[Creative Writing Contest] Noumenon

by BenStewart18 min read27th Oct 20212 comments

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Creative Writing Contest
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Rhodium Lensing Induces Reliable Observations of Laminar Units in the Middle-Atmosphere with Incandescent Quality
Monthly Notices of the Royal Astrophysical Society, 
Volume 10,  1893, pp. 414-21
W.F. Haskell and B.L. Wigner.

 

We attempt an explanation of the results from previous notices regarding the peculiar Phenomenon that has interfered with observations in Southern Africa and Russia. For posterity and on the grounds of the experiments presented herein, we propose naming the Phenomenon of Laminar Units in the Middle-Atmosphere with Incandescent Quality.    

    While the Phenomenon was brought to wide scientific attention by Lewis et al. in 1877 on the Cape of Good Hope, it is now well agreed that the first description was by Vasili Kardovsky in a Russian journal in 1868. Lewis made the more careful analysis, but it is the translation of Kardovsky that has held the greater place in the public imagination:

“On the third night of our journey we reached the north-west slopes of the Ural mountains, and gained elevation sufficient to make our  observations of Neptune. However, upon establishing our camp and training our telescopes at the sky, we noticed a slight but bewildering occurrence. I am glad Oleg and Leo were accompanying me along with our guides, as I doubt I could have trusted my own eyes had I been the sole observer trained in the natural sciences. The three of us have 70 years of astronomic experience between us, and all have agreed that the following report, while fantastic, represents the facts faithfully.

In a phenomenon only appreciable by close and constant attention, faint speckles of light were observed to be undulating seemingly all across the starry night sky. Millions of individual particles appeared to emerge, move, and dissolve gradually, seemingly at random, though sometimes as ribbons and waves. They were tiny and almost transparent, and yet despite this humility they sampled magnificent colours ranging from the deepest indigo to the gentlest of blue-greens, as if cut from fine aquamarines. 

Upon closer examination with a telescope, their granular, incandescent appearance and apparent indifference with respect to wind direction and velocity defeated any meteorological explanation. No apparent relation to stellar bodies was discernible, and all present agreed that they did not appear to be like any astronomical phenomena previously observed. Our guides made reference to similar occurrences in past stories.”

    While the observances made by both Lewis et al. and Kardovsky et al. gained attention, scientific resolution remained elusive, and serious doubts remained. Its colouration, granular nature, and geography of observation distinguish it from the well known Auroras. Repeated observations of the Phenomenon have been made by independent observers in the regions of the original sites, but not at any other location so far studied. 

    Our experimental breakthrough was the result of our noticing a curious fact, only brought to our attention by happenstance. Our College happened to host a fascinating talk by a geographical chemist, in which he mentioned that Rhodium, a particularly rare element, was only discoverable as a mineral in a select few locations, in which we noted the inclusion of the central mountain ranges of the Russian Empire and the Southernmost tip of the Continent of Africa. These two locations coincided with the only sites where the Phenomenon has been observed. 

    We Hypothesised that the presence of Rhodium was necessary for the visibility of the Phenomenon. After sourcing approximately 50 grams of the precious metal and placing it in our observatory, we endeavoured to observe the Phenomenon in its presence. This was unsuccessful. However, after significant testing, we developed a method of layering an extremely thin coating of Rhodium onto the lens of a newly constructed telescope, and turned it to the sky above Oxford at 2am on February 23rd, 1892. Thus we did observe a most astonishing and magnificent sight. 

    A slow-moving murmuration of fine shining particles stretched over our heads to the distant horizon, in glorious replication of previous literature. Their colour was again a spectacular range of blues, and their patterns were as inscrutable and fascinating as previously described. To the naked eye the night sky appeared still and typical, but through our Rhodium-lensed telescope we glimpsed the faint but gorgeous filaments of higher planes.

    With such a tool, we endeavoured to elucidate the Phenomenon, and so discover its Truth. Our first significant finding was made by repeatedly exposing photographic plates through Rhodium lenses on a carefully positioned apparatus carried on overland journeys. This was performed by a doctoral candidate. Our calculations (detailed in Appendix A) use the relative parallax of more stable macrostructures of the Phenomenon in comparison to the background of known stars. Thus we arrived at the conclusion that the Phenomenon was not occurring on stellar scales, but occurring at a range of several hundred miles above the Earth’s surface. We have enclosed facsimiles of our plates in Appendix B.

    With such facts and observations at hand, we here present a promising Theory. First, we may conjecture that the relative distributions of…
 

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Alice’s eyes slid into a blur between the lines, deeper into the screen. She tried to drag herself back to the start of the paragraph. She should have gone home hours ago. Lumiqs had seemed an intriguing and under-studied topic, but the interesting bits of these old papers were outweighed by their lavish postulations. Sighing, she gave herself the kindness of not re-reading Haskell’s grand and Fantastically False Theory. 

    She wasn’t sure why she was revisiting it all anyway. Lumiqs had always remained awkwardly unexplained. They would have remained footnotes for those interested in Siberian astronomy (!), had it not been for two features that had kept the phenomenon animate in the annals of science. The first was that rhodium-lenses turned out to be incredibly useful for observing nebulae. The second was that, through the experimental happenstance that abounded before Ethics Review Committees, it was discovered that humans emit a faint halo of lumiq-like particles, that washes out quickly without impinging radiation.

    Obviously, rhodium-lensed radiation experiments were then carried out on birds, dogs, monkeys, insects, and rats with great enthusiasm, turning up nothing at all. The initial disappointment was replaced by some excitement that the source of lumiqs appeared to be specifically human. Unfortunately, in the dearth of any sensible understanding, the study of lumiqs gradually transformed into a niche industry of quasi-quackery, where the brightness and density of nearby lumiq-fields were held to predict sickliness in children, ill-character in criminals, infertility in women, and any other application that could be sold. They had been linked to human genetics, far out physics theories of particles that travelled backwards through time, and all kinds of nonsense. 

    In any case, the high cost of rhodium eventually smothered the industry and attention. Nowadays interest in lumiqs seemed a fairly reliable indicator of being a kook, or at least of academic desperation. She had experienced enough polite smiles and questions from younger colleagues to know she was at the bottom of the scholarly barrel, adrift in the backwaters of academic astrophysics. 

    And yet lumiqs were interesting damn it! And beautiful when people would occasionally photograph them. But the magical became the ordinary became the nuisance. So much so that astronomers using rhodium lenses for studying nebulae had long since worked out the adjustments to stop seeing lumiqs. A pulse of lightning from above the neighbouring building startled her. Watching through the double-glazing, she found herself waiting for the thunder. 

*** 

Alice aimed the arc of near-boiling water to pummel the leaves, distending the bag and engulfing the sugar at the base of the cup into invisibility. The milk briefly seeded a complex, three-dimensional double-unfurling, before the tea settled into a gentle opaque swirl. 

    Of course, the adjustments on the rhodium lenses had to be fine to filter only the lumiqs and not the nebulae of interest. And re-adjustments were done at least every few weeks as the lumiq-field dulled or brightened. She had been tasked with those tedious adjustments enough times. But had they ever been actually tracked?

    The rhodium filter band was recorded as standard metadata for most images made by the Observatory, and was normally immaterial. If she could scrape the readings from the observation reports for the major projects, she could track the lumiq flux across time. Hell, with the scanned records from the early days, she could track it all the way back to the 1890s!

    She searched the literature to check for the sources that would usually (and selfishly) have gotten there before her, but found a reassuringly short and irrelevant list of papers. Energised, she found the archives, wrote a script, and set it running. 

    The computer whirred its continuous exhale. She sipped her tea. 

    The data came back in drops and buckets. Graphing it made a noisy and jagged walk across the screen, from the earliest recordings in 1897 to two weeks ago. It was messy, but she could make herself see a general decline - a falling off of the lumiq-field? That would be interesting, maybe even publishable...

    She stopped herself. This was one observatory. If she wanted to see any real trends of the lumiq-field, she would need a lot more data. So she set to work.

    She poured through every set of public observatory records, and some private. An old log in she had from a stay in the States gave her a great deal more. For each one she scraped the rhodium-lens adjustments, adding them to the database. She emailed pleas to former colleagues and cold-contacts, but even before she received any late-night replies she saw the pattern emerging. 

    The lumiq-field had declined heavily since the turn of the century, first slowly, then steeply. She was surprised no one had pointed it out before. It had been getting thinner, and dimmer, with the astronomers' necessary adjustments getting smaller and smaller. Before the 21st century was finished, it was 50/50 if there would be any lumiq-field at all! 

    While the drop was getting faster, it proceeded in jumps - precipitous drops and partial recoveries, a saltatory death-spiral. Some discontinuities seemed to be really just noise, but some were robust. The largest drop seemed to appear in 1933, and never seemed to recover, while the deepest valley was reached sometime in the early 60s, though it rebounded quickly. The World Wars seemed like low periods, but other, steeper drops seemed randomly placed.

    She sighed. There were patterns there, sure. But they didn’t look any more scrutable than the lumiq-field itself. And it was late, so late that the next day was already beginning. 

    She almost had a thought. Then she didn’t.

    She cycled home, riding smooth lines down curb past pole close on left, then straightening onto road. Into and out of the white glow of a still-open minimart, tracing a path under the canopy of street lamps, until the first red light. Her long leg extended to contact the still-wet asphalt. 

    She stayed stock-still, thinking. The night was so quiet and the streets so empty, that she heard the mechanism’s solid tick when the light changed to green. 

    Slowing, as if trying to balance something precious, she wheeled around in a wide arc and pedalled back to the physics building. 

***

She walked through the dormant office back to her desk. There was a date that was biting at her. Late September, 1983. It was the site of a huge and precise drop in the lumiq field. There had been enough drops dotted over the years that it could easily have been passed over, but something about it rang a distant bell. 

    It struck her. Petrov. She checked Wikipedia, half losing hope, thinking she had the wrong date. But no, there it was. 26th September, 1983, Stanislav Petrov, lieutenant colonel of the Soviet Air Defence Forces, duty officer for the Oko satellite early-warning system, who, when faced with the computer message that, with highest certainty, the United States had launched five intercontinental ballistic missiles, and whose orders expressly instructed him to alert the chain-of-command that would likely result in a retaliatory nuclear strike, had thought: “Wait, why five?”

    And so when Petrov decided to label the detection as a false alarm, and when it was discovered to be the misreading of sunlight glinting off clouds, it became clear that Petrov’s actions may have single-handedly averted nuclear war. 

    But everything special about that night was happening in Soviet computers and command centres - nothing in the atmosphere. Why would such a night have any bearing on the lumiq-field?

    Intuition pulled her eyes to 1962, and she felt her stomach drop. There was the Cuban Missile Crisis, laid bare in one of the longest and most significant drops of the lumiq- field ever recorded, stretching over October. What was a quirk of the graph now had a neat, sickening label.

    She got up the list of nuclear close call incidents. Almost all of them aligned with a thinning of the lumiq-field to some degree. Point after point, her belief and alarm grew. She didn’t know what she was looking at, but it was becoming more and more solid in the room, less and less explainable as the pareidolia of a witching-hour data hunt.

    Gradually, she wrangled history and mathematical transformations to piece the story of the graph together. The beginning of the truly chaotic period in the lumiq-field was September 1933. This was an enigma, until she found that Leo Szilard had first conceived of the nuclear chain reaction that year. Nuclear bombs seemed only part of the tale though. Both World Wars had been bad periods themselves, as had the Cold War. There remained the gradual dropping off that had seemed to start before records began and was accelerating still. It was its passing resemblance to those countless depressing slides of carbon emissions that had eventually led her to think of climate change, and after adjustments the trajectory of climate instability mirrored the lumiqs almost perfectly in step. And when that was controlled for, there was still some subtle chaotic driver starting in 1956… Dartmouth, and the founding of artificial intelligence? She was proud of herself for thinking of that one as she lined up the AI milestones with concomitant instability points. But still, what did any of this have to do with the lumiq-field? Through what mechanism did nuclear threats, world wars, AI and climate imbalance act on the same phenomenon? 

    She tried to slow her thoughts down to words. The lumiqs were emitted by humans when exposed to radiation, and so only appeared at altitudes high enough to be beyond the Earth’s magnetic shielding and when observed through sufficient rhodium; that much was known. It had thinned and dropped sporadically over time, but that pattern didn’t correlate with either the global population or the number of deaths, or any other variable she could find. Instead, the lumiq-field had declined when humanity itself had been most threatened. 

    And that was it. The common mechanism of those disparate historical events wasn’t anything physical. It was anthropic. The lumiqs had dimmed when humanity’s prospects had dimmed, and recovered when the dangers had waned. Nuclear near-misses, climate change, world wars, artificial intelligence… they were combining to inflict a particularly modern story - the story of when the entire future of humanity had been threatened. The lumiqs were like the ghosts of our descendants, vibrant, gorgeous and invisible, and also dying off. And no-one had really noticed.

    Although an ocean when seen from afar, the lumiq-field was granular when closely examined. If each particle actually corresponded to a future person, the amount was… astronomical. For once the word was justified. Billions of trillions and more, each one a person, a self, a someone with a life and experience and point of view. And when humanity faced some dire threat such particles faded, as if the probability of their coming had dimmed in tandem. 

    Of course, people had seen and felt the badness of nuclear bombs, of climate change, of world wars. But far fewer had seemed to really grasp the badness of extinction. The scale of the future in front of humanity was sublime, in the old sense of the word - beautiful and terrifying, and beyond the horizon of every dimension. 

    And while Alice could not put a name or face or story to any particular lumiq, she felt the weight of them, as if their personhood was real, and not degraded by their distance in time. She felt sick. The mystery of their lives seemed a small and poor excuse for such neglect, and now the graph of the past century unfolded for her as a cataclysm of risk, a reckless endangerment of countless lives and civilisations on top of the death and destruction already inflicted. 

    She had to respond. She had to marshal this evidence, these arguments, explore and expand, write and convince and provoke. She had to find others to challenge her ideas, build on them and create their own, and they had to begin to try to understand whether the human project really was so precarious, and what could be done about it. 

    The enormity of the idea dwarfed her. Here in her poky room in the dim light of the first strains of pre-dawn she was trying to bring the grand histories of the human species into view, and to say something about the exponential histories to come. It confounded any discipline, let alone any researcher, let alone her. And yet the problem of existential threats seemed real, and important, and preposterously neglected. Surely there was something human-sized she could do? Surely there were people who would care as much as her, and could help? Surely it was at least worth trying?

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Waiting on her back-porch, Alice tightened the shawl around her. Keynotes would rarely compel her to leave her comforts,  let alone to dress up these days, but this was an Occasion. At least that’s how her daughter had remonstrated.  She was going because it was the grand anniversary of that night, now obscured by the fiction of many retellings. And she was going because even she had to admit her alma mater had been instrumental in those early years, before wide or serious acceptance. 

    It was not the anniversary of the real event, the actually important one, because that had happened way too gradually and subtly for easy dating. It was too big, too hard to pin to specific heroes or stories or decisions. But over decades the fledgling movement of longtermists had prospered and matured, with her as a shepherd at first, before she became simply another wanderer admiring the grace around her. They had pursued the longtermist philosophy to robust and pluralist clarity, the relevant sciences to focused enlightenment, the arts to compelling moral passion.

    And accompanying it all were direct victories for the present. Nuclear weapons had continued to dwindle and fade, and complete elimination was near. Progress in artificial intelligence had continued apace, but safely, thoughtfully, with equitable governance. Science’s finer and finer control over potential biology had been risky, but with improved regulation and tools we were now far better navigators of those uncharted waters, while the armour of public health had been strengthened into seamless resilience. The climate had gotten bad but the world was ready, and even now was beginning the slow heal. And then, one spring morning, tentatively, the first extraplanetary explorers had begun their long undertaking.

    The work was unfinished, and would not be complete in her lifetime. It was too large to hold it all in one’s mind at once. But she had performed some small part, hadn’t she? The old doubts began to hollow her. Seeing the first stars emerge above her garden, she strode to the personal rhodium-telescope long-established at the balustrade, a gift from some dignitary, to see again that sight that had delighted the world only a few years ago, several decades since that night. Peering through the lens up at the gloaming, she breathed a smile as the bright light stung her eyes, the murmuration of lumiqs having long since transformed from thin filaments into flaring waves, billions into trillions into a numberless smooth continuum of light, an endless open arch of blue sky. 
 

 

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Author's note: 
With the coming of the 20th century, we have attained, for the first time, the power to destroy ourselves. We need to develop the wisdom and competence to survive this precipitous era. If humanity was to live as long as a typical mammal species, we could have a million years of civilisation to go. This is equal to the entire stretch from the invention of agriculture ten thousand years ago to the present, one hundred times over, encompassing hundreds of trillions of lives. 

And we are not a typical mammal. The Earth will likely remain habitable for one billion years. If we were to accompany our planet through its life, that 10,000 year history would be just one of a hundred thousand chapters, barely the first word of our book. The number of lives is so large that it can be captured only crudely by words.

And if we were to go beyond the Earth, and sail off from our cradle, there are billions of galaxies with billions of stars, which will burn for hundreds of billions of years. Nothing can convey the beauty, virtue, justice, peace, happiness, and flourishing that could await us. All of this is reachable if we choose it, but only if we can prevent the self-extinguishing of our species. 

If you would like to learn more about longtermism, two great places to start are Toby Ord’s book ‘The Precipice’ and 80,000 Hours’ ‘Future Generations’ https://80000hours.org/articles/future-generations/









 

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Out of curiosity, were the lumiqs inspired by Dust in His Dark Materials?

No, I haven't read His Dark Materials but I'm planning on it! But maybe I had some subliminal awareness of it?