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My first existential crisis began around fourth grade when the teacher told us that everything was made of atoms, little tiny building blocks of life.

My mind flooded with the logical consequences of this new world view. I had always thought of humans as large, indivisible things. Composed 100% Grade A "human". But tiny building blocks, essentially, picolegos? Suddenly the class of my peers seemed to resemble a pack of grinning meat golems.

Legos are apt. Properly constructed they all click into exact place, unchanging, no room for anything. No Lego setsinclude a tiny, translucent jelly like "soul" block that you can sort of try to imbue your lego man with. There just isn't room for it.

A guy who writes music for a living once noted that "Knowledge is a fractal thing", and the statement "we're made up of tiny building blocks called atoms" is a level of knowledge toward the truth. But it is also a dangerously attractive abstraction of the truth, for instead of hinting at further wonders and complexities of atomic theory (e.g. that the "blocks" are actually energy spheres made up of 3x discrete types which mainly lord over a whole lot of nothingness), it seems to provide a comfortable stopping point of any further investigation.

In some ways, the idea that all the kids in my class are made up of tiny blocks is far easier to grasp and serves to mask the greater, head splitting complexities of the modern world. It allows you to model *others* as knowable, static things. It also silently frames what matters, just matter.

It seems complex. 30 kids times a very large number of atoms per kid. That is the ultimate tally, right?

While it is tempting to picture ourselves as super complex minerals, I think it does a great disservice to the truly cosmically wonderful thing about humans, our ability to create system after system that each verge on infinite complexity.

Even starting with simple biology, the dance of gas molecules being exchanged by the rapid breathing of a classroom of children, the cross-pollination of helpful and harmful bacteria and the resulting microbiological battles and peace that ensues from a single slobbered drink fountain nozzle.

From an economic stand point, the possessions in their desk alone infer a complex tale of man hours spent, manufacturing machines, training, marketing, shipping logistics, each of which has an intricately complex economic purpose and motivation.

Socially, all 30 of these children are looking about capturing up to 10 unique views each second, on the playground they all attempt to play or change their perceived role in the hierarchy in each of their heads. This doesn't seem like much, because we do it so easily. The number of possible individual relationships in a set of 30 is 30 factorial.

A rough estimate for the number of atoms in a fourth grader is a number starting with 2 and ending with 27 zeros, multiplied by 30 this becomes a 6 followed by 28 zeros. The number of possible perceived social hiarachys in a set of 30 children is a number that starts with 2 and ends with 32 zeros, a number fifty thousand times larger.

I haven't even touched upon the complexity of our electrical, water, information, heating and transpiration infrastructure, especially once it is teeming with individual agents.

Before fractal geometry came along the mathematicians would label any shape or object that couldn't be expressed via their geometry "a monster".

This is what I like to think is special about human beings. Everything else in the universe trends towards simplicity. Suns politely degrade until they violently stop being suns. Objects in motion keep on chugging unless given a reason not to. Energy finds its path to lower and lower states.

But not humans. We not only buck the trend of entropy, we violate it on several different orders of mathematical infinity.

We are not the equivalent of slime lizards clinging to a wet rock. We are a planet of ridiculous Godzillas, stomping on the customs of reality with an amplitude that increases by an order of magnitude every decade.

So often, staring into the sky can make it seem like we are insignificant mistakes. Whenever you feel that way, take a moment to try to work out what 7 billion factorial is in your head, and then ponder whether the Universe might actually be in awe of us.

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Meta Information:

Title: Abstraction
Date posted: 09 Jul '12 - 23:50
Filed under: General
Word Count: 722 words
Good Karma: 108 (vote)
Bad Karma: 78 (vote)
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