1. The Third Element
Some people say, when starting a new job, first impressions are important. If you believe that, you should not follow my lead. Because my first day at work I was sitting in a dark research laboratory, unable to stay awake, all the while terrified that I’d be fired on the spot.
I had started the day alert enough. Halsted Aeronautic Laboratory wanted me in the HR department at 9 sharp, at least I got that part right. After all, this was a job I wanted, no one had forced me to come here.
But why did they have to make it so hard to join the company? Forms, forms, you wouldn’t believe. Anyone who said to read what you sign never signed on as a research scientist at HAL. Application … employment agreement … code of ethics … beneficiary forms … group medical … 401K … flex benefits … employee handbook. I’m not done, but I’ve worn you out already.
I had to guess a lot of answers: addresses, dates, organizations, foreign countries visited – why and when. What did I agree to? Did I remember all my addresses and membership? Will it trip me up later? Does it even matter?
HAL was a pretty big place, maybe 200 research staff. So I was grateful to be taken in hand by Donna Pascal, a fortyish Human Resources woman with ebony skin and a refrigerator-white smile.
“Dr. Olsson…may I call you Evan?” she said. “Are you familiar with the lab?”
“Just an interview,” I replied. “I’m a local guy, product of PaliHi. Mostly, I grew up wondering what in the world went on up there on the hill.”
She wasn’t surprised. “Whenever there’s a new scare – I don’t know, chemicals, radiation – people come around asking whether we’re putting their children and parakeets at risk. So our HR manager goes out to pacify the neighbors.”
“I’m a computer scientist,” I said. “My bits and bytes are organic and non-polluting.”
She blinked, but Donna had met smart-ass researchers before, so she didn’t break stride. “How about a walkaround?”
“OK, Evan,” she said, leading me into the lobby. “Let’s start at the information desk. This is Maria Ortiz, Security. We want to make a good impression on visitors, so the friendliest security officer gets to sit here at the desk.” Maria favored us with a giant smile.
As we climbed the stairs she said, “HAL has been in Pacific Palisades since 1960. Robbie Halsted was our founder, we call him The Chief. He died in 1991, now our profits go to Navy families.” As we reached the third floor she continued, “Here’s the caff. Open from breakfast through mid afternoon.”
I glanced through a wide doorway into a dining room with dozens of assorted tables. “The view is spectacular,” I said.
“Most of the offices have the same view,” said Donna. “Well, the scientist offices do. And senior Admin. Labs and support are against the hillside.”
“How does anyone get any work done?” I wondered.
Donna gave a done-this-before moue. “When we have the Pacific Ocean out every window, we get our fill. After a couple of weeks, you’ll hardly look at it.”
I promised myself not to be blasé and ignore the magnificence of the sea. A promise I didn’t always keep.
“Here’s the Director’s office. Dr. Pam Bennett. You met her when you interviewed.” I nodded. “There are a couple of conference rooms, against the hill. Then on Two,” she continued, leading me down the stairs, “we have the typical layout. In this case, Library in the middle of ‘B’ wing. ‘A’ wing to the west, ‘C’ to the east.”
She pointed to an open door thirty feet down the corridor. “That’s the Computer Science department office. You met the manager, Dr. Ashley Tanaka. You should check in there after lunch.”
“Finally,” she said, as we arrived back at ground level, “the auditorium sits here behind the lobby, with HR off to the side. Come by and see us!”
I had rarely seen such a smile. High lumens, max contrast. I did my best to copy it. “Thanks, Donna. I’ll save you my tough questions!” And I toodled off.
When I made it back to the caff, it was past 12:30 and people were polishing their lunches. Not a lot of lollygagging here. I grabbed a sandwich and iced tea and ate alone, in a chair by the window. The glare from the ocean was blinding, I put on sunglasses so I could admire the view.
After hours of buildup, I was anxious to start work. If Donna was representative, the people would be pleasant. So far, I thought, looks as if HAL will be a no-problem place to work.
I soon regretted my hasty assessment.
I wandered down to second floor B wing and sought out the Comp Sci office. I found a woman behind a desk in front of the dazzling prospect. A door to one side, perhaps Dr. Tanaka’s, was closed.
“You’ll be Evan Olsson,” she said. “I’m Holly Morris, Dr. Tanaka’s assistant.”
She offered a hand and I thought, she deserves more than a handshake. “Reporting for duty, Holly,” I said. “Donna gave me the safari tour. You’ve got everything but a steam room with a massage table.” I waved at the ocean panorama.
“Good idea,” she said, “something to add to the capital request.”
I thought to myself, Holly may have a few years on me, but she wears them well. Guess blondes aren’t so boring after all.
“You went to Caltech, right?” she asked.
A nod. “Yeah, Santa Barbara first, grad school at Caltech. I had a postdoc appointment, I’ve been out three years now.”
“You have lots of company here,” she said, “Caltech, UCLA, Berkeley, probably our top three.” I spotted a wedding band on her hand. Darn.
“Are you settled in yet?” she asked. I wondered whether she was killing time, or schmoozing with a purpose.
“I’ve got a temporary place in Palisades, it’s great to be back on the West Side. I saved money, hope to buy a condo. Maybe close enough to ride my dirt bike to work. And having seen what you have here, I guess I want a great view.”
Holly gave a high-wattage smile. “Don’t limit yourself to Palisades, look at Topanga and Malibu, more for your money out there.”
“Really? I thought they were pretty pricy.”
She brushed a loose lock behind one ear. “The beach is outrageous, but there are bargains in the hills and canyons. Compared with Palisades anyway.”
This conversation was getting me no closer to starting work. “Er…” I said, “Donna said I should check in with Dr. Tanaka.”
“Ashley,” said Holly. “Robbie’s the Chief, but everyone else is first names. But Ashley’s out today, had a meeting in town. So I have to figure out what to do with you.”
I could have made a suggestion – something involving a drink with an umbrella – but I held that thought. “Well, if you have an office for me, I could settle in and catch up online.”
“Hmm, I don’t know where Ashley wants to put you. But I have another idea.”
She dialed her phone and had a brief conversation with someone named Judd. Basically, will you take this guy off my hands for the afternoon?
What she said to me was, “Evan, you’ll find out the computer science projects after you meet Ashley. But today I suggest you see Judd Gates. He’s working on laser displays, you can see some different stuff that’s going on. Then tomorrow you can catch Ashley. Is that OK?”
“Sure,” I said, “whatever you think. Just point me there.” I guess she had work to do, from her perspective it was a reasonable solution.
But as I walked over to find Judd Gates, I didn’t like it one bit. I must have known something about lasers once, when I took Electromagnetics. However, it would take a team of archaeologists to dig the fragments of my knowledge, and a Rosetta stone to make sense out of them.
My forehead was getting warm. I came to HAL to do research, computer science research. The last thing I wanted was a chance to display my ignorance of physics, leaving an indelible first impression as a donkey.
At first I thought Judd was a Florida tourist who had breached the front desk. His shorts and sandals made me want to mutter “y’ain’t from ‘round heah, id ya?” But when I spotted the slogan on his T shirt – ‘Lasers Are Light Work’ – I deduced that he was indeed in the Optics Department.
“Hello, you would be Evan.” Judd was a full-sized guy with a soft voice. I could barely hear him over the whirr of the equipment. “This is the laser display lab. We’ve got great toys here. I know this isn’t your field, so I’ll just hit the top level.”
There was stuff everywhere, large chunks of apparatus, digital displays, optical tables with laser beams sparkling the dust in the air. I could imagine being electrocuted or blinded by a misstep. “Just tell me what I shouldn’t do,” I said.
“Oh. Well, sit here I guess. We can’t use safety glasses, we work with too many different colors. So try to keep your head out of the beams, and if you see something bright, close your eyes right away.” I could imagine what my mother would have said about this caper.
“Anyway,” he continued, “this big guy is a continuous YAG laser. Yttrium aluminum garnet. Doped with neodymium, that’s what has the population inversion. You know, more atoms in the upper state than the lower state, like a negative temperature.”
I vaguely remembered population inversion, but not this negative temperature stuff. Oh no, I thought, Thermodynamics was a bitch, what could negative absolute temperature possibly mean? I visualized swarms of little atoms: instead of bouncing merrily around like bumper cars, they were laying back, sipping piña coladas and perusing the Facebook feed. Thermo made my brainstem ache.
Judd continued, speeding the pace. “Atoms emit light, amplification, laser resonator, out comes infrared, 1.06 microns. You can’t see it.” I can’t see infrared. OK, I thought, there’s something I know.
“All these mirrors, we pull off part of the infrared and double it to make this green beam.” He leaned close to the optical table, the scattered light giving him a witch’s complexion. I wanted to say, hey, not so close!
“Then we mix green with infrared to get ultraviolet – 355 nanometers. It pumps these two dye lasers to get red and blue beams, which also go to the display. So we have monochromatic red-green-blue, very broad gamut, we can create an incredible range of colors.”
Judd did something to a mirror and there was a brilliant green smudge an inch across on the lab wall. “You know about transverse modes.” It sounded rhetorical, and I mumbled. He continued, “Here, this pattern shows that the resonator is misaligned.” He twisted a couple of knobs and the mess of light became a small spot. “We need a pure mode like this to feed the display unit.”
Judd kept talking, adjusting one thing, fiddling with another. I was as responsive as a clam, and felt about as stupid. Strike one. I wondered whether this was some sadistic test for new employees that I was failing. What was worse, Judd’s soft voice had very little inflection. His monotone reminded me of that prof in Santa Barbara.
Thermo. Terminally frustrating. I studied furiously, only got a B. Had to memorize a lot, I never really understood it. Statistics were mysterious and arbitrary. Why do you count the degrees of freedom that way, anyhow? Well, of course, so you get the right answer! A giant N-dimensional con game. Boltzmann, Carnot, Kelvin, all those guys conspiring to dry-lab the properties of gases, pretending they derived them from basic physics. Bah.
Judd mumbled something about synchronizing the color feed and suddenly the lights went out. Flickering beams and winking pilot lights revealed hulking shapes around me. I realized that my chair was upholstered, comfortably padded. The cooling pump hummed restfully.
It crossed my mind that I shouldn’t fall asleep, it might get Judd really pissed. I could get fired my first day at work. So I didn’t exactly sleep. Well, perhaps I dreamed a little. Or I could have just been imagining.
I was at the back of a gigantic lecture hall. The rows of seats slanted steeply down to the lectern. There were whiteboards covering the wall behind the prof. He was writing Greek symbols on a board as fast as his hand could move, talking all the while, barely audible. “The quantum degrees of freedom of a semi-infinite solid are statistically equivalent to the structure of an n-player zero sum game with dissipative friction.” Huh. Did he really say that?
The whiteboard was mounted in vertical tracks. As soon as he filled it, he shoved it up, revealing a pristine board behind it, on which he wrote more equations. The entire front wall of the room was becoming polluted with math. I squinted at the symbols, but they blurred and shifted, mocking me.
The prof’s voice was droning on, I could hear quiet snores from people around me.
Oops. I suddenly realized that Judd had asked me a question. “Huh?” I said sagely.
“I said, have you seen many 3D movies?”
I rattled my head a moment. Judd cranked up the light, which helped. “Uh … just a few. Wild animals jumping out of the screen. The displays give me a headache. And the glasses are uncomfortable.”
“Great!” said Judd, “It’s folks like you who are the target audience for our new display.” He waved at a blank screen several feet high and five feet wide. “No glasses at all!”
“Hmm, how do you do that?” I wondered, a bit interested in spite of myself.
“Well, briefly, the pixels are edge-fed with polarized laser light, it carries the right and left images. Each pixel scans the images across the audience. Sensors track the audience – well, so far, up to six viewers. When the beams are centered on your head, the pixel pulses on.”
“Is there a problem for epileptics with pulsed light?” I asked.
“It’s a high refresh rate, so we don’t think that’s a problem. Here, I’ll show you a demo.”
Oh God, I thought, not the lights again. But yes, Judd hit the switch and we re-entered a state of eerie gloom. He explained as he adjusted the apparatus, speaking barely above a whisper. I saw first one faint light, then another.
I really wanted to stay awake. I kept telling myself, people would kill to have a job like mine, I don’t want to screw it up. But my body had other ideas. Judd kept talking, in that soothing voice, as he adjusted one dim beam and another.
At least, I had the pleasure of dreaming in color. Not just in color, but in a landscape of purest red, clearest blue, most intense green.
There was a forest, every tree and every leaf a primary color, swishing and flapping in the wind. Oh … no, they’re rustling with the movement of some beast. I catch a glimpse of a panther, solid green, snarling at me between the bushes, stalking me on the right.
On the left, a rustle alerts me to a cougar, this time brilliant blue, inviting me for lunch, but keeping an eye on his rival.
Suddenly ahead there rears up a full-grown male lion in flaming red, roaring. He tenses himself to spring at me, but the panther and cougar both attack him, hoping to save me for themselves.
Ahead I see a bright-colored cliff. I pull myself up hand over hand, trying to escape. The rocks sting my fingers, my feet are slipping from the toeholds, I’m scrambling, my heart’s galumphing. The beasts are on either side of me, coming closer, getting into position to jump me.
As I reach the top of the hill there’s a mighty flash of white light like from a nuclear explosion.
I jolted awake and was facing the display screen, now painfully bright. My eyes were vibrating, I automatically put on my sunglasses.
My first thought was, darn it all, Judd has got the blasted display to light up. Then I realized where I was, that I was supposed to be making a good impression. Well, an acceptable impression at least.
There were colored blotches moving, but something was wrong, I couldn’t make out a thing. I heard Judd’s voice apologizing. “Oh, this is terrible. It’s all blurry, there’s no 3D effect at all. Something needs adjustment, or alignment. Or the electronics is screwed up.”
Judd continued to grumble as he fiddled with first one thing, then another, getting more and more agitated. Shit, I thought to myself, here I am acting like an ignoramus, this guy is getting pissed and might take it out on me. And with my smart ass PhD I’m no help at all.
But I had to try something. I tilted my head to one side, then the other. What that accomplished was that it got me dizzy. I tried covering my right eye, and the screen was a bright smudge. But when I covered my left eye, I could make out images of cars, zooming at me in an unnerving manner.
“Er, Judd,” I said, “the right image seems OK, but the left one is very blurry.”
Judd turned his head and blinked. “Oh, OK, let me kill one feed. Yes, that’s right, the left eye has gotten out of focus.” He grabbed a knurled knob. “Ah, and now I have it better adjusted I see the images are misaligned. Here, I’ll run the clip again.”
At this, the video leapt to life and I slipped off my sunglasses, thinking as I did that it might be a mistake.
There was a stream of race cars coming right out of the screen. I instinctively ducked right and then left, heart jogging. Gee, I thought, what if I throw up or pee in my pants? Doing that in someone’s lab seems like poor manners. But maybe it would make a good impression, like I’m praising the realism of Judd’s display. What I said was, “Ah … mm … I think it’s working now.”
Finally the clip came to an end, as all things must. I heaved a sigh of relief and straightened up, as if coming out of a foxhole. Felt like road kill.
Judd muted his infernal apparatus and turned on the lights. “Evan,” he said, “you’re pretty observant.”
“Well,” I said modestly, “I cheated. I used sunglasses.”
Judd lifted his hand to his forehead. I thought, good Lord, do people really do that? “Of course!” he said. “Polarized glasses! Helps isolate the images if the eye sensor isn’t perfectly aligned. Good way to check for focus. Thank you!”
I felt as if I’d been through D-Day. “It’s great to see your work, Judd,” I mumbled. “But … maybe I oughta check in with Holly, I still have to see Dr. Tanaka.”
Judd was all smiles as he walked me out of his lab. He touched my shoulder. “Thanks for your help, Evan! Come around any time!”
I had an other-worldly feeling as I walked back down the hall. Five o’clock was coming, and I tried to make sense of the afternoon.
I had certainly been a goofball when it came to the laser part. Modes, schmodes, how would I know the difference? And Judd may have noticed I was not exactly … er … alert when he asked me questions. There was no telling what pearls of insight I missed when I was roaming the jungle. But somehow I made a useful comment at the end.
The events reminded me of something from Caltech. I was taking quantum mechanics from a high-powered prof, in fact he received the Nobel Prize in Physics that year. I thought he seemed pretty modest for a Laureate, it didn’t puff him up at all. But he told our class that it had made him think about what advice to give us, for our science careers. He had concluded there were three essential elements in his having gotten the big Prize.
First, knowledge, you gotta know your field. Second, intelligence, or even brilliance, you need to be smart. Those two are enough to be a success in research.
But suppose you want to be a great success, however you define great. Great might be discovering something of importance to science, which benefits humanity or revolutionizes your field. Great might be getting recognition from your peers. Great might mean getting a major award like the Prize.
And to reach that goal, however you define great, you also need the third element. “Do I mean Lithium?” he said, teasing us. “No, but the first letter is the same. The third element, the third necessity for great success is Luck.”
So it seems that in my busy day at HAL I swung twice and missed, but old Brother Luck came through on the last pitch. Knowledge and smarts are fine, but once in a while the third element is the only one that counts.
– o –