Ken spent an almost sleepless night.
He tossed for long hours and dozed finally, but he
awoke again before there was even a trace of dawn in
the sky. Although the night was cool he was sweating
as if it were mid-summer.
There was a queasiness in his stomach,
too, a slow undefinable pressure on some hidden nerve
he had never known he possessed. The feeling pulsed
and throbbed slowly and painfully. He sat up and
looked out at the dark landscape, and he knew what
was the matter.
Scared, he thought, I’m scared sick.
He’d never known anything like
it before in his life, except maybe the time when
he was 6 years old and he had climbed to the top of
a very high tree when the wind was blowing, and he
had been afraid to come down.
It was hitting him, he thought.
He was just beginning to understand what this stoppage
of machinery really meant, and he wondered if there
was something wrong with him that he had not felt
it earlier. Was he alone? Had everyone else
understood it before he had? Or would it hit them,
one by one, just as it was hitting him now, bringing
him face to face with what lay ahead.
He knew what had done it. It
was his father’s expression and his words in
the laboratory the night before.
Ken recognized that he had never doubted
for an instant that scientists and their tools were
wholly adequate to solve this problem in a reasonable
time. He had been aware there would be great hardships,
but he had never doubted there would be an end to
that time. He had believed his father, as a scientist,
had the same faith.
It was a staggering shock to learn
that his father had no faith in science; a shock to
be told that science was not a thing that warranted
a man’s faith. Ken had planned his whole
life around an avid faith in science.
He tried to imagine what the world
would be like if no engine should ever run again.
The standards of civilized existence would be shattered.
Only those areas of the world, where people had never
learned to depend on motor transportation or electric
power, would be unaffected; those areas of China,
India and Africa, where men still scratched the ground
with a forked stick and asked only for a cup of rice
or grain each day.
This would become the level of the
whole world. Until last night, Ken had never
believed it remotely possible. Now, his father’s
words had shaken him out of the certainty that science
would avert such consequences. It could
He thought of his own plans and ambitions.
There would be no need for scientists, nor the opportunity
to become one, in a world of men who grubbed the land
with forked sticks. He felt a sudden blind and
bitter anger. Even if the disaster were overcome
in a matter of years, his opportunity would be gone.
He knew at once that such anger was
selfish and futile. His own personal calamities
would be the least of the troubles ahead, but, for
the moment, he could not help it. In a way, it
felt good because it overshadowed the dark fear that
still throbbed in his body.
But something else was gone, too.
The opportunity for him and his science club friends
to investigate the properties of the altered metal
was over. His father and the other scientists
had taken over those studies, and there would be no
place for high-school boys who did not know even enough
to prepare a slide for an electron microscope.
It had always been that way, as long
as he could remember. He had always been too
young and too ignorant to be intrusted with work that
He supposed they would turn the operation
of the air filter over to one of the teaching fellows,
even though that was something the club could handle.
The bitterness and the fear seemed
more than he could endure. He dressed quietly
and went downstairs. Without lighting a lamp,
he found something to eat. The first light of
dawn was showing when he left the house.
For an hour he walked the silent streets
without meeting anyone. Normally, there would
have been the sound of milk trucks, and the cars of
early-rising workers. Now there was nothing.
The comet had risen just above the eastern hills,
and in its light the city was like some fabulous,
golden ruin that belonged in an ancient fairytale.
Ken didn’t know where he was
going or what he was going to do. There ought
to be something useful he could do, he thought fiercely.
As he looked down the street, he saw
a half-dozen wagons with two teams each, stopped in
front of Sims Hardware and Lumber. In the wagons
were several dozen men. Ken recognized Andrew
Norton, of the Mayor’s Council, and Henry Atkins,
the Sheriff’s chief deputy.
Several of the men were emerging from
the hardware store with new axes and saws. Then
Ken understood. This was the first wood detail
headed for the mountains to begin gathering and stockpiling
fuel for the winter. He broke into a run.
Deputy Atkins appeared to be in charge
of the group. Ken hailed him. “I want
to go along, Mr. Atkins. May I go?”
The deputy glanced down at him and
frowned. He consulted a sheet of paper he drew
from his pocket. “Your name isn’t
on the list for this morning, Ken. Were you assigned?”
“I guess not, but I haven’t
got anything else to do today. Is there any objection
to my going?”
“I don’t suppose so,”
said Atkins dubiously. “It’s just
that your name may be on some other list. We
don’t want to get these things fouled up right
off the bat. There’s enough trouble as it
“I’m sure my name’s
not on any other list. I’d have been told
“All right. Climb on.”
As Ken climbed into the nearest wagon
he was startled to find himself staring into the face
of Frank Meggs. The storekeeper grinned unpleasantly
as he nodded his head in Ken’s direction and
spoke to his neighbor. “Now what do you
know about that? Old Man Maddox, letting his
own little boy out alone this early in the morning.
I’ll bet he didn’t let you, did he?
I’ll bet you had to run away to try to prove
you’re a big boy now.”
“Cut it out, Meggs,” said
Atkins sharply. “We heard all about what
went on in your store yesterday.”
The man next to Meggs drew away, but
it didn’t seem to bother him. He continued
to grin crookedly at Ken. “Aren’t
you afraid you might get hurt trying to do a man’s
Ken ignored the jibes and faced away
from the storekeeper. The slow, rhythmic jogging
of the wagon, and the frosty air as they came into
the mountains took some of the bitterness out of Ken.
It made him feel freshly alive. He had come often
to hunt here and felt a familiarity with every tree
and rock around him.
The wagon train came to a halt in
a grove of 10-year-old saplings that needed thinning.
“No use taking our best timber
until we have to,” said Atkins. “We’ll
start here. I’ll take a crew and go on ahead
and mark the ones to be cut. You drivers unhitch
your teams and drag the logs out to the wagons after
There was none of the kidding and
horseplay that would have been normal in such a group.
Each man seemed intent on the purpose for which he
had come, and was absorbed with his own thoughts.
Ken took a double-bitted ax and followed Atkins along
the trail. He moved away from the others and
began cutting one of the young trees Atkins had marked.
By noon he was bathed in sweat, and
his arms and back ached. He had thought he was
in good condition from his football and track work,
but he seemed to have found new muscles that had never
come into play before.
Atkins noticed the amount he had cut
and complimented him. “Better take it easy.
You’re way ahead of everybody else, and we don’t
have to get it all out today.”
Ken grinned, enjoying the aches of
his muscles. “If it has to be done we might
as well do it.”
He was not surprised to find that
Frank Meggs had cut almost nothing but had spent his
time complaining to his companions about the unnecessary
work they were doing.
After lunch, which Ken had reluctantly
accepted from the others, there was a stir at the
arrival of a newcomer on horseback. Ken recognized
him as Mike Travis, one of the carpenters and caretakers
at the college.
Mike tied his horse to the tailboard
of a wagon and approached the woodcutters. “There
you are, Ken Maddox,” he said accusingly.
“Why didn’t you let somebody know where
you were going? Your father’s been chewing
up everyone in sight, trying to find out where you’d
gone. He finally decided you might be up here,
and sent me after you. Take the horse on back.
I’ll finish up the day on the wood detail.”
Ken felt suddenly awkward and uncomfortable.
“I didn’t mean to worry him, but I guess
I did forget to say where I was going. Don’t
you think it would be okay if I stayed and you told
Dad you had found me?”
“Not on your life! He’d
chew me down to the ankles if I went back without
“Okay, I’ll go,”
Ken said. Although he knew he should have left
word it still seemed strange that his father should
be so concerned as to send a man up here looking for
him. It seemed like more of the unfamiliar facets
of his father’s personality that Ken had glimpsed
Frank Meggs was watching from across
the clearing. “I guess Papa Maddox couldn’t
stand the thought of his little boy doing a man’s
work for a whole day,” he said loudly and maliciously.
No one paid any attention to him.
Ken tied the mare to a tree on the
campus where she could graze. He glanced over
the valley below. Not a single car was in sight
on the roads. Somehow, it was beginning to seem
that this was the way it had always been. His
own car seemed like something he had possessed a thousand
He found his father in the laboratory
working with the electron microscope. Professor
Maddox looked up and gestured toward the office.
As Ken sat down, he shut the door behind them and took
a seat behind his old oak desk that was still cluttered
with unmarked examination papers.
“You didn’t say anything
about where you were going this morning,” he
“I’m sorry about that,”
Ken answered. “I got up early and took a
walk through town. All of a sudden well,
I guess I got panicky when it finally hit me as to
what all this really means. I saw the wood detail
going out and joined them. It felt good out there,
with nothing to think about except getting a tree
to fall right.”
“You ran away. You were needed here.”
Ken stammered. “I didn’t
think you wanted any of us kids around since you and
the other men had taken over what we had started to
“You were angry that it wasn’t
your own show any longer, weren’t you?”
“I guess that’s part of
it,” Ken admitted, his face reddening. He
didn’t know what was happening. His father
had never spoken to him like this before. He
seemed suddenly critical and disapproving of everything
After a long time his father spoke
again, more gently this time. “It’s
been your ambition for a long time to be a scientist,
“You know it has.”
“I’ve been very pleased,
too. I’ve watched you and encouraged your
interests and, as far as I can see, you’ve been
developing in the right direction.”
“I’m glad you think so,” Ken said.
“But you’ve wanted to
be a great scientist. You’ve had
an ambition to emulate men like Newton, Faraday, Davy,
and the modern giants such as Einstein, Planck, de
“Maybe I haven’t got the brains, but I
His father snorted impatiently.
“Do you think any one of them tried deliberately
to be great, or to copy anyone else?”
Ken understood his meaning now.
“I guess they didn’t. You can’t
really do a thing like that.”
“No, you can’t. You
take the brains God has given you and apply them to
the universe as you see it. The results take care
“Some of us have enough insight
to achieve greatness. Most of us lack the cleverness
to cope effectively with such a wily opponent as the
natural universe. Greatness and mediocrity have
no meaning to a man who is absorbed in his study.
You do what you have to do. You do what the best
and highest impulses of your brain tell you to do.
Expect nothing more than this of yourself. Nothing
more is possible.”
“I think I see what you mean,” Ken said.
“I doubt it. Most of the
men I know have never learned it. They struggle
to write more papers, to get their names in more journals
than their colleagues. They go out of their way
to be patted on the back.
“They are the failures as scientists.
For an example of success I recommend that you observe
Dr. Larsen closely. He is a man who has done
a great deal to advance our knowledge of physical chemistry.”
Professor Maddox paused. Then
he said finally, “There is just one other thing.”
“What’s that?” Ken asked.
“Up to now, you and all your friends have only
played at science.”
“Played!” Ken cried.
“We’ve built our observatory, a 1000-watt
radio transmitter ”
“Play; these things are toys.
Educational toys, it is true, but toys, nevertheless.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Toys are fine for children.
You and your friends, however, are no longer children.
You haven’t got a chance now to grow up and gain
an education in a normal manner. You can’t
finish your childhood, playing with your toys.
You can’t take all the time you need to find
out what your capacities and aptitudes are. You
will never know a world that will allow you that luxury.
“Every available brain is needed
on this problem. You’ve got to make a decision
today, this very minute, whether you want to give a
hand to its solution.”
“You know I want to be in on it!”
“Do you? Then you’ve
got to decide that you are no longer concerned about
being a scientist. Forget the word. What
you are does not matter. You are simply a man
with a problem to solve.
“You have to decide whether
or not you can abandon your compassion for the millions
who are going to die; whether you can reject all pressure
from personal danger, and from the threat to everything
and everyone that is of any importance to you.
“You’ve got to decide
whether or not this problem of the destruction of
surface tension of metals is the most absorbing thing
in the whole world. It needs solving, not because
the fate of the world hinges on it, but because it’s
a problem that consumes you utterly. This is what
drives you, not fear, not danger, not the opinion of
“When he can function this way,
the scientist is capable of solving important problems.
By outward heartlessness he can achieve works of compassion
greater than any of his critics. He knows that
the greatest pleasure a man can know lies in taking
a stand against those forces that bend ordinary men.”
For the first time in his life Ken
suddenly felt that he knew his father. “I
wish you had talked to me like this a long time ago,”
Professor Maddox shook his head.
“It would have been far better for you to find
out these things for yourself. My telling you
does not convince you they are true. That conviction
must still come from within.”
“Do you want me to become a scientist?”
“It doesn’t make any difference
what I want,” his father answered almost roughly.
He was looking away from Ken and then his eyes found
his son’s and his glance softened. He reached
across the desk and grasped Ken’s hand.
“Yes, I want it more than anything
else in the world,” he said earnestly.
“But it’s got to be what you want, too,
or it’s no good at all. Don’t try
to be anything for my sake. Determine your own
goals clearly, and take as straight a path as you
can to reach them. Just remember, if you do choose
science the standards are severe.”
“It’s what I want,”
said Ken evenly. “You said you needed me
here. What do you want me to do?”
“Empty trash cans if we ask
it,” Professor Maddox said. “Forget
about whose show it is. Professor Larsen and
I will be directing the research, and we’ll
need every pair of hands and every brain that’s
got an ounce of intelligence in this field. You
do whatever you are asked to do and think of every
possible answer to the questions that come before you.
Is that good enough?”
“More than enough.”
Ken felt a sudden stinging sensation behind his eyes
and turned to rub their corners roughly. “What
about the other fellows in the club? Can you
use them, too?”
“As many as have the ounce of
intelligence I spoke of. The rest of them don’t
need to know the things I have told you, but with you
it was different. I had to know you understood
just a little of what it means to be a scientist.”
“I’ll be one. I’ll show you
I can be one!”