Month: April 2012

Copy cat

Shaun was yet another physicist, working for yet another western country on yet another doomsday machine. Even that being far from the last world war, governments still had excuses to spend exorbitant amounts of money on secret projects that would never be used, just for the sake of the argument. It never matters what you do in war, but what’s the size of your gun, compared to the rest, and in that, his country was second to none. Not that anybody cared any more, or that anybody knew of that, since his country has never gone into a proper war in its history, but well, with these things, you can never be to sure, can you.

But I digress, Shaun, yes, the physicist. He had been working on his own project for nearly a decade now and had re-used the old pieces of the LHC in a much more miniaturized version, of course, but in essence, it was capable of creating elementary particles and at the same time entangle them. After the initial explosion, instead of losing the created particles into oblivion (what would be the point in entangling them in the first place, uh?), he actually converged the entangled particles back into atomic form. The idea was to create a clone army, or sub-atomic bombs, or whatever could be done to put fear in other countries. You know how scientists are attached to science-fiction, and Shaun was no exception.

In the beginning he wasn’t very successful, and it took him nearly 5 years to produce a pair of atoms with their quarks and gluons entangled on the other side. While you could easily make atoms entangle in normal lab conditions using lasers, at the moment you turned your machines off, they would go back into their natural state. But in this case, the effects were much more lasting. In recent years, he managed to create whole molecules that were virtually the same, stable for months, even years. Copy cats.

But what he didn’t expect (who would) was that his experiments were also touching the adjacent m-branes of parallel universes. It was hypothesised in the past that some forces could leak to adjacent universes, like gravity, and though that wasn’t widely accepted, it was very hard to prove it wrong. The problem is, until today, nobody had reached energy densities so intense as to actually make a remarkable effect on the parallel universes. Shaun did.

If the parallel universe was, like ours, sparsely populated, with a only handful of pseudo-sapient species, he’d probably have hit empty space. But the universe he found was nothing ordinary. In fact, Shaun’s own experiments for years had created a special condition, in which the aforementioned universe became aware of our own. I explain. His experiments, the entanglement of particles not always worked, as I said earlier, and the less they worked (ie. less matter on this universe), the more they leaked into the adjacent universe.

A door to your own room

In a lovely evening of spring, such as today, with daffodils and tulips blossoming, and the warm spells finally arriving, Shaun would normally be working. 30 storeys below ground. He would see none of that, or care for that matter. His new molecules (DNAs this time) were working at an alarming rate. He managed to duplicate an entire gene last week, and his team was now running loads of tests on the results. It required a lot of energy to create molecules enough to run all tests, but his lab had unlimited supply of everything.

With all his team elsewhere, Shaun was busy trying to expand his technique to achieve the whole sequence of a virus. That made the machine run at wild energy levels (quite a few Pev), and the whole thing destabilized for a moment, and stopped. Fearing he made the surrounding city go dark, he checked all energy inputs, and they were all fine. Trying to measure a few currents here and there, Shaun looked for his multimeter and, oddly, it was on the workbench, not where he’d left. Not surprised, somebody must have used it and not stored properly, it happens. With his multimeter in hand, he started checking all currents and they all look fine, apart from the 17th onwards, that the polarity was reversed.

That was odd. Seriously odd. As if his machine was actually providing energy back to the power plant, only that it was impossible (it was no fusion chamber!). Without a clue, Shaun went back to his desk, left the multimeter by the lamp and reclined his chair, looking in the infinite. The infinite, in this case, was his shelf rack. Everything was blurred, but a remarkably familiar yellow blur caught his attention, and his eyes focused for a moment, and clear as day (though it was never day in his lab), that was his multimeter. Exactly where he’d left, with the dangling red wire over the black one.

He looked back at the table, and sure enough, his multimeter was there, too. Obviously, that one was someone’s else, but just to be sure, he got his own, and started comparing them, finding the same imperfections, the same burnt mark, the same cuts. His head was not working any more, he went back where he found the other multimeter and started looking around, looking for clues. It could very easily be a prank, but his head was not thinking. It was in discovery mode.

Obsessive as he was, he started noticing differences to that part of the room, compared to what it usually was. Almost like the room was displaced in time, with that part a few hours, maybe days, back. And he started putting things in their own place, tidying up as a mechanical task to help him think. When he was satisfied with the place, he turned around and jumped so high backwards that he hit his head on a red pipe that was hanging from the ceiling. It was Shaun, looking back at himself, smiling.

“Hello”, said the other Shaun. “…”. “Yes, I see, you’re in a bit of a shock. That’s understandable, I um, let me help you with the concept.” Shaun said nothing.

“See, you are a very interesting specimen. We’ve been monitoring your experiment ever since we detected the leakage from your universe to ours. Generally, we wouldn’t ourselves believe in multiple universes, but as things were clearly leaking from your universe, we had no other alternative.” Shaun was still speechless. “As you probably have guessed by now, this part of the room is in our universe. Actually, the working part of your experiment has been inside our universe for quite some time. More specifically, ever since it started working…”.

“Hey!” Shaun opened his mouth for the first time. “You can’t possibly say that you guys did all the work!” – without even knowing who were they, but that was too big an insult to let that one pass. “Oh, no, you got me wrong, Shaun. No, you’re absolutely right, you did everything. We just provided our universe to you.”. Shaun was speechless again.

Compromise

“Understand, we’re in a somewhat different level of technology than you. In some cases, much more advanced, in others, much less.”, the other Shaun continued after a pause, probing for any offence that he could have made. “In practical matters, we’re much more advanced. Our universe has been extremely kind to us. We have a very dense population throughout our known universe, it’s actually hard to get to know all the cultures yourself, we just don’t live long enough. The fact that your universe has been leaking energy has boosted our physics so much, that we managed to halve the energy consumption of all our technology and at the same time, more than double our energy production levels!”, Shaun would not let that one pass… “Lucky you, we have nothing of that…”

“I know! Very well indeed! And it’s in that respect that you guys are so much more advanced than us. Your theoretical physics is so advanced, your mathematics so robust, that make our feeble attempts in model our universe a pre-school matter.” – “Ha!” said Shaun, “our mathematics is broken, Goedel has proven it and Turing re-proved. Our theoretical physics is still fighting over string theory and the alternative and we’re getting nowhere fast!”.

“On the contrary, Shaun. Your universe is limited, so your mathematics can only reach thus far. Your theoretical physics is considering things that we never imagined possible. Our universe is lame next to yours, the challenges that you face are the most delicious delicatessen for our theoretical physicists. There is an entire community, the fastest growing of all times, just to consume the material you guys generated three centuries (of your time) ago!”

The other Shaun was breathless, smiling from ear to ear with a face like a dog waiting for you to throw the stick. There was a deep silence for a few moments. Shaun was afraid that someone would enter through the door and he would have to explain everything, and he was not sure he could, actually. He was still holding the last tool he was going to put somewhere safe. He looked at it and considered that that tool was not actually in his own universe, but somewhere else. Yet, it was there, on the same room.

“So,” – a pause – “how come you are… me?”, “Well, I’m not you, obviously, I’m just represented as you in this piece of our universe. I wouldn’t fit this room otherwise.”, “Oh, I get it.” lied Shaun. The other Shaun continued “You see, your studies has allowed us to extrapolate you idea and re-create your own universe inside our own. This room is just the connection point, if you go through that door” – and pointed to an old door that lead to the emergency exit – “you will continue inside our version of your universe.”, “Wait a minute, how much of our world have you replicated?”, “World, no, not just Earth, everything.” – a long pause, with wide open eyes. After a blink: “you mean, galaxies?”, “Yes, yes, all of them. Your universe is quite compact for all it has to offer, and we were firstly intrigued by that, but then we understood that it was necessary to have the constraints you have, and well, an important feature to generate such high quality theoretical physics.” “And we decided to lend an unused part of our universe so you could not only teach us by broadcasting your knowledge, but also running tests on our own universe.” “Most of your experiments are now part of our day-to-day life, from vehicles to communication devices to life-saving machines.” “You, Shaun, has made our lives so much better, that it was the least we could do.”

Anthropocentric

“Is there anyone living in this version of our universe? I mean, human … hum … clones?”, “No, no. We thought that would be improper. We do try to live in it, just for the curiosity, actually. There are some holiday packs to travel the wonderful places your universe has to offer. It’s nothing we don’t see in our own, but you know, travel agencies will always find an excuse to take your money, right?” and finished that sentence with a grin and almost a wink. His human traces were very good, almost as if he was observing for far too long, making Shaun to feel a little bit uneasy…

“Actually…” – the other Shaun continued – “maybe you could help us fixing a few things on this side of the universe. Make things a bit more suited to the people from our side, what do you think?”. With the rest of the team deep in tests, it’d be weeks before they would even consider going back to the main lab, and nobody else would dare to enter there, after the several claims (in the private circle that knew him) that his lab would produce a black-hole that would consume Earth and everything else.

Shaun decided to go in, at least to explore the very convincing copy of his own world. Going up the emergency exit, he found the lift all the way to the top, as expected. Outside, as expected, the early rays of the spring sun casting long shadows on the trees and buildings. The nearby cattle farm was empty, though. When the other Shaun noticed Shaun’s curiosity, he added, “Ah, yes, you see, we decided not to include mammals, as they could eventually evolve into sapient beings and we’d be altering the history of our own universe. We didn’t want to do that!”. Shaun thought it was sensible.

For several days, Shaun has listened to all complaints about his own universe and how would that fit into their own physiology. Animals were turned green to photosynthesise, trees would reproduce by multiple ways at the same time, genetic combination of more than a pair of chromosomes were allowed, as was normal in this new universe, and many of the landscapes were altered to fit the gigantic stature of most of its inhabitants. Some parts were left untouched, or the travel agencies would lose a huge market, and some were shortened and simplified, for the less elaborate, but still pseudo-sentient species.

Shaun was feeling very well, like a demi-god, changing landscapes and evolution at his own wishes, much like Slartibartfast. How fortunate was him, the only human – correction – the only being in his universe (as far as he knew) to play with a toy universe himself.

Inevitable causality

After meeting with leaders of the populations of the alter-universe, receiving gifts and commendations (and a few kisses from the lasses), it was time to return to his own universe. Shaun felt a bit tired, but after drinking a bit of their energetic beverage, he blasted back to alter-Earth in his new hyper-vehicle, to his own alter-lab. In there, only alter-Shaun was there to say goodbye. A handshake and a wink was enough to mean “I’ll be back, and thanks for all the fish”, which Shaun has taken as a warm gift, rather than a creepy resemblance.

But as soon as Shaun stepped up into his own universe, he noticed some things were out of place. After being in an alter-universe for so long, it was only natural to misplace normal concepts, but some things were not normal at all, like a 10 meter high corridor leading from his side of the room. Normally, It’d be no more than 2 meters and there was a very good reason for that: humans are not that tall!

He ran through it to find a huge door to a huge lift. In the lift were a few people still discussing what had happened. “It was definitely not that big! We must have shrunk!” said one, “No, that’s not possible, that’s Hollywoodian at best!” said the sceptic. Shaun took the lift up to the ground level, and ran to the farm nearby, fearing the worst.

And the worst happened. The cows were green, and the houses huge. Being a bad theoretical physicist himself, and not being able to count on the alter-physicists for theoretical matters, Shaun hasn’t taken into account that his machine was a duplication machine, of entangled particles. That means, for the lay to understand, that whatever happens to one, invariably happens to the other, no matter in what part of the universe, or in this case, in the multi-verse, they are.

That, thought Shaun, would take a bit more than a few days to fix… but he know how, and he was looking forward to fix it himself!

Unnatural

It’s funny to see how people judge events to be unnatural without any basis, or even defining the word natural. In its most basic meaning, natural is something that happens in nature, excluding any man-made achievements. For some reason, we like to think of ourselves as living outside nature, which beats me. We also have the super-natural, which are the things we can’t explain.

For us humans, being outside of nature, has a strong powerful feeling of superiority. We learnt to protect ourselves from the rain, and with time, we managed to protect ourselves from tsunamis. This feeling of loosing battles but winning the war has powerful consequences on the mind of men. This superiority, though, is a fake feeling of safety, since nature (aka. non-humans) always play neutral, and humans always play harsh. If nature had feelings (Gaia and other non-sense), we’d be doomed.

That puts us in three categories, according to a human eye: what’s below us (nature), us, and what above us (our myths and technologically advanced aliens). This relation is far from correct, but that doesn’t stop us seeing the universe with these eyes, and most importantly, basing our beliefs on it. Most original religions put nature on top of men, like Norse, Greek, Roman and indigenous mythology. But, in the eyes of science and technology (even well before Christ) that has changed, substantially.

Single-God based religions put men on top of nature. That thought would be impossible to conceive for pre-historic cultures, but with the advent of technology, humans started feeling superior, super-natural. But there were still things they couldn’t explain, so instead of removing religion altogether, they just removed themselves from nature. That common sense is what made religions evolve from the native form to the super-human form, where God made men, and only men, on its own image. The most obvious form for God to take, then, was the human form.

Modern Times

With time, men learnt the power of its own creation. Religion was used to destroy entire civilizations, many times over. More recently, however, with the greater separation between state and religion, it became unfashionable to blame horrendous crimes on religion alone, so the role of religion changed from the main cause, to a role model. If you can’t tell God made you kill that entire village, you can say that God teaches us that what they do is wrong, so wrong, that they deserve to die. Problem solved.

But more importantly, and with the advance of atheism (reaching up to 10% of the population, according to New Scientist), especially in key positions of the world (rule-makers, money-makers), religion had to change its form and take a whole new meaning to people. I’m an atheist, I can’t say I’d do anything for God, but I can say I’d save a child from starvation. So, religion or not, people are still willing to go to extreme lengths to do something right. All you need to do is to define what’s right and wrong, no matter what religion (if any) you follow.

It’s fun to blame wars on religion, but that’s not the point. Never was. Einstein worked on nuclear physics in the US knowing the government would use that to make atomic bombs, and he still did it. Would it be worse doing it for the Germans? Maybe. Ultimately, our behaviour, with or without religion, has to do with what we evolved to do: fight. And fighting is not about striking first, but calculating the risks.

There is a theory, which I like very much, is that this transition in religion happened for socio-political reasons. Not just control over people, but advice and care that wouldn’t otherwise reach remote places. Like the bans on pork meat for the Jews, during times were it was generally unsafe to eat it anyway (still is). Or tales about how people in a immoral city burned to death. I try very hard to teach my son about moral issues, but nothing is as powerful as “burned to death”. I end up doing some extrapolations, nothing of that sort, but I see the power in it, and for that, it served its purpose very well.

As modernised as religions got during the last centuries, most of them still have things of the past that they can’t loose, no matter how weird it sounds. Catholics sill trying to convince people against contraception, Jews still having to eat food blessed by a rabbi, Muslims still having to wear burqa and stone their women, and so on. Different people will read this and laugh at different parts, but each one accepts their own prejudices as if it was the obvious truth.

When I was a boy I got beaten by my friends (yes, friends) because I said I didn’t believe in God. I must have said something like “for me, Jesus is just like any other guy.”, for three or four friends, of different Christian factions, to beat me up and sent me home bleeding. Normally, the universal bullying is to say “your mother is like…”, but if any of them had said: “your mother is like any other gal”, I would have said, “yeah, ok, your point is?”. But in this case, it hit a deeper and irrational feeling in all of them, at the same time. It was as fast as instinct.

Homosexuality

Most religion will say out loud that homosexuality is down right wrong. Simple as that. What they won’t do is to explain why. Unlike most other fears and prejudices, I cannot fathom where on Earth did they get that from.

It’s not like it doesn’t happen on nature, plenty of animals have homosexual relationships. Some of them even change sex during their lifetime to re-balance the population. But if a human being do it, it’s unnatural.

It’s not like it never happened in human history. Old civilizations are full of homosexuality, soldiers being encouraged to love each other so they could perform better in battle in Roman and Greek times, and since then there is a rich history of same-sex relationships throughout European history that would make anyone blush.

It’s not like it’s going to change the world or anything. Men and women still have sex, and well, we’ve passed the 7bi people mark years ago! If anything, we should encourage homosexuality, as birth control, much more effective than abstinence.

There isn’t any context that I can think of where it would be unnatural. Both in the sense of not happening in nature, or not happening to humanity. Where does it come from? Can anyone explain to me, even with religious arguments (other than God doesn’t like it)? I truly need to know this one.

New taboos

But it’s not all about loosing old stupid taboos, it’s also about creating new ones. Today it seems natural to not enslave the population of a village, or to allow women to vote. It’s also impossible to think about paedophilia without turning your stomach inside out. But that was not always like this. Greek society was perfect because there was a huge number of slaves outside of society to keep it going. Women were rarely allowed to rule or even express their opinions, and as to child-adult relationship, well, it depends on what you consider to be a child. If 14 years old is a child for you, well, they got married (with full status) much earlier than that not too long ago.

Even more recent, it seems that the world is changing a lot on labour laws, making it very hard for companies to sack incompetent employees, or to refuse a job applicant with fear to be discriminating a growing list of minorities. It seems that the majority of people belong to at least one minority group. For instance, I changed countries, moved to England, and here I’m a foreigner. We’re far from minority, especially in England, but people still take great care when talking around me not to offend me.

That would never have happened during Roman times. When in Rome, do as the Romans do, right? Well, not here. In England, you’re allowed to ride motorcycles without a helmet if you’re using a turban for religious purposes. In Scotland, the police apologised for taking a picture of a dog puppy on top of a police hat (cute picture, actually) to promote their new phone number because that offended a few Muslims.

Paedophilia is another interesting topic, and one that shows that taboos can grow to unimaginable power in just a few years. It is possible today to be arrested on your 18th birthday because your girlfriend is 17. Not that it happens often, but if her father is a radical, and where he lives is radical (say, Texas), then, I wouldn’t be surprised if it did happen.

I wonder if we should add these taboos to the bible and the quran. That would make it easier to force the whole world to follow these simple, but important moral guidelines, even when some countries’ legislations say otherwise. It’s also easier to write a story to illustrate, and later extrapolate from it, than come up with a set of definite rules about something. For instance, if you have two stories: one that tells the tale of John, who was crucified for having intercourse with a 14 y.o. girl, and another of a young brave men that was absolved for having a 17 years old girlfriend, but just because he was 18. Each religion will extrapolate slightly different, but all of them will punish paedophiles and none of them will be allowed to punish the 18 y.o. boy. Simple, efficient.

Unnatural

It may be cynic, but in my concept, everything is natural. There are good things, and bad things (depending on your point of view), but bad things are also natural. There’s nothing more natural than death. Even Wikipedia seems to be at a lost on defining unnatural.

As Arthur C. Clarke put so eloquently: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic“. Magic, super-natural and deities are all different views of what’s too complicated for our pitiful minds, but still nonetheless, natural.

The act of defining what is natural is an act of prejudice. Is to separate what I like from what I don’t. What’s like me from what’s not. Is life what breathes? Or what photosynthesise? Or what reproduces? Or what is capable of intelligence? It might be just as well something so radically different to what I’m used to that I can’t even comprehend, much less name it.

What we call Nature is, actually, just a very tiny subset of the Universe, which, according to the most recent theories in cosmology, it just a tiny subset of whatever’s beyond it. Nature is a very anthropocentric concept, one that we grab so strongly, and restrict it to our needs so irrationally, that it becomes meaningless.

Unfortunately, that behaviour is absolutely natural. If we weren’t selfish, fighters and a bit stupid, we wouldn’t have survived. That’s nature at its most basic form. And the fun part is that we’re not destroying Nature, or our planet. We’re destroying ourselves (and a few other life forms as a side-effect). Nature, or the Universe, or the Multiverse, will linger.

My conclusion is simple: stop using the word natural, or moral, or good. Use “I agree“, or “I like“. It’s much more sensate, correct and a lot less likely to create prejudice.