The Starfarer's Journal, Part 2

Keith Alan

Note that this is incomplete!

Chapter 4 Singularity

True to 'Bob's word, the key turned out to be quite 'non-trivial' . 'Trivial' problems, to scientists, engineers, physicists and mathematicians, are problems that, while perhaps challenging to solve, aren't 'interesting' in that solving the problem fails to break new ground. 'Non-trivial' problems, on the other hand, are considered 'interesting' because they are challenging and break new ground. I'd already tried a number of what I felt were solutions, to no avail. I tried converting numbers to strings, hex values, even octal and binary. I tried using textual answers, though I'm assuming that, much like the key for the first chapter, the subsequent chapters will be decrypted by similar means. True to Bob's word, I did a lot of thinking about his previous entry as I tried to figure out what the next key would be.

This idea of a singularity is interesting, though not one I'd considered before. The concept, as I understand it, is basically looking at technology innovations plotted over time. For a very long time there was little to no technological improvements. We had fire, we were able to fashion stones into tools (likely wood as well, but wood doesn't tend to last the ages), but that was pretty much it. Somewhere along there we developed language, which accelerated things because then someone could tell you about something and explain it rather than rely on observation. Next, perhaps, was writing. Or maybe farming, it's hard to know for certain. Anyway, farming was a huge breakthrough because it increased the number of people who could live in the same region and it (on good years) produced a surplus that allowed the leisure to consider doing something novel. Once writing was invented it was a major thing because then you could pass on knowledge without actually being present. Indeed, writing was so fundamental that, as was demonstrated during the European Dark Ages (note that it was only 'dark' in Europe, the Middle East and Asia did quite fine), text could be copied even without understanding what the text said.

With writing there was a measurable jump in the rate of technology, though by our standards it was quite glacial, still taking generations for new things to develop and be promulgated throughout society. It always seems that war is good for innovation, or perhaps war forces innovation to be rapidly adopted. In any case, war triggered increases in technology faster than periods in between (or perhaps people were just tired). China managed to invent a whole lot of stuff, but didn't 'commercialize' any of it, there was a long period where adoption was slow even when invention was happening. When the industrial revolution happened in England, the pace picked up considerably. Plotting technological invention over time, we see a very long period with seemingly nothing happening until the industrial revolution, then the slope of the line starts to increase at an increasing rate. If you extrapolate the line forward you see that in a relatively short time (in the lifetimes of most of the people reading this), the slope of this line goes vertical, which, in the world of math, is called undefined. It's reaching this undefined rate of technological increase that seems to be what is defining the singularity.

This concept of undefined slope is rather intriguing. As an engineer-type (I have three PhDs: astrobiology, computer engineering and astrophysics) I'm used to formulas that have these characteristics and, as a designer, we stay far, far away from this sort of behavior. Of course, it's feasible that before we reach this undefine technological slope we 'invent' everything and the slope of the line starts to decrease. This is observed when you grow bacteria in culture. There is a 'lag' phase where little seems to happen, then a 'log' phase where the number of bacteria increase at an increasing rate, so fast, indeed, that if not for lack of resources the bacteria would cover the Earth in a couple of days and fill the universe in a week. Then, however, there is the 'stationary' phase followed generally quite quickly by the 'death' phase. I suppose it's quite feasible to consider that rather than achieving the singularity we could just go stationary. Hopefully not into a death phase, though!

If we did achieve this singularity it's interesting to think of what might be on the other side. The 'other side', though, may be impossible for us to even conceive; consider: what thoughts can a single brain cell have that can possibly encompass a human mind? However, that brain cell can still wonder. What if we become a super organism and individually begin functioning like cells in a body? What if we merged with computers and became virtual? What if we became capable of harnessing the power of fission/fusion in our minds and could be anything we could conceive of?

Since I'd earlier mentioned this interesting signal to my escort 'Sally', I started to talk to her about the challenges in trying to get the key for the next section. Why do I use escorts? Well, I'm rich. Really rich. Rich enough to support several small countries, forever, rich. As such, since I could never trust a woman wasn't after my money, I decided to specifically go after women who were only after my money. I get lots of variety this way as well and each 'date' is always a 'sure thing'. Anyway, after talking about this with Sally, I was a little surprised to learn that she is a PhD student and using escorting to pay her way. I was further surprised to learn that she's working on a PhD in astrophysics! It isn't that I don't talk with the escorts, I always pay for the 'girlfriend experience' and take them out to dinner and/or a show, but our conversations generally are rather generic and topical. I always assumed, rather chauvinistically I guess, that none of these beautiful women would have the slightest interest in astrophysics/astrobiology. What a happy surprise! Now I think I'll test the waters with my other escorts and see what intellectual depths there are to plumb with them. I think I may violate my so far inviolate decision to never bring anyone home and see if Sally wants to look over my lab some time.

Perhaps because of Sally's inspiration or perhaps my subconscious finally got it's act together, I came up with a way of combining the little cryptic bits at the end of the last story and was able to decode the next one...

Chapter 5 Balloon People

I hope you liked my challenge to find this key. I know that you're working on artificial intelligence so I tried to work very hard to come up with something that would require actual human intellect rather than subject to brute force.

As I mentioned in my initial journal entry, I have an extensive network of sensors placed all throughout this quadrant of our galaxy. In nearly every solar system I visit I leave behind a suite of sensors that will monitor the situation and keep me abreast of any changes. Sometimes the changes aren't obvious remotely so now and again I send down probes to the surface for a closer look. I'm looking primarily for intelligence that can be technological, though, so don't often plumb every part of a solar system, generally focusing on rocky planets and moons in the 'goldilocks' zone (the region around the star that can accommodate liquid water on a rocky planet surface).

Sometimes, however, I find myself surprised when I find intelligent life (albeit non-technological) in places I haven't been looking. I've found life in the atmosphere of gas giants (think Jupiter/Saturn) many times and quite often on one or more moons surrounding the planet. However, except for this one case (though I have not done an exhaustive re-search since then) I haven't found anything larger than something lichen-like floating about a gas giant's winds.

I do not like to get deep into a gravity well. It takes a lot of energy to get out and unless I plan to be there for a while it is generally much cheaper (from an energy standpoint) to simply orbit the sun about a half light day or so away (about 90 AU where 'AU', Astronomical Unit, is the distance between your planet and star). Twenty-four hour turnaround is, for me, very short, practically real-time. Much better than our 30 year one-way (presuming you ever reply) conversation. In this particular case I hadn't been to this system before (or rather, my probes hadn't) so I lingered, waiting to get feedback. Since I was going to be around for a while, I spent more time investigating the atmosphere of the gas giant than I'd done anywhere else and developed a probe that could move about more active than my normal that would just drift around the planet a few centuries. I guess my probe's behavior attracted attention or perhaps I just had some dumb luck (I've only explored about 100 gas giants at the same level of detail since then and no signs of intelligence, so I'm leaning toward dumb luck) but the probe soon found itself under observation by things much larger than floating lichen.

I guess they could be describe as looking like giant ticks (based on what I've seen of your TV shows). Instead of a huge blood-filled body they had a huge gas bag that they use to control their altitude. I suppose they could see wind somehow, they seemed able to move around quite capably even though I didn't observe any sort of fan, fin, jet, etc. to propel them. They had very little faces (compared to the size of the gas bag, the bag would be on the order of 30-40 feet in diameter) and their appendages seemed to be something like a frill designed to capture food floating out of the air. After a few days of observing each other I deduced that they were actually communicating between themselves by vibrating the gas bag membrane. My probes are quite flexible, so once instructed it quickly modified itself to be able to modulate air vibrations in the same frequency range. Through the probe, I was eventually able to elucidate a language and eventually we were able to talk quite freely.

On this planet it seems that the normal ratios of hydrogen, helium and 'metals' (to your astronomers, anything heavier than helium is a 'metal') was skewed very much toward the metals. In this case, instead of a fraction of a percent metals (with around 90% hydrogen and almost all of the rest being helium) this planet had nearly a full percent of metals. That made the atmosphere a lot more complex and it seems as a consequence complex life was able to develop despite there being no accessible surface whatsoever (as you get deeper the pressure builds up so much that hydrogen eventually forms a metallic liquid, somewhat like mercury; the 'air' gets thicker and thicker to the point eventually you have to call it a liquid, but the transition is many miles thick; even if there is somehow life there I am not sure I could even detect it, let alone characterize it). The beings (I started to call them balloon people) kept to the upper atmosphere because evidently lower down were predators. There was enough material lifted up from the depths that they could easily survive as filter feeders. They could see the stars and had some interesting theories. I gave them some information about the universe and tried to explain what I was doing. It seems their lifespans were on the same order as humans (50-100 years) so they passed down a great deal of information during that period, but they had nothing to write with or on, so no way of recording things other than remembering and no way of communicating except for orally. Given their limitations, though, they seem to have advanced quite a bit, though they were very vulnerable to predation. Technological civilizations tend to extinct most advanced predators as they develop.

[these are notes to myself...] network of repeaters, have to leave a repeater whenever I change course due to the lag time in communications