A Very Special Kind of Goose.
I'm not much of a writer myself, so I'm having Isaac Asimov write this up for me. I've picked him because he's a biochemist, so he understands what I tell him. Besides, he writes science fiction and that is very important.
I wasn't the first person to have the honor of meeting The Goose. That honor belongs to a Texas cotton farmer named Ian Angus MacGregor (I'm using fictitious names, of course), who owned it before it became Government property.
By summer of 1957 he'd sent a dozen letters to the Department of Agriculture requesting information on the hatching of goose eggs. The Department sent him all the information it could, but he kept wanting more. I'm in the employ of the Department and I was attending a convention in San Antonio in July of 1957, so my boss asked me to stop off at MacGregor's place and see what I could do.
So it was that on July 17, 1957, I met The Goose.
I met MacGregor first. He was in his fifties, a tall man with a lined face full of suspicion. I went over all the information he'd been requesting, then asked politely if I might see his geese.
He said: "It's not geese, mister, it's one goose."
I said "If it's only one goose, what's your worry? Kill it and eat it." I got up and reached for my hat.
He said "Wait!" and I stood there while he hesitated. Then he muttered, "Come with me."
I went out with him to a pen near the house. The pen, surrounded by barbed wire, with a locked gate to it, held only one goose.
"That's The Goose," he said. I could hear the capitals as he spoke.
It looked like any other goose: fat, self-satisfied, short-tempered.
MacGregor said: "And here's one of its eggs. It won't hatch." He produced the egg from a capacious overalls pocket, letting it lie on the palm of his hand. It was smaller and rounder than a goose's egg ought to be.
MacGregor said: "Take it."
I reached out and took it. Or tried to. I had to try harder, and then up it came. It weighed nearly two pounds!
MacGregor grinned sourly. "Drop it," he said.
I just looked at him. So he dropped it himself.
It hit soggy. It didn't smash. There was no spray of white and yolk. It just lay where it fell, with the bottom caved in.
I picked it up again. The white eggshell had shattered where the egg had struck. Pieces of it had flaked away and what shone through was a dull yellow in color.
My hands trembled. It was all I could do to make my fingers work, but I got some of the rest of the shell flaked away and stared at the yellow.
I didn't have to run any analyses. My heart told me.
This was The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs!
My first problem was to get MacGregor to give up that golden egg.
I said: "I'll give you a receipt. I'll guarantee payment. I'll give you a personal check. I'll do anything."
"I don't want the Government butting in." he said stubbornly.
I was twice as stubborn. I followed him about. I pleaded. I yelled. hi the end I signed a receipt and he dogged me out to my car and stood in the road as I drove away, following me with his eyes.
The head of my section at the Department of Agriculture is Louis P. Bronstein. (False names, remember.) I laid the egg on the desk between us.
I said: "It's a yellow metal and it could be brass. Only it isn't, because it's inert to concentrated nitric acid."
Bronstein said: "It's some sort of hoax It must be."
"A hoax that uses real gold? When I first saw this thing it was covered completely with authentic unbroken eggshell. I analyzed a bit and it was calcium carbonate."
So Project Goose was started. That was July 20, 1957.
I was the responsible investigator at the start, though matters quickly got beyond me.
To begin with, the egg had a radius of thirty-five millimeters on the average. The gold shell was just about two and a half millimeters thick. Inside was a real egg; it was no hoax. It contained all the proteins, fats, vitamins, and pigments one would expect.
The only important abnormality that showed up at once was the egg's behavior on being heated. A small portion of it hard-boiled at once.
Boris W. Finley of Temple University, a Department consultant, said: "The proteins are obviously in bad shape, and it must be the fault of the gold. Small quantities of any heavy metal break down protein."
So the yolk was analyzed for gold. And, sure enough, it contained just about one-third of 1 percent of gold in a soluble form known as chloroaurate.
As for the shell, that was virtually pure gold. The only detectable impurity was iron, and that amounted to only about one-fourth of 1 percent. The iron content of the egg yolk was twice as high as it should have been, too. But at the moment the matter of the iron was neglected.
One week after Project Goose was begun the first expedition left for Texas. Five biochemists went, along with three truckloads of equipment and a squadron of Army personnel.
As soon as we arrived we cut MacGregor's off from the world. Naturally, MacGregor didn't like all the security regulations and all the men and equipment settling down all about him. He didn't like being told that The Goose and its eggs were Government property. He didn't like it, but he had to agree. What could he do? He was compensated, of course.
The Goose didn't like a few things, either--like having blood samples taken. It took two men to hold The Goose each time.
The blood of The Goose was put through every test conceivable. It contained two-thousandths of 1 percent of the chloroaurate I've mentioned. We took X rays. Parts of the body that were rich in gold would stop the X rays and appear white on the negative. The liver showed up as light gray, while The Goose's egg-laying apparatus was pure white.
Finley said: "The chloroaurate is passed into the bloodstream by the liver. It's poisonous, so the blood passes it on to the reproductive organs, which get rid of by making eggshells out of it. That kills the eggs but keeps The Goose alive."
He paused and said: "That leaves one embarrassing question."
I knew what it was. We all did.
Where was the gold in the liver coming from?
There was no answer to that for a while. There was no gold in The Goose's feed, of course, nor any gold in the soil to speak of. A search of the grounds revealed nothing.
On August 16, 1957, Albert Nevis of Purdue got the first lead. He was studying the stomach contents of The Goose by using tubes that he forced down its throat.
He came rushing to us. "The Goose is practically zero on bile pigment!" he shouted.
Let me explain something at this point. Bile pigments are colored materials that are contained in the juice the liver pours out into the intestines. The pigments are produced by the breakdown of hemoglobin, which is the red coloring matter of blood.
Finley's eyes began to glitter. This was the first sign of anything wrong with the chemistry of The Goose, other than the gold. He stated the obvious. "There must be something wrong with the hemoglobin or with the liver's machinery for handling hemoglobin."
Promptly we took more blood samples. This time we separated the hemoglobin out of the blood in the usual dark red crystals. However, further treatment separated a small quantity of a bright orange substance.
It turned out to be similar to hemoglobin but not hemoglobin. Ordinary hemoglobin contains an iron atom in its molecule. This contained a gold atom.
The liver, it seemed, was not breaking up the hemoglobin to bile pigment. Instead, it was changing some of the hemoglobin to the gold-containing variety and getting rid of it by way of eggshell.
We tried injecting The Goose with solutions containing radioactive gold, to see if we could learn the exact route traveled by gold atoms in its body. But the experiment failed.
This still left us with the question of where the gold came from, and it was Nevis who first made the crucial suggestion.
"Maybe," he said, at a meeting on August 25, 1957, "The Goose changes the iron into gold by transmutation [the radioactive transformation of one element into another]."
Maybe he wasn't serious when he said that, but we were so desperate we had to take him seriously.
On September 5, 1957, John L. Billings of the University of California, one of the country's best nuclear physicists, arrived. He had some equipment with him, and more arrived in the following weeks. I could see that within a year we would have a whole research institution built around The Goose.
Finley brought Billings up to date and said: "The trouble with the iron-to-gold idea is, for one thing, that the total quantity of iron in The Goose is only about half a gram; yet nearly forty grams of gold a day are being manufactured."
Billings had a clear, high-pitched voice. He said: "There's a worse problem than that. The nucleus of the gold atom contains much more energy than the nucleus of the iron atom. To manufacture all the gold The Goose does would take an atom bomb's worth of energy."
But he got right to work. He isolated some of the iron from the hemoglobin of The Goose and, among other things, ran an isotopic analysis on it. The result nearly choked him.
He said: "There's no iron-56."
Let me explain again. Most elements are made up of a variety of closely similar atoms called isotopes. Iron contains four different isotopes, of which the most abundant is iron-56. Well, that one was missing; the other three were there.
Billings said: "There must be a nuclear reaction going on in The Goose, but where is it getting the energy?"
We didn't see Billings for two days.
When he came back he said: "See here. There two parts to this reaction. First, some simple isotope [say, oxygen-18] must be converted to iron-56. That's a type of reaction that produces energy. Then the energy produced is used immediately to change the iron-56 into gold. It's like going down one side of a roller coaster and up the other. And there's enough oxygen-18 in the body to supply all the gold The Goose produces."
We could check that theory. You see, oxygen-18 is one of the minor oxygen isotopes. It's easy to get samples of water containing more oxygen-18 than normal water does.
We fed The Goose on water with high oxygen-18 content for a week. Gold production went up.
"There's no doubt about it," said Billings. He stood up. "That Goose is a living nuclear reactor."
The Goose was obviously a mutation, a sport--a creature that had had a different chemistry from birth. The best guess was that it was the result radiation. Nuclear tests conducted in 1954 and 1955 had resulted in fallouts passing near MacGregor's farm. We checked the records. The Goose had been born shortly after one of the fallouts.
"What it amounts to," said Billings, "is that The Goose can convert any radioactive isotope into a stable one. It has developed the perfect defense against radiation sickness."
We tried gamma rays on The Goose. It developed a slight fever and got more bad-tempered than usual, but nothing else.
Finley said: "It's the creature of the future. If only human beings could develop such defenses, atomic war would lose some of its terrors."
Billings said: "Not only that. If we could find out how The Goose does it and duplicate it in industry we'd have the perfect way of disposing of radioactive ash from nuclear power plants."
We sat there, all of us, staring at The Goose and thinking of the secret in its liver.
We couldn't remove the liver for study. Who would dare kill The Goose That Lays the Golden Eggs? If we could only hatch some of those eggs!
Nevis said: "We need some good idea."
In a miserable attempt at a joke I said: "We could advertise in the newspapers." And that gave me an idea. I said excitedly: "We could write this up as a science-fiction story."
They stared at me.
"Why not?" I said. "We wouldn't be breaking security regulations. No one would take it seriously. And we might ask for ideas. What can we lose?"
They were unmoved.
So I said, "And you know, The Goose won't live forever."
That did it. And this is the story.
Now--how can we study The Goose without killing it? How can we hatch the eggs and get more gold-laying geese?
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|Title Annotation:||short story|
|Date:||May 6, 1994|
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