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Jocelyn Paine

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Where I Want to Move to

July 19, 2010

I want to move. But I can't decide where to, for there are problems in my environment, and they seem universal.

There is Death.

There is Entropy, the downhill slope upon which Death sets his house. Most universes have entropy, because its preconditions are few. You need Places. You need Things, to fit into the places. You need Numbers, to count the arrangements of the things in the places. You need Identity, to let one thing differ from another thing so that there is more than one arrangement to count. You need Discernment, so that when your elbow catches on the door edge, you drop a tray of biscuits and coffee all over the carpet, and four of the biscuits roll under the sofa, you can realise that there are wrong arrangements as well as right arrangements. And you need Time, so that the number of wrong arrangements can grow, and grow, and grow.

There is Regret, which I mention only because it makes entropy more poignant.

There is Kinetics; and there are his children Viscosity, Turbulence, and Friction. If entropy is why things happen that shouldn't, kinetics is why they don't happen fast enough. Entropy is peeling potatoes in the sink and losing your wedding ring down the plughole. Kinetics is when, no matter how hard you rinse the potato dirt down the plughole, it swirls round and round in a thousand tiny eddies a centimetre from the rim. The balance between entropy and kinetics is not well tuned.

There is Containment; and hence there is Insertion. Some regions of the Universe accomplish insertion with ease. Ask Java to put an int into an Integer, a character into a String, or an instance into a Vector. The int never snags on a bit poking out from the Integer, the character slides into the String like a square peg into a square hole, and the instance never hits the Vector askew, drops onto the motherboard, and bursts. But just ask the Universe to throw another used teabag into your bin. It hits the wall and leaves brown smears; or comes apart and scatters wet tea all over over the floor; or catches the side of the bin, slithers, and ends up inside the dog. Which then decides for the first time ever that it has eaten enough stuff that isn't dogfood, and throws up on your toes.

Because there is Insertion, there are Portals, which are transition regions through which we insert things and causal influences. But the Universe enjoys propagating things and causal influences into places where they don't belong; and hence we have Leakage. BP's oil leaks into the Gulf of Mexico; Eyjafjallajökull's ash leaks into aeroplane engines; an aside about bigots leaks from Gordon Brown into his microphone and costs him the Election. Containment and leakage partner one another like kinetics and entropy, and their balance is as badly tuned.

There is Inexplicability: and there is his son Too Many String Theorists. And his other son, Too Many Terry Pratchett Jokes About "Quantum".

There is Potential Energy, I pant, as I jog up Headington Hill until the sweat in my eyes makes me stumble into the path of 300 American tourists, bottoms bigger than their camera cases, misdirected by some wag of a local in response to their leader's "Can you tell me the way to the University?" I don't understand why American tourists don't understand that the University is not a Place. But what I really don't understood is potential energy. At the bottom of the hill, I lack it. At the top of the hill, I have it. And after so much effort, I want to keep it: perhaps to store it in a laptop battery, but at least, not to lose it all again when I run downhill to the city centre. But I can't. I have reduced my muscles to twanging shreds in creating ½mgh of potential energy; but despite all that agony, I can't use the result. Is it a mere accounting trick that measures the depth of a dimple in the space-time continuum, one some extra-dimensional giant could smooth out at the touch of the tip of an extra-dimensional tentacle? Is it some subtle quantum relationship between my atoms and the Headington Hill gravitons? And if so, how, given that I went on my run yesterday, and those light-speeding gravitons are now sleeting past Voyager 1? It is terribly aggravating, this potential energy: something you work so hard to make, but then can never use.

There are American Tourists. Most universes will have American tourists, because their preconditions are few. You need Things. You need Time, so that the things can become old and thereby quaint. And you need Light, so that there can exist cameras. Actually, cosmologists recently calculated that the Universe, regardless of its shape and the amount of dark energy it holds, will not expand for ever. Instead, it will collapse into a Big Crunch because of the gravitational attraction between the bazillions of American tourists dispersed throughout it while taking photos of Halley's Comet and quaint old horsehead nebulae. To prevent the collapse, it turns out, we shall need to embed the space-time continuum in a flat N-dimensional space, then poke the tourists out through holes in the continuum's hypersurface, tethering them just outside. Their gravitational attraction will pull the hypersurface taut and stop it falling in on itself.

There is Curvature. You find a lot of this in the continuum, as well as around certain tourists, but that's not my topic here. Curvature lets more stuff fit into a place than otherwise could, but the fit is never perfect. This is immediately understood by anyone who has tried to iron pleats in trousers, cover a book in sticky-back plastic, or edit away a bug. You push down a bulge, and it pops up elsewhere.

And there is Frustration, with his children Kick The Dog, Slam The Door, and Oh Go On Then Just One More Pint Please Barman. Because the Universe is not well tuned and it is not user-friendly. As Terry Pratchett's Incas realised in one of his novels, if you believe in a Creator, the only appropriate prayer is a plainchant whinge. Indeed, if I were reviewing for Which Universe? magazine, I would be impolite. Look at the space-time metric. Why so complicated? One can just imagine Length, Breadth and Height mooching around in the playground while they taunt Time:

Nerrr, nerrr, nerrr. You've only got imaginary coordinates. Ours are real! Nerrr, nerrr, nyaah.

Plainly, virtual reality is the only solution: a virtual universe which doesn't burden you with stupidities such as friction, tooth decay, and the need to traverse all the intervening points when moving from A to B. But simulations cost money; indeed, there's a Greg Egan science-fiction novel whose protagonist, imprisoned in a virtual world by a real version of himself, takes a long long shower merely so he can make his captor pay for an hour of gratuitous and expensive turbulent-flow hydrodynamics calculations. And with my income nuked by the recession, the only place I could afford would be some low-rent VR ghetto so low-res that I'd waddle around like a Space Invader. That would not impress the 72 simulated virgins with whom I hope to pass the simulated nights of the rest of my simulated life.

To this, science fiction has an answer. You "compuform" the Universe, turning all its contents into clever matter that's optimised for computation and is programmatically malleable enough to satisfy your every whim, rather than the stupid matter currently surrounding me that merely sits on the Periodic Table idly spinning its electrons. We don't need cows; tear them down and replace by programmable cows that moo and defecate, but that also dispense butterscotch-fudge milk and jump around the Moon. We don't need beans; tear them down and replace by programmable beans that make excellent soup and bright-bean salad, but that also give you adventure by growing into huge great beanstalks with magic harps and golden-egg geese at the top. We don't need David Cameron; tear him down and replace by a programmable Cameron that smiles and waves and makes coalitions, but that also has sympathy for the kids affected by his abolishing the plans to rebuild aging schools. We don't need Linux; tear it down and replace by a programmable Linux where all the commands make sense because each command uses the same letter for an option as all the other commands with options that do the same thing. (Now that is fantasy.)

And in such a universe, malleable with computation, I could live the bizarre unlogic of A. E. van Vogt's Null-A. I could journey to the far side of time with Don A. Stuart, project myself down into the two-dimensional worlds of A. Square's Flatland and Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, hurtle through the bloodstream in a midget submarine with Raquel Welch, or struggle free from Hell with Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. But then, I realise, the current Universe also holds wonderful things. There's a white patch of carbon monoxide frost the Hubble sees on Pluto, and snails with three-layer armoured shells living round vents that gush boiling, acidic, metal-loaded water on Earth's sea floor: the snails' outer shells stop acid dissolving the chalky inner shell, contain iron pyrites, and crack under impact to absorb force from the claws of attacking crabs. There's a forest flower pollinated by bluebottles and described as smelling worse than any buffalo carcass in an advanced stage of decomposition, and a a Jupiter-sized planet which the sun it orbits once per day has stretched into a rugby ball. The planet is leaking a cloudy trail into the sun, and will eventually be consumed. There's a four light-year high pillar of dust and hydrogen, and in it, solar-system sized globules of denser gas. Prise one open, and inside you may find a new star. It seems a shame to erase over all this wonderful history with computronium. Even for a hurtle with Raquel Welch.

So my dream is to declare the current Universe a museum, appoint myself curator, and live in a flat above it. Or more precisely, in a pocket universe next door to it. Here's how to make one, explained in simple language from Experiment Number 45 in The Boy's Book Of 101 Experiments With Space-Time:

How to Make a Pocket Universe

Find an unused region of space-time within your current universe. To avoid gravitational-wave damage, clear the vicinity of sentient beings, also Eiffel Towers and other valuable artefacts. Scratch a bubble of false vacuum, inflaming it and raising a pimple of new space-time. The pimple will first inflate to a pample — like a pimple but bigger — before ballooning out faster than the fabric around it can stretch, thereby getting rucked up into the void where it will coalesce into a brand-new continuum. Once this is large enough, pinch its neck and pull taut to make a wormhole link with your current universe. For best results, make the new universe's timebase several million times faster than the old. That way, you can watch civilisations rise and fall in a day, and evolve alien super-slaves who will solve immortality and fix all the bugs in your spreadsheets. (See under Microcosmic God Strategy.) If you intend to move into this universe, command your super-slaves to invent super-computers and virtual reality. Alternatively, and more safely because not subject to power cuts, seed its laws of physics and geometry to give a real environment that you'd feel comfortable in. We recommend two perpendicular time dimensions (so you can have your cake and eat it), plus a topology in which every point neighbours every other. It saves petrol.

But then, as I padlock the wormhole entrance behind me and stride down the link to curate today's curiosities — 2,731 new species of beetle, a supernova with rings round it, a photosynthetic gallium-arsenide window fish from the germanium seas of the superheated planet Uctor, and a human meme-virus that replicates only in rap musicians — I recall that quaint places are popular places. And I seem to hear, thundering up the wormhole link towards me, three hundred billion American tourists. "Can you tell me the way to the Universe, Sir? Oh please, tell me the way to the Universe!"

 


Jocelyn Paine
popx@j-paine.org

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