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.

University of Planet

If you have ever attended an Earth university, you know that it can be a rather all-encompassing experience. Your life compresses into a few select texts and the activities associated with them; everything becomes about understanding these texts, and subsequently about producing passable discourse based on them. It is a very small world, but you come out of it knowing more than you did going in. Not only in terms of discourse production, but also in terms of what the texts were about. Suddenly, you have read and know Foucault, Bourdieu, Popper, etc.

A defining characteristic of Earth universities is that the experience ends at some point. There comes a moment when you are deemed to have read enough texts and produced enough discourse to be considered somewhat knowledgeable in a certain field, and thus you are given a degree and sent off into the world to do other things. The university experience has a beginning, middle and end. The University of Planet asks only one single question: what if it did not end, but kept going, forever?

To be sure, it would not mean everyone kept being undergrads for the rest of their lives. Rather, it would mean a society of PhDs, with widespread societal support for getting everyone to achieve those levels of academic excellence. Everyone, of course, except those who do not live up to those very same academic standards. Those are not considered part of society, and seen as lesser humans.

Mechanically, this is represented by every fourth citizen of a base becoming a drone, above and beyond normal drone generation. The in-game description ascribes this to a lack of ethics, which certainly is part of it. But it is also a result of exclusionary practices: not everyone is cut out for the academic lifestyle (or any lifestyle, for that matter), and there will inevitably be those who are simply not up for it. Rather than seeing this as a problem, however, the University sees this as a resource: medical research works best on human subjects, and those human subjects have to come from somewhere. The fact that the adverse side-effects of these medical experiments tend to cement someone’s status as a drone is seen as a price worth paying.

It should be noted that one of the main reasons Earth universities are exclusionary is that they require students to adopt a very particular way of being, and do not always provide the resources needed to become the kind of person who attend universities. Universities are very artificial environments, where very few things are intuitive or natural. You have to learn all the rules, traditions and rituals from scratch. If you do not know these beforehand – by being in social circumstances where these are known and discussed – then there is a very steep learning curve involved with internalizing these things. The double duty of learning the arcane rituals of academia atop the coursework means that students from families without academic traditions are more likely than not to drop out – or, more likely, not even consider the university as a life option in the first place. These are known exclusionary processes of Earth universities, but they do not translate directly to the society of the University.

Given that the University is a society of academics, it is reasonable to assume that the rules of academia are well known throughout the population. The process of exclusion has to be explained by some other mechanism. But it is interesting to ponder what a society where the proceedings of academic research are not only well known, but an integrated part of everyday life and culture. It would be similar enough to what we know from our own institutions to be comparable – conferences, papers, research projects, clusters of researchers banding together to work on similar topics, etc – but also different enough to be ever so slightly alien.

One line of comparison might be to the TV series Eureka. There, too, everyone you meet has a PhD. Only, instead of one single town with a particularly adept sheriff and a perpetual fear of losing external funding, it is every town. Everywhere you go, there be eggheads, working on the scientific experiment of the day. Or, motivated by reasons Popperian or personal, trying to disprove the theories of their peers. The extraordinary is the new normal; tomorrow’s technology truly is here today. And, given the aforementioned lack of ethics, quite possibly the drawbacks of said technologies as well, Eureka style.

The notion of potential drawbacks of scientific advancement is utterly non-present on the University agenda, putting the faction at odds with just about everyone but the Hive or the Cybernetics. Knowledge is useful for its own sake, and as the leader quote makes clear, there is always more of it to be had:

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”

A humanity transcended under University leadership would very much be guided by this sentiment, albeit with an unimaginably larger lab budget than we can muster at present. The universe is one big mystery to unravel, and Planet would be an instrument among many to aid in the pursuit of ever more knowledge. Post-humanity would be a scientific powerhouse to be reckoned with on a galactic scale, and it is not unthinkable that other worlds would find themselves unwitting or unwilling subjects of experiments too large to fathom.