BEEP, BEEP, BEEP. This was always the worst time of day, Tim thought, watching his newly acquired walking alarm clock travel around the room. Even if he was dreaming of an evil alien chasing him, he might not feel good about waking up to hunt that walking thing. It would have been great if he could just have stayed in school for his whole life. Then, he could sleep through alarms, miss some class during the day and just deal with it by working late into the night. A few all-nighters never hurt anybody, did they?
After a few impressive yawns, he got up and turned off the alarm. Then, he checked his phone and saw a text from Jennifer, “You awake, Kumbhakarna?” Jennifer and him were both materials science graduate students, but, on a whim, they had decided to audit a religion class. As they had both expected, Jennifer always went to that class even though she didn’t have to, and Tim almost never went. It was no mystery how she had learned that strange word, he thought, and he quickly punched in the letters from Jennifer’s text into the Google search bar on his phone. Smiling, he read that Kumbhakarna was a mythological giant from the Hindu epic The Mahabharata who only woke up after a thousand elephants walked over him. Before stepping in the shower, he texted Jennifer back: “Good morning to you too. Glad you’ve been going to class. See you in 30 minutes.”
Jennifer knew that Tim needed all the jokes he could get that morning, and Tim appreciated that. However, no amount of jokes could block their upcoming job interviews from his thoughts. He stared at his closet thinking about what clothes to pick out. First, undershirt or no undershirt? Unsure who he was kidding with that question, he put an undershirt. Ever since he was a child, important situations made him turn into one of those Roman states in Caesar’s Palace that sprouted water from everywhere. He tried to avoid as many of those kinds of situations as possible, but interviews were inescapable. Even the thought of speaking when so much was on the line was making his muscles tense up, and he remembered Jennifer’s other advice to him: “Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out.”
Soon, he walked out of his dorm room and went down the building stairs, where Jennifer was there. “You look great! And I really mean it. Let’s go!” she said. People who really think something don’t have to say ‘I really meant it,’ Tim thought, while walking. He had not even reached the interview location when the spout started, and small beads of sweat dripped down the back of his neck. Slowly, his shaking hand pulled a handkerchief out of his pocked and wiped the beads away. Jennifer navigated them through the streets of Boston, and she soon let him know that they had reached.
“Tim, I know you’re nervous, so I’m going to go first and then come out with smile on my face. Then you’ll know everything is fine. Dr. Brown is a legend, and nobody does better research in this area than the two of us. We know that, and so does he. This must just be a formality.”
“Okay Jen, I’ll look for your smile on the way out!”
After 30 minutes, Jennifer came out, and she never looked his way. She simply stared at the ground in deep thought, as if rationalizing a profound decision. Well, he thought, there was no turning back now. He gulped, opened the door, and walked in. Dr. Brown was definitely not there. He had expected a bearded old professor who did not care for pleasantries, but the man on the other side of the table was in his mid 30s, clean-shaven, smiling, and had a finely put together outfit. “Hi Tim, I’m Frank,” he said. Tim’s fifth grade history teacher had told him that you can learn quite a bit from a handshake, and this one was a tour-de-force. It was strong and firm without being bone crushing, and it communicated to the other person that they mattered. Most of all, Tim recognized that this man, Frank, had practiced his handshakes quite a bit.
“You must be wondering where Dr. Brown is, and I’m sorry to disappoint you with my presence instead of his. I am the head of the research lab that Dr. Brown is a part of. Unlike most people in the lab, I am not a scientist. I manage our relationship with our company’s customers, who are excited about the research you would be doing as a part of Dr. Brown’s team. Do you have any questions about my role before we get started?”
“Yes, I have to ask just one question,” said Tim. “You’re closer to my age than the age of most of the scientists who work for you. Do the scientists mind?”
Frank leaned back slightly in his chair and smiled for a few seconds without talking. Then, he leaned forward and said, “Since we only have limited time, I will not give you the whole story. However, what you should know is that I’m good at my job. I will make sure your team’s funding sources remain strong and that my superiors have seen my track record of execution. Shall we proceed?”
Tim nodded his head, and Frank started asking him some standard questions. First, they discussed Tim’s interest in quantum computing and how it developed. Next, he had Tim break down the core parts of how a quantum computer would work, including how qubits are different than bits, how quantum memory registers work, and how foundational logic gates like AND, OR, and NOR can be implemented. Then, Frank moved onto some more unique questions.
“What is your relationship with Jennifer, and how would you feel about working with her?” Frank asked.
This one’s a landmine, Tim thought. “Jennifer and I have been great friends since we met each other in graduate school. There is no romantic relationship between us now and there won’t ever be, for reasons I won’t go into now. We’ve worked well together in lab for years, and we both would welcome the opportunity to continue doing so.”
“Great Tim! She said something similar.” Frank said. “You have the job if you would like it, but I have to warn you about something. Dr. Brown is still the best researcher in the area, without question. However, he…has developed a reputation,” Frank said.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean he has been working during odd hours, drinks too much at times, and more importantly for you, he has been harsh with our younger employees.”
Tim sat back in his chair. He was worried, but he knew that working with Dr. Brown was a once-in-a lifetime opportunity. If it was a bad experience, he could always leave in a few years. So, he responded to Frank: “I understand, but I have not changed my mind about wanting to work with Dr. Brown.”
“Excellent!” Frank responded. “The job is yours. The contract is right here, and there’s a signing bonus I have to offer you if you sign it right now. It’s just a standard contract.” It looked like a long and complex document, but, from the first page, Tim noticed that the size of the signing bonus was eye-popping.
“I have one question for you Frank,” Tim said. “I understand that our customers want to use the quantum computers we are designing to break codes. However, Jennifer and I, as you know, are interested in other scientific applications as well. I want to confirm that you will allow us to release less powerful forms of the technology for social good.”
“That’s correct,” Frank said. Thrilled, Tim grabbed a nearby pen and etched his name in cursive on the final page of the document.
The Lab – 5 years later
“Jennifer, how are we doing on the cooling process?” asked Dr. Brown. “Give it another couple minutes, and we should be good to go,” she replied. It had been five years since Tim and Jennifer had set foot into the lab, and now they were finally ready to test the quantum computer they had built using new materials technology. As Tim had repeatedly explained to his parents on the phone, system stability is absolutely critical for quantum computers, and their new material helped in that regard. Maintaining a stable system was, in fact, so important that their test chip had to be completely isolated from any possible outside disturbances and cooled to temperatures close to absolute zero, both of which are necessary to ensure that there was no wave function interference.
As the three of them, Tim, Jennifer, and Dr. Brown, waited for the cooling process to finish, they maintained peculiar expressions on their faces. Instead of meeting the other people’s eyes, each person was looking slightly up and away, as if they were on a beach watching a sailboat meandering through open seas. It had been such a crazy journey, Tim thought, that none of them could quite process the history they were about to make.
In particular, he was happy to be with Jennifer at this moment. Tim had met her during orientation week in graduate school, and he recognized there was something special about her right when she walked into the room. She had a smile that made everyone around her happy, and she walked with her head held so high that it felt like she owned the room. However, she soon acquired the nickname “dictator” among all of their classmates because, if she was involved in a group project, she insisted on running the entire thing. One day, she could not find anyone to work with because of that problem, and that’s when Tim stepped in. People had called him a misfit because he was shy and nervous, so why not try and learn from somebody who obviously was not those two things?
As they waited, Jennifer started talking to Dr. Brown unprompted. “Sir, however this turns out, I’d like to thank you for what you have done for us. It has been an intellectual pleasure to bounce ideas off of you and see your brilliance in action.” To Tim, that was as far as one could go in complementing Dr. Brown. At times, he was brilliant and engaging, as she noted. But there were other moments. Yesterday, for example, he had gone up to the Dr. Brown’s desk just to shoot the breeze, and he started by asking who Dr. Brown’s favorite football team was. Dr. Brown had simply responded: “That’s none of your business” and walked away.
As Tim was thinking about that situation, Jennifer tapped him on the shoulder and told him, “It’s time in 1 minute.”
Wow, 5 years, coming together in this moment, he thought. Tim slapped himself on the face a few times and pinched himself in the inner part of his thigh. Nothing like a bit of pain to wake your brain back up, he thought.
Dr. Brown stood up and calmly said, “tell me right when it’s ready Jennifer.”
Tim saw a new window pop up on the computer screen, but it elicited no reaction from Jennifer. Actually, Jennifer’s face was not moving at all, as if she had just seen the eyes of Medusa. She looked every bit as apprehensive and nervous as she did before she had gone over to look at the screen. She had seen the data, so what was she so nervous about? Was there no result? Tim quickly found out, after Jennifer turned around and said: “The qubits are not reliable enough. We’ve failed.”
Dr. Brown sat in his chair and looked at the ground silently. The only part of his body that was moving were his hands, which were shaking slightly. It was as if a ghost was forcing him to play the piano against his will. He started at his hand and was clearly trying to stop the shaking but was failing. Indignantly, he stood up.
“YOU IDIOTS,” he bellowed, throwing a large stack of papers off the desk nearby him. “I had my pick of anyone in the country to work with, and I got you two failures? Thanks for wasting 5 years of my life.” After a small continuation of his rant, Dr. Brown went over to his office and opened the cabinet above his desk. He was about to reach in and grab something, but he paused and closed the blinds. Through the blinds, Tim and Jennifer saw him reach back up and bring something down to his desk.
Tim was trying to think of something to say to Jennifer, but there was nothing. They had failed, pure and simple. A quantum computer without reliable qubits would be completely useless because running simulations on that kind of a computer would give people flawed data.
“Let’s leave Jenny,” Tim said, as he softly placed his hand on her shoulder.
She slapped his hand off and glared at him. “We’re not done here, and I need your help,” she said.
Tim looked at her quizzically, wondering how someone so intelligent could be in such complete denial given the facts at hand.
“Tim, we started this not just to break codes. We may not be able to get a 256-qubit quantum computer to work, but I think our material and design could get a 64-qubit one to work. The results showed we were not too far off from getting 256 to work; we are just going to have to test and tape out the 64-qubit chip for now”
“But they denied us funding for the 64-qubit chip, so I stopped working on it”
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you Tim, but I did keep working on it and took money from other accounts to make it. It’s here, right now, and I want us to test it. I know this is not what Frank wanted, but he has been so helpful to use over the years in dealing with Dr. Brown that I think he’ll recognize how we should just manufacture this one. Plus, that would still be a big deal, wouldn’t it?”
Tim thought for a few moments about whether he wanted to be complicit in using whatever slush funds Jennifer had pulled together, but he remembered what he admired about her. She was willing to take action, when others were not. She was his friend, and it was time for him to help. At that moment, Dr. Brown stormed out of his office, stumbling towards the exits. He glared at the two of them but said nothing.
For the rest of that night, Jennifer and Tim worked to re-set their experiment with a 64 qubit chip instead. Tim modified the test code, which was simple because he was making it less complex than it previously was. Jennifer set up another closed system and cooled it. At 8 am, they ran the test.
This time, Jennifer’s nervous face turned into a smile when she saw the results come on screen. The first thing she did was to call her parents, who she knew she would catch just before they were about to head to work. Unlike Tim’s parents, they had both gone to college and cared about what their daughter was doing.
She explained to them, “we could not create a stable 256-qubit quantum computer, but we have made a stable 64-qubit computer. Unfortunately, that means we can’t break most codes, since we would need many more qubits in order to efficiently factor 1024 and 2048-bit numbers. However, with we can still simulate 2^64 states at once because of superposition! Each qubit in our simulations can be 0, 1, or simultaneously 0 or 1, as long as there is not outside interference. With this, our computer can leave any classical supercomputer in the dust when it comes to simulating quantum systems because a classical computer would have to do all of that sequentially.”
She continued, but Tim didn’t need to hear this explanation. He already knew this was a big deal – bigger than anything he had every accomplished. Any truly micro-situation involves behavior that is governed by quantum mechanics, and quantum computers are ideal at simulating that. Simulating chemical behavior at that level would now be possible, and that could revolutionize the design of medicines, nanotechnology, and small-scale engineering in general. There are many problems that classical computer would still be better at solving, but their technology was clearly superior in this area.
Soon, Jennifer got off the phone and smiled at Tim. Then, Dr. Brown walked back into the office. Tim hoped he would be as excited as they were, but he noticed that Dr. Brown was not walking quite straight. His eyes were bloodshot red, his shirt had a small tear in it, and his pants had liquid stains all over them. Before he could stop her, Jennifer had already started yelling across the room that they had successfully tested a 64-qubit chip using Dr. Brown’s ideas, expecting a joyful response from him. As she got closer to him, however, she understood her mistake and recoiled. Dr. Brown looked at the two of them with glassy eyes, said nothing, and went into his office.
Frank had been travelling while the team confirmed it had a reliable 64-qubit quantum computer, and he wanted to meet with all of them right after he returned from his trip. His secretary had set up a meeting for today, and Tim was relaxed and ready for once. Every time Jennifer and him had run into an internal organizational hurdle while designing the computer, Frank had bulldozed right through it for them. Once, a key supplier called them and said they would be three months late in delivering the special cooling system they needed for testing. After Tim had told Frank about this, the supplier called the next day and promised to send the cooling system a month early instead. Similarly, Frank had his secretary deal with the entire team’s paperwork and appointments, making everyone around the office jealous of Tim and Jennifer.
For the meeting, Tim and Jennifer had prepared a set of materials on the benefits of the technology and how the company could do society a large service by releasing it. Their new quantum computer would not be useful in breaking codes, they said, but it could provide the company a large public relations boost and establish it as the leader in quantum computing space. Plus, Tim remembered talking with Frank about exactly this kind of situation in his interview – this was a technology that was too weak to break codes but strong enough to benefit society.
The meeting room was at a conference room on the 10 floor, overlooking the Charles River. This is where the men and women in suits must close deals, Tim thought. Who could say no with this kind of view right in front of them? Jennifer and him were sitting down when Dr. Brown and Frank walked into the room. Dr. Brown, as usual, just sat down in the corner away from everyone, and Frank offered handshakes to Tim and Jennifer. Tim remembered those handshakes, and this one was just as strong and well-practiced as the last one. After exchanging pleasantries with regard to Frank’s trip, Tim and Jennifer began to explain what they had created and how it would benefit society:
“We view this technology as having the potential to revolutionize the study of chemistry at the quantum level, starting in universities and then progressing over the years into products and services. Another…”
“Just stop,” Frank said.
Tim was confused, but he was sure Frank had a good reason for speaking as harshly as he did.
“Dr. Brown and I talked before coming here, and this technology is not going anywhere. For all intents and purposes, you did not discover anything yesterday. This is not negotiable.”
For a few seconds, Jennifer and Tim sat there stunned. Jennifer then angrily blurted out, “What possible reason could you have for not releasing this? It can’t break codes, but it can help the world. We need more time to build the one that can break codes.”
Frank sat back, took a look at his gold watch and responded to both Tim and Jennifer: “Do you know why I am not even 35 years old but have Dr. Brown working under me? You clearly don’t. I do what is necessary for this company to win business and nothing else. Our company has been funding your research in order to break codes. Do you ever wonder why everything you read in the news about quantum computers mentions factoring large numbers and breaking codes? It’s because that’s what people are willing to shell out money for. Not esoteric academic chemistry research. Nobody cares about that, for a reason. We’re talking about changing the future of this company.”
“The most profitable scenario for us is for us to develop a quantum computer but to keep the media in the dark about it. We will break codes for our clients, and the rest of the world will be vulnerable. If the media and other companies know we have a quantum computer, they can update their encryption technologies to not rely on factoring numbers, or they could make the numbers they use larger. I won’t take the risk of defenses being put up. People who want new medicines can wait a few more years for all I care. Jennifer, I know you were on the phone here yesterday, even though you are supposed to be silent about this. If your parents speak to the media about the computer, we will mount a character assassination campaign against you and your family. You can’t beat me here, so don’t try.”
Tim was sitting there, stunned. It was as if a knife had plunged straight into his back and then was twisted, with scarlet blood flowing over the attacker’s hands.
“Frank, people’s lives are at stake here,” Tim said. “This machine could help design medicines that save millions of lives, and, given time, we could make a quantum computer strong enough to do all the code breaking you want. Also, you don’t have a choice Frank. My contract indicates that you need to release this technology, don’t you remember?”
Jennifer said she had a similar provision, and Frank sat there, smugly. “You got me.” Then he started laughing. During this time, Dr. Brown avoided eye contact with both Jennifer and Tim but was not laughing with Frank either. Tim thought he saw a tear in his eye, but Dr. Brown quickly took his hand and wiped whatever Tim had seen away.
“Jennifer,” Frank said, “you were at least a little bit conflicted about me making you sign the contract so quickly…but you relented as well. Take a look at your contracts, both of you. They say nothing about releasing technology, and they say a lot about how everything you have done belongs to me. Sometimes you have to lie in order to get ahead, and I did so to protect the company. Your materials have been confiscated. Security will escort you outside the premises.”
Tim walked up to the bartender and ordered: “A Dark and Stormy please. Make that two actually.” He watched as she quickly put in two shots of rum and then slowly poured the ginger beer in, so that the drink formed two layers. She then put a lime in each one, and Tim took them back to the table where Jennifer was waiting for him.
“Cheers to the Ides of March Jenny,” Tim said. They were not dead obviously, but they felt betrayed, were jobless and had no access to what they had worked on for five years. “I can’t believe we got taken in by Frank so easily. It’s almost too much for me to process,” he said.
As Tim and Jennifer continued to drink, they noticed a man in a dark trench coat enter the bar. They had seen him visiting Dr. Brown’s office over the past five years, but did not know his name or why he was there. Jennifer, who by this point had lost count of the number of drinks she had, decided to confront the man.
“Hey you, look over here.” She walked over to him and continued, “yes, you with that smug look on your face. Your friend just took my greatest accomplishment away from me, and I’m going to find a way to get him back. Mark my words. We worked for him for five years, and he didn’t say a word as we got fired for wanting something that was promised to us when we started.”
The man responded to Jennifer softly: “You don’t sound like yourself Jennifer. You sound like Frank, and that’s not a good thing. I’ll get a drink and come join you both at your table. In the meantime, speak softly, like me.”
Jennifer, who was stunned that the man knew her name, walked over to the table and filled Tim in on that discussion. They both looked around and did not see the man. “Let’s get out of here,” Tim said. “What if Frank sent him?”
However, before Tim and Jennifer could get up, the man stealthily came out of the crowd and sat at their table. “Hi Tim, allow me to introduce myself. I’m Dr. Miller, Dr. Brown’s therapist.”
So that’s why he knows about us, Tim thought. Dr. Miller continued, “I’m stepping beyond my professional boundaries here, but I know the real Dr. Brown, and he would want the technology he has told me about released. Frank is controlling him, and this needs to stop. I’ve set up a meeting with Dr. Brown tomorrow afternoon at the Hilton Garden Inn Arlington, in Washington D.C. I’m going to drive there tomorrow morning, and I want you two to come with me. He thinks the meeting will be with me, but it will be with you two instead. ”
Tim and Jennifer sat at the lounge, waiting for Dr. Brown to arrive. By this point, Tim had gotten so used to stressful situations that, even though he was nervous about their plan, he was not sweating. Instead, Jennifer and him were sitting calmly, snacking on the bowl of almonds, cashews, and pistachios that lay in front of them. Tim was wearing a black suit with a somber maroon tie, and Jennifer’s dress was also black and far more conservative than the kinds she was used to wearing.
Soon, Dr. Brown walked in, and he simply stared for a few seconds when he saw Jennifer and Tim sitting at the table. He looked down for a second and then walked over.
Realizing what had likely happened, he asked, “So…how much did Dr. Miller tell you?”
“Everything,” Tim said, relating the whole story he had heard from Dr. Miller in the car from Boston to the capital. In his early 50s, Dr. Brown was in love with his wife, had many friends and was regularly receiving teaching awards based on how much his students appreciated him. Then, as his wife fought a losing battle with cancer, Dr. Brown’s alcoholism started. With that, his behavior changed, and, after his wife’s passing, he left her hospital bedside and went to the mountains for a few months immediately afterwards. Her parents had tried to contact him so he could come to the funeral and burial, but he never picked up the phone. It was too much to even hear her name or speak to anyone who had known her. He eventually returned from the mountains, spent a day packing his things in California and moved to the East Coast, where Frank had promised him a lab and no questions about his personal life.
Dr. Brown listened as Tim completed his description, and he stared pensively at the ground in front of him. After 30 seconds of thinking, Dr. Brown lifted up his head and responded, “What you’ve said is true. I miss her, and if I need some drinks to deal with it, that’s my business. You two can’t fix me, and I don’t know what you want from me today. I can’t get you your jobs back. There is a reason I don’t speak about her – you two are too young to understand.”
Jennifer said back to him, “We just want to take a walk around the area with you. We know your schedule is open for the next hour, and we worked for you for five years. We won’t mention your wife if you don’t. Please join us.”
Dr. Brown reluctantly acquiesced, and they walked past the bellmen in the lobby and on to the road. Tim and Jennifer talked with Dr. Brown about baseball, politics, drinking, and any parts of Dr. Brown’s life other than their work on quantum computing and his wife. During their walk, they went past Highway 50 and followed Ft. Meyer Drive past Dr. Brown’s favorite seafood restaurant, Quarterdeck.
At this point, they were right on the border of Arlington National Cemetery, and Tim softly broached to Dr. Brown, “Do you mind if we quickly walk through a bit of the cemetery? Jennifer and I don’t come to D.C. too often.”
After he said yes, they strolled for a few minutes into the area and traveled past a few rolling hills, filled with lines of protruding white stones. The area smelled like fresh rain, and they knocked dew off blades of grass with each step. Soon, Jennifer noticed Dr. Miller standing by one particular tombstone, which stood near the base of an elegant tree that brought a pleasant dark green hue to the area. She looked over at Tim and nodded her head in the direction of that tree. Once Dr. Brown noticed Dr. Miller standing next there, he kept walking with Tim and Jennifer over there but stopped talking with them. Small beads of water flowed down his face, as he looked at the tombstone, which had the name ‘Alice Brown’ on it. She was not in California. He had wanted to escape forever, but she was here, right in front of him.
Tim, Jennifer, and Dr. Miller slowly walked away and went back over to the walkway. In silence, they all tried to place themselves in Dr. Brown’s shoes. You had ran away after your wife’s passing and left everything up to her family, so you had no idea where she was buried. Finally, after all these years, you find out that the nation has done her the high honor of giving her a burial in Arlington, due to her exemplary service record, and you were never there for it. Silently, they waited, until Dr. Brown slowly walked towards them, with no more tears flowing down his face.
Before they could say anything, he started talking: “Thank you guys, all three of you, for putting up with me over the years. Alice believed in service, and the country believed in her just as I did. I also know what you will ask of me, and the answer is yes. Our new computer can’t help design medicines that will save Alice, or me. But it could help others, and Alice would want that to happen.”
The Lab – 1 Year Later
Tim and Jennifer were both at their desks, smiling at each other. Across the floor, they could see Frank smooth talking a supplier of theirs into accelerating the delivery of parts. The handshake, the fake smiles, and the rest were not going to fool either of them anymore, but it sure was helpful to have them on your side at times. Technically, all three of them still worked for Frank, but Dr. Brown was now really running the show. This was because, a year ago, Frank had quickly backtracked when Dr. Brown threatened to quit if the 64-qubit computer was not released to the public. For all of Frank’s political skills, he knew he was nothing without Dr. Brown because he needed a genius to design the next version of the quantum computer, which could actually break codes. Dr. Brown had asked Tim and Jennifer to stay on, and they agreed, with new contracts that they read well this time. The two of them now enjoyed being in the office, but they still felt slightly uneasy whenever they walked past Frank’s nameplate on the corner office next to their lab. ‘Mr. Francis Underwood,’ it said. This time, Frank’s plan had folded like a house of cards, but they wondered: What would he do next?