A World Without End – I wish it were more real

This piece, World Without End, in the New Yorker got me really excited. Briefly. And then it disappointed me. Mostly. This is the opening that grabbed my interest:

“The universe is being built in an old two-story building, in the town of Guildford, half an hour by train from London. About a dozen people are working on it. They sit at computer terminals in three rows on the building’s first floor and, primarily by manipulating lines of code, they make mathematical rules that will determine the age and arrangement of virtual stars, the clustering of asteroid belts and moons and planets, the physics of gravity, the arc of orbits, the density and composition of atmospheres—rain, clear skies, overcast. Planets in the universe will be the size of real planets, and they will be separated from one another by light-years of digital space. A small fraction of them will support complex life. Because the designers are building their universe by establishing its laws of nature, rather than by hand-crafting its details, much about it remains unknown, even to them.”

My mistake was to assume that they were using real physical laws to create this universe. I jumped to the wrong conclusion though. Like every video game, they are relying on made up algorithms to create realistic-looking-but-ultimately-artificial places. The distinction here is probably minor, because no application of math could recreate the universe as it is, but I was hoping, naively I realize now, that they were attempting to re-create a universe at least based on some basic physical laws.

Why do I care? Why not just have a game that, like any fiction, conforms to an internal logic that doesn’t need to be derived from the real world? Maybe it doesn’t much matter, but I increasingly find fiction and games that play fast and loose with basic physics empty and dissatisfying. The tropes of infinitely available energy, hyper drives, and the like, in my mind at least, feed a kind of false optimism about our prospects off of this planet that are at some level counter-productive. We are not going to save human kind by finding another planet. If we can’t make a go of it on the one we evolved on we’re screwed. Let’s take better care of this one.

Also, and maybe more pragmatically, I grew up in a world of physical things. I made model airplanes, worked on cars, and took apart every toy I ever got. Working on (and breaking) things in the real world gave me useful intuition about how that world worked. Intuition that was useful to me later as an engineer. Today, virtual worlds like Minecraft are a substitute for a lot of the real world play of my day. They are amazing playgrounds that let the imagination go wild, which is really cool, but I don’t think they help intuit how our actual world works. In fact, I think they create false intuitions in the way they tweak physicality.

Anyway, this still promises to be a really interesting game when it becomes available. The sheer scope of the universe they are building will be vast, and probably the biggest problem they’ll have to face with gameplay (just like we experience in real life with our still silent SETI endeavor) will be coaxing interaction between players who start off billions of light years apart.

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