There is a creek-bed running into the river, filled with fossils. Bivalves and plant stems, shells and weird brachiating ferns.
“I could make a table,” I told my brother, “where you have pictures of all these, with the estimated age, type, location…”
We were sitting by a fireplace, itself made out of fossil-infused limestone. I describe, babbling, the html, the columns and rows, downloadable data, links to other useful sites.
“What’s keeping you from doing that?” My brother asked, looking at me oddly.
“Because,” I said, “I…I don’t understand reality.”
The Neal Stephenson book I just finished is Seveneves, and it was glorious. I mentioned it, walking with my cousin on a farm in Fort Scott, KS. The premise, I explained, is that the moon gets blown up by a mysterious “agent”, and the fragments, when they fall to Earth, cause a “white sky” of burning meteors, followed by a “hard rain” that wipes out (more or less) the entire population of the surface.
With a couple years warning before the apocalypse strikes, the human race is able to devote the full resources of global civilization to creating a “cloud ark” that will carry the legacy of the planet into space, above the deadly rain of lunar fragments. The international space station, and the rest of the ark rapidly constructed around it, has to avoid getting smashed by stray bolides. Scientists and engineers quickly work out that the best strategy for the survival of the space colony is not one huge, fixed ark, but rather hundred of small “arklets” modeled after the flocking behavior of fish, or birds.
My cousin and I had been talking about jobs, and universities, and I said that the problem with institutions is one analogous to that of the single, static ship: there was no maneuverability, and when it got hit (budget cuts, or the appointment of an incompetent president) then everyone “died.” The better solution, I argued, the configuration of human resources that maximized adaptability, was a loose collection of affiliated individuals, who could think and act as autonomous agents—while still coordinating with the horde.
The logic of the novel, the metaphor, and life, though, also implies the opposite: it is dangerous to fly alone. The configurations of arklets–drawn into bolos, heptads, and other configurations, crouch behind the mass of a huge asteroid–Amalthea–using it as a shield. The members of the post-Earth society who want to abandon the main horde in a delusional attempt to terraform Mars end up degenerate cannibals. If I’ve learnt anything from decades of coming up and toying with unrealistic flight paths for my career, it is that your momentum, your trajectory, is largely determined by the swarm.