Intellectual integrity

Man’s unfailing capacity to believe what he prefers to be true rather than what the evidence shows to be likely and possible has always astounded me. We long for a caring Universe which will save us from our childish mistakes, and in the face of mountains of evidence to the contrary we will pin all our hopes on the slimmest of doubts. God has not been proven not to exist, therefore he must exist.

— Academician Prokhor Zakharov, “For I Have Tasted The Fruit”

When arriving on Chiron, everything that made colonial society go was brought from Earth. This is true in a material sense – all the generators, oxygen plants, tools and other necessities of life were Earth-made – but also in an ideological sense. The first years of habitation consisted of Earthers trying to make their way on an alien world using earthen tools and mindsets. As time went by and the number of Chiron-born began to outpace the rapidly aging ancients, however, this changed by necessity. In a thousand subtle and not so subtle ways, the old modes of thinking began to show their cracks and flaws, all the ways they were meant to explain and justify the order of things on another planet. In short, a time of reckoning was fast approaching.

The quest for intellectual integrity is both a philosophical and an ideological endeavor. In philosophical terms, it is an attempt to find a solid and rigorous basis for future modes of thinking, free of implicit biases carried over from the history of past generations. To clear out the abstract intellectual deadwood, as it were. In ideological terms, this seemingly dry and remote pursuit is a confrontation with the very concrete fact that we are not those people any more, and have to come to grips with the reality of the here and now before it comes to grips with us. Those born on Chiron are not bound by Earth traditions by mere force of continuity and habit – these has to be better reasons for holding on to the past than that. The future is now.

In a sense, what this amounts to is a faction-wide attempt to build its own ancient traditions. By necessity, this takes different forms in different factions. The Peacekeepers have to come to terms with the fact that it can not operate as if they were an organization meant to facilitate dialogue between some 200-odd countries on a socially overdetermined planet; in lieu of the old-style UN, something new is required. Likewise, the University has to untangle the Humboldtian ideal from the actually existing institutions carried over from Earth, and their innumerable ties to defunct powers that be. Pointedly, the Believers have to let go of thousands of years of religious turmoil in order to come up with one final, robust true faith. Zakharov’s jab that there ate mountains of evidence to overcome is not merely theological, but encompasses everything worth thinking about. Some ideas will be cast aside during the process of overcoming, but the end result is not nihilism; the end result is a more refined, robust version of the factions as they really are or want to be. The end product of intellectual integrity is, paradoxically, ideological purity.

This is a worrying prospect from the point of view of ecumenical dialogue and the cosmopolitan exchange of ideas. Especially if we take into account that this is a technology that can be fully mastered and implemented in-game. The implication being that this is something that can be done away with once and for all, taken off the agenda and relegated to the past. We fought the past, overcame it and began thinking true and proper thoughts – and have philosophically unassailable reasons for proclaiming it to be so. When all sources of error are removed, only correct thought remains. Which raises an ever relevant question: what does being objectively right mean for those who, eyes open, insist on being wrong?

Gene splicing

The genetic code does not, and cannot, specify the nature and position of every capillary in the body or every neuron in the brain. What it can do is describe the underlying fractal pattern which creates them.

— Academician Prokhor Zakharov, “Nonlinear Genetics”

Genes punch way above their weight class when it comes to having a material impact on the world. For such tiny things to have such a dramatic effect on the material world is nothing short of remarkable. Being able to affect change on a genetic level thus becomes a very powerful tool; seemingly small edits can end up producing very large differences. The outcome is not proportionate to the input, as it were.

As Zakharov indicates, however, the outcome is not a linear process corresponding 1:1 with the alterations made. It is not possible to look upon a genetic code and immediately be able to visualize the fully formed organism; too many things come down to the biographical history of the organism in question, and the specific circumstances within which it lives. For plants, it might be as simple as gaining different colorations depending on the soil; for humans, far more factors play in.

This makes the prospect of gene editing a very indirect proposition. Unlike computer programs, organisms can not be written from scratch. There is simply too much going on, at too far a remove. For the same reason, it is not clear where to begin making alterations; where, amongst the myriad of genes, is the one thing which controls the desired aspect? It has to be somewhere in there, but where?

Like teenagers of the early internet years learning HTML, the key is to copy what works on other pages and splice it into your own. There is a process through which the incomprehensible series of letters and numbers is turned into a web page, and while this process is not entirely known (yet), the various small changes that can be made are predictable and immediately applicable. The same goes, mutatis mutandis, for genes. Take the genes which seem to correspond to the desired trait in one genome, splice it into the genome which you want to exhibit the same trait, and see what happens.

If it works, it works. If it does not – well, the search continues. Sooner or later, something has to work, given enough monkeys with enough genetic typewriters.

Skunkworks

The popular stereotype of the researcher is that of a skeptic and a pessimist. Nothing could be further from the truth! Scientists must be optimists at heart, in order to block out the incessant chorus of those who say “It cannot be done.”

— Academician Prokhor Zakharov, University Commencement

There is a lot of non-scientific activity going on these days, most of it conducted by non-scientists. Naturally, when scientists notice these shenanigans, their natural instinct is to say that these things do not work and (more often than not) can not work. While correct in detail, the overall result of this impulse is a seeming chorus of people saying it cannot be done. The “it” in question varies, but the image of researchers saying “it cannot” remains static.

This is something of a challenge for science communicators. It also casts the Skunkworks, as base facility and general concept, in an ironic light. These are places where everything goes, where balls to the walls insane projects are given a green light and highly speculative, low-probability theories are tested out. The prototypical advancement of science is conducted through the steady iteration of repetition; most of it consist of a rather unglamorous going through the motions. At the Skunkworks, however, anything goes. Sure, let’s see what happens if we fire a giant space laser whilst it is half a centigrade from turning into superheated plasma! Let’s find out what happens if we reverse the polarity of a mind worm! Can we modify the morphogenetic field somehow? Do progenitors like K-pop? Let’s find out!

Most of these speculative ventures will, inevitably, not work. Null results are also results, however, and a non-trivial amount of knowledge can be gleaned from the process of repeatedly trying supposedly impossible things. For one, there is now more experimental data than there was before. For another, the scientists, lab technicians, engineers and everyone else involved will have gained valuable on the job experience. The most immediate benefit of this is better trained science crews able to conduct a wide variety of experiments. A slightly less immediate, but potentially more significant, benefit is the opening up of conversations along the lines of “hey, remember that time when we did x? what if we tried it on y?”. Even if x didn’t pan out, the impulse to try it again on y just might.

If this makes you think of Feyerabend, the firebrand agitator against methodology in scientific exploration, then you know where this is headed. The key to reading Feyerabend, however, is to do it from the point of view hinted at in Zakharov’s quote: as an optimist seeing the potential things within reach that are yet to be done. Science is fundamentally a process of retroactively verifying and corroborating, but it is not only that. Zakharov and Feyerabend, optimists both, argue that it is very pessimistic indeed to reduce science to a mere process of going through the motions. Zakharov goes ever so slightly further, and adds that sometimes the scientifically prudent thing to do is to build a prohibitively expensive and ethically dubious facility specifically dedicated to conducting the most outlandish experiments possible. After all, it just might pan out.

Advanced subatomic theory

The substructure of the universe regresses infinitely towards smaller and smaller components. Behind atoms we find electrons, and behind electrons quarks. Each layer unraveled reveals new secrets, but also new mysteries.

— Academician Prokhor Zakharov, “For I Have Tasted The Fruit”

The universal state of things expressed in this quote is not only applicable to the natural world at large (or small, as the case might be), but also to the lifeworlds of humans in general. The discovery of ever smaller components is equally a function of how the universe is structured, and of how knowledge is built upon previously accumulated knowledge. In order to find a smaller component, it is necessary to have discovered what said component is smaller than. It is, as Yang said, an iterative process.

Secrets and mysteries depend fully on the point of view adopted at a given point in time. On the one hand, it is necessary to know enough about something to know there are things not yet known; on the other hand, secrets unravel and mysteries unfold as soon as they become knowable enough to be subjected to systematic study. There is at all times a finite range of conceptually available objects that are not yet fully understood, but also not completely unknown. As Gadamer would have it, there are always things just beyond the horizon, and as we move towards it, new horizons come into view. The specific secrets and mysteries of the day tend to be discovered and explored, but there will always be new ones lurking just slightly further into the future.

This parallel between physical and mental universes can – it is assumed – only be pushed so far. Eventually, we will run out of physical universe; at some point, we will have found the smallest component there could possibly be, where venturing into smaller scales simply would not be a meaningful thing to do. Zakharov’s infinity is not quite as infinite as it is made out to be. It is, however, infinite enough to last for the rest of our lives, and possibly the lives of many generations to come. Which, for all intents and purposes we might have, is infinite enough to suffice, and to warrant the active seeking out of new mysteries and secrets to uncover. We are not done with the small secrets of the universe just quite yet.

Optical computers

We have reached an informational threshold which can only be crossed by harnessing the speed of light directly. The quickest computations require the fasted possible particles moving along the shortest paths. Since the capability now exists to take our information directly from photons traveling molecular paths, the final act of the information revolution will soon be upon us.

— Academician Prokhor Zakharov ,”For I Have Tasted the Fruit”

Optical computers is an interesting technology from a gameplay perspective, seeing that it does not provide any benefits whatsoever. None, zero, nothing. The only reason to research it is that it is required for other technologies further down the line. Thus, this technology is as close a representation of pure science as the game gets – the advancement of knowledge for its own sake, rather than for the promise of new toys and gizmos to play around with.

This can be contrasted with our intuitive understanding of the inherent usefulness of really, really fast computers. As Zakharov indicates, speed is the name of the game here; nothing being faster than the speed of light, optical computers would by definition be the fastest difference engine in town. Those of us who are old enough to remember when ordinary silicon computers made an entry into the lifeworlds of ordinary people, can remember the distinct difference even the slowest of these devices made. The same goes for old style modems, creating unimaginably slow connections which nevertheless opened up brand new worlds. What marvels are waiting just around the corner of the invention of these very, very fast molecular modern machines?

If the cyberoptimism of the late 80s or early 90s is something to go by – the low end modems would bring democracy, enlightenment and the whole accumulated cultural achievements of humanity into the living rooms of the masses – then the hype surrounding these newfangled optical computers ought to be similarly over the top. While these optical inventions may or may not deliver on these new cyberoptimistic promises, the hype might well be sufficient in and of itself to generate the societal enthusiasm required to transition into this new computational mode. It would not be the first time computational circuits came into being following this peculiar, circular mode of production. Whatever comes after their invention is a big, curious unknown, but once optical computers are in place, they cannot but produce the effects they are going to have. Sometimes the very promise of a better future is what brings it into being.

Nonlinear Mathematics

There are two kinds of scientific progress: the methodical experimentation and categorization which gradually extend the boundaries of knowledge, and the revolutionary leap of genius which redefines and transcends those boundaries. Acknowledging our debt to the former, we yearn nonetheless for the latter.

– Academician Prokhor Zakharov, “Address to the Faculty”

For those who learn English as a second or third language, there are certain words that are bound to cause confusion. One of them is “math”, or, as it is also known, “maths”. Depending on who you ask, you are likely to get different responses as to which one of these variants is correct. The key to understanding the issue is not to see it as a matter of correct or incorrect, but rather as regional variations, where one is applicable in some places and the other in others. As an outsider, taking a stance one way or another is not as important as understanding where each variant applies, and being flexible when encountering them in the wild. If one author talks about math and another about maths, they are most likely talking about the same thing – unless either of them is very technical, and talks about different kinds of math.

Nonlinear mathematics is a very specific kind of math. It is not an algebraic assertion along the lines that 2+2=5 due to a sudden nonlinear state of numbers. Rather, it is a specialized kind of math that has been developed for specific uses in specific circumstances. This type of math makes assumptions that do not apply in other kinds of math, but which nevertheless brings forth useful results. In this case, a particle impactor, or (as it referred to in non-technical terms) a big honking laser gun.

The nonlinearity refers to the fact that what is being calculated is chaotic, and thus behaves in ways that are difficult to predict. Not impossible to predict, mind, just difficult enough that simply relating one variable to another is insufficient to do the trick. Predicting the weather is an example of such nonlinearity: there are many variables which are relevant to the prediction, but there is no single equation (e.g. this plus that times this over that) which, once solved, will give you tomorrow’s weather forecast. This does not mean that math is useless in the predictive effort, but it does mean it will take more work than mere algebraic number-crunching to get it done.

The exact nature of this additional work differs from problem to problem, as you might imagine, and the details are bound to be plentiful and complicated. One of the implicit assertions of researching something in a video game is that all the things necessary for completing it have been smoothed out, mastered and put to use. It does not have to provide information about the steps involved, just proclaim it to be done – whatever is necessary is also what you just did, by virtue of completing the research project. The fact that Nonlinear Mathematics is part of a linear tech tree is ever so slightly ironic, and Zakharov’s quote is a very non-subtle nod towards that. Non-linear mathematics is all about many variables acting chaotically together towards complex outcomes; researching Nonlinear Mathematics is a binary proposition, where you have either done it or not. There are, indeed, two kinds of scientific progress.

The Human Genome Project

To map the very stuff of life; to look into the genetic mirror and watch a million generations march past. That, friends, is both our curse and our proudest achievement. For it is in reaching to our beginnings that we begin to learn who we truly are.

– Academician Prokhor Zakharov, “Address to the Faculty”

Sometimes, you read a book which opens your eyes to new things. Every page answers new questions you did not know you had, and continued reading keep generating more such answers. The learning process keeps going from first page to last, all the while the excitement for what is to come grows from previous experience. And then, the book ends, not with a climax of ultimate insight, but with a rather mundane summary and a bibliography which you should check out sometime but probably won’t. During the read it was an exciting experience, but afterwards, looking back on it, it was less than it seemed at the time.

The Human Genome Project of our world has that characteristic. In 1998, when Alpha Centauri was released, the hype was enormous about the future prospects following the complete mapping of every aspect of the human genome. Knowing where all the genes are and what they do would eventually cure everything there was to cure, someday, sometime. A few years later, the project was deemed complete, and after that there has not been too much noise or enthusiasm about its results. There have been results, to be sure, but they have all been gradual, incremental and not yet of the cancer curing variety. The hype has died down, and the slightly less romantic (and hype-funded) work of finding out what we have found out has continued ever since.

To return to the book analogy: it is like writing an introduction that lays the groundwork for the book to come. It is a good start, but it does not actually count until you have written the rest of the book.

In-game, this secret project adds a talent to every single base, making it easier to keep them from rioting. The implied course of events is that the health benefits from mapping the intricacies that make up human beings are many and distributed roughly equally among the population. This makes sense at first, until you consider that scientific knowledge has a tendency to be shared, and that it thus should make everyone better off in the long run, regardless of who built the wonder. A more down-to-earth (pun indeed intended) interpretation is that a faction dedicating itself to reconstructing the accumulated advances from the old world would attract the best biotech people from all other factions. These biotech experts would then stick around, since this faction clearly is where the action is.  Over time, this would become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as everyone went to where everyone went, thus ensuring they would keep coming.

There is something to Zakharov’s quote, though. In order to move forward it is necessary to have a map of the terrain, even on these small scales. The difference between 1998 and now, however, is an increasing awareness that the map is not the territory. It is better to have a map than to not have one, but it only ever makes it easier to know where to look and where to go. The actual getting to the places on the map requires more sophisticated tools, which have to be built in different projects at different times. Contrary to Borges, this map will be far larger than the terrain.