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Poem: "An Equation for Conscience" - The Wordsmith's Forge
The Writing & Other Projects of Elizabeth Barrette
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Poem: "An Equation for Conscience"

This poem came out of the May 6, 2014 Poetry Fishbowl.  It was inspired by prompts from ng_moonmoth and technoshaman.  It has been sponsored by ng_moonmoth.  This poem belongs to the series Polychrome Heroics.



An Equation for Conscience

Maze

Dark comes early in winter,
throwing blue shadows over white snow
even though it's barely into evening.

Campus gleams with golden lights
in the windows of the buildings,
everyone busy after winter break.

I make my patrol slowly and carefully,
alert for trouble, my mask and costume
tucked in my backpack in case
something goes wrong and I need them.

I'm walking past the front of the
Barton Chemistry Building
when something goes KABOOM

and it is Ham's turn now.


Ham

I fling on my costume as I run.
Skidding on ice, I rush up the stairs
and shove the doors open.

There's no doubt about where
the explosion came from,
not with clouds of something
pouring out of the lab,
smoke or dust or who-knows-what.

I'm all ready to yell at Farce
or Miss Mixit and Mr. Whiz,
but they aren't there.

I stop, startled, because
there's only one normal-looking girl
and she already has the fire extinguisher
properly aimed at the base of the flames.

The fire goes out before
I can even get across the room.

Well, that's a bit of a letdown.
I thought I was needed here,
but maybe I'm not after all.


Clarity

I slip forward as Ham's grip slackens,
already scanning the room for clues.

From the jumble of instruments
I conclude that an experiment in progress
has gone horribly wrong somehow.

The girl's mind is a storm
of thoughts and emotions
battering at my inner shields --
I know that her name is
Adhita Chaturvedi and she's
a chemistry graduate working as
a teaching assistant to pay her way.

"Hi," I say.  "I heard the noise.
Is there anything I can do to help?"

She looks at me, her silky black hair
coming loose from its neat bun,
tear streaks smearing the white dust
that clings to her brown skin.

"I don't think anything will help,"
Adhita says.  "This is a disaster!"

"Why don't you tell me about it?"
I coax.  "Maybe we can think of something."

"It's the new fertilizer that Dr. Kohler invented,"
Adhita explains.  "He claims that it's safe,
but it's not, it hasn't been tested nearly enough.
I think he's falsifying data to get more grant money."

I look around at the powdery residue
and the burned part of the lab bench.
"It looks like you're right about the safety concerns."

"I've been with Dr. Kohler for over three years,"
Adhita says.  "I'm supposed to graduate in spring,
but if this gets out -- if he knows I'm the one who --
I don't think I'll make it, he'll shoot me down somehow."

"He'll have a hard time doing that if
he loses his job for fraudulent grant applications,"
I point out, waving a hand at the mess.
"All you have to do is demonstrate
how hazardous this stuff is."

"That's just the problem," she wails.
"I can't duplicate my results!
I've gotten three reactions --
I wasn't expecting this one to be so huge --
but all under different circumstances.
I know there's a pattern but I can't find it."

"Well, I'm no chemist, so I can't help you there,"
I admit.  "What do you think will happen
if you don't say anything?"

"A lot of people could get hurt,"
Adhita says, sniffling.  "But it's more than that.
Dr. Kohler is practicing bad science.
Every time somebody does that,
it makes people distrust scientists in general.
It's not just grant fraud, it's an attack
on what science even means."

"That sounds pretty important to you,"
I say, hoping to lead her to the right decision.

"It is, I just, I don't know what to do,"
she says.  "Do you happen to know
an equation for conscience?"

"I'm afraid not," I say,
and she bursts out crying.

I can't say I blame her,
after the explosion itself and now
the added stress that the implications
place on her own education,
but I'm better at figuring out problems
than handling hard emotions.

Keane nudges at me,
and I gladly get out of the way.


Keane

"Come on," I say,
putting a gentle hand
on Adhita's shoulder.
"Let me walk you to the
Student Health Center.
You can rinse off that gunk there,
and I know a guy who's really good
at talking out ethical dilemmas."

"Really?" she asks,
leaning into me a little.

"Really," I say.  "His name's Jason.
He has helped me with a lot of
personal shit this year."

She lets me lead her outside,
down the slippery steps
where nobody's bothered
to throw down any salt because
the school claims to be broke.

Yeah, I've seen the car
that the Dean drives.
I'm not fooled.

"What about the lab?"
Adhita asks as we walk.

"We can call in what happened,"
I say.  "It's probably not safe in there.
Staying wouldn't be a good idea."

She nods.  "It's not a strong poison,
but it's not really good for you either."
Then she sighs.  "I'm scared."

I wrap an arm around her.
"Of course you are," I say.
I can feel the ache of fear
and sorrow all through her.
"Lab accidents are scary.
Supervisors can be scary too!"

"I'm afraid that Dr. Kohler
will get me expelled or something,"
Adhita says, shivering.
"He doesn't take bad news well."

"He might try," I say.
I skim off just the top of her misery,
so she won't feel crushed by it,
but not enough to be conspicuous.
"You'll have other people
to back up your claims, though."

"I'm not even sure I want to tell,"
Adhita says in a low voice.

"That's okay," I assure her.
"You don't have to decide tonight.
In fact, it's probably good if you don't.
It's not smart to make major decisions
when you're all shaken up like this.
Calm down, sleep on it, and then
think about this again in the morning."

"All right," she says.
"I think I can do that."

When we arrive at
the Student Health Center,
I give her Jason's office number
and watch to make sure that
she gets safely inside the doors.

Then I turn and walk
back the way we came.
I still have a quarter
of the patrol to finish.

* * *

Notes:

The Barton Chemistry Building is named for Jacqueline K. Barton, one of the important women in chemistry.

Jumping to conclusions is a logical fallacy and a type of distorted thinking.  Learn to avoid jumping to conclusions.  Ham is responding to a current situation based on past experience rather than prejudice, so it's not without reason; but it still leads to a wrong guess based on insufficient information.

Lab safety includes knowing how to handle lab fires and fire extinguishers.

Upset people tend to broadcast their thoughts and feelings.  This is one reason why people with telepathy and/or empathy need to learn shielding and other protection techniquesRepeating your name or other focus is a good coping skill in times of stress.  This student is probably thinking something like, "My name is Adhita Chaturvedi.  I'm a chemist and I know how to deal with a lab fire."  Very loudly.

Fertilizers are notorious for causing explosions.  Chasing the money in science can impair both safety and quality.

One aspect of scientific method relies on replicable results.  However, taking that expectation too far can cause problems.  An issue is often spotted long before it can be proved, and mixed results can be caused by variables which have not yet been isolated.  If there's a safety concern, protect first, then refine the data.

Attacks on science tend to undermine trust in science and thereby reduce everyone's quality of life.  If society lacks a trustworthy foundation, people may hesitate in a crisis even if they know what to do.

Following your conscience is a basic part of trustworthiness.  You need to understand personal ethics and develop your own code, such as this one. Risk-benefit is one valid equation in ethical decision-making.  Know how to make an ethical decision in your everyday life.  Organizations can also establish an environment that supports moral courage.

Whistleblowers take tremendous risks and usually see poor results for their heroic efforts to reveal wrongdoing.  They need better protections.  Remember that you get what you reward.  If you protect troublemakers and attack whistleblowers, then you will get more problems and fewer solutions.  For this reason some whistleblowers seek to protect their privacy.

Emotional first aid is as important as physical first aid.  The goals are the same: treat current problems, prevent any more things from going wrong, stabilize the victim, and seek expert care for anything more than minor.  There are simple and more detailed instructions for emotional first aid.

Talking with a counselor or other support person can help resolve an ethical dilemma.  A good helper will walk you through the steps of responsible decision-making without making the decision for you.  A concern in teaching is how much help to give.  Make sure the person understands how to do the work, but don't do it for them.  That means with young people, you may need to tell them what to do, until they are old enough to start asking why; then teach them good guiding principles and support them as they learn to make their own decisions (and mistakes).

Making wise decisions includes knowing what not to do.  Avoid making major decisions while angry or otherwise stressed.  Don't rush or make permanent decisions based on temporary emotions.  Instead, sleep on it and make calm decisions later.

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7 comments or Leave a comment
Comments
mdlbear From: mdlbear Date: May 9th, 2014 02:19 am (UTC) (Link)
Cool! These are the people that have my dad's papers!
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: May 9th, 2014 02:25 am (UTC) (Link)

Okay...

That is awesome.

I am now really, really tempted to hang "Savitsky" on an Urbanburg campus building, if you're amenable to that. Would you like it on a computer building? Another possibility would be that the Franklin Lab Building might get renamed after the renovation that will be needed to fix the fire damage.
mdlbear From: mdlbear Date: July 15th, 2014 04:25 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Okay...

I'd love that. How about the chemistry department library? Mom (Evelyn Savitzky) was second in command of the library at Perkin-Elmer, where Dad worked. (She's now running the library at the Galloway Ridge retirement community.)

Dad (Abraham Savitzky) was a spectroscopist who did pioneering work in the processing of spectra with computers. So the chemistry department's computer lab would be reasonable too. UU sounds big enough for the larger departments to have their own computer center, and it would be natural to combine it with their library because they're both about information. A huge part of being a corporate librarian is patent searches.

Edited at 2014-07-15 04:32 am (UTC)
From: technoshaman Date: May 11th, 2014 02:18 am (UTC) (Link)
Oooooh, I hate academic politics. Especially when they get dirty.

I hope this poor lassie gets where she needs to be.
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: May 11th, 2014 07:08 pm (UTC) (Link)

Yes...

>> Oooooh, I hate academic politics. Especially when they get dirty. <<

Agreed. Given that this series features a campus setting, it's an appropriate topic to tackle; several poems have bumped against it before, and this one has it as a core theme.

>> I hope this poor lassie gets where she needs to be. <<

Feel free to request more about her. One thing I'd like to explore in this series is how ordinary people interact with soups. I want to show naries as having agency of their own, not being just plot pawns to the soups as happens in conventional comics.
ng_moonmoth From: ng_moonmoth Date: May 16th, 2014 04:58 pm (UTC) (Link)

Re: Yes...

>> I want to show naries as having agency of their own, not being just plot pawns

Reading this in the light of Adhita's inferred heritage immediately got me thinking about the metaphorical chess game she seems to be playing the role of a piece in. Was this comment merely coincidental, or did the Indian ancestry of chess figure in to your choice of metaphor?

In this metaphor, I see Adhita as a pawn that is likely to be soon removed from the game to neutralize the threat she poses to Dr. Kohler. She can either go back into the box, or assert agency and become a player herself.

>> Feel free to request more about her.

Seconded. As of the end of "An Equation for Conscience", she seems to be poised at the point where she must make this decision, and I get the impression that she is the kind of person who will not be prepared to make it until she has explored the consequences enough to believe she has made the right decision for her.

I don't have the authority to dictate the extent to which the chess metaphor remains implicit. That is your right as author, and the characters will no doubt tell you what they are should you decide to continue the story.

(I'm thinking specifically of Kohler here. He could be either a player or just another piece; what you've written so far works, and fits the metaphor, either way.)
ysabetwordsmith From: ysabetwordsmith Date: May 17th, 2014 12:47 am (UTC) (Link)

Re: Yes...

>> Reading this in the light of Adhita's inferred heritage immediately got me thinking about the metaphorical chess game she seems to be playing the role of a piece in. Was this comment merely coincidental, or did the Indian ancestry of chess figure in to your choice of metaphor? <<

She is Indian by heritage. However, this is not where I'm purposely using a chess metaphor. I've got a different character for that, Koroleva / The Chessmistress, who hasn't made it into a poem yet but is listed among the characters.

>> In this metaphor, I see Adhita as a pawn that is likely to be soon removed from the game to neutralize the threat she poses to Dr. Kohler. She can either go back into the box, or assert agency and become a player herself. <<

Well, he could try. She's smarter than he thinks.

>> Seconded. <<

Yay! I'm glad you like her that much.

>> As of the end of "An Equation for Conscience", she seems to be poised at the point where she must make this decision, and I get the impression that she is the kind of person who will not be prepared to make it until she has explored the consequences enough to believe she has made the right decision for her. <<

True.

>> I don't have the authority to dictate the extent to which the chess metaphor remains implicit. That is your right as author, and the characters will no doubt tell you what they are should you decide to continue the story. <<

The fun thing about this kind of crowdfunding is that it's collaborative. Instead of deciding everything myself, I let the audience play too. I do get to decide what reasonably fits with a character or series -- some of them have firm rules, like "We can look back, but we can't go back; we can go only onward" in Path of the Paladins -- but the audience has a lot of leeway to influence things. You can decide which characters get more air time, for sure, and a lot of forks in the road have been determined by prompts also.

>> (I'm thinking specifically of Kohler here. He could be either a player or just another piece; what you've written so far works, and fits the metaphor, either way.) <<

He certainly likes to think of himself as a player. He acts to protect his own interests, and he treats other people as toys. He goes through assistants like kleenex for that reason. He has money and influence. On a local scale, especially within the university, he has a life-wrecking amount of power. Outside there, not so much. I think every university has some people like him.
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