Log in

Previous Entry | Next Entry

(Original artwork by Clifford A. Pickover. Click to enlarge.)

Entering Pickover's world is like falling headfirst into a turning kaleidoscope.

It's hard to summarize Dr. Clifford A. Pickover: Yale-educated scientist, futurist, inventor (over 40 patents), astonishingly prolific author of mind-expanding books (over 40 books) and mathematical puzzles, traveler to the extreme borderlands of science, promoter of strangely-wonderful sites and people all over the web, and keeper of shovelnose catfish.

He's an avid Twitterer and has suggested that "by 2075, Twitter will be used by disembodied spirits (e.g. dead people) to send messages to the living. These 'spirits' will be the minds of uploaded people who have died, live in 'Afterlife Chips,' and who will want quick, convenient communication paths to the 'living.' "

Whenever I feel I might lose my sense of wonder, I go to his writings to get medicine for my melancholy. It's impossible to come out of his bizarre bailiwick undazzled.

From his website: "His primary interest is finding new ways to continually expand creativity by melding art, science, mathematics, and other seemingly disparate areas of human endeavor," which you can tell from such titles as:

And his latest book, Archimedes to Hawking: Laws of Science and the Great Minds Behind Them, which you can learn more about here.

Take a look at his answers to a few questions I asked him. (Note that I refer to him as Cliff, not Dr. Pickover. Though I don't know him personally, his internet presence is open, friendly, generous, and, for all his accomplishments, he comes across humble as a hound.)

I won't say a word at the end of our little interview because I want the last thing he says to resonate with you, as it did with me. When you're done, go over to www.pickover.com and pay him a long, leisurely visit. (Don't miss the side-trip to "Godlorica"!) You'll go away with your eyes newly opened to the extraordinariness of everything you ever thought ordinary.

Sherry Austin: Cliff, where are you on the God Question?

Clifford Pickover: Sometimes readers of my books ask me why I sometimes write on God, strange realities, and religious subjects. I tend to be skeptical about the paranormal. However, I do feel that there are facets of the universe we can never understand, just as a monkey can never understand calculus, black holes, symbolic logic, and poetry. There are thoughts we can never think, visions we can only glimpse. It is at this filmy, veiled interface between human reality and a reality beyond that we may find the numinous, which some may liken to God.

S.A. The most heartening promise of most religions is that somehow sorrow and suffering will end, things will be made right, that "we'll understand it better by and by," in the words of an old hymn. What do you think about the possibility of immortality?

Pickover: As I ponder the kinds of evolutionary processes that may take place on Earth and on other planets, I also enjoy thinking about the typical life-spans of space-faring aliens, if such aliens exist. American astronomer and astrophysicist Frank Drake believes that any intelligent aliens we may someday encounter will be immortal. In 1976, he wrote, "It has been said that when we first discover other civilizations in space, we will be the dumbest of them all. This is true, but more than that, we will probably be the only mortal civilization."

Space-faring aliens will probably live for centuries because they will have solved the mysteries of aging or can repair any damage that might be caused by aging. Similarly, humans will soon achieve biological immortality for the same reason. Immortality is not such a rare thing -- many creatures on Earth are virtually immortal. As just one example, consider desert creosote plants in Southwest California, some estimated to be over 11,000 years old. Lichens can live just as long. In 1997, scientists in Tasmania discovered one of the world's oldest living plants, a 43,000-year-old Lomatia tasmanica, or King's Holly. People can read more about my views on immortality in my book, A Beginner's Guide to Immortality: Extraordinary People, Alien Brains, and Quantum Resurrection.

S.A. You have said: "By the laws of chance alone it is probable that replicas of our earth and configurations of atoms just like yours, or variants of you, exist somewhere else in an infinite cosmos…be happy." Does that make us happy because it is intolerable to think we won't live on? Do you think it is possible that the probability of infinity and parallel universes might actually be the answer to the previous question (about end of suffering, etc.)?

Pickover: We live in a visible universe easily encompassed by a sphere 100 billion light-years across, with a finite number of configurations for the matter and energy contained within. Let's imagine our visible universe as a gigantic bubble floating within our larger universe. (We cannot see infinitely far because the Universe has a finite age and because information cannot travel faster than the speed of light.) If our universe is infinite, as many modern physicists believe, then identical copies of our bubble must exist, with an exact copy of our Earth and of you. According to physicist Max Tegmark, on average, the nearest of these identical bubbles is about 10 to the 10100 meters away.

Not only are there infinite copies of you, there are infinite copies of variants of you. It is almost certain that right now you have red eyes and are kissing someone who speaks Etruscan with long fangs in some other bubble. If we accept the notion of an infinite universe -- which is suggested by modern theories of cosmic inflation -- infinite copies of you exist, altered in fantastically beautiful and ugly ways.  Of course, the fact that a virtually perfect replica of you is likely to exist--in a state of absolute bliss--does not necessarily mean that you will be happy as a result of knowing this.

Only a few moments ago, I read Greta Christina's essay "Comforting Thoughts about Death that have Nothing to do with God," and felt depressed. After all, I'm a skeptic and unsure that an afterlife exists. Greta, a freelance writer, notes:

"The fact that your life span is an infinitesimally tiny fragment in the life of the universe, that there is, at the very least, a strong possibility that when you die, you disappear completely and forever, and that in five hundred years nobody will remember you... [this] can make you feel erased, wipe out joy, make your life seem like ashes in your hands."

It makes me sad to look at my hands, eyes, and the eyes of my family members, and to understand that this will all be dust and ashes. Greta admits that she doesn't know what happens when we die, but she doesn't think this essential mystery really matters. She wants her essay to be upbeat as she reminds us that we should be happy because it is amazing that we even get a chance to be alive. We get to be conscious. "We get to be connected with each other and with the world, and we get to be aware of that connection and to spend a few years mucking about its possibilities."

I suppose her essay does end on a bright note as she enumerates items that contribute to her happiness, like Shakespeare, sex, five-spice chicken, Thai restaurants, Louis Armstrong, and drifting patterns in the clouds.

Sometimes I imagine connecting strings to make me happier. I call these strings "Calvino" strings after the author who wrote on these kinds of interconnections between towns and people. Imagine if we had Calvino strings following us wherever we go, from the moment of birth to the moment of death. Imagine that every molecule in our bodies had its own string. When you think about this more deeply, our Calvino strings never really begin or end. When we die, the Calvino strings of the molecules in our body keep going. When we are born, the Calvino strings of molecules from our mother coalesce into our embryonic form. At no point do Calvino strings break off or appear from nothing.

As we age, the molecules in our bodies are constantly being exchanged with our environment. With every breath, we inhale the Calvino strings of hundreds of millions of atoms of air exhaled weeks ago by someone on the other side of the planet. Thinking at a higher level, our brains and organs are vanishing into thin air, the cells being replaced as quickly as they are destroyed. The entire skin replaces itself every month. Our stomach linings replace themselves every five days. We are always in flux. A year or two from now, a majority of the atoms in our bodies will have been replaced with new ones. We are nothing more than a seething mass of eternal Calvino strings, continuous threads in the fabric of spacetime.

What does it mean that your brain has nothing in common with the brain you had a few years ago? If you are something other than the collection of atoms making up your body, what are you? You are not so much your atoms as you are the pattern in which your atoms are arranged. Some of the atomic patterns in your brain code memories. People are persistent spacetime tangles. It's quite possible that you have an atom of Jesus of Nazareth coursing through your body. Gilgamesh, the historical king who ruled the city of Uruk, is part of your brain or tendons or heart. An atom in your retina may one day be in the tears of a happy lunar princess a hundred years from now.

If you were to try to draw a boundary around yourself when viewed as a seething nexus of Calvino strings, you would find the boundary to be completely imaginary. As mathematician Rudy Rucker has noted, "The simple processes of eating and breathing weave all of us together into a vast four-dimensional array. No matter how isolated you may sometimes feel, no matter how lonely, you are never really cut off from the whole."


Visit http://www.pickover.com

Subscribe to Strangeness by Email

Site Meter