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The story starts in the physics laboratories of George Washington University in 1930. Quite coincidentally at almost this same time Professor Thomas Brown in charge of that department, was launching experiments which within fifteen years would bring forth an atomic bomb upon earth largely through Dr. George Gamow an assistant in this same laboratory.
Unwitting of the ferocity being planned within a few yards of me, I was engaged upon an experiment about poetry. Now usually poetry has little to do with a physics lab but this time it did. Majoring in engineering a trifle under duress and studying nuclear physics with a skeptical eye, my tedium had found a relief in conceiving that one might find why poetry in any language sounded like poetry whether one spoke the language or not.
[Drawing of a Koenig photometer. Image caption: 1928 college physics textbook rendering of a Koenig photometer. ]
Using an aged Koenig photometer to measure voice vibrations I was reading a line of Browning and then a line of prose alternately and studying any difference between the symmetry of vibrations in the poetry as contrasted to the prose. I discovered after a little, that there was a definite symmetry and was about to concoct a more complex test when it struck me that the mind was NOT a Koenig photometer. I drew back and looked studiously at the ugly machine with its four mirrors and glass frame and commented to myself that it would be a frighteningly uncomfortable thing to have kicking about between one’s ears. BUT if one did not have one between one’s ears, one DID or at least MUST have some kind of mechanism which would translate and measure not only the impulse of sound but also the symmetry of that sound. And, having measured it, that something did the additional trick not only of storing that symmetry but of recalling and viewing it at will.
Thus was born a search, a search which went on for a quarter of a century. Thus was born the train of intuition, observation and experiment which finally rediscovered, as a scientific fact, the soul, and gained methods of doing things to it, for it and with it with scientific certainty.
But here in 1930, serving out my time in “the salt mines of F Street” no such serious end was in real view. My interest, I must confess, went more to soaring planes at Congressional Airport, upsetting the faculty by my articles in the university paper and always making sure that the most demanded girl on the campus was the sweetheart of the professional engineering fraternity and mine to dance with, of course.
Probably nothing would have come of my search at all if I had not tried to solve something of the problem by calling on the formidable and slightly mad chief of the psychology department. He, in the secrecy of his opinions of his fellows, mainly wanted to know what I was doing out of the Engineering School and why I didn’t leave such things properly to psychologists. This challenged me a trifle. As a sensitive youth, soiled by the courtesy of the Orient in which I had spent much pre college time, I objected to people being so thoroughly Occidental, and after I had laughed at him a few columns in the university paper, I wheedled all the psychology textbooks out of a psychology major whose themes in English class I used to write and heavied my eyelids but not my understanding by studying them hard during my German and surveying lectures which bored me intensely anyway. But though I studied and comprehended what I read, the comprehension I began to believe was a trifle one-sided. These texts, like the courtesy of the psychology dean, were somewhat wanting.
Like the picture of the picture of the picture on the cereal box, psychology simply assigned all this first to the brain and then to the cell. Going no further, it still failed to describe any sound-recording-recalling devices. With youthful scorn I consigned psychology to that moldy heap of pretenses which so often pass their polysyllabic nonsense off as learning and decided to think some more about thinking–a trick to say the least.
About this time a biology major and I were accustomed to meeting after classes at (bygone days) a speak-easy up 21st Street for a round of blackjack and a couple shots after classes and whilst trying to detour my eyes from his nimble fingers he regaled me with bits and things about what went on in the world of biology. One day he actually did manage to slip me the card I didn’t want by remarking to me that the brain contained an exorbitant number of molecules of protein and that each molecule “had been discovered” to have holes in it. Fascinated, I bled him of data and a few days later made the time to calculate memory.
It seemed to me that if molecules had holes in them to a certain number, then memory, perchance, might be stored in these holes in the molecules. At least it was more reasonable than the texts I had read. But the calculation, done with considerably higher math than psychologists or biologists use, yet yielded a blank result. I calculated that memory was “made” at a certain rate and was stored in the holes in these punched protein molecules in the form of the most minute energy of which we had any record in physics. But despite the enormous number of molecular holes and the adequate amount of memory, the entire project yielded only this result: I was forced to conclude, no matter how liberal I became, that even with this system, certainly below cellular level, the brain did not have enough storage for more than three months of memory. And in that I could recall things quite vividly, at least before the beginning of the semester, I was persuaded that either the mind could not remember anything or that much smaller energy particles existed than we knew about in nuclear physics.
Amusing, a decade later, this theory, which I had imparted to a very famous psychiatrist complete with the figures, came back as an Austrian “discovery” and was widely accepted as the truth. I always wondered at the psychiatrist’s carelessness in losing that last page which declared by the same calculations that the mind could not remember.
Laying it all aside for a long time I was yet recalled to my calculations by physics itself. There are some odd movements noticeable in atomic and molecular phenomena which aren’t entirely accounted for and supposing that a “smaller” energy might make these movements amongst the larger particles, I came face to face with the grossness of the measuring equipment with which we have always worked in physics. We have only streams of electrons even today to “see small.” And I was so struck with the enormity of the Terra Incognita which physics had yet to invade that it seemed far simpler to do what I eventually did–went off and became a science fiction writer. […]