Solaris

Newton supposedly took inspiration for his theory of gravity from the occasional fall of an apple in an orchard or garden or some such. In some versions it fell directly onto his head, which is just cutesy fluff overruling fact. But even the first idea, the one where his theories arose as a form of inspiration from watching real objects interact in exactly the way that the theory would later describe, always rang too cute to Marten.

"Too cute."

Inspiration isn't a lightning bolt, Marten thinks. Inspiration is free association. The human mind can jump across four or five distinct idea-bridges in a fraction of a second, crossing entire conceptual continents, arriving somewhere that is elsewhere entirely in the landscape of All The Things He Or She Knows with frequently only a dim recollection of whatever happened in the gap. In fact the by-and-large incapability of human beings to reason and deduce in anything resembling a straight line has been remarked upon at length. By and large? By and large, it's the source of all the problems in the world.

But regarding inspiration, as a seriously pertinent example, his latest idea didn't arise from staring at the Sun and thinking enormous deep thoughts about it. Nor did it arise from watching two hydrogen nuclei fuse into a helium nucleus and liberate a little energy besides. Both of those would be dumb things to observe, probably even fatal or at least highly injurious. No, he was walking down the street one day thinking about the futile stupidity of Singularity-based science fiction ("in the future you'll be able to do basically everything by thinking about it and using a computer, so being a computer scientist will be even more great!! And there inexplicably won't be any jackasses any more! Or farmers, somehow!"), and then about security architecture, and then about the Secure Sockets Layer, and then about the unfeasibility of brute-force-assaulting a 512-bit key, then about the upper limits of the computational capacity of the universe, then computronium (and the Singularity again), and then the Math:

Take the complete mass-energy content of the observable universe. Compute the total amount of work that can therefore be done between now and, let's say, total protonic collapse at the point of absolute darkness at the very, very far end of the universe's timeline, the point where there's nothing left but neutrinos and useless unstructured thermal radiation. For a given computation, also figure out the minimum amount of work, let's say. The amount of work it takes to perform a binary AND or a binary OR or XOR or NOT. Suppose that one fusion operation could also perform a calculation, and then you have a maximum number of processor operations that the entirety of spacetime could ever carry out. You're probably at about a 310-bit key. A 512-bit key, meanwhile, is two-to-the-two-hundred-and-second power times harder to crack. You'd need literally a million billion trillion quadrillion quintillion identical such universes. A {child's notion of infinity} universes to hack this woefully inconsequential idiot's email. Nobody's worth that. Just get a crowbar...

Then Marten's mind loops back around and latches onto the "one fusion operation" concept.

It is not the first time that this idea has been had, or even said out loud, and in fact it appears in print in a variety of highly obscure and currently overlooked locations, where even the original authors (those still alive) have forgotten ever entertaining it. Ideas are cheap, and not unique. The critical difference is this: Marten is the one who has it. Marten is a juvenile academic with limitless potential in front of him and all the resources in the university or even the world if he can prove that he is worth the grant.

*

So with nothing to lose he writes it up. The world is involved in a race to the narrowest transistor imaginable, and once those possibilities are exhausted there's a good chance of jumping to memristors, then maybe optical computation (still a highly exciting and immature technology at the moment) and after that they will need go somewhere else. What is the smallest computer in the universe? How about a femtometre in diameter: atomic nucleus sized. You don't have to thank me.

"You see," he explains at a pivotal lecture, "the effect would be almost entirely quantum-mechanical. The precise outcome of the interaction depends on the nature of the two input particles, even though the literal paths through space of the particles involved in the operation vary greatly and aren't even relevant to the outcome of the calculation. In effect, I have reduced the classic concept of the One Instruction Set Computer to a minimal atomic automaton capable of carrying out that one instruction. I confess there are pitfalls. Producing a single such minimal automaton represents a colossal engineering challenge, even with modern semi-nanotechnological manufacturing methods. In bulk, we are faced with an almost insuperable task. Even rendering a substrate of OISCs into usable, programmable computers is difficult enough on a conceptual level because of the impracticality of such computing models. We have problems of power input and power dissipation and the avoidance of interference between calculation atoms.

"Nevertheless, I believe that this thought experiment will be useful as we move towards the next-but-one generation of microprocessor technology and I have no doubt of the real applications of the theorems derived during this work, both in theoretical physics and applied mathematics as it applies to high-energy fluid and quantum dynamics in nontrivial chaotic systems."

Most of what Marten said that day was nonsensical, but not the parts he thought.

*

Two weeks and two days later is a Sunday afternoon and two someones knock on his door. One is a plain-clothed police officer from the Computer Crime Branch. The other is from a branch whose name Marten instantly forgets, which deals broadly with lawbreaking in scientific research - ethical breaches, financial irregularities, touching upon the areas around chemical spills and other events affecting the general public.

"I'm sorry, what department?"

The second officer, whose name is Brown, explains his role a second time, and Marten doesn't understand it that time either. It's a curious pair.

"And how can I help?" They are still on Marten's doorstep, since Marten makes it a point not to let police officers into his home (not that he's ever had an opportunity to make this point until now).

"What can you tell us about your work in nuclear computing?" asks the first, whose name is Spiller.

"You know how they call nuclear magnetic resonance imaging 'magnetic resonance imaging' because people are scared of the 'nuclear'? I should drop the 'nuclear' from my research to stop scaring people but then I'd just be researching 'computing' which is meaningless. It's harmless. Even more so, in my case, since my work is entirely theoretical."

"Have you ever physically constructed a 'nuclear computer' or a 'nuclear automaton'?"

Marten laughs at the very notion. "Do I look like I have half a billion dollars?"

"Please answer the question." Spiller and Brown are both scribbling notes.

"Oh, it's one of those dour interviews. Yes, in case you can't take the sarcasm, nobody in the world as far as I know has constructed this. Ridiculous notions. Maybe in two hundred years it'll be possible."

"On the eighteenth of last month you said that the process of nuclear computation would give out a distinctive pattern of radiation. Can you confirm this?"

"Yes, that's true. It would look like random noise for the most part, but if you knew what to look for and what to expect it would be impossible to miss. If you gave me a few minutes I could show you the Fourier analysis code I wrote to derive the processor calculation result from the outgoing radiation signature. Would that help?"

"No, thank you, we already have that."

That doesn't intimidate Marten, since his code is already online and public and he announced the URL at the lecture. "Okay. So, you're putting away your notebooks, apparently. Can I help you with anything? Has someone built a nuclear computer?"

"Have you been involved in a space launch of any kind?" asks Brown, finally.

"No. Never. You didn't answer my question. My work is hypothetical. Nobody could build a nuclear computer, there's been two weeks since I even announced the possibility and it'll be two hundred years until it happens for real. It's paperwork. What's happening?"

Officer Spiller squints up at the Sun for a moment, while Brown says, "Thanks for your cooperation. We'll be in touch."

*

It's another inexplicable two weeks later.

One of the great things about being semi-permanently attached to a sprawling and wealthy university is that Marten is only a friend of a friend of a really frightening number of insanely intelligent men and women with access to expensive, highly specialised hardware. There is a science department. Drop down from theoretical physics to physics and then move across and head up through astrophysics, then into the cosmology and astronomy departments, until you reach the people with direct downlink access to real solar probes that are in space looking at the Sun right now.

(The people Marten could reach through three degrees of association would terrify him if he knew.)

Marten gets the data on a DAT in the post a week after he requests it, which is irritating. It takes him longer to locate a reader and get the DAT unwound into a file on his actual hard drive than it would have taken to go back to the observatory himself and demand that they give him the data in a reasonable format, but he guesses they work in DATs and they were very helpful and understanding. The more irritating factor is that he has a fairly good idea that someone else in the world has done the same thing already and he really wishes he could borrow their results.

The analysis is the step which should take an instant, but he spends an entire weekend trying to format the incoming data in such a way that his script can consume and analyse it properly. The next thing he does after performing the analysis is go up to the observatory himself and demand to plug his analysis routines into the live feed from Heliosat 4 or 5, whichever is easier to tap into.

"Something wrong?"

"You know how the Sun does some fairly inexplicable things? It oscillates on twelve-year cycles. The sunspots on its surface oscillate. And it changes intensity and emits gigantic flares on no obvious pattern. There's stuff we don't understand about the Sun."

"Hence the Heliosats," says another astronomer.

"Well, this would explain it. Someone was ahead of me by some ridiculous number of years. They beat me to the cutting edge by what must have been at least a generation. Look at what I'm listening to. This is your data. And it's full of data."

"The Sun is a nuclear computer?"

"Look at what I'm listening to. Proton fusion processing. It's not just white noise. There's binary data pouring out of the thing. The Sun is a gigantic nuclear computer. Somebody balled up a contagious nuclear viral pattern and contaminated the Sun with it, and that must have been at least twenty years ago for the calculation nodes to spread so far through its chromosphere and core."

"But Marten, do you know how big the Sun is? Do you know how many nuclear automata we're talking about? Ten to the twentieth, ten to the thirtieth? Do you know how much energy the Sun liberates every second? A billion times more than planet Earth can ever consume--"

"It's a computer," says Marten. "It's online. And it's calculating. It's been calculating for at least four weeks and probably for decades longer. That much random convection in the upper layers must be causing unlimited organic churn. The Sun isn't static, it's fluid. It'll be turning over. This is crazy, I thought you would need something as dense and stable as a neutron star to get stuff like this to work, how could you structure an entire star on this scale? How could this be done?"

"That much randomly-churning processing power makes it a brain," says the astronomer, Hewitt.

"Is the Sun alive?" asks Marten. "Is there a Sun God in there? And if not, what's really happening inside there? What could you do with a computer that large?

"I have to talk to it. It's my son. I have to send it a message."

Discussion (16)

2010-11-05 22:21:59 by qntm:

2093 words. Running total is 10205 words.

2010-11-05 22:32:02 by Mike:

Seems to be good sequel bait, at least to my ears; I was kind of stunned by the abrupt ending, and how the passage didn't explore its implications. Good narrative, but it seems like it stopped halfway.

2010-11-05 23:20:57 by YarKramer:

I don't know, to it seems a bit too ... noodle-incidenty to go on much further. I mean, yeah it's good in and of itself, but you (or at least I) couldn't possibly come up with something that would live up to that which has been set forth here.

2010-11-05 23:24:54 by linkhyrule:

I have to agree. I would love a sequel to this one. Heck, this could turn into an Ed-level or even Fine Structure-level project - there's certainly enough Sequel Hooks :D.

2010-11-06 00:11:53 by Artanis:

Quick, install Linux on it! :P

2010-11-06 03:13:28 by Rocky:

"It's my son." I see what you did there.

2010-11-06 12:47:24 by Val:

Seeing the title, I was thinking "wow, a homage to Stanisław Lem". After reading through 3/4 of the story, I planned commenting something like "It was not, but I still liked it". At the end I realized, that the title was really not a coincidence.

2010-11-06 14:08:49 by Xaeragh:

What sort of compiler would you need to install Linux, though?

2010-11-06 16:23:24 by goffrie:

@Xaeragh: You'd have to ask the Illumos devs about that :p

2010-11-06 16:32:28 by Baughn:

Well, they're doomed. So doomed. A brain at that scale? "Hard takeoff" doesn't even begin to cover it, and an unfriendly AI of that size is not going to be very beatable. I figure this is why there is no sequel. They're all dead.

2010-11-06 17:21:06 by Snowyowl:

Not necessarily. Sure, it's big, but the closest it could get to interacting with the Earth would be transmitting messages or wiping us out with a solar flare. There's not much it could want from us. We could perhaps persuade it to do calculations for us, but the 8-minute lag makes that infeasible. And the only thing we need from it is the energy it releases just by existing. Mostly, life would continue as before. Perhaps the Sun would decide to use its power output to send a message to space, by modulating its emissions of light. Perhaps it could even contaminate other stars. In any case, humanity would have created something that would last for billions of years, probably far longer than our own species. I like that.

2010-11-06 18:53:41 by Mike:

@Rocky Actually, I thought that was just a misspelling. "Son" doesn't make any sense, and the "o" and "u" keys are almost right next to each other on the QWERTY keyboard.

2010-11-06 21:24:44 by Val:

@Snowyowl: "the 8-minute lag makes that infeasible": Well, if we could design and write any program under 16 minutes, than the lag might be infeasible. Or not even in that case, as there are current projects where programs are running on supercomputer clusters for many years. I'm sure there are a lot of scientists who would be very happy to have their calculations done nearly instantaneously + 2*8 minutes lag, instead of spending months in optimization and more months in running the code on their own computers.

2010-11-07 03:41:46 by dankuck:

Like @ Val This makes me more and more convinced about Permutation City. I'm getting to where I believe in it more than I disbelieve in it. I'm liking this series, Sam. It reminds me of Heinlein's short stories. Except shorter. And I love brief stories. - http://foolishmortal.org/dan

2010-11-07 14:08:37 by Snowyowl:

@Val: Good point. I'll just go with "we have nothing it wants and it has no reason to destroy us" then :)

2010-11-08 19:07:49 by BrightMikal:

Would definitely like to see a sequel expanding upon this! The Sun, as powerful as it is, could try to interact with the Earth by hacking machines, and using them as avatars to learn about humans, perhaps?

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