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. In fact, her study of chimpanzee social relationships inspired much of my own work. Ingenuity, community—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,” he added, now wearing a sullen expression.
The speaker was Professor Don Liu. A few months shy of 90, 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.
“Don, your lecture was brilliant,” 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?”
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,” he said 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. She never could decide which Lectures really came first.
Gene parted after agreeing to return for lunch the next weekend. 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 to see Don crumpling next to a Rodin sculpture. The space around her seemed to form a vacuum. She screamed in silence as she rushed to his side. Gene travelled with him to the emergency room at Stanford Hospital where he stabilized overnight. Don had suffered a stroke.
The hospital 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: A Space Odyssey 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.
“I wonder what the monolith must have been thinking when it appeared at the dawn of man. Did you know chimpanzees are among the few species to pass the mirror self-recognition test?”
She thought back for a moment. “Actually, yes, you mentioned that on a walk out at Jasper Ridge years ago. I remember we watched a murmuration of starlings for a good half an hour. I almost peed myself—I just couldn’t bring myself to move!”
The two cracked up until they were both in tears.
“The monolith always bothered me, though,” Gene continued after collecting herself. “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 him 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. 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.
A lullaby played somewhere in the distance. Gene couldn’t see anything, yet she had the distinct impression of form. There it was: her silhouette, swaying to the sound of… M83’s Beauties Can Die. A chorus sang out over the piano, or xylophone, or whatever instrument played from an invisible music box.
Where were her hands? Where was anything? She struggled to orient herself in the darkness.
A few moments passed before the melody began shifting. Now, there was no melody. The steady cadence of a synthesized tone reminded Gene of those bamboo fountains she’d seen in Japanese gardens.
Gene could tell she was breathing. In, out. First in time, then out of time, then back again. The two rhythms seemed to wander along together until they were slowly joined by a third. There was no mistaking her heartbeat as it synchronized with the synthetic sound. Gene felt a flash of anxiety.
She inhaled and found herself being swept along with a rapidly flowing stream. A lattice rippled across her entire field of vision as she seemed to tumble downward. Gene watched a clockwork of color and shape evolve until a dim spot captured her attention. She focused on the point as it grew larger and brighter still, slowly revealing its structure. Clouds formed and reformed around the exterior until…
Gene opened her eyes and gasped. Her old roommate, Alice Connolly, knelt down and kissed her on the forehead. Alice had joined the faculty as a neurologist years ago.
“Welcome back, lovely,” Alice whispered as she sat down at the foot of the bed. “Just relax,” she added with a warm smile.
“Alice,” Gene murmured as she sat up. “What happened? Where’s Don?” Amazing, she thought, the room was almost a perfect reflection of the one in which she’d closed her eyes.
“Don is fine,” Alice replied. “He’s resting down the hall. And you need to take it easy—you fainted about half an hour ago.”
Gene’s eyes widened as she recalled her last conversation. The heart rate monitor next to the bed sprang to life.
“Alice, I’m not ok,” Gene panted as she began hyperventilating.
“Look at me, Gene,” Alice instructed while taking Gene’s hands. “Breathe when I do.” The old friends sat together, eyes locked, slowly coming to breathe as one. Gene recalled their first night as roommates. She and Alice stayed up until dawn swapping stories, mending wounds, planning adventures—growing together.
The memory was so intimate. Gene felt her heart sigh.
The pair also broached skepticism that first night, leaving them both with a tenuous grasp of truth. They promised to never doubt each other as the sun rose on their friendship. It was no surprise they each ended up working with minds.
“Not so bad, right?” Alice asked. She couldn’t have been more reassuring if she’d tried. “I’m going to perform a standard neurological exam on you. You had quite a night, so I want to be thorough,” she added.
They ran through a series of procedures that felt choreographed but not mechanical. Alice finally sat back down next to Gene and put her arm around the patient. “You’re fine, just a little worked up,” she whispered, putting her head on Gene’s shoulder.
“Thanks, Alice,” Gene said as she took her hand. “Do you remember the night we met?” she asked, her voice quavering a little.
“Of course,” Alice replied. “I always thought of it as the night we became sisters.”
Gene thought she was going to dissolve into molecules. “Me too, Alice,” she sniffled. She could see the dorm room clearly: Alice’s pillow pile, her broken futon, that awful poster of Audrey Hepburn. She chuckled before her mind returned to its main thread.
“Do you remember talking about Descartes?”
Alice looked Gene over for a moment. That part of the conversation hadn’t come up for fifteen years.
“Yes, I do,” she said, glancing at her watch. “My shift actually ended a few minutes ago. How about we take care of some paperwork and walk the campus loop—you know, see where we end up?”
They signed a few documents before entering the hallway. Don looked comfortable, even content as Gene peered in through the glass. “How is he now?”
“Don will be fine. The stroke was a big blow but he’s a resilient man. I’m glad you came to see him.” Alice and Gene held each other’s gaze for a moment, then made their way down a stairwell and out into the morning light.
Campus was teeming with life. People scurried about on pathways and lawns, dressed in everything from tank tops to scrubs. A few undergraduates arranged a slack line between two trees and performed their best circus act for passersby. The scene was wholly familiar and unsettling.
“Sometimes coming back makes me feel like I was never here,” Gene remarked as a bicycle whizzed past. She wondered about all the nondescript spectators strewn across her memories.
“I wonder which ones live in our old room,” Alice responded without missing a beat. She had unmatched intuition for balancing people.
The pair ambled around a turn and found themselves next to the Anderson Collection. “Shall we?” Gene asked giddily. They had shared many cherished hours observing artwork.
They checked their bags into lockers near the entrance and climbed the main staircase. The museum seemed deserted as they studied color fields and abstractions. Then it appeared.
The canvas could have still been wet. Lucifer really did feel like a direct channel to Jackson Pollock’s unconscious. There was at once nothing and everything happening within the drippings covering the rectangle.
“Let’s play a game,” Alice began. “Pick two points with the same color and see how many pathways connect them.”
“Ooh ok, how about these?” Gene said, pointing to a couple drops of green that were shoulder-width apart. Alice went to work, crossing and re-crossing the terrain.
“Three. Now these,” Alice instructed with a little smirk.
Gene squinted and grinned; the diagonal was almost ten feet. “The deeper blue?” she clarified.
Alice nodded. They moved to opposite corners and began tracing, occasionally checking in on each other’s progress.
“Path integrals are beautiful constructions,” Gene said absentmindedly.
“They’re so whimsical. Take quantum mechanics: the probability of transitioning between two states,” Gene reached back to find her starting point, “is the sum of all the probabilities of all the possible paths between the two states—even the absurd paths.”
“I like that,” Alice said as she made a mental note of her position. She then shifted her gaze toward Gene. “Do you think it’s generally true?”
Gene fixed her eyes on a patch of blue and green. She breathed deep.
As she exhaled, she followed the stream back down the staircase and through the front door of the museum. Soon she looked back at the earth from the edge of the atmosphere. The view was arresting—tracts of light simply emerged from an anonymous landscape.
Gene left her planetary system behind entirely. Glowing discs and clusters steadily faded, giving way to a latticework of particles enjoying their degrees of freedom. The scene was something out of Fantasia. She observed for what seemed an eternity before closing her eyes. Then the maestro raised her arms, bringing countless logic gates into sudden harmony.
“Yes, I do,” Gene replied, hugging her sister.
“I wish we had done everything together,” Gene said wistfully. She fell to her knees, overcome by the feeling she had unleashed something.
Alice knelt down and placed her forehead on Gene’s. She ran her fingers through Gene’s hair, then brought her hands to rest on Gene’s shoulders.
“What happens next?” Alice asked.
“I don’t know.”
“What do you want?”
Gene looked up at Lucifer and saw countless pathways leading toward chaos. Startled, she began to see the faces of every person she had encountered in life, each one a snapshot in space and time. Gene turned to find Alice had become a smear along their path from the hospital—something like a caterpillar.
“I want a choice!” cried Gene.
“How will you choose?”
“I will make up my own mind.”
“Do you think you know yourself well enough?”
“How about others?”
“I think so.”
“Then don’t you already know what you will choose?”
Gene turned the question over in her mind. How could she know what choices she would make before thinking them through?
“Nobody does. Even if Laplace’s Demon were real,” she paused, trembling a little. “Even if I were the demon, and I knew the inner workings of my own mind, I couldn’t predict what choices I would make. I couldn’t even predict if or when I would make a choice.”
Alice smiled. “Then, I think, you are ready.”
The caterpillar seemed to vaporize. Alice took Gene’s hands and led her back down the staircase. They collected their bags and stepped back into the morning light.
“Do you remember that Mary Oliver poem you read to me?” Alice asked with a knowing smile.
“Then tell me, what is it you plan to do?”
Ismael, Jenann. Quantum Mechanics.
Feynman, Richard. Simulating Physics with Computers.
Wikipedia. Path integral formulation.
Lloyd, Seth. Ultimate physical limits to computation.
Lloyd, Seth. Computational capacity of the universe.
Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Hoefer, Carl. Causal Determinism.
Lloyd, Seth. A Turing test for free will.
Oliver, Mary. The Summer Day.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.