Thursday, August 18, 2011

Singularity at the Gates

by Richard Crews
There is a powerful concept that comes out of theoretical nuclear and astronomical physics; it is soul-wracking when one really looks at it closely. That is the concept of "singularity." In the depths of giant stars where gravity has sucked inward into itself so powerfully that nothing, not even light, can escape, all the laws of physics no longer apply. Time and space have no meaning; everything we understand--reason itself--has no meaning. This state is called a "black hole" or "singularity."

In all of nature from the smallest sub-atomic particles to the largest clusters of galaxies there are four fundamental forces: the strong and weak nuclear forces, electromagnetism, and gravity. Science has long chased the notion--theoretically and experimentally--of a "fifth force," but none has been found.

But in the depths of a black hole these forces are crushed together so inexorably that they cease to exist as separate entities. The irreducible components of matter--molecules; which are made up of atoms; which are made up of protons, electrons, neutrons, and their ilk; which are made up of quarks; which may even be made up of smaller tidbits called strings--all of these are crushed inward so formidably that they, also, cease to exist.

A singularity is truly a place--or a state--where neither mathematics nor even imagination can penetrate.

In recent decades this mind-numbing concept of "singularity" has been extended into the daily world, the world of newspapers and history books. There is what has been called a "technological singularity." The modern world is developing so rapidly and changing so dramatically from year to year, that even the most imaginative science fiction writer cannot pretend to see into the mist a few years ahead. It has been said that a science fiction writer, in order to paint a picture of what civilization might look like and what humanity might be up to a few decades from now, must postulate a historical discontinuity--that is, must insert a nuclear war or some other catastrophic Armageddon into the narrative--in order to set the world back enough to examine it. Otherwise it is simply unknowable, unimaginable.

Consider, for example, how much the world of computers ("information technology" or "IT") has changed our daily lives in the past couple of decades. From cell phones and social media, from automatic bank teller machines to billion-dollar financial transaction that flit around the globe in fractions of a second, from hundreds of TV channels and millions of Website that can spring before our eyes with a few flicks of a switch--we simply do not live in the same world we lived in twenty years ago.

There are computers now that can beat the world's best chess players, analyze data better than the world's best scientists, and provide information and entertainment far more facilely than the books, movies, and live performances that preceded them. In addition to this explosion in IT, the burgeoning worlds of nanotechnology, of synthetic biology, and of meta-materials all promise (or threaten) to make dramatic changes in the ways we live our lives.

Throughout history the unknown catastrophe has loomed, potentially, not far ahead. Sometimes when there were foreign armies besieging the city gates or a drought or plague was upon us, the terror of the future seemed to have a form, a direction, a known outcome, however terrible. Even in the good times, the memory of pain and deprivation and the expectation of disease and death were not far away.

But there has never been a time when--by the wizardry of our own minds and hands--a dark and unknown future loomed up just a few years ahead.

There is a singularity at the gates--a technological singularity--and we do not have the faintest idea what it will bring.


Note: Purists may ask, "What about Hawking radiation?" My answer: Hawking radiation is tweeny; it reduces the blackness of a black hole by less than 0.000001%. Call me careless, but any time I write something that is less than 0.000001% wrong, I am satisfied with it.