A Novel Inspired by a Prodigy
What would you say about a three-year-old who wanted to grow up to build the world’s largest telescope? First off, you’d probably guess that child was a boy. That would be your first mistake.
Early on, we knew Ainsley was special. Three months before her third birthday, we were at a Thanksgiving gathering at a friend’s house. The host offered the kids cupcakes. The decorative icing on each cupcake was unique: a Pilgrim, a turkey, or some other symbol of the holiday. The host bent over and presented the tray to Ainsley. “Sweetie, would you like the CHOC—OH—LIT, or the VAH—NIL—LAH?” she asked, thinking that her overworked enunciation might help Ainsley understand.
“I’ll have the cornucopia,” said Ainsley, using a five-syllable word that the older children had never heard in their lives.
Ainsley is now in sixth grade, and she’s already in pursuit of “the world’s largest telescope.” The Energetic Ray Global Observatory is a coordinated effort by schoolchildren around the globe to collect data from cosmic rays. (Think of each school as a “pixel” in a giant camera that stretches around the world and snaps photos of outer space.) It’s Ainsley’s goal to make her science class part of that global observatory—the world’s largest telescope.
But how did Ainsley inspire the lead character in The Penny Jumper? Knowing Ainsley’s interest in science, I decided to check out what it takes to become an astrophysicist. Then something caught my eye: over 2,000 physicists are working on Wall Street. More than 70 percent of trading on stock exchanges is now done by computers, and the big winners are the high-speed traders who can buy and sell in the blink of an eye. This kind of speed and time synchronization, it turns out, is right up the astrophysicist’s alley. They create the algorithms that identify trading patterns and allow Wall Street’s most profitable firms to exploit discrepancies in price that exist for only a matter of microseconds. We’re talking speed well beyond human function—almost beyond human comprehension. It takes 500,000 microseconds for a human to click a mouse. A high-speed trading algorithm that is just 5 microseconds too slow is a dead-bang loser.
This backdrop of the secret world of high-speed Wall Street fascinated me. More research led to the discovery of a computer programmer on Wall Street who was indicted for allegedly stealing the secret trading code of Goldman Sachs. And that was when the story clicked. Fast-forward 15 years, and Ainsley Grace is a 25-year-old astrophysicist who pays off her mountain of college debt by taking on a short gig on Wall Street. But that gig turns deadly when Ainsley uncovers the secrets of ruthless power brokers who make billions by gaming the system—and who will stop at nothing to silence her and her shocking discovery.
It’s a fun ride, and an exciting mixture of fact and fiction. Ainsley’s mentor in The Penny Jumper is Tom Bales, an actual “rocket scientist,” a friend of mine, and the real-life creator of the Energetic Ray Global Observatory. Tom started ERGO to inspire kids around the world to join in the search for life in outer space. I’ll let others judge if The Penny Jumper adds to that inspiration, but I will guarantee you this much: it will thrill and entertain you.
James Grippando is the New York Times bestselling author of 24 novels. The Penny Jumper is his first novella. His 25th novel, Most Dangerous Place, will be released in February 2017. His work is enjoyed worldwide in twenty-eight languages. Ainsley Grace is the youngest of three children of James and his wife, Tiffany. www.jamesgrippando.com