Insect Awakenings.

Another PSA announcement: If anyone’s trying to email me, I’m not ignoring you. I haven’t got email for going on 4 days now. Alleged attempts by Dreamhost (the ISP that hosts to fix the problem have so far succeeded in changing its status from from “Everything’s pretty much cool, just a bit of leftover email congestion for a couple of users” to “critical problems, no estimated fix time, you’re hosed, we’ve disabled comments on the status update page, and we won’t even pretend to answer any follow-up queries.” So I don’t know when I’ll have a chance to even read any emails, much less respond to them.

In the meantime though, have a look at this expanded Director’s Cut edition of a recent Nowa Fantastyka column.


The study looks almost perfect, if ridiculously low-tech: the kind of thing an undergrad might do with a budget of $3.50. All you need is a mirror, a piece of Plexiglas, and a bunch of ants.

Oh, and blue paint. The whole thing comes down to blue paint.

Start with the Plexiglas. Put Ant A on one side, Ant B on the other. Ant A shows no reaction to its buddy at all. So far so good.

Stick it in front of a mirror. Now it pays attention. Goes up to the glass, taps its reflection, shows interest it never showed with the real ant on the other side of the plexi. Interesting.

Maybe closer than you think.

Maybe closer than you think. (Photo: screen grab from Phase IV.)

Maybe it’s reacting to something in the mirror, some chemical in the silver backing perhaps. So put a dot of blue paint on its head and put it in front of the mirror again. This time it checks out its reflection and starts grooming its head, as if to get rid of that weird-ass dot that just appeared there. It never tries to groom its reflection, which is where it actually saw the paint.

This is starting to get creepy.

Okay, um, maybe it could just feel the paint up there. Maybe it itched or something. So try a speck of brown, ant-coloured paint, something that won’t be visually obvious in reflection.

No grooming.

Put a speck of blue paint on the back of the head, where the ant can’t see it in a mirror. No grooming.

I’m not one to jump to conclusions, but I’m having a hard time interpreting these results in any way other than: ants recognize themselves in mirrors. Which means they pass a test frequently used as an index of self-awareness, a test that even some higher primates fail.

The stats seem sound, generally returning P-values of less than 0.001 (for the statistical neophytes in the crowd, that means the odds of getting those results by random chance are less than 1 in 1000). But the remarkable thing is, the researchers didn’t even do stats on most of their results. They couldn’t do stats, because there was no variation in the data. All the face-painted ants groomed their faces once they saw themselves in a mirror; none of the unpainted ones did. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such clean data in a behavioural study before.

Yup. Sure looks like a top-flight journal to me...

Yup. Sure looks like a top-flight journal to me…

What is this simple-yet-profound experiment, this rock-solid research with the batshit crazy results? Why, it’s “Are ants capable of self recognition?“, by Marie-Claire Cammaerts and Roger Cammaerts. Where will you find it? In the Journal of Science, a publication whose website veritably screams JunkWoo. The title bar on its website looks like a banner ad for generic penis pills. Just below that you’ll see, for some reason, a stock photo of a smiling dude in safety goggles and a yellow hard hat. “Instruction to Author” is either a typo or a tacit admission that every paper in the journal is written by the same person under different pen names. Even the journal’s name seems designed to encourage confusion with more respectable platforms (“the journal, Science?” “American Journal of Science?” “Journal of Science Education?”) while simultaneously discouraging investigation into its actual pedigree. (Google the phrase “Journal of Science”: you’ll get 67,000,000 hits. I scrolled through the first 300 and couldn’t find a single link to the actual journal.)

The Cammaerts are not flakes. They’re well-published in respected, peer-reviewed journals. I don’t know what they’re doing in the Journal of Science, unless they lost a drunken bet at a party somewhere. Or maybe their results are just so incredible that no one else would publish them.

I’m thinking maybe it’s that second thing. If you go to Wikipedia’s page on “Mirror Test”, pull back the curtain and read the backstage discussion, you’ll see editors and commenters stating that they “flat out don’t believe those results”, even while others praise the methodology that produced them. The idea that ants can self-recognize just opens too big a can of worms.

And yet, Cammaerts and Cammaerts are not entirely alone. Way back in 2010, writing in the top-of-the-line Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Björn Brems described research suggesting that fruit flies have Free Will. It wasn’t “free will” in the classic sense— it basically amounted to any behaviour complex enough to make you unpredictable to predators— but as anyone conversant with the literature will tell you, that’s pretty much the only kind of free will we humans can lay claim to as well (albeit with more bells and whistles). And just this year, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences ran a piece called “What Insects can tell us about the origins of consciousness“, by Andrew Barrona and Colin Klein.

Evidence against vertebratism. Modified from Barrona and Klein 2016.

Evidence against vertebratism. Modified from Barrona and Klein 2016.

Barrona and Klein argue that vertebrate consciousness is seated in the midbrain, which acquires information about both the organism’s internal state and its external environment. It integrates these into a model that generates behavioural goals— if your internal state is too hot then move somewhere cooler, that sort of thing— and relays those goals to the motor system. The midbrain contains all the elements necessary to sense, navigate, and survive in a given environment. Barrona and Klein argue that such integration is the root of consciousness, and point out insect brain structures serving the same functions; they conclude that insects should experience comparable levels of awareness. (Nematodes, lacking comparable structures, would not.)

It’s important not to go off the deep end here. There’s a huge difference between consciousness and self-awareness, between sentience and sapience (and a belated thankyou to Leonid Korogodski for hammering that difference home to me many years ago); an organism can have conscious experiences without consciously reflecting on their own existence. And the Mirror Test has always struck me as a questionable metric for self-awareness anyway (for one thing, it’s easy to envision an algorithm that recognizes the self without being aware of the self). But the traditional view of insects as mere computer programs wrapped in chitin, utterly deterministic in their behaviour, appears to be wrong. Stimulus A does not always provoke Response B, as you’d expect from purely deterministic reflexes; sometimes the insect is focused on other input, sometimes it can be distracted. We are learning that insects pay attention to things. It seems increasingly likely that their experiences are conscious ones, to at least some extent. Consciousness may be far more ancient, far more widespread than we ever suspected.

Which means that suffering is, too, by the same token.

I’m not sure why, but I bet that explains a lot.



Posted in: neuro, sentience/cognition by Peter Watts 38 Comments

Virtual Appearances, Virtual Realities

Couple of PSAs to start out with:

  1. I’m going to be participating in tomorrow’s Future of Mind Symposium, put on by the Center for Transformative Media down in NYC. (I will, no big surprise, be participating via video-link to reduce the chances of getting killed and/or arrested en route.) The event is free, but you gotta register. Also they’ve already had to move to a bigger venue so I don’t know how available tickets might be.
  2. Spacecat.


    I’ve already participated in another interview with Jasun Horsley’s “Liminality” podcast. This time, like the last, we rambled on so long that it ended up being a two-parter. As of this writing only the first hour is up; according to the page summary we discoursed erratically on UFOs, Michael Persinger’s helmet, abduction narratives and sexual abuse, J. Allen Hynek and close encounters, MKULTRA, the parliament of voices, ritual abuse and False Memory Syndrome’s disinformation campaign, Whitley Strieber & the Nazi-US alliance, Elizabeth Loftus, using satanic elements as cover to invalidate memories of abuse, and organized pedophilia in the British aristocracy. To name but a few. I haven’t had a chance to listen to the whole thing, so I have no idea how coherent or incoherent it might be. Think of it as sitting across from us at a bar after I’ve had a few drinks.

Gotta love what Jasun does to my author photos, though. He swears that any resemblance of that upper-right yellow blob to a seventies-era Space Invader is purely accidental.


“Nothing is real.”
—John Lennon

So. The latest variant on the classic double-slit experiment continues to support what all other such experiments have supported in the past, namely that whether something behaves like a particle or a wave depends upon whether it’s being surveilled, which demonstrates in turn that (in the words of the study’s author) “reality does not exist if you are not looking at it”, which in yet another turn means that nothing makes any fucking sense whatever. I’ve always clung to the belief that it all does make sense, but — because stuff that happens on quantum scales has no relevance to the process of natural selection up here in the classical world— our brains simply aren’t wired in a way that lets us grok such things intuitively. But let’s put that aside for now, because I think I might have come up with an explanation for all this quantum dumbness that actually does make sense at classical scales:

Nick Bostrom is right. We’re all living in a simulation. More, these dual-slit experiments suggest that (and here’s my little contribution, which probably has its head up its ass because I don’t know anything about this stuff but bear with me) we’re living in a simulation with a really low budget.

We are somewhere below the line

We are somewhere below the line

Most of you already know Bostrom’s argument. For the rest of you, his reasoning boils down to 1) if it’s possible to create simulations with self-aware inhabitants, and 2) if some advanced species is inclined to actually build such sims, then 3) there are probably way more simulated universes (>>1) than real ones (=1). Which means, based purely on the odds, that we are far more likely to be living in one of a myriad simulations than we are in a singular baseline reality.

I’ve always liked this thought. It fits in nicely with the whole Digital Physics paradigm that seems to have taken root in the Physics community. It jibes with the way reality seems to kinda “stop” below a certain scale of resolution (Planck Length and Planck Time may be no more than pixel dimensions and clock cycles). And if enough studies like Bean et al come down the pike— and if they hold up— the Simulation Hypothesis might even find its way out of the it’s-untestable-so-it’s-not-science swamp that’s mired String Theory for so long.

So what do we know about our own baby steps into building simulated realities? We know that when you’re playing Fallout 4, the graphics engine doesn’t waste energy rendering the landscape behind you. We know that when you put on your Oculus Rifts, they don’t paint the vista at the back of your head. Why should they? Nobody’s looking there. Oh, they keep all the pointers and variables on hand, sure. They’re completely capable of rendering the world to your left the moment you turn your gaze in that direction. But they don’t actually solidify any part of the world until someone looks at it.

You see where I’m going with this, right?

Maybe not so Unreal an Engine after all...

Maybe not so Unreal an Engine after all…

First-person gaming is a pretty good metaphor for quantum indeterminacy; nothing is real until observed. Maybe it’s more than a metaphor. Maybe we’re living in a cut-rate Bostrom sim, one that can’t afford the computing power to render everything in hi-res detail all the time— so it cuts corners, saves cycles only for those parts of the model that are being observed.

Maybe there’s nothing insane or counterintuitive about quantum indeterminacy after all. Maybe it’s perfectly understandable— depressingly familiar, even— to anyone who’s lived on a grad-student budget.

Posted in: astronomy/cosmology, Digital Physics by Peter Watts 65 Comments

Shooting Back.

For at least three years now— probably longer— I’ve been worrying at a perpetually-unfinished blog post that tries to take an economic approach to murders committed by cops. I’ve never posted it, for reasons that should be obvious when I outline its essentials. The basic argument is that conventional attempts to reform police behavior are doomed to fail for two reasons:

  1. the cost (to a cop) of gunning down the average black person in the street is low; and
  2. the cost of not covering for your buddy when he guns down someone in the street is high.

I don’t believe these are especially controversial claims. We all know how rare it is to see a cop indicted, even when there’s video evidence of him choking the life out of someone or shooting them in the back. The astonishingly high rate of “equipment failure” experienced by body cams on the beat is old news. When you’re used to that level of invulnerability, why not indulge in a little target practice if you’re so inclined?

Likewise, the Blue Wall of Silence is news to no one. It is very difficult to get a cop to turn in their fellows because their very lives may depend on their partner having their back at a critical moment. You get a rep as a rat, your backup may just look the other way for that critical half-second when a real threat draws down on you. (I once compared civilian-police interactions to dealing with snakes in the desert: 95% may be nonpoisonous, but it’s still a good idea to pack an antivenom kit when you head out. No, said the person I was talking with, the cops are worse: with snakes, at least the nonpoisonous 95% don’t go out of their way to protect the other five.)

So: cost of murder low. Cost of turning in murderer high. These are the economics of Homicide: Cops on the Street. Seems to me, the only way to change the current pattern is to change those economic costs. For example, what if you increased the cost of not turning in a bad cop? What if, every time you didn’t turn in a badged murderer, you yourself stood significantly higher odds of getting killed?

What if we started shooting back?

Not at the guilty cop, of course. He’d be too well protected, too on guard by the time the word got out. But what if, for every cop who gets away with murder, some other random cop within a certain radius— say, 200 miles— was shot in reprisal? It wouldn’t matter that they were innocent. In fact, their innocence would be central to the whole point: to make the nonvenomous 95% stop covering for those “few bad apples” we’re constantly being told is the heart of the problem. The point would be to raise the price of collusion enough make those 95-percenters think twice. Simple economics.

From Ross, 2015.

From Ross, 2015. Risk Ratio (of getting killed by police): Black-and-Unarmed to White-and-Unarmed.

Of course it’s not justice; you’d be killing an innocent person. But we’re way past the point at which justice should have any say in the matter. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of justice in the number of people who get gunned down by police on an ongoing basis. There’s little justice in the statistical finding that on average in the US, unarmed blacks are 3.5 times more likely to be gunned down by cops than unarmed whites (over 20 times as likely in some corners of that benighted country). Anyone who tells you that you must remain polite, respectful, and most of all nonviolent while your fellows are being mowed down like mayflies has either chosen a side (hint: it ain’t yours), or drunk about ten litres of Kool-Aid.

When it comes to game theory, tit-for-tat remains the most effective strategy.


I never published that blog post. Never even finished it. The solution seemed way too naive and simplistic, for one thing. In a world of rainbows and unicorns cops might do the math, realize that murdering unarmed black people endangered themselves, and change their evil ways— but if we lived in a world of rainbows and unicorns, cops wouldn’t be murdering with impunity in the first place. In this world, it seems a lot more likely that things would simply escalate, that police forces across the US— already militarized to the eyeballs— would go into siege mood, feel increasingly justified in shooting at every shadow (or at least the dark ones). They’d rather put the whole damn country under martial law than lose face by backing down.

It also didn’t help that I’ve known some very decent people who happen to be cops— one a 9-11 first responder, another who actually reads my books and writes his own— and while that wouldn’t change the logic of the argument one iota, random assassination is still a fate I wouldn’t wish on good people. Because when it comes right down to it this is wish-fulfillment, for all the economic and game-theory rationales I might invoke. It was born in my gut, not my neocortex. Every time I read about another Philando Castile or Alton Sterling, I want to start throwing bombs myself. (My greatest disappointment in Bruce Cockburn welled up when he back-pedaled on “If I Had a Rocket Launcher”.)

I want the fuckers to pay, and I know they won’t.

Oh, maybe this month’s killers have some rough times in store— the public documentation of those crimes was so incontrovertible that the politicians don’t really have the option of sweeping them under the rug. But viral videos of murder in progress didn’t send Eric Garner’s killers to jail. Nobody got indicted for the murder of Sandra Bland. The killer of Samuel DuBose is at least awaiting trial, but given the history of such proceedings dating back to Rodney King I’m not counting on any convictions. And those victims are the lucky ones, the ones “fortunate” enough to be gunned down on camera. What about the greater number whose deaths happen out of camera range, whose killers are free to make up any story that fits without fear of contradiction or scrutiny by a legal system which continues, unfathomably, to treat the word of a police officer as golden?

They keep getting killed. And we keep rending our garments and sending them our fucking thoughts and prayers, and the moment they block a road or stop a parade or express a fraction of the rage that is their due we back away and tell them that they won’t get anywhere with that kind of attitude. We trot out the same insipid MLK Jr. quotes about the virtues of nonviolence, about peace being the only way to achieve “dialog” or “brotherhood”— as if the people who have them in the crosshairs give a flying fuck about any of that. We tell them to have patience, to let the system work because we’ve got the evidence now, everyone saw it on YouTube, no way those fucking cops will walk away from it this time— and yet they do. Time and time again. The cops walk away from it.

Photo by Jonathan Bachman. According to the Atlantic article from which I cadged this photo, a number of readers sided with the police.

Photo by Jonathan Bachman. According to the Atlantic article from which I cadged this photo, a number of readers sided with the police.

Why should the black community care about alienating us? Why should they give us another chance to express our shared anguish and deepest sympathies, only to have us wag our fingers at them the moment we’re inconvenienced? A quarter-century after Rodney King, why should they believe that the next time will be different, or the next, or the time after?

What’s left to try, except fighting fire with fire?

That is where my game-theory imaginings came from: not some rational step-by-step multivariate analysis, but vicarious rage. And while I might be able to construct such an analysis to yield the same result; no matter how rationally I might to put that argument; no matter how many of you I might even convince— all I’d have really done would be to craft a clever excuse to let my brain stem off the leash. I try to be better than that.

Which doesn’t make keeping it to myself all this time feel any less like a betrayal of some principle I can’t quite put my finger on.


Anyway, I never posted it. And now the scenario’s been realized anyway: five cops dead, six others critical. All innocent, so far as we know (although if they were black civilians, I’m sure Fox would already be pointing out that they were no angels…) All shot in direct retaliation for the murder of black people, for the sins of their brethren.

The only deviation from my own scenario is that the shooter didn’t get away alive. They blew him up, used a robot carrying a bomb on its arm like it was delivering a pizza.

The usual aftermath. People “coming together”. Pastors and politicians urging calm. The same old Kingisms and Ghandi-isms popping up like impetigo sores all over Facebook. Everyone expressing support for the members of the Dallas Police Force, chiefed by a black man who has, by all accounts, turned that department into a model of progressive policing and perhaps the worst target Micah Johnson could have chosen. (Although it bears mention that that same progressive chief, and those same progressive policies, are apparently quite unpopular with the DPF rank-and-file.) As usual, none of this seems to have had much impact on the tendency of certain cops to gun people down and lie about it afterward (I mean, Jesus— by now you’d think they’d dial back the shootings on account of the optics if nothing else). So far, nothing out of the ordinary.

Except now, here and there across the US, these other people have begun threatening reprisals against other cops. There’ve been some actual shootings. Copycat attacks, you might call them. Or perhaps “inspired reprisals” might be a better term.

Micah Johnson is becoming a role model.

So what now? Have we finally reached critical mass? Is this a smattering of isolated blips, or the start of a chain reaction? Have we finally reached a tipping point, will black lives matter enough to starting shooting back? Given the stats on the ground, who among you will blame them if they do?

For my part, I’m more glad than ever that I didn’t make that blog post. At least nobody can blame me for the events of the past few days. (Don’t laugh— following my post on Trump’s burning of America, I had at least one long-time fan renounce me completely for “throwing [him] under the bus”, as if my thoughts might have even an infinitesimal impact on the unfolding of US politics. Some people seriously overestimate my influence on the world stage.)

I have no idea what’s in store. I’m not sure I want to find out.

All I know is this: if we are, finally at long last, starting to reap the whirlwind— no one can say it hasn’t been a long time coming.

Posted in: politics, rant by Peter Watts 87 Comments


By Dan Ghiordanescu.

By Dan Ghiordanescu.

I cried for the Chimp, once.

I was there for his birth. I saw the lights come on, listened as he found his voice, watched him learn to tell Sunday from Kai from Ishmael. He was such a fast learner, and an eager one; back then, barely out of my own accelerated adolescence and not yet bound for the stars, I felt sure he’d streak straight into godhood while we stood mired in flesh and blood.

I didn’t feel the slightest hint of envy. How could I? He seemed so happy: devoured every benchmark, met every challenge, anticipated each new one with a kind of hardwired enthusiasm I could only describe as voracious. Once, rounding a corner into some rough-hewn catacomb, I came upon a torrent of bots swirling in perfect complex formation: a school of silver fish, in the center of Eri‘s newly-seeded forest. The shapes I glimpsed there still make my head hurt, when I think about them.

“Yeah, we’re not quite sure what that is,” one of the gearheads said when I asked her. “He does it sometimes.”

“He’s dancing,” I told her.

She regarded me with something like pity. “More likely just twiddling his thumbs. Running some motor diagnostic that kicks in when there’s a few cycles to spare.” She shrugged. “Why don’t you ask him?”

“Maybe I will.” Although I never got around to it.

I’d hike to the caverns during down time, watched him dance as the forest went in: theorems and fractal symphonies playing out against fissured basalt, against a mist of mycelia, against proliferating vine-tangles of photosynthetic pods so good at sucking up light that even under lights designed to mimic the very sun, they presented nothing but black silhouettes. When the forest grew too crowded the Chimp moved to some unfinished factory floor; when that started to fill up he relocated to an empty coolant tank the size of a skyscraper; finally, to that vast hollow in the center of the world where someday— a few centuries down the line— ramscoops and lasers and magnetic fields would devour dust and hydrogen like some colossal filterfeeding space whale, squeeze it all down to a small black mass heavy as moons. The dance evolved with each new venue. Every day those kinetic tapestries grew more elaborate and mindbending and beautiful. It didn’t matter where he went. I found him. I was there.

Sometimes I’d try to proselytize, invite some friend or lover along for the show, but except for Kai— who humored me a couple of times— no one was especially interested in watching an onboard diagnostic twiddle its thumbs. That was okay. By now, I knew the Chimp was mainly playing for me anyway. Why not? Cats and dogs had feelings. Fish even. They develop habits, loyalties. Affections. The Chimp may have only weighed in at a fraction of a human brain but he was easily smarter than any number of sentient beings with personalities to call their own.

One day, though, he didn’t seem twice as smart as he’d been the day before.

I couldn’t really put my finger on it at first. I’d just— developed this model of exponential expectation, I guess. I took for granted that the toddler playing with numbered blocks in the morning would have blown through tensor calculus by lunchtime. Now, in subtle increments, he wasn’t quite living up to that curve. Now he grew only incrementally smarter over time. I never asked the techs about it— I never even mentioned it to the other ‘spores— but within a week there wasn’t any doubt. Chimp wasn’t exponential after all. He was only sigmoid, past inflection and closing on the asymptote, and for all his amazing savantic skills he’d be nowhere near godhood by the time he scraped that ceiling.

Ultimately, he wouldn’t even be as smart as me.

They kept running him through his paces, of course. Kept loading him up with new and more complex tasks. And he was still up for the job, still kept scoring a hundred. It’s not like they’d designed him to fail. But he had to work harder, now. The exercises took evermore resources. Every day, there was less left over.

He stopped dancing.

The real tragedy was that it didn’t seem to bother him. I asked him if he missed the ballet and he didn’t know what I was talking about. I commiserated about the hammer that had knocked him from the sky and he told me he was doing fine. “Don’t worry about me, Sunday,” he said. “I’m happy.”

It was the first time he’d ever used that word. If I’d heard it even ten days earlier, I might have believed him.

So I descended into the forest— gone to twilight now, the full-spectrum floods retired once the undergrowth had booted past the seedling stage— and I wept for a happy stunted being who didn’t know or care that it had once been blazing towards transcendence before some soulless mission priority froze him midflight and stuck him in amber.

What can I say? I was young, I was stupid.

I thought I could afford to feel pity.

Posted in: fiblet, Sunflowers by Peter Watts 17 Comments

The Physics of Hope.

Okay, one more before I pack.  Since it came out in NF a long time ago:

I never liked physics much.

I’m not just talking about the math. I don’t like what modern physics tells us: that time is an illusion, for one thing. That we live in a reality where everything that ever was, and ever will be, always is: static timelines embedded in a “block universe” like threads in amber. I may remember scratching my head before writing this sentence, but that’s just one frozen slice of me with a bunch of frozen memories. An instant further along is another slice at t+1, with memories incrementally more advanced, and because it remembers the past it believes that it is moving through time. But in reality— seen from some higher-dimensioned overhead perspective— we exist on a tabletop where nothing changes, nothing moves, nothing goes away.

I hate that vision. My gut rebels at the grim counterintuitive determinism of it. But I’m no physicist, and we all know how misleading gut feelings can be. I don’t like it, but what do I know? I know nothing.

You can’t say that about Lee Smolin. Eminent theoretical physicist, co-Founder of the  world-renowned Perimeter Institute, author of the 2013 book Time Reborn. I’ve just read it. It gives me hope. It says my gut was right all along. We do exist from one moment to the next. This flow we perceive is no illusion. Time is real.

It’s space that’s bullshit.

Imagine the universe as a lattice of nodes; the only way to get from one place to another is to hop along the nodes between, like stepping-stones in a stream. The more dimensions the lattice has, the shorter the number of hops required to get between two points: Smolin invokes the analogy of a cell-phone network, which puts you just one step away from billions of “nearest neighbors”.

Well, sure, if this is how you represent a "higher dimension, then of course the cell phone collapses space...

Well, sure, if this is how you represent a “higher dimension, then of course the cell phone collapses space…

It takes energy to keep those higher dimensions active, though. In the early, hot universe— right after the Big Bang— there was energy to spare; dimensions were abundant and everything was one cell-phone-hop away from everything else. “Space” didn’t really exist back then. As the universe cooled, those higher dimensions collapsed; the cell network shut down, flattening reality into a low-energy mode where only those few locations adjacent in three dimensions could be considered “nearest”. Now, to get anywhere else, you have to hop a myriad low-dimensional nodes. You have to cross “space”.

The point is, space is not a fundamental property of reality; it only emerged in the wake of that energy-starved collapse. This is the story Smolin is selling: There is no time-space continuum. There is only time.

Physics is wrong.

According to Time Reborn, physics went astray at two points. The first was when it started confusing maps with the territories they described. Most physics equations are time-symmetric; they work as well backwards as forwards. They are timeless, these rules that do such a good job of describing our observations of reality; so, physicists thought, maybe reality is timeless too. When we first started drawing graphs of motion and mass on paper— each moment a fixed point along some static axis— we were being lulled into a Block-Universe mindset.

Smolin describes the second wrong turn as “the Cosmological Fallacy”: an unwarranted extrapolation of the local to the universal. Physics studies systems in isolation; you’re not going to factor in the gravitational influences of the Virgo Supercluster when you’re calculating the trajectory of a bowling bowl, for example. You ignore trivial variables, you impose boundaries by necessity. You put physics in a box and leave certain universals— the laws of nature, for example— outside. Those laws reach into the box and work their magic, but you don’t have to explain them; they just are.

Physics works really well in boxes. The problem arises when you extrapolate those boxy insights to the whole universe. There is no “outside” when you’re talking about all of existence, no other realm from which the timeless laws of nature can reach in and do their thing. Suddenly you’ve got to explain all that stuff that could be taken as axiomatic before. So you start fiddling around with branes and superstrings; you invoke an infinite number of parallel universes to increase the statistical odds that some of them would turn out the way ours did. If Smolin’s right, a lot of modern physics is an attempt to reimpose an outside on a universe that doesn’t have one. And because we’re trying to apply locally-derived insights onto a totality where they don’t apply, our models break.

Smolin’s alternative sits so much easier in the gut— and, at the same time, seems even more radical. Everything affects everything else, he says; and that includes the laws of physics themselves. They are not timeless or immutable: they are affected by the rest of the universe, just as the universe is affected by them.

They evolve, he says, over time.

Everyone agrees that reality was in flux during the first moments after the Big Bang: universal laws and constants could have taken entirely different values than they did when the universe finally congealed into its present configuration. The strong and weak nuclear forces could have taken different values; the Gravitational Constant could have turned out negative instead of positive. Smolin suggests natural laws are still not set in stone, even now; rather, they result from a sort of ongoing plebiscite. How the universe reacts to X+Y comes down to a roll of the dice, weighted by past experience. Correlations, initially random, strengthen over time; if X+Y rolled mostly snake-eyes in the past it’ll be increasingly likely to do so in the future.

Now we’re 15 billion years into the game. Those precedents have grown so weighty, the correlations so strong, that we mistake them for laws; when we see X+Y, we never observe any result but snake-eyes. Different outcomes are possible, though—just very, very unlikely. (Think of the Infinite Improbability Drive from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, transmuting a missile into a sperm whale or a bowl of petunias.)

So much becomes possible, if this is true. Smolin’s concept of “Cosmological Natural Selection” for one, in which Darwinian processes apply to the universe at large— in which black holes, egg-like, spawn whole new realities, each governed by a different physics (those which maximize black-hole production outcompete those which don’t). Another mind-blowing implication is that if the universe were to encounter some combination of quantum events that had never happened before, it wouldn’t know what to do: it would have to roll the dice without any precedent weighting the outcome. (Something to keep in mind, now that we’re starting to play around with quantum computing in a big way.)

We may even find our way to ftl, if I’m reading this right. After all, the lightspeed limit only applies to our impoverished four-dimensional spacetime. If you pumped up the energy in a given volume enough to reactivate all those dormant cell-phone dimensions, wouldn’t space just collapse again? Wouldn’t every node suddenly get closer to every other?

Of course, all this hypothesizing leaves open the question of how the universe “remembers” what has gone before, and how it “guesses” what to do next. But is that any less absurd than a universe in which a cat is both dead and alive until something looks at it? A universe governed by timeless laws so astronomically unlikely that you have to invoke an infinite number of undetectable parallel universes just to boost the odds in your favor?

At least Smolin’s theory is testable, which makes it more scientific than this multiverse that everyone else seems so invested in. Smolin and his allies seek to do to Einstein what Einstein did to Newton: expose the current model as a local approximation, good enough for most purposes but not truly descriptive of the deeper reality.

...but this is how I envision going from 2D to 3, and I don't see how that extra layer gets Mary and Ted any closer...

…but this is how I envision going from 2D to 3, and I don’t see how that extra layer gets Mary and Ted any closer…

And yet I’m not entirely convinced. Even with my poor grasp of physics (or more likely, because of it), aspects of this new worldview seem a bit off to me. Smolin openly derides multiverse models— but then, where then do the black-hole-spawned “baby universes” of Cosmological Selection end up? And while I can easily imagine two points, three nodes apart, on a 2D lattice, I don’t see how adding a third dimension brings them any closer together (although it certainly opens up access to a whole bunch of new nodes). Also, if the laws of nature are affected by the objects and processes they affect in turn, wouldn’t that feedback follow certain rules? Wouldn’t those rules bring determinism back into play, albeit with a couple of extra complications thrown in?

These are most likely naive criticisms. Doubtless Smolin could answer them easily; I’m probably just pushing his metaphors beyond their load-bearing limits. But perhaps the most important reason that I’m not convinced is because I so very dearly want to be. Current physics leaves no room for free will, no room even for the passage of time. Every moment we experience, every decision we think we make, is a lie. It’s not just that nothing happens the way we perceive it; in the block universe nothing happens, period.

Who wouldn’t reject such a reality, given half a chance? Who wouldn’t prefer an uncertain future in which we make our own decisions and influence our own destinies? What I wouldn’t give to live in such a world. Smolin offers it up on a platter. And because it is so tempting, I must counter my desire with an extra dose of skepticism.

Then again, the most basic tenet of empiricism is that any of us could be wrong about anything. “No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right,” Einstein once said. “A single experiment can prove me wrong.”

Maybe, before too long, Smolin will get his single experiment.

Stay tuned.

Posted in: astronomy/cosmology, ink on art by Peter Watts 21 Comments

Rim Shot.

So I’ve been snowed under lately, head down in a late-breaking gig that I can’t say anything about except to tell you that I can’t say anything about it (and even that might edging up against the confidentiality clause). I did, however, take a few days off to hang with a childhood friend of mine who grew up to be an opera singer with questionable taste in Science jokes. So for want of filler, I thought I’d share the ones I can still remember him rattling off as he, I, and the Mighty BUG stumbled forth from Murphy’s Law last weekend:

Only one of this trinity is to blame; the other two are an author photo. If it helps any, his singing is way better than his stand-up.

Only one of this trinity is to blame; the other two are an author photo.

If it helps any, his singing is way better than his stand-up.


“My God, I’ve lost an electron!”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m positive!”


A Higgs boson slides into the front pew. The priest asks what it’s doing there.

The boson replies, “You can’t have mass without me.”


An infinite number of mathematicians walk into a bar. The first orders a beer. The second orders one-and-a-half beers. The third orders one-and-three-quarter beers. The fourth orders—

“Okay, enough.” The bartender slams two beers down on the counter. “You guys should know your limits.”


Three statisticians go duck hunting. The first one shoots wide to the right; the second shoots wide to the left. The third says, “We got him!”


There were others, but I think they were better.

This may be it from me for a while. I’m heading off to Greece in a few days and it’s pure vacation, so unless my Nowa Fantastyka review of Smolin’s “Time Reborn” comes out of exclusivity (or my review of recent findings on Insect Consciousness, whatever comes first),  it’ll probably be a couple of weeks before you hear from me again.

Talk quietly amongst yourselves.


Posted in: misc by Peter Watts 10 Comments

Books and Banana.

Here’s the latest in an intermittent series of self-related roundups from around the world, which— while perhaps lacking a certain focus— culminates in what has to qualify as The Best Author Photo Of All Time.

But let’s start small, and build to it:

  • It’s only a Recommended list, not a Required one, but it’s nice to see that Blindsight made Berkeley’s 2016 Summer Reading List. Especially since said list is not even genre-based.
  • From the ever-growing list of “Look Who I’ve Inspired Though Myself They Haven’t Hired” game companies: I get name-checked along with Harrison, Moorcock, Simmons, Zelazny— oh and the “Heavy Metal” Movie— as an influence on Torment: Tides of Numenera. Of course, we all take a back seat to Gene Wolfe, but that’s as it should be.
  • This one gives me shivers. Courtesy of a dude named Danil Krivoruchko, one of several images which come closer than any I’ve seen to the actual vision of Rorschach that haunted my brain when I was writing Blindsight:
Embers and lightning. Tweak the allometry a bit and it'll be just about perfect.

Embers and lightning. Tweak the allometry a bit and it’ll be just about perfect.

It’s only a rough draft, mind you. Still under construction. I can’t wait to see what the finished product looks like.

  • More rough drafts, this time from Manchu: a couple of options for the cover of the upcoming Au-delà du Gouffre (which I originally took to mean “Audience of Guff”, but which is apparently French for Beyond the Rift):


Although these too are preliminary, I’m pretty sure I’m not violating any kind of embargo since Le Béliaľ has already polled their forum to help choose between them. (I think they’re both pretty great. I think they should go with both, and release two editions.)

*   *   *

But Finally.  Finally. The moment I’ve been waiting to share with you all:



You may look over at this cover for Blindsight‘s Turkish edition, and wonder why. Oh, it’s a fine cover, no doubt about it. A bit spaceship-generic maybe but the lighting is nice. It gleams, it pops, it does everything cover art is supposed to do. Still. You may wonder at my excitement, until you look at the back cover.

Until you look at the lower left back cover.

The Author photo, if you haven’t caught on yet.  Click on the image if you must; it gets bigger.

I have been trying for years to get publishers to adopt Banana as my official head shot. I have sent them Banana when they asked for an author photo. I have set precedent by inserting Banana into my own, collectors-edition Blindsight covers. I have suggested and wheedled and begged over drinks.

Finally, success.

The weird thing is, I don’t think I ever actually asked the Turks to do this. I don’t even remember having any direct contact with them; everything was negotiated overseas, the whole contract was a done deal before I even knew it was in the works. And yet, somehow they knew. Somehow, the Turks stepped up when others stepped back.

Thank you, Gürer Publishing and marketing Trade Co. Ltd. I don’t know you. I don’t know how you knew. But it was a grand and noble thing you did, for a grand and noble old cat.

If Banana were here today, he wouldn’t give a shit.


I, for One, Welcome Our New…

I’d just like to say that, when you read Annalee Newitz writing

“If trends continue, cephalopods may be among the species who are poised to survive a mass extinction in the oceans, leading to a future marine ecosystem ruled by tentacles.”

—or Cory Doctorow warning that—

“To imagine the ocean of the future: picture a writhing mass of unkillable tentacles, forever.”

—or even Doubleday et al (whose research inspired the preceding dire warnings) opining more calmly that—

From Doubleday et al 2016.

From Doubleday et al 2016.

“…the proliferation of cephalopod populations has been driven by large-scale processes that are common across a broad range of marine environments and facilitated by biological characteristics common to all cephalopods. … anthropogenic climate change, especially ocean warming, [is] a plausible driver of the observed increase. … Further, it has been hypothesised that the global depletion of fish stocks, together with the potential release of cephalopods from predation and competition pressure, could be driving the growth in cephalopod populations.”

I’d just like to point out that I called it twelve years ago, in βehemoth:

I'm actually much greyer now. And bearded.

Note the t-shirt.

To Clarke this is the scariest part of the ocean, the half-lit midwater depths where real squid roam: boneless tentacled monsters thirty meters long, their brains as cold and quick as superconductors. They’re twice as large as they used to be, she’s been told. Five times more abundant. Apparently it all comes down to better day care. Architeuthis larvae grow faster in the warming seas, their numbers unconstrained by predators long since fished out of existence.

Now.  Aren’t you ashamed none of you read the damn book?

Posted in: biology, marine, rifters by Peter Watts 35 Comments

Gods and Gamma.

Here’s something interesting: “God Has Sent Me To You” by Arzy and Schurr, in Epilepsy & Behavior (not to mention the usual pop-sci sites that ran with it a couple weeks back). Middle-aged Jewish male, practicing but not religious, goes off his meds as part of an ongoing treatment for grand mal seizures (although evidently “tonic-clonic” seizures is now the approved term). Freed from the drugs, he is touched by God. He sees Yahweh approaching, converses with It, accepts a new destiny: he is now The Chosen One, assigned by the Almighty to bring Redemption to the People of Israel. He rips the leads off his scalp and stalks out into the hospital corridors in search of disciples.

God on the Brain. From Arzy and Schurr, 2016

God on the Brain. From Arzy and Schurr, 2016

That’s right: they got it all on tape. Seven seconds of low-gamma spikes in the 30-40Hz range (I didn’t know what that was either— turns out it’s a pattern of neural activity associated with “conscious attention”).

(The figures might lead you astray if you don’t read the fine print: they didn’t actually get God’s footprints on an MRI. They got them on one of those lo-tech EEGs that traces squiggly lines across a display, then they photoshopped the relevant spikes onto an archival MRI image for display purposes.)

Regardless, the findings themselves are really interesting. For one thing, the God spikes manifested on the left prefrontal cortex, although the seizure was concentrated in the right temporal. For another, God took Its own sweet time taking the stage: the conversion event happened eight hours after the seizure. They’re still trying to figure out what to make of all this.

The behavioral manifestations are classic, though. This guy didn’t just believe he was the chosen one; he knew it down in the gut, with the same certainty that you know your arm is attached to your shoulder. When asked what he was going to do with his disciples when he recruited them, he admitted that he had no plan, that he didn’t need one: God would tell him what to do.

God didn’t, of course. They managed to shut the psychosis down with olanzapine, returned the patient to normalcy a few hours after the event. As far as I know he’s back at work, his buddies on the factory floor blissfully unrecruited.

But what if he hadn’t got better?

This is hardly the first time temporal-lobe epilepsy has been implicated in religious fanaticism; medical correlates extend back to the seventies, and tonic-clonic seizures have been trotted out to retrospectively explain martyrs and prophets going all the way back to the Old Testament. Perhaps the most famous such case involved Saul of Tarsus.

Of course, there are more pedestrian explanations...

Of course, there are more pedestrian explanations…

You know that guy. First-century dude, dual citizen (Saul was his Jewish name, Paul his Roman one— let’s just call him SPaul). Didn’t much like these newfangled Christian cults that were springing up everywhere following the crucifixion. His main claim to fame was being the coat-check guy at the stoning of Stephen, up until he was struck blind by a bright light en route to Damascus.

God spoke to SPaul, too. Converted him from nemesis to champion on the spot. There was no olanzapine available. It’s been two thousand years and we’re still picking up the pieces.

Epilepsy isn’t the only explanation that’s been put forth for SPaul’s conversion. Some have argued for a near-miss by a meteorite, on the grounds that the blinding light couldn’t have been hallucinatory since Saul’s traveling companions also saw it. That’s true, according to some accounts; other versions have those same companions hearing God’s voice but not seeing the light. If I had to choose (and if I was denied the option of dismissing the whole damn tale as retconned religious propaganda), I’d believe the latter iteration, and chalk those sounds up to a bout of ululation during the seizure. Speaking in tongues, blindness— most dramatically, of course, the whole hyper-religiosity thing— are all consistent with temporal-lobe epilepsy.

Messiahs. The movie was actually a lot more accurate than many theologians would like to admit.

Messiahs. The movie was actually a lot more accurate than many theologians would like to admit.

Unlike his (vastly less-influential) 21st Century counterpart, SPaul was not charged with Redeeming the Israelites: Jesus already had dibs on those guys. Instead, Paul claimed that Yahweh had assigned him to preach to the Gentiles, a much vaster market albeit not the one for whom Christ’s teachings were originally intended. Biblical scholar Hugh Schonfield speculates that the reason SPaul had such a hate-on for Jesus in the first place might have been because SPaul regarded himself as the Messiah. (Apparently every second person you met back then regarded themselves as The Chosen One, thanks to Scriptures which promised that such a savior was due Any Day Now, and to ancillary prophecies vague enough to apply to anyone from Rocket Raccoon to Donald Trump). This would imply that SPaul’s roadside conversion was not an isolated event, and sure enough there’s evidence of recurring hallucinations, paranoia, and delusions of grandeur at other times in his life (although these may be more consistent with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder than with epilepsy). According to Schonfield, SPaul— denied the job of Jewish Messiah— took on the Christ’s-Ambassador-to-the-Gentiles gig as a kind of consolation prize.

Good company, at least. Murray et al 2012.

Good company, at least. Murray et al 2012.

The irony, of course, is that modern Christianity is arguably far more reflective of SPaul’s teachings than of Jesus’s. Cue two thousand years of crusade, inquisition, homophobia, and misogyny.

So let us all bow our heads in a moment of silent gratitude both for the miracle of modern pharmaceuticals, and for the diligent neurologists at Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center. Thanks to them, we may have dodged a bullet.

This time, at least.


Posted in: ass-hamsters, neuro by Peter Watts 30 Comments

Diamond Blogs

By Dan Ghiordanescu. Unsurprisingly.

By Dan Ghiordanescu. Unsurprisingly.

We had a legend, we denizens of Eriophora, of a cavern— deep aft, almost as far back as the launch thrusters themselves— filled with diamonds. Not just ordinary diamonds, either: the uncut, hexagonal shit. Lonsdaleite. The toughest solid in the whole damn solar system— back when we shipped out, at least— and laser-readable to boot.

Build your backups out of anything less and you might as well be carving them from butter.

Nothing’s immortal on a road trip of a billion years. The universe runs down in stop-motion around you, your backups’ backups’ backups need backups. Not even the error-correcting replication strategies cadged from biology can keep the mutations at bay forever. It was true for us meatsacks cycling through mayfly moments every thousand years; it was true for the hardware as well. It was so obvious I never even thought about it. By the time I did, the Chimp was on its eighty-third reincarnation.

Not enough that the processors lived down near the event horizon, where the subtle pull of Eri’s time-dilating heart stretched operational lifespans epochs past their expiration dates. Not enough that the circuits themselves were almost paleolithically crude; when your AI packs less than half the synapse count of a human brain, fiddling around down on nano scales is just grandstanding. Still, things fall apart. Conduits decay. Circuits a dozen molecules thick would just— evaporate over time, even if entropy and quantum tunneling didn’t degrade them down to sponge first.

Every now and then, you have to renovate.

And so was born the legend of The Cave: an archive of backups, slabs of diamond statuary a thousand times larger than life, like some crystal cubist Easter Island. When the inventory of backup Chimps ran too low— or of grav lenses, or air-conditioners, or any other vital artefact more short-lived than a proton— Eri would send lumbering copyeditors back to the Secret Place to read great mineral blueprints so vast, so stable, they might outlast the Milky Way.

The place wasn’t always so secret, mind you. Or so legendary. We trooped through it a dozen times during construction, a dozen more in training. But one day, maybe our third or fourth pass through the Sagittarius Arm, Ghora went spelunking at the end of a shift while the rest of us lay dead in the crypt; just killing time, he told me later, staving off the inevitable shut-down with a little recreational reconnaissance. He hiked down into the hi-gee zone, wormed through crawlways and crevices to where X marked the Spot— and found the Cave scoured clean: just a dark gaping cavity in the rock, studded with the stubs of bolts and anchors sheared off a few centimeters above the substrate.

The Chimp had relocated the whole damn archive while we’d slept between the stars.

He wouldn’t tell us where. He couldn’t tell us, he insisted. Said he’d just been following prerecorded instructions from Mission Control, hadn’t been aware of them himself until some timer ticked over and injected the new instructions into his job stack. He couldn’t even tell us why.

I believed him. When was the last time coders explained themselves to the code?

We still go searching now and then, on those rare occasions when there’s time to kill and itches to scratch. We plant tiny charges in the rock, read the echoes vibrating through our worldlet in search of some undiscovered grotto. The Chimp doesn’t stop us. It’s never had to; we’ve never found anything.

“They don’t trust us,” Kai said, rolling his eyes. “Seven million years down the road, all long gone to dust, and they’re afraid we might— what? Trash our own life support? Write Sawada sucks farts on their scale models?” He spoke for all of us; this was hardly the first evidence of head-up-ass syndrome we’d encountered.

Looking back, though, we really should’ve taken the hint. Job descriptions notwithstanding, we weren’t really crew after all. Never had been. We were just another set of tools.

And if we’d somehow left orbit under the wrong impression, grandiosely inflated our own roles in Humanity’s Grand Exodus To The Stars— well, at least it had kept the departure protocols on track.

Posted in: fiblet, Sunflowers by Peter Watts 54 Comments