Among Paul McEuen’s writings is, “Plasmon Resonance in Individual Nanogap Electrodes Studied Using Graphene Nanoconstrictions as Photodetectors.” As Goldwin Smith Professor of Physics at Cornell University and Director of the Kavli Institute at Cornell for Nanoscale Science he is one of the leading scholars in a rapidly-expanding field dealing with matter at the molecular level. He describes his research interests as, “anything, as long as it’s small.” Sometimes the men and women at work in one specialized corner of nanoscience have to make a special effort to communicate with fellow-scientists in other corners. When the most important action is taking place microscopically it’s not always easy to observe and share.
So when Dr. McEuen took off his lab coat (assuming he wears a white lab coat when sequencing DNA) and turned to the job of writing a thriller it would be different from working with material one atom thick. “Spiral”, his first novel, is a fast-paced adventure with a rich cast of characters and chilling connections to the threat of terrorism in our time. And on nearly every page there’s a necessary and convincing tie to McEuen’s workaday world of nanotechnology, plus knowledgable references to biology, cyber-warfare and national security issues.
“Spiral” begins during the final days of World War II when Liam Connor, an Irish biologist serving in the British Army, is called upon to apply his knowledge of fungi to the biological warfare that the Japanese have developed at their infamous Unit 731. The villains of the story are a failed (that is, surviving) kamakaze pilot, Hitoshi Kitano, and a deadly fungus called Uzumaki (Japanese for “spiral”). American sailors already infected must be killed and buried at sea by their own forces. Kitano lives but Liam doesn’t know if specimens of Uzumaki remain.
The next chapter leaps forward to Ithaca, NY. Connor is now a beloved Professor Emeritus at Cornell University, a Nobel laureate still working with one of the world’s great collections of fungi, which are now tended by a platoon of MicroCrawlers — tiny spider-like robotic creatures that exemplify applied nanotechnology, and one instance in the book where McEuen has allowed his imagination to run ahead of his real-world accomplishments. Liam Connor dotes over his granddaughter Maggie and her son Dylan, both dear to him in Ithaca. His close faculty colleague is Jake Sterling, a professor of physics and a father, so to speak, of the MicroCrawlers. Like all the Cornell community, Jake is horrified when he learns that the pleasant and steady Liam has committed suicide by leaping into one of Ithaca’s gorges, and shocked to discover that he had been tortured, his assailant a madwoman called Orchid. Someone is trying to locate a specimen of Uzumaki, and have programmed the Crawlers to do the dirty work.
While the military saw the Crawlers as potential spies, Liam saw them as soldiers in a new revolution. Liam believed that a second wave was coming — one even bigger than the information revolution. When the technologies of the information age were applied to biology, life would become an engineering discipline. Using tools such as microfluidic labs-on-a-chip, PCR machines, and assemblers such as the MicroCrawlers, you’d be able to make living cells the way you made computer chips, process DNA like so many ones and zeroes. He was incredibly exceited. He thought that in five years he’d be making fungi from scratch. Design their genetic sequence on the computer, push a few buttons, and there they would be. A genome as easy to write as a string of computer code. A new fungus as simple to construct as an integrated circuit. He maintained that the Crawlers would be the foot soldiers of the revolution.
— from “Spiral”
Paul McEuen joins Bill Jaker on OFF THE PAGE to speak about nanotechnology and the workings of science, as well as his own learning experiences as an author.