Pi and the Plasmoids

For years, Professor Devadhanga had been supremely confident that his software could establish meaningful communication with extraterrestrial intelligences, no matter how unusual their language.

Some of Devadhanga's colleagues were generative linguists and insisted that knowledge of syntax alone was sufficient to unravel alien languages.

Devadhanga knew better. After all, he was a mathematician, not a linguist. He knew that syntax has no semantic value.

Devadhanga was certainly not afraid of syntax. The algorithms he'd developed were effective enough to reveal the order and relationships embedded in any string of symbols, given a large enough sample of output from the system that produced the string, or even produce well-formed phrases in an alien language.

He realized, however, that despite the grammatical validity of those phrases, they would be utterly meaningless to the alien minds to whom the language belonged.

Devadhanga understood that meaning in language is embodied entirely in the shared experience of the communicators, and that words themselves contain no meaning.

The meaning lies in the tiny leaps of imagination that bridge one communicator's experience of the world to another's. Language is a form of empathy. It relies on each communicator imagining what she would be thinking or feeling if she were making the same utterances as the other speaker.

Human beings hold so much experience in common that they're unaware of how much guessing they must continually do to compensate for the coarseness of language. In the case of alien beings, the experiential gaps would be forbidding chasms without any common reference points.

Devadhanga was convinced he'd have to select a landmark that was held in common by all intelligent beings, no matter how distinct their experience, and then to progressively construct a base of semantic references anchored to that landmark over the course of many exchanges with the aliens.

For him, the solution was simple. The landmark would be the number pi. In Devadhanga's personal view of reality, pi had always been an unassailable fact that would never betray or disappoint him. He regarded the number with an almost religious reverence. That's why the recent events were so upsetting to him.

The atmosphere on that January night was dry and majestically still. The canopy of stars was so thick that the sky seemed to groan under the burden of their weight. Devadhanga took in a sharp breath of the delicious night air and tried to release the tautness in his neck caused by the stress of the day.

He regarded the number with an almost religious reverence. That's why the recent events were so upsetting to him.

Only a few weeks before, life outside earth had been discovered for the first time. In fact, it had been discovered using Devadhanga's algorithms for signal analysis. His algorithms had shown that a strange signal emanating from the sun bore the unmistakable signature of having been produced by intelligent, living beings.

Some scientists secretly envied Devadhanga's sudden worldwide acclaim and his opportunity to be in the limelight, but his celebrity was no consolation to him, because of the implications of this discovery for his beloved pi.

Almost everyone agreed that the signals were produced by life forms that were now called Devadhanga plasmoids in his honor. These were creatures that consisted not of atoms, but of plasma. Since plasma is the most common state of matter in the universe, the cosmos is probably pullulating with Devadhanga plasmoids.

And yet, plasmoids must experience their lives very differently than we do. The march of their existence is realized on a substrate of sublimely intricate but frenzied exchanges of energy in the blazing belly of the sun. They have no regard for space.

For them, the seemingly static, frigid matter out of which our world is built is impossible to imagine, and relationships such as those within a circle or a triangle are meaningless. As Devadhanga banefully acknowledged, so is pi.

As Devadhanga looked up at the mantle of stars in that cold January sky, he imagined he could faintly hear the ecstatic sound of plasmoids singing to each other as they frolicked in their seething ocean of energy.

The great mathematician sucked in one last breath of air, and then walked briskly back to his office to close out that day's business.


Michael Webb, 2000

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