Evil Genius

2004:

VIENNA, Austria – Even if weapons of mass destruction are never found in Iraq, the U.S.-led war was justified because it eliminated the threat that Saddam Hussein might again resort to “evil chemistry and evil biology,” Attorney General John Ashcroft said Monday.

Saddam’s willingness to use such weapons was sufficient cause to overthrow his regime, Ashcroft told reporters, alluding to the use of chemical and biological arms against Iraqi Kurds in 1988 and during the 1980s Iran-Iraq war.

“Weapons of mass destruction including evil chemistry and evil biology are all matters of great concern, not only to the United States but also to the world community. They were the subject of U.N. resolutions,” Ashcroft said.

(AP report)

2014:

God, of course I remember the sixties. Being young in those days…there’s just no way to convey the way it felt, unless you were there. Kennedy had gotten the whole country excited about science again, with the moon shot and the Civilian Corps. There was a sense that science was something noble and important, that it was as heroic a calling as being a soldier or a fireman or a captain of industry. We were only little kids then, of course, but Kennedy had inspired a whole generation. Hearing his speeches, watching the Apollo team on television, reading about people like Einstein and Von Braun — that was the fuel for my dreams, and the dreams of my friends. We were born and raised on the idea that science was something to be proud of.

But don’t get me wrong — it wasn’t just popular science that excited us. We weren’t just attracted by the sexy stuff like the space program, or national defense. We were interested in everything; the whole gamut of the hard sciences seemed to us an endless array of cabinets waiting to be opened in the world’s biggest candy store. Watson got us interested in genetics; Dorothy Hodgkin was doing exciting things in molecular medicine; and Murray Gell-Mann changed the way we thought about physics. And yes, I won’t deny it. It was a turbulent time. An exciting time. And a lot of us got interested in evil science. It’s not as if we had any shortage of heroes — Von Doom’s work in temporal displacement, Blofeld’s pioneering toxicology experiments, Alice Krippen’s vira-genetic research. With so many thrilling things happening, who can blame us for going into the evil sciences?

In San Francisco in the mid-’70s, we practically started our own Enlightenment, my friends and I. My first roommate, Skip Harley, and my childhood friend Rusty Ignatevsky won a Nobel Prize in Evil Physics in ’79 for their work on the weak particle and its inevitable conquest by the strong particle. Joanna Heinrich, who I dated for a few years in grad school, became one of the most respected names in evil chemistry for her study of covalent bondage and domination. It seemed like everyone in our circle of friends was making a splash in the evil sciences: Bill Ballmer in evil microbiology, Amos Sadler in evil biochemistry, Srina Gandrushar in evil oceanography…I could go on and on. This guy I played squash with, Tim Yohalem, practically invented evil macrotechnology, and even my kid brother Randy, who I always thought was more interested in football and girls, ended up being one of the first evil computer programmers. Not many of us were friendly with the evil mathematicians — all that theoretical stuff was too heady for our practical tastes — but believe me, Berkely turned out some of the best evil math of the last 50 years.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I myself was some kind of titan of science. I was always a nuts-and-bolts type; I felt more empathy for the NASA guys in the short sleeves than I did head-in-the-clouders like Bohr. I could never have been an evil researcher. But I never complained for a minute. Entering the field of evil food chemistry was incredibly rewarding. I was part of some really innovative research teams: the ConAgra team that produced the first lethal strain of triticale; the U.S. government black ops group that bred bananas that could ensnare people in their peels before they were even removed from the trees; and, of course, the pinnacle of my professional career, leading the Blofeld squad that crossbred tuna with fugu. And that wasn’t the only productive field in which you could put evil science to practical use: some of my best friends were evil architects, evil aeronautical engineers, evil radiologists, and evil failure analysts. You’d open up the want ads of the Chronicle, turn to the “Evil Sciences” section, and it would literally be six, eight pages long. It was a golden time.

And, as incredible as it seems, the ’80s were even better. With the advent of personal computers and advances in evil telecommunications, everyone from evil psychiatrists to evil electronics technicians were part of the boom; evil biologists and evil chemists got to put their theories into practice everywhere from Kurdistan to Bhopal. Evil medicine was getting more sophisticated than ever; the magazine racks were stuffed with evil scientific journals, and with Reagan in the White House, the evil defense industry could fund as many dream projects as it wanted. Even my mom got in on the act; only seven years away from retirement and she got a job as an evil x-ray technician at Rossum Memorial Hospital. (There was a commensurate boom about the same time in the evil liberal arts, but I never really saw the point of that. It’s one thing to do important work serving mankind as an evil cryogeneticist or an evil metallurgist, but being an evil music theorist or an evil religious historian seemed sort of lame.)

I don’t really know where it all started to go wrong. Maybe it was Chernobyl; the evil nuclear physicists pretty much lost momentum after that, like there was nowhere to go but down. Maybe it was a political sea change; after ’88, it seemed like all the funding went to evil performers and evil entertainers, and with the National Endowment for the Evil Arts eating up all our grants, we had to look to the private sector for research money. And that’s really how it fell apart. The big corporations, they’re all about the bottom line. They don’t care about the art of evil science or the thrill of pure evil research; they just want to move product. Evil chemists became evil pharmacologists; evil astrophysicists stopped working on orbiting death lasers and got busy making giant billboards in space. Of course, as long as people need to eat, there’ll always be work for an evil food chemist, but it’s just not the same anymore. In the old days, I used to work on bread that was fortified with Strontium-90 and molecular groupings that made a common Slurpee taste like bleach and turn your insides into crystal. Nowadays…well, it pays well, but making zero-nutrition coal-based energy bars as a tie-in for the new Hunger Games movie doesn’t deliver the same kind of kick.

I thought things would get better with Bush in the White House. Pro-science, pro-spending and pro-evil…he seemed like a dream come true for us. But then his flunkies are talking about evil chemistry and evil biology like they were something to be ashamed of, and when he finally came out with a proposal for a manned Mars mission? Lots of talk about putting a man on the surface of the red planet; not a word about performing horrible medical experiments on him once he gets there. And this new guy…he likes his sciences like he likes his national defense:  soft.  I’ll take a job at Kmart before you catch me being an evil economist or an evil sociologist.  I don’t know. Days like this I wonder if I shouldn’t have just done what my cousin Ben did. Evil plastic surgery…now that’s a field that’s going somewhere.

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