Chapter 41 - Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, near Oxford UK, Monday 5th March 2012.
At the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory where Keith Maxwell worked, there was a crisis meeting going on.
The Lab, had been besieged by the media since the news of Keith’s disappearance and the murders in Hampshire. It was normally a sleepy backwater of academic efficiency, and this level of press interest was unprecedented. For this reason the Lab Director had summoned Professor Helen Collins, Keith’s supervisor, and the Head of the Lab’s Marketing Communications, their so called PR guru to his office.
Helen was on the phone to Zurich explaining that Keith would not be able to attend the conference today and present his paper on gamma particles. She apologised once again, citing circumstances beyond their control, and hung-up.
Meanwhile, unbeknown to Helen, a confused post-doctoral student called Emily Milner who had never been to Switzerland before, was preparing to give the lecture on Keith’s behalf.
There was a large conference table in the Lab Directors spacious office, and spread out on the table were copies of today’s Monday morning papers and the previous days Sunday newspapers. There were also print-outs from on large A3 paper, of the leading on-line news sites that carried the story including CNN and the Huffington Post.
All featured the Keith Maxwell disappearance and details of the terrible murders in Hampshire, plus the shooting yesterday of the two Police Officers. David Thomas, the PR man, picked up a copy of the Monday morning edition of one of Britain’s largest selling and most influential newspapers the Daily Mail, with the headline:
Eminent scientist wanted in murder hunt
The PR man was middle aged with dyed black hair and a fake tan. His skin had an orange tinge. He had a slight New Zealand accent, although he had lived in the UK for 15 years. He began to read the story out loud:
’Police are searching for eminent space scientist Dr Keith Maxwell from the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford. Dr Maxwell is wanted in connection with the murder of two women found on common land near his home in Hampshire …
As Helen looked over his shoulder as he read, she got a whiff of his cheap cologne, and also noticed that newspaper had used a photograph of Keith in a white lab coat and smiling at the camera. It had been downloaded from the publicity section of the Lab’s own website which contained high resolution images and biographies on all of the Lab’s leading scientists and researchers. She recognised it as the same photograph used on an organisation chart of her department, which was mounted on her office wall.
The PR man, looked up from the newspaper and went on, ‘this is typical of what is being said, I have arranged a press conference for 10 AM this morning, the journalists are gathering already.’
He turned to the Lab Director, Professor John Bennington, a political appointee not used to these types of media gatherings. Helen knew he was good at running the science side of the Lab, but out of his depth when it came to most non-academic matters. He was already sweating nervously. Discretely the PR man asked if he would like him to handle the press conference, knowing Professor Bennington would be way out of his comfort zone. Unsurprisingly, and with great relief, the Lab Director agreed and promptly left the office.
While the exchange was going on, Helen read the second article, which was from the website of the US satirical magazine Weekly World News:
NASA Scientist beamed up by aliens
Police are mystified in Europe by a report of a scientist with close connections with NASA being beamed up by aliens. The incident happened in a remote part of southern England where alien activity had been reported many times, and not far from the site of the mysterious Stonehenge. Rumors are that a large hole was found nearby …
The PR man turned to Helen and said, ‘we had better get ready.’
At first Helen was taken aback that David wanted her on the platform. He was well known for hogging the limelight himself. Not usually vain, Helen now went through the checklist of clothes, hair and make-up. She realised she would need some time to get ready.
The Lab Directors office was on the top floor of a four story building, the tallest building on the site. As she looked out of the office window she had a good view of the whole Lab complex, which occupied an area of more than a square mile. From this position it looked like a bit like a University campus, but when you looked closely the extraordinary science performed here was highlighted by some unusual shaped buildings that looked more like industrial complexes. Some had smoke or steam coming from them. Helen saw the Lab Director hurrying across one of the courtyards to the Diamond Light Source building, which was like a giant silver donut with a hole in the centre. Inside high energy X-rays were accelerated in a circular beam, and the control room locked automatically to protect unauthorised access. She guessed the Lab Director was heading for the refuge of the locked control room, so as to get away from the limelight.
She was torn from her thoughts by a long line of vehicles moving along the main road into the site. The convoy was being led by one of the Lab Security land rovers which had a blue light flashing. All the vehicles appeared to be press vehicles. Some had the names of the various press, TV and Radio stations on their sides. Some trucks had folded satellite dishes on their roofs. As she watched the trucks and cars parked in a line outside the largest building on the site that housed the staff canteen. There was frantic activity as technicians emerged from the vehicles and began unloading equipment, cables, lights and camera equipment.
She had never seen so much press activity, and she felt the butterflies of nervousness in her stomach. She got a whiff of the cologne again as David came and stood next to her to watch the press convoy.
He said, ’looks like we are in for a good turn-out’.
She saw he was smiling, he was obviously relishing the prospect of this press conference.
She found that disgusting, and left the office to go and get ready.
Helen’s previous experience of press conferences at the Lab were sedate affairs where frankly it was a struggle to fill a small room. By contrast, today was a media zoo. Perhaps one hundred journalists and reporters had arrived. David had told her that both Sky News and the BBC were relaying the press conference live, and there was also live feeds on the internet.
To accommodate everyone, the largest room on the site was being used for the press conference, the staff restaurant. The rows of neatly aligned dining tables had been moved against the walls, and a table at the front held placards:
Professor Helen Collins
Dr. David Thomas
Helen remembered that David had a doctorate in Geoengineering from the University of Auckland, but he rarely used the title. In front of the table was a bank of microphones, some with the logos of the various news and media companies attached. Extra lights had been set-up so the room was hot. Canteen staff and a crowd of curious Lab workers were seated at the back of the room to watch the spectacle. The top-table had been carefully placed so that in the background was a large radio-telescope, and the circular X-ray building that looked a bit like a flying saucer. Helen realised that David had done this deliberately to maximise the publicity. She was a little overwhelmed by it all.
A few minutes after the scheduled time, David led Helen up to the top table. He seated her with elaborate courtesy, pulling her chair out for her, to signify to the watching journalists that this was an important person. Helen noticed that he had changed into a fresh suit and had applied a little make-up. She’d had little time to do much to her appearance; only enough time to visit the Ladies loo, brush her hair and apply some lipstick. She felt under-dressed and under-prepared.
David brought the room to attention by tapping the microphone and saying, ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, Ladies and Gentlemen, may I have your attention, thank you, Ladies and Gentlemen’. The room fell silent as a TV producer wearing a set of headphones approached the top table and then counted down from ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three ... and then held up two closed fingers and then one finger mouthing the words two and one silently. He then pointed at David deliberately, signifying that they were live and he should begin. On cue, David began reading a prepared statement:
’Ladies and Gentlemen welcome to the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. My name is Dr. David Thomas and I am Head of Communications here at the Lab. It is regret that I have to welcome you here under such sad circumstances, because of the disappearance of one of our most eminent and respected scientists Dr. Keith Maxwell.
With me today is Dr. Maxwell’s academic group supervisor Professor Helen Collins. Professor Collins would like to read a short statement before we open up the floor for questions.
Professor Collins, over to you.’
There was some coughing, shuffling around as cameras and microphones were repositioned on Helen. She spoke slowly, nervously, reading from the prepared statement:
’I have had the pleasure of supervising Dr. Maxwell on his work at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory for the last 3 years. He has published over 180 scientific papers on sensing technologies and is named on 14 patents that the Lab has produced. He has worked at the Lab since 1998 and is a highly respected member of staff.
Dr. Maxwell’s work on deep space radiation is respected the world over, and we hope that he will be able to return to work soon. Thank you.’
There was a moment’s silence, and then the PR man took control. David stood. ‘We’ll take questions one at a time.’
A reporter in the front row, wearing a tight blue skirt slightly too short than was necessary, caught David’s attention. She stood and said, ’Cathy Murphy, Daily Chronicle, was Dr. Maxwell looking for aliens?’
The place descended into chaos.