Thursday, May 28, 2015

[Culture of Chaos II] Aerogel from Nanohell

Copyright 2010 Thomas James Hardman, Jr, all rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. References to real places and things may be included but their usage is fictional in nature and intent. Any similarity to real persons or parties is coincidental and should be seen as fictional in nature and intent.

Surrealism combines a blend of reality and unreality. Any person unable to sort the fiction and fantasy from the factual is strongly advised to seek professional help.

Perhaps you'd like to jump back to the previous chapter?

Questions occasionally arise in the lecture audience: "Okay, we've heard of this Singularity; but can you give us an example of what it will be like?"

Everyone who asks me about this thinks that they've got me stumped, so I always first answer with the paradox that should have left me stumped.

"Well, of course you'd think that nobody could provide an apt simile for the Singularity, as by definition it's a transformative event (or sequence of events) after which the world is so transformed that it can't be comprehended or expressed by anyone living before that time or event. Yet, this isn't entirely true when it comes to providing a simile or metaphor or allegory by which we can understand some elemental condition or system which would be expected to be present in the weltgeist after the Singularity.

"The example I like to use", I continue, to the amusement of whichever student or attendee has offered their question so as to watch me squirm, "is that of the formal dessert known as the Baked Alaska."

I pause to savor the expressions on the faces in the audience. The stumpee has stumped the stumper.

"And no," I say, "I am not suggesting that the future is like fried ice-cream. I am saying that the way we have to look at the Singularity is about the same way as people experience their first Baked Alaska.

"A person's first Baked Alaska is generally experienced as a comic novelty, a tasty confection of juxtaposition, a feast of opposites. It's even better as a Bombee Alaska, where it's doused with cherry cordials and then lit on fire. A flaming fried ice-cream cake may be tasty, and it may be seen as an exercise in creativity and culinary finesse, but ultimately the Baked Alaska is deeply disturbing and should almost strike terror into the minds of thoughtful people everywhere.

"Sure, fried ice-cream is a reality.. but why? -and even more worrisomely... who the heck would think up such a thing?"

I pause for dramatic effect and, out in the audience, someone takes the bait. "But how do these questions about the nature of fried ice-cream affect our understanding of the Singularity?"

"Well," I tell them, "it's like this: until you've heard of a Baked Alaska -- and perhaps you'll first hear of one when someone puts one down on the table in front of you -- most people can't possibly have ever had the least little thought about fried ice-cream. It's just not something that the normal mind can conceive. Yet having conceived of fried ice-cream, it doesn't seem entirely unreasonable. It's tasty. Yet it's not something that you would consider as having historical inevitability.

"The Singularity, thus, can be predicted just as reasonably, based on historical inevitabilities, as you could comparably predict fried ice-cream. Imagine that it's your birthday and your friends drag you out to a fancy restaurant. You know you'll be having dinner and entertainment, but unless you've filched a copy of the party itinerary, you cannot possibly know, nor even reasonably expect with any specificity, that before the evening is over, you will be presented with a plate full of fried ice-cream.

Thus, the future, the inevitable Singularity, is made of Baked Alaska. You can look at a bowl of ice-cream and reasonably predict that there will be flavored variations. There will be chocolate, butterscotch, fruit flavors, etc. And you can reasonably predict, from looking at a cake, that there will be everything from sponge-cake to pound-cake to flatbreads to angel-food cakes. But you can't reasonably predict that someone will put a Baked Alaska on the plate in front of you and then light it on fire. It's totally unpredictable and doesn't stand to reason, yet there it is, and damn tasty, too."

The inevitable heckler chimes in, right on cue: "But what if we don't like fried ice cream. Flaming or otherwise, dontcha know."

"Fried ice-cream," I shoot right back at him, "doesn't give a rat's about what you do or don't want. And neither does the Singularity. And both of them could wind up on your dinner table with very little warning and not much reason to expect it. So always be prepared to confront that for which there is no adequate preparation. Look at it another way: when the future arrives as a tsunami, your only hope is to know how to surf."

I could do that lecture in my sleep. I occasionally dream about it. It's sort of like those old TV shows where the peak of comedy was some clown getting a pie in the face, only in my dreams, the world is in whiteface and a Brooks Brothers suit and gets a 5000-pound Baked Alaska dropped onto it from orbit at 20 miles per second. It's not pretty and it always wakes me up. Fortunately I keep a supply of frozen twinkies on hand for just such occasions. If nothing else works, they can revolt me back to sleep.

The Astute Reader may rightly surmise that anyone who even conceives of eating frozen twinkies, for any reason at all, might have other vile habits. Mine is that in general I am a slob. I learned exactly one thing from living in a fraternity-house, other than that I generally can't stand frat-boys, and that was the ideal of washing your dishes before you eat off of them; you can't guess and probably don't want to know how well the person at the sink before you did the dishes. So, I tend to get a bit cavalier about sanitation sometimes.

It's not as bad as you might think. I eat a lot of stuff from cans, and microwave dinners, and it's all pretty much the exact serving size to suit me, so I eat every last bit, rinse the containers with some slightly soapy water and then let the containers pile up until recycling day.

Sometimes, though, I do eat things like cheese sandwiches or bagels with cream-cheese, and with these I just shake the crumbs from the paper towels into the trash can, and recycle the paper. No muss, no fuss. Where I really fall down is the occasional meal that I actually cook.

Due to a situation best left undisclosed, I have developed something of a talent for microwaving meat. The trick is to get the right cut. Usually the cuts labelled "marinade" or "stir fry" come out pretty well. Just pop it into a microwave safe bowl, generally some variation on Pyrex. Then cook until close to done on half heat, on the turntable. More or less two minutes per pound to get it into the range where it's necessary to actually watch it cook. A hint: if it looks fully cooked, it's going to be a bit more than well-done by the time you eat it. This isn't a problem since you've just steamed it to death in a covered glass bowl; it's not going to go dry.

This lack of things getting dry applies to almost anything in a covered glass bowl. Including whatever juices get steamed out of the meat. So, maybe you're thinking of making some gravy with the juice? Just cover the bowl after you take out the meat.

Look, it's meat juice, for sure, but it's just been heated to boiling in a microwave, it's not going to go bad overnight. My problem stemmed from the fact that I'm a slob, and sort of lazy, can't get motivated, and for the better part of a week that meat juice was sitting there in its covered glass bowl, at room temperature. Maybe my subconscious was wondering how long it takes a bowl of meat juices in a glass bowl to go bad. I figured at some level that if stuff started floating on the surface, I'd just hold my nose, add chlorine bleach and soap, and flush the whole mess down the toilet.

One day I walked past it, thinking that today was the day I'd go to the store and buy some bleach -- I had used the last of the old bottle the week before, in a long-overdue cleaning of the commode -- and as I glanced inside the scary glass bowl, I noticed it seemed... foggy inside. A closer look -- without opening the lid, of course -- revealed that there was a fine structure of filaments, very fine, almost transparent, filling up all of the parts of the bowl that weren't filled with liquid. Eeek, I thought to myself, and headed out to the store to buy some bleach.

For some years now, the local government's efforts have combined with the proximity to the National Institutes of Health to turn the nearby "I-270 Corridor" into an economic and research powerhouse in biotechnology.

Quite co-incidentally, the day after I was bleach-shopping, one J Craig Venter -- who led the team that developed the technologies to sequence the human genome -- announced the creation of the world's first synthetic life-form, Mycoplasma laboratorium.

At the time, however, I was thinking more about comparable local researches into nanotechnology. Specifically, I was thinking about nanotubes, specifically about organic membrane nanotubes. Maybe even microtubules. Then again, I was also thinking about aerogels.

This got me to wondering: mycelial cords in fungi form root-like structures, not entirely different from the incredibly fine wispy structures in the air over the nutrient broth in my impromptu petri dish, but ordinarily they penetrated nutrient layers, rather than building structure in gas pockets.

This was almost like animations I'd seen of self-assembling nanotech structures. A self-assembling nanotech aerogel? Not utterly implausible, but taking place in a glass bowl half full of rotten meat juices I'd let go bad in my kitchenette?

When I got home, the fogginess inside the dish had increased, I thought. So I put on some rubber gloves, opened the gallon bottle of Clorox, and held my breath as I opened the tpo of the glass bowl and sloshed in the full-strength bleach.

I let it sit for a while, washing my hands in both detergent and a splash of bleach. Then I went back, sloshed some bleach down the sink into the drain, and poured the contents of the bowl into the sink as well. I then poured more bleach and detergent onto the mess. The foggy network of very fine filaments -- sort of like a three-dimensional space-filling web made by a thousand invisible and hyperactive spiders -- flattened into a sort of spongy mass against the drain filter screen. I added more bleach.

After washing again, and watching the stock market sag again -- still -- I added more bleach, donned the gloves again, and pulled the filter screen from the sink, and took it to the toilet and flushed it down.

Trust me, worse things have been flushed down the toilets in the region. Back in the mid-1990s, someone managed to flush a couple of gallons of active transposonation reagents down a greywater drain that led directly to Rock Creek, which is tributary to the Potomac River. I should hasten to add that there is no scientific evidence linking this to the scary phenomenon of Intersex Fish in the Potomac. Yet this is just another bit of weirdness that has gone down the drains in the region to wind up in the city water supply.

Chemicals, drugs, hormones, a measurable caffeine and cocaine content, all of those things are in the Potomac, and who the hell knows what's in the sewers leading to the waste-treatment plants, and in the greywater/stormwater drain pipes.

I'm just hoping that the stuff I flushed was sufficiently killed by the bleach I lavished on it... otherwise, I am imagining all of the air pockets in the local sewers filling up with some really weird nanotech-seeming foggy-looking aerogel-like tracery of possibly-alive webbing, growing thicker and thicker.

Eventually it might find a way out.