Wednesday, 3 May 2017

The Breakthrough

[Media prompt] “Remarkable” it was ever accepted, says report: Science to retract study on fish and microplastics.
The Breakthrough

Han Aidong took off his glasses and squeezed the bridge of his nose. Focussing on the microtome made his eyes ache, and he was not surprised when he saw it was nearly two o’clock. He stood up and stretched, arching his back until he felt his muscles hurt. When he sat back down again, he looked at the list of numbers on his computer screen. They were the best results so far, and he allowed himself a brief moment to fantasise about the glory his landmark work on repairing damaged pathways between the eye and the brain would bring him.

By the time Zhang finished slicing sections, entered all the data into a spreadsheet, and checked and re-checked the distribution curve that showed without doubt that neural pathways were repairing, it was after six. The others in the lab called him Han the Man, and yet another all-nighter would only cement his reputation for hard work. Today would be different, though. They would not talk about him just because he spent more hours in the lab than anyone else. Today they would marvel at what he had achieved. All he had to consider now was how to break the news in a way that allowed him to retain a modicum of humility.

He thought about it while he walked along the empty corridor to the vending machine. This was his favourite time of the day. Sunlight was starting to break over the horizon, a new day finally awakening. Not another person in the department to break the illusion that he was the last man alive. The linoleum floor shone like water under the fluorescent lighting. His footsteps echoed in the silence. He saw some joggers lope past the front doors. As he stood at the machine waiting for his coffee to pour, an idea came to him.

When he returned to his desk, Han opened his spreadsheet so that a cluster of data points showing axonal regeneration was clearly displayed. Finishing his coffee, he tidied his desk, hung his lab coat on the hook behind the door, and went home to shower and change. Outwardly, he appeared contained and, if was honest, repressed. Inside he was a roiling mass of excitement.

At 8:45, Zhang walked through the front doors, taking the stairs two at a time to the third floor. The corridor that several hours ago had been as empty as a peasant’s mind, he thought, was now brimming with activity. But when he pushed open the door to Professor Watt’s lab, he was met by an extraordinary sight. There was complete silence. Everybody was gathered around his desk, and every one of them turned to stare at him as they heard the door open.

“But Aidong,” said Professor Watts, a tall man with a thick shock of white hear atop his head, “this is just the most incredible breakthrough.”

Nothing in his twenty-seven years growing up in China prepared Han for such effusive praise. Even after two years in Boston, he was still puzzled, frightened sometimes, by the compliments Americans heaped upon each other. He stammered something, which was lost in the hubbub as everyone surrounded him, shaking his hand, slapping his back, and even hugging him.

“Okay, let the man breathe,” said Professor Watts. “Let go Cynthia, you’ll smother him.”

“Look,” said Professor Watts to him afterwards, in his office, “this is sensational stuff. I want you to write this up today. I'll send a draft to Bernstein’s lab. I want them to replicate it. To get the same results.”

Han looked at him, his composure cracking. Replication? This was not how it worked in China. Fudging data was part of the scientific method. What did they think he was doing staying up all night? 

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