Saturday, November 11, 2017

A Shower Of Psychons

     At telepathy he was erratic to exasperation. He called the Rhine cards once without a miss, then had poor scores for three weeks. More highly structured communication seemed quite beyond him, until one day without apparent cause but during an attempt to call the cards by telepathy, he found himself hooked in with Weems for all of ten seconds: time enough for a thousand words by Speedtalk standards.
     it comes out us speech!
     why not? thought is speech.
     how do we do it?
     if we knew it would not be so unreliable, as it is, some can do it by volition, some by accident, and some never seem to be able to do it. We do know this: while thought may not be of the physical world in any fashion we can now define and manipulate, it is similar to events in continuum in its quantal nature. You are now studying the extension of the quantum concept to all features of the continuum, you know the chronon, the mensum, and the viton, as quanta, as well as the action units of quanta such as the photon. The continuum has not only structure but texture in all its features. The least unit of thought we term the psychon.
     define it. Put salt on its tail.
     some day, some day. I can tell you this; the fastest possible rate of thought is one psychon per chronon; this is a basic, universal constant.
     how close do we come to that?
     less than sixty-to-the-minus-third-power of the possibility.
     ! ! ! ! ! !
     better creatures than ourselves will follow us. We pick pebbles at a boundless ocean.
     what can we do to improve it?
     gather our pebbles with serene minds.

     [Robert A. Heinlein, “Gulf,” in Assignment in Eternity]

     I remember, as a young physics student only just making the acquaintance of quantum mechanics, being intrigued by Heinlein’s conception of a wholly quantized reality. One of the more challenging implications of the notion deserves exploration: that spacetime itself may be quantized, such that motion itself, however “smooth” it may appear, is really a series of discrete transitions from one “spatiotemporal cell” to another.

     Recent developments in high energy physics, as supercolliders probe the understrata of reality, have made some physicists suspect quite the opposite: i.e., that there may not be any such thing as “fundamental particles.” In other words, the quanta we can “observe,” colloquially speaking, might just be lumps composed of still smaller lumps. Certain infrequently observed, hard to replicate behaviors of quarks have caused some of the Standard Model’s most passionate defenders to wonder.

     But that’s really all to the side.

     This morning at Mad Genius Club, Sarah Hoyt pokes once more at a “quantum barrier” that’s irritated genre fiction readers and writers for decades: the cleavage, if there is one, between fantasy and science fiction:

     From a reader’s point of view, to me, what distinguishes sf from fantasy is that SF at least TRIES to be logically derived. Yes, there might be things in that time that are “impossible” in ours, but depending on far away it is that doesn’t hang my disbelief by the neck till dead, because, well, think of how we live. I’ve long decided if there was a time slip, and middle ages people came to us, they’d think they were in fairyland. We are ridiculously long-lived and have very few children, like the elves, too.

     Fantasy, on the other hand, needs only follow internal logic, which does NOT need to relate to the logic of our world.

     If you’re straddling the line and want to be thought pure sf, if your choice is between elves and time travelers, or elves and aliens, just monitor your words. Not spells, but something else. Come up with something scientific-y sounding. Heinlein’s “sensitives” were a touch of magic in his science fiction, and if he’d called them “low grade mages” it would have put the entire thing in fantasy.

     I have a somewhat different take on it. Fantasy, unlike SF, embeds a concept of special powers or differences. That is: Particular persons or races, specifically because of who or what they are, can do / be / become things that others cannot. In contrast, SF implies that “what is possible” is available to anyone who possesses the right constellation of intellect, hardware, and determination. Nothing is barred to Smith simply because he’s “not Gandalf” or “not a member of species X.”

     Both sorts of story, to be satisfying, must evolve logically from premises that are either explicitly disclosed or that the reader can infer with modest effort and attention.

     Continuing on from the above thoughts: In his “Daniel Black” series, E. William Brown takes a dangerous step, the sort that might prejudice some readers (and a lot of Pub World editors) against his conception:

     Why did this world have magic, when mine clearly didn’t? Although, was I really sure there was no magic in my world? Maybe it was there, and we just had a shortage of wizards.
     My metamagic sorcery provided an answer for that mystery. No, magic is made up of elementary particles that interact with normal matter. If it existed in my world some physicist poring over the results of a particle accelerator run would have noticed it long ago.

     [From Extermination]

     Brown moves on quickly from this hybridization of fantasy and SF, and for the purposes of his story it probably won’t matter in the long term. But it got me thinking: As his protagonist acquired his sorcerous powers by being transported across the interstices between our world and that of the novels, is it possible that the “elementary particles” that make magic possible could be imported to our reality? Alternately, could those particles be synthesized by an appropriately constructed accelerator stuffed with the necessary elements? In either case, what would the consequences be?

     I know, I know: Too heavy for a Saturday. I’ll file it away with my other “plot shards.”

     While we’re exploring science-fictional conceptions, how about the various approaches to time travel?

     One of Robert Silverberg’s more daring novels, Up The Line, is founded on the commercialization of time travel into a tourist industry. Silverberg makes use of an opportunity to tantalize us with its paradoxes:

     “I spoke the other day of cumulative audience paradox. This is a severe philosophical problem which has not yet been resolved, and which I will present to you now purely as a theoretical exercise, to give you some insight into the complexities of our undertaking. Consider this: the first time-traveler to go up the line to view the Crucifixion of Jesus was the experimentalist Barney Navarre, in 2012. Over the succeeding two decades, another fifteen or twenty experimentalists made the same journey. Since the commencement of commercial excursions to Golgotha in 2041, approximately one tourist group a month — or 100 tourists a year — has viewed the scene. Thus about 1800 individuals of the twenty-first century, so far, have observed the Crucifixion. Now, then: each of these groups is leaving from a different month, but every one of them is converging on the same day! If tourists continue to go up the line at a rate of 100 a year to see the Crucifixion, the crowd at Golgotha will consist of at least 10,000 time-travelers by the middle of the twenty-second century, and — assuming no increase in the permissible tourist trade — by the early thirtieth century, some 100,000 time-travelers will have made the trip, all of them necessarily congregating simultaneously at the site of the Passion. Yet obviously no such crowds are present there now, only a few thousand Palestinians — when I say ‘now,’ I mean of course the time of the Crucifixion relative to now-time 2059 — and just as obviously those crowds will continue to grow in the centuries of now-time. Taken to its ultimate, the cumulative audience paradox yields us the picture of an audience of billions of time-travelers piled up in the past to witness the Crucifixion, filling all the Holy Land and spreading out into Turkey, into Arabia, even to India and Iran. Similarly for every other significant event in human history: as commercial time-travel progresses, it must inevitably smother every event in a horde of spectators, yet at the original occurrence of those events, no such hordes were present! How is this paradox to be resolved?”
     Miss Dalessandro had no suggestions. For once, she was stumped. So were the rest of us. So was Dajani. So are the finest minds of our era.
     Meanwhile, the past fills up with time-traveling sightseers.
     Dajani tossed one final twister at us before he let us go. “I may add,” he said, “that I myself, as a Courier, have done the Crucifixion run twenty-two times, with twenty-two different groups. If you were to attend the Crucifixion yourselves tomorrow, you would find twenty-two Najeeb Dajanis at the hill of Golgotha simultaneously, each of me occupying a different position at the event explaining the happening to my clients. Is this multiplication of Dajanis not a fascinating thing to consider? Why are there not twenty-two Dajanis at loose in now-time? It stretches the intellect to revolve such thoughts. Dismissed, dear ladies and gentlemen, dismissed.”

     A severe paradox indeed! But Silverberg leaves it as a research exercise for future students of time travel. Contrast his conception with Gregory Benford’s multi-temporal vision from Timescape. In that novel, a maverick physicist in a blighted future attempts to tell physicists of an earlier year how to avoid an ecological catastrophe, by encoding the instructions into a stream of tachyons: faster-than-light patterns that are physically complementary to “conventional” no-faster-than-light waves:

     Most of what he had thought was noise in his earlier experiments was actually indecipherable signals. Those messages fled backward in time from some unfathomable future. They were scarcely absorbed at all by the present rather low-density distribution of matter in the universe. But as they ran backward, what was to men an expanding universe appeared to the tachyons as a contracting one. Galaxies drew together, packing into an ever-shrinking volume. This thicker matter absorbed tachyons better. As they flowed back into what was, to them, an imploding universe, increasing numbers of the tachyons were absorbed. Finally, at the last instant before it compressed to a point, the universe absorbed a tachyon from each point in its own future. Gordon's measurement of the tachyon flux, integrated back in time, showed that the energy absorbed from the tachyons was enough to heat the compressed mass. This energy fueled the universal expansion. So to the eyes of men, the universe exploded from a single point because of what would happen, not what had. Origin and destiny intertwined. The snake ate its tail.

     That’s what you get from a physicist who genuinely grasps the implications of tachyonic interaction with normal matter.

     Larry Niven is annoyed by the idea of time travel. In an essay in his collection All The Myriad Ways, he postulates a Law of Conservation of History that would forbid it. But that’s assuming a “solution” rather than addressing the problem directly. It’s what happens when a writer decides that he doesn’t want to be bothered with a particular motif.

     And with that, it’s time for me to get back to work. “On what?” I hear you cry. Ah, that would be telling! Suffice it to say that it will blend cutting-edge concepts in quantum physics with supernatural speculation and Christian moral-ethical themes, thus rendering it (once again) unpalatable to Pub World...but hopefully, a pleasant diversion for my Gentle Readers. Until tomorrow!


Seneca III said...

And what if time is not linear? (Arrival)

jabrwok said...

Recent developments in high energy physics, as supercolliders probe the understrata of reality, have made some physicists suspect quite the opposite: i.e., that there may not be any such thing as “fundamental particles.”

This interests me, though it's probably over my head. Do you have any citations I could read about this? I've not heard or read any speculation dissenting from Quantum Mechanics aside from some discussion of Pilot Wave Theory, though I don't know whether that's gone anywhere.