And Another ‘Thing’ : Sci-Fi Truths and Nature’s Errors

by Daniel Rourke

In my last 3quarksdaily article I considered the ability of science-fiction – and the impossible objects it contains – to highlight the gap between us and ‘The Thing Itself’ (the fundamental reality underlying all phenomena). In this follow-up I ask whether the way these fictional ‘Things’ determine their continued existence – by copying, cloning or imitation – can teach us about our conception of nature.

Seth Brundle: What’s there to take? The disease has just revealed its purpose. We don’t have to worry about contagion anymore… I know what the disease wants.

Ronnie: What does the disease want?

Seth Brundle: It wants to… turn me into something else. That’s not too terrible is it? Most people would give anything to be turned into something else.

Ronnie: Turned into what?

Seth Brundle: Whaddaya think? A fly. Am I becoming a hundred-and-eighty-five-pound fly? No, I’m becoming something that never existed before. I’m becoming… Brundlefly. Don’t you think that’s worth a Nobel Prize or two?

The Fly, 1986

In David Cronenberg’s movie The Fly (1986) we watch through slotted fingers as the body of Seth Brundle is horrifically transformed. Piece by piece Seth becomes Brundlefly: a genetic monster, fused together in a teleportation experiment gone awry. In one tele-pod steps Seth, accompanied by an unwelcome house-fly; from the other pod emerges a single Thing born of their two genetic identities. The computer algorithm designed to deconstruct and reconstruct biology as pure matter cannot distinguish between one entity and another. The parable, as Cronenberg draws it, is simple: if all the world is code then ‘all the world’ is all there is.

Vincent Price in 'The Fly', 1958Science fiction is full of liminal beings. Creatures caught in the phase between animal and human, between alien and Earthly, between the material and the spirit. Flowing directly from the patterns of myth Brundlefly is a modern day Minotaur: a manifestation of our deep yearning to coalesce with natural forces we can’t understand. The searing passions of the bull, its towering stature, are fused in the figure of the Minotaur with those of man. The resultant creature is too fearsome for this world, too Earthly to exist in the other, and so is forced to wander through a labyrinth hovering impossibly between the two. Perhaps Brundlefly’s labyrinth is the computer algorithm winding its path through his genetic code. As a liminal being, Brundlefly is capable of understanding both worlds from a sacred position, between realities. His goal is reached, but at a cost too great for an Earthly being to understand. Seth the scientist sacrifices himself and there is no Ariadne’s thread to lead him back.

In her book on monsters, aliens and Others Elaine L. Graham reminds us of the thresholds these ‘Things’ linger on:

“[H]uman imagination, by giving birth to fantastic, monstrous and alien figures, has… always eschewed the fiction of fixed species. Hybrids and monsters are the vehicles through which it is possible to understand the fabricated character of all things, by virtue of the boundaries they cross and the limits they unsettle.”

Elaine L. Graham, Representations of the Post/Human

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‘The Thing Itself’ : A Sci-Fi Archaeology

by Daniel Rourke

Mid-way through H.G.Wells’ The Time Machine, the protagonist stumbles into a sprawling abandoned museum. Sweeping the dust off ancient relics he ponders his machine’s ability to hasten their decay. It is at this point that The Time Traveller has an astounding revelation. The museum is filled with artefacts not from his past, but from his own future: The Time Traveller is surrounded by relics whose potential to speak slipped away with the civilisation that created them.

Having bypassed the normal laws of causality The Time Traveller is doomed to inhabit strands of history plucked from time’s grander web. Unable to grasp a people’s history – the conditions that determine them – one will always misunderstand them.

Archaeology derives from the Greek word arche, which literally means the moment of arising. Aristotle foregrounded the meaning of arche as the element or principle of a Thing, which although indemonstrable and intangible in Itself, provides the conditions of the possibility of that Thing. In a sense, archaeology is as much about the present instant, as it is about the fragmentary past. We work on what remains through the artefacts that make it into our museums, our senses and even our language. But to re-energise those artefacts, to bring them back to life, the tools we have access to do much of the speaking.

The Things ThemselvesLike the unseen civilisations of H.G.Wells’ museum, these Things in Themselves lurk beyond the veil of our perceptions. It is the world in and of Itself; the Thing as it exists distinct from perceptions, from emotions, sensations, from all phenomenon, that sets the conditions of the world available to those senses. Perceiving the world, sweeping dust away from the objects around us, is a constant act of archaeology.

Kant called this veiled reality the noumenon, a label he interchanged with The-Thing-Itself (Ding an Sich). That which truly underlies what one may only infer through the senses. For Kant, and many philosophers that followed, The Thing Itself is impossible to grasp directly. The senses we use to search the world also wrap that world in a cloudy haze of perceptions, misconceptions and untrustworthy phenomena.

In another science fiction classic, Polish writer Stanislaw Lem considered the problem of The Thing Itself as one of communication. His Master’s Voice (HMV), written at the height of The Cold War, tells the story of a team of scientists and their attempts to decipher an ancient, alien message transmitted on the neutrino static streaming from a distant star. The protagonist of this tale, one Peter Hogarth, recounts the failed attempts at translation with a knowing, deeply considered cynicism. To Peter, and to Stanislaw Lem himself, true contact with an alien intelligence is an absolute impossibility:

“In the course of my work… I began to suspect that the ‘letter from the stars’ was, for us who attempted to decipher it, a kind of psychological association test, a particularly complex Rorschach test. For as a subject, believing he sees in the coloured blotches angels or birds of ill omen, in reality fills in the vagueness of the thing shown with what is ‘on his mind’, so did we attempt, behind the veil of incomprehensible signs, to discern the presence of what lay, first and foremost, within ourselves.”

Stanislaw Lem, His Master’s Voice

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A Diatribe from the Remains of Dr. Fred McCabe

by Daniel Rourke

About a month ago in handling the remains of one Dr. Fred McCabe I found rich notes of contemplation on the subject of information theory. It appears that Fred could have written an entire book on the intricacies of hidden data, encoded messages and deceptive methods of transmission. Instead his notes exist in the form of a cryptic assemblage of definitions and examples, arranged into what Dr. McCabe himself labelled a series of ‘moments’.

I offer these moments alongside some of the ten thousand images Dr. McCabe amassed in a separate, but intimately linked, archive. The preface to this abridged compendium is little capable of preparing one for the disarray of material, but by introducing this text with Fred’s own words it is my hope that a sense of the larger project will take root in the reader’s fertile imagination.

The Moment of the Message: A Diatribe

by Dr. Fred McCabe

More than ten thousand books on mathematics and a thousand books on philosophy exist for every one upon information. This is surprising. It must mean something.

I want to give you a message. But first. I have to decide how to deliver the message.

This is that moment.

I can write it down, or perhaps memorise it – reciting it in my head like a mantra, a prayer chanted in the Palace gardens. And later, speaking in your ear, I will repeat it to you. That is, if you want to hear it.

I could send it to you, by post, or telegram. After writing it down I will transmit it to you. Broadcasting on your frequency in the hope that you will be tuned in at the right moment. Speaking your language. Encoded and encrypted, only you will understand it.

I have a message for you and I want you to receive it. But first. I have to decide what the message is.

This is that moment:

This is the moment of the message

From the earliest days of information theory it has been appreciated that information per se is not a good measure of message value. The value of a message appears to reside not in its information (its absolutely unpredictable parts) but rather in what might be called its redundancy—parts predictable only with difficulty, things the receiver could in principle have figured out without being told, but only at considerable cost in money, time, or computation. In other words, the value of a message is the amount of work plausibly done by its originator, which its receiver is saved from having to repeat.

This is the moment my water arrived at room temperature

The term enthalpy comes from the Classical Greek prefix en-, meaning “to put into”, and the verb thalpein, meaning “to heat”.

For a simple system, with a constant number of particles, the difference in enthalpy is the maximum amount of thermal energy derivable from a thermodynamic process in which the pressure is held constant.

This is the moment the wafer became the body of Christ

The Roman Catholic Church got itself into a bit of a mess. Positing God as the victim of the sacrifice introduced a threshold of undecidability between the human and the divine. The simultaneous presence of two natures, which also occurs in transubstantiation, when the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ, threatens to collapse the divine into the human; the sacred into the profane. The question of whether Christ really is man and God, of whether the wafer really is bread and body, falters between metaphysics and human politics. The Pope, for all his failings, has to decide the undecidable.

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