The Architecture of Life: Spaced Out!

The Architecture of Life - Christopher K. Travis

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Spaced Out!

Truth in Humor: Some folks think one shouldn't use humor to make serious points about humanity or the state of the world. I cannot agree less. There is something inherently hypocritical about the self-importance of human beings and I think poking fun at it is good medicine. And besides, I take my own medicine.

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Reprinted - Winter 2005 Round Top Register

Everyone I know says I am spaced out.

My wife tells me I’m distracted and self-absorbed. She says I have no sense of time, lose things constantly and cannot be trusted with small appliances. She says these things are evidence of my dysfunction.

According to her I fade in and out of reality all the time… but she doesn’t know the half of it.

My friends think I’m a pie-in-the-sky dreamer too, a guy who spends most of his time in La La Land. They’re too nice to say it, but sometimes they think I act like I’m from another planet.

That's because sometimes when they see me I have just come back from another planet! I've been hiding this for a long time, but the truth is...I'm a REAL space ranger and I have traveled all over the galaxy!

I've tried to tell my buddies what I have discovered about the inner workings of the universe, but their eyes roll back in their heads like the reels in a slot machine. I have taken to cupping my hands under their mouths on the hopes I will hit the jackpot. So far the only payoff is a spray of spittle when they burst into laughter.

I know I am hoist on my own petard. It’s my own fault that people question my credibility. Part of my problem comes from publishing a magazine in which fact is indistinguishable from fiction. In the past, I must admit I have written a few things that stretch the truth. Many people doubt my in-depth interviews with Santa Claus and Bigfoot.

I understand that reasonable persons might question whether the Round Top Register is really locked in a vicious print war with the New York Times; that our columnist is really over two hundred years old; or that Round Top’s Town Marshall is really 6’9” tall and rides tornadoes.

These are reasonable doubts, and I cannot deny that I might have played loose with the facts a time or two for the sake of art.

But in all fairness, That doesn't mean my claim is not true. Anyone who studies physics will find what most of us think of as “the real world” doesn’t exist. One of the founders of quantum physics, Erwin Schrödinger, points out that at the atomic level, all matter performs in a “completely disorderly heat motion, which opposes itself to their orderly behavior and does not allow the events that happen between a small number of atoms to enroll themselves according to any recognizable physical laws.”

That means if you look closely at the building blocks of the universe from which everything is made – your car, your kids, your dinner, your new pair of shoes – you won’t find anything that looks like facts or reality.

Reality is just a story humans tell one another so we won’t be utterly overwhelmed by the incredible complexity of the world in which we live. The universe is incomprehensibly vast. Life is unfathomably complex. Few of us have the slightest idea what is going on around us, and for the most part, we don’t want to know.

Accepting the truth about our insignificance in the grand scheme of things is a real blow to the ego, so who wants to do it.

The fact that everyone makes up their own reality is just one of the basic truths that even the most backward of the galaxy’s species takes for granted, but here on the old home planet we are still having a hard time getting the message.

People on our planet often think there is some “real and objective” world that is the same for everyone. This kind of provincialism is very embarrassing for a space ranger like myself.

Put yourself in my shoes. You are at a cocktail party at a penthouse in an upscale tourist colony orbiting a gas giant in the Betelgeuse system, and your host, who looks a lot like a six foot tall oyster with chrome hood ornaments suddenly shouts “Humans believe what?” and the whole party breaks up in riotous laughter.

This kind of thing makes it very hard to act cool. Belonging to what many interstellar beings consider “one of the goofiest-looking species in the universe” is hard enough, but being an intellectual laughing stock just adds insult to injury.

That is one of the reasons I have decided to come clean about my secret life and try to explain what is really going on in the universe to the rest of humanity.

Salt Crystals on a String

My strange situation began a long time ago when I first became a space cadet. It began innocently enough. I had a big imagination as a child and was fascinated with the workings of the world – why salt crystals appeared on a string suspended in salt water; why the program in your hand shivers and quakes in a concert hall when the strings crescendo at certain notes; why snowflakes are all unique and other amazing mysteries of science.

When I was a kid, the world was a source of wonder for me, and that wondering set me to wandering in my mind…and the next thing you know I was a space cadet.

It all started when I met Tom Corbette and the Space Rangers.

Tom was as all-American boy, tried and true, and a fellow cadet at the Interplanetary Space Academy. He and I teamed up with two other young cadets. Roger, who was real wise guy but a crack navigator was the first, and Astro, our massive but good-natured engineer was the other. The four of us rocketed all over the solar system before I was out of the sixth grade.

In the summer after I graduated from elementary school, I discovered a book called Glory Road, and found myself hopping from one dimension to the next.

That was where all the trouble started. It was fun, flitting from one alternate universe to another battling impossible odds, but there are serious consequences when you defy the laws of physics, and before long I was paying the piper.

I first began to notice strange things happening when I was in the seventh grade. That school year I lost three watches and four coats. My mother assumed I was simply careless, but as far as I could tell those personal items just disappeared. Right away I knew they had slipped into another time/space continuum but it was hard to prove to my mom.

Sadly, a little known effect of such quantum phenomena is that there is a corresponding perturbation in the electro-chemical energies passing through the synapses of the brain when they occur…which means you can’t actually remember the alternate universe events when they happen to you.

I knew those watches – including the one with Roy Rogers and Trigger on the dial - must lie half buried beneath the purple sands of a distant world. They were probably being crushed under the twelve armored feet of a methane-breathing three-headed desert beast rather than lost in my school locker. But no matter how articulate my argument, I couldn’t convince my unimaginative mother. When I came home from school without my coat for the third time, she grounded me.

That’s when I realized my life as starfarer was better kept a secret.

Now all these years later, I realize that I am not alone. There are other people like me out there in the world, lonely and lost, never seeming to fit in, observing a universe that their friends and neighbors can’t perceive. They seem like normal people except for a few unusual quirks.

They tend to lose anything not chained to their belts. They are constantly looking for their keys, their cell phones, their screw drivers and wallets. Important papers vaporize on their desks at work. They have no sense of time. They have a hard time remembering names and phone numbers and never read directions. They leave lights on all over the house and can’t be trusted with toaster ovens.

They spend a lot of time lost in thought, staring off into space with wistful expressions on their faces. Sometimes they become fixated watching a cloud, or a crawling bug, or the reflection of light on water, and you have to shake them to get their attention.

In other words, they have the attention span of a four-year-old.

If there is anyone in your life like this, I ask you to be patient and forgiving. They may be annoying and hard to live with, but they’re behavior is an unfortunate side effect of an important mission.

They’re secretly defending the earth against invasion by the forces of galactic evil, so give them a break. It easy to get a little distracted when you’re standing alone against the death rays of the machine-beings from the Crab Nebula.

Facing such responsibility, anyone could forget a birthday or two. These people deserve your respect because they are performing a valuable public service. Defending the planet earth from total annihilation is a thankless job, but someone’s got to do it.

To my clients, friends and neighbors, I am a regular guy who happens to be a little eccentric. They assume that I lose things and can’t remember people’s names because I simply don’t pay attention, or because my brain was damaged in the 1960’s by recreational drugs.

Actually, I am constantly cycling from one dimension of space to another. I’ll be in Round Top talking on the cell phone or sitting at the drafting board trying to design someone’s country house…and then all of a sudden I’m taking four G’s as my spacecraft leaves the atmosphere of the fifth planet out from Alpha Centauri in pursuit of insectoid aliens bent on galactic domination.

Needless to say, these circumstances make it difficult for me to maintain my professional composure at my architecture firm. It’s hard to explain what is really going on, so I find it necessary to preserve the charade that I am simply a garden variety ditz.

This guise has long worked to my advantage. You learn a few things about the behavior of sentient life forms when you hang out with aliens from all over the galaxy. I’ve seen it over and over in fifty different star systems. When some species find out you are different – and Homo Sapiens are among them – it makes them afraid, and organisms that are afraid have a tendency to get nasty.

It’s long been my opinion that it’s better to take a little lip, than to have your lip busted. As a result, I have lived a double life. But now I am throwing caution to the wind. I’m going to tell everybody what I have found out in my travels about what is really going on here on the planet earth.

I have to run to the house because I forgot to turn off the coffee percolator and the Queen is afraid I am going to burn the house down. I’ll clue you in as soon as I get back.

The Ultimate Truths of Life on Earth

Whew! That was close. The bottom of the coffee pot was starting to look like a black hole. Now back to the facts about life on earth. There are a many such truths of course, more than I can tell you now, so I am going to focus on the top seven.

1. The Aliens are getting restless.

For the last million years or so, most of galactic society has ignored human beings. I mean, there have been a few good sitcoms based on human beings, mostly comedies sort of like Bedtime for Bonzo, but for the most part no one really cared. Human beings were just funny monkeys scratching themselves. They felt safe from the various types of crazy violent madness we are so good at cooking up because we were stuck on our own planet.

But then Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, and that changed everything. Those of us who were alive when that happened experienced a very rare event. Life on earth is roughly 3.8 billion years old. Each of us lives an average about 70 years. That means the odds that any individual organism would be alive when a representative of life on earth actually set foot on another world is 5,428,5714 to one.

It’s not just the Beatles that make us a unique generation and this fact is not lost on folks who live in neighboring star systems, especially because things are happening pretty fast. Our seed is spreading. Voyager I is now about 8.7 billion miles from earth and moving towards them at 46,000 miles an hour. They watch the History Channel. They know what maniacs we are and it is making them nervous.

Now what you need to understand is that most of our neighbors in the galaxy are pretty nice folks. They tend to be forgive and forget types. But there are races out there that view us the same way we view a venereal disease, and if they decide we need a dose of antibiotics, we are toast.

That’s the main reason I have decided to speak up. We need to get our act together in the next couple of generations, or our communal butts are going to be in a sling.

The second thing you need to know I already talked about above. It’s important truth number two.

2. You live in your own little world.

Each of us makes up our individual reality. I mean really. I’m not saying the material world doesn’t exist. There is a world out there, but each of us perceives it differently in significant ways.

Throughout the galaxy, every different organism has its own “real world.” Highly social species like us can coordinate our behavior by talking and mimicking each other, and by building a common living space to channel our actions, but those are just tricks our brains have evolved so we can get more food and make more babies than the other animals we compete with for survival.

Bottom line, you have to guess about what the other guy is thinking. After millions of years of evolution, our brains have gotten very good at guessing. But really…you don’t have the slightest idea what is going on in the minds of your wife, your husband, or your kids….let alone behind the fevered brows of Osama Bin Laden or Tom Delay.

There is no point in worrying about what other people think. There is no point in talking to other people about what they think other people think. There is no point to watching television shows or reading books about what other people think. You’ll never really know.

So just relax and pay attention, because the only way you are ever going to get any idea what a person thinks is by listening to them and watching their behavior.

On advanced worlds, listening and observing are competitive sports. You can get a Ph.D. in them. In many societies, talking is seen as an unpleasant but necessary metabolic process, something like urination or defecation. The smartest people never say a darn thing!

2. You are never alone. You just think you are.

You are really just a cell in a bigger organism. Every advanced society understands this. I know you think paying your own bills and having your own body makes you all grown up and independent, but the truth is that you and every other living thing is just a piece of the living earth.

All the incredibly diverse species that cover our planet are just specialized cells like those in your body. Some are liver cells. Some are stomach lining. Some are neurons.

I know this is a blow to your ego, but it is time to grown up and face the music. You aren’t really all that important in the grand scheme of things. Even humanity as a whole is not all that big a deal. Our living planet was growing and evolving just fine for billions of years before anyone invented a BMW. It may seem like the American Idol results show is the center of the universe, but it really isn’t.

The reason you think you are an individual is because all living systems are built of small pieces that must be distinct from one another if they are to work. Identity is necessary for their functioning, just as an individual cell is important to the functioning of your pancreas. What a liver cell thinks about the liver makes no difference. All that matters is whether it oozes bile.

The same is true for you. I know this is hard to swallow, but time is running out so I can’t afford to break it to you gently.

3. Everything in the universe is always running down.

Human scientists call this fact the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or entropy. Most physicists consider it the most general law of nature.

When the energy in any system – a star or a living organism – runs down to the point that it becomes a dead, inert lump of matter, it reaches a state that a physicist calls thermodynamic equilibrium, or maximum entropy. It can also be described as “greater order” as significant change in its form stops for all practical purposes.

Most substances degrade relatively rapidly from the relative disorder caused by heat to a more “stable order” as they cool to absolute zero, but the march towards maximum entropy exhibits itself in many other ways. When two solutions are mixed - for instance a jar of sugar water and a jar of plain water - the sugar has a “goal” of becoming equally distributed throughout the liquid water. When it reaches that state, maximum entropy is achieved.

Such effects occur throughout nature. For instance, Americans degrade the complex organisms we refer to as cattle at a mind-boggling rate. In the year 2000, somewhere around thirty-eight million of those highly organized and brilliantly functional organic systems, each capable of independently maintaining its energy level for a considerable number of years, were “degraded” to the more stable state we refer to as sewage by the process of our consumption.

That sewage is then consumed and degraded by specialized microorganisms even closer to thermodynamic equilibrium.

In that same year, each American converted an average of 195 pounds of red meat, poultry and fish into simpler forms. Every year of our lives, we convert more than our weight of other “higher life forms” into energy and protein which we use to battle the relentless march of entropy.

Each individual organism on earth is an efficient processing plant that is remarkably effective at making other organisms in the world around them - and even inorganic compounds - more “stable.”

Eating and finding food are so basic to the function of living things that in almost all organisms the brain is located near the entrance to the gut. There are several families of genes that govern both brain and gut development, which reflects the ancient relationship between the gut and the brain.

It is humbling to consider while pushing our carts through the grocery store that we may be utilizing the first and foremost purpose of our minds, but those are the facts. Like every other animal, our primary business in life is to find food that can be converted to energy to support the functioning of our bodies. What we do not use, we excrete as feces, urine, and perspiration.

Combined, the amount of waste generated by living things, both in life and in death, has altered a significant portion of the earth’s crust. Soil and limestone deposits, both results of millions of years of processing by living things, cover our planet.

All life is knee deep in birth and death, two extremes of a powerful entropic process. This universal contest is present not only in the grand scheme of nature, but also in the daily existence of everything in creation.

Our sun is a powerful generator of energy, but like all sources of energy, that energy is slowly suffering the attrition of entropy. The powerful heat and pressures within the core of our planet create complex mineral deposits, which emerge through volcanic activity and other geological phenomena to create mountains and other grand features, which are in turn worn down by wind, rain, glaciers and other natural forces, and turned into sand and soil.

Our bodies face entropy each day. Millions of years of evolution have built a grand engine in the human physique. Each human body has incredible abilities to persist in the face of entropy’s relentless march - but in the end - every individual living organism, every mountain, every energy source…wears down.

So the bottom line is that your decline is inevitable. No matter how much you work out and how well you eat, you are still on the way out. All you are ever going to do is eat, poop and die. I know that sounds like bad news, but every cloud has a silver lining.

Entropy means that there will always be plenty of work for doctors, remodeling contractors, cosmetics sales people and washing machine repairmen.

4. You only exist as a relationship.

Now this might be hard to understand, so I will use a metaphor that makes it easier. First, I have to tell you that you are what is called a “dissipative structure.” Such a structure accelerates the pace of entropy by taking energy from the world around it and hastening it towards thermodynamic equilibrium.

Dissipative structures are easily observable in nature. Whirlpools and tornadoes are two common examples, but galaxies and eco-systems also qualify.

When barometric pressure rises in a storm front, a regular form with a recognizable structure emerges. We call it a tornado. A tornado allows the high barometric pressure to dissipate more effectively in exchange for maintaining its structure. It has to have a thermodynamic imbalance to exist. When the build up of pressure is equalized, the tornado disappears.

In the early 1990’s, earth scientists performed a thermal analysis while flying over several varied ecosystems and discovered that the more developed the eco-system, the colder its surface temperature. They discovered what the rest of the galaxy already knows, that complex living systems dissipate the sun’s energy more effectively than those that are less diverse. The more complex the living system, the more effective dissipater it is.

Your body is a complex living system too, just like a jungle. The city you live in is also complex living system. Both you and the city are dissipative structures. You take energy out of the world around you like a tornado, and use that energy to avoid the impact of entropy. As pointed out above, you are very effective at turning cows into poop. You do this so you can continue being yourself. The cow is sacrificed to maintain your structure.

A tornado’s identity is a relationship between a high pressure storm system and a low pressure layer of air. A tornado is an identifiable thing, but though it has a structure you can see and it can blow a piece of straw through a fence post, all its parts are parts of other things. It has no distinct content. Its behavior is the only thing unique about it, and that behavior is completely determined by its environment.

So is yours. You are merely a relationship between your physical and cultural environment, and the genes you inherited from your family. The only thing that is “you” is how you act, and how you act is almost entirely determined by your instincts and your environment.

Sorry. I know it’s hard to feel like the most important thing in the universe when someone is trying to say you make decisions like a termite, but…well…you do.

5. Your brain is not designed to make you happy.

Have you ever noticed that it is incredibly difficult to get happy and stay that way?

We have been evolving for several million years. The amazingly brilliant brains in our skulls make us smart enough to get to the moon. Since almost all of us want to be happy, you would think natural selection would have done a better job of getting us that way.

The problem is that natural selection doesn’t care if you are happy unless your happiness makes your genes more likely to make it to the next generation. Genes are very selfish. They have their own agenda, and don’t care a whit about your happiness.

Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker makes this point as follows: “People don’t selfishly spread their genes; genes selfishly spread themselves. They do it by the way they build our brains. By making us enjoy life, health, sex, friends, and children, the genes buy a lottery ticket for representation in the next generation.”

So you see, your brain isn’t designed to make you happy. It is designed to give you grandchildren, and if they make you happy, that is because your genes want you to throw yourself in front of a lion so they can have grandchildren.

After they are born, you see, you are expendable. The reason for this is perhaps the most important truth of all for human beings.

6. All that really matters is sex.

There are plenty of galactic races that don’t have sex. They reproduce with spores, or through binary fission like a paramecium, or are manufactured in a factory. I met an alien one time that reproduced using a Xerox machine. There are many different ways to do it.

But in the long run for human beings, sex is all that matters. Ultimately, every man is a sperm, wiggling his little tail while racing all the other little men up the birth canal for a one-in-a-million chance of getting laid. Every woman is an egg, waiting for first few suitors to arrive, and then being picky about which one she lets penetrate her cell membrane.

That’s about it. Sex is the point of all human existence. Money, power, beauty, kindness, love, morality, success, and all our other cherished ideals are merely various strategies for making babies and helping them survive so they can make more babies.

There are currently about 6,451,058,790 human beings on earth. One year ago there were 6,376,863,118. That’s 74,195,672 more in a year. In 1950, the global population was 2,556,517,137. That’s more than a 250% increase in only 55 years. At that rate, in 110 years there will be about forty billion of us.

You can see why our galactic neighbors are so worried about what will happen if we move into their neighborhoods.