Authors: Douglas E. Richards
She shook her head and allowed a
flicker of a smile to cross her face. “Most of you, on the inside, are rolling
your eyes, because you’ve known how exponential growth works since you were in
diapers. But knowing and having an intuitive feel are two different things. And
exponential growth will sneak up on you. Despite having seen this pattern over
and over, scientists are still surprised by its effect. Many still have trouble
taking the leap of faith that problems that seem insurmountable today will become
trivial in the blink of an eye.
“When the first cell phones were
practically the size of a car, who’d have foreseen modern smartphones, capable
of marvels not even dreamt of just years before they came to rule the world?
When Jobs and Wozniac built their first Apple computer in a garage, who could
have foreseen the monumental leaps in processing power, speed, storage, and the
like? The first decoding of the billions of DNA base pairs in the human genome
took over a
, at a cost of more
than three billion dollars. A mere twenty years later, I can get my entire
genome sequenced in a
, for less
money than it takes to buy a new pair of shoes.
“This is happening in
neuroscience before our very eyes. We’re halfway up the handle of that hockey
stick, and we’ll make it all the way up from here so quickly it will surprise
the most optimistic among us.
“So I want to go back to the
point at which the coming revolution left the ice, so to speak, and began
climbing straight up the handle of the hockey stick, about a decade ago. Have
any of you heard the name Francis Collins?”
Deb Sorensen nodded. “You mean
the former director of the NIH?”
“Exactly. Anyone know what he
did before this?”
“Didn’t he also lead the Human
Genome Project?” said Michele Bodenheimer. “The one you just spoke about.”
“Excellent,” said Rachel. “That
is correct. So Collins had seen the breathtaking pace of innovation before.”
The professor lifted the tablet
that had been resting on her lap and slid her fingers across it. “I thought it
might be useful to read to you something he posted in 2014, when the BRAIN
initiative was first announced.”
She looked down at the screen
and began to read:
have called it America’s next moonshot. Indeed, like the historic effort that
culminated with the first moon landing in 1969, the Brain Research through
Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative is a bold,
ambitious endeavor that will require the energy of thousands of our nation’s
most creative minds working together over the long haul.
Our goal? To produce the first dynamic
view of the human brain in action, revealing how its roughly eighty-six billion
neurons and its trillions of connections interact in real time. This new view
will revolutionize our understanding of how we think, feel, learn, remember,
and move, transforming efforts to help the more than one billion people
worldwide who suffer from autism, depression, schizophrenia, epilepsy,
traumatic brain injury, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and other
devastating brain disorders.
When on May 25, 1961, President
Kennedy announced plans to go to the moon by the end of the decade, most
Americans (not to mention space scientists!) were stunned because much of the
technology needed to achieve a moonshot didn’t yet exist. Likewise, medical
research today faces a wide gap between our current technologies for studying
the brain and what will be needed to realize BRAIN’s ambitious goals.
Rachel stopped reading and faced
her class once again. “There’s more, but I won’t go on. I just wanted to give
you a flavor of where things were a decade or so ago, when many of you were in
high school or even middle school. Collins goes on to detail this technology
gap. But, as all of you know, ninety percent of the first draft of the brain is
already done. And, as usual, it is way ahead of schedule, and has defied every
expectation. When it is fully completed, and then modeled in our best
computers, the power this will give us to understand the innermost workings of
the human brain will be
We will have a unique ability to explore ourselves, learn what makes us tick.
Even with an incomplete, raw version, recent breakthroughs being made have been
extraordinary. As this data grows hand in hand with advances in biotech and
computer science, there is very little we won’t soon be able to achieve.”
Rachel Howard had been at the
forefront of the field for some time, and the passion and certainty with which
she delivered these words was electrifying.
After a long pause, giving her
inspirational words time to marinate, she continued. “So let’s go. Let’s begin
a big-picture discussion of such things as finding the cure for Alzheimer’s. A
huge and tragic disease affecting more and more of us as we extend the
lifespan, and as the percentage of us who are elderly continues to increase.
Let’s explore findings with respect to the brain and spirituality, begging a
discussion of how religion, evolution, and neurochemistry might fit together.
Let’s take a panoramic look at addiction research; pros, cons, issues, and
ethics. And we’ll want to save a good thirty minutes to discuss one of my favorite
topics: research into the human sex drive, which colors every aspect of our
behavior, actions, and civilization. I defy you to watch TV for ten minutes without
at least one sexual reference coming up, without seeing sex being used to sell
beer or hamburgers.”
Rachel raised her eyebrows. “And
for good reason,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. “Because a strong urge to
mate, to reproduce, is an absolute requirement for genes to be passed on. We
can be sure of only one thing: every one of our ancestors managed to find a
partner and mate, whatever that took. If not, we wouldn’t be here to talk about
“And we’ll even ask the following
question,” she continued, “which is stronger, the survival instinct or the sex
drive? Not as obvious as it might seem at first blush. Just ask the males of
certain spider species, who offer themselves up as postcoital snacks to induce
females to mate with them.”
Rachel couldn’t help but smile
at the looks of horror on the faces of her three male students. “And we’ll go
on to discuss a half dozen other areas that neuroscience will soon have a
dramatic impact upon,” she continued. “But all of this will come later in this
session, or in the next. Because I’d like to begin with my two favorite topics.”
She paused for effect. “The first being the induction of memory loss.”
The professor took a drink from
her still-icy bottle of Snapple and continued. “Few would argue that restoring
memory to Alzheimer’s patients is a blessing. But we’ll soon be able to do the
opposite, as well: induce the
memory. Easily. And with surgical precision. So what do you think about this?
Should we pursue this line of research? If so, for what purpose, and to what
“And if not, how would we stop
Many miles away, a troubled man watched Rachel Howard’s lecture on a large
plasma monitor in fascination. She was electrifying.
The subject matter for her first two lectures was almost perfect for his
needs, allowing him to garner much of what he wanted to know. These discussions
would provide a window on how Rachel Howard thought about the field, what
advances she had contemplated, and her take on various moral and ethical
But he would also need to be careful. It would be dangerous to draw too many
conclusions on the basis of public lectures. Her stance on various issues could
be for the consumption of her students only, and not necessarily reflect her
Regardless, these two lectures would illuminate the kind of issues she had
pondered, her range of interests, and her recognition of what was critical and
what wasn’t. They would provide a framework for further analysis, further
interaction. They would jump-start the process, a lucky break considering that
time was of the essence.
The man turned his attention once more to the screen, where the chair of the
Harvard Neuroscience department was continuing her lecture. Even knowing it was
being taped, he didn’t want to miss a single word or facial expression.
Azim Jafari, Imam of Chicago’s Hamza mosque, had been in
America his entire life, but had long known he was going to strike a decisive
blow in the war against the West, particularly against the country of his
birth. He had spent years building a reputation that would make him above
suspicion, since despite any denials, Western Intelligence focused considerable
attention on mosques.
And while Jafari feigned outrage over this practice, it made
perfect sense. If you wanted honey, you focused on bees. Mosques had been meeting
places for radicalized Islamists historically, and any number of Imams had been
found to be terrorist leaders, or at the very least, terrorist sympathizers.
Although bees and honey was the wrong analogy, since his
plans had nothing to do with honey. Perhaps termites and acid would be the
Some in the West had begun to question why so few peace-loving
Muslims had condemned their fundamentalist, radicalized brethren, and insisted
that until this happened, innocent Muslims had less reason to complain when
they were painted with this same brush.
One professional cable news guest who had been particularly
vocal about this over the years was a man named Abe Shapiro. He argued that TSA
agents and others were fools not to use profiling. That it was the height of
idiocy not to focus more on mosques and Muslims. This wasn’t bigotry, he would
argue, just common sense.
“I’m a short, fat Jewish guy,” Shapiro had famously remarked
on any number of occasions. “If scores of other short, fat Jewish guys flew
planes into buildings, shot up malls, and chanted death to America, I’d expect
to get closer scrutiny by the TSA. To fail to notice this pattern and keep a
closer eye on me, you’d have to have your head in the sand. But I wouldn’t
blame the TSA agents for this scrutiny. I’d blame all the fricking short, fat
Jewish guys trying to destroy civilization, who are making me look suspicious.
Radicalized Muslims are the least tolerant people on Earth—especially when it
comes to women, other religions, and other cultures—yet they cry the loudest at
any perceived intolerance on the part of the West. And we’re stupid enough to let
them put us on the defensive.”
Jafari had decided that these criticisms were an opportunity.
He would pretend to take them to heart. Pretend to give the public what so many
commentators suggested they were looking for. He would be a prominent Muslim, an
, willing to publicly condemn
So he had made it a point to seek out cable news shows and
had soon become a common presence among talking heads. He became famous for
sermonizing that Islam needed to get its house in order, be more open-minded
and tolerant. He shared his enlightened view on television whenever he was
asked, winning praise from all quarters as a man of peace trying to effect
And all the while he was doing this, he searched for the
perfect strategy, triggered at the perfect time, to cripple America, knowing
that he was now the last Imam, and Hamza the last mosque, that would ever come
under suspicion. He was so well known as a voice against radicalism that if he
walked into a café with a bomb strapped to his chest, the waiter would
cheerfully take his order and comment on the believability of his terrorist Halloween
But even so, he instituted security precautions as though he
suspected Imam in the
world. No electronic communications that would ever suggest his hatred of his
country, or his love of ISIS and other such organizations. No public speeches
or sermons. He made sure his mosque was routinely swept for bugs.
And now, finally, his duplicity, his patience, would pay off.
Today was the day, and although it was now the crack of dawn on a Monday, he
had never felt more alive.
Azim Jafari gazed out over hundreds of his hand-picked
followers, from all over the country, who had made the trip to attend this
special prayer meeting. His own network of sleepers. Pious believers he had
carefully cultivated over many years, ready to become activated at his command.
And each ready to activate their own hand-picked cells of six to eight, a
multiplier effect that provided Jafari with an army of well over a thousand.
The inside of the mosque was magnificent, and the prayer
hall he and his followers inhabited was the most magnificent of all, containing
dozens of pairs of striking white pillars, accented with gold, leading up to a
glorious blue-and-jade dome. Unlike the sanctuaries of other religions, the
splendor of the architecture was not marred by the presence of pews or rows of
Two of Jafari’s special congregants guarded the doors while he
readied himself to begin the proceedings. He was wearing his finest white robe,
and a white-and-red kufi, which could be described as either an enormous skullcap,
or a round, brimless hat, shaped like a birthday cake. His dark beard was
close-cropped, something that never failed to enrage him when he saw his face
in a mirror.
But as much as he wanted to grow his beard longer, to please
Allah, a beard that was neatly manicured was more pleasing to the mainstream, making
him even more of a darling to large swaths of the American population. Sacrificing
a full beard, painful though it was, was something he was willing to do for the
A hush fell over the room as Jafari made it clear he was
ready to begin. He first led the assembly in prayer, humbled to be doing so for
these men in particular, who were as dedicated as he was to the final
elimination of infidels and the restoration of Islam to its deserved purity and
Once the prayers were completed, it was finally time for him
to get to the heart of the matter. Jafari drew in a deep, exhilarating breath,
thrilled by the knowledge that his time had finally come, and began. “All of
you are here today because you share in our righteous purpose,” he said. “To
bring the Great Satan to its knees. After considerable thought and preparation—considerable
prayer and meditation—I have arrived at a plan I believe will do just this. A
plan that will create maximum panic and havoc, with minimal operational needs.”
He smiled serenely. “And minimal risk of failure.”
Jafari cleared his throat and looked out over his flock, a
dense throng of humanity standing at attention before him, eager to learn what
part they would play in his grand plan. “I call my strategy,
death by a thousand cuts
. As the name
would imply, this isn’t about delivering a single killing blow to the organism.
This isn’t about sensational attacks, about spectacle. You don’t have to cut
off an elephant’s head to kill it. A thousand quick flicks with a razor blade will
do the trick. Each, alone, not nearly fatal, but the cumulative effect deadly, causing
far more trauma to the system than a single decisive blow ever could.”
Jafari had arrived at the name for his
operation from the form of torture and execution made famous by the Chinese,
practiced from the beginning of the tenth century until 1905, when it had been banned
by authorities. The Chinese had called it
translated either as
death by a thousand cuts
In ling chi, an executioner would
use a knife to methodically remove portions of the body over an extended period
of time, eventually resulting in death. According to lore, ling chi began when
the torturer, wielding an extremely sharp knife, put out the victim’s eyes,
rendering him incapable of seeing the remainder of the torture and ratcheting
up the psychological terror of the procedure.
Successive cuts removed any small
body part that just happened to be sticking out, be it an ear, nose, finger,
toe, tongue, or even testicle, followed by the removal of large chunks of flesh
from thighs and shoulders. The entire process was said to last three days, and
to total three thousand six hundred cuts, after which the butchered carcasses
were paraded for the public to see.
While this lore contained extreme exaggerations—exaggerations
historians and modern physicians had since corrected—there was no disagreement
over the basic idea behind the executions, nor the fact that they took place.
The debate centered on the question of how many mutilations, over what length
of time, a victim could endure and still remain alive.
The idea of felling the Great Satan in this manner was
irresistible to Jafari, and he relished the idea that
hand would be holding the scalpel. Yes, ISIS and others had
continued to entice individuals, largely through social media, into acts of
violence against America, often to great effect, but this was haphazard. Jafari’s
strategy would be smarter. It would be comprehensive and coordinated. And it
would be infinitely more damaging.
“Once I seized upon the idea of slicing up the beast,”
continued Jafari, “of crippling it, forcing it to stagger around, not knowing when
or where the next slice would be delivered, I put considerable effort into
perfecting each and every cut. Into ordering the cuts for maximum effectiveness.
At every turn I asked myself, which acts will cause the most destruction, the
most terror? Which acts will push the economy toward collapse? What acts will bleed
the beast the most efficiently?”
Jafari paused. “During our meeting this morning, I intend to
outline our first cut. Once this phase has been completed, I will outline the
next. And so on. In this way I can assess the success of each phase. I can
confirm that the next cuts I have planned will still be the most effective,
given the state of the beast.”
This was also a security precaution. Any follower who was
captured could only reveal a small portion of the plan. Jafari wouldn’t insult anyone
in attendance by suggesting they might provide operational details during an
interrogation, but weakness happened, even in men whose hearts were in the
right place. And stupidity happened. What if someone made a list that could be
discovered? Allowed themselves to get drunk and then bragged about the plan?
Caution was Jafari’s watchword. He would take no unnecessary
chances. They would see the beauty of his full plan, the grandeur, as it slowly
unfolded, like the rarest of roses revealing its beauty petal by petal.
He held out his hands, palms up, and his face glowed with an
inner peace and serenity. “So it is time to announce our first move. One that
could well cut the deepest of all.”
He paused for effect. “This will be a cut carved by the
lava-hot scalpel of