Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A short story from Nature: "Test of Faith"

by Salman Hameed

Nature has been running a short scienece-related fictional story segment at the end of each issue. Last week's story deals with faith - well at least faith in science. Here is the beginning of Test of Faith by Brian P. Frank:

I must not fail. Sixth-year graduate student Vikram Singh was sweating profusely, not just from the heat of the nearby bonfire or the glowing bed of coals spread before him. Around him, the faculty members and students of the Chemical Engineering Department clapped and chanted the ritual songs while Professor Markson leapt about in a frenzy as she led the undergraduates, her long grey hair released from its customary tight bun. Her face was streaked with ceremonial paint in red and black, the school colours. The old bat looked utterly terrifying, worse than she had during his candidacy exams. Vikram stood barefoot and wore only the traditional loincloth.
All I have to do is walk across the coals. My ancestors in India did this for hundreds of years simply through the power of their belief. So why not me?
Of course, most of India was under water now, and he had grown up a Greenhouse refugee in Kansas. But he had climbed out of the camps, found scholarships to get himself here to the Institute and onward for graduate work until only one final barrier remained. But if he couldn't pass this test, it would all be for nothing. The noise grew louder, Professor Markson leaping higher until Vikram was sure she was going to give herself a coronary. It suddenly stopped as Professor Li, Vikram's thesis adviser, strode into the firelight and began the ritual speech:
“We gather here tonight to test the faith of Vikram Singh. Since the time of George the Second” — there was a chorus of enthusiastic boos and hisses from the crowd — “we have known that it is not enough for scientists and engineers to choose cold detachment. Those were dark days of research suppressed, of scientists persecuted for speaking truths that could have saved us all. And what is the result? Global disaster so vast that we still live with the consequences. It must not happen again.” 
Read the full story here.
By the way, you can read more about the science of firewalking here. This is actually a great way to explain concepts of conduction and heat capacity. You should not try it - but if you do want to impress people (and perhaps start your own religion), please use coal! :)

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