Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Power Outage

I'm scribbling in the dark. I turned to the middle of the bound notebook to ensure that I don't overwrite anything else. I drop down two lines to do the same at the end of each line. Funny, I didn't think to buy new candles after I moved to make sure I wouldn't have to be doing this. Remember when the power went out across much of the northeast a few years ago? It was then that we all realized how much we take for granted our reliance upon electricity and technology.

Just an hour ago, I was typing away on my laptop, and then suddenly its light was all that remained. So, I finished my meal by the light of the monitor then closed its lid to set it to power-save mode. The world has changed so much in just one-hundred-and-fifty years. I think of a beautiful composite image of many photos taken from satellites that show the entire Earth illuminated at night by all the shining metropolises.

The American northeast shines brightest in NYC, and the west brightest in San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles, but the whole country is connected by lights. Across the globe, nearly all of China's light comes from its east coast, home to nearly one fifth of all human beings. The Indian subcontinent, home to nearly another fifth shines brightly in Mumbai. In Africa, the Sahara desert blankets nearly all of the north, but in the west, Lagos lights the coast.

North of that, Europe is quilted in a sea of light, but aside from these, by and large the entire planet is pitch dark at night. Most of its area is covered by vast oceans, inside which countless tons of fish and other creatures inhabit the depths. They don't worry about power outages, laptops, cable TV, sports scores, or internet connectivity.

But, of the many countless species of life on this planet, there is only one capable of manufacturing both shining cities and spacecraft that transmit images from the surface of a moon of Saturn.

We know from Albert Einstein's equations and nearly 100 years of experimental verification that matter is equivalent to energy. But, in order for the absolute equivalency to manifest, matter must be accelerated past the point of known physical possiblity. Imagine zooming through your life at 186,000 mps! It's hard to fathom! Yet, in the end, when we lay on our death beds, will life at that moment feel as if it passed any slower than the speed of light? In the blink of an eye, a single photon of light can whip around the planet nearly 9 times. In the last breaths of our lives, will we feel that we have lived as we should have? Will we have loved without bound and forgiven those who wronged us?

How long, indeed, do our lives last relative to the lifetime of our home, planet Earth? If we were to compress a human life span of 74 years down to just 1 second's duration, then the 4.8 billion years of the Earth's life would compress into about two whole years. Or, to put it spatially, if those 74 years were but one inch long, 4.8 billion years would be over 1,000 miles long. In terms of volume, if we consider that 74 year block to be one cubic inch, then Earth's entire history would be a cube 33 feet long, tall, and wide. Consider this, and then picture that the universe itself is nearly three times as old as the earth. Six years contains 189 million seconds. The universe is about 189 million times older than a 74 year old person. Truly, our lives are a comparative blink of an eye when compared to cosmic time scales.

So, what will remain of the shining cities at end of it all? Can such a question even begin to be answered? Some religions tell us that a creator of all will one day renew all of creation into a glorious and imperishable state for all eternity. Others tell us of a reincarnation of life back into life. I believe in a little of both.

In all things is an essence of vitality. From the tiniest grain of sand to the tallest skyscraper, each is a reflection of the other seen through the proper lens. Every grain of sand could one day, melted down and smoothed to transparency, become a part of the tallest building to allow light inside. Yet, every skyscraper can be reduced again to its constituent bits of sand and dirt and dust.

So too might this Earth one day be returned to its constituent elements. This, astronomers tell us, is an inevitability, though on cosmic time scales. When the Sun dies in a few billion years and becomes a red giant, it will envelop the inner planets, consuming them, taking back the life it once radiated to us all.

Recently, researchers in digital life studies released a program that could simulate many facets of biochemical evolution, but at much faster rates. The analogy to natural biology is curious, but tenuous we intuit when juxtaposed next to the mystery of life in the organic world.

But, as I ponder this existence and the epistemic limits which are thrust upon the nature of our being as a result of being inhabitants within this natural reality, I cannot help but wonder.

Take a walk through Best Buy or Circuit City. Look at all the television screens broadcasting images. The images, we know since we created them, are nothing but dots on a 2D surface. They only appear to us as likenesses of ourselves or our surroundings due to approximation, distance, and the operation of our eyes. The transmissions contained in their wires were created by us as well. Now, recall the Superman movie in which Superman sees beings encased in flat discs floating in space. Think also of Men in Black, wherein an entire galaxy can fit in the palm of Tommy Lee Jones' hand. Think also of the depiction of an atom as a nucleus surrounded by electrons that orbit far away on their sub-microscopic size scales. What fills those unnamed spaces?

What would digital life forms know of humanity? What would algorithmic creatures perceive of a sunset or an icicle melting in its rays? The mystery of their existence would be such as we could not fathom, our existence being not contextual with the limited parameters of their existence, but instead being bound by the higher natural laws that encompass all that we perceive.

It is said that at the speed of light, photons experience no time passage. For a photon, it is now, before, and tomorrow simultaneously. Imagine the ability to press the pause button on an entire digital world. Its inhabitants would never know. Their whole form of relationship depends upon the continuous interaction of all their underlying subsystems and all the interrelationships and contingencies among them. They exist in a "run-time environment", so to speak.

Quantum mechanics has revealed that energy comes in discrete lumps. Might our universe too be executing in a "run-time environment"? That is beyond our apprehension, but may we be destined not only to come to an ever closer understanding of the univrese, but also to actually recreate it? Life, it could be said, is that which through interaction with its surroundings is capable of recreating itself. Might the self-replicators one day succeed in giving birth to another universe? Might they already have and we just don't know it? Or can't know it?

The ancient Hindus believed that the universe is like a cosmic nursery which might one day collapse upon itself and expand again like an accordion, setting forth the mystery once again.

Take a look around you and experience all that exists. Awaken your mind to the mystery of this existence and indulge in a quest for continuous learning. When you begin to participate and contemplate, the mysteries will become for you what they have always been, are now, and ever will be.

The cosmos is to itself such an eternally curious source of mystery that it had to create you so that you might also marvel at its wonders and share in the fascination of creativity.

These abilities are true gifts. Use them wisely and be kind, gracious, and compassionate to others who haven't yet realized how precious and tenuous their existence is.