Michael Crichton


Richard Preston

Minute Creatures swarm around us…objects of potentially endless study and admiration, if we are willing to sweep our vision down from the world lined by the horizon to include the world an arm’s length away. A lifetime can be spent in a Magellanic voyage around the trunk of a tree.



What kind of world do we live in?

In 2008, the famous naturalist David Attenborough expressed concern that modern schoolchildren could not identify common plants and insects found in nature, although previous generations identified them without hesitation. Modern children, it seemed, were cut off from the experience of nature, and from play in the natural world. Many factors were held up to blame: urban living; loss of open space; computers and the Internet; heavy homework schedules. But the upshot was that children were no longer being exposed to nature and no longer acquiring a direct experience of nature. It was ironic that this should be happening at a time when there was in the West an ever greater concern for the environment, and ever more ambitious steps proposed to protect it.

Indoctrinating children in proper environmental thought was a hallmark of the green movement, and so children were being instructed to protect something about which they knew nothing at all. It did not escape notice that this was exactly the formula that had led to well-intentioned environmental degradation in the past-the deterioration of American national parks being a prime example, and the American policy of forest fire prevention, another. Such policies would never have been instituted if people really understood the environments they were trying to protect.

The problem was that they thought they did. One can argue that the new generation of schoolchildren will emerge even more certain. If nothing else, school teaches that there is an answer to every question; only in the real world do young people discover that many aspects of life are uncertain, mysterious, and even unknowable. If you have a chance to play in nature, if you are sprayed by a beetle, if the color of a butterfly wing comes off on your fingers, if you watch a caterpillar spin its cocoon-you come away with a sense of mystery and uncertainty. The more you watch, the more mysterious the natural world becomes, and the more you realize how little you know. Along with its beauty, you may also come to experience its fecundity, its wastefulness, aggressiveness, ruthlessness, parasitism, and its violence. These qualities are not well-conveyed in textbooks.

Perhaps the single most important lesson to be learned by direct experience is that the natural world, with all its elements and interconnections, represents a complex system and therefore we cannot understand it and we cannot predict its behavior. It is delusional to behave as if we can, as it would be delusional to behave as if we could predict the stock market, another complex system. If someone claims to predict what a stock will do in the coming days, we know that person is either a crook or a charlatan. If an environmentalist makes similar claims about the environment, or an ecosystem, we have not yet learned to see him as a false prophet or a fool.

Human beings interact with complex systems very successfully. We do it all the time. But we do it by managing them, not by claiming to understand them. Managers interact with the system: they do something, watch for the response, and then do something else in an effort to get the result they want. There is an endless iterative interaction that acknowledges we don’t know for sure what the system will do-we have to wait and see. We may have a hunch we know what will happen. We may be right much of the time. But we are never certain.

Interacting with the natural world, we are denied certainty. And always will be.

How then can young people gain experience of the natural world? Ideally, by spending some time in a rain forest-those vast, uncomfortable, alarming, and beautiful environments that so quickly knock our preconceptions aside.



August 28, 2008

The Seven Graduate Students

Rick Hutter Ethnobotanist studying medicines used by indigenous peoples. Karen King Arachnologist (expert in spiders, scorpions, and mites). Skilled in martial arts. Peter Jansen Expert in venoms and envenomation. Erika Moll Entomologist and coleopterist (beetle expert). Amar Singh Botanist studying plant hormones. Jenny Linn Biochemist studying pheromones, the signaling scents used by animals and plants. Danny Minot Doctoral student writing a thesis on “scientific linguistic codes and paradigm transformation.”


Nanigen 9 October, 11:55 p.m.

West of Pearl Harbor, he drove along the Farrington Highway past fields of sugar cane, dark green in the moonlight. This had long been an agricultural region of Oahu, but recently it had begun to change. Off to his left, he saw the flat steel rooftops of the new Kalikimaki Industrial Park, bright silver in the surrounding green. In truth, Marcos Rodriguez knew, this wasn’t much of an industrial park; most of the buildings were warehouses, inexpensive to rent. Then there was a marine supply store, a guy who made custom surfboards, a couple of machine shops, a metalworker. That was about it.

And, of course, the reason for his visit tonight: Nanigen MicroTechnologies, a new company from the mainland, now housed in a large building at the far end of the facility.

Rodriguez turned off the highway, drove down between silent buildings. It was almost midnight; the industrial park was deserted. He parked in front of Nanigen.

From the outside, the Nanigen building appeared like all the others: a single-story steel facade with a corrugated metal roof; in effect, nothing more than an enormous shed of crude, cheap construction. Rodriguez knew there was more to it than that. Before the company erected that building, they dug a pit deep into the lava rock, and had filled it with electronic equipment. Only then did they erect this unprepossessing facade, which was now covered in fine red dust from the nearby agricultural fields.

Rodriguez put on his rubber gloves, and slipped into his pocket his digital camera and infrared filter. Then he got out of his car. He wore a security guard uniform; he pulled his cap down over his face, in case there were cameras monitoring the street. He took out the key that he had taken from the Nanigen receptionist some weeks before, after her third Blue Hawaii had put her out cold; he had had it copied, then returned it to her before she woke up.

From her he had learned that Nanigen was forty thousand square feet of labs and high-tech facilities, where she said they did advanced work in robotics. What kind of advanced work, she wasn’t sure, except the robots were extremely small. “They do some kind of research on chemicals and plants,” she said vaguely.

“You need robots for that?”

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