On SPEC. NO. 40642

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Before reading the following, gaze at the picture above for a goodly amount of time. You may wish to enlarge it to poster size, print it out, and pin it to your noticeboard or wall.

The photograph shows a boffin and a mouse. Also shown is certain arcane laboratory equipment, and a stencilled panel marked SPEC. NO. 40642. It is not clear whether this designation refers to the equipment, the mouse, or the boffin. Let us not bother our little heads about it.

At first glance, it appears that the boffin is studying the mouse, and making notes in a ringbound notepad, presumably appertaining to the mouse. The mouse is encased within some kind of lidded laboratory bowl, for which I do not doubt there is a specific proprietary name, of which I am tragically ignorant. The bowl is attached by a tube to the arcane laboratory equipment and also, by wire, to something else, unseen, out of camera shot. We might spend all day lost in conjecture about precisely what that might be.

We might, but we won’t, because we have other matters to attend to. Though it is a racing certainty that the above summary is correct, and that the boffin is indeed studying the mouse, there is an alternative possibility, albeit an unlikely one. Consider again that the boffin is quite clearly making notes. It could be that she is not a boffin but an amanuensis, and is actually taking dictation from the mouse. Though the general run of mice are not gifted with human speech, this mouse might be an exception. Or it may be that the boffin-amanuensis is gifted with an understanding of mouse squeaks, and is able to transcribe them for the benefit of other humans not so gifted. As I say, this is unlikely, even outlandish, but it is not beyond the bounds of possibility.

I would dearly love to see what is written in that notebook.

On purely pictorial evidence, we would have to swat aside my foolish mouse-dictating-to-amanuensis scenario, if only because of the power relations implicit in the photograph. The mouse is trapped in the bowl, whereas the boffin can presumably wander off and skitter away to do something else, in the laboratory or outside it. Lord knows what high jinks she might get up to when not making notes about a mouse in a bowl!

There is also the indubitable fact that the boffin is much, much bigger than the mouse. Humans almost always have the upper hand in any interaction with mice, simply on account of the size difference. When they are so tiny and we so huge, the matter of intellect doesn’t come into it. Even if mice were hyperintelligent, and humans dumb as oxen, we could still overpower them physically. At least, let us hope so!

Of course, both the scenarios I have outlined, the almost certainly correct one and the harebrained one, may be equally flawed. What if – it is always worth asking what if? – the object of study is the boffin herself, or her interaction with the mouse? It may be that the wire we see trailing out of the picture leads, not to some other piece of arcane laboratory equipment, but back, under the work bench, out of our sight, and is connected to the boffin. It may be, too, that the lidded bowl in which the mouse is trapped is but a miniature mousy model of a much bigger lidded bowl, in which both boffin and mouse are trapped. We may imagine similar tubes, similar wires, protruding or feeding in to this uberbowl, calibrated and monitored by higher boffins, one of whom is making notes in a ringbound notepad. Those notes might pertain to the boffin only, or to the boffin and the mouse.

There is a further possibility which scarcely bears thinking about, for it is all too terrifying. What if – again, what if? – the higher boffins are not humans but mice? Hyperintelligent mice, either gigantic ones from some far distant space age planet of hyperintelligent giant mice set on conquest of the Earth, or a teeming throng of thousands upon thousands of mouse-sized mice, whose very numbers serve to give them an advantage over puny humankind? The object of their study might be to ascertain how well, or ill, the boffin treats the mouse in its little lidded bowl. Her treatment of the mouse will determine how the invading giant space mice thereafter treat the human inhabitants of the conquered planet. Boy o boy, this is world-shuddering stuff! The fate of millions, billions, may depend on just what the boffin does next. If, having finished her notes, she removes the lid from the bowl and places in it a little excelsior for the mouse to snuggle in for a rummage and snooze, humanity may survive until the morrow. But if she cackles and pipes into the sealed bowl, through the tube, poison gas to fell the mouse, then we are doomed, doomed.

There is a personal story here, too. Did the boffin realise, when she woke up that morning, that she held the fate of humankind in her hands? No doubt such a thought was the furthest thing from her mind as she tucked into her breakfast of boffins’ vitamin-enriched poptarts. Later, as she took her white lab coat out of its locker and pulled it on, was she daydreaming of her boyfriend Dan and their imminent Alpine hiking holiday? And then . . . and then she stepped into what she thought was a common or garden laboratory but was in fact a giant lidded bowl, watched over and studied by hyperintelligent intergalactic space mice, armed with ringbound notepads!

There may be further interpretations of the picture, convincing or otherwise, which readers may wish to add in the comments. Meanwhile, I think it is up to every one of us to decode precisely what is meant by that mysterious stencil, SPEC. NO. 40642.

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