When I was little, I had the run of the lab. Sometimes I got into trouble.
Once, I used Papa’s prototype tissue-transfer device to attach six extra arms to my left leg. I first tried just one arm, turning on the machine and letting it warm up, lifting the slimy limb out of its growing tank with a pair of tongs just as I had seen Papa do, placing it in one pair of robotic hands and letting another pair take hold of my leg, and then pressing the blue button that I could barely reach. The grafting solution stung a little bit, but the arm attached with such a satisfying plop-pop! noise that I just couldn’t stop. I’m sure I would have started on my right leg if Papa hadn’t come back from his cigarette break just then. I don’t think he worried about me in the least, though he didn’t stop shouting at me the whole time he was removing the arms—he kept saying, “Do you have any idea, Natalie, how long those take to grow?” And, “You’ve cost me at least two weeks’ work, kid!”
Another time, I made up my mind that I wanted to play with all the pretty little handles and buttons in the booth in the corner. I took a stool and a stack of phone books into it, plus my ham and cheese sandwich that I was supposed to eat in the kitchen, and I climbed up onto the control panel and set my juice cup on top of the shiny numbers. When I shut the door to the booth I discovered to my delight that the phosphorescent formula I had accidentally fallen into that morning made me glow a lovely green color in the dark, and I didn’t need to turn on the light at all. I spent quite a while admiring my luminous hands and trying to smear my sandwich with the same stuff. When I got bored I started climbing all over and pulling on all the handles. Eventually, needing to pee, I opened the door again—and stepped out into a mess of fighting shouting people in odd clothes, all of whom screamed in horror when they saw me.
I know now that I must have scared those poor soldiers badly. They were busy fighting on the field of Quebec, smack dab in the middle of the French and Indian War, and had troubles enough without seeing a small, green, glowing girl in a gingham dress stepping out of a metal box.
When I managed to get myself home, we were all speaking English instead of French. Can you imagine? Fortunately I’ve always been good at languages. The first words I had to learn were, “Look what you’ve done to that dress, Natalie!” Mama scolded me all the way to the laundry room.
My Mama was the original gasping, wide-eyed lab assistant, always ready to press a shapely hand to her breast and ask, “But, darling, isn’t it terribly dangerous?” Or exclaim, “Yes! And then everyone will live in peace and prosperity!” She must have been the only decorative sight in that room painted institutional green, full of test tubes and flatulent piping and humming machines and odd specimens floating in jars along the walls.
By the time I was born, she didn’t spend much time in the lab. Papa liked to play dice with the laws of nature, and after a while he sabotaged not only his moral sense but his social skills as well, spending more and more time with the building blocks of life and less and less with the everyday business of it. In any case, Mama always found she had little energy to cook dinner after a long day of helping to create monsters.
I was my parents’ only human creation, and I came about in the normal way. Apparently I inherited Mama’s looks and Papa’s brains. Again and again in my life I’ve gotten the best of a bad bargain.
Papa never found out about Quebec, but I got into plenty of other trouble, so when I was seven he exiled me from the lab. I cried and cried the day he shut the door of that Aladdin’s cave of bright jeweled eyes and exciting noises, and sent me to the kitchen. Not long after this, Mama remembered that I ought to be in school. I did well there, once my teachers cured me of my longing to experiment on my fellow students. (“Hold still while I attach these electrodes. Considering the fact that you can’t even do multiplication, you won’t notice a thing after I do the brain exchange. . . .”) But when I came home from school I always had to turn left, into the kitchen, instead of right, into the lab. This may be the reason that I always approach my lecture hall with a right turn, and that I always make sure that no matter what house I live in, the kitchen is on the right-hand side of the hall.
So: into the kitchen I went. By the time I was 10 I had hot-wired an old toaster and a Waring blender so that I could conduct electrical experiments on peanut butter cookies. I spent two months solving the conduction problem. I had my own corner of the kitchen with my own stool. I worried that Mama would complain about the constant fizzing and the sparkle of arcing currents. But she hardly noticed the noise amid the daily din from the lab, the maniacal shouts and tortured roars of really dangerous science. I still have a hard time taking any research seriously unless I’ve had a good diabolical laugh over it.
Bless Mama. Because of her I was never short of equipment. When she saw that a cake mixer or a waffle iron had migrated to my corner, she simply bought a new one. Because of her, a week after my eleventh birthday, I created a brownie with a heartbeat. “Look, Mama, look!” I cried as it thumped its way across the counter. Mama was dressing a chicken for dinner.
“That’s lovely, dear,” she said absently. “You ought to patent it.”
I knew right where Papa kept the forms for the Patent Office, so I took her advice. After that, it was only a question of who would get to me first: MIT, or the FBI.
Fortunately MIT moved fast in those days.
I don’t remember much about my undergraduate years, except that dating was difficult. Mama had warned me that men didn’t like smart girls, but I pointed out that it didn’t matter much what they liked, since I was only 12. “Let me get my Ph.D. first, Mama, and then we can worry about all that,” I told her, and she shrugged and said, “Of course you’re right, dear. I don’t know what I was thinking. Are you sure you want to link that spatula to the cathode ray tube?” But after my Ph.D., I discovered that Mama was only partly right about men. Once I could get them to look up from their experiments, everything went like cell division.
MIT gave me my own kitchen and a teaching post, with the help of a grant from the Department of Defense, where a few scientists were interested in ballistic baking. At the time, I regret to say, I did anything I could to get funding, even help the Army pack death into macaroons. I also created numerous best-selling cookies on university time, shamelessly courting Pepperidge Farm and Sara Lee, but since I brought in money and fame, I suppose my alma mater did well out of it.
Not all of my cookies succeeded in the market or on the tongue. My Frosted Tesla Coils had to carry too many health warnings, and even today no one with a pacemaker should attempt to eat one. My self-replicating chocolate chips presented too many challenges for the human digestive system. But the Unexpected Oreo, with its tingling, mildly hallucinogenic cream center, paid for all. In 1967 we brought out a stronger version, but you won’t find it in stores now—some very pleasant men from the government showed up for tea in the early ’70s, and we agreed that I should avoid the expense of a court case.
About this time Papa ran into difficulties, as you may remember. Most people believe he died in his burning lab, shouting defiance at the National Guardsmen trying to control the Hydra in the front yard. In fact he was quietly led away to an asylum, someone shot the Hydra with a tranquilizer dart and took it away to Area 51, and the lab burned a week later, largely because Papa was always a terrible electrician and couldn’t wire his way out of a paper bag. Fortunately for Mama, the Unexpected Oreo had already made my fortune, and I could look after her and pay the asylum bills.
Poor Papa, always wanting to rule the world. In his lab, Papa was King of transformation, General of the army of ideas, Admiral of a fleet of swimming creatures in tanks, Supreme Tyrant over nature. I know now that lots of people want to rule the world. I wanted to too. Like Papa, I thought I knew the best way to do everything. In my kitchen in the early days, I commanded legions of cookies, and in my lecture hall I earnestly formed thousands of minds, seducing row upon row of students with my rhetoric, like a dictator inspiring her armies. I wanted to rule the world with my ideas and theories. I dreamed of succeeding where my father, with his diseases and tentacles and time machines, had failed.
Papa often neglected to notice that the mailman had delivered the wrong brain. His time machine had rusty gears. And his little daughter, before he sent her away from his side, liked to drop dry pinto beans in the growth tanks, ruining his chances of creating a super race. In the same way, when I demonstrate during lectures, my batter blows up and my sugared violets crawl away, as often as not. I still command legions of cookies, but while I am busy marching my armies out of the oven I sometimes trip over the cat. Perhaps we cannot really rule anything, let alone the world. Perhaps nothing we do will ever be perfect. Perhaps this does not matter at all.
When I was seven, I exchanged the flashing buttons of the formula tanks for the speed buttons on a stand mixer. Instead of growing limbs, I grew yeast. I went back in time, not by setting a badly calibrated clock in a frail metal box, but by opening a frail metal recipe box. When the women around me began to demand better pay and equal rights, I began to read the books they were reading, and I decided my parents had made me a poor bargain and forced me into the classic cage for a woman. “For how long have we had to pour all our capacity for calculation into measuring cups?” I raged in my papers. “For how long have we had to feed our famished desire for knowledge with muffins? Why do we only get to pickle cucumbers and never brains?”
I asked all these questions and poured my feminist rage into batch after batch of electric cookies, powered by lightning and GE. When men ate them, they got a shock, and when women ate them, they got an orgasm—or the solution to a physics problem, depending on the frosting.
Then, one sweet and thunder-free afternoon, I sat at my kitchen table with a cup of tea and a phosphorescent meringue, thumbing through Feynman’s lectures. The sun slanting through the window warmed my back and picked out motes of dust on the old hotwired toaster-blender combination. I had a moment of quiet, empty of stuttering lab assistants and free of the smell of burning sugar. I turned one page. I turned another. I looked up and stared at nothing. In that moment, I remembered a soldier I saw at Quebec when I first stepped out of the time machine.
She—for this soldier was a girl—wore what was probably her brother’s uniform, which didn’t fit all that well. I think I was the only person on the battlefield who knew why. People don’t see what they don’t expect to see. But I had no idea what to expect, being only five, and being used to much more unusual things than a woman holding a gun. She knew exactly how to hold a gun, by the way. I didn’t know this at the time, but when I saw soldiers in newsreels later, I recognized her confident grip on her weapon. At the time, though, we simply stared into each other’s startled faces while she stood over me for a brief moment in the thick of battle. And then she stepped back into the dust and the powder smoke and the shouting and the squeals of horses that sounded like monsters being born.
Too many women, I think, get lost in the measuring cups, but not all of us. When I think of that soldier, I wonder whether she wanted to be out there. I never had time to ask her, “Do you like the blood and the bullets, or would you rather be laying brick or baiting bulls—or even baking cookies?” But I have learned much, while strapping extra lightning rods to my chimney or cheerfully ignoring the doubts of my colleagues. I know now that there are a hundred ways to become the mad scientist you need to be.