Monday, April 28, 2014

Final Thoughts on "Story of Your Life"

After the grandiose theories on heptapod evolution that I formulated in my last blog post, the latter half of “Story of Your Life” was a bit of a letdown. It turns out that their grasp of Fermat’s principle doesn’t hint at aquatic beginnings (though I still hold that the heptapods must have an aquatic ancestor), but rather an alternative, nonlinear perception of time that allows heptapods to think of maximizing and minimizing trajectories rather than cause and effect as humans do. This different perception means that heptapods know or experience their entire timeline—past, present, and future—simultaneously. It explains why the heptapods never bothered to ask the narrator questions about their own language, doesn’t it?
            As the narrator learns Heptapod B, she begins to perceive her entire timeline simultaneously as well, as shown in her blocky memory acquisition and the wonky tenses she uses while relating the story of her daughter’s life. As happens whenever we learn anything, especially new languages, the structure of the narrator’s brain changed. It must have changed in such a way that opened up her inner eye, though, because by the end of her experience with the heptapods, she knows the future and passively accepts that her fate is now predetermined in her perception.
            I think this concept is cool—it’s simply linguistic determinism taken to the extreme—but I really don’t think it could actually happen. How might a perception of time like that of the heptapods naturally evolve in a population? I can’t even speculate. It would certainly be adaptive, if knowledge of the future could be acted upon. The narrator’s experience does not definitively prove that it cannot be acted upon—she simply didn’t want to change her story because she wanted to live it. A species that knew the future would know the locations of food, water, shelter, mates, and competitors, as well as the entire evolution of their species. If it didn’t become extinct due to widespread existential crisis, such a species would do very well.

            This knowledge also calls into question the heptapods’ motivation for contacting and teaching the humans their language. Why would they impart knowledge of the future to an alien species? Was their goal to make humans an enlightened race? To warn us of our future mistakes? To place our thinking processes on their own level so that they could befriend us? If knowledge of the future cannot be acted upon, then what would the point be? Maybe it was simply a move to maximize good will among humans or minimize the time it takes for us to advance as a species.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Intersection of Biology and Linguistics in Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life"

I’ve never before tried to figure out a creature’s life history based on their language. This is because there is no other species on Earth with which scientists could do this. Scientists have methods to infer the anatomy or lifestyle of organisms that are difficult to study because they are rare and difficult to find, like deep-sea fish or small nocturnal rodents that live in complex tropical rainforests on uninhabited islands, or because they are difficult to contain for observation, like whales. Given only a blurry video or photograph of a new species, scientists will classify its morphology, relate it to similar animals, and logic out the functions of its structures. Of course, there would never be an opportunity to use this approach with a species that has developed language and technology comparable to our own unless we encounter an alien species—which the narrator of Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” does. Like scientists with only visual evidence that an organism exists, the people in Chiang’s story cannot physically interact with the aliens they would like to study.
            If I were to guess at the life history of the Heptapods, I would start with their physical anatomy. They have barrel-shaped torsos supported by seven identical limbs, which, judging from the narrator’s description of their rippling movement, probably evolved from tentacles used for swimming by an aquatic ancestor. Heptapods are radially symmetric and therefore their movement is multidirectional, rather than unidirectional as is in the case of bilaterally symmetric humans (and every other land animal on Earth). This is an important part of the story, since this fact is used by the narrator to figure out that Heptapod writing is also multidirectional; it doesn’t matter what direction you turn their characters because they mean the same thing at any angle. In contrast, English letters lose meaning when they are twisted or attached to each other in odd ways.
            It so happens that the vast majority of radially symmetry animals on Earth are aquatic (think sea anemones or jellyfish—which are both considered sessile during at least one stage of their life cycle), further supporting the theory that Heptapods evolved from an aquatic ancestor. One might think of Heptapods as a hypothesis of what intelligent life would look like if radially symmetry never evolved. Bilaterally symmetric animals outcompeted radially symmetric animals because they are better suited to purposeful movement (which is useful if you are a heterotroph and need to move around in order to find food). If bilaterally symmetry never arose, jellyfish-like creatures might have eventually evolved into terrestrial organisms, become social, and developed the concept of language as we know it. They might even have been more successful with higher thinking because they have a complete view of their environment (have eyes surrounding their entire head part), rather than the limited view that we have (having only two eyes on the front of our face).
            If the Heptapods really do have their origins in the ocean, then that might explain their system of mathematics that has Gary the scientist so excited. The first human concept of physics that the Heptapods recognize is Fermat’s Principle of Least Time, which explains light refraction when it travels from air to water. If the Heptapods remained close to water as they evolved terrestrially (perhaps continuing to hunt aquatic prey or find mates there) then light refraction would be a very important concept to them. It would make sense that they would start their study of physics there. Motion and gravity were the first concepts explored by humans. Humans needed to know how to best manipulate projectiles in order to hunt wild animals, which involves all the basic principles of two dimensional motion that physicists like Newton were interested in. Instead of time and velocity as basic units, the Heptapods may have started out with units of fluidity or light refraction as well as the “action” that is mentioned in the story.

            Similarly, their basic units of mathematics might be influenced by alternative senses. The narrator ponders “what kind of perception made a minimum or maximum readily apparent to them?” Do the Heptapods really perceive the world with senses that humans do not have and have never imagined? If so, this implies that they have sensory organs and receptors that do not exist on Earth! How cool would it be to find out how they work? And if we discovered how a new sense worked we could probably design a tool to measure whatever it detects for ourselves! That is probably the only way we could implement any sort of Heptapod mathematics to solve real-world problems. Hooray for biology!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Wikus in District 9

Instead of focusing solely on the biology behind the prawns and Wikus’s (unbelievable) transformation (which must have involved the altering of his genes on a cell-to-cell basis), I’m going to talk about Wikus’s character in this blog post. I liked him as the protagonist. His personality was a mixture of douche bag and loving husband, such that I couldn't decide whether to hate him or feel bad for him. His character evolved over the course of the movie as well, making him that much more intriguing.
            At the beginning of the film, Wikus was a lovable office nerd, appointed to a militaristic position by his father-in-law (in a move that stank of nepotism). It was difficult to reconcile the image of the bumbling cubicle farmer with the man who set shacks of prawn eggs on fire and sanctioned the death of two million prawns in one day. This all happened before we were introduced to humanized prawns and we only saw them as animalistic antisocial bug monsters, so we didn’t really care whether or not they died in masses. Later, though, when we’ve met Christopher and CJ, who have retained family love and a connection to the technology of their people, Wikus’s actions seem evil. Finally, Wikus ends the movie by killing what must be hundreds of humans in order to help Christopher and CJ escape to their mother planet. This might be construed as admirable, but Wikus only defended the prawn family because he needed them in order to reverse his transformation—so that he can return to his wife. Wikus’s one truly selfless act was to go back and save Christopher when he was wearing the mecha-suit.
            I read Wikus’s function as main character as supporting apartheid. His idea of a resolution to the prawn problem is either separating them further from Johannesburg and placing them in tents or getting them off the planet entirely by fixing their ship and excising prawn-ness so that he can return to being fully human. If someone else was the main character—say, Christopher or one of the MNU guys—then the entire tone of the story would have changed. The main goal would then be either to save the prawns by getting them to a better place or to eliminate the monstrous prawns that pose a threat to the people of Johannesburg. As is, the audience can see that the prawns are thinking being that are being oppressed and yet no effort is made on the part of the main character to inspire understanding in humans of the prawn condition. This support of apartheid can also be read in the animalistic portrayal of the Nigerians as antagonists. Honestly, the film placed them almost below the level of prawns, because for some reason the Nigerians chose to live in the hovel that is District 9 and want to become like the prawns so that they can use their guns (just as MNU does).

            I suppose the lame denouement was meant to expose the darkness of human nature and leave us with a bad taste in our mouths. In a way, the stagnant prejudices of the characters in this movie are more realistic than any major character change the film might have pulled out of nowhere. It would have been a miracle for the humans and prawns to like each other by the end of the movie, just as it would be a miracle for real racial tensions to dissipate in the span of a couple days.