Lord of the Fruit Flies

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March, 1640

Prague

 

Jan Novak squirmed in his seat during the early morning service, asking God for forgiveness for what he was about to do. Reflexively, he patted the small satchel under his cloak and checked that his bag was still next to him. Bright sunlight was already starting to stream through the glass windows, but Jan pulled his coat tighter to protect against the early morning chill. Today is a perfect day. No one will be in the building.

****

Meanwhile, a short distance away in the Jewish Quarter Joseph Kantor lay in bed and debated whether to take care of his duties today right away or put them off a little longer. Doing them right away won the debate, but it was close thing. The sooner I remove the old adults, the sooner I can cross the virgin flies. It’s not as if I need to be in the laboratory all day long, and I do not want to cross flies by candlelight or wait another day, Joseph thought as he stretched and got out of his nice warm bed and began dressing. I wish I had an assistant or two. They could be the ones getting up early to do this part. I only need to train them in how to perform the cross. Then I could focus on analyzing the results of the cross and planning the next experiment instead of doing it all myself.

Joseph walked briskly to the University of Prague building that housed most of the School of Medicine’s research laboratories and let himself in via the side door instead of the front door. Even though Prague had embraced freedom of religion and torn down the walls that separated the Jewish Quarter from the rest of the city, it was unwise to make it obvious that Joseph was working on the goyish sabbath. Also, the side door never closed properly, so Joseph didn’t even need to fiddle with his keys to get inside. The building itself resembled a cloister, with hallways surrounding a central courtyard that housed a garden filled with medicinal plants and a shed which held what Joseph liked to think of as Schmidt’s folly, the university’s expensive burning lens. Honestly, you can do the same things with a voltaic pile or a Bunsen burner. You do not need what amounts to a giant magnifying lens to set things on fire without smoke or residue.

Once inside the building, Joseph let himself into his laboratory, kitty-corner from an entrance to the inner courtyard, and began to set up for the first part of today’s experiment. The first filial generation of an interesting double cross of wing mutations were ready to be bred to see what the offspring of the second filial cross would look like. Joseph had just finished writing out his plan in his notebook and was about to set out the supplies he needed for the removal of the adult flies when he heard the sound of footsteps in the corridor. I should be the only one here at this hour. Who else could be here and what are they doing that cannot wait until Monday? Joseph thought. He checked to see if he had his pepperbox pistol and quietly opened his laboratory door and peered down the hall. What he saw sent a chill down his spine. Someone was kneeling in front of the door to the courtyard and was picking its lock.

****

Jan was so focused on picking the lock that he didn’t realize he was not alone until someone grabbed his arm and pushed him away from the door and into the wall next to it. Jan twisted to see who had grabbed him and was surprised to see it was a man not much older than himself, with dark brown curly hair, dark eyes, sallow skin, and a large nose, dressed in the manner of most of the Jews of Prague. It took Jan a moment to recognize Professor Kantor, who taught biology with a focus on inheritance. "Who are you and what are you doing here?" Professor Kantor bellowed into his ear. "Do you have any good reasons I shouldn’t call the watch right now?"

Jan sputtered in indignation. "I’m trying to see if I can use a burning lens to turn the red calx of mercury back into metallic mercury and oxygen. If a Frenchman and an Englishman could do it, I should be able to do it. Professor Schmidt says I am good at Chemistry and the Frenchman’s wife drew detailed pictures of everything he did." Professor Kantor snorted with disbelief. "If you do not believe me, look in my bag. I have the red calx I need right there," Jan pleaded.

Joseph shifted his grip, pressed his body against the thief to keep him pinned and used a free hand to sift through the bag. A cold shiver shot down his spine when he saw a vial that did indeed contain what appeared to be at least 1000 grains of mercuric oxide. "You idiot! That stuff is dangerous! Have you ever used a burning lens? Do you know how to safely handle a dangerous substance like mercuric oxide? Just because you read it in a textbook does not mean it is an easy experiment to perform. Nor does it give you the authority to break into a building and use valuable equipment without permission. You should be expelled for your hubris alone, let alone breaking into the building." Professor Kantor grabbed Jan by the shoulders and began frog-marching him towards the exit of the building.

"But I didn’t break into the building. The side door was unlocked. You caught me before I was able to get into the courtyard. But I can produce oxygen from red calx of mercury. I, Jan Novak, will be known as a better chemist than Dr. Gribbleflotz. I’ve studied the procedures, and I know it like the back of my hand." Jan then slapped his chest for emphasis.

That statement made Joseph pause. Five years ago, he might have said something equally impetuous and boastful. "I’m sure, just like how I thought it would be easy to set up my own fruit fly laboratory and it would be fine to do it in my apartment because I saw pictures of one in a book," he said, shaking his head ruefully as memories bubbled up to the surface. He is determined to perform scientific experiments or die trying. I was that way once. I would love an assistant with that level of zeal. The lad may have some potential if he can be taught some restraint and common sense. Otherwise, he might wind up like that story I heard about in Grantville, The Magician’s Apprentice I think it was called. Besides, he didn’t actually break into the courtyard, just attempted to do it.

"Didn’t you? I thought Professor Schmidt said you had a fruit fly laboratory in Jena and brought it here when you were added to the faculty." Jan asked, confusion filling his voice. He also noticed the expression on Professor Kantor’s face softening.

"I did not say I was not successful, but I nearly died in a riot because of it. Have you ever heard the story of my first genetics laboratory?"

When Jan shook his head, Professor Kantor paused thoughtfully.

"It would take a while to summon the watch and the punishment for what you have done should fit the crime. You would probably be sent to the stocks or ordered to provide service to the university as punishment. Help me and I may consider it time served. I will tell you the tale while you prove your worth." Joseph picked up the satchel of lock picks. "I’m keeping these as evidence by the way. No more attempted break-ins."

Jan couldn’t believe his ears. I may not get arrested and I get to do some research? A saint is on my side today.

Joseph ushered Jan into the open door of his laboratory, careful not to let Jan pull any fast moves, but Jan seemed to be entranced by the offer of assisting Joseph’s research. "As you may know, I was one of the first Jewish students at the University of Jena and anxious to prove my worth to everyone. No one in my family liked my choice. They wanted me to go study medicine with my great-uncle here in Prague instead of at the University of Jena isolated from other Jews. They were worried about my safety, especially after Jew-haters attempted to start a pogrom in Grantville and murdered the mayor. The students and faculty seemed to either pointedly ignore my existence or treated me like a delicate rare flower, both of which annoyed me. I wanted everyone to see me and realize how valuable I was. Then one day in class . . ."

 

September, 1635

Jena

 

Joseph Kantor sat transfixed during the lecture about up-time medical research techniques. He had some familiarity with them from his time as a student in Grantville, so was glad to encounter them again. This was the whole reason he had chosen to attend the University of Jena for medical school instead of following his family’s wishes and studying medicine under his great-uncle Daniel Gottesmann in Prague. In Prague, he would have just been studying the old ways and living his life by the old rules. In Jena, he was starting a new path and studying the new modes of medicine, up-time medicine. He would never be confined to a ghetto or by ghetto rules again if he could help it.

Ceasing wool-gathering to pay attention to the interesting lecture once more, Joseph heard Professorin Mary Pat Flanagan say, "And now we will discuss several of the common model organisms and their advantages and disadvantages as scientific models."

As Flanagan discussed the advantages and disadvantages of mice, plants, bacteria, and other odd forms of life, one caught Joseph’s attention: fruit flies. "They are easy to keep in small spaces at room temperature, only require a magnifying glass or microscope to examine closely, and have a short generation time. They are a favorite for genetics studies and are useful for the small lab of limited resources." Joseph had heard about fruit flies. In Deborah, they were annoying pests that plagued households and rubbish heaps wherever there was spoiled fruit. Those small flies with bright red eyes could be used to study inheritance, what the up-timers called genetics? The lecture stirred another memory, one that he would have to double-check in a book back in his lodgings. He was sure he had seen a mention of them in his high school biology textbook, even though the professor there had talked primarily about pea plants. Joseph liked the idea of studying inheritance, but he seemed to have poor luck when it came to plants. He had tried to grow pea plants to do a bit of experimentation back in high school for the science fair, but half of his plants didn’t sprout and the ones that did were so sickly they did not produce seeds. He had to withdraw from the fair in shame. But the professorin had said fruit flies were easy to study. Surely Joseph could breed them, even in small quarters like his lodgings.

When he returned to his lodgings after class, Joseph made a beeline to his high school textbooks. There was only a brief mention of fruit flies in the section on inheritance, related to the rediscovery of Gregor Mendel’s work by someone named Morgan, and a picture of the laboratory. Carefully studying the picture over and over, Joseph noted that the flies were kept in glass test tubes and flasks topped with a wooly plug and filled with what looked like fruit boiled into mush. The natural philosophers examined them with microscopes or magnifying lenses to find the small differences between flies. It looked like such an easy set-up compared to pea plants. Within a few weeks, he could replicate it and start breeding fruit flies.

 

March, 1640

Prague

 

Joseph paused and pointed to the notebook on his bench. "The first thing you can do is copy the instructions I have written down. Did you bring a notebook with you? I didn’t see one in your bag."


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