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Clifford Pickover

The Mathematics of Oz,and The Loom of God.

One recent anecdote shows the profound degree to which science fiction affects research.  A few years ago, Carl Sagan searched for a way for a character in his science fiction novel Contact to travel great distances quickly.  At first, Sagan thought of using a black hole, but he realized that black holes would be impractical. Sagan asked physicist Kip Thorne for suggestions, and Thorne replied with a detailed letter containing many equations showing how a wormhole might be made to traverse interstellar distances. Thorne soon realized that the equations  implied that wormholes could also be used to create a time machine. His serious scientific papers on time travel and wormholes, stimulated by Carl Sagan’s need for a science fiction plot device, led to important breakthroughs in scientific thinking.

In the movie Contact, Dr. Ellie Arroway is told that her proposal for searching for extraterrestrial life seems “less like science and more like science fiction.”  She responds, “Science fiction. You’re right, it’s crazy. In fact, it’s even worse than that, it’s nuts. You wanna hear something really nutty? I heard of a couple guys who wanna build something called an airplane, you know you get people to go in, and fly around like birds. It’s ridiculous, right?… Look, all I’m asking is for you to just have the tiniest bit of vision….”

David: Can you talk a little about the role that you think the creative imagination plays in science?   

Clifford: Serendipity, creativity, and lateral thinking certainly promote scientific breakthroughs. Imagine a world with no shadows, no sun. Imagine science or even computing with no mystery, no creativity, no human dreamer. The beauty and importance of mathematics and computers lie mainly in their usefulness as tools for reasoning, creating, and discovering. They provide the tools that allow us to reason beyond the limits of our own intuition. Robert Pirisig once wrote, “It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top.  Here’s where things grow.” This also applies to the joy that scientists, artists, and mathematicians experience when experimenting.  

People sometimes wonder why I’m so curious about the fringes of science, mathematically-inspired art, and science fiction. I believe these topics can be very important–not just for their educational value but because significant discoveries can come from such play. At first glance, some topics in math or science may appear to be curiosities, with little practical application or purpose. However, I have found these experiments to be useful and educational–as have the many students, educators, and scientists who have written to me.

Throughout history, experiments, ideas and conclusions originating in the play of the mind have found striking and unexpected practical applications. In fact, many amazing mathematical and scientific findings have been made by amateurs, from homemakers to lawyers. These amateurs developed new ways to look at problems that stumped the experts.  

Let me emphasize that some of the most important breakthroughs in science have been discovered accidentally. This reminds me of the quote from Don Quixote, “He calmly road on, leaving it to his horse’s discretion to go which way it pleased, firmly believe that in this consisted the very essence of adventure.” In particular, science is filled with hundreds of examples of great discoveries and inventions that have come about through chance happenings and serendipity, for example: Velcro, Teflon, X-rays, penicillin, nylon, safety glass, sugar substitutes, dynamite, and polyethylene plastics.

In my own research, I consider myself a fisherman. Computer programs, words, and ideas are the hooks, rods, and reels. Some of the computer art or new visualization methods that I developed were the trophies and delicious means.  A fisherman does not always know what the waters will yield; however a fisherman may know where the fishing is good, where the waters are fertile, and what type of bait to use. Often the specific catch is a surprise, and this is the enjoyment of the sport. There are no guarantees. There are often unexpected pleasures. My readers are always urged to participate by dipping into unknown waters. They enjoy looking at the catches or dissecting them further to learn more about their internal structures.  

David: Where do you think the human race should be focusing its scientific efforts right now?   

Clifford: My first inclination for scientific investment would be to consider all the ‘standard’ or ‘obvious’ areas of basic research aimed at alleviating or understanding disease, world hunger, synthetic fuels, agriculture, and environmental problems. But we are already directing much money towards this, so I hope you will indulge me by allowing me to focus on some way-out investments.

For one thing, I would like humanity to create space probes sent to Europa to search for life in the liquid water of this Jovian moon. Second, I would establish a DMT machine-elf research center. DMT is a psychoactive chemical that causes it users to enter a strange ‘environment’ that some have likened to an alien or parallel universe. Many people report seeing intricate palaces and temples, golden objects, transparent beings, angelic beings, and beings sometimes known as machine elves. These beings and places seem utterly real. Why do people from different cultures and areas of the world see common themes while under the influence of DMT? Why do people often see intelligent beings that are reptilian or robotic — beings that tend huge machines in vast illuminated complexes?

While our first inclination is to dismiss these machine elves as insane hallucinations, I would like scientists to investigate them further. At worst, we will learn more about the human brain and archetypelike themes buried in our unconscious. At best, we may discover something about the very structure of reality, space, and time. Because we encounter reality through the filter of the mind, the more we learn about the mind, the more we learn about the fabric of reality.

If I had the funding, I would also leapfrog off the famous Burning Man event in interesting ways. Have you heard of  Burning Man? It’s an annual event that takes place in the Black Rock Desert, a prehistoric lake bed 120 miles north of Reno, Nevada.  At times, the lake bed is under water, but during the summer, it provides a huge expanse of flat land with a cracked alkali surface. And there is nothing else–not a single blade of grass, hardly a single stone. It’s as if you stepped off the Earth and onto another planet.

Burning Man is always held the week prior to and including Labor Day weekend. During the event, a colorful collection of over 25,000 people meet to be part of an experimental community with one primary commandment: Meet fellow travelers and express yourself!  Art always plays a major role at Burning Man. Each year, Larry Harvey, founder of the Burning Man project, suggests an art theme, such as Outer Space, Time, or Beyond Belief. Participants express the theme with  large-scale art installations, unusual clothing, and provocative body paint.
If I were rich, I would create a Burning Man Clone Foundation to promote formation of additional Burning Man events to be held as close as possible to countries that suffer from repression and which have the greatest need for increased tolerance, novelty generation, and creative sparks. Burning Man is an incubator for ideas, for bringing people together, for flouting conformity. It’s an infinite outdoor art gallery, a space without limitation.

I would also create a Burning Man Technology Foundation called Oblongata to establish events focussing on technology for mind-expansion: from floatation tanks to devices that encourage lucid dreaming. This would be an indoor gathering where people can listen to psychedelic music while eating fugu sushi, burning incense, gazing at computer graphics of quaternion fractals, and discussing string theory, tachyons, the chronology protection conjecture, and DMT-induced visions of alternate realities, and pondering Cantor’s continuum hypothesis, and transcendental numbers like pi and Champernowne’s constant. We’ll reminisce about the subtitles of the Sapir-Wharf hypothesis and invent new methods for human-computer interaction.

Finally, I would also create an on-line virtual reality reminiscent of Burning Man. I’d call it the Aortic Arch. The emphasis is perhaps less on art but more on ideas. Here, we’ll discuss books like Geoff Dyer’s Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It,  Daniel Pinchbeck’s Breaking Open the Head: A Psychedelic Journey into the Heart of Contemporary Shamanism and movies like Vanilla Sky

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