Day 48: Howie’s Universe

“What are you doing, Howie?” asked Barbara, Howie’s mother. She placed some bowls and silverware on the kitchen table where Howie typed on his computer.

“Me and Jake are simulating a universe.”

Barb raised an eyebrow. Her son was always doing outlandish things, but this was ambitious even for him. “Why?” She scooped ground beef out of the skillet into the simmering chili with a wooden spoon.

“It’s a big thing now. We want to be the first to do it.”

From the dining room her husband, Dan, asked, “How about some garlic bread?”

“You fix the DVR, I’ll make you anything you want.”

“Almost there,” Dan said.

“How big is this universe?” asked Barb. She worried about the way Howie lost himself in his projects. A few weeks back she couldn’t pull him away from his chemistry set because he thought he could create life.

“Limitless. Like ours.”

She cut a loaf of french bread in half and started buttering a half. “How do you think you’re going to accomplish this?”

“One atom at a time.”

Barb recognized her husband’s smug flippancy in Howie’s voice. She would return it in kind to her husband, but for Howie it usually became a teaching moment. Usually. “Won’t that take a long time?”

“That’s the beauty of computers, Mom. Once you design a single item, you can copy it a million times if you want.”

“Howie.” She used the voice. The one that says: ‘Stop with that superior tone and think about what you’re saying before you wind up in your room with nothing but a prayer book for penance, some oatmeal for dinner, and a bunch of laundry to fold.’

Howie stopped typing. “Sorry, Mom.”

“Let me ask you this, Howie.” Barb pointed at the screen. “How many atoms of computer resources does it take to simulate a single atom?”

“I know, Mom. I thought of that. To simulate every atom I’d need a computer many times bigger than the actual universe. But we only simulate at the atomic level when some entity observes something at the atomic level.”

“How very Schroedinger of you.”

“Hah!” He turned back to the computer and typed feverishly. “That’s pretty good, Mom. I’m IMing that one to Jake.” After hitting enter, he returned his attention. “Above the atomic level we’ll use mathematical models to emulate mass behavior, and large expanses of the universe will have additional models.”

“That’s good, but if you are going to simulate any significant number of people observing these things, the resources are going to get out of control.” The bread buttered and garlicked, she wrapped it in foil and stuck it in the oven.

“I know, I know,” said Howie. “We’ll cross that bridge when we build it.”

“Well, don’t get upset when you can’t accomplish the impossible,” said Barb.

“I know it’s possible,” said Howie, who turned back to his programming.

“Really.” Barb had stopped being amazed at her son’s illusions of grandeur years ago. “How do you figure, hon?” She tasted the chili and added more cumin.

“We are a simulation. It’s pretty obvious.”

“Excuse me, son.” Again with the voice. “If it were obvious, then I would know about it, too. What do you mean?” Barb had heard of some of the rumblings lately in the popular press about this, but hadn’t thought it worthy of her attention.

Howie sighed, but grudgingly stopped typing again. “Lots of big-time scientists are saying it.”

“And?”

“The theory goes like this. Our simulations are becoming more and more indistinguishable from reality, so it’s logical to expect that at some point it won’t be distinguishable at all. And if we simulate intelligent beings, they will eventually start to make simulations, too—also indistinguishable from reality, and it goes on and on.”

“And?”

“So it’s almost certain that there is a long, long series of universes that are being simulated, and, if that’s the case, it’s extremely unlikely we’re the first one.”

“So if I understand you correctly, you believe that intelligent beings are continuously making new worlds, and those within their worlds who reach a certain level of means will spin out even more worlds, and that this will continue on forever.”

“You understand.” Howie smiled.

“I understand perfectly,” she said nodding. “So you’re a Mormon now.”

Howie’s eyes went wide, and Dan let out a guffaw from the dining room.

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