Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A Scientist's Conclusion - Part 7

This is the final installment of this story. If you'd like to read it from the beginning, you can start here and move through the links to this one.

Sung was not in the hallway when the committee left the room, and he was not in the Men's Room where Carl stopped on the way back to his office. Carl was almost relieved that Sung was not waiting in the office when he got there, because he really didn't want to face the student. Carl was annoyed by the prospect of having to spend another year or more working with Sung on a Master's thesis, checking on him constantly to be certain that he was performing adequate controls, organizing his data, correcting the grammar and sentence structure of his thesis, and then having to sit through a thesis defense with the very real possibility that Sung would perform as miserably on that examination as he had done on this one.

Carl stayed in his office late that evening, as usual. He tried to dissociate himself from his student's failure by working on a theoretical paper that was his secret pride and that had been put aside during Sung's exam preparation. The sun had set and the office window that looked out on the silent, surrounding darkness mirrored Carl's silent, intense activity at his desk, cluttered with references and old notes for the paper.

Caught in thought, he glanced up at the blackened window and saw an image there—surreal—as if standing suspended in mid-air, three stories above the ground. Carl wheeled around in his chair. He faced a figure standing, feet on the floor, in the fully lighted room.

"Sung!" Carl exclaimed with a start. "When did you come in? How long have you been standing there ?"

Sung didn't answer. He stood motionless, his hands in his pockets and his eyes on the floor. He glanced up at Carl for a moment, then lowered his eyes and focused on a spot near Carl's feet. Sung stood there impassively; his face, uncharacteristically elongate for an Asian, was expressionless. His eyebrows extended across his forehead in two straight ridges and his mouth was set in a straight, firm line, parallel to the brows. The flesh around his eyes seemed puffy and, despite high cheekbones, his eyes had darkened circles under them. Sung seemed suddenly strange to Carl, very strange, as if he were someone Carl had never met before, as if the scientist were seeing the student for the first time.

"We have to talk about your exam, today," said Carl, bringing up the subject neither he nor Sung wanted to talk about. "You know you did very poorly on the exam."

"Questions not good. You do not advise me correctly on questions," retorted Sung with a slightly belligerent tone.

"Well, there's no way to know for sure what people are going to ask," said Carl defensively. "You just have to be prepared and then think on your feet. You are going to have to learn how to think on your feet."

"When will I take next examination?"

"You won't. You failed the exam, but you're lucky the committee didn't just decide to fail you outright. They recommended that you be allowed to finish at the Master's level."

"But I want to take Doctor's degree."

"I know that, but you flunked the examination. You'll have to settle for a Master's degree. Even that won't necessarily be easy."

"If I take Master's degree, then I must take Doctor's degree again. How long to do that?"

"Sung, you don't have that option. Not in this department, at least. You were recommended for a terminal Master's degree and that's final."

"You give me bad advice," said Sung with a tone more hostile than Carl had heard him use before.

With that, Sung moved slightly backwards and pulled one hand out of his pocket. In the hand was a gun.

"Sung, for God's sake!"

Carl was paralyzed. His mind whirled back over all his interactions with this student, trying to find a key, a clue, that might have allowed him to foresee such a catastrophic eventuality. Nothing. He came up with only a series of missed communica­tions, but nothing that could have presaged this. What signs had he missed that could have warned him of this danger? The man was clearly mad. Why had he not seen that?  What about his own future?  What about his theory of hydrophobic interactions that was to be his lasting contribution to an understanding of organic macromolecules? What about his wife and their two-year-old son? What about his parents who expected so much of him? What about those childhood playmates who had once taunted him, to whom he had intended to prove himself undeniably superior?  How had his pursuit of truth betrayed him so utterly? How was it possible for reality to be so irrational?

"No, Sung, please."

Sung stood there, still, as if eternal. Then Carl heard a click, followed quickly by a crack of the gun that echoed blackly, a split second later, in his skull.



  1. WOW. This was not the ending I was expecting, at all. It's hard to feel much sympathy for Carl, but still.... Wow!

    1. The story has a complicated genesis (probably like most stories), but the idea began when I was doing a (miserable) post-doc in Philadelphia, then was resurrected when I was a faculty member about a decade later. I might tell the "story" of the story in a subsequent blog.

    2. As long as you didn't shoot anybody.... ;-)

    3. Clo e
      Thanks for the comment! I'm just revisiting my blog sites after a hiatus, because I've been busy with the publication and marketing of a book that just came out on two years spent in Korea. (FYI, it's available on Amazon at )

  2. I don't know that "enjoyed" is correct, but great story. Aside from the flashbacks to my own dissertation defense : ) It might be my own experience, having been on both sides of the student/faculty fence, but I felt compassion for both of them, Sung and Carl. Neither one seems prepared for the position in which they find themselves. Sung isn't ready for graduate-level science studies and Carl isn't ready to mentor anyone. Sad, believable depiction of the scenario from Carl's perspective. It would be interesting to see the same story now from Sung's POV (I think a similar true story from the student POV is what prompted this?) Thanks for sharing!

  3. Thanks, Lynne, for your commentary. Yes, the origin of the story was something I read in a newspaper, coupled with my own experiences. I do an analysis (how reality and fiction are intertwined) in the September blog. I haven't been posting any more short stories here because I want to try to do some Kindle Singles, and I don't think they'll take them if they've been published previously - which includes on any online site.