The Mal Iles Innovation Award
Mal's Immortal Magic
Des Moines Register, Tuesday, June 23, 1981
by Robert Hullihan - Ames,IA.
There are simple men who gaze into the workings of a machine and think, "Isn't it amazing that all those little parts can run around in there; that little springs and stuff do stuff?"
On the other hand, there are complex men such as astrophysicist Mal Iles who look into a machine and think, "Isn't it amazing that all those little parts can run around in there; that little springs and stuff do stuff?"
Iles is a scientist who has brought his "sense of wonder" with him out of childhood. He believed in magic then and he believes in magic now, except now it is called "science."
He has kept a kind of innocence, he thinks, because he was "lucky enough to have a good sense of evil as a youth" In the third grade, as a matter of fact.
But Iles also has a sense of what would be considered appropriate conduct and statement in a research scientist.
Thus, when he is called for consultation to the Los Alamos National Scientific Laboratories in New Mexico, he doesn't go around expressing amazement that "little springs and stuff do stuff."
What he did there, early in April, was to build, rather briskly, a certain kind of laser machine for the laboratories. Iles is one of the nation's experts on what is called the "luneable laser."
He is 26.
He is an assistant physicist doing full-time research and analytical chemistry in the physics laboratory at Iowa State University here. He eventually may become one of the longer-serving staff members, partly because he likes Ames, but more to the point because he does not expect ever to die.
"I am planning to live forever," he said with every show of confidence and none of artful humor.
"There are people alive today who will never die involuntarily. The technology to prolong life is on the drawing boards right now," he explained. "It's maybe 20 years way. But no one is talking about it."
Iles, however, is planning for his own immortality. He lives, he said, by a belief that "every choice must be made as though you will live with the consequences forever."
He is not married.
He does not fear boredom as his life goes on and on into eternity because "I really do have a lot of fun, what I call adventures."
Iles, who grew up in Bettendorf and was graduated from Pleasant Valley High School, finds his adventures out on what he calls "the berserk edge" of experience.
His most recent venture to that edge took him to Cape Canaveral, Fla. There, with press credentials from the Iowa State Daily, a student newspaper, he joined journalism's giants in reporting the launch of the space shuttle Columbia.
But most of the giants fell short of Mail Iles' description of the instant of silence just before the huge craft listed off the launch pad.
"In that moment, if you have ever sinned you pretend you are forgiven. If you have ever feared anything, you belive it has gone away. If you've ever fought with anyone for an instant, you've made the peace. Whatever the price for a moment's calm you pay it and wait..."
And, in the conclusion of two copyrighted articles for the Iowa State Daily, Iles wrote: "What happened today was Prometheus in reverse. Mankind had taken fire back into the sky."
"It was a magical event," Iles said, especially because it was done with what he considers inadequate technology.
Iles is convinced that "big government" for political reasons is going into space at least 20 years ahead of its ability to do so. "We don't have the technology to go up there, but we are getting away with it," he said. It's like crossing the Pacific on a reed raft."
One of the most powerful and formative impressions ever mde on Iles came in the third grade when "my teachers wouldn't let me read any more books because I wouldn't have anything to do the next year.
"I knew that was evil," he said. "They wanted to socialize me. Somehow, I knew it was very important not to be socialized. They would have won; I would have lost.
"there are people all around you who want you to accept their moral code. They don't want you to choose for yourself.
"That's just as true of the counter-culture as it is of liberal joggers. But if you accept an external moral code, you are evil. You want to stay outside the game."
Iles has stayed outside the various social games, even the counter-culture game, although he thinks of himself as an anarchist and looks like a survivor from the drop-out era. He isn't.
"I though those people were bums," he said.
His manner is cautious with strangers, and he seems to be either a little suspicious or a lot indifferent until he has been talking for some time. He is free of an indiscriminate urge to please.
He lives in a small house among other small houses on a dead-end street. It is a neighborhood in which there seems to be very little magic afoot.
Unless he is deliberately going out to the berserk edge, Iles seeks "calm, tranquility."
He traveled about the country for a couple of years after high school, picking up a living as a dishwasher. He enrolled at Iowa State as a philosophy major, but he switched to astrophysics when he found the humanities too easy. "But I wasn't a good mathematician," he said, "so I worked at math because I knew it would be good for me."
That discipline probably is a result of Iles' belief in "individualism, self-responsibility" and what he calls "cosmic justic everyone is always getting exactly what he deserves."
Iles has what he calls " a continuing relationshp" with the Los Alamos laboratories, and he goes there frequently. He sometimes works in such a high security area that he as to have an escort with him when he goes to the bathroom.
He has described the experience of flying into Los Alamos as "weird... because the weapons lab people like to have plenty of privacy to do their stuff out in the dessert.
"They build long dead-end roads over the mesas, which terminate into silos, hatches and manhole covers.
"Looking down, it seemed as if I was flying over a land of giant trapdoor spiders insects that might leap up out on the ground and prey on something the size of trains."
Despite his poetic insights in the presence of space and military hardware, Iles said he "enjoys weapons work. Technology is amoral with a potential for both good and evel; there's always a flip side."
And there is an amazing thing about whatever machines lurk in those dep holes at Los Alamos; little parts run around inside them and little springs and stuff do stuff.
It all seems like a kind of magic to Mal Iles.