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seven wonders of the scientific world

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#1 -- the big bang

Everything starts somewhere.

Where Alice Morgan starts is a point for debate: the moment of conception, Douglas Morgan burying the name of God in his wife's neck on bedclothes dotted comfortably with crumbs and spilled coffee, on a wet Sunday morning six months into their marriage? Or the rather more quantum moment when a blue line on a stick collapsed the uncertainty of a missed period and some queasiness at the smell of bacon into a single absolute yes?

Or was it that moment when the expanding mass of organised calls in Laura Morgan's uterus passed the point at which by law it could have been aborted (28 weeks) and so became -- in most people's eyes at least -- a human being?

(Had she been born a handful of years later this would have been reduced to 24 weeks thanks to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990; this is added only to highlight the more or less arbitrary, and so unsatisfactory, nature of such a definition.)

Or is it the semantic moment we should be considering: ink seeping into the starched fibres of a birth certificate proclaiming the named existence of Alice Louise Morgan, child of, born on the day of, at this hospital in the London borough of, et cetera?

If you think to ask her, Alice Morgan will say that Alice Morgan started when her brain made the last microscopic connection necessary for long-term memory to be laid down; in other words, the first thing she remembers. This occurs some time in her third year of life. She remembers walking down a path next to a dense holly bush, wearing red mittens and gumboots, and she remembers being cold. She doesn't remember if there were any supervisory adults present, though logic suggests that they probably were.

No matter how you frame it, though, her creation requires considerable input from other people.

Five years old, Alice is in the library reading about the origins of the universe. An explosion, from nothing, of elemental dust, thrown out into a vast and waiting space at unimaginable speeds, then left to spin itself into stars.

How wonderful, Alice thinks, how clean to come from nothing at all.

 

#2 -- photosynthesis

We only talk about growing like a weed in the physical sense. But Alice grows furiously, internally, her mind an anthill -- a high-interest account -- a volatile gas -- a fractal wonder of intelligence. School can be stifling but it's not the only place to learn: through her eyes and ears come her nutrients and from them, like any child, she builds her ideas of who she is and how the world works.

Alice's models are sophisticated for her age, naturally.

She shoots upwards not in height but in academia, and her parents rush to clear the way. Before her age has hit double digits she's wearing the smallest size uniform available at her high school, and even then the blazer reaches her knuckles and swishes around on her shoulders as she walks. She's small; when addressed she talks back with words that are considered, like the uniform skirt brushing her ankles, too long for her; there are concerns about bullying.

Is she very upset, poor love? ask her parents.

Actually, says the headmaster, looking uncomfortable, we suspect she's the one doing the bullying.

Three days ago she made Kieran Jones cry without ever laying a finger on him. It made something beautiful burn inside of her.

What about home schooling, her father says.

No, says Alice.

She can suck the universe through her pores and exhale the ellipses of its comets but that's not the world she has to live in, is it? People are the cells and syllables and sine waves of everyday life; and they're just as predictable, in Alice's experience, as the harmonics struck up on a piece of string.

You just need to learn how to play them.

Socialisation is important, her mother says, even if she is a wee bit younger. She won't learn to respect others if we keep her away from them.

Alice presses her hands together in the tartan wool of her skirt and tries not to laugh.

She appears on television, in the newspaper, even a documentary on child prodigies that her parents tape and send to everyone they know. Yet their house still looks like every other house on the street, squeezed into thinness by those on either side, with a friendly blue door and a shed out the back sinking into cobwebs and rust. Lying in bed at night Alice is torn between wondering what it would be like to be no smarter than anyone else -- content to live as a fully blended participant in society -- and the searing need for recognition. She is smarter. Her house should be on stilts, or upside down, or painted gold; the world should know.

Alice dreams of a face the size of a galaxy, nebulae burning in its eyes, that opens its mouth and shouts her name into the heart of a million suns.

 

#3 -- the Fibonacci sequence

1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, 377, 610, 987, the pattern piling up and up on a precipice curve like the sum of human knowledge through the years and now she's lost her place so she starts again at 21, 34, 55, 89 --

That's time, thank you, says the proctor. Put down your pencils.

Alice's pencil has already been down for the time it takes a precocious twelve-year-old to run through the monarchs of England from Egbert to Elizabeth, the periodic table vertically and horizontally, and number sequences until her mind is bored enough to spill over into metaphor.

Oxford wins over Cambridge for geographic reasons, and her parents flutter unbearably around the house between the day of the entrance exams and the day when the inevitable letter of acceptance slips through their front door, bruising one corner of its envelope on the worn carpet of the hall.

It's only once the letter is open and victorious on the table that they ask a paediatric psychologist to assess Alice, to make sure that there will be no adverse effects on her development if she leaves home this early. Adverse effects. Adverse, what a joke. Alice needs university to act as a release valve; if she spends another year in this normal house with these normal people and their endless grasping appetite for reflected glory, she'll burst, and she won't care about the collateral damage.

Before the assessment she does her homework, as she always does, to make sure that she'll pass with her usual flying colours. She reads the mass of differing opinions about intellectual precocity and child psychopathy, and wonders what could possibly be gained from the corpses of puppies. There's always dissection, of course, but none of the children in the case studies she's reading about seem to show any interest in anatomy.

One textbook suggests that it's about power.

Power over helpless animals, Alice thinks; how unambitious is that?

 

#4 -- the evolution of the nervous system

Viewed with the lid off, Alice's brain would be unremarkable. Studies show that it's also unremarkable when looked at by both CT scanner and MRI. Functional MRI is the latest thing: for three days Alice lies inside loudly thudding spaceship tubes enjoying the knowledge that the atoms of her body are being spun by a huge magnet, while the disembodied voice of the researcher asks her to read a block of text as quickly as she can (three pages from Oliver Twist), to solve some maths problems, to react to noises and coloured lights and abstract shapes by pressing a button. It's tedious but she gets to look at the pictures afterwards, the grey brain-shape overlaid by orange pixels that show which parts of her brain she was using for each task.

Despite the lack of obvious special features, her parents have a plain MRI image of her brain framed and give it to her as a going-away present, something to hang on her wall in her College room. Alice was expecting any of: a quilt, a family photo album, a bicycle, a new Walkman, yet another dress. She rubs a small patch of dust from the frame and gazes down at the fussy folds of her frontal cortex with a glow of appreciation.

Thank you, she says, sincerely for the first time that she can recall.

It takes that psychologist's letter for Alice to earn the full live-in Oxford experience, as well as an interview in which she convinces the admissions committee that she's highly emotionally mature for a thirteen-year-old, but now here she is, the particular pastoral care project of a Fellow in philosophy called Miriam Green. Miriam wears a lot of bracelets and drinks pathological amounts of Russian Caravan tea and is bright enough to treat Alice like an adult.

Thirteen and Alice grows, finally upwards, until she no longer trips over her academic gown when climbing stairs.

Fourteen and she realises a few things about sex, which up until then she'd been ignoring as irrelevant. She chooses for her first sexual partner a medical student on her corridor, on the basis that his grasp of anatomy, at least, is likely to be solid. (Not altogether true, though she learns an enjoyable amount about her own nerve endings and is pleasantly surprised to find a use for her body that isn't just as support system for her intellect.)

But the most important lesson she learns is that 90% of sex isn't the act. Sex is the anticipation, the possession, the promise, the jealousy, the shame, the transaction, the drive; a whole swamp of emotions and pressure points beyond the physical.

The cortex is the newest part of the brain, layered like evolutionary sediment over the old. In her studies of people and their manipulation Alice has been operating only on one level: the higher one.

Now she can bury her fingernails in someone's primeval instincts and pull.

 

#5 -- black holes

The only real competition in Alice's life arises when she's nearing the end of her PhD. She's at the final-night cocktail party of a conference in Glasgow, wearing green and breaking hearts, when she strikes up a conversation with a tall Londoner called Simon who gave the most intelligent and original presentation of the weekend. Apart from Alice's own, of course.

Alice Morgan, she says, shaking his hand.

Ah, yes. He smiles. I hear we're being considered for the same job. May the best man win, eh?

Indeed, Alice says.

I could always kill him, Alice thinks.

No particular feeling accompanies this thought.

Two days later, when the idea has refused to leave her head, she humours it. She spends a few hours in the Selfridges kitchenware department, wearing expensive boots and proving an easily-persuaded customer, and walks out having bought a Le Creuset casserole dish, five tea towels, a dozen martini glasses, a standing Kitchen Aid mixer (bright orange), a three-tiered cake stand (white), a coffee press, and a set of professional chef's knives.

Alibi is easy. Motive is trickier; the fact that Alice has one would be obvious to even the dimmest detective. Nevertheless, she spends four pleasant days putting the pieces of a plan together in her head, and on the afternoon of the fourth she gets a phone call from Professor Singh informing her that she's been selected for the fellowship.

She buys sashimi to celebrate and slices the fish into efficient chunks with the largest and sharpest of her brand-new knives.

Her research fellowship is in the study of the unseen stuff of the universe. The work is satisfying. Alice has long known that she only has respect for things she can't manipulate; very few people fall into this category, which is mostly populated by constellations and the elusive wavelengths of invisible light.

(She will meet John Luther and try to make her theories fit over the reality of him: his consuming darkness, his gravitational pull. All those bodies that orbit him in inexorable curves and show no desire to escape.)

 

#6 -- the structure of DNA

When planning the perfect murder it would be remiss of Alice not to consider:

a) the psychology of lying,
b) the probability that she won't get away with it, and
c) the standard methods of forensic analysis.

Molecular biology has never been her field, her thing, but she knows enough about genetics to get by. DNA, like fingerprints, can send people to prison. DNA spirals narcissistically around itself. DNA can be chopped into pieces, dissolved, unwound, if you have the right enzymes. She has a mental picture of her genome wrapped snugly around its histones like a skipping rope, describing the root of her genius in an alien language. What accident of alignment, which adenine or allele decided that her brain would be so much more than the sum of its contributors?

Blood is thicker than water, but only in the boring sense. The hatred Alice feels for her parents is a cool thing, chemical, and she would be happy to let it flow into her veins in place of the clottable cell-rich fluid that marks her as their progeny.

She knows the impossibility of time travel in any meaningful form, but this is the next best thing; better, even. This is the erasure of her origins without the paradox that would strangle such an attempt if it truly took place in the past.

Into the barrel of the gun Alice slips two bullets, two silver parcels of helicase to unravel her life, finally, from these dull human beings who created her out of the most imperfect material Alice can imagine: love.

Her finger doesn't tremble on the trigger.

 

#7 -- entropy

John Luther turns a cup in his hands and talks to her about dark matter across an interrogation table. John Luther with his dangerous nebula eyes that see deeper than anyone else has ever bothered to look.

I expect your parents were proud, he says.

Alice looks back at him and feels, at the very edges of her being, the mundanity of success crumbling into the exhilaration of chaos.

Everything starts somewhere.

Very, she says.

Something starts here.