Weirdos from another planet! – Martin’s return to Cairn’s ancestral home

By 16th November 2013Presidents Log

No, the title of this blog doesn’t quite mean what you may have expected, as it actually refers to one of the books I bought during my current visit to the USA, from the MIT Coop in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  It did nevertheless cause the salesperson no small amount of amusement, since this being a university town (but also in practice part of the Boston metropolitan area), I suppose she may have seen more than her fair share of weirdos from this particular planet.  Having said that though, and bearing in mind that my university days were spent in the British Cambridge, true weirdos seem to be in relatively short supply around here – in fact, in many ways, the USA, or at least the East Coast, has always struck me me as a rather conservative sort of place.  That’s not to say it doesn’t throw up the occasional genius to rectify the balance – people like Bill Watterson, creator of the surreally brilliant Calvin & Hobbes cartoons, of which “Weirdos From Another Planet!” is one of the anthologies, or Richard Feynman, who should need no introduction, or Lou Reed, who sadly succumbed just a few days before I write this, and who left such an indelible mark on the music scene.  That’s a pretty eclectic collection, and yet, not withstanding all that, and however much people around here might like to read their Henry David Thoreau, the pressure here is very much to conform if you want to “get on”.  Of course I suppose it’s the same everywhere really, but perhaps what I’m saying is that although people around here may aspire to a greater extent than others to “take the path less travelled”, it is maybe rather harder to do so here than in many other places?  Who knows, but on putting this point to several American friends, they didn’t strongly disagree!

Let me take you down the road a little, to the Harvard Coop in (not surprisingly) Harvard Square, just opposite (even less surprisingly) Harvard University, to develop my point a little further.  One of their most prominently displayed books in recent years has been “50 Successful Harvard Application Essays”, so I presume it must have been selling pretty well.  One can quite easily understand why such a book had been written, and why it might have a ready market, but is this really a book you would  choose to read out of pure interest?  No, in a mad flash of enlightenment, I realised the book I was after would have been entitled “The 50 Essays That Got People Thrown OUT of Harvard”.  Now that would have been worth reading!

But if it sounds like I’m poking fun at the place, I should perhaps point out that I left that shop with two books written by Harvard professors, namely “Civilization: the West and the Rest” by Niall Ferguson, and “How to Build a Habitable Planet” by Charles H Langmuir and Wally Broecker.  My good friend and American co-host Carter Cornwall (of whom more shortly), also told me a lovely and (knowing Carter) true story about what happened to an associate of his there many years ago, although I am most likely embellishing it somewhat in the telling.  Said associate had handed in an essay, and his tutor handed it back with a look of surprised disappointment on his face, saying “Is that really the best you can do?”  The student was appropriately embarrassed, and said he’d try again.  A few days later, the scene repeated itself, with the tutor saying “Are you honestly telling me that this is the VERY best you can do?”  The now seriously worried student agrees to make a yet further attempt, only to be asked the same question yet again.  At this point the now mortified student apologises profusely, confesses that he really can do no better, and prepares himself for the consequences.  “Good!” says Dr. Kissinger (as it was indeed he).  “Then now I shall read it!”

And as for MIT, I feel it might have been fun to work there if they had developed their Brain-X-Panda(TM) cerebral enhancer unit in time for me to be able to keep up with those guys, although I suppose they’d be using it too so I’d still be lagging behind.  If a certain film Good Will Hunting is to be believed, it seems that even the janitors in that place are geniuses, although that particular janitor’s wonderful monologue putdown of a Harvard education was clearly an inside job – in fact that whole film originated as a Harvard student project.  While this does demonstrate encouraging traces of independence of thought, I do nevertheless think that a few more genuine weirdos wouldn’t do either place any harm.

They aren’t the only universities in town though. Back in the dim mists of the late 1970s, I followed up my time at the British Cambridge with a postdoc at Boston University’s School of Medicine.  At that time Carter was just another postdoc in the same lab, but he is still here, having taken it over many years ago, and kept it funded ever since – no mean achievement!  And who should take over my place in the lab when I returned to the UK, but one Doug Tillitson, who eventually left to set up Ionoptix, and with whom I am currently staying, having just spent a few days at Carter’s.  Sadly, our then lab boss, Tony Gorman, died many years ago, but we all learned so much from him that he is likely to feature in a number of my future stories.

But back to the subject line – why is this Cairn’s ancestral home?  Well, I’d done my undergraduate degree at the British Cambridge, and wanted to stay on.  For me, that meant doing one of those pre-funded PhD projects rather than one of my own choosing, and the one I got was safe enough but also mind-numbingly boring.  I therefore spent much of my time designing and building all sorts of electronic and mechanical gadgets.  There were wonderful facilities on offer for that sort of thing, which it seemed such a pity to put to waste, although to be fair, some small proportion of the things I made there did get used in my research project.  My supervisor (now also dead so I can tell it like it was) had little interest in either me or my project, apart from unsuccessfully trying to make me take up a postdoc with a mad Frenchman, which the student a year ahead of me had been lined up for but very wisely thought the better of.  The only alternative he offered was to see a “buddy” of his in Nottingham, who arrogantly asked me why I thought I might be so much better than all the other applicants for whatever crap position that was currently being dangled before us.  Well, he asked for it, so I burned my boats on the spot by smugly saying “Because I’ve just accepted another offer”.

The other offer, that I had effectively accepted at that very moment, was an unexpected one.  Tony Gorman had written to my Cambridge department (Zoology) to say a postdoc position was available immediately, and did they know of anyone who might be interested?  Someone else in the department passed the letter on to me, and although I’d had absolutely no intention of going to the USA, I was nevertheless sufficiently intrigued as to cautiously inquire more.  The reply, received just before that Nottingham interview, was simply “come as soon as you can”, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about me, it’s that if the chance looks interesting enough, I don’t dither around!

It turned out that not only was the chance was a surprisingly big one, but that I was unusually well prepared for it.  Now that I had a project that required my wholehearted attention, I discovered that all that other stuff I shouldn’t really have been doing during my PhD had actually given me a superb education for what I now needed to do – and Tony was sufficiently trusting (albeit after asking his usual searching questions) to let me get on with it.  To keep this blog down to a reasonable length, much of this will have to be a story for another time, but the bottom line is that within just a few months of my moving into a new lab that still had brick dust on the floor, we had a sensitive microspectrophotometer up and running, capable of recording from single cells – which we then did, with some considerable success.  Amongst other things, that involved making a high-speed spinning filter wheel – a concept that has haunted me ever since, especially as it paved the way for Cairn’s first product, and we now have its latest derivative on the books at last – Optospin!

Eventually it was time to return to the UK, and although I’d had some attractive offers to stay in the US, my visa was running out and I was really after something similar “back home” anyway.  However, the opportunity I took up, and which seemed too good to be true, turned out to be just that!  More about that in a future blog perhaps (lawyers permitting!), but Tony’s suggestion, that we should set up a company together to market some of the things I’d put together in his lab, began to look increasingly interesting, and not just as a sideline for me.  The concept of jacking that other job in, and perhaps splitting my time between Tony’s lab and the UK in order to do this, was beginning to look very appealing until he suddenly died of a heart attack (not his first, so sadly not completely unexpected).

The reason I’m going into all this is that I can see in retrospect some sort of commercial organisation would have emerged from my interests anyway; the question was really just how and when.  It could so easily have been an Anglo-American one or perhaps a purely US organisation, most likely with me having to acquire an American accent permanently.  (I should explain that whenever I’m in the US I deliberately feign an American accent, simply because it makes me easier for the locals to understand, albeit to the horror of any Cairn colleagues who may have accompanied me.)  It could also so easily have involved Doug too, who had taken over my position in the lab, and who eventually left to found Ionoptix as noted above.  So the Company of which I was a part could, as it were, have quietly been born as a clean-cut All-American Boy one glorious midsummer morning, but that potential future was cruelly snuffed out, and it had to come into the world in some other way.  

Instead therefore, imagine if you will a forbidding and rain-lashed garret at midnight, black as pitch apart from the brilliant flashes of lightning that repeatedly throw it into stark relief as deafening peals of thunder shake the ancient building to its very foundations.  Inside, the thing that is to become Cairn struggles to enter this world, and the room becomes filled with the noisome stench of a freshly opened grave.  The horrified midwife, seeing what is being brought forth, desperately tries to stifle the hideous monstrosity, but already it is too strong.  The beast’s unearthly ululations are matched only by the midwife’s final screams as it plunges its feeding tubes into her, reducing her to an empty husk within seconds.  Growing rapidly, it now despatches the terrified hostmother in similar fashion, before tearing out the garret window with its powerfully-suckered tentacles and slithering down the vertiginous outside wall.  It then shuffles out into the gathering storm, its passage marked by a trail of glutinous and foul-smelling ichor as it discards the undigested remains of its first terrestrial meal, and by further gut-wrenching scenes of death and destruction as it flails its madly-spinning filter wheels.  Late-paying customers cower in fear behind heavily-barred doors and windows, but realise that even these will be little defence against this horror from an unknown dimension whenever it is ready to feed again!  

Actually the birth of Cairn was nothing like that either, it’s just that I’m writing this at Halloween and I’ve always been a fan of yet another great independent-thinking American in the (repellently deformed?) shape of the horror writer H P Lovecraft, to whom that previous paragraph is my pathetic attempt at a homage to his particular type of fiction – if it indeed was fiction of course!  Yet again, what actually happened is a story for another time, but to summarise, it just took rather longer to get going as it was such a single-handed operation in the early days.  However, that has avoided the stresses and strains of business partnerships, which can be the undoing of many Companies, and it has also paved the way for some further exciting developments that should ensure Cairn’s continuing prosperity as an independent business in the long term.  More about that soon too!

But whatever path was subsequently taken, here in Boston is effectively where it all started for Cairn, so whenever I come back  – which I often do at this time of year – I feel it’s a nice celebration of that.  Boston itself has also become a much nicer city over the years.  “Between the hours of 10am and 4pm are the best times to visit this colorful part of the city” the guide book euphemistically said of the area around the Medical School at the time, but now it genuinely is rather nice.  Boston is also the home of my favourite building The Hancock Tower, although it too has had its share of problems, like when all its windows were falling out around the time of my arrival, but now it’s safe enough to be in the vicinity of that building as well.  The Boston Red Sox have also just won the World Series (an American team always wins though, since they are the only ones that enter, and I can’t help but think there’s a useful lesson for us somewhere), so this is a particularly happy city right now.  And what other city could support a self-service dogwash business, by the wonderful name of LaundroMutt???.  In spite of all that pressure for conformity I mentioned at the start, perhaps there is hope for the place yet!

 Dr MV Thomas – President and founder of Cairn Research Ltd