What if you could generate an entire universe? Mathilde, a student in Paris’ best computer science university, l’ENS, sets out to do just that.
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Chapter One: Genesis
The French call it ‘un éclair de génie’. Not a flash of genius – a thunderbolt. When it struck her, éclair did feel more accurate. Electricity coursed through her veins, blowing up her pupils and sending her fingertips into a frenzied dance. A maelstrom of thoughts tore through her mind, crashing and tumbling in a chaos of movement, twirling madly around the eye of the storm in which, still and silent, floated a bright, golden idea.
Three rows down, in the half-moon circle at the bottom of the amphitheater, Professor Revel continued his lesson, completely oblivious to Mathilde’s life-changing revelation. She was but one out of fifty students in his class, and despite being the only girl there, didn’t attract more attention than anyone else.
“As defined by Wolfram, there are four classes of cellular automata,” Professor Revel said as he walked around the stage, “Class 1 is the simplest: all initial patterns eventually stabilize into a homogenous state. Randomness disappears and you can easily predict the next state.”
He pointed to a boy in the front row with his hand up. “Yes?”
“I’m sorry sir, I’m just not sure I fully understand the concept of cellular automata.”
Idiot, thought Mathilde.
Five months ago, when she had received the acceptance email from l’ENS, it had come with a message from the Student Association. Congratulations on your admittance to l’ENS, it had read, As the elite of the elite, you have no doubt spent your entire life scoring a minimum of 18/20 on all your tests. As have all of your new peers here. So don’t be surprised when your average drops down to a measly 2.
It had been a nice ego-check after getting into what was admittedly the best research school in Europe. The last line had been the kicker though. Do expect however, that there will still be a few assholes that keep scoring 18s. Welcome to your new reality.
Five months later, it was clear to Mathilde that she was one of the assholes. The boy who had just asked the question, meanwhile, was still struggling to break a 1.
“Alright, again,” Mr. Revel sighed. He scribbled on his tablet and a 3×3 grid of white squares appeared on the board. “We have a grid. Each cell has two possible states. Dead, which is white.” He tapped on his tablet, and the middle cell switched to black, “Or alive, black, like the cell in the middle.”
The boy nodded unsurely.
“If the cell is alive, it’s black. If it’s dead, it’s white.” The boy nodded his head more enthusiastically, suddenly getting it. Mathilde groaned.
“Now let’s add rules. First – underpopulation. If the cell has less than two ‘live’ cells next to it, it dies and becomes a dead cell. Like now, its eight adjoining neighbors are white, dead, cells.” Another tap on the tablet and the cell in the middle went from black to white. “So it dies.” The boy nodded, and the professor reinitialized the grid.
“Second,” he continued, “Overpopulation.” He turned four of the eight cells around the center one to black. “If the cell has four or more live partners, it dies as well.” A tap, and the middle cell switched to white.
The boy was frantically scribbling down notes.
“Why are you writing?” asked Pr. Revel, “I want you to understand this, not jot it down. Do you think you’re still in high school? I won’t be asking to see your notes at the end of the class.”
A chuckle resonated throughout the amphitheater and the student blushed.
“Rule 3,” the professor continued, “If a live cell has 2 or 3 live neighbors, it survives. And Rule 4… well that one is the most important of all. Yes?” He pointed to a student at the back with his hand raised high.
“Reproduction!” the student yelled out proudly. The class laughed.
“Clearly the only topic of interest to Mr. Reynolds,” said Pr. Revel, “But at least it has the merit of being correct.” Mathilde looked up to Oliver Reynolds and he flashed her a wide grin. She rolled her eyes.
The professor tapped his tablet. The screen showed a white center cell surrounded by three black ones. “Reproduction: if a dead cell is surrounded by exactly 3 live cells, it comes back to life.” Tap. The center cell turned black.
He strode to the front of the stage. “Now we’ve set up a cellular system, defined by four simple rules. Let’s randomly assign a value to each of the cells.”
The screen zoomed out into a giant grid with hundreds of cells, black and white randomly distributed throughout. “And… Launch,” said the professor.
The screen erupted into movement. The black cells moved outwards in clouds, expanding out, smashing together, and disappearing abruptly only to reappear again. Little groups of live cells shot off the screen like lone explorers on a mission. Then slowly, the clouds began to disperse one by one, fading out as their cells died from over and under population. The dust finally settled, and all that was left on the board was a smattering of blinking black cells, like tiny shining stars.
The remaining live cells were arranged in recognizable patterns: small crosses, open lips and little squares that blinked on and off as cells died, resuscitated, and died again. They stayed confined to their shapes; an order had been born out of chaos.
“This is a perfect example of a Class 1 Cellular Automaton. It is now stable and nothing changes. The live cells are in predictable patterns and will stay that way until the end of time.”
Mathilde leaned forward, bracing herself. This was the moment. What Professor Revel was about to say was what had sparked her thunderbolt of genius.
“Why is this important? Because it’s everywhere. Biological patterns, like the stripes on a zebra, or the spots on a leopard, can be explained with cellular automatons. Computer processors are based on cellular automaton concepts. Cryptography. As long as it’s discrete, and not continuous, you can model pretty much anything with cellular automatons.”
There it was. She felt a shiver as he said it again. There was something there, she knew it. She tapped on her screen, opening her SzymonChat app.
Szymon, she typed, Are you home?
Although he was a physics student, her roommate Szymon was passionate about cryptography. He refused to use any commercial IM software, including simple SMSes, as he felt they were simply too easy to crack. Instead, he had coded and developed his own system, SzymonChat, complete with foul-proof encryption. He had forced both Mathilde and Oliver to install it. Mathilde would never admit it, but she enjoyed this private messaging channel with her roommates.
Yeah, he answered, What’s up?
M: Are you going anywhere soon?
S: No, I’m in the middle of a raid… Few more hours at least.
M: I’ll be home in 20. I need to talk to you.
S: Is this about the dishes again? I told you it was Ollie.
M: No, it’s something cool. Don’t move. I’m coming.
She snapped her tablet shut and stuffed it into her shoulder bag. Her fingers drummed impatiently on the desk as Professor Revel ran through the other Classes of Cellular Automata. Class 2, Class 3, Class 4. He finally turned his back to the class and started to walk towards the board. Mathilde jumped up and stealthily ran up the aisle to the exit. With a wink to Oliver, who was watching her disbelievingly, she stepped out and silently closed the door behind her.
Mathilde stopped under a stone awning at the corner of the central courtyard and rolled herself a cigarette. The cold Parisian winter bit at her bright red cheeks. She pulled up the hood of her coat over her curly auburn hair and she strode towards the main entrance. As she passed the circular pool in the center of the courtyard, she glanced inside to check on the fish. They were swimming more slowly than they had that summer, but they seemed content. She couldn’t explain why, but she liked staring at them swim around. She would have named them, but in a bout of typical ENS humor, every single fish was already called Ernest, after Ernest Bersot, a past director of the school.
She exited on the Rue d’Ulm, after which l’ENS took its unofficial name, and walked briskly towards her apartment. Standing only ten minutes away, it had been the luckiest find of her life. Getting any apartment in the center of Paris’ Latin Quarter was close to impossible; finding one right next to her school defied all statistical laws.
At the bottom of her street, she stopped at a small convenience store. If I’m going to be interrupting Szymon in the middle of a raid, might as well soften him up a bit, she thought. She bought a quatre-quarts, a four-quarters, his favorite. It drew its name from its recipe: one quarter eggs, one quarter flour, one quarter sugar and one quarter butter. Half of it was pure fat, which meant it was absolutely delicious. But Szymon liked it primarily because it only cost a euro and was so big that it could serve as a full meal.
She scanned the shop’s QR code with her phone, paid with a tap of a finger, and hurriedly walked up her street. The door opened as she input the four-digit code, 9973. When the landlord had told her the code, she had laughed. 9973 was the largest prime number under 10,000, which made it incredibly easy to remember. The door buzzed open and she climbed the five flights of stairs up to her apartment.
“Szymon?” she asked as she knocked on his door.
She opened and walked in. Szymon was seated in his chair, his closed eyes shadowed by the falling spikes of his straight black hair. From the small twitches of his fingers, held tight in his black controller gloves, she guessed the raid was still ongoing.
“If I give you a quatre-quarts,” she said sweetly, “Mind logging out…?”
Szymon smiled. “Sure, these guys aren’t any good anyway.”
His eyes flashed with blue light as he opened them, before reverting to his usual green-grey. He popped out the VR contact lenses and put them in the case on his desk.
She jumped up on his bed and leaned back against the wall. Szymon took off his gaming gloves and swiveled his chair to face her.
“You still haven’t invested in a full haptics suit?” she asked.
Szymon was probably an even bigger gamer than Mathilde. He spent close to half of every day logged in to a variety of multiplayer games. At that level, any serious gamer went for full haptics, suits that generated small electric stimuli to simulate the sense of touch. Mathilde had gotten her first one on her 16th birthday, and had never looked back. Szymon however, insisted on playing using only haptic gloves.
“I like to know when I’m in reality and when I’m not,” he answered, “So what can I do to help?”
“Something happened today… I…” she said. Where to start? It was still a jumble in her mind.
“You know how I’ve always wanted to develop my own game?” she asked. Szymon nodded. They had had this conversation a few times before.
“I mean,” she backtracked, “We’ve gotten to a level where the environment feels so real. Like in Chronicler, you can feel the grass and the wind around you. It takes a moment to adjust when you come back.”
“But that’s all about quality. Games still completely suck when it comes to diversity.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well look at the computer-generated players, the NPCs. Scripted dialogues, always repeating the same thing. You can put some artificial intelligence in there but then you lose the intonation in the voices and the emotion.”
“And then there’s the environments. Sure it looks fantastic, but spend enough time in-game and you start to notice how everything is the same everywhere. Like in Chronicler, the city walls in Avordia and Cathos and pretty much every other city all have the same texture. Everyone is dressed more or less the same because coming up with clothing designs is a big cost. Sure you can randomize it, but randomizing leads to changes that are either so small that it still looks the same, or weird and irrational creations that make no sense.”
Szymon nodded in agreement. “Yeah. But I mean I’ve told you what I think right?,” He slowly twirled in his chair as he spoke, “The only way you can get true diversity is if you make it user-generated. A single studio is never going to have the manpower or the budget to create incredibly complex worlds. You’re only going to get that if millions of users each contribute tiny things…”
“Yeah but even then. You’re still limited by the creativity of your players right?”
“Well in the other case you’re limited by the creativity of the studio, which is even worse.”
Mathilde paused to let what she was about to say really sink in.
“What if you didn’t need to be…? What if the creativity wasn’t determined by either the players or the studio?”
Szymon stopped turning.
“What do you mean?”
“That’s the breakthrough I got today,” she said. She jumped up from the bed excitedly.
“Mind coming in the kitchen?” she headed towards the door and looked back, “I want a cigarette to explain this.”
Szymon moaned. “It’s bad for you, you know!” he called out after her.
“Shut up and hurry up,” she called back, already scampering down the hallway.
When he finally reached the kitchen, Mathilde had already rolled her cigarette and was blowing smoke out of the window she had cracked open. It was the only room in the flat where Szymon and Oliver let her smoke.
He had put on a parka and his red beanie with ‘POLSKA’ stitched in large white letters. She had made fun of it the first day she’d seen it, but Szymon was the kind of person who simply didn’t care. She had eventually learned he didn’t wear it out of any form of patriotism. He wore it because it fulfilled its purpose perfectly: it was warm. There was no reason to buy another one just for aesthetics when this one worked just fine.
This reasoning summed up Szymon’s entire wardrobe. As far as she knew, he only had two pairs of pants: jeans for going outside and sweatpants for home.
He sat down opposite her and waited for her to speak. She blew out another puff of smoke.
“OK, so today I’m in this class and the professor starts talking about cellular automata.”
“Not really. He was being super basic about it. 2-dimensional cells, simple rules. Half the class was lost anyway.”
Szymon groaned in sympathy.
“But he said something that struck me. As long as it’s discrete, you can model anything with cellular automatons.”
“Automata,” said Szymon.
“Plural of automatons is automata.”
Mathilde blew out her smoke exasperatedly. “Whatever. Pretty sure you can say both. Anyway, so-”
“Let me Google it,” said Szymon, cutting her off and pulling out his phone. Looking him straight in the eyes the whole time, she put her hand on it and gently pressed down until it was lying on the table. Sometimes you just needed to be firm with Szymon.
“Fine. Automata. Look, the thing is… Couldn’t you model an amazing gaming world like that?”
“Assume everything is discrete. Create cellular automata operating in ten dimensions or whatever. For rules, plug in all the most basic physical constants. Gravitational constant, Planck’s constant, speed of light, whatever. Put them all in. Then press play and let it go wild.”
Szymon looked at her with wide eyes. “You’re speaking as if all of that was easy. Just assuming it’s discrete is a huge step.”
“Well that’s why I’m coming to you. I don’t get or even pretend to know much about physics,” she said, “You do. I know there are a lot of gaps but… is it possible?”
Szymon paused, thinking. “Fredkin raised the idea of a ‘finite nature hypothesis’, where he theorizes that ultimately we’ll find out that any and every quantity of physics will turn out to be finite and discrete… so in theory, yes, that part might be possible.”
“What about dimensions?”
“Well how many do you want to put in? We don’t even know how many dimensions exist. Some say ten. M-theory says 11. Bosonic string says 26. Maybe it’s a hundred.”
“Yes,” he said, “In theory, if you could figure out how many there are, it might work. Or if it’s for a game, just keep it at four. That might work too.”
“That’s your biggest problem – there’s a ton of stuff out there we simply haven’t discovered yet. I wouldn’t know what to plug in. Just constants wouldn’t be enough. I mean, just 50 years ago we were sure we were close to having discovered everything there was. And then quantum physics smashed every researcher in the face with a brick.”
“So there might be stuff we haven’t discovered that turns out to be fundamental. I mean no, there definitely is stuff that we haven’t discovered. There just might be huge stuff in there as well.”
“I have an idea on how to solve that with code.”
“Solve the biggest mysteries of physics with code?” Szymon looked at her with the same look of condescension she had had for her fellow student earlier, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
“No, not solve them. Hack my way around them. But hear me out, because I need your help on this.” She put both elbows on the table and leaned in towards Szymon.
“You let the world build itself. It’s not the studio, it’s not the players. It’s just the world and the rules you plug in. It evolves naturally. That’s the only way you can get real diversity, diversity that makes sense. Not randomness.”
“You don’t build a universe,” she continued, “You let your universe build itself. We create an entirely new universe from scratch.”
Szymon looked at her. She saw from his eyes that he liked the idea, but was debating its feasibility. His brain was probably already roaring down the different roads they would have to take, and the obstacles that would need to be overcome. He finally spoke.
“It’s a big if. I don’t know if it would work but it’s worth a shot. But where do you start?”
“From the very beginning,” she said, putting out her cigarette in the ashtray between them, “We go back to the very start of time. We’re going to simulate a New Big Bang.”
~ End of Chapter 1 ~
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