Tuesday, March 10, 2020

The Three-Body Problem

"...the core of this man was the utter madness and coldness brought about by extreme rationality."  

From "The Three Body Problem," by Cixin Liu

I've been up half the night engrossed in Cixin Liu's "Three Body Problem" trilogy (translated from the Chinese).  The ideas are sophisticated but the presentation gives me the kind of thrill I got from comic books in pre-pusbscent times.  There would be a cool idea, with cool mental images, painted or told, then a blast of action, then turn the page for the next cool idea.  My parents feared that I would spend my life reading comic books.  Sadly, that is exactly what I've done.  Dawn approaches, and there are too many "Dark Forest" ideas spilling out of my head to fit into my "Theory of the day" format (see below).  I'll just throw out this question from the book:

Can the stability and order of the world be but a temporary dynamic equilibrium achieved in a corner of the universe, a short-lived eddy in a chaotic current?

Isn't that what we're all wondering?  The novel is packed with exciting ideas, though I think some of Liu's stylistic skills may not be expressed in the English translation.  Regarding plot, it should be safe to reveal that Trisolarans, invaders from space who are fleeing a (celestial) three-body problem, have seeded earth with Sophons, super-computers made from single protons, which spy on humanity and mess up the calculations of the world's top physicists so that none of their theories can be confirmed, not unlike what is happening now with dark matter.  The physicists conclude that they don't know anything about the universe, and several commit suicide.  

Cixin Liu's work is trending in the West at a time when the West is trying to decide how it feels about China.  In "Three Body Problem," Liu is generous in showing how Chinese politics maligned Western scientific theory by transforming it into political dogma.  Who knew in the West that the speed of light had anything to do with distribution of wealth?  In the book, Yang Weining, childhood acquaintance of Ye Wenjie, daughter of prominent scientist Ye Zhetai -who, because he adopted Western scientific concepts, is beaten to death by 14 year old girls during the Cultural Revolution- says that he wants to pursue practical science and avoid theory because "it's easy to make ideological mistakes in theory."  In other words he does not want to be beaten to death by 14 year old girls.  Liu brings our cultures together here because, who would?

There's plenty for the West to ponder in The Three-Body Problem, written by a man who understands the West more than most Westerners understand the East.  Questions:  Will the cultures of China and the U.S. evolve to become increasingly similar, even mirror images, as they confront each other and modernize?  Will total surveillance, either via Sophon or domestic technology, cover the entire globe?  Will there be any difference between Beijing and Los Angeles when all of their inhabitants, from all racial backgrounds, live under the will of the same grid, the same AI directed master plan?

Liu makes a good point about our need for extraterrestrials:

It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself....To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race. 

Unfortunately (or fortunately), it looks like we're going to have to play the role of extraterrestrials ourselves.  

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