I took a stroll through the local public library the other day and happened across a book called “The Musical Illusionist” by Alex Rose. Very much in the vein of Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman, but rather than stories (I’m not sure yet why “tales” is in the subtitle) Rose’s collection is more like musings in mini-essays about the measurements we have constructed to make sense of the world. Calendars and clocks for time, fractions and numbers for quantity. The reader is led through a gallery of history by an anonymous docent of the “Library of Tangents” (perhaps that’s our overarching tale).
The mini-essays are titled as “Special Exhibitions” … this morning on the bus, I read the exhibition called “In the Fullness of Time” and learned that the humble zero -0 – almost went on trial for heresy back in the good old days. Francis of Gaul supposedly reasoned:
“If zero was to be accepted, then infinity must be admitted as well. And once the infinite was embraced, it would necessarily open the door to… concepts so nonsensical they threatened to ‘topple the very chassis of reality.'”
Last week I heard someone ask two interesting questions: (1) Have you ever wanted to throw away all the gadgets – the cell phone, the laptop, the camera and so on? (2) What communication device do you wish would be invented?
My answer to 1 is a resounding YES! My answer to 2, is that I don’t want a device invented but rather a method. I want us to tap into that 90% of our brains that we don’t use, and in my daydream we’ll gain the abilities of telepathy and limitless memory. Who needs a camera when you can instantly conjure up the complete experience? Who needs telephones when you can send your feelings? Would language itself become obsolete? But the only drawback I see to this daydream is in our tendency to archive everything. If we rely on memory alone, what happens when people with specific memories die? Can entire histories be passed on purely as memories?
It was the following passage from Rose’s little book that led me to think about technology. I was thinking of how much we depend on those 1’s and 0’s that carry all our data around:
“Indeed, the pursuit of measure has been a relentless obsession… Not only have we calculated the age of the universe and the distance of the farthest star, but also the murky depths of our own internal engines, our nerve cells, our genome.
To echo Francis, what use is there for the supernatural once we have calculated all that is natural?”