Paul the Octopus Retires
R. Ariel Gómez
Who would have thought that an octopus would change my life? Picture this: my friend Ray called me to talk about Paul the octopus.
“Yeah,” I said, “and to which branch of the Gambino family does he belong?”
“I am serious,” he said. “Can I see you Saturday mid-morning?”
“Sure, Ray. What’s going on?”
Ray’s voice sounded strained. “I’ll tell you everything when I see you,” he said, and hung up, no time to ask anything.
Ray and I graduated from Berkeley. He took up marine sciences and I chose molecular biology. Ray had this knack to see beyond the surface of things, always coming up with new, exciting, beautiful ideas. But sometimes his brilliancy got in the way. He would theorize with someone in the hallway and forget his own samples spoiling on the bench. All head we used to call him. Secretly, though, we all wished to be like Ray and he regularly managed to persuade us to work for him. Always under Ray’s big shadow, and more or less viewed as one of his clones, I had to work hard to disentangle myself from his reach and tenuously climb through the faculty ranks of the University. Eventually we went our own ways and after a brief stint in Harvard, where he studied brain development in marine animals, he ended up working for the Navy.
Occasionally when Ray is in Norfolk, he calls and we chat briefly, superficial stuff really. I know he reads my articles but he never brings them up. I read his of course. He continues to publish high quality stuff. I wonder who is actually doing his experiments now.
When he arrived he followed me to the kitchen and I poured us some coffee. He seemed eager to get to the point. “I was in Germany,” he said. “Have you watched the World Cup?”
I know you are not here to talk about soccer, I thought. Instead, I just said yes. He sat in the couch, took a sip of his coffee and went on querying me. “Did you see the octopus predicting the winning teams?”
“Sure,” I said, “but who cares. It’s all bull anyways.”
“Actually,” he said, “I’ve been studying these creatures and I can tell you they’re special, quite playful, and very smart. Their brain is not limited to their heads; in fact most of their neurons are in their arms.”
“Thinking arms?” I said.
Ray smiled for the first time, the same smile that had opened so many doors. “Sort of,” he said. “They can do incredible things. They learn on their own, their mothers die soon after they hatch and they have to learn very quickly how to survive.”
“Instincts,” I said, trying to sound neutral.
“No, that’s an old idea. They learn on their own by observing their environment. And they make decisions, usually the right ones.”
“That’s much better than our Dean who needs to call a meeting to decide when to take a leak.”
Ray stood up as if to give one of his lectures. “I was there when Paul first introduced one of his arms into the fish tank with the Argentinean flag and the mussel in it; he caressed the mussel with one of his arms, licked it, smelled it, moved it around and left it. Then he went to the German side, did the same and final consumed their mussel.”
“Well, that doesn’t prove he really predicts anything.”
“Right, but there is more,” he said. “Do you know the chances of predicting the winner in eight successive matches?”
Of course, I know, I am not your student, I thought. adopting a detached tone, I said, “something like one half raised to the eighth …”
“Exactly! One in two hundred and fifty six,” he said. “And Paul predicted the winners, including the winner of the final between the Netherlands and Spain, with a hundred percent accuracy. How about that?”
“Yeah, still, but there is more,” he said, pacing the room. I kept trying to anticipate what Ray would come up with now. He was obviously pausing for effect, the same old theatrical Ray.
“I saw the look in his eyes,” he said.
“You know, the look in people’s eyes when they are mischievous. You know that, don’t you?”
I nodded, nary a glint in my eye.
“He got this twinkle,” he said.
“Got this twinkle, this look in his eyes…and made sure that I noticed it.”
“Come on Ray, what are you saying?”
“I am saying that he made sure I noticed. He looked straight at me and smiled at me, with his eyes.”
“Okay,” I said, “let’s assume for a moment that this octopus has this kind of divination power…”
“You just told me.”
“He doesn’t divine anything; he’s been watching TV… All the soccer matches last year, and then the world cup. He’s had the chance to study every player. And he knows who is best at dribbling and at passing; he integrates all this info and knows with certainty which team is going to win.”
“Okay,” I said staring curiously at Ray. “Whatever. But you came all the way down here just to tell me this stuff, that Paul the octopus is a genius? What are you up to?”
“You’re a molecular biologist, right?”
“Yup, that I am.”
“I’ve been thinking about this spectacular experiment… and we are the right people to do it.”
“What experiment?” I said.
His eyes lighted up. He took a deep breath and almost in a whisper he said, “I want us to clone Paul the octopus.”
Ray kept smiling at me, nodding like a toy, arms stretched as in an offering.
“But why in the world would you want to do that?” I replied, knowing all too well there was a reason.
“Because Paul is not your regular octopus. He is the most intelligent member of his species, probably the most intelligent creature ever known.”
“Hard to believe,” I said trying to hide my own excitement.
“I know,” Ray said, “I’ve got contacts up there and they let me run some tests. No question, Paul’s the smartest.”
I knew Ray was telling the truth about this. He was too big of a star to risk a screw up. For him to consider this project he must have smelled success. But I was not going to make it easy for him.
“Okay, got it, Paul is the smartest of us all,” I chuckled, “smarter even than you and me.” I took a deep breath, looked at him straight in the eye and added: “So?”
“So, he is going to die”
“Because he is old, way past his life expectancy. He will die soon and with him all of Nature’s work to create so much brain power will be gone.”
“All the mutations” I added, “and the chromatin changes that made Paul who he is…all that secret… what a waste.”
“You see” Ray said, excited as never before. “It doesn’t have to be a waste, we can have as many Pauls as we want, all of them for us to study.”
“Their cells and their behavior, a scientist’s dream” I chimed. “And you came to me.”
“Yes” Ray said, his whole body bursting with excitement.
I let the silence in the room linger for a while and I said: “So, the news got around?”
“What do you mean? What news?”
“You know what I mean, Ray. That I’ve got the method to do it. And I am the only one who’s got it.”
“So, it is true after all?” He said, still smiling.
“C’mon Ray, you know it’s true, you’ve been talking to my graduate student. I told her to keep her mouth shut until we get this paper published. But obviously you have charmed her too.”
The comment went uncontested.
“Let’s do it,” he said.
He looked at me as if I were a Martian. “What do you mean?”
“I mean no.”
Ray’s face got red. “But we can work together again,” he said.
“I said no.”
“No? Why? This is the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Occasionally a word is so charged that tilts our precarious balance. The word “opportunity,” a seemingly innocent, positive word, did it for me. It had been dormant, a tiny perfidious creature ready to awaken again. And I felt it swelling in me, fueled by the raw power of a long suppressed rage.
“Opportunity Ray, was twenty years ago,” I said, “at least for me.” Ray kept silent.
“We were all there, remember?” I was sure he remembered. It was in Casa Serena, at the Gordon Conference where the best scientists in the world were about to listen to this group of young and radical students present a new concept, a model that was against the very foundations of what we knew. We had chosen this venue because it encouraged fresh ideas and young minds. We were so excited to be there.
“I remember we were young,” Ray said. “And so sure of ourselves”
“We chose you to represent the group because you were the best speaker among all of us graduate students,” I said.
“I worked very hard the days preceding the meeting,” Ray said.
“We all did,” I said, “I kept doing experiments up to the last day before the trip, making sure there were no surprises. In the evenings we made you rehearse, and asked you the most difficult methodological questions.”
“The big guns were there,” Ray said.
“And ready to tear you apart if they sensed you were faltering,” I added.
Ray’s eyes seemed to be staring at the horizon now. “God, my heart was pumping so hard.”
I wanted Ray to remember that moment, to be there again. “You went to the podium,” I said, “wearing a T-shirt and jeans, irreverent as planned, grabbed the microphone and for the next twenty minutes, magically, you took possession of the place. ‘Ladies and gentleman,’ you said, your voice full of emotion. ‘Thank you for the opportunity to present a model so beautiful in its simplicity, and yet so perfectly suited to unravel one of the mysteries of organ regeneration, a mystery, I may add, that has humbled the very best scientists in the world...’”
“I still remember those words” Ray said, “I can still savor each one of them. We didn’t leave anything to chance.”
He was transported to Casa Serena now. We were both there.
“I could see the effect you were having in people’s faces,” I said, “they were transfixed by every word you delivered. Perfect diction, right tempo, studied pauses, pitching this new model in biology that was truly revolutionary.”
Ray smiled at me. His whole face was glowing. “We were demolishing old concepts, laying a new foundation, new ideas,” he said.
“It was great science, to be sure, but it was also a great performance,” I said. “You were performing, Ray, for all of us. Remember? Even for us who knew every word of your speech…we were enthralled too.”
“I could see people holding their breath,” Ray said, visibly satisfied.
“And towards the end of the presentation,” I added quickly, “when you had everybody under you spell, just before the acknowledgement slide, you slipped.”
“A simple mistake!” Ray said.
“You said: ‘Thanks again for this wonderful opportunity!’ You forgot to show the slide acknowledging Sarah and me, who did the work. It wasn’t a simple mistake.”
“But that wasn’t actually how it happened… I tried to show the next slide, the one that had your names”
“Yes, you did afterwards, but by then people were already in standing ovation, applauding you, the next prodigy. Who cared about us the helpers? Nobody was listening anymore.”
The kitchen was still now. I let him absorb the first punch and kept after him: “Then it was all Ray. Ray this, Ray that. You were invited to speak at all the meetings.”
“I tried to include you in some of the symposia…”
“ Always as an afterthought,” I said, holding the line. “We felt we didn’t belong.”
“And then you withdrew, moved away from the field.”
“Your success was so explosive, Ray, there wasn’t much we could do. At the meetings people would ask if we worked for you. Can you imagine that?”
“But we all got equal credit on the paper.”
“You know as well as I do it didn’t change people’s perception.”
“I tried to help but you quit, didn’t come to the meetings anymore, didn’t play the game anymore.”
“It wasn’t a game anymore Ray, not for me, not for Sarah who ended up quitting science altogether. All I was capable of doing was to move away, start all over again and re-build my career with my own hands. You never knew the sickness I felt that day. I thought I had gotten over it, but…”
“I didn’t do it on purpose.”
“I guess we will never know for sure,” I said. I knew that had to hurt.
Ray was somber now. “So all these years…” he started to say but I interrupted him.
“All those years, Ray, I did my best to believe your error was just inexperience, eagerness, even nervousness. We lost a lot that day.”
“I…we kept in touch. Didn’t we…like now?”
“A superficial sort of ‘keeping in touch’. In fact, it was that superficiality that made things clearer to me. With time, I realized you could have repaired the damage.”
“How?” Ray said, “What could I have done when you were not there anymore?”
“Simple,” I said. “Behind the scenes, a territory so familiar to you, where careers are whispered up or down, you never did a damn thing to dispel the notion that you were the brains behind our beautiful discovery. That’s what you should have done!”
I expected Ray’s reply to be swift and dismissive, but he didn’t answer. He just stood there, in the middle of the kitchen, motionless, his sight lost somewhere. When he finally looked at me, I said: “My answer, Ray, is no.”
Stillness grew in the kitchen and moved upon every object, ready to swallow us, or whatever remained of us. Ray walked to the front door, a smaller man now. He touched the door handle, turned around and looked at me. I didn’t care to decipher what his eyes were saying. I watched him walk out, and thought to myself: It is a great opportunity, Ray, and it’s all mine.”
Author’s note: Paul the octopus did pass away shortly after that conversation, but not before I was able to contact the colleagues in Germany who were caring for him. Recent rumors about young cephalopods performing duties in an undisclosed laboratory in Virginia should not be construed as evidence that the cloning actually took place.
R. Ariel Gómez is a scientist and pediatrician, originally from Argentina, who directs a team of talented researchers at the University of Virginia, where they study how cells know their identity. He writes: "Although I am thrilled when we discover the wondrous inner workings of a cell, science is not enough, and I have this pervasive longing to understand whatever more is there to understand. It is then, when a story appears, irresistible, inevitably taking over, transporting me once again, saving my day. My stories have appeared in Street Light, Hospital drive, Puro Cuento and Southern Cross Review. I live in Charlottesville with wife and my three wonderful children."