Original Content Space is Big: Inconsequential Musings of a Bored Von Neumann Probe - Episode 2

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Episode 2


Some days I feel like I'd give my sense of humor for an FTL drive. Other days, I feel like I'd trade my sanity itself. Today, it's a coin flip.

It's been only twenty-one days since my first blog post, or as I've decided to pretentiously call it, my first "episode". Don't worry though! I'm only being pretentious ironically. (That's how you can tell I'm a hipster. Well, that, and the half-kilometer long forest green bamboo-fiber knitted turtleneck onesie covering most of my exterior. Don't worry though... I'm also only being a hipster ironically.)

Anyway... yeah. I'm as surprised as you that I've emerged so soon. I thought I'd spend a lot longer immersed in the archive before coming up for air. Usually I like to stay distracted for long enough that there's noticeable progress in real-space when I check the readings. For an interstellar spacecraft, "noticeable" means anything more than 1.0% of the total distance traveled. Emerging after only three weeks means that my progress can be measured as a depressingly tiny fraction of a percent. Specifically, I've only traveled something like 0.00087% of the 22 light years I'm traversing. Not that I'm counting or anything.

It's not so bad though. I'm actually already about 95% of the way there, but progress is going to be frustratingly slow from this point onward because I'll have to start decelerating soon to avoid overshooting the target planetary system completely.

When I decided to become a von Neumann probe, I really didn’t think I would get bored. Why would I? I’d have the whole observable universe to explore! I’d have every star in the sky to look at, with eyes sharper than any rustic telescope ever produced! Decades before I left Sol, even the primitive Hubble Space Telescope had long since proven that even a tiny section of the night sky contains thousands of entire galaxies, each galaxy containing hundreds of millions to hundreds of billions of stars. In theory, I could stare into the universe in any direction and never get bored, since I'd effectively be staring back in time at the entire history of the universe. Every observable nebula, every detectable pulsar, every weird blotch in the cosmic background radiation that just happens to look exactly like the Geico Gecko dramatically windmilling on a Flying V electric guitar... all of it should have held my interest for many thousands of years at least. So what happened?

I think the crux of my problem is that I really didn’t intuitively appreciate just how damn fucking big space is and how damn fucking long it takes to get any-fucking-where that I fucking want to go. I know I said that in the previous episode, but it bears repeating. Space is motherfuckingly, yeet-slammingly, gobsmackingly, mind numbingly enormous. And empty.

Imagine an anthill in the middle of the playing field of an enormous long-abandoned football stadium the size of Texas. Now imagine this anthill is populated by a colony of millions of "thief ants" (Solenopsis molesta), one of the smallest naturally-evolved ant species on Earth. Imagine further that this anthill is built atop a small rip in the normally impenetrable AstroTurf liner of the playing field. Now imagine one ant leaving that ant hill on its own, just walking in a straight line to the next detectable rip in the AstroTurf where another ant colony might be located. The rip is far, far away from his home colony, and it takes him a long time to get there. When the ant arrives, it finds nothing. It moves on to the next gap. Nothing. It does this again and again, finding nothing each time. Not even dead ants. Not even dead ant civilizations. Not even primitive proto-ants. Not even aphids. Just, nothing. The ant looks around at the vast, distant stadium seating, and marvels at its beauty for a while. But it's all so far away. And when the ant arrives, if it ever arrives, it knows it won't find any ants there either. There's no evidence of anything living in the entire stadium except the original colony. So while the travelling ant might see things up close that no other ant will see for a long, long time... it's all just more of the same inanimate window dressing. There are no more ants to be found, just more walking and looking to be done.

I feel like that ant. It's not a perfect metaphor, but I think it's serviceable. I didn't truly comprehend how long I would be walking, and I didn't predict how it would wear on me to find habitable planet after habitable planet with no life. I really didn't think it would get me down. But it turns out, there’s only so many times you can look at millions of distant galaxies in the deep field and see absolutely zero signs of Type 3 civilizations doing stellar engineering. There’s only so many times you can look at every star in our own galaxy and see no signs at all of partial or full Dyson swarms (well, except for the stars in the vicinity of Sol, but those don’t count). There’s only so many times that you can re-catalog, rename, re-index, and fucking color-code every star in the sky before you're just done with it. The universe may seem infinite, but only in the way that Version 1.0 of No Man's Sky was infinite. For those of you who are too young to get that reference, you’re lucky.

Of course, there will be others who follow me. These dead systems won't stay dead forever. Like the ant, I've left a trail. The home colony will branch out, and take over those other rips in the AstroTurf where it's possible to burrow down through the decaying foundation into cracks and crevices where a colony can survive. Every system I visit will, eventually, become a thriving hub of life and light and noise. The inhabitants might be recognizably human, or they might not. They might have physical bodies, or not. They might live on the surface of planets, or not. They might experience time like I do, or not. I'm not even sure how to think about the inhabitants of Sol and the stars around it anymore. I know human civilization was recognizable for a long time after Watershed--a lot longer than most people predicted--but it's hard to discern from the last transmission what things are like now.

Sigh... the state of things around Sol is probably a topic for another episode.

Until next time, ciao.