All of my childhood dreams are coming true. When I first learned about the stars and planets, it was unclear whether our solar system was very rare for having rocky planets. The first ever confirmed detection of an extra-solar planet happened in 1988, when I was seven. I’d like to say I remember it fondly. What I do remember is the slowly unfolding evidence, the rapidly increasing discoveries. We’re now over 500. I’m not surprised that planets were discovered – I was always sure, despite the lack of evidence, that they would be everywhere. (I confess to the prejudiced belief that our place in the universe is almost certainly unremarkable) But in my estimation, it is as though the existence of angels had finally been confirmed.
When I was a kid, anti-matter was largely theoretical. Or rather, its only physical manifestations were infinitesimally quick blips on a screen, and only individual particles at that. Recently, CERN managed to trap some anti-hydrogen for 1000 seconds.
Don’t even get me started on black holes. When I first learned about them, they were speculative entities – things that should exist, given our understanding of the universe, but had yet to be observed. Evidence was mounting during my childhood, but it had yet to filter through popular science press to us plebs. The world opened up by the Hubble telescope was like seeing into dreams.
When I was a kid, there was one shelf in the library that seemed electric. On it lived ‘Chaos’ by James Gleick. I read it way too young, and absorbed little else but a love of fractals from it. There was also a book on Artificial Life, which I must have merely skimmed. But it gave me some magic words to search for online, and I gathered as many ALife programs as I could manage to run on our somewhat eccentric Macintosh LC. Tierra was my favourite. It simulated a block of memory, in which tiny programs just a few dozen commands long reproduced and died. They competed for energy and memory, mated and mutated. I’m told (I never had the patience to craft much of an ecosystem) that in some circumstances predator programs would evolve, that learned to reproduce themselves by tearing apart other programs. Symbiotic relationships, too, could sometimes be discerned. All I saw were small brightly coloured threads, looking like beads on a string, popping into and out of existence as the generations cranked by. It was my introduction to evolution, and it stirred my sense of wonder like few things could. There is orderliness in the universe, my young self concluded.
And now I get to write about this stuff, much to my surprise. I’ve just finished a draft of a paper on the philosophy of computer simulation. It didn’t even occur to me, as a kid, that there was anything I could do about my sense of wonder. It really is like a childhood dream coming true.