Thursday, February 24, 2005

A proper little thought experiment: Sandy Landsman, The Gadget Factor (New York: Atheneum, 1984)

Michael Goldman is a thirteen year old Freshman at Franklin college. Roomed with older, but still precocious, Worm, he is introduced by Worm to computer gaming. With Michael’s math skills and Worm’s interest in computers they realise they can build their own game and they become fascinated with producing a total universe simulation. “Playing” it, Worm becomes entropy, while Michael is G-d.

As the game moves on Michael realises he is losing. As Worm injects technology Michael injects morals and philosophy and the beings still keep blowing each other up. In a desperate attempt to help them out, he uses some suggestions he has seen in a science magazine to invent time travel, and then realises that if his universe parallels the real one, he may have solved the time travel problem for real.

He finds the author of the original equations, Dr. Terry Miller, in Ohio, and is gratified that he is being treated as an equal, but when they model the full set of equations on his game programme, they see life die. What seems to be happening is that the beings are dumping their toxic waste in the future and mining the past for resources. Eventually this ends up removing the means by which life was generated and everything collapses and never was.

Michael wants not to publish, but despite Terry’s assurances, he announces he is going to give an important paper at a conference in Chicago. Michael (with Worm now in tow) races after him. Worm manages to change some of the equations in the paper (Terry is not good at algebra) but Terry manages to work through the changes. In desperation, Michael turns to Worm and asks for possible challenges. Worm runs through a list and hits on anti-matter. Michael packs him off to the library to get an article on it and prepares to ask his question. Worm arrives just in time and Michael challenges Terry to add anti-matter into the equation. Terry does and the model falls.

What has happened, Michael explains later, is that he originally had three equations in his model. On the way to Ohio he had reduced them for two “for elegance” forgetting why he had three in the first place, and Terry Miller had only seen the two.

One of the reasons this book is so good is its characterisation: both Worm and Michael are super-bright, but they are super-bright in very different ways. For Worm, the game is never more than a game which he desperately wants to win. And when he has won he’d like to play it again. When Michael needs his help, he needs to convince Worm that this is another aspect of the game. For Michael the game was only ever a model, to see if the things he was fascinated by could be modelled mathematically. Although he wants to win, it’s much more tied up with his maths. Playing the game again is only interesting if he can test new ideas each time.

At the end the great idea is buried, but Michael is very clear in his understanding that this is not for ever. Someone else in the audience that day will be inspired to take up the research. The moment will come, all he can do is hope that the models of human behaviour will look rather different by that time.


Blogger Nerd42 said...

that's one of my favorite books of all time, and I wish I had an eBook of it! I can't find one anywhere.

7:11 PM  
Blogger Andy said...

I remember reading this book and I loved it. I'm not sure why. Gonna try Amazon for a used copy.

7:12 PM  

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