Arranging Fundamentals

A friend of mine who does some work I shouldn’t talk about–DC living for you–once explained something that struck me as odd. If you have two unclassified documents, document A and document B. Staple document A and B together–now you may have a classified document. Just the juxtaposition of two pieces of information is information, enough to change the status of the documents.

This was so striking, in fact, I dwelled on it for a bit, and began to realize, that is literally what I do as a computational linguist–re-arrange strings in meaningful ways.

Once you start thinking about this, it appears in a lot of things, aside from the arrangement of textual information. Geographic location is just this in action: real estate is valued by what real estate is next to it; if I own a car on a different continent, that car is essentially worthless unless I’m on that continent; I’m the Emperor of the Moon of the Wholly Circumferential Lunar Empire, yet they refuse to give me a diplomat plate.

Why should information feel so different? After all, re-arranging information is fundamentally what you learn to do in school, and I’ve been in school for 21 years.

I suppose it’s just that. Especially having studied physics, one learns to boil any problem down to its principle components, down to the key relationships that apply, and to demonstrate with those relationships how the facts have come to be. You become a master at re-arranging information in the right way, and when you become a master at re-arranging information, re-arranging information feels cheap; knowing the principle components is the key to finding the solution.

I suppose this is why the juxtaposition of two documents as something meaningful is so striking–if you have access to the two documents before, you have access to the principle components. As a master of re-arrangement, nothing else is required.

This couldn’t be further from the truth, though. The arrangement of things does matter, and it’s often incredibly complex. If the fundamental components were all that mattered, then if you memorized this chart of the fundamental particles of matter, you would know everything there is to know about everything.



But knowing this chart, you don’t know everything about everything. Their combinations allow a certain freedom, and how those uncertainties left by that freedom are realized are also interesting.

Those uncertainties are just arrangements, but they’re important. They explain how cats are different from birds, why cruising in the passing lane makes you a complete asshole, and why I keep writing this essay despite having far more pressing shit on my plate. All of these things, in many ways individually, are due to arrangements of arrangements of arrangements of fundamental particles, so far removed that the black box of the atomic nucleus bears little (obvious) bearing on the outcome of their combination, aside from making it possible amongst another infinitude of possibilities.

This line of thinking is common outside of physics. For example, after recent events at UVa, some have argued in favor of shutting down fraternities, indefinitely. Counter-arguments in the comments, however, went along the lines of “well, if you kick them out of the frats, they’re still rapists.” They’re treating the members of the organizations as fundamental, principle components, and are arguing that by dividing the principle components up, you do nothing to negate the evil contained in those components.

There’s a lot of places this could go, but I’ve made my point here, loosely enough. Arrangement is information, and it matters. Fundamental components are good to know–they give space for juxtaposition to happen–but the interesting stuff happens in how things are arranged. It’s why we’re more than quarks.

The Context of the Gold Record

Voyager 1 and 2 were two robotic probes launched into the outer solar system in 1977.  Their timing was impeccable, launched in a rare window where a single vehicle could encounter all four gas giants without requiring any course corrections aside from gravity assists. To this day, Voyager 2’s pictures of Uranus and Neptune are the highest resolution available.


Attached to each probe was a gold record. They contain a variety of images and sounds of Earth, from music to rain, to “hello” in a number of languages. As a kid, when I first heard about this, I took the idea of the messages for granted; aliens could pick it up and know who we are and stuff, maybe drop in and say hello.

The deeper meaning of the records wasn’t abundantly clear until I remembered the context of the 1970’s; it’s striking how different things are now than they were then.

These days, I can pull up any song I want, any time I want. I can rip it, copy it, and aside from the opinions of a few douche-canoes at the RIAA, distribute it to whomever I want at no apparent cost except that of the electricity to run my computer.

At the time, though, music was etched into plastic–not with lasers but with needles–worn down with each precious play. Data was transmitted on physical media. The existence of that physical world was punctuated each waking moment with the impending doom of nuclear war. Carl Sagan–in large part responsible for arranging the record–comes back to the theme of nuclear war throughout his multi-part television series Cosmos, often noting the precarious position of humanity in the 20th century. Impending nuclear war comes across as quaint–at least it did when I first was dwelling on this–but it was a possible ending to his–and our–world.

Sagan and others suggested future humans may be able to pick up the gold record. Aside from being a novel object–a one of a kind artifact–it was unclear why this was meaningful. However, in the context of atomic bombs blowing the living hell out of every city on earth, it was far more obvious. The plastic records of human civilization would have melted away, perhaps further lost through strife of war, revolution, or change.

The gold record carried the idea that some how, by some means, our culture had endured. Something else–distant ancestors or life alien–could pick the sounds of us up, decipher our message, and know us–know what we heard and what we felt, to know Johnny B Goode and “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen.” It wasn’t just a message to aliens, but to the post-apocalyptic humans who would have had no way to know us, with our cities and records reduced to glass and ash. Through the gold records, in some way, even if we failed to create peace on earth and lost ourselves, we had endured in eternal memory of anyone, human or otherwise, that could have come after us.