The origin of myth

Once, long ago, before the world became round and full of rocks, Noman and Nowoman were sitting around talking.

“Why don’t we have any myths?” said Noman.

“What’s a myth?”

“I don’t know, but it seems like we ought to have at least one, if not more.”

Nowoman pondered this for a long moment, or what would have been a long moment if moments had been invented.

“Well,” she finally replied, “let’s say you’re right. How do we go about getting one or two if we don’t know what that is?”

“We’ll go and look for it. When we find it, we’ll know.” said Noman. Nowoman looked at him like he was crazy but held her tongue.

And so they set off in all directions at once, since there was no time to define things like that. But as they walked, Earth formed beneath them, and in their footsteps, water and all the mysterious things that live in water, and green sprouted all around them. And all that they gazed upon in wonder became stars, and their love of these things the sun, so terrible in its warmth and light that a moon was needed to share the day with.

“I don’t know,” said Noman. “This stuff is so good, maybe we don’t need a myth.”

But Nowoman shook her head. “Now that we’ve started we have to go on.”

And so they did. The earth shook and trembled, and water fell from nowhere, which was called the sky, with clouds so soft they could kill for no reason. All at once they noticed they were not alone. Small things, large things, fuzzy things and hard pointed things, all moving along with them. Some they loved and some they hated, some they fed and some they ate. And from their bodies came the bodies of the wild and the tame alike.

Finally, after a time so long there could be no one to remember it, they got tired for the first time ever. They sat down at the rim of the world and shed sweat and tears into the vastness, and this was the ocean.

Noman was discouraged. “I thought we could find a myth, but we haven’t.”

But Nowoman said, “We have a sea to sail, and a story to tell.”

They looked at each other in surprise, and suddenly knew they had their myth. They laughed so long and hard, that all the birds joned them, and they still sing the myth of beginning.

“Well, that was fun,” said Noman. “Now what?”

“Love?”

“What’s love?”

And Nowoman smiled the most beautiful smile he had ever seen.

Snow

Snow.  That’s what we called it, snow.  No polar vortex, no bomb cyclone, no Winter Storm Fred or anything like that.  Snow.  If it got so thick you couldn’t see past your outstretched hand, it was a blizzard; that was about the extent of our parsing of winter weather.

But wait, you say, people are suffering losses, some are even dying.  That’s true, and it’s just as lamentable now as it was before the storm of jargon came spewing out of weather centers.  I daresay the casualties were worse back then, in the mid 20th century, before forced air gas heating, heat pumps, whole house generators and hyper-insulated houses.  There were only two realistic choices: coal or oil, and both systems worked on the principle of convection.  Worse, if a winter turned out to be especially long or cold, you could run out of either, and be hard put to get more of it in a reasonable time.  People froze.  It was winter.

But for every downside there’s an upside.  The snow was a cash cow for us kids.  We’d go trundling up and down the street shoveling sidewalks for a buck a pop.  We would have charged more for driveways, but there were no such things in my neighborhood, just alleys covered with soot from the ubiquitous trash fires.  My eyes still glaze over in nostalgia whenever I smell garbage burning.

On a good snow day, you could end up with ten or fifteen bucks in your pocket by noon, a small fortune for a ten or twelve year old kid in the 1950s, and still have time to spend the rest of the day sledding down a steep hill into traffic.  I never made that much; I felt rich as soon as I hit five bucks, and went about finding ways to spend it.  But that was me.  I also collected coins in specially made books with slots for each year back to the Upper Paleolithic, but I never filled one.  I spent that, too, as soon as enough money to buy something accumulated.

We’d also have fun “skitching” rides on the perennially unplowed streets.  That involved sneaking low behind a car at an intersection, grabbing the bumper, and getting pulled along, sliding on the packed snow.  Even getting caught was fun.  We’d pelt the furious driver with snowballs and run away.

There was one time, though, that a cop caught us putting snowballs into a mailbox.  He informed us solemnly that he was letting us go, but that tampering with the mail was a federal crime, and he couldn’t vouch for what the FBI might want to do.

I had nightmares about J. Edgar Hoover for a week after that.

Congratulations: the incredibly improbable you

You’ve made it this far.  There were never any guarantees, were there?

Take the Big Bang, for instance.  By all accounts, this event should have resulted in equal amounts of matter and anti-matter, and we all know what that means.  Nothing.  A big, fat zero.  You put the two together, and that’s what you get, so for physicists, the old chestnut of why there’s something rather than nothing takes on a whole new significance.  For some reason, after the Big Annihilation, there was this miniscule (comparatively) amount of stuff left over; that’s us, and all we are in and around.

Even so, a lot of different things could have happened from there.  The laws of nature could have been different.  If gravity was just a tiny bit stronger, no sooner would the universe have begun to expand, than it would have collapsed back on itself.  No time for matter to come together slowly, forming stars while waiting for the Great Dissipation of entropy.  Which brings up another thing: if entropy is a law, if everything ends up at the lowest, most uniform possible state of energy, why wasn’t that the case immediately before the Big Bang?  It could have been.  It should have been.  But it wasn’t; big chunk of luck for us!

Even taking all of that ultimate origin stuff as a given, it’s been no cakewalk.  You start with a bunch of protons and electrons whizzing about the fledgeling universe, but because it’s not uniform, some of them clump together due to our friend gravity.  Actually, enormous clumps of them, so huge the pressure pushes them into units composed of two protons and electron each: helium atoms.  It’s fusion, and lumps of it were happening all over.  Altogether disorderly and un-entropic.  Worse yet, all that energy causes flares, explosions, various ways of ripping it all apart, with the result that bits of stars are flung out, kind of like bits of fur in a cosmic cat fight.  More and more atoms are forced together, and eventually you get all the elements we are familiar with, including the ones we are composed of ourselves.  Stars have clouds of gases and debris swirling around them.  Sooner or later, the same thing that brought the original matter together to make the stars begins happening in the debris clouds.  They start clumping up, and some get rather large, at least by our standards.  We call them planets.

Of course most planets, even the ones in our own little star system, with the notable exception of Earth, are places completely inhospitable for life.  The bulk of them are like Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune, great gassy blobs with no place to even stand on, let alone survive.  Even most that are solid enough to stand on are inhospitable, like Mercury, or Venus.  Just our little Earth is perfect, and it causes us huge headaches on occasion.  True, in the incomprehensible vastness of the universe, there are doubtless others like it, maybe even some better equipped for life.  But they are in a minority.  Just our luck we’re here.

Although, to be honest, even Earth was no picnic for much of its history.  Our lump of clay is a little more than 4.5 billion years old, and for almost the first half of that, its atmosphere was largely nitrogen and methane.  Don’t get me wrong; it was buzzing with life, little anaerobic  specs happily bathed in the major component of our modern farts.  How they came to be is a matter still hotly debated, but we’ll leave that, and the odds of it happening, aside.  Earth was a very warm place, indeed.  Then, catastrophe!

Evil, wicked, cyanobacteria arose, making energy directly from the sun via photosynthesis, and giving off as a waste product — oxygen.  It was a deadly poison, and the tiny microscopic newspapers of the day were full of dire predictions.  Just kidding.  Had they been, though, their predictions would have been all too true.  It’s said that this was by far the greatest extinction event the world has ever witnessed, killing off almost all of the existing life, leaving only the new photosynthesizers and a smattering of the older bits near ocean vents and the like.  Even they had it rough, though, because the sudden burst of oxygen turned almost all the methane into carbon dioxide.  The Earth cooled, and remained encased in ice – snowball Earth – for millions of years.

Well, there it is.  They’re still with us; they’ve become all the rich and glorious diversity of plants.  From our perverse point of view, or course.  We are essentially what’s become of alien invaders wallowing about in their own waste products.

I can’t begin to tell you all the trials and tribulations that followed.  For the next couple of billion years, the Earth vacillated between toasty warm and crippling cold, and all the range between, each shift engendering a new catastrophe for whatever life had grown accustomed to the previous conditions, and a marvelous opportunity for those few misfits who had managed to survive in spite of it.  You really should check out some of the incredible trials and errors along the way: hard-shelled predators with razor like appendages; floating masses of jello; tiny diatoms whose gazillions of weeny skeletons form the vast limestone deposits of Earth.  But let’s cut to the chase.

What with one thing and another, bilaterally symmetrical soft-bodied creatures with internal structures of calcium carbonate evolved: the vertebrates.  I mean, anyone care to calculate the odds?  One major theory of the evolution of skeletons is that organisms found a way to sequester the deadly calcium in their environment, and that that eventually was pressed into service as the internal skeleton, providing rigidity and support for locomotion and other kinetic activities.  Talk about making lemonade from the lemons you’ve been given.

You may think that by this point, we are well on the way to the obvious: us and all the clever world about us.  Not so fast.

Although you could make a case that in such a changeable, unreliable world as Earth, it was just a matter of time before an intelligent, generalized creature like the primates would evolve, we’re still a long way from ourselves here.  Even today, there are hundreds of primate species, with hundreds more having gone extinct.  It is said that at one point, about 60-50,000 years ago, Homo sapiens was down to a breeding population of fewer than a couple of hundred individuals.  We’ve all been squeezed through a very narrow funnel, my friends, which explains why we’re so damned alike.

Think of it.  A species comprised of many thousands, culled to a couple hundred.  Most humans died back then.

But not your ancestors, or mine.  The odds against any one of us being here are astronomical.  Since then, of course, we’ve burgeoned to a population of something over 7 billion.  All the same, countless ancestral lines have gone extinct since the big crunch of 60-50k alone.

But not yours, and not mine.  At any point along the vast expanse of time, from the first flicker of life to now, your personal ancestor organism might have been one of the countless gazillions that died without issue.  Congratulations.

Now, about those horrendous odds you say you’re up against…

Don’t beam me up, please

It’s an old dream, the ability to move instantly from one place to another, far off.  Only shamans were ever able to do it, though.  But now, there’s a chance it might actually happen for all of us, in the not too ridiculously distant future.

Technically, there is no reason why we can’t eventually have teleporters – little booths you can walk into and walk out of thousands of miles away at the speed of light, providing there’s one at each end.  Sort of.

You knew there was a catch, didn’t you?  Using existing technology, the process involves reading all the information of which you are composed at one end, and reassembling you at the other end by dumping it.  This does involve your complete destruction at the transmitting end, of course.

That’s the interesting part.  The reassembled you at the destination would have all your cells, synapses, and nerve endings reproduced exactly as they were at the moment of your dismantling.  This includes your brain, where everything you know is stored in the precise configuration of its parts.  The original you may be destroyed, but the new you will remember going into the transmission booth, and coming out unscathed at the end.  So, is that you, or isn’t it?  What exactly do we mean by “you” anyway?

To an outside observer (scientist, friend, mother) it would be indistinguishable from you.  Come to that, to an inside observer (the reassembled you), the same would be true, since it would contain all that defined the earlier you.  But the original you was destroyed in the process.  What we always knew as you is dead, my friend.  It has been reduced to its constituent components, little electrons whizzing around little protons and neutrons, completely devoid of the patterning we came to love all those years before the experiment.

Here’s the weird part: because the teleportation involved reading all the information that constituted you, then transmitting it to a new location, it could presumably be saved.  You could be stored on a disc and not reassembled until later.  Much later.  Multiple copies of you could be made, all of which would insist it was the real you.  Each of them would be the real you, by any existing standards of evidence.

So, we end in a situation in which you are dead, because we killed you to get at your information, but you are still walking around in multiple iterations, perhaps having violent confrontations with each other over their authenticity.

Here’s the real question, which is so bizarre I’m having difficulty putting it into words:  Would you, that entity which now lives in and looks out at the world from your body, which is the experiencer of your history, which debates with itself over the nature of the reality presented it by your senses, would you inhabit any or all of your new selves?

picture025

Correspondence from the dawn of time

Archaeologists have uncovered a stone slab with what appears to be the earliest correspondence ever.  The hypothesis is that the slab was exchanged with each new entry.  Here is a transcript.

Not the slab, but stone like it.

Not the slab, but stone like it.

Hi

Why do you give me this?

No reason.  Just Hi.

What you want?

Nothing, just friend.  What wrong with that?

Here a small circle has been carved, with a curved line in the lower half, and two dots in the upper.

What this shit?

It’s like face, smiling.

OK, haha.

BTW, I have plenty hides, for you, cheap.

Here are just random chips, odd symbols, in a pattern suggesting anger.  There appears to be the figure of a man, decapitated.  The rest of the slab is blank.

____________________________________________________________________
Photo credit: http://www.newsgd.com/travel/routeofthemonth/200606080058_60340.jpg