Saturday, January 21, 2012

From real to configurational space

Back in December when I was wondering what to read next, I held up two books and asked Helena, the one about robots or the one about something else (I don't remember what)? No contest. Robots, hands down.

The Cyberiad is a collection of short stories by Stanisław Lem. The stories are awesome and clever and hilarious.

They are illustrated by Daniel Mróz — the drawing I've posted here depicts the electronic bard, the story about which I quoted from previously. (There is an online gallery of Mróz's work, and and the recent Google doodle commemorating one of Lem's publications also pays him tribute in employing his style.) The illustrations are as funny and weird and complex as Lem's stories.

The stories read like fairy tales, though they are set in the far future. They deal with warring kingdoms, exotic cultures, human foibles, and questions of morality. They have a 1001 Nights feel to them, but with robots. Essentially, The Cyberiad relates the adventures of Trurl and Klapaucius, two constructors, as they execute various commissions across the universe while working on their own personal robotics projects. But they — the stories, not so much the constructors, but sometimes — are deeply reflective and philosophical.

Trurl and Klapaucius are friends, colleagues, competitors. The stories are about them more than their creations — the robots serve to amplify their too-human flaws: greed and ambition often lead them to go about their work with blinders on. The fact that they enjoy some relative successes means that there are others scheming to undermine them; when they're not trying to sabotage each other, they will join forces against a common threat.

Many people point to The Cyberiad as the perfect entryway to Lem's work. These stories are certainly accessible, but I'm not sure how representative they are of Lem. They are nothing like the handful of novels that I've read, but I imagine some other of his books might share The Cyberiad's light-heartedness and joie de vivre.

I don't know if Douglas Adams ever cited Lem as influence, but a comparison between these authors is clear.

Behold, from "The Third Sally or The Dragons of Probability" (I've inserted breaks for readability, but note that Lem writes this as one paragraph):

Trurl and Klapaucius were former pupils of the great Cerebron of Umptor, who for forty-seven years in the School of Higher Neantical Nillity expounded the General Theory of Dragons. Everyone knows that dragons don't exist. But while this simplistic formulation may satisfy the layman, it does not suffice for the scientific mind. The School of Higher Neantical Nillity is in fact wholly unconcerned with what does exist. Indeed, the banality of existence has been so amply demonstrated, there is no need for us to discuss it any further here.

The brilliant Cerebron, attacking the problem analytically, discovered three distinct kinds of dragon: the mythical, the chimerical, and the purely hypothetical. They were all, one might say, nonexistent, but each nonexisted in an entirely different way. And then there were the imaginary dragons, and the a-, anti- and minus-dragons (colloquially termed nots, noughts and oughtn'ts by the experts), the minuses being the most interesting on account of the well-known dracological paradox: when two minuses hypercontiguate (an operation in the algebra of dragons corresponding roughly to simple multiplication), the product is 0.6 dragon, a real nonplusser. Bitter controversy raged among the experts on the question of whether, as half of them claimed, this fractional beast began from the head down or, as the other half maintained, from the tail up.

Trurl and Klapaucius made a great contribution by showing the error of both positions. They were the first to apply probability theory to this area and, in so doing, created the field of statistical draconics, which says that dragons are thermodynamically impossible only in the probabilistic sense, as are elves, fairies, gnomes, witches, pixies and the like. Using the general equation of improbability, the two constructors obtained the coefficients of pixation, elfinity, kobolding, etc. They found that for the spontaneous manifestation of an average dragon, one would have to wait a good sixteen quintoquadrillion heptillion years. In other words, the whole problem would have remained a mathematical curiosity had it not been for that famous tinkering passion of Trurl, who decided to examine the nonphenomenon empirically.

First, as he was dealing with the highly improbable, he invented a probability amplifier and ran tests in his basement — then later at the Dracogenic Proving Grounds established and funded by the Academy. To this day those who (sadly enough) have no knowledge of the General Theory of Improbability ask why Trurl probabilized a dragon and not an elf or goblin. The answer is simply that dragons are more probable than elves or goblins to begin with. True, Trurl might have gone further with his amplifying experiments, had not the first been so discouraging — discouraging in that the materialized dragon tried to make a meal of him. Fortunately, Klapaucius was nearby and lowered the probability, and the monster vanished.

A number of scholars subsequently repeated the experiment on a phantasmatron, but, as they lacked the necessary know-how and sang-froid, a considerable quantity of dragon spawn, raising an ungodly perturbation, broke loose. Only then did it become clear that those odious beasts enjoyed an existence quite different from that of ordinary cupboards, tables and chairs; for dragons are distinguished by their probability rather than by their actuality, though granted, that probability is overwhelming once they've actually come into being.

Suppose, for example, one organizes a hunt for such a dragon, surrounds it, closes in, beating the brush. The circle of sportsmen, their weapons cocked and ready, finds only a burnt patch of earth and an unmistakable smell: the dragon, seeing itself cornered, has slipped from real to configurational space. An extremely obtuse and brutal creature, it does this instinctively, of course.

Now, ignorant and backward persons will occasionally demand that you show them this configurational space of yours, apparently unaware that electrons, whose existence no one in his right mind would question, also move exclusively in configurational space, their coming and goings fully dependent on curves of probability. Though it is easier not to believe in electrons than in dragons: electrons, at least taken singly, won't try to make a meal of you.

[Helena asked if she'd made a good choice, selecting this book for me to read. I told her, excellent. Over the weeks I was reading these stories I would retell parts of them to her, and we'd share our puzzlement or laugh at their ridiculousness.

In an unrelated conversation, she told me she's changed her mind about what she wants to be when she grows up. Maybe she wants to be a constructor (and I thought this was a weird choice of word for her to use), to build things she designs herself, ecological things, that are good for the planet, to make our lives better, like pineapple phones or electric cars.]
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