Chapter no 27

Quantum Radio

In a small apartment in Oxford, England, Nora Brown stirred a cup of tea as she turned the page of a psychology textbook. Steam rose from the mug and drifted out the open window, over the hedgerows and past the old stone buildings like an apparition released into the night.

Nora reached out and pulled the Post-it pad closer. She jotted a note, then pulled off the yellow sticky and attached it to the page. The book was an advance copy of a colleague’s latest work, which she had readily agreed to read and provide feedback on.

When she had made the commitment, Nora had expected a digital file delivered to her email. Instead, a courier had dropped the book off at her cramped office with a note from the professor’s assistant, requesting that all feedback be in written form, which the aging scientist had become accustomed to over the past forty years.

If Nora had learned anything during her years at Oxford, it was that seniority conferred privilege and accommodation. And also, that new ideas were treasured as much as the old ways. To her, it was part of the charm of the place.

Her research in experimental psychology had initially brought her to Oxford. The facilities were world-class. Researchers were well supported, but she had stayed for one reason—the people. People who could challenge her ideas and make them better, people like her, who were on the cutting edge of psychology, people who were making discoveries that would change the world.

Her years at Oxford had been painful at times, but in her opinion, pain was often the price of growth. To her, it was worth it.

She had also come to Oxford not for what she could receive but for what she could give. Besides the research she had spent her life working on, her

relationship with her students was her other great love. She hoped that she would be teaching at the storied university for as long as she was able.

In her idealized world, she imagined herself as a professor not unlike the older woman who had authored the textbook she was now reading— accomplished, hardworking, and perhaps a little bit quirky in her old age. Always open to new ideas in the field, but in some fashion, set in her ways. She certainly felt herself drifting in that direction, becoming inflexible to outside influence—including her mother’s gentle prodding about why she wasn’t dating anyone and if she ever saw herself moving back to DC and having children of her own.

At age thirty-five, Nora had to concede her mother’s point: time was slipping away for her to have children—at least, without a surrogate and freezing her eggs. But she wasn’t sure she wanted that. She had spent her twenties in graduate school and doing research, and now, in her mid-thirties, she had achieved much of what she had sought professionally: she was a teacher at a prestigious university, and she was working on a book that she believed would define her life’s work. Those things were important to her too. But she knew she would have to make some big decisions about her life soon.

Behind her, the microwave beeped. She stood and retrieved the soup and blew on it as she turned another page, watching the steam from the bowl mingle with the wisps from the tea like a supernatural dance of ghosts, curling and dissolving in the yellow glow of the streetlamp through the window.

Twenty pages and five Post-it notes later, she closed the book, set the empty mug and soup bowl in the sink, and slung her backpack over her shoulder. Within ten minutes, she had arrived at her destination—an old stone building with limestone lintels and an oriel window over the entrance. It was typical Oxford architecture (another thing she loved about this place).

Next to the bike rack, two large tents loomed in the night. A banner with big block letters stretched across them with a message that said 24 HOURS TO CURE CANCER. Below hung a smaller sign that read A COLLABORATION BETWEEN THE CENTRE FOR HUMAN GENETICS

AND CRUK. Nora recognized the acronym for Cancer Research UK, whose research she had tried to support as much as she could.

Under the tents, there were two long tables where half a dozen college-age students were working, calling out to passers-by, collecting samples, and typing away at their laptops.

A young man waved to Nora. “Excuse me! Could we get a sample, please? No blood required. Just a swab!”

She checked her watch. She was about twenty minutes early for her talk, and the volunteers seemed to be moving the line along pretty quickly. She shrugged. “Sure, why not.”

Soon, Nora was standing with her mouth open, watching a girl with strawberry hair reach in with a long swab, collecting cells from the inside of her cheek.

Beside her, a young man was typing at a laptop. He spoke without looking up, his accent faintly Canadian. “Just need your ID.”

Nora handed him her Bod card, and he swiped it, then glanced quickly to make sure what popped up on his screen matched the card.

“MD and a PhD, eh?”

“Couldn’t settle on one,” Nora said.

“And how many times have you said that joke?” “Too many,” Nora said, laughing.

“You’re all set, ma’am. Or should I say, doctor-doctor.” “You shouldn’t say.”

He laughed then. “Thanks for helping us cure cancer. Have a good night.”

Inside, Nora made her way to the lecture hall, plugged her laptop in at the podium, and pulled up her slides. As the room started to fill, she could feel the nerves building in her stomach. Luckily, she had a technique to deal with it, one she had learned in high school from the mother of a childhood friend.

Nora had grown up in the Georgetown area of Washington, DC, and her next-door neighbor had been the same age as her, a brilliant boy who was almost always lost in thought and quick with a joke, though usually corny. His smile never failed to melt her heart. Growing up, he was her best friend and first kiss and, though she tried with all her might to resist, her childhood crush.

But it was his mother who had perhaps exerted the most influence on Nora. She was an evolutionary biologist and was one of Nora’s heroes growing up. Helen Klein was, quite possibly, just a little bit, part of the

reason Nora had pursued a career in science. Even today, she still remembered Helen’s words on public speaking, how she’d explained the fear most everyone felt as a simple function of evolutionary biology, how kindness quieted the mind and suppressed the body’s natural fight-or-flight instinct. The technique wasn’t hard for Nora—kindness was a sort of true north for her.

As the rows of the auditorium filled, she focused on that sense of kindness, on the knowledge that she was here to help people, to share ideas that could make them better, ideas that would help them see and understand their world. Because that was exactly what she was about to reveal.

She stepped to the lectern and spoke into the microphone. “I’d like to start with a simple question. I would wager that it is not the question you’re expecting—not the question that has ever been asked in the hallowed halls of this institution, where ideas big and small have been taught for almost a thousand years.”

Nora watched as the audience looked up from their laptops and mobile phones. She had them now.

“The question is, when you buy a major appliance, what always accompanies it?”

She smiled. Some in the audience laughed. A few frowned. Across the lecture hall, she saw confusion, curiosity, and most of all, what she wanted: undivided attention.

At the back of the room, the don of St John’s College leaned against the wall, arms folded, wearing a tweed jacket, a wry smile forming on his lips.

Nora lifted her arms. “Anyone? What always comes with a refrigerator or a dishwasher—or if we should be so lucky in this quaint ancient little village we all love so much—a washer and dryer? Guesses? Anyone?”

“Headaches!” someone shouted from the back to a few snickers. “Payments,” a young woman muttered from the second row.

Nora smiled. “Yes, maybe it comes with headaches and payments. But that’s not what this is about. And trust me, study hard and have faith and know that the poverty of your student years will lift.” She cocked her head. “Well, at some point.”

Nora paced away from the lectern. “So, what comes with any appliance?

A microwave. Even a new mobile phone or TV.” “Delivery!” a student shouted.

“Not always,” Nora replied gently. “What’s in the box? It’s always in the box.”

From the front row, one of her students supplied the answer she was looking for. “A manual.”

Nora pointed at the woman. “Correct. An instruction manual. Granted, we don’t always need it. And at the risk of raising the ire of the university’s gender sensitivity group, I daresay some of the males in the audience would admit to actively resisting reading any provided manual—even in an hour of extreme need.”

Laughter rippled across the audience like a wave at a baseball game.

Nora held a finger in the air. “The EP department has experimental data to support that supposition, by the way.” That revived the laughter a second longer.

“So, every major appliance comes with an instruction manual. It explains how to use the device, how to care for it, and even how to do repairs. And where to get help.”

Nora clicked to the next slide.

“The thing that’s strange to me is that while our refrigerator or microwave or mobile phone might have a big impact on our daily lives, it is, to put it simply, our own minds that have a far greater impact on how we perceive the world around us, how happy we are, and how much success we find in life. And yet, we are never given any sort of instruction manual for our own minds.” Nora nodded. “Granted, we are given pieces—random bits of advice and clues that reveal how our mind works and how the world around us impacts our thinking. When it comes to our own minds, we are given an instruction manual of sorts, with pages missing and out of order, and written in a language we don’t understand.”

She moved back to the lectern and clicked to the next slide. “I have made it my life’s work to change that. And that work is what I want to talk about tonight. An instruction manual for the mind. A book that shows us how to use our minds to find greater happiness and success. We all deserve that. Indeed, I believe that success and happiness are the birthright of every human being. And that’s exactly what I’ve entitled this instruction manual for the mind: The Birthright. If I’m right, it has the potential to improve human life for everyone on Earth. And everyone in the future.”

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