May 25, 2010KR BlogKR

The Burning of the Brain

On my way to Cordwainer Smith, I want to talk about my friend as he was then (around Bush v. Gore): a twelve-year-old hysteric who imagines the universe is broken. Did this, too, ever frighten you? Especially if you were little and read maybe too much? Like:

The fourth dimension our passage through time is? (Picture a tesseract, Meg Murry, and feel uncomforted)

The edge of our expanding universe (edge of what, nomenclature runs aground), and what’s past it?

The absence of time– of time among anything else– before (again: before) the Big Bang?

The hideous (maybe epiphanic) experience of falling in a spacesuit across a black hole’s event horizon, past the point at which time, light or causality from the universe will ever reach or affect you again, or you it? Would you just never die?

These questions gave my friend nausea and chills. He couldn’t leave his bed, until– weak with nerves– he finally confessed his fears of an inextricably fouled-up cosmos to his brother. His response instantly reconfigured my friend’s fears: “It was something like, Yes, it’s amazing how much of the universe our brains are incapable of grasping.”

Instantly, the pathological fear of a universe incapable of working became the much more intimate and manageable fear of a brain incapable of understanding. My friend’s adolescent heart lifted, at least enough to get him out of bed.

My terms teach me how to see and feel (even the New York Times links our symptoms and our lexicon now). I don’t like when they change. So anxiety toward an alien civilization otherizes an anxiety closer to home– one toward our own future or pushed-to-extreme selves, the fear of the human whose terms I can’t make out.

And about that anxiety. Physicist Paul Davies, in The Eerie Silence (thanks for the tip, Elizabeth, I love this damn book), has tried to brace humanity for the experience of meeting aliens. As Elizabeth points out, the encounter probably won’t be like Battlestar Galactica.

Instead, it will probably be closer to an iPad meeting a strawberry. Not a lot to talk about. Davies believes that any star-crossing life will be post-biological: “in a million years, if humanity isn’t wiped out before that, biological intelligence will be viewed as merely the midwife of ???real’ intelligence – the powerful, scalable, adaptable, immortal sort that is characteristic of the machine realm.”

Any species capable of crossing interstellar distance understands physical laws as incomprehensible to us as (quoting Lord Rees, the UK’s Astronomer Royal) quantum physics is to a chimpanzee. Or as incomprehensible as Magritte’s “genius of a thing” is to, say, Roger Penrose. Not just new science; new eyes. I hope this helps keep my friend out of bed.

More on Cordwainer Smith– recluse, cat-lover, way-deep-future dreamer– I mean it this time– next week.