Tuesday, 29 July 2008

The Astounding Story of the Brain of Dr Morbius

One of the reasons that none of us is too specific about the the location of the Diogenes Club is, to be brutally honest, because we want to keep it to ourselves. This is not for any reason of elitism on our part, far from it. It's simply a matter of self-protection. The fact is that once it gets out that a collection of writers, editors, scientists, philosophers and a newspaper proprietor are meeting together, it inevitably attracts all manner of weird and wonderful people who just want to have someone listen to their latest crack-pot ideas.

We are always very happy to welcome guests as long as they have been vouched for by a fellow member but one thing that none of us can abide is the gate-crashers who pick up on our meetings and weigh in with their own peculiar and strident views. We have been the target of all manner of Conspiracy Theorists who have been kidnapped by aliens, Knight's Templar hunters who have discovered the Grail, Bogus Scientists who have invented a perpetual motion machine and the woolly minded who just know the Truth is out there.

Though it was said to me, in all earnestness, by someone who met a few of us recently, that they thought the four best minds in the country congregated at the Diogenes Club (modesty prevents me from naming the individuals so identified) I wouldn't want you to think that all our conversations were highly erudite and intellectual. It's true you may find the odd conversation here and there about the nature of Time or the workings of the grand unified field theory, but you will also hear about the history of the seaside or the films of David Lean or even the building of garden sheds. And in the reading room together with well thumbed copies of The Times, you will also find some of our more interesting provincial newspapers such as the Hengistbury Head Times.

One thing that may surprise you is the club's most widely-read journal (which used to be the The National Enquirer - that hotbed of unbelievable truth, alas no longer with us) is now past issues of Astounding Stories, which has to be admitted does contain some elements of fiction. I think the reason for the popularity of this particular magazine among club members is the resonance it produces, as much of the goings-on in and around the club are not too dissimilar to the kind of events that you read about in Astounding Stories. In fact many of the club's more interesting events have ended up (rewritten and anonymize of course) among the pages of that august journal.

One example which came to mind recently was the strange tale of the brain of Dr Morbius. Morbius or Professor Morbius F.R.S. to give him his full title, was one of the founding members of the Diogenes Club. He was well known within his own academic circles as the greatest living expert on arthropods - every genus, family and species he had personally committed to memory due to his extraordinary facility of having a true photographic memory. From the age of 2 he had shown the most astounding ability in being able to remember word for word everything he had seen or heard. Every book, every newspaper article, every parliamentary debate he had ever read or heard was at his total recall.

Many is the time he would sit in the long gallery of the club and entertain the members by reciting, word for word, any part of Great Expectations, or The Old Curiosity Shop or any other book which he had read. He would just start at any chapter you named and without book or paper or any aid would just recite the whole thing with complete accuracy. You would inevitably have some members checking him with the book open in their hands but never once did anyone hear him make a mistake even though he had not read some of those books for over 20 years.

And his facility with hearing was just as astounding. He could recall exactly every word of a conversation that he had heard, even if it had taken place years before and lasted many hours. I recall the time when often Dr Morbius would be called to settle some argument in the Club about who had said what last week. You know the kind of thing, one member would accuse the other of having said so and so and the other would say he never did. Morbius would be sent for, and if had been present his pronouncement would settle the matter unequivocally.

Of course as you might expect, Dr Morbius' abilities became centrally important to the running of the club. All the rules, amendments, deliberations, protocols, commentaries, minutes, membership rolls and decisions of the club were stored in Morbius' head. You could go so far as to say that Morbius was the club - so reliable was he that he eclipsed every other form of record and eventually no other form was used. And this was the how things persisted for many years.

So it came as a great shock to the club to discover one day that Morbius had consulted his doctor only to find he had been diagnosed with an incurable complaint and was give just 6 months to live. Being a methodical and practical person it was professor Morbius' desire to ensure that all his effect were in order before the 6 months were up. But things are not so straightforward with a person like Morbius. What would become of all the archives held in his brain? He started at once writing down everything he recalled of the club's activities into a set of journals. But it was soon realised that even if Morbius was to spend all his six months transcribing everything in his head, he would only be able to cover a small part of it. Still Morbius pressed on believing it his duty to the members to at least record as much as possible.

Being the scientist he was he began to conduct investigations into other ways of preserving the information in his brain. And it was not long before he came up with an astounding but nevertheless practical plan. He addressed the assembled members one day "I have given the problem much thought. The disease that is in my body is not affecting my brain in any way. So I have come to the conclusion that the best way to protect the brain from the body is to sever one from the other.

A gasp went round assembly. "What do you mean professor?" called out a voice.

He looked at us solemnly. "With any serious illness you have to cut away the diseased part. I my case that means cutting away the body in order to preserve my head and my brain. It makes clear logical sense."

"No one can survive if they have their head cut off," shouted Carruthers, rather stating the obvious.

"I am not proposing to cut off my head, but rather cut off my body. There is an important difference. It is not my head I am proposing to throw away." He smiled benignly. "I have looked into this whole matter very carefully. My head shall be preserved in a machine that will supply all the necessary blood and nutrients. It is all rather simple and straightforward from a scientific point of view and I have already engaged my colleagues at University College Hospital to begin constructing the machine. I have calculated that with 12 pints of blood and the appropriate filters and glucose and enzyme injectors the machine would run without problems. With your approval I propose that my head will be bequeathed to the Club who will look after it here."

And so it was. A quick resolution of the club members agreed that Dr Morbius brain with all its essential information would be preserved for the club and for posterity. Within the month the procedure was scheduled. A team of surgeons from UCH came and after an eight hour operation the professor's head was duly removed and place in the machine. Apparently it was quite a straightforward procedure. It was just a matter of connecting the veins and arteries to the appropriate pipes and pumps that took away the blood, cleaned and filtered it, added the appropriate level of hormones, enzymes, vitamins and nutrients (mostly in the form of simple glucose) and the task was completed.

The machine itself was where all the complexity lay. It had to perform all the tasks that the various organs in the human body did. Top of the list was the liver with over 500 functions. But there are also the functions of the kidneys, pancreas, spleen, adrenal glands etc to duplicate. Fortunately not all functions are as vital as others and the medial team reduced the total number to 27 essential processes that the machine could perform. However even 27 processes take up a lot of space which meant the machine was of a serious size and had to be installed in a dedicated room that was given over by the club to the sole purpose of storing the head. Later on it became possible to create a more portable machine that the brain could be transferred to and wheeled around from room to room. But the brain could not survive long in the portable machine and had to be transferred back to the main critical-support unit within 8 hours or necrosis would begin.

I don't know what we were all expecting to see once the transfer had taken place but I can tell you that the vision of a disembodied head staring out at your from above a rack of technical equipment was unnerving for even the hardiest of the members. One or two could not bear to be in the same room as 'the head' as they called it. Some had even been physically sick when first confronted by it. What Morbius himself would make of it we could only guess.

At first there was little in the way of communication. The head made no movement and seemed asleep or even dead, so little happened. But we were assured by the medics that all was well and we needed to give Morbius' head time to recuperate from the ordeal. Then around 10 days after the operation the eyes flicked opened and stared unresponsively back at anyone who care to look into them. It took another day or so before I noticed that the eyes started to follow people around the room. Progress was swift after that.

It was the next day that communication was established. I suppose most of us were thinking that Morbius would just start talking when he was good and ready but it was not so simple as that. To talk you not only needed a pair of vocal chords but also the diaphragm and lungs to push the air over them in a controlled way. But Morbius had neither.

Blinking was the only means of communicating to begin with. We set up a simple code, once for yes, twice for no, and different blinks for other words, but the whole thing was damnably slow.

"Are you alright, Professor Morbius?"


"Is there anything we can get you?... do for you?"

Blink, Blink.

It was Morbius himself who, through this tortuous means, eventually suggested that we run a line of compressed air from the critical-support unit in through the severed neck and over the larynx and by a method of trial and error and with a good deal of patience Morbius was able to talk again. So successful and rapid was the progress with restoring the voice of Morbius that a closed club meeting was announced for Morbius' first public appearance.

"Thank you all gentlemen for coming," began the head. The words didn't sound human, more mechanical and aspirated with a gentle hiss of air in the background. "The experiment has proved a complete success and I am very pleased with the outcome. As far as I can tell, all my faculties remain fully intact and completely under my control. My memory is still as comprehensive as ever it was and my powers of recall are total. And I am please to put all of this at yours and the clubs disposal."

An appreciative murmur circulated around the assembled throng. "Let's hear it for Dr Morbius! Hip Hip Hurray!" Everyone cheered. I looked over at Manton who had always deprecated these kinds of shows of enthusiasm which he said were artificial, but I noticed even he joined in on this occasion.

Well it was not long before the brain of Morbius was again at the centre of the Club's activities. It became a daily routine each morning to detach the head from the critical-support unit and place it on the portable unit. In order to spare the sensitives of those members who could never come to terms with shocking sight, it became customary to place a black silk cloak around the whole apparatus buttoned right up to the neck of Morbius' head. This gave the impression of some kind of conical body below the head that glided smoothly on wheels. In this fashion Morbius was moved from room to room to partake in the day to day running of the club. He even spent some time in the long gallery enjoying the informal conversion of club members who dropped in.

And in this way Morbius continued to take part in the life of the club, though what sort of life it was only Morbius could know. On the surface he seemed at ease with his new situation and said the he felt more like a machine than a human being and that suited him fine - though a few of us who knew him well did not believe that. Being more machine, than human enabled him to think more clearly he told us. It gave him a detached view of things - a less emotive view. But I thought that I caught sight of those emotions he sought hard to suppress, cross his face now and again. Often we would see him with what I took to be tears in his eyes but which he assured us was no more than a fluid mis-adjustment in the support machine. However one thing that no one could doubt was that Morbius' brain was more creative and productive than ever. But whether by design or accident it was one of Morbius' brilliant innovations that brought everything crashing to an end.

Morbius had realized in his disembodied state that the storage capacity of his brain was, if not infinite, at least much larger than had been understood and could accommodate much more information than he had so far fed into it. He also learned that the processing speed of his brain could be greatly increased allowing information to be fed into his brain at 10, 20 or even a 100 times the rate he had previously. And as there was very little else that Morbius could other than acquire information, that became his main goal.

This lead him to the design of what he called his 'brain cramming machine' It worked rather like a huge reel to reel tape recorder. The idea was simple. He could employ people to read books for him, encyclopedias, novels, textbooks, everything directly onto the recording machine and then he could listen to it playback over the loudspeaker at 100 times the speed it went in. No one else could understand the sound that came from it, and I dare say Morbius himself couldn't understand the sound in real time either. But he found that it all lodged in his memory and when he mentally played back the unrecognisable sounds to himself and slowed them down appropriately in his head he could understand everything and had access to all the information in compressed form.

And so the process began of assistants recording everything they could lay their hands on. They spoke directly into the recorder and Morbius would listen to the playback in 100th the time and remember it all.And that was how it all came to an abrupt end.

As I said before, we don't know if it was an accident or not but if it wasn't then I can confidently say that only Morbius himself could have thought of this as a way of ending it all. He instructed his assistant to leave the recording facility switched on. The assistant was quite adamant about that in the later inquest. Morbius then instructed him to switch on the playback, turn the volume up and leave the room immediately and silently. This he did without question, not knowing what it was for or what the effect might be.

It was only an hour or so later that he returned to find Morbius dead and with his eyes staring unresponsively straight ahead. There was a high pitched whine coming from the recording/playback machine which clearly had entered some kind of feedback loop. It appeared from the investigation later that Morbius had spoken some words into the recorder and with the loudspeaker switched on those words had been speeded up and heard all over the laboratory. The compressed words were then pick up again by the recorder and came out of the loudspeaker even faster and so the loop went on louder and louder and faster and faster. Round and round it went through the recorder and out the other end till the information became a whirring blur of sound. Morbius of course heard all of this and it was fed directly into his brain at increasing speed. It seems that some kind of limit must have been reached and a mental overload occurred. Metaphorically it blew a neurological fuse.

The inquest ruled that it was just a tragic accident. Death by misadventure. But I am not so sure. A couple of days after the inquest, I went back into the lab and I fished out that final message that had been screeching out of the machine and did my own analysis on it. I wanted to know if that sound held any clue to what had happened. I had to run it backwards through the recorder for around an hour before I could make sense of it. It was Morbius himself speaking. It wasn't much but it was enough.

Morbius' last words were unmistakable. He had spoken ten simple words that had wrapped themselves up into a torrent of information repeated over and over again. "I am not a machine, I am a human being".

No comments: