GRAFFITI OF THE GODS

I survived a three month visit in a home without a computer, thus suffering ballpoint, paper, and desk. As octogenarians know, one must either cushion the writing surface or destroy the pen, cramp your hand, and tear the paper. Over time I scrawled upon scores of sheets of paper using a slim but thick-covered glossy brochure as my writing surface. Ballpoint impression after impression imprinted, radically changing its texture. Look at the finely meshed wrinkles of your skin on an arm or thigh where there is no bias for stretching. Viewed by reflected light my tens of thousands of words had in bas relief created an astounding simulacrum of that pattern. If tremendous numbers of overlays of script created an exemplar of skin, might not skin contain within its tiny rumples something of significant interest?

Going from glossy cover to chaos was easy. Extracting untold lines of script from overlain scrawls... was easy! A coherent laser beam split into a pair of beams, one reflected off the cover and then recombined with its unaltered brother, yielded a diffraction pattern containing all the information on the cover. It was digitized, subjected to Fourier transform, and yielded discrete information. Similarly digitized samples of my writing allowed individual words and then whole texts to be teased out of the database. My employer had lots of lasers, optical benches, supercomputer access, and heavy duty nerds eager to do anything that did not involve their job description. It was a government contracting agency and, had it accomplished anything ever, it would have been summarily canceled.

Having conquered my blotter, we set out to decipher the message within human skin. We required a large, smooth sample of skin unblemished by the ravages of time. The audacious solution was to approach the least senior secretary and inform her in the most solemn tones that we needed her body for science. She squealed her delight in visiting the lab on a weekend and having her diffraction pattern generated, digitized, and Fourier transformed. We lifted some fine diffraction patterns from her back and tummy after hours of calibration runs on more non-linear portions of her integument. Science stops at nothing!

In what language would the gods scribble their message within human skin? What symbology would they use? Are we mere mortals capable of recognizing the message even if it stared us in the face? A quick run through more than 200 alphabets underlined the enormity of our task. NOTHING, not a single letter, matched.

One of the bearded, odoriferous brethren of the labs wandered by as language befitting a stevedore's convention run short of beer echoed from our cubbyhole. He looked at two output screens, one dotted with the diffraction pattern and the other mystic with contoured swirls of its Fourier Transform, and he said, "What is the point of bootlegging x-ray diffraction data unless you do a 3-D transform to recover the molecular structure? Hey, are you guys into some weird new drug database?"

Three keyboards started smoking as fingers driven by the most prodigious intellectual resources on Earth rode the Internet, hacking into every academic computer system in the Northern Hemisphere. There was no code-of-the-gods at all. It was there stark naked!

The gods were reputed to be handy with a miracle. They could secure anything at all in unlimited quantities. Mythology is a poor reflection of mankind's infatuation with what was at mortal hand. Here was knowledge hot and pure, the molecular structure of ambrosia, the quaff of the gods! An ORTEP diagram slid from the laser printer. My hands shook as I uncoupled my ocular convergence from accommodation, slid the two stereoimages together within my mind, and started counting valences and estimating bond angles and lengths to identify the structure. Two benzene rings, a nitrogen, a carbonyl, a few connecting atoms, mentally add in the hydrogens... and N-[(4-benzyloxy)benzyl]-N-methylformamide was arrayed before us.

Back to the keyboards! We hacked into Chemical Abstracts Service. It was a trivial molecule, easy and cheap to build. Was it discovered? What did it DO!

We found it rather sad, disappointing really, that our researches uncovered one final fact: The gods were more niggardly than a Scottish Jew running a Korean sweatshop in India. Ambrosia, N-[(4-benzyloxy)benzyl]-N-methylformamide, is an ethanol catabolism inhibitor. Five milligrams plus a six pack will keep your average couch potato snockered for a week. How boring.

All was not lost. We called our little secretary back for a second round of research this coming weekend, and cleaned off the optical bench in anticipation.


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