Gene recalled the scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey in which Dave Bowman crosses the interface between the universe known to him and, well, somewhere else. Space and time rush by as he descends into what looks and feels like madness.
Darkness. Light. Starscapes. Landscapes. Everything.
Dave’s first toehold takes the form of a beautiful, sterile room. Once there, he experiences a sequence of episodes that chronicle his gradual aging and death. In his final moments, Dave is reborn as the starchild, a projection of his… being made by the device known as the monolith.
The mystery of 2001 had always fascinated Gene. She occasionally revisited the story, curious to see what new seams she might find. In her idle moments, Gene sometimes focused on the monolith. The rectangular object was presented as the crowning technological achievement of a long-departed alien civilization—something like a sarcophagus. There it was again.
Gene had been staring at a stone bench in the 24th Street BART station, lost in thought, waiting to begin her journey back to Palo Alto. She planned to catch an evening lecture at Stanford and hoped to wander around campus for a couple of hours beforehand. Gene closed her eyes as her train arrived, trying desperately to reorganize her thoughts.
The Gates of Hell sculpture outside the Cantor Arts Center loomed over everything in its vicinity. Gene thought Rodin must have been mad. The work was inspired by Dante’s Inferno and had taken the artist decades to realize. Writhing bodies littered across the bronze doors made Gene imagine she was a contortionist—or perhaps just another damned soul. She shuddered and turned to make her way across the grassy Oval.
Studying at Stanford seemed like a distant memory to Gene. She made friends she loved, hopped in fountains, learned from master teachers, hooked up in libraries, and graduated with a working model of how the natural world is organized. Over the last decade, her curiosity had taken her from engineering products to engineering knowledge. Tonight’s lecture, Modern Social Cognition, drew her back home for the first time in months.
“Piaget thought abstraction may be the fundamental, distinguishing capability of human intelligence,” the speaker began. Gene had arrived just in time to fill one of the few remaining seats.
“Plenty of species demonstrate the ability to detect, even recognize objects,” he continued. “Consider predation. In many cases, we witness an arms race between predator and prey; sharper vision and better camouflage co-evolve. Members of each new generation possess an enhanced sense of their counterparts, yet albatrosses have no idea what squid are, much less what makes them so. The bird knows when, where, and how to find its food, but it does not contemplate the origin or makeup of the species it consumes.”
Gene imagined gliding on thermals, surfing wind gradients in search of her next meal. She always had a soft spot for fluid dynamics and had spent countless hours watching waves, dust storms, clouds, and Karl, San Francisco’s fog monster.
“My former colleague, Jane Goodall, observed chimpanzees using tools to fish for insects over fifty years ago. Chimps are also among the few species to pass the mirror self-recognition test. Ingenuity, identity—the traits are truly remarkable, yet chimps are unable to formulate or express such remarks. Nature, it seems, is not without a sense of irony,” the speaker added, his face now partly sullen.
The speaker was Professor Don Liu. Now an octogenarian, he continued to teach and advise undergraduates while carrying on his research in social decision-making. Gene simply adored Don. He had overseen her senior thesis, becoming a friend and mentor during the upheaval following graduation. Gene wondered how a person could know people so well. Would she at some point?
“Don, your lecture was wonderful,” Gene said while giving him a hug.
“I never would have drawn the connection between social mimicry and Bayesian inference. It makes me want to go back over my beliefs with a fine-tooth comb.” Her head was still swimming.
“Oh Gene, thank you my dear. Hope I managed to stir the pot a little. How are you?” Don replied.
Gene always felt that she was Don’s only concern, even if they hadn’t spoken in over a year. His sincerity was at once disarming and reassuring.
“I’m well. Still skateboarding to work, just learned a new song on piano, and plan to take van Gogh for a walk on Ocean Beach this weekend,” she said. Gene always tried to give Don an honest impression of her experiences. There was no point in embellishing or sugarcoating—he would invariably tease out the things that really mattered.
“Oh that’s fantastic. You’ll have to play me that electronic song again before too long,” Don replied.
“Of course. How have you been, Don? Still walking the Dish?”
“Yes! In fact, I made the climb this morning with a couple of students—bright ones I think you’d enjoy meeting.” Don’s love for people was contagious. “It wasn’t my top pace but the view was just gorgeous. Did you know they’ve started construction on that new computing center at Ames?”
Gene had no idea. “No, I didn’t. You mean the Quantum Computing Center is already underway?”
“That’s the one. I still remember attending Dick Feynman’s talk on the limits of simulating physics with computers. My head was swimming for weeks,” Don replied with a chuckle.
The Feynman Lectures on Computation sat in a sort of superposition on Gene’s bookshelf. She didn’t have much space in her studio apartment, so she kept only the essentials on hand. Starting with Strang’s Linear Algebra, Feynman’s Lectures on physics and computation sometimes switched spots as the level of abstraction increased moving across the shelf. Gene never could decide which Lectures really came first.
Gene parted after agreeing to return the next weekend for lunch in the dorm where Don served as a live-in advisor. She walked out onto the Main Quad, overcome by the good fortune she had stumbled into. Gene was 35 and couldn’t imagine a more blissful life. She worked part-time doing her best Don impression, helping children discover their own sense of wonder and agency. The balance of her working hours were spent on projects she undertook with a rotating cast of collaborators. The way she saw things, it was only natural to tinker, share, and repeat.
“Hey, Gene, I,” said a frightened voice. Gene turned around to see Don crumpling next to a Rodin sculpture. She screamed and rushed to his side.
Don had suffered a massive stroke. Nearly a week passed before he regained consciousness. As soon as she heard the news, Gene had a friend cover her classes and headed to Stanford Hospital.
The room was beautiful and sterile. A large television on the wall was switched off and seemed to Gene to be monitoring with a blank expression. She turned to Don and saw him reaching up toward the dark rectangle. Gene froze, unable to fathom how she came upon such a scene.
“Forgive me, my dear,” Don entreated with a crooked smile. “I always loved 2001 and found myself in a position to act out one of my favorite scenes. How many opportunities like that do we get in life?”
Gene was floored. Facing oblivion, Don still managed to fill the room with warmth. She walked over to his side, kissed his forehead, and sat down on the bed.
“It’s one of my favorites, too,” Gene started softly. “But the monolith always bothered me. I know it’s a von Neumann probe programmed to conduct experiments with intelligent life.”
“That’s right. That description doesn’t satisfy you?” Don asked. Gene had seen Don work with enough students to know when he was playing dumb.
“Not in the least. 2001, The Last Question, Prime Intellect, Remembrance of Earth’s Past—they always felt like a… a substrate,” Gene found herself stammering. “Machines may be built with fantastic capabilities, but the spectacle was never the point.”
“No,” Don replied, his gaze fixed firmly on Gene. “I never thought so, either. As an academic, I’ve spent a lifetime expanding and defragmenting knowledge. Honestly, I couldn’t think of anything better to do,” he added with a grin. “A thousand years have passed since the first universities were created. What do you imagine their endgame was?”
Gene turned the question over in her mind. “Some sort of resolution—let’s call it ‘truth.’ Settling for anything less means accepting a civilization-wide psychosis.”
She was shocked to hear the words come out of her mouth.
“I suppose so,” Don said, his expression now almost blank. “What form do you imagine that truth taking?”
The room seemed to fall away. Gene held Don’s gaze for a moment longer and slowly closed her eyes. Something was different. She could feel it all.
This work is free to remix under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.