|Chapter 84||Table of Contents||Chapter 86|
Tephra, February 3, 2060
I got a late night call from Rhamaposa that shocked me awake. “I just wanted to check how you were coming with that Cambridge Bay inquiry,” he said.
With a sinking feeling, I realized that between my funk and the holidays, it had completely slipped my mind.
For a second, I considered a Matt-style gambit, but I opted to come clean. “I’m sorry, Peter. I have been a little overloaded and haven’t got around to it yet.”
He took this admission in stride and signed off saying, “Okay, let me know when you have something to report. I hear it happened again last week.”
I managed to fall asleep again after his call and even slept in late.
I had a good idea of the elements that EF1 required. What I didn’t know was what elements the dust would present to the lichen. So I started there.
I contacted Adrian Russell from Group 10 and ran into a bureaucratic wall. He was polite when he called back two days later, but was unable to help me immediately. The earliest he could arrange a dust sample was a month from now.
I decided to trade on my father’s fame and contacted the nursing station at Cambridge Bay directly. I got some young woman who probably had never heard of the Fontaines.
“You want our dirt?” she asked incredulously.
“Yes, that’s right. From the dust storm last week.”
“Who are you again?”
“My name is Luc Fontaine and I’m in Group 7 of the GeoEngineering Task Force.”
“You’re the guys trying to stop this crazy weather, right?”
“Basically yes. We heard that the lichen in town started to grow very fast and we want to find out why, but in order to do that we need some of the dust from that storm last week.”
“That wasn’t a dust storm.”
“Oh. What was it?”
“It was from that Alaskan volcano that woke up. Skookum. The dust was so unusual for this district, I looked at some satellite images and you could see the plume spreading all the way from Alaska,” she replied.
“I’ll check that out. Meanwhile, I’ll pay you for the shipping costs if you would please send me a sample of the dust.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll make it an emergency medical shipment. What’s your address?”
I gave her the University address and two days later the package arrived, addressed to me personally and marked “Caution Medical Specimen.” The receptionist in the faculty office gave me a very funny look when she handed over the parcel.
Inside, wrapped in layers of bubble foil, were three test tubes containing a fine dark grey dust.
How could I get an elemental breakdown of the dust? I grabbed one of the test tubes and wandered over to the Geology department, looking for Sam Day who once had been a close friend.
Sam was helpful and within six hours I had the elemental breakdown in hand. Then my real problems began. The elements were unremarkable — iron, silicon, oxygen, manganese, carbon and sulphur — with a few others in trace amounts.
I puzzled over these elements trying to understand how they could affect the lichen. I even sent Sam another of the test tubes to double check his analysis. It came back largely the same.
It didn’t make sense.
For two days I wandered around in a daze trying to figure out the conundrum. On the evening of the second day, I got a call from Horace Bateson, an old geologist friend of dad’s.
“Luc. Listen I happened to be in the lab today analyzing some tephra from Alaska and Sam mentioned that it looked identical to a sample you had brought in. I was just wondering…what was your sample?”
“That’s volcanic ash.”
“Oh.” I took a shot in the dark. “Oh! From Skookum?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
“My sample came from a dust storm in Nunavut. I’ve been told the dust came from Skookum.” An idea suddenly occurred to me. “How much of that ash do you have?”
“A couple of hundred kilograms. Why?”
“I was wondering if you could spare a few kilograms so I could do some biological tests.”
“Well it’ll probably just sit in the basement here.”
A day later I had enough of the ash to test the EF1 in the lab. I decided to simplify the problem space by testing six samples: EF1, the algae and the fungi, each with their controls.
For the next week, I monitored the growth rates in growing disbelief. I was doubtful enough of the results that I had a grad student who knew nothing repeat the experiment in another building.
The ash inhibited the algae and the fungi, but boosted the EF1. I was right back in the mystery of symbiosis. Something in the dust was catalyzing the algae to fungi relationship.
The next step would be to break down the dust and test which elements affected EF1. I could use the amplification as a probe to study symbiosis. Again I mapped out a series of experiments to perform.
Excerpted from _The Bottleneck Years_ by H.E. Taylor
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Last modified March 25, 2014