American library books » Fiction » Self Portrait by Bernard Wolfe (nice books to read TXT) 📕

Read book online «Self Portrait by Bernard Wolfe (nice books to read TXT) 📕».   Author   -   Bernard Wolfe

1 2 3 4 5
Go to page:
*** START OF THIS PROJECT GUTENBERG EBOOK SELF PORTRAIT *** Produced by Greg Weeks, Mary Meehan and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at
Self Portrait



[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Galaxy Science Fiction November 1951.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

In the credo of this inspiringly selfless
cyberneticist, nothing was too good for his colleagues
in science.
Much too good for them!

October 5, 1959

Well, here I am at Princeton. IFACS is quite a place, quite a place, but the atmosphere's darned informal. My colleagues seem to be mostly youngish fellows dressed in sloppy dungarees, sweatshirts (the kind Einstein made so famous) and moccasins, and when they're not puttering in the labs they're likely to be lolling on the grass, lounging in front of the fire in commons, or slouching around in conference rooms chalking up equations on a blackboard. No way of telling, of course, but a lot of these collegiate-looking chaps must be in the MS end, whatever that is. You'd think fellows in something secret like that would dress and behave with a little more dignity.

Guess I was a little previous in packing my soup-and-fish. Soon as I was shown to my room in the bachelor dorms, I dug it out and hung it way back in the closet, out of sight. When in Rome, etc. Later that day I discovered they carry dungarees in the Co-op; luckily, they had the pre-faded kind.

October 6, 1959

Met the boss this morning—hardly out of his thirties, crew-cut, wearing a flannel hunting shirt and dirty saddleshoes. I was glad I'd thought to change into my dungarees before the interview.

"Parks," he said, "you can count yourself a very fortunate young man. You've come to the most important address in America, not excluding the Pentagon. In the world, probably. To get you oriented, suppose I sketch in some of the background of the place."

That would be most helpful, I said. I wondered, though, if he was as naive as he sounded. Did he think I'd been working in cybernetics labs for going on six years without hearing enough rumors about IFACS to make me dizzy? Especially about the MS end of IFACS?

"Maybe you know," he went on, "that in the days of Oppenheimer and Einstein, this place was called the Institute for Advanced Studies. It was run pretty loosely then—in addition to the mathematicians and physicists, they had all sorts of queer ducks hanging around—poets, egyptologists, numismatists, medievalists, herbalists, God alone knows what all. By 1955, however, so many cybernetics labs had sprung up around the country that we needed some central coordinating agency, so Washington arranged for us to take over here. Naturally, as soon as we arrived, we eased out the poets and egyptologists, brought in our own people, and changed the name to the Institute for Advanced Cybernetics Studies. We've got some pretty keen projects going now, pret-ty keen."

I said I'd bet, and did he have any idea which project I would fit into?

"Sure thing," he said. "You're going to take charge of a very important lab. The Pro lab." I guess he saw my puzzled look. "Pro—that's short for prosthetics, artificial limbs. You know, it's really a scandal. With our present level of technology, we should have artificial limbs which in many ways are even better than the originals, but actually we're still making do with modifications of the same primitive, clumsy pegs and hooks they were using a thousand years ago. I'm counting on you to get things hopping in that department. It's a real challenge."

I said it sure was a challenge, and of course I'd do my level best to meet it. Still, I couldn't help feeling a bit disappointed. Around cybernetics circles, I hinted, you heard a lot of talk about the hush-hush MS work that was going on at IFACS and it sounded so exciting that, well, a fellow sort of hoped he might get into that end of things.

"Look here, Parks," the boss said. He seemed a little peeved. "Cybernetics is teamwork, and the first rule of any team is that not everybody can be quarterback. Each man has a specific job on our team, one thing he's best suited for, and what you're best suited for, obviously, is the Pro lab. We've followed your work closely these last few years, and we were quite impressed by the way you handled those photo-electric-cell insects. You pulled off a brilliant engineering stunt, you know, when you induced nervous breakdown in your robot moths and bedbugs, and proved that the oscillations they developed corresponded to those which the human animal develops in intention tremor and Parkinson's disease. A keen bit of cybernetic thinking, that. Very keen."

It was just luck, I told him modestly.

"Nonsense," the boss insisted. "You're first and foremost a talented neuro man, and that's exactly what we need in the Pro department. There, you see, the problem is primarily one of duplicating a nervous mechanism in the metal, of bridging the gap between the neuronic and electronic. So buckle down, and if you hear any more gossip about MS, forget it fast—it's not a proper subject of conversation for you. The loyalty oath you signed is very specific about the trouble you can get into with loose talk. Remember that."

I said I certainly would, and thanks a whole lot for the advice.

Damn! Everybody knows MS is the thing to get into. It gives you real standing in the field if it gets around that you're an MS man. I had my heart set on getting into MS.

October 6, 1959

It never rains, etc.: now it turns out that Len Ellsom's here, and he's in MS! Found out about it in a funny way. Two mornings a week, it seems, the staff members get into their skiing and hunting clothes and tramp into the woods to cut logs for their fireplaces. Well, this morning I went with them, and as we were walking along the trail Goldweiser, my assistant, told me the idea behind these expeditions.

"You can't get away from it," he said. "E=MC2 is in a tree trunk as well as in a uranium atom or a solar system. When you're hacking away at a particular tree, though, you don't think much about such intangibles—like any good, untheoretical lumberjack, you're a lot more concerned with superficialities, such as which way the grain runs, how to avoid the knots, and so on. It's very restful. So long as a cyberneticist is sawing and chopping, he's not a sliver of uncontaminated cerebrum contemplating the eternal slippery verities of gravity and electromagnetism; he's just one more guy trying to slice up one more log. Makes him feel he belongs to the human race again. Einstein, you know, used to get the same results with a violin."

Now, I've heard talk like that before, and I don't like it. I don't like it at all. It so happens that I feel very strongly on the subject. I think a scientist should like what he's doing and not want to take refuge in Nature from the Laws of Nature (which is downright illogical, anyhow). I, for one, enjoy cutting logs precisely because, when my saw rasps across a knot, I know that the innermost secret of that knot, as of all matter in the Universe, is E=MC2. It's my job to know it, and it's very satisfying to know that I know it and that the general run of people don't. I was about to put this thought into words, but before I could open my mouth, somebody behind us spoke up.

"Bravo, Goldie," he said. "Let us by all means pretend that we belong to the human race. Make way for the new cyberneticists with their old saws. Cyberneticist, spare that tree!"

I turned around to see who could be making jokes in such bad taste and—as I might have guessed—it was Len Ellsom. He was just as surprised as I was.

"Well," he said, "if it isn't Ollie Parks! I thought you were out in Cal Tech, building schizophrenic bedbugs."

After M. I. T. I had spent some time out in California doing neuro-cyber research, I explained—but what was he doing here? I'd lost track of him after he'd left Boston; the last I'd heard, he'd been working on the giant robot brain Remington-Rand was developing for the Air Force. I remembered seeing his picture in the paper two or three times while he was working on the brain.

"I was with Remington a couple of years," he told me. "If I do say so myself, we built the Air Force a real humdinger of a brain—in addition to solving the most complex problems in ballistics, it could whistle Dixie and, in moments of stress, produce a sound not unlike a Bronx cheer. Naturally, for my prowess in the electronic simulation of I.Q., I was tapped for the brain department of these hallowed precincts."

"Oh?" I said. "Does that mean you're in MS?" It wasn't an easy idea to accept, but I think I was pretty successful in keeping my tone casual.

"Ollie, my boy," he said in an exaggerated stage whisper, putting his finger to his lips, "in the beginning was the word and the word was mum. Leave us avoid the subject of brains in this keen place. We all have a job to do on the team." I suppose that was meant to be a humorous imitation of the boss; Len always did fancy himself quite a clown.

We were separated during the sawing, but he caught up with me on the way back and said, "Let's get together soon and have a talk, Ollie. It's been a long time."

He wants to talk about Marilyn, I suppose. Naturally. He has a guilty conscience. I'll have to make it quite clear to him that the whole episode is a matter of complete indifference to me. Marilyn is a closed book in my life; he must understand that. But can you beat that? He's right in the middle of MS! That lad certainly gets around. It's the usual Ellsom charm, I suppose.

The usual Ellsom technique for irritating people, too. He's still trying to get my goat; he knows how much I've always hated to be called Ollie. Must watch Goldweiser. Thought he laughed pretty heartily at Len's wisecracks.

October 18, 1959

Things are shaping up in the Pro lab. Here's how I get the picture.

A year ago, the boss laid down a policy for the lab: begin with legs because, while the neuro-motor systems in legs and arms are a lot alike, those in legs are much simpler. If we build satisfactory legs, the boss figures, we can then tackle arms; the main difficulties will have been licked.

Well, last summer, in line with this approach, the Army picked out a double amputee from the outpatient department of Walter Reed Hospital—fellow by the name of Kujack, who lost both his legs in a land mine explosion outside Pyongyang—and shipped him up here to be a subject in our experiments.

When Kujack arrived, the neuro boys made a major decision. It didn't make sense, they agreed, to keep building experimental legs directly into the muscles and nerves of Kujack's stumps; the surgical procedure in these cine-plastic jobs is complicated as all getout, involves a lot of pain for the subject and, what's more to the point, means long delays each time while the tissues heal.

Instead, they hit on the idea of integrating permanent metal and plastic sockets into the stumps, so constructed that each new experimental limb can be snapped into place whenever it's ready for a trial.

By the time I took over, two weeks ago, Goldweiser had the sockets worked out and fitted to Kujack's stumps, and the muscular and neural tissues had knitted satisfactorily. There was only one hitch: twenty-three limbs had been designed, and all twenty-three had been dismal flops. That's when the boss called me in.

There's no mystery about the failures. Not to me, anyhow. Cybernetics is simply the science of building machines that will duplicate and improve on the organs and functions of the animal, based on what we know about the systems of communication and control in the animal. All right. But in any particular cybernetics project, everything depends on just how many of the functions you want to duplicate, just how much of the total organ you want to replace.

That's why the robot-brain boys can get such quick and spectacular results, have their pictures in the papers all the time, and become the real glamor boys of the profession. They're not asked to duplicate the human

1 2 3 4 5
Go to page:

Free e-book: «Self Portrait by Bernard Wolfe (nice books to read TXT) 📕»   -   read online now on website american library books (

Comments (0)

There are no comments yet. You can be the first!
Add a comment