The Magazine

Einstein Bageled

The relatively cutthroat world of intellectual theft.

Oct 1, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 03 • By JOE QUEENAN
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Americans, particularly older Americans, continue to ignore the devastating effect that hackers can exert on one’s life. No matter how often they are warned to be vigilant about computer security, to erect firewalls to ensure that hackers do not infiltrate their PCs and steal credit card numbers, most folks blithely ignore these warnings and routinely go about their business. The results can be ruinous.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein

I know, because that’s exactly what happened to me. But it doesn’t involve credit cards or bank account numbers; it involves the far more serious issue of intellectual property theft.

It started like this: You know how you sometimes come up with a great idea that you’re sure nobody else could have possibly thought of, like using homeless people as Wi-Fi hotspots or electing Al Franken to the Senate? And then somebody gets there ahead of you? That’s what happened to me with CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, based in Geneva.

Last year, as many of you will recall, there was a big hubbub about Albert Einstein’s special theory of relativity. This erupted after a test run by CERN, using a device called the Icarus Liquid Argon Time Projection Chamber, proved that neutrinos could travel faster than the speed of light. This meant that Einstein’s pivotal theory was wrong. Everybody in the press made a big deal about this, ridiculing Einstein left and right in the way that crass, snarky journalists so often will. Nature abhors a vacuum? Says who? E=mc²? My ass.

This glibness infuriated me, because I have been a fan of Einstein since my junior year in high school, when I did an oral report on his On the Motion of Small Particles Suspended in a Stationary Liquid, as Required by the Molecular-Kinetic Theory of Heat, and supersmart Carol Petrowski agreed to dance with me. And if Einstein’s theory about the speed of light was wrong, it meant that everything we had believed about the universe for the past century was wrong.

The thing was: I knew all along that Einstein was right. I knew he was right because I have a scaled-down version of the Icarus Liquid Argon Time Projection Chamber in my basement. I bought it at a yard sale last year when the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was unloading some old equipment at their annual rummage sale. Icarus Liquid Argon Time Projection Chambers aren’t anywhere near as pricey as you would think—they’re sort of like iPods, where the manufacturer brings out a new model every year, so the discontinued models go fairly cheap.

To make a long story short, I set aside a weekend in January, re-ran the neutrino experiment down in the basement, and found that CERN’s data were all wrong. Without getting too technical about this, let’s just say that the knuckleheads in Switzerland miscalculated the vector of hydrotropic retro-fillibration—they were off by about an inch—and failed to allow for the impact of transmorpheal dysconfluence on the homeognomic panels that fuel the thalidomide crystals.

It was the kind of mistake you wouldn’t expect from the dumbest high school kid. The most important thing was that my work proved that Einstein, my hero, was right after all. Neutrinos cannot travel faster than the speed of light. Like, duh.

Here’s where the story gets ugly. After I ran my experiment, I never got around to compiling my data and publishing my results because I came down with severe bronchitis, tore my meniscus, and had a few other personal issues to deal with. Well, a few months ago, CERN beat me to the punch with a report that last year’s experiment was a dud, that they’d run the test again, and it proved that Einstein was correct. Great news, right? Except that when I got hold of their report, I found language that sounded suspiciously similar to the wording in my report stored on my computer.

No, not similar: identical. Things like: “In the earlier study, technicians miscalculated the vector of hydrotropic retro-fillibration—they were off by about an inch—and failed to allow for the impact of transmorpheal dysconfluence on the homeognomic panels that fuel the thalidomide crystals.”

You don’t have to be Albert Einstein to figure out what had happened here. Somebody hacked into my laptop, shanghaied my data, re-ran the test, and proved that last year’s experiment was wrong. How could they know I was working on the project? Somebody at the Livermore laboratory must have spread the word that a hobbyist in Tarry­town, New York, had just snapped up a gently used Icarus Liquid Argon Time Projection Chamber at their annual rummage sale. There aren’t that many of them around. Also, I talk about Einstein’s special theory of relativity a lot in my local diner, so anyone within earshot could have ripped me off.

Some people may say I am being paranoid here, but I’m not. Because the neutrino incident wasn’t an isolated case. Not long ago, physicists announced that they had finally located the long sought-after Higgs Boson, a particle that endows other particles with mass. Big whoop. The fact is, I’ve got a dozen Higgs Bosons sitting in a bird feeder right outside my kitchen window. I was literally on the point of publishing my report on them when the scientists beat me to the punch and released their results.

And where were those scientists from? The European Organization for Nuclear Research. That’s right, CERN. Coincidence, you say? I think not.

Joe Queenan is the author, most recently, of Closing Time: A Memoir.

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