“Story of Your Life” Guest Lecture

The Science Fiction class for which I agreed to guest lecture is an 8am class, which is earlier than I like to be up and about. Knowing this, I went to bed early on Thursday night. Of course, being a bookaholic of long standing, I needed something to read to put me to sleep. Genius that I am, I grabbed the ARC of Cory Doctorow’s upcoming YA novel Little Brother

So, I hadn’t really had enough sleep when I got to campus for the class on Friday. Still, adrenaline can make up for a lot…

I was introduced as “Not only a physics professor, but also a world famous blogger,” though I suggested that ought to be “nerd famous” instead. I started off with the hypothetical scenario, which worked pretty well. Overall, the students were split something like 35/35/30 (“Yes,” “No,” and “It’s Too Early to Make Hard Decisions”) one guy suggested that it would depend on age– at 18, he was unlikely to take the deal, because he’d be facing eighty years of missing someone he spent only five years with. One woman in the class made an analogy to pet ownership– we know that we will outlive our dogs and cats, and yet that doesn’t stop us from buying them and forming attachments.

(The regular professor for the class didn’t let me get away with not giving my own answer, which is that I don’t think I’d take the deal. Even though I’m the one who posed the question, I’m skeptical of the idea of a “soul mate” or somebody who is that perfect for you. I didn’t intend for the alternative to be “spend your life alone”– just that you could either have the introduction to your “perfect” match, or go on with life as usual. Most people manage to find happiness all right without a guaranteed “perfect” match, and I think the certainty of their impending death would color the relationship too much.)

As for the story itself, the students picked up all the main points I wanted to hit pretty quickly. They saw the connection with the hypothetical right away, and picked up most of the structural stuff. They caught that the sequential plot line is all stuff that occurred before Louise really learns the heptapod language and learns to see the future, while the future bits all jump around in time. They also noted that the jumping around is disorienting in the same way that being able to see the whole future at once would be. Those are both excellent points, that I hadn’t put in my original notes, so good for them.

I ad-libbed a little definitional thing in the middle, because it occurred to me on the way there, and it’s such a staple of fan arguments. I argued that the story is unquestionably science fiction not because it has aliens or superhuman abilities, but because it doesn’t really work without the science. You could make a sort of “magic realist” version of the same basic story with a character who just happens to acquire that ability for no sensible reason, but as written, the linguistics and the physics are essential. If you take either out, the story falls apart.

I was pleased to see that they all enjoyed the story, and I plugged Chiang’s other stories. The regular professor for the class was even happier, because she said she had a hard time getting them to accept ambiguity early in the term, but they were happy with this story, which leaves lots of things open.

On the whole, I think it went well, and it was an interesting experience. The class probably wound up being a bit more lecture-like than usual for them– students aren’t all that lively at 8am, and I’m more than willing to talk to fill awkward silences. It was considerably more discussion-like than my usual lectures, though, and I think it was a useful experience for me for that reason.

10 thoughts on ““Story of Your Life” Guest Lecture

  1. Great report on a great class!

    I agree about the challenge of teaching early in the morning (except for that other species called “morning people”).

    The pet analogy is first good contribution that you ascribe to a student. It makes me think of (was it Marvin Minsky?) the hope that superhuman AIs after the Singularity decide to adopt humans as pets.

    “Soul Mate” does seem to be more a literay convention than social reality. And yet, and yet… I know so many people who seem to believe it. My father’s 4th marriage distrurbed me because he made such a claim. But I’ve made such a claim about my own 22-year marriage, so I’ll let this slide.

    The students were very clever to correlate plot presentation (story versus plot) and flashbacks/flashforwards with heptapodese; and with disorientation (intentional by Ted Chiang to get us into the head space of the viewpoint character). Very perceptive!

    I agree with you completely that this is HARD SF. In this case, the Hard Sciences being Physics (Feynman Diagrams anbd Least Action), Linguistics (had the class been in that Department, it might have gone quite differently), and Astrobiology.

    Prediction: you are invited again to bridge the alleged “Two Cultures Gap.”

    Thank you for a fine summary of a wonderful class.

  2. I vaguely remember a study showing that people who describe themselves as having found “their soul mate”, “their perfect match” and so on were all living at the same average distance from their significant other to be as the married or otherwise committed population at large. And that distance is pretty small; on the order of a few kilometers. It is either an absolutely astounding coincidence that your perfect soulmate always ends up living close enough that you’ll bump into each other and start socializing – or our soul mate is not quite as unique as we may want to believe.

    Another way to see it: I live in Osaka, population about 9 million. If my perfect match is literally a “one in a million”, then there should be 4-5 women in this urban area that would fit perfectly, and probably a hundred or more close enough that it doesn’t matter. As it happens I believe my wife is rather more unique than that, but then, I may be somewhat biased ^_^

  3. Re: # 2, Janne, I share your statistical skepticism.

    However, I was born in New York City and working in greater Los Angeles when I found my close-to-soul-mate in Melbourne, Australia, at a World Science Fiction Convention. She had been born and brought up in Edinburgh, Scotland, and was doing her Physics post-doc in Sydney, Australia.

    On the one hand, events such as Worldcons self-select for certain kinds of people. On the other hand, I tell youngsters to have hope that there might indeed be a soul mate for them out there someplace. Problem is, one doesn’t know which continent!

    And who says that one’s soul mate has to be the same species? That’s a major trope of Science Fiction: the Alien as Other. Loving the Alien. As Ted Sturgeon said: “If all men are brothers, would you want one to marry your sister?”

  4. So the Doctorow thing doesn’t suck?

    The first 175 pages are very good.
    I haven’t finished it yet, but it was hard to put it aside and get some sleep.

  5. I’ve never really understood the probalistic refutations of the whole soul mate thing. If you’re going to presume the existence of one perfect person destined to yadda yadda, why would you assume such a person would be randomly distributed across the entire population?

  6. I’ve never really understood the probalistic refutations of the whole soul mate thing.

    Yeah, it’s always seemed a little dubious. I mean, what are the odds that my ideal match would be someone who grew up herding goats in Mongolia. What would we talk about?

    The thing that bugs me is that the whole concept seems to be based on a weirdly static idea of personality and compatability. For it to make sense, you would need to have fixed and immutable traits that don’t change in time.

    But that’s just not the case. People who don’t initially appear “perfect for each other” turn out to grow closer over time. It happens all the time.

    And it’s not like this is some hidden, secret revolutionary idea– it’s only the basis for every romantic comedy plot in the history of human civilization. And, similarly, people who were perfect for each other grow apart, which accounts for a fair chunk of the tragedies.

    People grow, people change. The idea of a single “soul mate” is preposterous.

  7. Chad, if I may get slightly geeky here out of respect for the profundity of what you so casually wrote…

    “People grow, people change. The idea of a single ‘soul mate’ is preposterous.”

    So, reading between your lines slightly, might I suggest Chad and Jonathan’s 10 Soul Mate Chaos Lemmas:

    (1) People in love think that they are attracted to each other, but, actually, they are observing complicated aperiodic attracting orbits of certain, usually low-dimensional, dynamical systems.

    (2) The lover-lover relationship, as a dynamical system, displays sensitive dependence on initial conditions on a closed invariant set (which consists of more than one orbit), and is thus called chaotic.

    (3) In fiction, as opposed to reality, the lover-lover relationship is described as deterministic. For example: “Boy finds girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl, they all live happily ever after.” But in reality, love exhibits a chaotic solution to a deterministic equation.

    (4) Specifically, the love solution has an outcome that is very sensitive to initial conditions (i.e., small changes in initial conditions lead to great differences in outcome). If she asks: “does this dress make me look fat?” then saying “why blame the dress?” will lead to a very different outcome than saying: “I can’t decide if you look more beautiful in the black dress or in the white lab coat.”

    (5) Being sensitive to the initial condition of the system (so that initially nearby points of view can evolve quickly into very different states of mind), is a property sometimes known as the butterfly effect. Thus the Dolly Parton Analogy: “Love is like a butterfly, as soft and gentle as a sigh; the multicolored moods of love are like its satin wings; Love makes your heart feel strange inside.”

    (6) The lover-lover relationship therefore has an evolution through phase space which appears to be quite random.

    (7) The very use of the word “chaos” in human relationships, including lover-lover, implies some observation of a system, perhaps through measurement, and that these observations or measurements vary unpredictably. In fiction or in nonfiction we tend to say that observations are chaotic when there is no discernible regularity or order.

    (8) It should be noted that despite its “random” appearance, chaos is a deterministic evolution. Furthermore, there are chaotic systems that to not have periodic orbits (periodic orbits only survive in the boundaries of KAM tori, and for sufficiently strong perturbations from the integrable case, islands do not necessarily survive). This is a sketch of the proof of John Donne’s Meditation XVII: “No man is an island, entire of itself…any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind…” or womankind as the case may be.

    (9) However, in so-called “quantum chaos love”, trajectories do not diverge exponentially because they are constrained by the fact that the entire evolution must be unitary. This may be true if, for instance, the wedding ceremony is performed in a Unitarian church.

    (10) As any person who has been in a lover-lover (including husband-wife) relationship eventually learns, the boundary between regular and chaotic behavior is often characterized by period doubling, followed by quadrupling, and so forth, although other routes to chaos are also possible. Missing a period may also lead to great differences in outcome.

    Taken together, these 10 lemmas lead to the Chad Orzel-Kate Nepveu Theorem:
    “People grow, people change. The idea of a single ‘soul mate’ is preposterous.”

    Proof is left to the student. Hand in your proof tomorrow. Show all work.

    Class dismissed.


    Weisstein, Eric W. “Chaos.” From MathWorld–A Wolfram Web Resource.

  8. Over on BoingBoing [see snippet of text below this intro] is a link to a report in Wired [“Babies See Pure Color, but Adults Peer Through Prism of Language”, by Brandon Keim EmailMarch 03, 2008] of a study on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis weakly confirmed for color perception.

    This was one of the original examples discussed at length by Benjamin Lee Whorf [24 April 1897 in Winthrop, Massachusetts – 26 July 1941], American linguist who, along with Edward Sapir [26 January 1884 – 4 February 1939], is best known for having laid the foundation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Whorf graduated from MIT in 1918 with a degree in chemical engineering. Shortly thereafter, he began work as a fire prevention engineer (inspector) for the Hartford Fire Insurance Company, pursuing linguistic and anthropological studies as an avocation. “Flammable” versus “inflammable” was life or death, as was the dangerous practice of labeling gas cans “empty” when they still contained explosive vapor.

    In 1931, Whorf began studying linguistics at Yale University and soon deeply impressed Edward Sapir, who warmly supported Whorf’s academic pursuits. In 1936, Whorf was appointed Honorary Research Fellow in Anthropology at Yale. In 1937, Yale awarded him the Sterling Fellowship. He was a Lecturer in Anthropology from 1937 through 1938.

    Science Fiction has made use of Whorf’s writing: “… the Hopi language is seen to contain no words, grammatical forms, construction or expressions or that refer directly to what we call ‘time’, or to past, present, or future…”
    [Carroll, John B. (ed.)(1956). [Language Thought and Reality. Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. MIT Press, Boston, Massachusetts; ISBN 0262730065 9780262730068]

    Learning to talk changes how we perceive color
    Posted by Cory Doctorow, March 5, 2008 7:23 AM

    A new British study suggests that our perception of color changes when we acquire language (and the ability to linguistically categorize colors):

    “As an adult, color categorization is influenced by linguistic categories. It differs as the language differs,” said Kay, who is renowned for his studies on the ways that different cultures classify colors. He cited recent research on the ability of Russian speakers to detect shades of blue [pdf] that English speakers classify as a single color.

    How does the switch to a language-bound perception of color take place?

    “That’s the $64,000 question,” said Kay. “We have every reason to believe that learning a language has a lot to do with it — but [as for] how that works, it’s early.”

    {see web page to follow link to main story}

    Whorf is not to be confused with Worf, played by Michael Dorn, main character in both Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and also the films based on The Next Generation. Worf was the first Klingon main character to appear in Star Trek. One wonders what a conversation between Worf and Benjamin Lee Whorf would cover.

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