The Andromeda Strain: Day 4, Chapters 22-29
Day 4: Spread
22. The Analysis
Leavitt and Burton look over a computer printout. They discover that the black rock is made up of elements that are not dissimilar to life on earth. It resembles plastic. The green patch is made up of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen. But it has no amino acids or proteins. This is a setback for them, since all life on earth must have enzymes. An organism that does not is beyond their present understanding.
Stone examines some tissue of the green material using an electron microscope. He observes that it is hexagonal and resembles a crystal. He sends for Leavitt, and they agree that the crystalline structure may be what enables the organism to live without amino acids or protein. They speculate about whether the organism is a self-contained thing or a part of a larger organism, and then decide to do further examination using X-ray crystallography.
Hall talks with Jackson about what happened in Piedmont. The townspeople saw the satellite come down north of town. Someone collected it in his station wagon and brought it back. They all decided to take it to Dr. Benedict. Shortly after that people began coming out of their houses and dropping dead. Some went insane. Jackson also says that patrolman Willis came through the town.
In Topeka, the wreckage of the crashed jet is reconstructed. A lab technician tells Manchek that the material that dissolved was torn apart, perhaps by a chemical reaction or even a microorganism.
Hall speculates with Burton about what happened in Piedmont. Many of the people who went insane were old, and he wonders whether something about an aging body affects the way the disease progresses. He also wonders whether the disease might cause a brain hemorrhage that affects mental processes. After more discussion, Burton autopsies the rats that had received the anticoagulation procedure. He finds it had a brain hemorrhage, and he concludes that if the blood does not clot, the organism attacks the brain, causing hemorrhage and insanity. Coagulation could be prevented by many conditions more likely to be found in the elderly. But the researchers still have no clue as to why Jackson and the baby survived.
The researchers study the computer analysis of the cultures taken from the capsule, which were incubated under a variety of conditions. They find that the organism grows in a wide variety of media. Carbon dioxide and ultraviolet radiation helps it the most. The organism is efficient and excretes no waste. Then they have a terrifying realization. The organism can grow in carbon, oxygen and sunlight. It doesn’t need anything else; it can convert energy to matter. An atomic detonation would provide it with an ideal growth medium, since the explosion would unleash huge amounts of energy. Stone calls Robertson and tells him that Directive 7-12 must not be carried out. Robertson describes the plane crash in Utah but also says no National Guardsmen around Piedmont have died. Leavitt thinks the plane crash may just be a fluke. A technician then informs Leavitt that his EEG shows abnormalities and he should retake it.
After more scientific speculation by the researchers, Hall notices a news report about the death of Willis, the highway patrolman. He appears to have gone insane before he died, killing several people in a diner in Arizona. Like Jackson, Willis had an ulcer and took aspirin. Hall calls Dr. Smithson, the chief medical officer for the Arizona state patrol, who tells him that Willis did not have an ulcer but he did suffer from diabetes. Although Smithson says Willis regularly took insulin for his condition, Hall suspects that he did not and was therefore in a state of high acidity (like Jackson). Hall believes he is getting closer to a solution to the problem. An emergency bell sounds and he rushes out of the room.
26. The Seal
A seal has been broken in the autopsy lab. Hall and Leavitt are running to the area when Leavitt has an epileptic fit caused by looking at blinking lights. Hall arranges for him to receive medication. Hall finds the autopsy lab sealed off, with Burton inside it. Stone tells the frightened Burton they are pumping oxygen into the area because they know Andromeda does not do well on oxygen. Burton has been in the contaminated lab for four minutes and is still alive. He asks Stone to give him a recent developed superdrug that kills all viruses and bacteria. The problem is that in trials, when people came off the drug they died within hours because they had lost immunity to new bacteria. Stone refuses to give Burton the new drug.
27. Scared to Death
Hall goes to his lab and thinks things over. He speculates that breathing fast might inhibit the spread of the disease. A faster metabolic rate might prevent the organism from entering the lungs. But he is not sure that the solution is so simple. Then he has what he thinks is an inspired idea, which he verifies with some computer analysis: the organism grows only within a certain range. If its environment is too acidic or too basic it will not grow. He thinks he has solved the problem.
28. The Test
Hall stops the flow of pure oxygen to Burton and tells him to breathe fast, with the intention of making his blood more acidic. Then Hall notices a rat in its cage in the corner of the room. It is breathing normally.
A computer alert tells the men that the gaskets that connect the labs are breaking down. Hall thinks the organism may have mutated into a new form that is not dangerous to man but destroys rubber gaskets. This would explain the plane crash in Utah and also the fact that Burton and the rat are still alive.
An alarm goes off and a computer message says that Level V is contaminated and sealed. Stone and Hall are trapped, and the atomic self-destruct mechanism has been started. In three minutes, the bomb will detonate.
29. Three Minutes
It is Hall’s responsibility to stop the bomb going off, and only he can do it. He goes into the lab and reaches the central core, from where he can communicate with all levels. He climbs a ladder to reach Level IV, but has to deal with the release of deadly gas and poison darts aimed at him, which is part of the facility’s defense system. A dart hits him in the shoulder but he keeps going. He makes it to Level IV even though he is hit in the leg with another dart. He reaches the substation and crawls to the place where he can insert his key into the lock and turn it. He just does it in time, and the atomic self-destruct is called off.
What is emphasized in the action for Day 4 is the constant ingenuity and intellectual resources of the scientists—they are continually analyzing and reanalyzing the data, using the most sophisticated techniques available—and their willingness to build on what they know and focus on coming up with a solution. On the other hand, there is also an emphasis on how many mistakes they make. They knew that mistakes would occur but “What they did not anticipate was the magnitude, the staggering dimensions of their error” (p. 243). One example of how little they know is that when Burton is trapped and exposed to the bacteria, they first give him pure oxygen and try to calm his breathing; then they realize that is wrong and tell him to breathe fast. Burton, however, is saved not by their efforts but rather by the fact that the organism mutates into a benign form. They were aware that mutation could happen but were concerned that it should not. In chapter 24 Stone and Leavitt agree that “They had to be careful the organism didn’t mutate, didn’t change to something radically different in its effects” (p. 249). What saves them, and the planet, is not scientific rigor and expertise but pure chance.
Crichton makes one of his characters, Leavitt, an epileptic, and he may have had a reason for doing so. Epilepsy, a neural disorder that results in seizures, has sometimes been connected with creativity. In her 1993 book, Seized, for example, Eve LaPlante claims that the electrical activity that goes on in the brain during temporal lobe epilepsy stimulates creative thinking and art. There is no universal agreement on this claim, however. But in The Andromeda Strain, Leavitt the epileptic is presented as “the idea man for the team. The man who would always provide the most improbable and mind-stretching theories” (p. 206). It is Leavitt who has creative inspiration from his dream about the relationship between a house and a city (in chapter 20), which leads him to a breakthrough in understanding (in chapter 22, when he observes to Stone that the organism may be part of a larger, more complex organism). In chapter 27, another scientist, Hall, gives insight into how creativity sometimes works. He is tired and for a moment stops concentrating on his examination of Leavitt. Instead, his mind drifts in thinking about going home to his family and driving along the freeway. When he sees in his mind’s eye the signs saying maximum 65 and minimum 40, he gets a sudden idea about how the organism works and under what conditions it is most dangerous. This proves to be a breakthrough in their investigation.