Charles makes coffee. Charles is making coffee, I mean. It’s not his job, or the activity that defines his life. At least, he doesn’t think so. Others might. Others know nothing about what defines Charles’s life. To others Charles is the fifty-something with coffee-breath who gives bad lectures. They see him in the laboratory, they see him at the conference, and they see him sitting alone, with his coffee and his papers. To their astonishment, they now see him on the television. If asked, they would suppose that work defines Charles’s life. And then they would speculate about Asperger’s syndrome, or an abusive parent.
This is especially true after the television broadcast. Even Charles can’t fail to notice them, huddled in groups, muttering, and throwing quick glances in his direction. Then giggling. It all began two weeks ago. “Dear Prof Quackenbush,” began the email. “Peer review of your manuscript is complete, and I am delighted to say that we now consider the manuscript acceptable for publication, pending the minor formatting revisions listed at the bottom of this email.”
Charles had glanced at the title of the paper to remind himself which one the email referred to. He didn’t even recognise the title — The estrogen receptor-alpha antagonist 1,3-Bis(4-hydroxyphenyl)-4-methyl-5-[4-(2-piperidinylethoxy) phenol]-1H-pyrazoledihydrochloride interacts with Tamoxifen in a dose-dependent and RTK-dependent manner to stimulate targeted nongenotoxic DNA replication-independent apoptosis in human MCF-7 breast cancer cells — let alone remember reading a draft. But the citation at least told him what he needed to know: which of his many subordinates to forward the email to. Which he did, deleting it as he went, never reaching the end of the editor’s message. “Additionally, we believe that your work would be of interest to a wider lay audience, and we would therefore like to issue a press release highlighting the manuscript. If you would like us to proceed with this, please contact our press office…”
The next Charles knew of the paper was a few days ago. He was sat in the cafeteria deleting unread emails on his blackberry while Dan Kendowski — dull Dan — talked at him. The heavily fictionalised account of Dan’s great oratorical triumph in some conference bar argument about the intricacies of spliceosome formation. Charles repeatedly jabbed at the delete icon. Journal demanding revised paper; student demanding revised grade. And then, something strange. Something Charles had never seen before. “Dear Mr Quickerbash, My name is Susan Barnes, I am Lifestyle & Wellbeing editor at the Daily Mail. I would like to ask a few questions about your recent work on breast cancer…”
Charles was amused, but a little bit excited by the spontaneous interest in his work. He decided to humour Susan Barnes. By the end of lunch Barnes had established that, no, Charles had not invented Tamoxifen, and that, no, a new drug would not be available soon, though Charles was interested in guiding the work through its next logical step, and had some hopes that this would lead down some fruitful clinical avenue one day. Charles explained his work’s experimental design, and how, despite their many limitations, cells in a dish could, when used to explore cell biology in sufficient detail, give a reliable approximation of the behaviour of real cancers in real people.
There were only two unread emails waiting for Charles when, next day, he strolled into the institute at his usual early hour. “Dear Prof Quackenbush, Your manuscript is now published and available at…”. “Dear Charles, Thanks for answering my questions. The finished item is at…”. But they began trickling in at nine, and pouring in after ten. Charles had no time left for humouring people about some paper. He forwarded the lot to a student and deleted them without even the faintest idea of their content.
The telephone was more difficult to ignore. “Hi this is Vicky,” said the voice at the other end. “I’m calling on behalf of Peter Rippon.” She paused. “BBC Newsnight, yeah? We’d like to do a quick interview with you — a debate if you like. Everyone’s talking about your new book or something? We’re thinking you against, you know, oh, what’s the guy, Tom something-or-other. The Badscience guy, yeah? We’ll send a car. Is four thirty good for you? Hi, Professor Quackenbush?”
Which is how Charles found himself on Newsnight, stammering in shocked anger as Jeremy Paxman asked him, “isn’t this all just a publicity stunt? I spoke to Professor Sir Tim Hunt, a world renowned cancer expert, earlier today, and he told me that this drug Tamoxifen is already approved for use and widely used in cancer treatment. He thinks that if patients ever see any benefit from this work, it will be years in the future. What do you say to that, Professor? This isn’t really the great miracle cure that you say it is, is it? Professor Quackenbush? Aren’t you just giving desperately ill patients false hope by promoting this study? Well you can sit there denying it, but let me quote today’s Mail, ‘Quackenbush and his team are now working on turning their discovery into a new cancer treatment, which he says he hopes will be saving lives very soon.’ How far have you got with this work, Professor? How can you justify saying that lives will be saved at this early stage? People with terminal diseases are going to read your words and think that a cure is just around the corner. What are you going to tell their families? Professor? How can you sleep at night, Professor Quackenbush?”
Charles had stood up, shaking with rage, and shouted about the “arsenumbing incompetence of the humanities graduates in the media”. The final footage was of Paxman raising his eyebrows as Charles stumbled towards the camera, looking down at his tie, where he was trying and failing to remove his microphone. “Fucking. Argh!”
They broadcast the whole thing, uncut. Charles was the only person in the institute who didn’t watch.