By Edward Hujsak.
A thirty-year career in nano-engineering finally ended with Hadley retiring to the small town of Perryville, Missouri, on the west bank of the Mississippi. He settled into a comfortable, nondescript cottage with a dog and two cats. It was not the house…. any house would do…. it was the large, clean workshop to the rear of the cottage which would do very well for a laboratory that determined his choice of residence. Over the years Hadley had acquired a collection of excellent surplus scientific equipment, all obsolete in the fast moving nano-technology field, but well suited to the tinkering he hoped to engage in. In short order he had the laboratory furnished and up and running.
Hadley’s single great achievement, although he kept it secret, was a method of extracting carbon from the atmosphere. Using the sun’s energy and a self-replicating nitrile trigger molecule he developed, carbon dioxide molecules could be coaxed into releasing their oxygen to the atmosphere. In the process the carbon atoms then attached themselves to each other in three dimensional lattices that grew endlessly, as rapidly as they could attract passing carbon dioxide molecules. That was the job of the wind and natural air circulation. Hadley’s early experiments revealed that the process begins with a stalagmite growth so thin it was invisible to the eye. A person could be impaled if he tripped over it. Had he survived an upcoming disaster, he would have realized his vision of its growth as a single enormous crystal, cylindrical in shape, diamond hard, nearly indestructible and ultimately growing to hundreds of meters in diameter and kilometers in height. Depending on availability of the triggering molecules, the pillars could appear in countless numbers. They could appear anywhere on Earth.
Hadley was an ethical man. He was keenly aware that the process was a one-way phenomenon. The carbon structures would grow to enormous dimensions with nothing to stop the growth until the carbon dioxide source was depleted. Needless to say, this would ultimately be fatal to plant and animal life. Until he developed a control method that would stop the process when atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide dropped to acceptable levels, he resolved that the secret would remain with him, even should he die. Meantime, a lone black flask from his original experiments, containing trillions of trigger molecules, remained tightly sealed. It sat in a locked cupboard above a bench in his laboratory workshop.
By 2050 the dire predictions for uncomfortable living on Earth that were projected to occur by the end of the twenty-first century were already being realized. Scientists pointed to the awesome power of positive feedback. Efforts to reverse carbon presence in the atmosphere had failed miserably. In fact, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide more than quadrupled since the turn of the century. Hot weather, violent storms, flooding of lowlands, ice cap melting and sea level rise were all consequences. Loss of life, starvation and human misery compared with nothing that had ever happened in human history. The International Gallup human misery index, defined as the spread between rates of change of births and deaths as established by the United Nations and instituted in 2020, was rising at an alarming ten percent per year.
Hadley was concerned with the urgency of doing something. Still, he balked at the thought of releasing his discovery until he could find a way to shut down the trigger molecule.
The dilemma was resolved by a perverse act of nature. Around midnight on a summer’s night, a mile-wide tornado swept across Perryville, reducing the entire town to rubble. Hadley died as the winds reduced his cottage to kindling. Behind his home, the walls and roof of his laboratory were sucked high up into the whirlwind. When they dropped to the ground the flask containing Hadley’s trigger molecules shattered. Its contents were then swept up by the winds and carried to far places over the surrounding country and even up into the jet stream that carried them into lands abroad.
The jet black, cylindrical stalagmites were first viewed as an oddity. They generated scattered opinions regarding their origin. Materials scientists guardedly offered to the public only that it was something nearly as hard as diamond but strangely did not contain the trace elements common to diamond. The presence of the trigger molecule escaped them, as samples were meticulously cleaned for analyses, eliminating their presence. Some offered as pure speculation that something new had rained in from outer space. That was followed by what was at first considered an absurd speculation that as an absorber of carbon, the stalagmites may be just the device needed to reduce the carbon concentration in the atmosphere. That soon became more fact than speculation, as carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere grew perceptibly lower every year.
The casual observation that the pillars came from space was sufficient to kick off a unity of perspective from every religion around the world. The stalagmites were sent by God to save the planet. The objects, rapidly growing to exceed in size most man-made structures, became religious shrines. The most frequently visited were the kilometer high, two hundred meter diameter cylinders that rose in New York City’s Central Park, Beijing and Los Angeles.
When the news was revealed that carbon dioxide concentration had finally dropped to the comfortable levels experienced in mid-twentieth century, there were huge celebrations. Then the bad news struck. There was no stopping carbon absorption by the carbon spires. Hadley’s pillars had reached the point that he had feared. Unless the absorption process was stopped, they had the potential to deplete the levels of CO2 necessary to sustain plant life, and in consequence would wipe out all terrestrial life. All manner of attempts were tried, but they remained indestructible. One method sought to topple the towering objects and bury them in trenches dug out in the vicinity, but they were too big and too heavy to move.
The end of world prophets entered their element, taking over the airwaves. The end of terrestrial life was at hand. Panic reigned. There was no place to go. For many, the rapture was close. Preparations for departure began to make sense for millions.
President Sean McAdam sat at dinner with his wife Chloe and their two children, Sandra, seven and Arthur Alexander, five. The usual family discussion, stories, laughter, inquiries about school were absent. The president was in somber discussion about the carbon stalagmites with Chloe. The children eyed each other across the table, toyed with their meals, looking puzzled. Finally, Sandra, who had been drawing carbon cylinders that afternoon during her art class, looked at her father. “Daddy?”
“Why don’t you paint them?”
Sean McAdam stared at his daughter. His eyes opened wide. A smile broke across his face. “From the mouths of babes….”
Following dinner Sean returned to the Oval Office. His thoughts turned to the carbon cylinder growing in the Rose Garden, which in the few months since its appearance had grown to a meter in diameter and four times that in height. He lifted the phone and called for the immediate appearance of the grounds superintendent and Captain of the guard.
“I need you to keep this secret,” he began. “I need you to do this tonight. I need you to paint the cylinder with clear epoxy. Completely. Don’t forget the top. Let me know every day if cracks have appeared in the paint.
A month later Sean paid a visit to the Rose Garden cylinder. He ran his hands over the smooth exterior. His eyes searched for cracks in the paint that would indicate the cylinder had grown. He found none. He nodded with a look of satisfaction. What an interesting session this would be, when he called in his top scientists from the Foundation.
Historical records showed no knowledge of Hadley’s part in the crucial affair of the saving of Planet Earth. Quite likely, Hadley, in his search for a scientific way to inhibit his brainchild, the self-replicating nitrile molecule, would likely never have thought of paint.
EDWARD HUJSAK is a career rocket engineer turned writer, poet, sculptor, artist, fine furniture builder and toy maker. He was propulsion engineer on John Glenn’s famous flight into earth orbit. He is author of eight books, the most recent a book of love poems:The Year of the Daisy and Other Love poems. This story was recently posted as a blog on his blog site, where he frequently posts. www.rocketscientist20.blogspot.com.