics? Or did it mean something – but what could it mean?
Chapter 2: The Mint
Several weeks later, Drake sat looking at the headlines in the morning paper. His mom was rushing out the door to her job, and he was to go straight to school and have breakfast there. Most mornings he did. Opposite the page of comics, Drake saw a story about an environmental disaster in India. Officials were denying reports of an organism that was contaminating the water supply, after an oil spill in a small harbor. The tanker had been powered by a nuclear reactor purchased from the former Soviet Union as they decommissioned cold war submarines, and the oil that had spilled was radioactive. His eye flickered on it for a moment, then he went off to school. There was a black scientist in the picture, and he thought he might use the story for current events that week.
Drake pictured his particular route to get to school and started off. He went down two blocks, cut through an alley between two huge apartment buildings to avoid some tough kids that usually skipped school. He crossed the street then jumped a fence behind the Check Cashing store, climbing on some boxes. He knew how to be safe by avoiding as much danger as he could, and he could hit and squirm pretty well, but he really didn't like fighting. Most of the time he just walked away, sometimes he got hit and just ran off. No one picked on him all the time; there were enough kids who were easier to scare. Still, it made him feel bad. He shivered.
"Hey Drake," called a man's voice. "When you gonna wise up and come work for me?" This was the other problem. A suave pricey jacket was calling to him from a car that almost never moved from the same spot day after day. When it did move, it took off like lightning. Drake pretended not to hear, hoping to just get past and not get into any words.
"I know you can hear me! One of these days, man, you're gonna come beggin'. But I'll still take you then, I always take care o' mine, even though you think you're better. You can't live here without me!"
Drake just kept walking. He knew to keep quiet. Still…
"Just not innerested, man," he mumbled as he turned his head away, not loud enough for the jacket to hear, but loud enough for himself. Jacket saw his mouth move, though, and Drake heard the crack of a car door opening. He sprinted down the next ally, out of sight and out of reach before Jacket even began to run.
"You need a hand, son?" a calm voice stunned him from behind a screen door midway down the ally. "Duck in here, you can cut through, Drake." It was the barber where Drake got his hair cut.
"Thanks," breathed Drake. He dropped his backpack and sat in one of the barber's chairs, panting.
"Want a trim while you’re here? You're getting a throwback afro look now, don't want to go to retro, do you? How about a nice shave?" joked the man, handing him a cup of water. Drake didn't quite have the breath to smile, but he drained the water and his grateful eyes met Stan's as he handed the cup back.
"No, thanks, I'm workin' on a costume for Black History month. I'm gonna be a Black Panther! Plus I gotta getta school."
He left the shop and made it the rest of the way to school without getting caught again. Breakfast was a kidbox of Cheerios, juice and soymilk he brought from home. The government program that provided breakfast still hadn't figured out that he and most of his friends couldn't drink cow milk. He finished, put away his tray, and went off to homeroom.
Ms. Wilkerson was strict, but fair, and pretty nice. She was one of the older teachers, and she was set in her ways. It was midway through the year, and she already knew that Drake was a good kid, and trying his best most of the time, so she didn't need to come down on him like many of the others.
"Good morning, Drake," came the gravely voice, and bright eyes that demanded he meet her glance.
"Good morning, Ms. Wilkerson," he replied, looking up right after he finished the words. She nodded and he went to his seat.
"Mr. Sands, have you chosen your report topic for this week?" she asked him. He looked up, faster this time, and said, "Uh huh, I mean, yes ma'am. There's an oil spill in India and there's a scientist in the paper who's going to clean it up."
"Did you bring in the article? No? Well, just bring it for tomorrow then. Why don't you write the first paragraph tonight, too," she prompted. He nodded and looked down again.
They got through history, English, math. It was Ancient History, Rome and Greece, full of events and dates that didn't seem relevant. But they had some neat coins. And he was ahead in math because of what his grandfather had taught him about statistics. Recess came, and he ran around and played with his friends. Bobby, his best friend, chased him into the oversized cement pipe that served as home base in tag. They sat resting against the inner wall of the tube, facing each other side by side.
"Got you first," teased Bobby, watching the rest of the crowd running past.
"No you didn't" Drake said back right away. "If I can get away from Stamson, you knowyou'll never catch me!"
Bobby's face flung around sharply to Drake. "He come after you again? Man, you're in serious trouble. What you gonna do?"
"Just keep away as much as I can. What else can I do?"
Bobby shook his head and shrugged. "Come by my house on the way home if you need to."
"Don't need to today. Field trip to the Mint." Drake didn't mention that he'd been spending time with his grandfather on coins and history and math. Even Bobby might not understand that it was actually interesting. So he kept it private, even from Bobby.
He had other ways than visiting Bobby to keep from getting caught off guard. He often stopped by the library on the way home to use the computer there. They couldn’t afford one at home, so he’d copied all the numbers from his project with Grandpa Louis, and was using the library computer to make some graphs to show Louis he could be enterprising. It was pretty cool, and the librarian was really helpful. He could change the colors and stuff, too.
After another few weeks, it was pretty clear that there were too many coins from the 1940s, and in fact most of the extras were from 1948. The ones from the Philadelphia mint all were worn the same way, but the ones from the Denver mint looked just as Drake and Louis would have expected - wider variety in the pockmarks and the wear. But why should the coins from two different mints wear differently? And why should they be grouped at all? Drake couldn't figure it out, and had been looking forward to the trip to the Mint to see if it would provide any hints.
The class met after school to take the field trip bus. Grandpa Louis met them there, and walked with Drake and his friends. They all pretty much liked him.
The tour guide had taken them through the interactive history part of the tour, and had moved down to the section that described how coins are made.
"First, a 13 inch wide strip of metal is rolled out and flattened for nickels, dimes, quarters, half-dollars and dollars, including the new Sacagawa dollar coin. Then round 'blanks' are stamped in the blanking press. For pennies, the process is different, in that we provide copper and zinc to companies that make the blanks for us. The blanks are softened in an 'annealing furnace', then put through a washer and dryer." Chuckles flittered over the heads of the crowd of children as they imagined a giant federal laundromat.
The tour guide pointed to the next picture. A huge metal sieve with penny-sized holes was used to sort out any pennies that were not the right size or shape. All the kids laughed when she said the sorter was called a "Riddler." Blanks that get past the Riddler had a rim raised around their edges in an "Upsetting Mill." The kids laughed at that name, too.
Finally, they got to the press, where the pictures and words were stamped onto the coins. "Here the presses use 40 tons of pressure to imprint the faces and figures you see on pennies. That is like 20 elephants dancing on the head of a penny!" she quipped, and the kids smiled and giggled again at the thought of twenty dancing elephants trying to fit onto a penny.
Once the coins were done, they were inspected by hand and then sized and weighed, and packed 5,000 to a bag, and shipped off to Federal Reserve Banks as ordered by the US Treasury.
Finally the group arrived at the actual production area. All the machinery was behind a big, glass, soundproof window. It looked like it would make a lot of noise. Drake wondered if the people who worked in there would have earphones on like the plane guidance guys. He was looking at all the workers by the machines, when he stopped on a black man in a suit in the back, talking in an animated way to another fellow in a blue overall. The overall saw Drake staring, and motioned the black man out of the room. It was the scientist Drake had seen in the paper that morning.
Drake craned his head to try to see through the door where the two men had gone. The tour guide came over to see what had attracted his attention. She assumed it was the equipment, and said “Pretty amazing, isn’t it! What would you like to know more about?”
“Can we go in there?” asked Drake.
“No, I’m sorry, it’s too dangerous. Besides, you can actually see better from here. Down in there it’s like being a rat in a maze. Also, you can barely hear yourself think.”
“Where does that door go?” Drake asked, pointing to the door where the two men had disappeared. Now that it was shut, it was barely visible from the viewing gallery – it was painted the same color as the wall and blended right in.
The guide peered into the room with her face right up against the glass, and said “Oh, that door? It just leads into the back, to the laboratories where some of the quality checks are done.”
She saw Drake’s face and added, “I’m sorry, it’s not part of the tour.” Her skirt was tugged by a child from another group, and she turned to attend to other questions.
Drake started to walk over to where Louis had been telling stories to his friends, but kept looking out the window while he was walking. He looked at the closed door and wondered what was behind it. What a coincidence to see the scientist from the paper. Now what was he doing in the mint?
Chapter 3: Freedom and the FBI
The next day was Saturday, and Drake and his grandfather took at trip to the library to see what they could find out about this scientist. They looked him up on the world wide web, and they looked up all his articles in the science citation index. Nothing had anything to do with coins. He was an expert in “environmental remediation,” helping to clean up oil spills and other disasters.
“What’s his last name, again?” asked Louis.
“Robeson” said Drake. “Why?”
“Maybe we can find something out about his family. Take a look at the older government files. See if there were any Robesons working on science for the government then. There can’t have been that many black scientists – try the books on black history. For now we’ll just assume he wasn’t adopted.”
Louis came back in about 20 minutes with books on Black Professionals in the 20 Century. “There was Paul Robeson, the singer; and then another, a scientist, working in a government lab. He worked on insects. But it doesn’t really say much else about what he did.”
“I trust my instinct. Find out what happened to him, and find out if he is your Robeson’s father.”
Drake and Louis looked on the internet in some geneologic databases. It was possible that the two were related. Jerome Robeson had been a government scientist, and it seemed his project was suddenly canceled in the late 1940s as funds were diverted in the last days of the war from weapons of destruction and survival, to technology needed to maintain peace and rebuild cities. His work had ostensibly been on insects, but there was an obscure reference to fungi as well. It felt like they were at a dead end. And not only was Drake curious about the scientist – his report was due in a month.
“There’s another thing we can try, Drake. Have you ever heard of FOIA?” asked Louis.
“Is that a tree?” Drake guessed.
“No, that’s Sequoia. This is the Freedom of Information Act. It was passed by Congress to maintain the openness of the government, and it allows the government search its own files for you. It has been useful in finding out the facts in some very controversial situations. I doubt ours will measure up in terms of controversy, but I we might find something interesting out, and although you aren’t old enough to vote it is one of the rights you can exercise.”
The librarian helped Louis and Drake figure out what they needed to do in order to file a Freedom of Information Act request for anything on Jerome Robeson and his son, Tracy. It all was an exercise in teaching Drake to practice his freedoms, to use his mind, to seek information.
It also got them a visit from the FBI.
An older white man and a younger black man, both in suits, had entered Louis' grocery store. Louis didn't even need to look up to know that someone unusual had entered. Their shoes made sandy sliding noises, their aftershave was detectable across the aisles, and the "flit-flit" sound their pant legs made as they walked bespoke a special tailoring and fabric. Plus they strode decisively past every tempting item in the central aisle, not pausing once. By the time they had spotted him at the back of the store by the register, he'd been following their heads over the shelves for about 10 paces.
"Gentlemen," he said, in his usual polite but strong voice, "may I help you?"
“You Drake Johnson?” an agent asked Louis, showing his badge.
“No,” he replied, “here he is now…” he added with a smile as the young boy ran up after school. Drake stared at the badges and stood beside his grandfather.
The younger agent was befuddled. “What’s going on here? He's a kid? Why would a kid be interested in a defunct science program?”
“Why would an FBI agent be interested in a little kid?” asked Drake, as Louis smiled again. “What did I do? It's just a project for school on Black Scientists of the Twentieth Century…”
“Just a school project? Just chance you picked this guy?" The younger of the two agents continued to sound skeptical, but clearly didn't know what to make of the grandfather and grandson.
Drake looked to Louis, who nodded with a "go ahead" pursing of his lips.
"Well," Drake started, "he was in the paper the other day, and I needed to tell the teacher what I was going to work on, so I just clipped it and brought it in. But there's not much about him in the books I have, so I wrote in to the government to get stuff for my report. I have the right, you know!" Drake's chest stuck out as he tried to stand taller than his 5 feet.
The senior agent, who had been listening to Drake and watching Louis, stepped in front of the younger agent, and spoke directly to Drake. "Yeah, I know you got the right. And you're right to use it."
He looked over to Louis now. "Wish more kids were looking into their country's history with as much drive. Look, sorry to bother you folks. We got a wrong tip. Good luck with your report. He's a good guy, that scientist,” said the agent as he turned and beckoned the other to follow. They walked out more slowly, taking in the store, then disappeared out the door and down the sidewalk past the front windows.
Louis just smiled at Drake from his stool and said, “That, my boy, is a nudge in the right direction. Clearly they thought we were up to something - I wonder what? Let’s open that packet from the agency now.” It had arrived in the mail while Drake was in school.
There were some basic facts, birthplace, education, work history of each man. There did not seem to be anything that would connect the father and son scientists to the US Mint in Phildelphia. But in the back, there was a single paragraph describing aborted experiments on microbes that could survive a nuclear bomb. The implication was that such microbes could be studied, and if their mechanism of survival were understood, and were compatible with human physiology, humans could be engineered to survive a nuclear war. The project had been terminated as the war came to a close, and ostensibly dismantled.
"Drake, what did you notice about what those two said?"
"I don't know," Drake began, stalling by instinct and then remembering to think before he opened his mouth. "Well, they seemed to know who we were. How'd they do that?"
"We did file a FOIA request, which is public information. They were within their rights to know we asked for the information. I'm wondering what you heard in their words."
"What did you notice G-Poppa? I was just so surprised I don't think I can really remember what they said word for word." Drake just couldn't wait this time for his grandfather to draw it out of him.
"What I noticed is that their two references to the project did not agree. One used the past tense - a 'a defunct science project'; the other used the present tense - 'he's a good man, that scientist' - is a good man, not was." I'm more convinced now than I was before that there is some connection between father and son."
Louis thought for a moment, then squinted and a gleam snuck through his eyleashes. “Didn’t you say you saw the son in an article involving radioactivity?”
“Yes,” said Drake. “Stuff that could have survived a nuclear bomb back then, and a nuclear engine accident now – you think they're connected?
"Possibly. Probably. But we don't yet know how," Louis cautioned, sitting back a bit.
Drake jumped up. "You’re thinking they’re going to use something that could survive a nuclear war to go in and clean up that mess!”
Then his eyes grew wider: “But that part talked about people, too. What if their going to make people that could survive to go clean it up!"
“I don’t know about people. But you can bet that the elder Robeson's experiment was never truly shut down, or that something was kept from it somewhere." He still looked puzzled. "But what could that have to do with the Mint?” They both sat in silence for a moment, thinking things through.
“Well, now what, G-Poppa. What can we do? I mean, we don’t really want to piss off – I mean, make the FBI upset with us more than they are, right?” He tried to be careful with his language around Louis, but at this moment he was nervous. He'd been learning more about how the government could help and hurt its citizens, and how “troublesome” black folk used to get killed for being "uppity." In most ways those days were over, but he read parts of the newspaper, and he saw the news. Even 5 graders talked about the hate crimes that happened sometimes. That wasn't the government of course, but he was not sure it was a good idea to draw attention to himself at all. It paid to keep a low profile at school - why should it be different outside? Louis had a different approach in mind, however.
“Now, Drake, I tell you to be a law-abiding citizen, and respect the law officers, don’t I? Yes. But you haven’t done anything wrong; all you did was ask a question. That shouldn’t get you threats from your government - and that visit was a threat, no matter how nice they tried to make after they found out you were a minor."
He stood up and put his hand on Drake's shoulder. "I don’t know what we are onto, but I think a well-placed letter to Tracy Robeson might be a good thing. Scientists are often a bit less politically sensitive than those FBI folks, as I recall.”
Drake wondered where Louis recalled that from, but the old man just lumbered to close up, and then pulled out some paper and a pen. "Let's begin with 'Dear Dr. Robeson…."
Chapter 4: Deeper into the Mint
Drake wrote to the junior Robeson, asking about the scientist's father, and especially about what the younger Robeson was doing at the mint. He worked out the words for the letter with Grampa Louis, then typed it at the library computer. They did everything in proper "business letter" format. He was surprised that a business letter was different from a personal letter, but Louis said that if you want to be taken seriously, you have to present yourself seriously.
A week later, Drake received a surprising, terse reply:
No comment. Meet me at the mint on the 16th. Take the 4:40 tour, and ask to be let into the coin section for the last free part of the tour. I’ll meet you there and take you in.
Louis and Drake waited eagerly for the day. They couldn't imagine what had prompted the reply they received. And as their anticipation grew, so did their collection of coins. They now had 30 pennies from 1948.
At last the 16 came, and Drake fidgeted at Louis' side all through the same tour he had heard the month before. Finally at the end, they were free to contact Tracy Robeson during the free part of the tour. Louis reminded Drake that although they had seen the scientist's picture, he would not know which of the crowd was his correspondent. Drake saw Robeson making his way in brief conversations from person to person. He was talking to all the adults in the room, and looked right over Drake's head. Drake went up to him and tugged on his sleeve.
“Dr. Robeson? It’s me, Drake – I brought my Grampa Louis, too.”
Robeson did a double take. “You’re Drake?" said the low, resonating voice with surprise. "I thought you were - um - older. My mistake" He looked up from Drake to find this "Grampa" and settled his gaze quickly on Louis. He reached over to touch Louis' arm and whisper in his ear:
"You’ve got to get out of here, this is no place for a kid. I mean, the Mint is but there's other things. Look, from your letter, I thought you could help me. But you can’t, and I don’t want you to get in trouble. Now just leave!”
He spun away -- and then spun right back.
“Uh oh, it’s too late - the guards are already coming over. I don’t usually come out here these days." His face changed and he clearly had made a quick decision. "Look, I want you to pretend you’re my nephew, um, Fred, okay, and this is uh, your mom’s friend who’s babysitting you." To their puzzled looks he added, "Just go with it, I’ll explain later.”
After a few lies to the guards, tense moments for Robeson's mystery reasons, they walked down the hall to the scientist's office. By now it was after hours, and Drake was not sure how they were going to get home, or what his mother would think, but Robeson was not worried about that at all. He was finally giving his response to Drake's letter, in person; but he directed it to Louis, having taken measure of the man in the lounge.
“Now that you're here, sir, you might as well know what is going on,” he said. “I can’t protect you if you don’t. And,” he paused, “you can’t help me if you don’t.”
“You’re right,” he continued. “My father did work on organisms that could survive a nuclear bombing. At the end of the war, there was fear that we didn’t know enough about genetics to manage this kind of organism, that they would grow out of control. His project was shut down.
“There was one batch of cells which was unaccounted for at the end of the shut down. It was written off as a clerical error. But it wasn't an error.”
Drake and Louis were sitting, watching and listening intently. Drake didn't know some of the words, or some of the events that Robeson mentioned, but Louis seemed to.
"My father didn't want to see his project die completely. He had sent the missing batch to his college roommate, who worked with the Mint. Since the organisms could survive a nuclear explosion, they could survive smelting, just going into their dormant state. He knew that someday this technology would be needed, and didn’t want to see all the years of his work destroyed. He was able to survive the humiliation of the shut down, because he knew that he had saved a small sample of his work that might be able to be reconstituted.
“When this incident arose in India, I was called in as an environmental expert. Right now, we don’t have anything that can save these people. At least not in current development. The radiation kills off the bacteria we usually use to eat up oil spills, making them nearly ineffective. But my father’s bugs – they might do it. He had used some spores from a type of fungus that eats minerals and petroleum. You’ve seen the headlines about bacteria that survived the travel from Mars to earth on a meteorite, and those other bacteria that were found by the Russians miles down in ice – well, he made some pretty potent bugs himself, even though he didn’t have anything like our modern labs to work with.
“I was the only person who knew that there were any remains of my father’s work, since his friend at the mint died two years ago. I thought we could just get the microbes out of the coins, and they’d be inactive, but we could take their DNA and reconstitute new, controllable enzymes to take care of this thing. I told the folks at EPA about how the bugs had been put into pennies at the end of the 40’s, and we started to collect them.
Louis and Drake were starting to get knowing looks on their faces. Although Robeson wondered why, he continued with his story, sensing that time was short.
"I know, you'd think we could have just done a public service announcement asking for the pennies we needed, and everything would be okay. The problem was, the government feared that if we did put out a national call for the pennies, people would hoard them to get paid more, and they thought people would probably be frightened of finding something else in pennies, maybe something harmful. So we went at it the slow way.
"The government wants to help India, but will not risk panicking the public here that dangerous things could be in their coinage. Can you imagine the impact on the economy? Anyway, like I said, we went about it the slow way: some of the metal blanks which contained the organisms were used for proof coins that year and as you know from the tour all proofs are sold to collectors and never enter circulation. They would be in the best condition, but they might also be the most expensive and hardest to find. Since it was National Coin week in April, the government sent agents to try to buy as many proof sets from the year as possible. That, plus my own collection, got us enough to start.
"We've done what we can to improve our chances, looking at estate sales and such, and they’ve been pulling them out of the central Federal Reserve Bank. So far we've collected about 1000 coins. We need ten times that amount, though.
Drake's eyes widened. Ten thousand coins? He couldn't do the math in his head, but if the odds were anything like the ones he and Louis had calculated, the chance of finding that many coins from one year were unbelievably astronomical. Robeson was continuing, and Drake tuned in again.
"We didn't want to create a sudden scarcity of the coins in circulation, so they made some new coins with the mark of the Philadelphia mint, where the microbes had originally been preserved in pennies, roughed them up a bit to make them look old, and distributed them to banks last week.”
"I bet the year was 1948, right?" asked Drake, finding his voice and unable to keep quiet any longer.
Robeson paused, and looked right at Drake for the first time. “That’s right,” he said, surprised and frowning. “How did you know?"
"We have some at home, back at my grampa's store." Robeson turned to Louis, as Drake continued. "So if those bugs are in the coins, is that why they weigh more?"
Robeson quickly refocussed on Drake's face and leaned toward him. "What do you mean, they weigh more?" he queried sharply.
Drake launched into his next burst, glad to be in the conversation and proud to have something to say to a Scientist. "Well, we knew the pre-1982 coins weighed more than the ones made after 82, so we weighed some, and some of them came out right, like the 60s and 70s they were almost right on the money, but the 1940s coins, well they weighed on the heavy side."
"How much did they weigh?" asked Robeson quickly.
"Um, 10 of them weighed 29 grams. Why?" asked Drake.
"Son, you may have found what we've been looking for! We've got to get those coins. They weigh more than they should, because the bugs in them are still living, taking in nutrients. They're growing and thriving, just like my father thought they would." He lost himself in quiet remembrance, but only for a moment.
"We've been hoping we'd find a pocket of coins… and maybe one has found us. You know, most people just throw their pennies into a jar at home. That's why the mint has to make so many each year, because only 1% get recirculated through the central federal reserve banks. The other 99% goes around in commerce for a while, but eventually just gets put into one of those jars. After a few years people get tired of lugging the jars around when they move, older folks want money that's easier to carry around, so they take the jars to the bank and turn them in." Louis and Drake weren't following this line of thinking. But Robeson made it clear.
Sir," he said, turning to Louis, "What bank do you get your change rolls from?"
"Why, the local bank, around the corner. I have for years. They know me well," he replied.
"I wonder if someone just turned in a jar of really old coins, and you happened to get the roll the next day. Tomorrow, I'll send someone to see if that's the case. How many do you have? Specifically from 48?"
"We have 15 altogether from the 40s, I think 10 were from 48."
"We're up to 20" corrected Drake.
"That's great. Let's hope there are more where those came from. So far the ones I've found haven't maintained their viability, even though they survived, but they may have survived at a lower level than the ones you found. They seem to thrive on terrific swings in temperature, so if someone kept a jar in the attic that got very cold in winter and very hot in summer, the bugs' metabolism might have been maintained at a higher rate. If we could find some that were functioning better, I wouldn't need so many." He cocked his head and did a mental calculation: "With a metabolic function rate of… let's see… 20 to 100 would do…"
He started writing an address on a slip of paper, looking up at Louis and Drake between words. "Would you be willing to bring those pennies to this address? Just tell the woman it is a special delivery for me, and they'll get them to me." Louis nodded his assent, while Drake sat wide-eyed.
"You know," said Robeson, "it was a crazy idea from the start. No one believed we would be able to collect enough coins quickly enough to make a difference. So far we've been holding our own by continuously dumping new batches of the current generation oil-eating bacteria into the spill. They are able to process of some of the oil before they die, and we are hoping that might give us enough time to collect enough pennies. But it has to be carefully monitored, and the added biomass of all those dead bacteria is going to affect the environment by the time we get all the oil absorbed, and it will take long enough that some terrible damage will be done. If we could find a quick source of these coins, especially ones that have been maintained in optimal condition - I mean that are healthier, like yours - well, that might make all the difference." Robeson looked genuinely hopeful, even excited, as he talked.
Louis leaned forward slightly. "As you may have observed, I am of the same generation that your father was. I have a few friends who are still alive, some of whom have exactly the kind of jars you described. They have already said that Louis and I could sort through the jars in pursuit of a project that Drake and I are working on. I was planning on using it to demonstrate the difference between continuous sampling and point-in-time sampling. If it would be a helpful side benefit, I would be happy to arrange to do this soon, and contribute any useful coins we might obtain for your research."
Robeson's face grew grim as Louis talked, and his glance fell on a manila envelope on his desk. His eyes went far away, then returned, firm in their gaze. Drake wondered why an offer to help would not make this man feel even better, and Louis had noticed it as well.
"That is a generous offer, sir. I would indeed appreciate any source for these pennies. But I don't want you two to endanger yourselves. Make sure you keep this strictly as the grandfather-grandson thing, and don't mention me or why you are looking for the coins from the 40s." The two visitors exchanged quizzical looks and then listened as Robeson continued.
"Look," he said, "we don’t have much time left before I have get you out of here and pretend I'm just your uncle giving you a ride home, right? If we can get enough microbes reactivated to help in this new incident, I'll be more than glad that I've been able to help. Those people and that ecosystem don't deserve to be harmed by modern inventions and some individual clumsiness. But there's a problem I haven't told you about." He paused, and directed his words to both Louis and Drake.
"Now that this project has been resurrected, there are those who are planning to take the research further, trying to engineer these bugs to convert human tissue into radiation-safe tissue-"
"I knew it!" shouted Drake, almost jumping out of his seat. A glance from his grandfather sat him back down again. But he listened intently as Robeson continued.
"With all we've learned about genetic engineering in the last 50 years, there's a real chance of doing something like that. There may be some good possible outcomes - helping firefighters to deal with radioactive incidents and things like this spill in India, but in my opinion there are some real negatives.
"Could you give me an example?" asked Louis.
"Well, for one thing, cancer cells that arise from this kind of tissue probably couldn't be treated with radiation. You also never know whether this could lead to the possibility of creating a master race that could survive a nuclear explosion. Some idiot politician will blow everyone else up just to be elected by loyal survivalists. Or something like that." He shook his head.
"Anyway, I’ve already seen signs of this getting out of my hands. They still need me, but I've been vocal about my qualms and they're trying to find a way to edge me out of the research. At this point you two are the only other people in the world who know about this whole thing, besides me, and the people who are taking it over.
He stood up. "We’ve got to stop them, somehow, or at least slow them down. We’ve got to get this public so that it can’t be used in secret to engineer an army. If everyone has access to it, or at least knows about it, no one will have an advantage, at least not for long.” He paused, and said with some irony, “And if they decide to regulate it, that will slow it down even more!”
He reached onto his desk, fingering the manila envelope, and looked up at Louis. “If you're willing, sir - take these notes to the science writer at the New York Times. He’s an old roommate of mine from graduate school. I don’t know what it will take, but get in to see him in person. And do it before the FBI gets there. They are starting to get suspicious of me –“
“They’re suspicious of us, too, to be honest” said Louis. At Robeson's questioning look, he said "We filed a FOIA request to get the information on you and your father's work. It is likely that very soon they will know you are not Drake’s uncle.”
Robeson nodded, and Louis continued, “But, for now, they think they frightened an old man and a little boy into not asking any more questions. We might get one more good move in this chess game.” He looked at Drake, held his gaze for a moment, then turned back to Robeson. "We will do as you ask," he said. "But getting to New York on short notice is not going to be easy. I'm afraid that I live a comfortable enough life, but such travel is beyond my income."
Robeson thought for a moment. "Drake, were you interested in science before this all started?" Drake tilted his head, puzzled. Robeson's mouth had a playful smile on it all of a sudden. "Ever thought about being a science writer?"
Chapter 5: New York
Two days later Drake received a letter telling him he'd been selected by his teachers for a trip to visit the New York Times "Science Times" division. His mother was assured that the Times did this a lot, to encourage kids to be interested in science and in writing. She was a little puzzled, since he'd never really expressed a particular interest in such things, but she went along with it. She couldn't leave work, but Louis said he would accompany Drake, and a friend would watch the store. Two airplane tickets came with the letter.
With Robeson's notes tucked into his backpack inside a beat up old school folder, Drake led his grandfather onto the plane. He had never been on a plane before, and was excited, and nervous. Louis had not been on a plane since he returned home from his last overseas battle. Hadn't wanted to go away, and couldn't afford it. They both craned their heads to see out the window as much as possible during the whole flight. Everything looked so small, just like the satellite photos in movies Drake had seen. But it was real!
A young woman from the newspaper met them at the airport, and drove them into the city. They took a perfunctory tour, and were delayed in seeing Pratar Sidran, Robeson's former roommate. At last they were in his office, waiting for him to come back from a meeting.
"What do you think is going to happen, G-poppa? What's the science writer going to do with these notes?"
Louis did what he always did. He listened first.
"What do you think?"
"G-poppa, this is way outside…" he started, then caught himself. "I guess if I were him, I'd want to make sure they were right. And if they were right, since he's a writer, I guess he'll write about it."
A young man's voice with an Indian accent zoomed through the door only moments before the body of a young, well kept Indian man strode through with sheaves of printouts and magazines. "I understand you are interested in being a science writer, Drake," said Mr. Sidran as he walked straight for his desk and sat down across from Drake and Louis, the pile of papers splat between them on his blotter. "Pleased to meet you, Sir," he said to Louis, "Pratar Sidran."
Drake craned his neck to look around the papers at the reporter, then looked to Louis, who nodded his head. "Well, maybe I am. I am getting interested in it, now. But we're not here just for that," he started.
"You're not?" said the reporter, peering over the pile at Drake in his chair. He lifted up out of his chair to keep his eye on Drake as the boy leaned down to his backpack on the floor by his feet.
"We're really here to give you these papers from Tracy Robeson," said Drake as he took the battered folder from his backpack. "He asked us to."
Pratar Sidran finished standing up, since he was halfway there already, and started to walk around his desk. "How do you know Tracy?" he asked.
"It's a long story," said Drake. "But he asked us to bring this to you. I think he wants you to write an article about it."
Sridran took the folder from Drake and started looking at it. "Do you know what is in this folder?" he asked, looking at both visitors.
"Yes," answered Louis. "We had an extensive and confidential discussion with Dr. Robeson prior to his entrusting us to reach you with his request."
"Let me take a look at this, then you tell me about your 'extensive' conversation," replied Sridran.
The three sat in silence for 5 long minutes while the reporter reviewed the folder. Drake sometimes watched the reporter's face, imagining which part of the notes he'd gotten to. Aside from a few eyebrow raises, and a frown, the face was inscrutable.
The notes detailed further what Tracy Robeson had told Drake and Louis. In the 1940's Jerome Robeson had indeed been developing microorganisms that could withstand great changes in temperature, and great doses of radiation. They were expected to be able to survive a nuclear war.
The great fear of nuclear attack had prompted many such projects, developing materials that could survive an attack, protecting humans from the radiation, absorbing radiation, cleaning up radiated materials. But this was the only project aimed at developing living organisms. The implications were that if microorganisms could be made to survive a nuclear attack, perhaps at some point humans could be, also. Jerome believed in what he was doing, also believing that any human application would be decades of research away, but doing his best to move as quickly as possible, for he himself feared the total devastation of nuclear explosions.
Soon after the end of World War II, however, Jerome was suddenly informed of the termination of funding for his research. The project was to be shut down, all samples and experimental materials destroyed. There was no explanation. He had always assumed it was indeed simply a matter of funding, and as the race for space took off in the 1950s and 60s, he often wondered if his money hadn't gone up in one of the Mercury or Gemini missions. He was a man who took seriously the rules of his institution, and in spite of the racist times, he was a true and deep patriot to his country.
By that point in his career, he also had learned that sometimes you have to break the rules. Due to his deep concern for the nuclear threat, he had to find a way to preserve some element of his research for the future. But where could he hide the materials that they would not be found?
He arranged for a single batch, placed in a hybernating state, to be sent to a Detroit-based metallurgy company. His former college roommate was in a strategically important position for him - in charge of creating the blanks that were shipped to the Mint to become pennies. He asked his friend to deposit the organisms into the mix of metal as the blanks were formed. It was his intention that the batch of coins be sent to a bank where they would likely never see circulation, only being held in reserve, and where they would be retrievable. To Jerome's great dismay, his friend told him he was unable to control where the coins went. In fact, he was informed months later that there was a sudden spike in production the day these coins were made, and they were likely already in circulation. His research, and the opportunity it afforded to protect living beings from radiation, was lost to him forever, he thought.
There was no way to get back those coins without telling any officials what he had done, and he was not willing to risk his remaining scientific career by doing so. However, he did begin a small coin collection of his own, immediately. It was a hobby that he passed on to his son, Tracy, and on his deathbed, Jerome told the younger Robeson of the true purpose of the jars of coins he had amassed. The younger man had inherited his father's concern for the survival not just of citizens of the United States, but of the planet. That is why he chose environmental remediation as a career, when his natural instincts and curiosity led him to the sciences.
Tracy added a note to Pratar with an update on progress in the current crisis. He had nearly used up his father's collection of coins trying to find ones in which the organisms were embedded, and trying to coax those he found to reproduce. He was close to getting it to work, and he knew that Pratar would not want to write an article unless the processes worked. In case they did work, the notes detailed the further experiments that were likely to ensue, once the organisms were resurrected and multiplied. Transformations of insects, then small animals. Then non-human and human primates – apes and people.
Pratar took it all in quickly, the implications, the current difficulties and the possibilities of success. "It's a pretty nasty scientific conundrum - something that in the right hands can save lives and in the wrong hands can cause the destruction of the world. And who's to say whose hands are the right ones? Doesn't happen too often, but I've seen it before."
"I'm a little surprised by how calm you are reading this," said Louis.
"I see a lot of things that would surprise you more," said Pratar, choosing to remain vague. He continued,"you know my own grandparents live in the region. It is a relief to know they may get some help, and that Tracy is on the case. If anyone is smart enough to make it work, he is.
"But he's right that there are extensions of the work that he won't be able to control. We may not even be able to control it by exposing it. He's also right that I can't write about it until it works. I can't even write about it until the organisms have done their job and are dead and decayed, because once this information becomes public, everyone with an interest will go there taking samples. And if it is possible to take viable samples, we'll never know who has the technology and who doesn't."
"But how will you know what's happening if you can't talk to him?" asked Drake.
"We'll have to maintain my distance from him. If he succeeds, you'll have to tell me yourself - he can't risk it. Fortunately, the cover of this contest will do nicely as an excuse for us to keep in touch. He thought it through very well. And he must be very concerned, and desperate, to involve you two - he's not the kind of guy to go dragging other people into his business.
"He was always a very private guy, although we were good friends. Wouldn't even let me come help him when his father died. I always wondered - maybe this is why. He knew I might stumble across something about this whole project and not be able to resist it even then. I was already doing internships at the journal Science when we were in college."
"How will we keep in touch with you, then?" Drake persisted.
Pratar smiled. He'd been impressed with the boy so far, and had decided to maintain the opportunity to do something for him, while at the same time needing him to keep in touch with Robeson. "You'll need to actually do some science writing, and I'll need to act as your mentor. As we send material back and forth, and talk on the phone, you can tell me about his progress. Do you have email?"
"Um, no. We don't have a computer at home, and I don't go to the library often enough to --"
Pratar interrupted Drake. "We can fix that. As part of this program, I can arrange for you to get a computer at home. It will make things faster. You do know how to use one?"
"Yes, sir" said Drake. "Well, pretty much. I can go on the Web and that stuff at the library, so I guess we can do it at home. I don't think my mom will mind."
"Great," said Sridran. "You mentioned your mom. Why isn't she here?"
Drake looked at his shoes. "I didn't tell her. I didn't want her to worry. She works so hard. But when she finds out…"
"She'll be very proud. Surprised,” said Louis, “but proud". "You've conducted yourself very well in very 'out of bound' situations. I'm proud of you, too. Now, Mr. Sridran. What is Drake's first assignment? Perhaps something on genetic engineering?"
Chapter 6: Breeding Bugs
A week later, Drake watched Robeson working with a blowtorch, melting coins, then flushing the melted metal with special chemicals to start the cells growing. The swirling of colors was beautiful in a muted way, and Drake thought it looked like cooking chocolate pudding on the stove with his mom. Robeson started the next step, separating the cells from the metal and discarding the metal. At last he had 3 agar plates of cells. He left them growing overnight, and that was all he could do.
In the morning, he returned to find one colony on one plate. Clearly the technology was not perfect, for not every organism had survived. But some had. He bred them, and transferred the key pieces of their genome to the bacteria that eat oil. Again he tested them, this time with radiation, and heat and light, cycles of cold and hot emulating night and daytime in the area. He was evolving organisms faster than nature, fast enough, he hoped, to save some of the Indian harbor. In the moment, he found he couldn't worry about the other implications of the work, he just wanted to save this one local biosphere.
"You see, Drake? You pour the column like this…" He'd been carefully showing Drake the doing parts of his work: pouring, plating, running gels, looking at pictures, counting plates. He looked up at a picture of his father. He kept one in his lab and in his office.
"You know, I always cared for people, and the environment, in general. I'm so used to thinking about systems, the interconnection of systems, the big picture,. But this is so personal, so individual. Pratar's relatives are there . . . and my father's work will be vindicated. If I could do that…."
And what he didn't say, was that he also found out things about himself, too: he understood the importance of teaching, and how much a young person could comprehend yet also how much they needed the attention and guidance of someone being there. For the first time, he was really feeling the immediate impact of his work on individual people he knew. He found he knew just how pitch the visits to Drake: some explanation, but a lot of concrete tasks, and some immediate results and some you had to wait for. In a funny way, it was a new level of intimacy, and he liked it.
Drake liked it, too. He looked on the map and found India, and he was cooking up a really great presentation on environmental remediation for Ms. Wilkerson and the class. He couldn't say what was really happening, of course, but there was enough truth, short of the full truth, to fill the weekly classroom show and tell!
"Hey, can I use this picture for my class?"
"Sure. No one will know the difference between that one and any other bacterium." A timer went off on his computer.
"Drake, it's time to check on the last batch. If this doesn't work, we'll have to wait until we get more coins, and it may be too late. Look, this is the last batch from the coins that you and Louis gave us - I think you should be the one to read the meter. If the number is greater than 10,000 I'm making a trip to India; if it's any lower than 10,000 …"
Robeson moved his stool over to the meter, leaving room for Drake in front. Drake craned his head to peer through the eyepiece and read the numbers. It took a second for his eyes to adjust to the dark and be able to differentiate the red numbers from the background.
"It looks like…17,000. 17,000!!!" He jumped up and turned to Robeson, and they gave each other big hugs. "Big Bug Hugs" went all around the lab and staff.
Robeson booked a flight to India for the next day. Drake wouldn't be able to go to India, but Robeson promised to keep in touch. He and Drake worked out a code. If everything worked as planned, his press announcement would contain the phrase "we made mincemeat out of that mess" - a soundalike for "Mints-meat" referring to coins from the Mint, and how they met.
Drake and Louis watched the news every night, logging on to the AP website for entire press releases immediately after Robeson and his team took a plane to India. There were a number of articles voicing different opinions about the release of genetically engineered bacteria in the wild. Environmentalists feared that they would run out of control, but Roebeson was also quoted, assuring the public that once the oil was gone, the bacteria would die of starvation. He hadn't bred the metabolism out of them, rather he had made them able to withstand terribly straining conditions. In normal conditions, they would have normal metabolic needs. Once the oil was consumed by the bacteria, their metabolism processed radioactive material in a way that stabilized it.
A week after Robeson left, the press release came through on the news. "We sprayed the small inlet with the bacteria. Immediately the water started to change from dark brown to tan. By morning it was clear. The radiation level is also decreasing as expected. We have tested the water and as predicted the bacteria start to die within days of consuming their maximum intake. We will need to continue to monitor the situation, and assess the impact of the additional biomass on the local ecology, but we anticipate things being pretty normal within a few weeks. In conventional terms? We made mincemeat out of this problem!" Robeson turned to the camera and winked. It was like a miracle. It was a miracle.
Drake and Louis immediately wrote an email to Pratar Sridran letting him know that the bacteria worked as planned. As Drake put together his own presentation for school, he wondered what Pratar Sidran would write.
One of the fears of the environmentalists was that the genes from the engineered bacteria would jump into other organisms, making them hardier and creating new pests. Drake put in his report that Robeson hoped the short lifespan of the organisms would prevent any jumping of the genes to another organism in the wild. What Drake didn't report was that Tracy couldn't do anything about all the gene jumping transformations which were happening in a lab back in the United States. He had been completely cut out of the additional spinoff experiments while he was in India. Officially, he didn't know they were going on; unofficially, he just didn't know in which lab they were happening. He imagined, though. Unshielded people were walking through fire, and fields of radiation. This was either the biggest deterrent to nuclear war, making it obsolete, or the biggest boost to nuclear attack, making it seem more thinkable.
Although the Times had sent a reporter to India, official statements about how the remediation worked gave no real description of the technology. Pratar Sidran ran an expose based on "anonymous sources highly placed within the scientific establishment."
The whole story became public: at first only interest in the Robeson father-son team, and the graduate school connection to the New York Times. But eventually, a FOIA request by a reporter led to the grandson-grandfather team. In a small section of the world, interested in environmental and governmental affairs, Drake and Louis were famous. The local papers put their pictures on the front, and most importantly, Drake was assured of a scholarship to college – from the Mint of all places. But there were other, fun spinoffs. Drake and his grandfather put together a project for the Mint Website on their coin collecting project, and their model of how to predict how many coins to expect. The Mint and the EPA started a special program at Drake’s school to fund mathematics, science, and cultural exchange projects. Mrs. Wilkerson gave Drake an A on his report on Tracy Robeson. Drake’s mother was proud.
The article in the Times was accompanied by a pair of editorials.
(1) The limited disbursal of genetically engineered bacteria in India is justified.Perhaps in our pursuit of masterful interaction with nature, if not mastery of it, we have created such terrible accidents that we need terrible means to rectify them. In an ideal world, humans would live without affecting the natural development of the environment, the natural relationships that maintain ecosystems. But we don't. From the time we built fires and cultivated vegetables, we created a different scale of influence on our environment than other animals. There are animals who build tools, and animals who wreak great but cyclical change in their ecosystem. Certainly, elephants destroy acres of trees every year, but in healthy, balanced times that destruction has in fact been part of forest renewal. Greater change that is not part of a stable cycle leads to species that die out.We may be on the way to dying out; or we may just be on our way to correcting some of our worst influences, if we continue to respond to the worst tragedies we cause. Our fear is that one tragedy will release another. But faced with the death of thousands, who would not try a new vaccine, or a new dam, even if the potential cost of failure were also high? We may find ourselves in a desperate scramble: Live to fight another day. Live to solve another problem, or prevent another problem. We should live prudently: reduce, re-use, recycle, prevent…and strike as necessary. In this instance, the short duration of the environmental exposure, due to the fact that the bacteria would not reproduce and would not survive longer than several days, made this instance justifiable.
(2) There has been speculation that the same technology used to create the bacteria which proved so helpful in India could be put to other uses: specifically, the development of higher organisms such as humans that could survive a nuclear attack.The use of genetic engineering to create human beings designed to fit specific characteristics requires public commentary in every instance it arises. The debates about genetic engineering's potential to reduce birth defects has in fact raised useful questions about how our society views "normalcy" and "defects," the answers to which get to the very heart of some of our deepest problems in getting along across our varieties of existence. Debates about the use of genetically engineered tissue, whether from animals or fetal tissue, to replace defective tissue in otherwise viable humans has raised useful questions about our definitions of humanity and our values about those considered non-human. The same kind of useful questions can be raised about the development of human beings with special features. The emphasis on genetic purity of the Nazi regime would eventually have led to an inbreeding that would have destroyed humanity, and the values used to conduct that vast experiment considered certain kinds of humans inferior and not worthy of living. It led to cruel destruction of millions of lives. We see the same viciousness in Africa, in Europe, even in India where we have just saved lives.
Until we can get along with the variety of humans we already have, let's not make any new ones; or if we do, we must be ready to extend to them the same rights and responsibilities as any other member of our societies, plus any new ones peculiar to their state.
These in turn were accompanied by an Op-Ed piece, by a budding scientist named Drake Sands:
I didn't know much about government, or the environment, or genetic engineering, or even about our coins, until I spent some time with my grandfather, and I met Tracy Robeson, a scientist. Now I know a lot. I bet that other people don't know a whole lot about this stuff either, even though it's all around us. I learned to look at what is right in front of me, and to try to see what is under it as well.I didn't have a computer, and we don't have a lot of books in my school. But I learned enough to figure things out. And I learned that's the most important thing - knowing how to figure things out. I hope other kids learn that from this, too.We're the ones who will have to solve the problems our parents leave to us. We might as well start trying to help them now!
And so they did. Drake and Louis kept up their afternoons together, observing the world and figuring things out.
Appendices (avialable on request)
Calculations for the models used in this book (normal curve, decay)
Weighing coins pre and post 1982
How FOIA works