Thing a Week 46: Solarium’s Oracle

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“Has it happened yet?”

Dr. Douglas Adams beamed down at his excited daughter as she repeated the question, twitching her gaze back and forth between her father and the computer monitor in front of him. Monitors like it stretched from wall to wall in either direction, and Dr. Adams was just one of six engineers and three of their children admiring an ocean of debug information mirrored on each of their screens.

“Not yet,” Dr. Adams explained. “It’s like a big math problem. You’ll know it happens when we have the answer.” He lovingly grinned at her sour look and added, “and the lights should turn green.”

Dr. Lindbergh and Dr. Brewer had each brought a son to witness the occasion, and were currently carrying on a conversation — about how they got their sons out of school for this momentous occasion — without ever breaking eye contact from the screen. The sons, each barely in kindergarten, were clearly less interested in what was on the screen; but they still remained glued to it out of curiosity, however, wondering what could be so enthralling to steal their parent’s attention. Dr. Lindbergh’s son sipped loudly from the large fountain soda his tiny hands were wrapped around.

“How do you know it will finish today?” the room’s only daughter asked. “Hasn’t this been running forever?”

“Not forever, but a very long time. But we knew it had to end sometime, and it turns out our prediction software is preeetty good,” the father smiled.

Elly’s eyes widened. “It works on itself too?”

The moment Elly finished her question, the rows of florescent lights stretched across the room’s ceiling all flickered, then turned a bright green. Seconds passed before any of the adults in the room moved, stunned with disbelief that they could have finally found an answer — the answer — to life’s system.

“You see,” Dr. Brewer was explaining to his now-curious son, “everything affects everything. Every person in the universe affects every other person, all the time. Not just things like you and me, here, talking — me teaching you this; but also things later. Who cleans up this room every night?”

The boys thought for a moment, then Brewer’s son tentatively answered, “Janitors.”

Dr. Brewer bent over — eyes gazing everywhere other than the screen to prolong the sense of impending victory — and picked up an empty, crumpled water bottle from beneath his son’s chair.

“And how do you think seeing a mess and more work will make them have a better or a worse experience at work?”

“Worse,” Dr. Brewer’s son muttered. “I know, I know.”

“Can we see?” Elly asked, eyeing the screen that had frozen on a snapshot of the text that had been printing out prior. “What does it mean?”

Dr. Adams reached for the mouse and brought up a separate program needed to visualize the result in more human-friendly terms. There was no hesitation as he opened the file and his screen went black. A half-second later, their result was plastered in a large, green text that filled the entire screen.

“You’re kidding,” Dr. Lindbergh said, laughing as she scanned down the reported coefficients for each universal variable. “The system contains millions of interconnected variables and the coefficients are — are you sure there hasn’t been some kind of mistake?”

Everyone’s computer screens moved again as Dr. Lingbergh brought back up the code and started scrolling through.

Dr. Adams closed the window immediately and shouted, “Dr. Lingbergh! You know an answer means the code isn’t ours anymore. Classified, they said. They were very clear on that.”

“I’m not sure we have an answer,” Dr. Brewer piped up. He pointed at the bottom of the screen, where the variable results were still being displayed, and then issued a search to find lines like it: no others found.

“There’s still one variable unaccounted for,” he continued. “The model with this coefficient fits every single variable exactly except this one. What’s so special about this one?”

“They died in the early 2000’s,” Dr. Adams noted, pulling up that model’s timeline record. “A nobody from Earth, nothing notable. Doctors, we have a behavior model fit for every living person in the universe. There’s never been a more important day for mankind!”

“But the coefficient,” Dr. Lindbergh questioned.

“I know the jokes, Alan. But unless one of you are pulling one on me, there’s no joke here. You can’t argue with math; look at the results here. Yes, the weighted coefficient for every variable in our system’s model is 42, but that model is going to change our universe forever.”

“We could get Peace Preservations,” Dr. Adams added, overflowing with excitement. “I think we could solve world peace with this, definitely. Compute a universe or two with it and compare to ours?”

“I’d love to live forever, I think I’m more interested in checking out that unsolved variable,” Dr. Brewer interrupted. “You can definitely make more big impacts while living forever, but you definitely don’t have to live forever to make big impacts. I want to know why this variable — well, person — didn’t follow life’s rules. What made them so special?”

He opened up their timeline record and quickly scanned it for anything that popped out.

“I’d like to know that too,” Dr. Lindbergh added. “How did an outlier beat our model? We’ll need to find that out anyway when the coefficient makes everyone think our model is a joke and starts ripping it apart.”

“Our model is rock solid,” Dr. Adams asserted quickly. “Let them rip it apart; you can’t complain about results. We can start a universe tomorrow and have something to show by then.”

The three doctors were silent for a moment while they pondered on which approach to take, but the silence was quickly interrupted by Elly asking, “Why not both?”

The engineers turned towards her.

“My dad can make the world a better place,” Elly said. “You two should look at that thing. While you’re learning about it, you might find out if they’re like anyone alive now. Then you can all make a good world together and know it’ll be better for everyone.”

Dr. Adams looked down at Elly, more proud of her now than he had ever before. He reached out and put a hand on her shoulder, smiling, “Elly, that’s a really good idea. Thank you.” He turned back to the other engineers and said, “If you’re alright with working with me on Utopian models for, say, forty percent of your time, you’re more than welcome to spend the other sixty solving your free variable.”

“I’d prefer that,” Dr. Lindbergh said, nodding. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” Elly sang.

The engineers laughed with the kids. Dr. Adams brought back up the unsolved variable’s timeline record and nodded towards the screen. “Want to take a look now?”

Dr. Lindbergh and Dr. Brewer whipped back to their monitors and began collectively scrolling around for more information, reporting it aloud to the group to highlight interesting facts as they found them.

“Born into a much better life than they could have been.”

“Taken advantage of occasionally.”

“Had plenty of admirers they never acknowledged.”

“Look, the last media consumption we have before the record was closed was some story named Solarium’s Oracle from a no-name author,” Dr. Brewer pointed at the screen, tracing a set of converging lines through the web of connections being drawn. “We predicted everything correctly for them up to that point, actually, see?”

“Right, after they read that story their path changed. Prediction accuracy dropped from one hundred percent to six where it was steady for a while until it dropped to zero percent, here. Almost exactly one day later.” He pointed at another set of converging lines on the screen.

“Do we have a copy of this story? He issued a search for Solarium’s Oracle, then returned focus back to the converging lines Dr. Brewer was pointing at. “What happened there?”

“They died,” Dr. Lindbergh said, squinting at his own screen. “Straight up just died. We didn’t predict it; better than baseline chance.”

“How’d they die?”

“Aneurysm, apparently. Autopsies were manual back then, too, so nothing there either.” Dr. Lindbergh said, shaking with interest. She traced her hand in a circle over hundreds of outward lines and added, “Look at all the people affected, too.” She zoomed out to emphasis the effect ripple.

“Very sad,” Dr. Brewing added, reporting his own findings with a finger. “The last accurate predictions we had back here — right before they read that story—well, it predicted with high confidence they were going to do some great things with their life.”

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