Questioning My Religion: Why (not) Mars?

Photo: Mars Perseverance Rover – “Crater Floor Fractured Rough” – July 8, 2021

The following essay is a summary and response to the article, “Why Not Mars,” published by Maciej Ceglowski on January 1st, 2023. I will also be digging deeper into the logistics of sending a human to Mars, the challenges to overcome, and the ethics on whether or not we should do this. Ever since I became obsessed with Science Fiction novels during the pandemic and witnessed how humanity can’t cooperate to fight against a virus, I’ve considered a Mars landing during my lifetime a priority for humanity. I’ve joined the Human-on-Mars religion and I believe that there are compelling reasons why humans must urgently accomplish the monumental task of putting a human on the red planet as soon as possible. Ceglowski makes good arguments for why we should delay our efforts (contamination, lack of stated objectives, complexity of the challenges), but I believe the risks humanity faces on Earth and the steady destruction of our environment warrant us to act now. Despite the enormous costs and challenges of transporting a human to Mars and back, it will act as a catalyst for future generations to solve the challenges of becoming an interplanetary species. 

My argument summarized here: The risks and costs of contaminating Mars do not outweigh the existential threat we face on Earth, and while the first steps to transporting a human to Mars will be clumsy and difficult, it will usher in an era of humans thinking about the challenges that need to be solved to begin our migration across the solar system.

Logistics and Challenges:

Estimated cost: $500 billion dollars

U.S. military budget in 2020: $448.9 billion

U.S. military budget in 2021: $408.8 billion

U.S. military budget in 2022: $344.4 billion

Estimated Timing: 2050

I share the military budget to show that the U.S. government has the funds to shift towards space exploration. The U.S. military, ranked #1 in the world, spends more on its military than the next 10 countries combined. Do we really need more money spent on national security? In this essay I’m going to argue that landing a human Mars will open the door to not only protecting our species (call it species security), but saving more of Earth’s environment.

Ceglowski’s main argument for why humans should not go to Mars is that we will contaminate the red planet, and the robots we’ve constructed are not only 100x times cheaper than sending humans into but are becoming more and more sophisticated. The robots are so sophisticated that they could accomplish any task we can think of on Mars.

“Between 1960 and 2020, space probes improved by something like six orders of magnitude…The imbalance between human and robot is so overwhelming that, despite the presence of a $250 billion International Space Station National Laboratory, every major discovery made in space this century has come from robotic spacecraft.”

In addition, there are universes of microbes on Earth that we’ve only just discovered. “The fact that we failed to notice 99.999% of life on Earth until a few years ago is unsettling and has implications for Mars…The existence of a deep biosphere in particular narrows the habitability gap between our planets to the point where it probably doesn’t exist – there is likely at least one corner of Mars that an Earth organism could call home. It also adds support to the theory that life may have started as an interplanetary infection, a literal Veneral disease that spread across the early solar system by meteorite. If that is the case, and if our distant relatives are still alive in some deep Martian cave, then just about the worst way to go looking for them would be to land in a septic spacecraft.”

Ceglowski takes it as a given that studying microbes in an uncontaminated Martian cave and answering questions around the origin of life are more important than making steps to get humans, i.e. unpredictable, violent apes susceptible to mutating viruses and wielding nuclear weapons, off planet Earth. He downplays the existential risk of patiently waiting on Earth until our technology develops and dreams of all the interesting things we could learn in the meantime if we channeled money away from a human Mars mission into scattering probes across our solar system.

The first step of getting a human to Mars requires overcoming enormous challenges. But once we have done this, we will accelerate the process of sending more and more humans to Mars. We will usher ourselves into an era of interplanetary space travel.

The challenge of sending a human to Mars is first limited by human physiology. We must understand these limits well enough before we send a human to Mars, and this will require years of human experiences beyond low Earth orbit, or in anti-gravity chambers on Earth.

Before NASA can finalize a mission design, data must be collected concerning the physiological effects of partial gravity and the risk from heavy ion radiation. These experiments could take place on the moon. Before a Mars landing, there must be a working lunar base. The recent Artemis mission (in which the first woman and first person of color will go to the moon), is taking place to establish this lunar base where these tests can occur.

Even though testing the effects of radiation and partial gravity would be best accomplished on the moon, we can begin to test the physiological effects of partial gravity on Earth. “Various methods can be used for generating altered gravity, including orbital flight, parabolic flight, head down/up tilt, body loading/unloading, and centrifugation (Richard et.al.)” We must do more of these tests before a Mars mission. A Mars mission will take about a 1000 days and the longest time a human has spent in space is approximately 437 days, by Valeri Polyakov, whose first words upon his return were, “We can fly to Mars.” (He is currently 80 years old.)

“During spaceflight, the vestibular otolith organs no longer adequately sense gravito-inertial accelerations. Animal studies have shown that otolith afferents are initially hypersensitive to tilt after return to Earth. Perhaps as a result of this hypersensitivity, astronauts overestimate pitch and roll tilt for 1-2 days immediately after landing.” There are many other effects (astronauts exposed to microgravity experience physiological deconditioning, or space deconditioning, in particular with regards to the physiological systems sensitive to mechanical loading such as cardiovascular, pulmonary, neurovestibular, and musculoskeletal systems) but basically, since humans will be spending about a 1000 days in space in order to go to Mars, we need to see how human bodies will function for a 1000 days in space. We don’t want to spend $500 billion to send a human to Mars then have them unaccountably lose their eyesight (due to some unexpected relationship between gravity and retinal attachment) while approaching the red planet. 

Concerning the risk from heavy ion radiation, you can read all about it here, on NASA’s website, but the concept is the same: we don’t know how astronauts will cope with Galactic Cosmic Radiation (GCR) for long periods of time, since the amount of radiation an astronaut receives is determined by the altitude above the Earth, the solar cycle, and the individual’s susceptibility. We need to test humans in space for long periods of time to learn more about radiation’s effects (specifically, ionizing radiation, or particles that have enough energy to completely remove an electron from its orbit, thus creating a more positively charged atom). What compounds this challenge is that we don’t know the levels of radiation astronauts will face on a Mars mission, and even if we knew the rate at which GCR fluctuated in our solar system, we might not be able to avoid it since a “launch window” for Mars (when Earth and Mars are in orbital positions around the Sun that allow for a trip to Mars to last around 7-9 months) occurs once every 26 months (the last one being in August of 2022, the next one in September of 2024). That all being said, there are materials that can shield against cosmic radiation (such as lead) but the production of secondary particles inside these materials can cause other problems. We need to experiment with a range of materials to see what works best for shielding astronauts against GCR.

Another challenge is a lack of reliable closed-loop life support. According to Ceglowksi, “With our current capability, NASA would struggle to keep a crew alive for six months on the White House lawn, let alone for years in a Martian yurt.”

Many people argue that we will have technological breakthroughs if we put a human on Mars, but Ceglowski argues that the “technology program [to solve the current challenges] would be remarkable circular, with no benefits outside the field of applied zero gravity zookeeping.” I would argue that we need to expand the field of “applied zero gravity zookeeping” if we are ever going to have a self-sustaining, viable society on Mars. Yes, the challenges are circular, but they exist in a system we need to master in order to become an interplanetary species.

What makes the challenge of life support in space so challenging is that, “…all the subcomponents interact with each other and the crew. There’s no such thing as a life support unit test; you have to run the whole system in space under conditions that mimic the target mission. Reliability engineering for life support involves solving mysteries like why gunk formed on a certain washer on Day 732, then praying on the next run that your fix doesn’t break on Day 733.” Again, I agree with the incredible complexity of the problem, and it is exactly why we need to start making attempts at solving it as soon as possible. We will only solve these challenges by doing them, by mimicking the target mission, by taking risks and failing again and again out in space. If we focus too much on robotic probes, sitting safe at home while writing science blogs, we’ll never get the chance to fail and learn.

To go to Mars, we’d need two kinds of life support: spacecraft and surface, that together have to work for about 1000 days. “The spacecraft also has to demonstrate that it can go dormant for the time the crew is on Mars and still work when it wakes up.” This latter problem could be solved if we have an orbiting spacecraft around Mars and Earth that never stops functioning, as described in Andy Weir’s The Martian. What would be the costs and challenges of this project? I’ll leave those questions for another essay.

So while, “Humanity does not need a billion dollar shit dehydrator that can work for three years in zero gravity, but a Mars mission can’t leave Earth without it,” – we do need that shit dehydrator eventually if we ever want to have a society on Mars.

Ceglowski emphasizes his contamination argument: 

“Humans who land on Mars will not be able to avoid introducing a large ecosystem of microbes to the area around the landing site. If any fugitives from the spacecraft make their way to a survivable niche on Mars, we may never be able to tell whether biotic signatures later found on the planet are traces of native life, or were left by escapees from our first Martian outhouse. Like careless investigators who didn’t wear gloves to a crime scene, we would risk permanently destroying the evidence we came to collect.”

But what if we those investigators aren’t there to collect evidence in the first place? Does Ceglowski really have enough faith in humanity to believe that peace and prosperity will endure on the planet for generations to come? Is he aware of how many human empires have risen and fallen?

He asks the question: “What incredible ability do astronauts have that justifies the risk [of contamination]? My response is: none. But again, beyond the astronauts abilities, what discoveries could we ever make on an uncontaminated planet with robots that could justify staying home and enduring the existential risk of extinction?

Ceglowski acknowledges the skeptics, saying that microbes have already landed on Mars, both on robotic landers and on the occasional meteorite. “But as we’ll see, the diverse microbiome that would travel with a human crew poses a qualitatively different threat…”

It is true that a human crew will bring a qualitatively different threat and that NASA is required by treaty to care about contamination. Concerns over contamination mean that many phenomena of scientific interest will be off-limits to astronauts, such as gullies, recurrent slope lineae, and underground water. “The crew will not live in a Martian pueblo, but something resembling a level 4 biocontainment facilities. And even there, they’ll have to do their lab work remotely, the same way it’s done today, raising the question of what exactly the hundreds of billions of dollars we’re spending to get to Mars are buying us.” My response is that we will solve the circular problems Ceglowski laid out before (i.e. applied zero gravity zookeeping, knowledge concerning the effects of long-term space travel on the human body), which are necessary to solve if we are ever going to have a living, self-sustaining society on Mars. Also, the act of sending a human to Mars, even if they will only sit in a level 4 biocontainment facility remotely controlling a probe, will act as a catalyst for research and progress in these areas. It will inspire future generations to work on the necessary challenges.

*

Ceglowski writes, “SpaceX has built some magnificent rockets, and their dynamism is a welcome change from the souls-trapped-in-powerpoint vibe at Nasa.” Would Elon Musk and SpaceX exist if it wasn’t for the moon landing? Elon Musk has stated in interviews that Neil Armstrong and Eugen Ceran are his heroes (even though they have disdained his space efforts). How many future Elon Musks will there be if we put a human on Mars by 2050? Maybe you don’t want more Elon Musks (I know Ceglowski doesn’t). But if we are going to leave Earth and survive elsewhere, we need them.

I don’t trust humanity. I don’t trust the viruses on this planet. In the past 100 years, a flicker in the geological timespan in which Ceglowski’s wonderful, mysterious microbes have flourished, humans have dropped nuclear bombs incinerating hundreds of thousands of people, had two World Wars, committed a holocaust, hosted genocides across the planet, had 6.83 million killed by Covid-19. Imagine if Covid-19 had been just a little more lethal? Imagine if Americans didn’t stop Germany during WWII? What’s preventing another virus from eliminating humanity? Another tyrant from rising? Today Russia is at war with Ukraine, and despite the most powerful countries in the world condemning it, the war is still going on and will likely continue into 2024. We must get off this planet and create a self-sustaining society elsewhere, so if something happens on Earth, nuclear war, an extremely lethal virus, whatever, we are still around to say, “Wow, we really contaminated the fuck out of Mars, didn’t we? Hold on a second why I go turn off the billion-dollar shit dehydrator.”

In addition, I believe that humans will keep “plugging in” to computers and virtual realities more and more. The average person spends 3.25 hours a day on their phones. The videogame industry is currently larger than Hollywood and North American sports industries combined. Add to this trend the fact that human population growth is not slowing down. We will keep growing and growing, requiring more and more resources. It is estimated that the human population will reach 11.2 billion by 2100. We need someplace to go that is self-sustaining. I imagine a future where many humans will spend the majority of their days in virtual realities. What better place to plug into a virtual reality than on the desolate, desert surface of Mars? As the human population approaches 50 billion, 100 billion, we will need to get off the planet Earth unless we want to ravage every last bit of organic life on this planet. If we don’t want Earth to become a sea of servers and concrete cities, we need to start building those elsewhere, to give people the option to go there and live in their virtual realities. And we need to start acting now, before it’s too late.

So let’s go to Mars.

Death in a Collapsing Wormhole

The following story is a fan fiction prologue to Greg Egan’s short story: Into Darkness

All rights remain with Greg Egan. No money is being earned from this fan piece, it is a homage to the story that put me on the path to reading every word Egan has ever written and attempting to write and publish Scifi.

I don’t like talking about my first Run. Nobody does.

After nearly two-hundred rehearsals over eight months, the buzzer in my apartment sounded at 4am, rising in both pitch and loudness. The light above the buzzer was red. I dressed on my way across the room and thumped the acknowledgment switch. With shaking hands I tied my shoes. I grabbed my backpack from beside the bed and flicked the power. It started flashing LEDs as it went through its self-checking routines. 

When I reached the curb the patrol car was already there. The driver introduced himself as Angelo. There was another volunteer in the backseat, Jack, who had trained me over the previous months, and a man next to him who I didn’t know and who didn’t bother with an introduction. I nodded at Jack as the car accelerated, then turned to analyze the car’s terminal which displayed a satellite view of The Intake in false-color infrared – a pitch black circle in a landscape of polychromatic blotches. A moment later, this was replaced by a street map of the region – one of the older suburbs in the north, mostly cul-de-sacs and dead-ends – with The Intake’s perimeter and center marked, and a dashed line showing where The Core should have been. The optimal routes were highlighted, eight in total and all these crisscrossing lines and various colors caused me to feel dizzy and sick with nerves. Nonetheless I pushed the nerves away, stared at the map, and tried to commit the essential paths and details to memory. It’s not that I wouldn’t have access to it, inside, but we had learned during training that it was always faster to just know. I closed my eyes and tried to focus on the optimal routes, creating something like a visual puzzle-book maze in my mind. 

We hit the freeway and the driver, Angelo, gunned it. I hoped he was a good driver because he was speeding like a maniac, swerving around the two cars we passed. I could feel the car tip up slightly on two wheels as we turned. The man who I didn’t know turned to Jack and me and said, “I gotta say one thing, I respect what you’re both about to do, but you both must be fucking crazy. I wouldn’t go inside that thing for a million dollars.”

I ignored him and switched my watch into chronograph mode, and synched it to the count that the terminal was showing, then did the same to my backpack’s timer. Six minutes and twelve seconds. The Intake’s manifestations obey exactly the same statistics as a radioactive nucleus with a half-life of eighteen minutes; seventy-nine per cent of the manifestations last six minutes or more – but multiplying anything by 0.962 every minute, and you wouldn’t believe how fast it could fall. I had memorized the probabilities right out to an hour, which may or may not have been a wise thing to do. Counter to intuition, The Intake did not become more dangerous as time passed, any more than a single radioactive nucleus became “more unstable.” I knew that at any given moment within The Intake – assuming that it hadn’t yet vanished – it was just as likely as ever to stick around for another eighteen minutes. A mere ten per cent of manifestations lasted for an hour or more – but of those ten per cent, half would still be there eighteen minutes later. The danger had not increased.

It was now 4:08am, the freeway was empty, but it still took me by surprise when we screeched onto the exit ramp so soon. My stomach was painfully tight. I wished I felt ready. I wished I had more time to compose myself. A part of me was hoping for a delay. But I answered the thought with self-castigation: if what I was really hoping for was that The Intake had vanished before I could reach it, then I shouldn’t have been there at all.

During training Jack told me, over and over, “You can back out any time you want to. Nobody would think any less of you.” It was true, of course (up to the point where backing out would become physically impossible), but it was a freedom I decided I could do without. Now that I had accepted the first call, I didn’t want to have to waste my energy on second thoughts, I didn’t want to have to endlessly reaffirm my choice. I had psyched myself into believing that I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I backed out at the last minute, however understanding other people might have been, and that helped a little. But the only trouble was, this lie might have been self-fulfilling, and I really didn’t want to become that kind of person.

I closed my eyes, and the map appeared before me. I was a mess, there was no denying it, but I told myself that I could still do the job, I could still get results. That is what counted.

I could tell when we were getting close, without even searching the skyline; there were lights on in all of the houses, despite the early hour, and families standing in their front yards. Many people waved and cheered as we passed, a sight that depressed me. When a group of teenagers, standing on a street corner drinking out of paper bags, screamed abuse and waved their middle fingers, I couldn’t help but feel perversely encouraged.

“Assholes,” said the man I didn’t know. I kept my mouth shut.

We turned a corner, and I spotted a trio of helicopters, high on my right, ascending with a huge projection screen in tow. Suddenly, a corner of the screen was obscured, and my eye extended the curve of the eclipsing object from this one tiny arc to giddy completion.

From the outside, by day, The Intake made an impressive sight: a giant black dome, completely non-reflective, blotting out a great bite of the sky. It was impossible not to believe that you were confronting a massive, solid object. By night, though, it was different. The shape was still unmistakable, cut in a velvet black that made the darkest night seem gray, but there was no illusion of solidity; there was just an awareness of a different kind of void.

The Intake had been appearing for almost six years now. It was always a perfect sphere, a little more than kilometer in radius, and usually centered close to ground level. On rare occasions, it had been known to appear out at sea, and slightly more often, on uninhabited land, but the vast majority of its incarnations took place in populated regions.

The currently favored hypothesis was that a future civilization had tried to construct a wormhole that would have let them sample the distant past, bringing specimens of ancient life into their own time to be studied. But somehow they’d screwed up. Both ends of the wormhole became unstuck. The thing had shrunk and deformed, from – presumably – some kind of grand temporal highway, bridging geological epochs, to a gateway that was now spanning less time than it would take to cross an atomic nucleus at the speed of light. One end – The Intake – was a kilometer in radius; the other was about a fifth as big, spatially concentric with the first, but displaced an almost immeasurably small time into the future. We called the inner sphere – the wormhole’s destination, which seemed to be inside it, but wasn’t – The Core.

Why had this shriveled-up piece of failed temporal engineering ended up in the present era was anyone’s guess; maybe we just happened to be half-way between the original endpoints, and the thing had collapsed symmetrically. Pure bad luck. The trouble was, it hadn’t quite come to rest. It materialized somewhere on the planet, remaining fixed for several minutes, then lost its grip and vanished, only to appear at a new location a fraction of a second later. Six years of analyzing the data had yielded no method of predicting successive locations, but there must have been some remnant of a navigation system in action; why else would the wormhole have clung to the Earth’s surface (with a marked preference for inhabited, dry land) instead of wandering off on a random course into interplanetary space? It was as if some faithful, demented computer kept valiantly trying to anchor The Intake to a region which might have been of interest to its scholarly masters; no Paleozoic life could be found, but twenty-first century cities would do, since there was nothing much else around. And every time it failed to make a permanent connection and slipped off into hyperspace, with infinite dedication, and unbounded stupidity, it tried again.

Being of interest was bad news. Inside the wormhole, time was mixed with one spatial dimension, and – whether by design or physical necessity – any movement which equated to traveling from the future into the past was forbidden. Translated into the wormhole’s present geometry, this meant that when The Intake materialized around you, motion away from the center was impossible. You had an unknown time – maybe eighteen minutes, maybe more, maybe less – to navigate your way to the safety of The Core, under these bizarre conditions. What was more, light was subject to the same effect; it only propagated inward. You could look away from the center, behind you, and see your surroundings in which you were now denied access, but turning back, towards the direction you had to travel, you’d see nothing but blackness. Everything closer to the center than you lied in the invisible future. If you ran towards it, you were running into darkness.

During my eight months of training, I heard my fellow trainees scoff at the notion that any of this could be difficult. I was about to learn firsthand.

My trainer, Jack, told me that outward motion wasn’t actually impossible. If it was, everyone caught in The Intake would die at once. The heart had to circulate blood, the lungs had to inhale and exhale, nerve impulses had to travel in all directions. Every single living cell relied on shuffling chemicals back and forth, and I couldn’t even guess what the effect could be on the molecular level, if electron clouds could fluctuate in one direction, but not the reverse.

There was some leeway. Because the wormhole’s entire eight-hundred meters spaced such a minute time interval, the distance scale of the human body corresponded to an even shorter period – short enough for quantum effects to come into play. Quantum uncertainty in the space-time metric permitted small, localized violations of the classical law’s absolute restriction.

So, instead of everyone dying on the spot, blood pressure went up, the heart became stressed, breathing became laborious, and the brain started functioning erratically. Enzymes, hormones, and other biological molecules were all slightly deformed, causing them to bind less efficiently to their targets, interfering to some degree with every biochemical process; hemoglobin, for example, lost its grip on oxygen more easily. Water diffused out of the body – because random thermal motion was suddenly not so random – which led to gradual dehydration.

People already in poor health could die from these effects. Others were just made nauseous, weak, and confused – on top of the inevitable shock and panic. They made bad decisions. They got trapped.

One way or another, a few hundred lives were lost, every time The Intake materialized. Intake Runners could save ten or twenty people, according to the statistics, which I admit was not much of a success rate, but until some genius could work out how to rid us of the wormhole for good, it was better than nothing.

The screen was in place high above us when we reached the “North Operations Center” – a couple of vans, stuffed with electronics, parked on someone’s front lawn. The now-familiar section of street map appeared, the image rock steady and in perfect focus, in spite of the fact that it was being projected from a fourth helicopter, and all four were jittering in the powerful inward wind. People inside could see out, of course; this map – and the others, at the other compass points – saved dozens of lives. In theory, once outdoors, it should have been simple enough to head straight for The Core; after all, there was no easier direction to find (go where it’s dark), no easier path to follow (your body can only move towards it). The trouble was, a straight line inward was likely to lead you into obstacles, and when you couldn’t retrace your steps, the most mundane of those could kill you.

So, the map was covered with arrows, marking the optimal routes to The Core, given the constraint of staying safely on the roads. Two more helicopters, hovering above The Intake, were doing one better: with high-velocity paint guns under computer control, and laser-ring inertial guidance systems constantly telling the shuddering computers their precise location and orientation, they were drawing the same arrows in fluorescent/reflective paint on the invisible streets below. You couldn’t see the arrows ahead of you, but you could look back at the ones you had passed. It helped.

There was a small crowd of coordinators, and one or two Runners, around the vans. The scene struck me as forlorn, like some small-time rained-out amateur athletics event, air traffic notwithstanding. Angelo called out, “You got this!” as Jack and I ran from the car. I turned back and saw him smiling with a golden tooth and a thumbs up. Loudspeakers were blasting the standard advice inward, cycling through the three languages spoken of the citizens living within the Intake (obtained through Census reports). In the corner of my eye I saw a TV crew arriving. I glanced at my watch. Nine minutes. I couldn’t help thinking, seventy-one per cent, although The Intake was, clearly, one hundred per cent still there. A beautiful woman approached Jack. They kissed, then separated. The woman winked and smiled at me.

“Enjoy your first run, John.”

“I’ll try.”

“See you both in the Core.” Then without another word she sprinted into the wall of darkness. Elaine. Jack’s girlfriend. I’d had a crush on her during the first day of training, until I learned that she was dating my boss. Then I buried those emotions real quick.

Dolores was handing out assignments, airdropping them into our mobiles. She wrote most of the software used by Intake Runners around the world, but then, she made her living writing computer games. She’d even written a game which modeled The Intake itself, but sales had been less than spectacular; the reviewers had decided it was in bad taste. “What’s next? Let’s play 9-11 terrorist attack?” Meanwhile, online evangelists were selling prayers to keep the wormhole away; you just click that payment link for instant protection.

“What have you got for me?”

“An infant.”

“That’s all?” Jack put his hand on my shoulder.

“It’s your first run. And we’re a bit late. Take it or leave it. If the infant’s not there, get to The Core.”

“I’ll take it. What have you got?” He turned and smiled.

“One infant, three kids, a paraplegic.” He turned his head and cracked his neck. “Drink something before you go. Stay calm while you’re in there. See you in The Core.” And he was off. I wondered if that line, See you in The Core, was what everybody said before running in, or if it was just Elaine and Jack.

I felt my mobile vibrate and looked at the screen. A sector of the street map appeared, marked with a bright red dot. I strapped on the pack, then adjusted the display of my mobile on its movable arm so I could catch it with a sideways glance, if I had to. Electronics could be made to function reliably inside the wormhole, but everything had to be specially designed.

It wasn’t ten minutes, not quite. I grabbed a cup from a table besides one of the vans. It contained a solution of mixed carbohydrates, supposedly optimized for our metabolic needs. I chugged it, then immediately regretted my decision. My stomach tightened up immediately. That didn’t happen during training. Turned out that during the real thing my stomach wasn’t interested in absorbing anything, optimized or not. If I survived this, I told myself I’d never do that again.

I tried to blank my mind and just concentrate on the run-up – in training we learned that the faster you hit The Intake, the less of a shock it was – and before I could ask myself, for the first time that night, what the fuck I was really doing there, I’d left the isotropic universe behind, and the question became academic.

The darkness didn’t swallow me, which was strange, surprising. I’d seen it swallow other Runners, why didn’t it swallow me? Instead, the darkness receded from my every step. The borderline wasn’t absolute; quantum fuzziness produced a gradual fade-out, stretching visibility about as far as each extended foot. By day, this was said to be completely surreal, and people had been known to suffer fits and psychotic episodes at the sight of the void’s apparent retreat. By night, it seemed merely implausible, like chasing an intelligent fog.

At the start, I felt good, almost too good. Even though my stomach was still knotted, the pain was subdued. Thanks to frequent rehearsals in a compression harness, the pattern of resistance as I took each breath was almost familiar. In the beginning of the Intake’s appearance, Runners took drugs to lower their blood pressure, but with sufficient training, the body’s own vasoregulatory system could be made flexible enough to cope with the stress, unaided. The odd tugging sensation on each leg as I brought it forward would probably have driven me insane, if I hadn’t (crudely) understood the reason for it: inward motion was resisted, when pulling, rather than pushing, was involved, because information traveled outward. If I tried to trail a ten-meter rope behind me, I wouldn’t have been able to take a single step; pulling on the rope would pass information about my motion from where I was to a point further out. That was forbidden, and it was only the quantum leeway that was letting me drag each foot forward at all.

The street curved gently to the left, gradually losing its radial orientation, but there was no convenient turn-off yet. I stayed it the middle of the road, straddling the double white line, as the border between past and future swung to the right. The road surface seemed always to slope toward the darkness, but that was just another wormhole effect; the bias in thermal molecular motion – a cause of the inward wind, and slow dehydration – produced a force, or pseudo-force, on solid objects, too, tilting the apparent vertical.

“-me! Please!”

A man’s voice, desperate and bewildered – and almost indignant, as if he couldn’t help believing that I must have heard him all along, that I must have been feigning deafness out of malice or indifference. I turned and slowed down, then immediately became disoriented and dizzy. I had to pick up my pace and look forward, cursing myself, since we had learned in training how turning and slowing down too quickly could lead to a black out. When I felt the dizziness dissipate I looked back, outward, and everything appeared almost normal, apart from the fact that the streetlights were out, and so most of the illumination was from helicopter floodlights and the giant street map in the sky. The cry had come from a bus shelter, all vandal-proof plastic and reinforced glass, at least fifteen meters behind me; I might as well have been on Mars. Wire mesh covered the glass; I could just make out the figure behind it, a faint silhouette.

“Help me!”

For a moment my face contorted into a grimace of despair. Then I realized that I had already vanished into that man’s darkness; he couldn’t see whatever gesture or expression I had made to judge whether or not it was appropriate while walking away from his death. I turned away, picking up speed. I was not inured to the death of strangers, but I was inured to my helplessness.

After six years of The Intake, there were beginning to be international standards established for painting markings on the ground around every potential hazard in public open space. Like all the other measures already put in place, that would help, slightly. There were international discussions, too, for eventually eliminating the hazards – designing out the corners where people could be trapped – but that was going to cost billions, and take decades, and wouldn’t even touch the real problem: interiors. I’d seen demonstration trap-free houses and office blocks, with doors, or curtained doorways, in every corner of every room, but the style hadn’t exactly caught on. My own house was far from ideal; after getting quotes for alternations, I decided that the cheapest solution was to keep a sledgehammer beside every wall.

I turned right, and just in time saw a trail of glowing arrows hiss into place on the road behind me.

I was almost at my assignment. I tapped a button on my backpack and peered sideways at the display, as it switched to a plan of the target house. As soon as The Intake’s position was known, Dolores’s software started hunting through databases, assembling a list of locations where there was a reasonable chance that we could do some good. We learned in training that the information was never complete, and sometimes it was just plain wrong; Census data was often out of date, building plans could be inaccurate, misfiled, or simply missing – but it beat walking blind into houses chosen at random.

I slowed almost to a walk, two houses before the target, to give myself time to grow used to the effects. Running inward lessens the outward components – relative to the wormhole – of the body’s cyclic motions; now I felt, physically, that slowing down was precisely the wrong thing to do. I felt like I had been running through a canyon, no wider than my shoulders, whose walls were only staying apart as long as I moved fast enough; but now I was slowing down and the walls were pressing on me, closing in.

The street here lied about thirty degrees off radial. I crossed the front lawn of the neighboring house, then stepped over a knee-high brick wall. At the angle, there were few surprises; most of what was hidden was easy enough to extrapolate that it almost seemed visible in the mind’s eye. A corner of the target house emerged from the darkness on my left; I got my bearings from it and headed straight for a side window. Entry by the front door would cost me access to almost half of the house, including the bedroom which Dolores’s highly erratic Room Use Predictor nominated as the one most likely to be the child’s. People could file room use information with us directly, but few bothered.

I smashed the glass with a crowbar, opened the window, and clambered through. I left a small electric lamp on the windowsill – carrying it with me would have rendered it useless – and moved slowly into the room. I was already starting to feel dizzy and nauseous again, but I forced myself to concentrate. One step too many, and the rescue became ten times more difficult. Two steps, and it was impossible.

It was clear that I had the right room when a dresser was revealed, piled with plastic toys, talcum powder, a stuffed Winnie the Pooh bear, and other paraphernalia spilling onto the floor. Then a corner of the crib appeared, on my left, pointed at an unexpected angle; the thing was probably neatly parallel to the wall to start with, but slid unevenly under the inward force. I sidled up to it, then inched forward, until a lump beneath the blanket came into view. I felt a twisting sensation in my gut, but knew the longer I waited the harder this would get. I reached sideways and lifted the child, bringing the blanket with it. I kicked the crib aside, then walked forward, slowly bending my arms, until I could slip the child into the harness on my chest. An adult was strong enough to drag a small baby a short distance outward. It was usually fatal.

The baby hadn’t stirred; he or she was unconscious, but breathing. I shuddered briefly, a kind of shorthand emotional catharsis, then I started moving. But I almost fell when my foot caught on something on the floor. I look downed and slightly back, without slowing my pace, and saw a dead woman reaching towards the infant’s room. Her outstretched arm was blue and blotchy. At the same time, my foot caught another body on the floor, and since this time I was already looking down and back I saw the face of a dead man. I tried not to imagine their final moments. Before turning back forward I saw a sign next to the infant’s room: Malcolm’s Room. I wished I hadn’t seen that.

As I stepped through the front door, the sense of relief left me giddy. Either that, or renewed cerebral blood flow. I picked up speed as I crossed the lawn.

When I reached the street I glanced at my forearm to verify that I was on the correct path, and not a moment too soon: I had to turn left, sharply. I hadn’t noticed how much I’d become disoriented in the house. I turned and immediately felt the resistance dampen, slightly. I tried to remember the paths available from the ride on the highway. Maybe if I moved faster I could think more clearly? I picked up the pace then-

*Wham*

I walked straight into the a solid, metal object. Don’t panic. My arms flailed in front of me, trying to discern the nature of the object that was blocking my path. Metal…glass… The dizziness returned. My ears were ringing and I felt my breathing become labored. Car. This is a parked car. As I shifted along its exterior my hands felt air, I jumped on what I thought was the front hood, and continued moving forward.

I felt like complete shit. I looked at the map for the eighth time and made sure I was on the path that led directly to The Core. I stared down at the ground, at the fleeting magic golden arrows, and tried not to count them. One glimpse of a festering chicken sandwich discarded on the road, and I found myself throwing up. Common sense told me to turn and face backward, but I wasn’t that stupid. The acid in my throat and nose brought tears to my eyes. As I shook them away, I hoped the baby strapped to my chest was still alive.

Out of the blackness a hand appeared and gripped my neck. A body grabbed mine and forced itself behind me.

“Keep moving. Do you have the baby?” I recognized Jack’s voice. How did he end up on my path? Why didn’t he have a baby, the kids, or a paraplegic?

“I do.”

“Good. Don’t slow down. Run. Don’t wait for me. Go.” I received a firm push in the back. Instinctively I looked behind me. Jack was limping, blood pouring from his neck and abdomen. My only guess was that his demolition gun had misfired, or that he had blown up a wall in a house and something had crumbled on top of him.

“I said keep going! Don’t slow down god damn it!” without the least sign of doubt that he wasn’t just shouting at empty space, and that I was about to ignore his initial request. I slowed my pace, hoping that he could catch up with me, but as I did so I saw Jack collapse on the ground, groaning, then fall unconscious. There was nothing I could do for him now. I turned and started to run.

But in the horror of seeing Jack fall, I had veered off course again. How could I be so careless? I felt the dizziness return, glanced at the map, and righted my course.

The Core was less than a hundred meters away. In my head I recited an incantation: I didn’t kill the baby, the danger does not increase, I didn’t kill the baby, the danger does not increase. I realized that I was losing my mind. In my heart I knew that the whole conceit of “probability” was meaningless; the wormhole was reading my mind, waiting for the first sign of hope, and whether that came fifty meters, or ten meters, or two meters from safety, that was when it would take me.

Some part of me calmly judged the distance that I had to cover, and counted: eighty-three, eighty-two, eighty-one…I mumbled random numbers to myself, and when that failed, I reset the count arbitrarily: thirty-three, thirty-two, thirty-one

A new universe, of light, stale air, noise – and people countless people – exploded into being around me. I kept pushing forward until someone stepped in my path. Elaine. She guided me over to the front steps of a house, while another woman approached with a trolley. On the trolley was some sort of incubator device.

“Do you have the baby?”

“Yes.” I reached into my chest strap and pulled out the infant. But somehow, I already knew. The woman took the baby and gently placed it on the trolley, but when she put another device next to its neck, she shook her head. A man nearby picked up the baby and the woman rushed off.

“It’s okay, John,” I heard Elaine say from a distance. “Of all the ones that make it to the core, only about 50% survive.” For Elaine, nothing was ever a big deal. “Traveling through the wormhole is extremely taxing. It’s just statistics.” I thought about the times I almost veered off course and got dizzy. Did I kill the baby then? Anguish and guilt twisted in my gut. And for the first time, I really looked around. Groups of people were standing or sitting around electric lanterns, filling the streets and front yards as far as I could see.

“Hello? You hear me? You sure you’re okay? Get your breath. It’s over.” I don’t know why I felt it was the time to say it. Maybe I was lashing out at Elaine’s indifference. Maybe I wanted her to suffer the same feelings that were strangling me.

“I saw Jack die.” I looked at Elaine and saw her face tighten. She started to saying something, then stopped herself. Then she throatily whispered,

“How?”

“He must have seen me walking towards him. He grabbed me out of the darkness, asked if I had the baby, then shoved me forward. I turned back and saw him collapse on the ground.” The vision in Elaine’s eyes turned inwards.

“Right.” Then she walked away into the crowds, towards a small open space among the groups, and sat down.

For ten minutes I just stood there, looking at The Intake, the crowds, Elaine sitting alone. What was I doing? Why couldn’t I go over to her? Maybe I was expecting the Intake to vanish at any moment, for the show to be over and for me to be able to blend in with the crowds and go home. Everyone else, except Elaine, seemed to share a similar anticipation. There was an excited buzz in the air, like the murmurs before a concert. But beneath that expectation, I felt a hatred and a loathing to a degree that I had never experienced before. I had failed on my first Run. I had let that baby die. I had failed to save Jack. And now here I was, a survivor, a high school science teacher, a volunteer Intake Runner, with two kids who didn’t speak to him anymore, and an ex-wife whose last words to him were: you’re a spineless coward. Maybe that’s why I had signed up for this ludicrous job in the first place. To try to prove to myself that I wasn’t what my wife, my kids, and the world had labeled me. That I could be a hero. And here I was, still a failure.

But in that loathing, that shame, while looking out at that demented wormhole, I felt a small part of me deep down concentrate itself, strengthen. This is what I was meant to do. Until these wormholes stopped wrecking havoc on humanity, I would run into each and every fucking one of them I could get to until they took me. That was my purpose. Where it came from, after I had failed so miserably, I did not know.

I walked over to Elaine. I sat next to her. She didn’t turn or look at me. For the next thirty-five minutes we continued to sit there in silence. I looked around at the weary survivors; even for those who had left no family or friends behind, the sense of relief and thankfulness at having reached safety had no doubt faded. They – we – just wanted it to be over. Everything about the passage of time, everything about the wormhole’s uncertain duration, had reversed its significance. Yes, the thing might have set us free at any moment – but so long as it hadn’t, we were as likely as not to be stuck here for eighteen more minutes.

Forty minutes passed. Twenty-one percent.

Fifty minutes passed. Fifteen per cent. Elaine put her head on my shoulder.

At fifty-six minutes, there was a whoosh causing my ears to pop, as the wormhole disappeared. The sudden decompression made me feel weak and numb. I looked out and saw that in parting, the wormhole had made no amends; it had radically homogenized the space it occupied, down to a length scale of about a micron. Every house, every garden, every blade of grass – every structure visible to the naked eye – vanished. Nothing remained but radial streaks of fine dust, swirling out as the high-pressure air in The Core was finally free to escape, disintegrating against the backdrop of a pale, morning sky.

The Hyper Algorithm

10 minute read

“I’ll be honest, Vance, this is going to feel like a spike being driven into the back of your skull.”

“Ready.”

“Most patients pass out when the nano-bots are injected. Unfortunately, we can’t give you any sedatives or we’d compromise the installation. Now lean back.”

“Got it…and just to go over what you said before, this hyper algorithm will only be active when I’m wearing my genius glasses, right?”

“Correct.”

“And if I pass out, I’ll wake up within at least ten minutes? Vincent, my son who you met in the waiting room, is participating in a bi-lingual experience at the Paris Brain Institute later this morning and I need to go with him.”

“Don’t worry. You’ll be out of here by eight o’clock. Now close your eyes…try and relax.” 

Thirty minutes later, on metro line 7, Vincent and I were jammed between bodies and automated doors (annual summer training strike) on our way to the Paris Brain Institute. Since I hadn’t read the proposal for the experiment thoroughly the night before, and I wanted to test out this new hyper algorithm, I glanced at my left forearm where my genius phone was implanted and scanned the proposal in more detail. Simultaneously I saw my hyper algorithm, customized to my personality and thought patterns, create a pop-up window in my genius glasses next to the text with links to recent developments in neuroscience, correctly measuring and predicting my ignorance and impending curiosity on the subject. Wow.  Ignoring this with a flick of my pupil (my genius glasses registering the movement and minimizing the neglected content) I turned back to the proposal and mentally summed up the academic acrobatics: the neuroscientists were going to measure how Vincent’s experience changed, using extremely detailed brain scans, as he spoke and thought in French or English. More specifically, they were going to measure changes during an eight hour window in his insular cortex, an older cortex in the brain that is folded deep within the lateral sulfus, the fissure separating the frontal and temporal lobes. My hyper algorithm seemed to read my thoughts: a pop-window and a picture re-appeared with clarification stating that the insular cortex/insula is where taste occurs, but more importantly it plays a role in visceral and emotional functions.

I returned to the recent developments with another pupil-flick and saw that in the past five years neuroscientists had also proven that the insular cortex represents experience from inside our bodies. In the 2020s, neuroscientists called the prefrontal cortex the seat of consciousness. In the 2030s, scientists confirmed that the insular cortex, a part of the prefrontal cortex, is the existential control panel, an anatomical integration hub with heavy connectivity to other parts of the brain which receives sensory inputs from all modalities.

“Dad, this is our stop right?”

“You got it.” I triple blinked to close the virtual windows as we pried ourselves out of the crush of bodies, crossed the platform, and climbed the stairs. 

“Finally,” Vincent raised his arms to the sky. “I can breathe.” We got out at Les Gobelins and walked northeast to the institute. 

It was an overcast, boiling hot day, the pavement seeming to sizzle, another summer where Paris was breaking heat records. Vincent didn’t mind the heat since he had grown up in this steadily burning urban hotbox, but I felt the baking waves and dense pollution as if they were cooking my skin and grating my throat. We passed a crumbling statue of a forgotten hero, a family of three picking through trash, and a restaurant with rows of wicker chairs and circular marble tables. Vincent said,

“Dad, I gotta piss like a race horse. Can I stop quick?”

“Sure.”

While Vincent was in the bathroom I continued reading. I learned that other functions of the insular include autonomical and motor control, risk prediction and decision making, and complex social functions like empathy. In the proposal, the researchers wrote, If you see the person you’re in love with, attempt to listen to your own heartbeat, or desire a piece of peanut butter pie, your insular will show increased activity on a brain scan. I wondered how the human insular cortex differed from other animals, and on cue (which was starting to become a little frightening) my hyper algorithm shared a link: 

In lissencephalic species, including mice and rats, the insula lies exposed on the lateral surface of the brain above the rhinal fissure, while in human and primate brains the insula (which means “island” in Latin) is folded below the lateral sulcus and is hidden by the opercula. This shows us that the insular cortex is necessary but not sufficient for human consciousness; it cannot create consciousness on its own but consciousness cannot exist without it. I thought about how this current thought would look captured in my brain (a frozen, microscopic-fireworks-finale radiating throughout my skull?) Then I thought about how nature is overflowing with accidents on the treacherous path of evolution, but that it was unlikely a coincidence that as rodents evolved into apes, then humans, this essential part of consciousness would be tucked and hidden deeper inside the thinking apparatus if it wasn’t crucial to reality construction and manipulation. I felt a tickle in my left forearm, a sensation reserved for messages from family and close friends:

“Dad, not pissing, dumping. Will be out in a min.”

“Thanks for the update.” I continued reading. 

A unique characteristic of the insular cortex in humans (and whales, elephants, and great apes) is the presence of a special cell type called “von Economo neurons” first formally described by Constantin von Economo in the 1920s.

For over a century the exact function of this cell type was not known. Neuroscientists had only observed that these special cells, also known as spindle neurons, were selectively destroyed during frontotemporal dementia and were unique to animals with large brains and advanced socialization skills. The average human has about 82,000 such cells, a gorilla 16,000, and a bonobo 2,000. Whales have around 240,000. The large quantity of spindle neurons in whales shouldn’t be a surprise when we learn that whales communicate through massive song repertoires, recognizing their own songs and making up new ones, forming coalitions to plan hunting strategies, teaching these strategies to younger individuals, and creating evolved social networks. They also have 15 lb. brains, so the neural transport routes the spindle neuron has to travel to reach other parts of the brain are longer (average human size = about 3 lbs.). While initially neuroscientists believed that these spindle neurons were the foundations of sophisticated social behavior (orcas have complex social hierarchies with females at the top) more recent developments have shown how they also play an integral part in our conscious awareness of reality. Neuroscientists have acknowledged that you cannot separate social development, whatever species you are, from an understanding of your self, time, and space. Humans who have been in solitary confinement for long periods of time not only lose their social skills, they often lose their sense of self and their surroundings: their brains degrade as they experience memory loss, cell death in the hippocampus, overall cognitive decline, and depression. 

Justification for the importance of spindle neurons in consciousness was found in 2028 in a study on schizophrenics. In 2016 it was shown that subjects with early onset schizophrenia (and a longer duration of the illness) had a reduced spindle neuron density. In 2028 post-mortem analysis of brains of schizophrenics was able to show how the degree of delusions experienced by the subjects (measured before their deaths by interviews recording the self-reported quantity of imaginary voices/people experienced by the subject) related directly with the degree of degradation of their VENs (von economo neurons). VENs provide rapid transmission of information to other parts of the brain, and if these neurons can’t do their jobs we begin losing our grip on what’s real or not. I wondered if a future human would ever “evolve” a neuron more sophisticated than these spindle neurons and how this new neuron would alter behavior or the reality experienced. Then I refocused on the proposal and saw that the Paris Brain institute was going to analyze the activity of VENs in Vincent’s brain. 

“I’m back!” Vincent came running out of the restaurant. “Didn’t know I had to drop the kids off at the pool.” 

“I had a feeling you would.”

“How?”

“I follow your eating habits and we share similar digestive tracts.”

“Right.”

The Paris brain institute is in a U-shaped building that has floor to ceiling black windows wrapping around the exterior. Built in 2010, it is a modern architectural island amongst rows of decaying yellow brick buildings. The structure (I snapped a picture with my genius glasses) resembles a giant, glass magnet.

We crossed a wooden bridge, pushed through the glass doors, and were greeted by stern-faced security guards. After giving us the “once-over” one of them said,

“Bi-lingual experiment?”

“Yes.”

“Leave an I.D. at the front desk and follow me.” 

We passed a piece of artwork, a marble circle with a piece missing (I snapped another picture), were led down a nondescript corridor, then entered a cavernous auditorium.

Parents and their teenagers were already sitting in cushioned seats, reading and poking tablets. 

“Welcome, Bonjour, Vincent and Vance.” A young man with wispy, parted hair and eyes framed by round glasses approached us. Vincent turned to me.

“How does this guy know who we are?”

“I’m informed by security each time a new participant arrives.” He gestured to a genius implant in his left forearm, which was blinking with a message: arrival of new participants. “My name is Sigmundus Vetus. Pleasure to meet you both.”

The man made me uneasy. But we shook hands anyway and I let him hand us two tablets. 

“The parent fills out the release form, the child a quick survey. I’m sure you know the drill.” I didn’t, but again I nodded and took the tablets. 

We sat in two seats away from the others and started filling out the forms, clicking boxes and signing our names with our index fingers. My form only took thirty seconds, basically saying that I wouldn’t engage in legal action if anything went awry. I ignored the twenty pages of fine print, and was about to return to my research stemming from the proposal when Vincent nudged my shoulder. 

“You should really read the fine print, dad.”

“Why’s that? If they kidnap you or cut your brain out, it’ll be for the glory of science.” My generation had grown up ignoring “terms of agreement” and fine print supplements. Vincent had been warned against this, probably from teachers. He smiled, but his voice was firm. 

“No joke. It’s the same idea as that hybrid algorithm you just bought. You should really read the fine print on those things. New technology can be dangerous. Especially when your mind spent decades without it.” I faked a robotic, monotone voice, staring blankly into the distance. 

“Warning…of…imminent…malfunction.”

“I’m serious. I read the fine print on your hyper algorithm and there’s been reported incidents of the technology comprising other implants.”

“Appreciate you looking out for me. I’ll be careful. But I need this algorithm for work. The firm paid for half of it so I could finish a contract I’m working on before a deadline.”

“Yeah but will they pay for permanent neural damage?”

“Probably not. But I take risks so you can live your pampered life of luxury.”

Vincent shrugged and continued filling out his survey, and I looked over his shoulder at the questions. They were fairly “establishing a psychological baseline basic,” asking about diet, screen time, how many books he reads per week, how much sleep he gets, exercise, and emotional variability. I double blinked and looked back at the proposal description:

Before the observational period would begin the participants were going to be injected with a contrast material, gandolinium, a rare earth metal that when present in the body alters the magnetic properties of nearby water molecules. (Is that why the building is shaped like a magnet, an architectural wink to M.R.I. machines?)

Gandolinium improves the quality of the brain scan through enhancing the sensitivity and specificity of the images. 

In the early 2020s, when subjects received brain scans, they would have to lie in a big M.R.I machine, remaining still for +30 minutes, while a machine hummed and buzzed. (I remembered lying in one numerous times as a teenager for the 4 stress fractures I developed in my tibias from running a lot). Now the technology had progressed to the point where subjects just had to wear a bulky helmet, a mobile upgraded “head coil.” This allowed the neuroscientists to create more realistic environments and get more accurate results. Another breakthrough in neuroscience in the past five years was recognizing the importance of mobility in brain analysis and development. The participants in this study would be moving about and tasting various foods while either speaking (and thinking) in French or English. A giant machine, likely hidden in the ceiling, would be sending and receiving waves, uploading the brain scans to a quantum computer. 

When I read this part of the proposal, the fireside science critic in me immediately raised a red flag: how could these neuroscientists think that they could separate language’s impact on experience from culture’s impact? Isn’t language inextricably entwined with the cultural traditions, values, and history in which it was born and developed? Of course Vincent would experience more brain activity while thinking in French and tasting than in English, French culture is a food culture, valuing culinary experiences (in general) more highly than English speaking cultures (have you ever tried English cooking/eaten out of a dumpster?) In the past two years I’d heard Vincent have 30-60 minute conversations with his friends about food (how it was prepared, how it compared to other dishes, how it could be improved, etc.) Even though English has 6x more words than French (600,000 vs. 100,000) French has more ways to describe taste and food than any other language. (The French language’s 100,000 words has 350,000 meanings). What does culture’s impact on our identities look like in the brain? 

My hyper algorithm must have been measuring how long I was stuck on a sentence, and sensed my doubt and reflection, because the machine infiltrated the proposal (how did it do this?) and scrolled down to the bottom where the neuroscientists had already responded to potential criticisms.

We acknowledge the cultural influence on language and the challenge of separating a language’s influence on reality from the culture’s influence. We do not believe this undermines the purpose of our research nor the results.

Right.

When Vincent finished filling out the form he was called into another room with the other participants.

“See ya, dad.”

“See ya, son.” Vincent looked off into the distance, mimicking me when I did the robot voice.

“Humanity will never be the same again once they have learned what’s happening inside this brain.”

“God help us. Go get your pay check.” He smiled and left. Five minutes later Sigmundus Vetus returned to the auditorium to address the remaining parents, friends, or guardians.

“If any of you would like to observe the beginning of the experiment, please follow me.” A few of us followed the doctor out of the room, up some stairs, then into a chamber with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the bi-lingual subjects. I saw Vincent being shown how to put the M.R.I. head coil on his head by a nurse while another nurse put a needle in his arm (injecting the gandolinium, I assumed). For the next ten minutes I heard Vincent and the other participants being told directions, speaking French, being offered various foods, and being observed by doctors. My hyper algorithm blinked a reminder on the edge of my vision: work. I left and went to the office.

About 7 hours later I was back at the Paris Brain Institute to pick Vincent up. In the auditorium the lights were dim and Sigmundus Vetus was on the verge of an announcement. Vincent was sitting in the back row and motioned me over to a seat.

“How’d it go?” I asked.

“Boring, but check it out.” Vincent showed me his phone with a payment accepted from the Paris Brain Institute enlarged: $680.

“Good. Now you can start buying toilet paper.”

“Do we have to stay for this?”

“No, let’s get out of here. Mom made a quiche.”

On the 7 line back home I thought about the experiment and told myself that I would follow up on the results. Vincent was reading a book. There was more space in the metro, we weren’t packed like sardines, but there still weren’t any seats available and we were standing in front of the doors. 

I’ve always believed that movement and activity stimulates and accelerates the formation of ideas. For months I had been stuck on an engineering problem at work, holed up in my office, surviving on coffee and croissants. But after going out with Vincent and being on the periphery of new research, of witnessing humanity pushing the boundaries of our understanding firsthand, something in my brain started to turn. Vincent looked up and smiled. I felt an idea begin to take shape, its contours and attributes becoming gradually clearer, like a sunrise over a rocky landscape. The answer to a structural problem appeared in my mind’s eye. The answer and path to get there was raw, uneven, and jumbled, it would still need work and tweaking, but at least I knew which direction to go, which step to take, and-

My visual field seemed to explode. I felt an excruciating pain in my left wrist, a constricting sensation in my genius implant. My hyper algorithm was filling my genius glasses with thousands of pop-windows, links, video clips, recommendations, warnings, graphs, an avalanche of images. My retinas burned, my right ankle, which was loaded with nano bots all connected to my hybrid algorithm via a health monitor, crumpled. All of this happened in a spilt second, the malfunction causing me to seize up as if having an epileptic seizure. My legs buckled, I started to fall, then I felt an arm encircle my lower back, preventing my head from smashing the metro floor. 

Vincent had somehow caught me mid-fall, taken off the genius glasses with a deft swipe, then easily lifted me back up to a standing position. The travelers around us stared at Vincent in awe. An old man with a dog even chuckled and clapped. Vincent turned the genius glasses over in his hand. 

“I knew that hyper algorithm was fricking dangerous.” I was still getting a grip on what had just happened, waiting for my implants to return to baseline, processing the previous five seconds. Before I could say anything, Vincent looked up.

“You had an idea. Didn’t you? That’s why your hyper algorithm went bezerk. It knew you were on the edge of something.”

“What? That’s…how did you know?”

“C’mon dad, I can see it in your face ten seconds out.” 

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