Imaginary Numbers

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Geneva, Switzerland

A herculean man stood in front of a university amphitheatre, hands resting on his hips. Lush velvet curtains hung tucked behind the tall Corinthian columns flanking the stage. He was guiding the audience through a slideshow.

In the audience, there was a man in a three-piece suit. He sat alone, an elegant grey figure, against the powerful spot lights.

The man in front, speaking eloquently, was Prof. Charles William Borgiac, an expert on biophysics and theoretical mathematics. He was a wildly good looking man: barrel-chested, high cheekbones, strong jaw with a cleft chin, arms swaying hypnotically as he punctuated his sentences with emphatic gestures. His ashen blue eyes were striking and impassioned as he pointed at a photograph of meteorite fragments found in Saskatchewan, Canada.

The audience was spellbound, consisting mostly of enthralled academics, fringe scientists, and a handful of angry protesters who vehemently opposed biotechnology.

The next slide was a Rembrandt woodcut of the annunciation: mountains in the distance; an angel hovering above a rural nightscape; a shepherd staring up, shielding his eyes with a silhouetted hand.

“From time immemorial, the phenomenon of abiogenesis, that is to say, life coming from nothingness, has been of interest to philosophers, scientists, and all religions. The annunciation, depicted by great masters all over Europe, seems to reflect a relationship between astrological events and life springing spontaneously from a virginal womb.”

He paced as he talked, addressing the front row, whose faces he could barely make out. The virile, swaggering man spoke in a prim and proper princely accent.

“Rembrandt’s etching, which looks conspicuously like a comet careening through the heavens was inspired by the Nuremberg asteroid in that same year.

“Impressive work, isn’t it? Conceptually, there is a brilliant focus on the luminous flash of fire plummeting towards the earth. Despite the outline of the angel Michael, he captures the mystique, and the energy of the meteor in a vivid style.

“In the village below, hugging the mountain, what cosmic element did those villagers think was lighting up their night time sky with the intensity of the sun?”

The slide changed to a medieval tempera painting of a group of peasants pointing as an angel falls from heaven. The mythic being with its feathered wings has the same sunburst aura as the Rembrandt piece.

“I imagine children waking up to watch it traverse their particular part of the sky. Did old men make up stories about gods or angels? Probably,” he added, after a brief pause.

“There was, of course, a large number of people who were afraid as well. All of them were poor souls who experienced, quite correctly, the incomprehensible nature of our universe. The impossible becomes possible. Night turns into day. Winter into summer. Or life spawns out of the primordial soup!

“Although a cosmic object might have been responsible for the creation of life on Earth when it brought along on its intergalactic journey the mitochondrial batteries that would supply proto-organisms with power, these asteroids have also been blamed for extinction events. For example, the Tunguska event in Northern Russia, exploded with the power of 30 megatons of TNT, killing all life in a 2,150km2 area. It was an air-burst meteoroid, which has left the earth scarred until today, yet there remains no physical evidence of the cosmic body itself.” The slide changes: an aerial photograph, showing a massive barren hole in a lush boreal forest.

“The total power of the blast, was the equivalent of one-third the power of the ‘Tsar Bomba’, the largest man made explosive, or 1,000 times the thermonuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The shock wave knocked people off their feet as far as Lake Baikal, and registered a 5.0 on the Richter Scale.

“Events like these often have strange effects on the human body. Sudden searing sunburns in the middle of the night, disorientation, and blindness. Indeed, before we understood the mechanics of the eye, people would go blind from staring at such radiant objects.”

The slides cycled through more modern photos and a video of meteorite sightings. In one of them, the video was captured by a passenger in a car. She has her pedicured feet up on the dashboard. The evening sky turns blood red and the star passes by the two girls, low in the sky.

“In past ages, religious institutions all have tried to lay claim to such extraordinary events in order to be closer to these ‘magical’ founts of life. Some even worship them as gifts from heaven.

“Ironically, the absurdity found at the end of any serious investigation of these cosmic object posits that we live on a rock flying through space with other smaller rocks entering our atmosphere, which, in itself is a belief that more-or-less invalidates preconceived ideas of Heaven and God, and fosters instead a deeply unsettling natural reverence for the universe.”

He changed the slide to a cave drawing of fleeing animals in siennas, umbers, and ochers dancing across the fields, and the hunters staring not at their prey, but at the white chalk fireball above them, twinned with the sun.

“An incredible meeting of the myriad laws of physics, the artist charged with recording the rare event… even on the interior of a prehistoric cave wall surely becomes aware of the fact that he—” the professor walked to the edge of the stage, half in the shadows, and peered into the audience. He smiled, and pointed at a brooding nun, and continued, “—or she!— was recording a divine and marvellous phenomena.”

He paused, gracefully taking a sip from a clear water bottle. The audience adored him. Even the clergy in the audience have softened their resolve. There might not be a person in this world that wouldn’t become entranced watching the professor move up there on the stage. He posed like an Apollo, a chiseled solar deity who has himself fallen from the sky.

“Naturally, cosmic insemination is not the only route for abiogenesis. Creation is a remarkable thing, and for millennia we have been baffled by the tenacity of life itself. If during the Jurassic Era, you were forced to predict which creature would thrive, it would be highly unlikely that anyone might have guessed the furtive mammals with their tiny bodies would lead the world to an apex of development. Life,” he said dramatically, “is mathematically unpredictable.”

“If we disregard the notion of panspermia, the idea that life is spread across the cosmos by hitching rides on the backs of asteroids, then we are still left with the interesting idea that the DNA helix could form in either a left-handed, or a right-handed spiral. On Earth life uses the left-handed helix, which leads me to the studies we are currently doing in my lab at the Swiss Centre for Nanotechnology and Biophysics. How would life be different if we take the DNA of a human and reversed the direction of the helix? Would he still be a human?”

He touched his remote and the slide changed to a graph outlining some of the cases presented.

“In the first case, we lack enough data to make an accurate estimation. However, we have run computer simulations that lead me to believe that this reverse protein helix is not just possible, but equally likely to form under the right conditions.” He considered this thought. “Or perhaps more likely when in orbit around a polarized star with unique magnetic fields.

“By simulating conditions similar to a circularity polarized star, we have managed to create a simple reversed DNA chain by exposing meteor ice, which included methanol, arsenic, and ammonia. Allowing us the assumption that there is indeed more than one set of ideal conditions for life, and moreover, that life can be built from elements like arsenic, which would be, in fact, deadly poisonous to terrestrial forms of existence.”

From the back, the lone man smiled and nodded at the professor as if he has just made a great chess move.

“In closing, for millennia, scientists have been confused by the sudden genesis of life out of decaying objects. They have been fascinated by the arrival of flies out of dung, or maggots from a corpse. However, in modern terms ‘abiogenesis’ means probing the basic building blocks in hopes of finding the conditions from which life emerged on planet Earth. At my laboratory we are very close to determining the criteria for spontaneous generation of life from a simple aggregate of chemicals.” He paused to let his words sink in. All eyes were fixed on him.

“Many great thanks to Dr. Sanchez-Burmudez for organizing the 60th year of such a wonderful symposium—” The professor led the audience in applauding the front balcony, lifting his thicks arms up to where an energetic geriatric man waved happily.

“—and I hope that you have enjoyed today’s lecture. I look forward to answering any questions you might have.” Again there was applause.

When it died down, a nun stood up, and asked her question in Italian. The professor stared blankly as she wrapped up her monologue. He touched his right ear and sipped gingerly from his water bottle.

Sororla, excuse me for answering your question in English, as this conference is supposed to be international, and therefore caters to the largely unilingual Anglophone population.” He smiled at her apologetically.

“To summarize your question: Does my theory not validate the divine power of Jesus Christ because of the large amount of comet-like iconography present around the annunciation, the inexplicable meteorological occurrences at his death, and again bright flashes in the sky at the time of his resurrection? Madonna, is that correct?” The nun nodded.

“Well, valid question. I myself do not wish to muddle my message with a debate on the divinity of the son of God. Especially considering how the Church itself took centuries to wrestle with it without coming to a sensible answer. I will say though, that the birth of the historical Jesus has, in fact, altered human history, and that despite my own religious inclination, it is indisputable that there was a significant amount of bizarre astronomical phenomenon during that time. As for the immaculate conception, I cannot say with any certainty.”

Grazie.” She looked pleased.

A tall, lankly man rose near the front of the theatre.

“Dr. Borgiac,” he announced confidently in a distinctly Southern accent, “I commend you for maintaining our common tongue. It suits me well.” He leered at his neighbours. “But I wanted to know, is it not possible that some of the epidemics following the meteorite strikes were caused by interstellar bacteria or viruses hitching a ride on the rocks?”

“Dr. Farnsworth, delightful to see you here.” The professor smiled a perfectly warm smile. “We have found that in the case of the Peruvian asteroid, the impact released an arsenic-based gas that did poison a number of onlookers who inadvertently exposed themselves in order to investigate the crash.

“And, if you are referring to the mega-collision that I believe spurred on the Dark Ages sometime between 530 and 540 CE, then you might be correct. For that particular event, which had profound consequences for Western Europe, and for which we have an immense amount of data from Chinese and Middle Eastern sources, it can be surmised that the event was the direct cause of the Justinian Plague, which spread through the Byzantine Empire. This plague would eventually ravage every nook and cranny of the Old World.

“Some scholars have cited that the Justinian Plague might actually have been the first occurrence of Chicken Pox, which would imply that Chicken Pox is actually an alien illness from outer space.” The audience laughed.

“However, as I mentioned before, it is merely an assumption that a collision always causes plague. Since in some cases the reverse is true.”

The lanky American was scratching his head. “So, Dr. Borgiac, you are implying that some meteor strikes reverse the spread of disease?”

“That is correct. Take, for instance, the Amsterdam ‘fallende ster’ in 1668, which coincides neatly with the end of the ubiquitous bubonic plague pandemics in Europe.”

“Thank you, Dr. Borgiac.”

“Thank you, Dr. Farnsworth.”

From the balcony, where the organizers sat, an old man stood, but was largely unheard by the audience. He was conducting his question with a Mediterranean hand beat.

“For those who couldn’t hear, Dr. Sanchez’s question was: Is there any danger in creating a reverse helix and allowing the genetic material to mix with the naturally occurring left-handed corkscrew?” The man took a breath, puffing out his chest, and looked into the distance to collect his words.

“Beyond speculation, I can confirm that at some point material found on a cosmic objects delivered both versions to Earth. Across long trajectory through the vacuum of space, we find roughly equal amounts of both clockwise, and counterclockwise DNA molecules. And in laboratory tests, when a mixture with both parts is left to rest, it will settle into an equal proportion of both. So, the question really becomes, ‘why did life on Earth decide to use the left-handed version?’ Perhaps it’s simply random chance.” He laughed a little, “For all we know, the answer to this question might be the very key to unlocking abioses, the beginning of life itself.” Some people smiled with him, as he put on a delightful pensive face. “Imagine that!”

There was a long pause, and the professor asked the audience if there were any other questions.

Finally, after grave hesitation, the lone man with the three-piece suit stood up far in the back of the auditorium. He looked incredibly nervous, clearing his throat twice before speaking in an Italian accent.

Professore, what implications does your work with abiogenesis have in real terms? Can it make a difference in the life of the everyday person?” They made eye-contact briefly, and in the brief silence before the professor spoke, it seems they shared a conspiratorial understanding. The man on stage swallowed.

“Sir,” he said, “firstly, well said!”

“Thank you,” he replied, awkwardly fidgeting with his tie.

“Secondly, as an expert in theoretical mathematics, I can chat for hours on the intricate and complex equations that led us to develop, not only new forms of life, but also artificial constructs based on these tiny building blocks. At the Nanotechnology and Biophysics lab, we believe that the math required to bring into being true life, can also be used to build nano-creatures that could fight diseases, cure AIDS, as well as simply boosting immunity over all. I do, however, believe that such detail would bore this varied audience. And I prefer to be gentle with my followers.

“Instead, allow me to say that I am very near a breakthrough in ascertaining the formula related to the fundamental nature of the primordial soup, which would open up avenues for us to built in vitro life. And, naturally, I will gladly share my results in scientific journals, and at conferences such as this, as soon as I have my eureka moment.” He smiled and waited for the man to sit down. “If there are no further questions, I thank you and invite you to join me in the lobby for some banter.” He bowed a low stage bow as the audience applauded. The house lights came on slowly and the crowd filtered out, past the grandiose neoclassical exits to the auditorium.

The professor sat, hanging his strong legs off the edge of the stage, and signed copies of his book for female doctorate students. He was a celebrity.

In the back of the hall, the lone man remained unmoving. He removed his glasses with care and placed them into a soft leather case. All his movements were sure and slow, as if he was unaware of time passing. He unclipped a microphone from his jacket’s lapel with his left hand, and dropped it into this suit pocket.

He placed a fedora on his head and took advantage of the near-empty hall to stand and stretch his arms. With a confident, deliberate pace, he made his way to the front, where the professor was flirting with a young woman. He waited until they finished.

As the German girl stepped around the lone man on the lush red carpet of the aisle, the auditorium suddenly exploded with noise spilling in from the lobby. The geriatric organizer, followed by two other ancient academics, barged in and shambled towards the front, where Dr. Borgiac had slipped off the stage onto his own two feet.

Professore! Professore! A leedy həs fallen from de sky!” The old man had a strong voice and he spoke excitedly as he walked.

“Dere həs been landfall in France. De televiçion news joost said. A meteor həs fallen in Normandy.”

“And what is this about a lady?” The large man, stepped forward, deeply interested in the unfolding events.

“Umm...Eet seems dat no rock həs yet been found. However, deescovered at de site was a young leedy, who həs noooo memory of who she ees.” The old man stressed ‘no’, turning it into a lingering, melodious note.

“Now that is interesting,” said the lone, well-dressed man, who stood all the while next to the group unnoticed. A surprised Dr. Sanchez turns to him and said: “Sir, I found your question rather keen. May I ask your name?”

“Dr. William Borgiac,” he said assertively. There was a moment of pause, as the three tenured academics took in the facts. He continued: “Despite appearances, I assure you, I am the real Dr. Borgiac. This here is my assistant, Marius van Niekerk.” He lifted his arm in a sweeping gesture, as if to introduce this prime specimen of man himself. “He is a well trained actor, whom I hire to represent myself at conferences.”

“Hiya. Thespian at your service, m’lord.” A very chuffed van Niekerk, raised his eyebrows and bowed theatrically, speaking in a rough South African accent.

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