[APPLAUSE] KATHIE HODGE: Well, hello. Thanks for coming out today. I have to say that when Paul asked me to do this gig, it's kind of an odd gig for a professor to do, don't you think? The only question that really came to my mind was, what the heck?
So really, throughout this conversation I'm going to have with Paul today, that's really what I'm thinking. What the heck is going on here? Because as Saul mentioned, one of the characters in the book is somehow sort of kind of me, and that's a really surreal place to be.
All right. So my first question to you, Paul, what the heck? What's a physicist doing writing a novel?
PAUL MCEUEN: So that's a question that I've been asked many times. And I think I give a different answer every time. I think here, the first thing I would do is blame the environment. This place has produced an amazing amount of nerds who write fiction over the years, going back to Nabakov, for example, who was quite a good lepidopterist in addition to writing Lolita. In fact, some of his ideas are being debated today.
Moving onward, we have people like Kurt Vonnegut, who was an undergraduate here until the war took him away. We also have people like Carl Sagan, who wrote the novel Cosmos, among his other accomplishments, and launched Matthew McConaughey onto the world. We'll forgive him for that one.
So there's really been a tremendous history of writers at Cornell and in Ithaca. And it's stunning how many there are now. And rolling on the screen over here, you may have noticed that one of the pictures that comes up occasionally is a picture of about four or five book covers.
These are all debut authors that are now, or are recently from Ithaca, who've had a book that has come out in the last month, except for one I think is going to not come out for about another month. But just in the last month, there have been four or so major debuts from Ithaca authors. And I think it's more than-- certainly per capita, I think this is more than any other place in the country.
So if you like being around writers, or if you want to be sort of spontaneously turned into a writer by the toxins in the environment, I think this is the place to be. So my first answer is, it's not my fault. The environment did it for me.
KATHIE HODGE: So it's like it's in the water or something like that.
PAUL MCEUEN: It's in the water.
KATHIE HODGE: So look out. All of you may soon be writing novels. Maybe we should take a poll. How many people have actually written a novel? Holy mackerel.
PAUL MCEUEN: How many people have thought about writing a novel?
KATHIE HODGE: That's pretty bad. Yep, it's in the water.
PAUL MCEUEN: Yeah.
KATHIE HODGE: But I can't help but notice that that was kind of a fancy way of avoiding my question, which was sort of, how did this happen to you? How does a physicist end up writing a novel?
PAUL MCEUEN: Well, let me avoid the question in a different way.
KATHIE HODGE: See how this is going to go?
PAUL MCEUEN: And I was allowed to know what maybe the first question is, maybe one or two questions. And so I actually have some prepared stuff for that. Because it's very nerve wracking to be up in front of an audience without your PowerPoint to guide you along your way. So I'm going to use my PowerPoint here.
And the next thing I would say is that one thing that when you start to get into this, you find that science, and certainly physics, and novel writing are not so different. And let me show you. This is a book called Robert McKee. It's Story. It's a book about screenwriting, but it could as well be about novel writing.
And you look on one of the pages. And there are these things, these little wiggly diagrams. There are little charges, pluses and minuses. And then there are these little bubbles. And then there's something going on over here.
And I mean, those look quite a lot like Feynman diagrams. I think they really do. So in literature, it turns out there's all this stuff that happens.
There are these interactions that take place. And there's interference between your conscious desire and your unconscious desire, coherently interacting with the object of desire. In fact, the only way you know this is about writing and not about physics is carnal knowledge. I don't think that shows up too much.
So it's remarkable how much structure you can find in novel writing that has similarities to things that happen in physics. There's also weird kinds of numerology. For example, in plays you've all heard of the three-act play, and maybe even the one-act play, and even the five-act play.
But do you know of any two-act plays, four-act plays? Not really. They're only odd numbers in the number of acts in plays. If you go to wiki and you look up plays, and acts in plays, they will discuss the one, the three, and the five.
And they don't bother with telling you why there are no even-numbered acted plays? I mean what is that about? So play are somehow fermionic or something. They want to be-- their bosonic plays, condense and disappear-- something. I don't know what it is.
Does anybody-- who thinks they know the answer to this question? It's a great question. It's one of these great questions that, because those people are so close to it, they don't know. They don't understand.
Actually they do. They very much understand. And here's the answer graphically. So this is a map of drama. This is what a dramatic story looks like.
And this story, reduced to its most basic elements, is things start out good. Then they go bad. And then they go good again, and then they go bad again. And that's the end of the story. So that's how a story works.
That's really it. So that sounded like a story, didn't it? Even though you can kind of fill in the rest of it yourself. You don't need the author.
What if things were good, then they got bad, and then they got good again? Is that a story? Can't you feel it? You're, like, no, no, no. Something else has to happen. It has to end up bad again.
So this is another thing. If you like stories with happy endings, just check the sign of the story at the beginning. It's very true. If it starts off good, things are going to get really ugly, really, really, really fast. If it starts out bad, things are probably going to work out in the end.
KATHIE HODGE: So I think if you're a children's author, you might want to--
PAUL MCEUEN: Actually, most stories aren't like this. Usually, it starts out-- it has to go the other way, because most people want to-- certainly Hollywood wants a happy ending. And so the obvious next question would be, well, what is mine? Is it a one, a three, or a five-act play?
Now, a thriller is a little bit different. So a thriller, the diagram for thriller looks like this. See, this stuff is easy. It's really all very simple. You can represent it all graphically.
Things start out OK, pretty good, not so bad. Then they go bad. And they have to go bad really fast if it's a thriller, maybe page one, page two, page five at the latest.
Then you try to recover things, try to get better, but they never get back to where they are. And then they get worse. You try to recover again, and they get worse still, really bad.
And it speeds up. Things start happening worse and worse, faster and faster, until things get absolutely terrible. And if you're fortunate, you manage to get right back up, maybe slightly ahead of where you were when you began. But not until the end.
KATHIE HODGE: Wait, did you just give away your ending there?
PAUL MCEUEN: Well, there is another brand, which is the apocalyptic thriller.
Why is that funny? Oh, yes, everyone's dead. Ha ha ha.
But even here, you'll notice even here, the apocalyptic thriller where it just goes off the map and never to be seen again, Hollywood will definitely not produce that. You can't even write that one. You have to give them a little bit of hope, even you're eating bugs, but you really have developed a taste for it or something like that. That's the way it's got to go.
So I'd make the argument again that there's these kinds of simple structures that a physicist would relate to and can understand. And it's pretty simple. So if you want to write a novel, just make sure you have an odd number of acts, unless you're a pessimist, and then you should write thrillers. And that's it. Done.
KATHIE HODGE: Easy. So all of you who are writing novels, there you go.
PAUL MCEUEN: It's all done.
KATHIE HODGE: Just whip it off later tonight. But don't you think this is getting kind of professorish?
PAUL MCEUEN: Yes.
KATHIE HODGE: It's a little out of control here. I feel like I should give a PowerPoint presentation now myself. So maybe we can put the stop on that a little bit, and make him do some actual work now. So what I thought I'd do is ask him to read a part of the book.
PAUL MCEUEN: Yeah. So this is the part that scares the you-know-what out of me. In fact, I fought against reading this part of the book, but I lost. And I should warn you, the early part of this is scripted, but now it's going to start to go off the rails pretty quickly, starting with this reading.
So maybe I should start by saying just a word or two about the book itself. It's a thriller. It's meant to be fun and exciting.
And it's the story-- it's mostly set here in and around Cornell. And it's the story of a professor of-- and to be clear about this-- applied physics, very different than physics. Different dean. I mean, it's completely different.
An applied physics professor who is actually very good friends with a Nobel Prize-winning fungal biologist, 86-year-old Liam Connor. That's not Kathie, by the way. That's not the Kathie character.
So Liam is this wonderful, old man who is brilliant, and humble, and everyone loves, and is funny. And if you're that sort of character in a book, and you're not the protagonist, you better watch out. Things may go bad for you very quickly.
And in fact, that's what we're going to talk about, is that opening bad bit. And so I'm going to read to you a couple of pages from near the beginning of the book with our friend Liam Connor in the starring role. And it starts with him being, well, we'll call it asleep.
One second. My mouth is dry.
"Tink, tink, tink. When Liam Connor came to, the sound was the first thing that broke through. Tink, tink, tink. He was confused, unstuck in time, flashes coming quick and disjointed.
He was 12, walking the green hills of Sligo, hunting new species of fungi. He was 22, on a warship in the Pacific, contemplating a small, brass cylinder in his hand. He was 31, in their first house in Ithaca, watching his wife crawl out of bed completely naked.
He was 59, the King of Sweden hanging a medal around his neck. He was 77, seeing his great-grandson for the first time, Dylan's little beet-red face scrunched and screaming. Tink, tink, tink.
After a moment, he settled down, becoming his current self. He was an old, old man, an Irish gnome, 86, Emeritus Professor of Biology at Cornell University. He tried to move, but everything was wrong.
He couldn't lift his arms. He couldn't open his mouth. He had the sense he was upright, but he couldn't be sure. His vision was blurry, smudges in black. He couldn't see anything save for a faint glow coming from behind him. It was a mix of yellow, green, and red, each color ebbing and strengthening to its own rhythm.
Tink, tink, tink. The sound was familiar. He knew that sound. What the hell was it?
He tried to remember what had happened. He'd been in his lab. He was sure of that, tending to the gardens of decay, the gardens. He was fiddling in the gardens, then, then, then nothing-- a blank spot in his memory. Was it still that same night, still Monday?
He couldn't move his head. He was upright, but he couldn't move. Someone had struck him. He remembered that now. He could still feel the blow.
He heard another sound, a rush of air, slight, gentle, silence, then again. Breathing, he was sure of it. Somebody was sitting right behind him in the darkness, very close. Tink, tink, tink.
He tried to open his mouth to speak but he couldn't move. His mouth wouldn't open. Something was wrong with his tongue. It was trapped against the bottom of his mouth.
He studied his surroundings, fighting a pain like a knife blade between his eyes. He was in a huge room in the shape of a half cylinder, the concrete roof 20 feet overhead curved in a smooth semicircle to the floor. He faced the back end of the cylinder, the flat, stained concrete wall no more than 10 feet from his face.
Liam realized where he was-- an old munitions bunker on the abandoned Seneca Army Depot site, completely isolated from the rest of the world. Liam had spent months at the depot over the past four years, secretly toiling over his last great and highly secret project. A woman stepped in front of him, her face illuminated by the dim, pulsing glow coming from behind.
He recognized her immediately as the woman who had been following him. He recognized her immediately as the woman that had been following him. She was Asian, Chinese, he was nearly certain, somewhere between 20 and 30, wearing small, round glasses. She leaned forward, her face no more than 12 inches from his, features illuminated by an ever-changing mix of yellow, green, and red light.
She was pretty, made more so by the flaws of two thin, perfectly symmetric scars that ran along her cheekbones. She were all black down to the gloves on her hands. She flicked on a photographer's light mounted on a stand behind her.
He blinked against the sudden brightness, waited for the blotches of white to settle down into shape and color. He tried to speak, but he couldn't open his mouth. He felt as though his head were in a vise.
She said, 'I came for the uzumaki.' Tink, tink, tink. The sound-- he knew this sound. He looked down. A glass Petri dish sat in her lap.
Four sparkling objects were in the center of the dish, scurrying about, each no larger than a dime-- micro crawlers. They skittered around in the Petri dish with terrifying speed, colliding with the walls. Tink, tink, tink. Their legs were segmented, etched silicon, sharp as razor blades.
He closed his eyes, but he could still hear the tink sound of silicon against glass. She said, "I've taken this place apart. Where is it?" He forced himself to focus.
He hadn't seen the gun.
If he could get loose, he'd have a chance. He was a small man and possibly old, but he was still quick, and he could be brutally vicious when he needed to be. Tink, tink, tink.
She reached toward him, and touched a spot on his headgear-- a whirring sound. The headgear pried open his jaw with a mechanical precision, rigid like the door of a safe. The air was cold on the back of his throat.
She lifted her right hand and closed her fingers into a fist. The crawlers stopped their incessant scurrying in the glass dish. The sudden silence was jarring. Somehow, she controlled the crawlers with her gloved hand.
She picked up one of the crawlers with a pair of tweezers. She placed the little robotic creature deep inside of his mouth, on the back of his tongue. He had to fight not to panic, not to gag.
The, legs were like tiny scalpels cutting into the tissue with even the slightest movement. He could taste droplets of blood rising on the back of his tongue. She touched another button, and the piezomotors buzzed, closing his mouth for him, clamping his teeth together with an audible tock.
She placed a hand on his mouth, sealing his lips. With two delicate fingers, she reached out, and pinched his nose closed. Swallow it, she said."
OK, that's it.
KATHIE HODGE: Well, I think that sets the tone for having menace that builds through the whole book. Are you feeling a little freaked out right now? Yeah, well, I am. And that's how I've been feeling ever since I met this man. OK.
So what I was kind of hoping to do was, now that you've introduced the book and set the scary tone, we talk a little bit of how the book progresses.
PAUL MCEUEN: From there.
KATHIE HODGE: From there, yeah. Bad stuff happens and then--
PAUL MCEUEN: I remind you, that was just that little-- that's that step there. Things are going to get much, much worse as things go on.
KATHIE HODGE: For those of you haven't read the book, then, let's just talk about it.
PAUL MCEUEN: So really, I'm not going to give you a blow by blow. I'll just tell you what's really fun about the process as a writer is that once you've got the story going, then your job, for example, if you're here at Cornell, is to wander around Cornell and find really cool places, and I plan on how people could die in horrible ways in those places. So though the one that I just told you about happened in a bunker just like this.
How many of you have ever been out to the Seneca Army Depot? It's a really, really, really creepy place. And from the air, it's just-- there are miles and miles of these bunkers separated by a few hundred feet, each one on the inside, looks something like you've seen here.
And so Liam was strapped to a chair inside of one of these things when the torturing is going on. It's a really creepy place. One of the great things about being a novelist is you can, even if you're just a pretend novelist-- meaning you still haven't published anything-- you can call up people and say, hey, can I get into the Seneca Army Depot? And will you show me around?
And it's amazing. You say, I'm a novelist. I want to see in your secret facility, and they let you write in. Apparently, this one reporter who was also a novelist, he said he could go up to someone and say, I'm a reporter, to the King's guard, and the King would say, get out of my face.
And then he would come back and say, I'm a novelist. And they would say, well, come over here. Let me tell you how, if you wanted to kill the King, this is how you would do it. So if you're a reporter, just claim you're a novelist.
The other interesting thing about this site is the white deer, which I think you all know about, which is no weird genetic anomaly. It's just that the soldiers thought it would be fun to shoot everything that wasn't white. And after a while that's what you end up with. It's always of war.
Then you wander around campus looking for other things to kill or blow up. And in fact, in an early version of the book, I blew up the Cornell Metal Fabrication Facility, which everyone seemed to be very happy about, for reasons I don't fully understand. Also, this is another little factoid, when I started writing the book, that building was not finished.
That's how long the process takes. And I had things on the wrong floors and what have you. But the process has been going on for me for about seven or eight years now. And certainly, PSB was not there.
I should warn you that some of-- one-- a scene or two in the book happens in this very room, so something bad could happen at any moment. Of direct relevance to Kathie is that one of the bad scenes were not such good things happen happens at the Cornell Plant Pathology Herbarium you see some pictures of here, which is directed by none other than Kathie Hodge. And I'll remind you that we still have all those big dips coming. So if I were Kathie, I would be worried.
KATHIE HODGE: I can't believe I ever even let you in there.
PAUL MCEUEN: It's really also isolated. The other thing is you don't want to be in an isolated place. And this, if you haven't ever been there, it's pulled back from the edges of campus.
KATHIE HODGE: But don't get any ideas. All right, I have to say that's one of the things that really surprised me, when I got to read a draft of the book. And I thought it would be set at Harvell or Stannell or Corford.
But here it was. It's right in our places, and in some cases in my own facilities-- really kind of freaked me out. Which just goes back to what I said earlier-- ever since I met him, he's been freaking me out. And the last time was actually just about a week ago when I went down to Barnes Noble to pick up my copy of his book, which they were holding for me there. And somehow, he had already been there and signed it to me. So I'm afraid this might be the climax of some long plan of his, and he's going to kill me at the end of this time.
PAUL MCEUEN: This would be a good way to do it, right? Right here.
KATHIE HODGE: Bye.
PAUL MCEUEN: A book within a book.
KATHIE HODGE: OK, so we don't want to give any spoilers for the book, right? No, no spoilers today. But we do want to talk about some more stuff.
And in particular, I think people might be curious about you, because you've successfully avoided, so far, all personal questions.
PAUL MCEUEN: Yes, that is my job.
KATHIE HODGE: So now you must tell me, what-- why-- how did you end up writing a book?
PAUL MCEUEN: Writing a book, right, right, so why me? It's a really good question. I thought that what had happened was that I got to 40, and I had a midlife crisis.
And it was buy a sports car, become a dean, or write a novel. And of the three, it seemed that the novel was the least of all issues. And I thought it was a relatively new idea for me.
And then I ran into one of my post-docs a couple of years into this process, and I said-- who had since gone on to other places-- and I said, yeah, I'm writing a novel. And I got this idea, and I wanted to write a novel. And he didn't look surprised, which I thought he would.
And I was, like, why aren't you surprised? And he said, well, that was all you ever talked about, was writing a novel. So apparently I've wanted to do this for a long time.
In fact, my mother-- I got a call from the Daily Oklahoman, which is my local paper back home, and the reporter says, we want to talk to you about the book. And your mom told us that when you were 12 years old, you wrote an apocalyptic poem that went on for pages and pages about the end of the world. And so apparently, even when I was 12 years old, I was hung up on ways in which the world could go down. And in the intervening 30 years, I've evolved tremendously, as you can see.
But I would say that that poem that I wrote when I was a kid, it went clean off the page, never to come back again. So everyone died in the end of that one. So I feel better, because I'll let you in on one secret-- everyone doesn't die. At least one person survives in the current book.
KATHIE HODGE: All right, so I also want to know a little bit about your research.
PAUL MCEUEN: OK.
KATHIE HODGE: Because you're like this not-an-applied physicist guy, but a physicist guy who works on something. And I'd like you to maybe talk a little bit about some of your stuff.
PAUL MCEUEN: Stuff?
KATHIE HODGE: This is nonfiction.
PAUL MCEUEN: Nonfiction, at least it's supposed to be, right. So I have a few view graphs prepared for that. So the kinds of things that I work on in my group are these nanoscale forms of carbon, like these graphene sheets that you see there, or carbon nanotubes, little tubes of carbon like this, that are really just a few atoms across. They're incredibly tiny structures.
And we do all kinds of fun and exciting things with them, like make them into tiny electric guitars. So I'll mention that. We make them into the world's smallest, and perhaps least useful, solar cells.
That's why we're in physics and not in applied physics. And we make them into-- we've made the world's smallest drum. Apparently, the two things I'm really interested in are ending the world and very, very small musical instruments.
KATHIE HODGE: I was going to ask you, how big are these things? KATHIE HODGE:
PAUL MCEUEN: How big are-- well isn't it obvious that that--
KATHIE HODGE: It's huge. So easy.
PAUL MCEUEN: It's a really good question to try to get-- to wrap your head around a sense of scale here. And I'll say it in the following way-- so this is a blown-up version of a nanotube. We would have to shrink it down about a billion times to get something that was of the scale of an actual nanotube, about a billion times.
So that maps-- that was a theorist's trick of mapping one unsolved problem onto another unsolved problem. What does it feel like to shrink something a billion times? Well, let's say that you took the planet-- that's a big thing, the entire planet-- and you shrunk it a billion times.
It would be a little bit smaller than a pistachio nut. So basically, the planet to the pistachio nut that is the same as the model of the nanotube to the nanotube. So it's really-- I mean, things are extraordinarily small in which we work on, far beyond your ability to see, for example.
KATHIE HODGE: It makes me really just wonder how the planet would taste if we shrink it.
PAUL MCEUEN: Well, you can find out after our show.
KATHIE HODGE: I'm afraid it might expand a billion times.
PAUL MCEUEN: OK, that's a good point. That would be cool, wouldn't it? That'd be a great way to-- so then it becomes the--
KATHIE HODGE: That could be, yeah, that's the next book.
PAUL MCEUEN: Yeah, that's good. Can someone take notes? My age, my brain is not what it used to be. Go ahead.
KATHIE HODGE: OK, so this is what you do, this little tiny stuff. And then you wrote a book that doesn't involve little tiny stuff so much. And I want to first ask you, do you use the same muscles in thinking about can you design the world's tiniest balloon as you do when you're writing a novel?
PAUL MCEUEN: The same muscles.
KATHIE HODGE: Yeah, you know, the brain muscles.
PAUL MCEUEN: Are there muscles in-- wait, do we have a neurologist?
KATHIE HODGE: My brain has muscles.
PAUL MCEUEN: I don't think there's--
KATHIE HODGE: I'm a mycologist.
PAUL MCEUEN: It's much more than you might have expected, I think, is the answer. You'd think these would be completely different enterprises, but they're similar in more ways than you might imagine. With a novel, you have some small idea, and you try to grow it into a bigger idea, and see if it really makes sense.
And the same thing happens when you're doing experimental physics. You get an idea-- or theoretical physics-- you get an idea, and you try to see if it makes sense. And you glom stuff onto it, and see if it fits together, and whether it fits inside of a larger whole.
And more often than not, your idea is bad. It's flawed. It's stupid. So you throw it away, and you start with another one, and you build it all up again.
And I think the main thing that the muscle that you get best at doing experimental or theoretical science that maps on to writing is persistence. We're used to failing, and failing a lot, and again, and again, and again, and only succeeding once in a blue moon. I mean, how many of you science people out there have had-- believe me when I say what I just said?
The only thing I ever say to my students is, science is hard. It's really, really hard. And by that standard, novel writing isn't so bad. I mean, takes you seven years, but that's not too bad.
KATHIE HODGE: Seven years.
PAUL MCEUEN: Seven years.
KATHIE HODGE: How many drafts?
PAUL MCEUEN: Something like-- you know, that's an ill-defined question, but roughly speaking, 15, meaning 15 serious drafts. They say you have to write about a million words before you're ready to go. And a million words is something on the order of 10 books. So you can write 10 different books, or I just wrote the same book 10 times, over and over again
KATHIE HODGE: So I know now you're working on a next book. Do you have to start from zero now, or can you count the words you've written?
PAUL MCEUEN: One hopes that you don't have to write another million. But it is more like biology than it is like physics, from what I hear, meaning each book is its own problem. And a lot of the things that you learned in one may not carry over to the other. But I the one thing I did learn was that an outline will speed things up tremendously.
But I learned that, but I think it may destroy my creative process. So therefore, Susan, I don't think I'm going to outline this time. My wife will kill me if I don't outline this time.
KATHIE HODGE: Well, it sounds also like-- to me like it sounds fun in the same way that being an academic is fun, in that you get to think, OK I'm going to learn this whole new thing. Because you didn't know about fungi or a lot of the other topics in your book were fairly new to you, right? So that to me sounds like academic fun.
PAUL MCEUEN: It really is. And I mean, one of the reasons I-- one of the things I really enjoyed-- and I didn't want to write about nano stuff for two reasons. One, I couldn't figure out how to kill you with a carbon nanotubes. They were too small, although smothering with graphene is the thing I'm working on now, whether that's possible. Just saying.
But it's more fun to learn about something you don't know. So I wanted to learn some biology. And for some strange reason, I landed on fungal biology.
And I think basically because I like the idea of going out into the forest and seeing cool stuff on trees. And the deep, dark secret is probably most of what I was seeing was moss and I thought it was fungi. And you've never actually said that, but I know you know it's true.
KATHIE HODGE: I know a course you could take.
PAUL MCEUEN: Oh, really? I'm more of a self-taught kind of guy.
KATHIE HODGE: So I have one more question for you about the very small.
PAUL MCEUEN: Yes.
KATHIE HODGE: And I want to say when you first came and met me, and I asked you what you work on, you said you worked on things that were very, very small, which was really interesting. Because that's always what I said before I met him. Because I work on tiny, tiny molds, which seemed small to me before the pistachio. So how do you look at these teeny, tiny things?
PAUL MCEUEN: There are tools and this isn't all science fiction. This is a cartoon, but there are ways, there's tools that we have at our disposal that let us look at small things. And just show you cool pictures, this is actually a picture of a monolayer of graphene one of these-- imagine taking this chicken-wire structure, and rolling it, forming a one-atom thick sheet.
Turns out it's polycrystalline, meaning it's like a bunch of little pieces of graphene stuck together at the boundary, so each color you see is a different little patch. We have microscopes that allow us to look at that, and even zoom in, and look at individual atoms. So each of those little-- that chicken-wire pattern you see in the front image is individual atoms in that system.
This is a picture taken with a microscope by the group, David Muller's group here, in collaboration with both our group and with Jiwoong Park. And it's amazing. There's this world that is completely non-visible, nevertheless is visible in a certain way. We have ways of sticking our nose in there in a limited sense and doing stuff. So it's really fun. But again, it's hard to kill people with it. So there you go.
KATHIE HODGE: So far.
PAUL MCEUEN: So far.
KATHIE HODGE: So far.
PAUL MCEUEN: Limited only by my imagination.
KATHIE HODGE: OK, so let me change gears, then, and ask you a little bit about the stuff that is in your book. The micro crawler, will you talk a little bit about how you came up with that?
PAUL MCEUEN: There's nothing too brilliant there. It was just like, well, what's the coolest weird, little thing I can think of that's scary? And it was-- I wanted it to be something robotic-y because, like, nano stuff.
And so you start thinking spiders. And it turns out my wife has this horrible, horrible spider phobia. So naturally, what does a person write about, but little, tiny, robotic spiders?
She has a particular fear of falling asleep with her mouth open. And a spider-- OK, I think you get the idea. So it was really as simple as that-- something cool, and scary, and fun.
And I also thought that this was the next big revolution that was coming-- that scientifically and technologically, the computer revolution is in full swing. But we can't make little machines at the small scale with any near-- with anything like the kind of control that we can in the electronic route. So I think 10, 20 years from now, there will be a lot more things like these tiny crawlers. They're crawling around your house, and in your mouth, things like that.
And just to give you a sense of where the state of the art is now-- so this is the cartoon. This is a cartoon of a micro crawler. This is sort of the state of the art from a group at Harvard.
I'll show you a little. There's a coin, a penny so you can sort of see how big it is. And give the movie a second.
So they can walk around a little bit. They can't-- the ones in the book can actually go eat stuff, and fuel themselves that way. They can't do that. So fueling these little things is very hard.
They're still big. They don't last that long. But you can see that it's going. It's getting there. And when I started the book, for example, there was nothing even at this level. The best stuff was sort of like the things that your kids might have for a toy.
KATHIE HODGE: So I guess when you're reading a thriller, that's what really makes it effective is that it seems like right on the edge of real. Especially if you have arachnophobia, or something like that. But so in your book, we've got these micro crawlers, which Liam had to swallow in your reading, and we have a very scary fungus. And I guess I'm wondering, how far are we from the micro crawler of your book? What would it take?
PAUL MCEUEN: You know, I think that's an excellent question. And I think it would take-- if you're the NSF out there, it would take you know about $100 million of research at Cornell University. So write us a check, and we'll see what we can do.
It will probably mostly take 100 little or 1,000 little things. We need to get better at making everything. All the things that you know how to machine, and make little hinges for the legs, and all that stuff is really complicated and difficult now. So learning how to make all those little bits at that size scale, and having them work together in a coherent way is important.
And then powering them. How do you get energy to them? How do they feed is going to be critical. And it may be that you basically sprinkle some gin around, and they go drink that, and that's their fuel, and they run off, and go do stuff-- could be anything like that.
But really, I think more than anything else, at this point it just takes research, which means that it's going to-- it's probably going to happen. There are no laws that are going to prevent it. So barring economic collapse, you'll have ever better crawlers in your house in the near future.
KATHIE HODGE: And will they be evil?
PAUL MCEUEN: Evil, good-- you know, that's so hard to say. But I have to show one other picture along those lines. So I think this is a little bit evil.
This is my colleague, Itai Cohen. Another way to make micro robotics is you take living things, and you grab control of them. They glued a tiny, little magnet to this poor creature here. And then they can even make a robotic model of it, so that they can understand what it's doing.
So this is a picture of this poor, little fly flying along. And when they want it to turn, they can apply a magnetic field that twists that little bar on the back of the poor fly, and then it flies off in a different direction. And this kind of research is moving along apace here and in lots of other places. In fact, the military really likes this kind of stuff very much. So yeah, this stuff is clearly evil.
KATHIE HODGE: You don't often go there in academia. But I guess I should ask you about the fungus.
PAUL MCEUEN: Well, I should ask you about the fungus.
KATHIE HODGE: No, I have to ask you.
PAUL MCEUEN: The real bad thing is not technology, of course, but rather fungi. They're the real evil in the world, at least in this story. The bad thing is a terrible biological weapon left over from World War II that is, you guessed it, a fungus.
Because I don't know if you know it, but fungi are incredibly nasty, terrible things that kill millions of people all the time. They were responsible for the Salem witch trials, at least some people say. They drove, in the Middle Ages, millions of people crazy. They may be responsible for the French Revolution when the uppity peasants got crazy and attacked their rightful overlords.
KATHIE HODGE: And they eat my food all the time.
PAUL MCEUEN: And they eat your food all the time, yes, that's probably-- that's terrible, too. But I want to mention that there are cases-- so I let her speak to how dangerous things can be. But I also wanted to tell you about a little project that she undertook. This is a case of life imitating art-- art used loosely. There's this scene in the book where Maggie and her son Dylan use fungi to make cool patterns on things in the forest.
KATHIE HODGE: Which was your invention, but it's actually possible. I think you actually have a video there.
PAUL MCEUEN: Oh, that's right, it's me. So there it is there, but let me show you what it is. So this is-- why don't you speak over it? I'll just play the--
KATHIE HODGE: Well, this is one of the evil fungi of the world. This is Aspergillus flavus which makes mycotoxins. And you may have heard about, don't eat that peanut butter or you'll die-- that kind of fungus.
So this is it right here on a plate. And so we thought we'd make some fungus art with it. But this is inspired by Spiral, Paul's book. And I'm going to hang onto this plate. Don't like this.
But one thing I have to say, if I could just talk myself for a minute, is that fungi were always the bad guys, all the time. And it gets tiresome. And I have to admit that everything I've studied is like the most evil thing you can possibly imagine.
But still, the reason that I study them is that I think fungi are really cool and underappreciated. And one of the things Paul did really well in his book was, he's got the super bad guy fungus, but he's also got a lot of joy around fungi. So thank you on behalf of mycology.
PAUL MCEUEN: And the coolest characters, they re all fungus freaks. Yes.
KATHIE HODGE: How could you write it any other way?
PAUL MCEUEN: OK, so any other questions, oh smart one?
KATHIE HODGE: Who's in charge here? Any other questions, you're asking me? All right, well, I did want to congratulate you. I don't know if our audience knows here, but there is a screenplay, right? Being almost done.
PAUL MCEUEN: Almost done.
KATHIE HODGE: Based on your book, so which means there might well be a movie someday with these arch villains in it. And there's also another book coming. It's a two-book deal you got there. You want to say anything about the other book, or is that a secret?
PAUL MCEUEN: I'd tell you, but I'd have to kill.
KATHIE HODGE: You'd have to kill us all.
PAUL MCEUEN: That's right, which I may still do before the end of this presentation.
KATHIE HODGE: So I don't really have any other questions for you, except I just want to ask you, what impact has this had on you?
PAUL MCEUEN: How's this-- well, I had--
KATHIE HODGE: Is this a good midlife crisis?
PAUL MCEUEN: It has. It's really been a lot of fun. And I have to say, I think the funnest part of it all is to see a whole other world, and to meet a whole group of people that you wouldn't normally run across-- other writers, some of whom are seated in the audience here, people like the screenwriter who's working on the movie version. It's really fantastic to just get out of your box, and wander in to a completely different direction. I think that's been the most fun of it.
And the second thing is it also means that I have an excuse to hole up in a corner of my house for many hours a day, and sit all alone typing on my computer with no distractions, which is-- most scientists were introverts at heart. And I recaptured my inner introvert with this. So that makes me very happy, and excited.
And the last thing I wanted to do, to say, was to thank all the people that have been helpful. While it is a very solitary job, writing a novel, you actually get to interact with people that are a lot of fun and interesting. And Kathie has been fantastic every step of the way since I started stalking her, before she even knew who I was. And writers are vampires, they say. And she was one of my first victims, and so that was really great.
KATHIE HODGE: Well, mycologists are patient, and we wait for our revenge.
PAUL MCEUEN: There you go. Nina Shishkoff is a friend of Kathie who works at Fort Detrick. And this picture shows you be careful what you have on your Facebook page. That's all I'll say about that. She gave me technical help.
Larry Olsen is a wonderful guy, who was very helpful about aspects of submarines, which play in the early part of the book. My mom and dad and brother were phenomenal cheerleaders. There's my mom in a signing event in Oklahoma this last weekend, where we sold some ridiculous number of books to anyone named McEuen anywhere.
John Miner was an enormous help in putting on this event here. And really, the one I most want to think is my is my wife, Susan Wiser, who's really been a continuous supporter of this crazy adventure of mine, and even to the point where-- and this shocked me-- she had read 16 versions, and helped provide always thoughtful comments, and supportive in every way. And then finally, this book-- this was the one that actually showed up. I know it is, because our dog has already chewed off the tail end of it.
This one showed up. And this is the first actual book that we had in our hands, English version of the book. And it shows up.
And she grabs it, and opens it, and starts reading it. And she keeps reading it. And she wouldn't stop reading it.
That's her reading it on the trail of a month or so ago, until the whole thing was done. And she liked it again, even after all that. And if that's not true love, I don't know what is. So thank you. Thank you to Susan. And with that, I'll end.
KATHIE HODGE: And so we'd like to invite you all to stay and ask Paul hard-hitting, hard-nosed questions, especially ones about why all his characters are named after dogs. But also, you can purchase a copy of the book over here at the side. And as Saul mentioned, we're going to chain Paul to the desk outside and make him sign copies. But are there any questions for Paul? Anybody want to start? Yeah, Paul?
AUDIENCE: How much money do you make if the movie is a hit?
PAUL MCEUEN: How much money do I make if the movie is a hit? I'll be able to buy and sell you by the dozen. I'll just-- I'll just--
AUDIENCE: I was wondering if you'd get real money.
PAUL MCEUEN: Real money, no. I have no idea. The whole process is so crazy, it's best not to think about those kind of things.
But the writer, one thing you discover is the writer is certainly the low person on the totem pole in the Hollywood world. The writer-- if you've ever seen Barton Fink or a movie like that, it's writers venting their frustration at the whole system. The writers are definitely the peons.
AUDIENCE: An animated movie?
PAUL MCEUEN: Would it be an animated movie? That's a good question. I'll bring that up with the producers. No, at the moment it would be-- well, I mean, nothing is really human live action anymore. All of it's half CGI. But it would be a straight-up, a real person playing Kathie, for example. Yeah.
Who's pointing? Yeah.
AUDIENCE: So I can tell you that the staff at CNF were very disappointed that it didn't blow up anymore-- just the image. But I was curious-- I think in an interview I saw that you take-- that a change was made as a result of the book publisher's suggestion or editor's suggestion or something. How do they get into making such programmatic changes to the plot?
PAUL MCEUEN: So yes, so the question is, did the editors force changes upon you, or how does that process go? And the answer is, they make-- they read it, and certain things work for them, and certain things don't. And when the things don't, they flag that it doesn't. And they tell you what you should do to fix it.
You can ignore the second part of that. Their suggestion of how to fix it's probably wrong. But their suggestion that there's a problem is probably right.
And in this case, it turned out we needed to get to basically turn the eyes away from Cornell a little bit. And so I blew up a nano fabrication facility outside of Washington, DC. I also needed to scare the politicians, so that's what happened. It got moved out. So it's these kinds of decisions that get made with the help of the editorial staff.
I should mention that my editors were fantastic. And they would give-- it was just like I described-- they would give you suggestions about things that didn't work, but then it was up to you to sort of figure out how to fix it.
AUDIENCE: If, in writing fiction, you should happen to invent a new method of torturing people, what sort of moral compass is that? Do you character that? And is it different from inventing things in real science?
PAUL MCEUEN: It's a good question. I haven't ever thought of that one. Are there moral implications for inventing the horrible things in fiction? And are there moral implications for inventing horrible things in science? That's a pretty-- that's actually pretty deep.
The second half of that, I think there are standard scientific answers now, where just-- that science is neither good nor bad. You can do with it what you want. And I think to a first approximation, that is the correct answer.
In terms of fiction, I think of fiction as it's teaching you what to do when things go bad. So I view it as if somebody is torturing you with crawlers, and you have to keep a secret, I've shown you how to do that. So it's sort of like worst-case scenario. That's why people like to read thrillers. So I think I'm actually doing a moral service is what I'm saying.
AUDIENCE: What was the role of the dog in this process?
PAUL MCEUEN: Thank you for asking about the dogs. You've noticed a couple of things scrolling through here. On occasion, there's been a sign for Cayuga Dog Rescue. My wife, Susan Wiser, when she's not a psychologist, runs a dog rescue organization that has saved something like 350, 400 dogs in this area since they got started. So I would first say, a round of applause for Cayuga Dog Rescue.
It turns out that when you run a dog rescue, some dogs are not adoptable. Guess where those dogs end up? They end up in your house.
We have five at the moment. And all the-- not all, most of the characters in the book are named after various ones of our dogs. And the one you saw on the screen earlier, the really cute, little one, that's Turtle. And Turtle is still one of our dogs, and in fact, in the book, is actually a dog, strangely enough.
AUDIENCE: So what did you learn about writing? I mean, you're already a great technical writer, scientific writer. What did you learn about writing through this process?
PAUL MCEUEN: So what did I learn about writing? Technical writing and this kind of writing are more similar than you might think. Good technical writing has a story. A paper has, usually, a story line that you're trying to tell.
And there are various little-- maybe I even have them, see if I do. Yeah, there's like little sayings that you can steal from books on film-making that also work for writing papers. We'll just substitute.
Papers are not written. They're rewritten, rewritten, and rewritten. Students of mine, do you agree that this is true?
That's right. It's all about the rewrite. And you should show and then tell, which means you should present the data first, and then interpret it after you presented the data. It's very important. And et cetera. Then my favorite-- never in a paper have any flashbacks, dream sequences, or visions.
But I think it's made me a better scientific writer. And I think understanding the basic structure of storytelling is very important. And in fact, my poor students now, when they give their talks or their papers, I'll be, what's your story line? What's your dramatic arc that you're telling me?
AUDIENCE: Did you write a thriller because you like to read thrillers? And if your tastes are broader than that, can we look for a mystery or an adventure story or a, god forbid, a romance?
PAUL MCEUEN: That's a great question. The question is, did I write thrillers because I like thrillers or because that's all I was capable of writing? So I do really like reading thrillers. I enjoy them very much.
And you can sneak all that other stuff in around the edges. And I have to say, one of the big breakthroughs for me in deciding to actually try to write a novel was I had it in my head that I had to write the great American novel. I had to write a piece of serious fiction.
And that was just so overwhelming that I couldn't go there. And then I read a Michael Crichton book. And it was one of his later ones, which wasn't one of his best ones.
And I said, I could-- his early ones were fantastic, but not so much all the later ones. And I read one of those. And I said, I could write one of those. I could do that.
And so that was what got me over the hurdle. And then I could use what I do in my day job, everything I knew about science, to execute a thriller. So it made sense that I would be writing thrillers, and so that got me over the hump.
Would I ever write a mystery? Something about my brain likes thrillers and not mysteries so much. I don't-- I can't explain that. Most of you may not even know the difference between a thriller and a mystery. But roughly speaking, in a thriller, you know more than the character in the book, and in a mystery, the character in the book knows more than you do.
So I like the thriller part. I think I like manipulating people and doing horrible things to them is what it boils down to. A romance-- you don't want me writing a romance, no.
KATHIE HODGE: I'd like to do a couple more. In the back up there.
AUDIENCE: So did you use up Ithaca as a source for location, or will we see more [INAUDIBLE]?
PAUL MCEUEN: It's a great question-- did I use up Ithaca as a source, as a location? For the second one, I think at the moment-- I mean, I'm not completely sure about this-- but I'm pretty sure it will be at another major university. I kind of got this idea of hopping around from university to university, with one book in each.
But something in my soul wants to come back to Ithaca and do it again, And set-- I think there's plenty more of sites that I could use, and things that I can do. But thrillers are, by their nature, very grand and once-in-a-lifetime kinds of books. And to keep having grand, once-in-a-lifetime kind of things happen to people in the Cornell Physics Department seems like a bit of a stretch.
KATHIE HODGE: One last question at the very, very back.
AUDIENCE: Michael Crichton has a novel called Prey, which is about microbots. Are your micro crawlers inspired by those?
PAUL MCEUEN: The question is, was I inspired by Michael Crichton's Prey, the book. And the answer is yes, I was inspired. I read that book, and then that was when I started writing thrillers, was right after reading that book.
Because he had written something on nano. And I said, OK, now he's walked into my territory. I can move into his. And so that was the thing that started.
He went infinitely further with the technology. They were forming into people by the end of his book, which I just found to be too much for me. So it was too science fiction for me.
By the way, the difference between science fiction and a thriller, roughly speaking, is a thriller is more about the excitement and less about the science, and the science is usually just a little bit beyond where we are now, whereas in science fiction, it's usually quite a bit beyond where we are now. And so the creation of that scientific world is a key part of the story.
KATHIE HODGE: Well, on that note, I want to thank you all for coming. And I want to ask you to help me congratulate Paul on his great reviews for a great book.
PAUL MCEUEN: Kathie, thank you, Kathie.
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Physics professor Paul McEuen shared his process of writing his debut novel, "Spiral", in Schwartz Auditorium April 6. The techno-thriller, set on Cornell's Ithaca campus, is about a fungal organism that's the key to a terrible biological weapon dating back to World War II.
McEuen read a brief excerpt from his book and discussed the project on stage with mycologist Kathie Hodge, who worked extensively with him on the fungous details for "Spiral."