Book: The Three-Body Problem

I read The Three-Body Problem last week and loved it. It was a little hard to get into it at the beginning and that ended up being pat of the beauty of it. I’m not going to summarize it here – I encourage you to read it – but want to talk about the thoughts it simulated.

About two-thirds of the way through the book, I had a thought while laying in bed next to Amy that we don’t have any idea how the universe works. I blurted out something like “We don’t know how the universe, whatever that means, works.” Appropriately, Amy asked “Tell me more” which is how many of our funnest conversations unfold.

I’ve been listening to the Hyperion Cantos on Audible while I run. I’ve ramped up my training again so I’m almost done with the last book (Rise of Endymion). As I absorb all of them, I think Dan Simmons has written what may end up being the most important science fiction books of our era.

When I toss creative constructs like the void which binds, the conflict between humans and cylons, and the Trisolaran’s (including criticism about how stupid they are) into a cauldron and stir it around, the stew that gets made reinforces my view that as humans we have no idea what is actually going on.

The idea the we are the only sentient beings that have ever existed makes no sense to me. Our view of time, which is scaled by a normal human lifespan (now approaching 80 years) sizes the lens through which we view things. Our daily cadence, which is ruled by endless interactions that last under a second and require almost no foreground thought, just reinforces a very short time horizon.

What if our time horizon was 100,000 years. Or 1,000,000 years. Or we could travel forward and backward through time at that scale. Or cross physical distances immediately without time debt. Or cross physical distances while varying the time dimension so we can travel both physically and through time at will. Or maybe travel on a dimension that is different than distance or time that we haven’t even considered yet.

Over the weekend, I ended up reading a few articles on quantum computing and qubits. As I was trying to piece together the arguments the authors were making about the impact on machine learning and AI, I drifted away to a simple question.

What does time mean anyway?

This might be my favorite part of The Three-Body Problem. I’m planning on reading the second book in the trilogy (The Dark Forest) next week after I finish the third book in the Red Rising Trilogy (Morning Star) to see where it takes me.

  • Time is a consequence of the fact that atoms are in motion in the universe. If you were able (and willing) to stop any and all motion in the entire universe down to the atomic and sub-atomic levels, then time would stop, wouldn’t it have to? And this in turn opens up other, bigger questions, and thus we enter the rabbit hole…

    • One of the central ideas in the book is to send a supercomputer embedded in a single proton across space and time. Ponder that (including how to get the supercomputer embedded in the single proton in the first place.)

  • Ted Chen

    Brad, I’d be curious to know what you think after reading Dark Forest. It’s quite different from Three Body Problem. Also, how do you find reading the book from the perspective of a westerner? There are all sorts of aspects of the Cultural Revolution that are in the book (pardon if I’m making some bad assumptions about your background and knowledge around Chinese culture and the Cultural Revolution).

    • I know very little about Chinese culture and the Cultural Revolution so I found that part of the book simultaneously challenging and interesting. Much of the references were new to me and I ended up on Wikipedia a few times. I don’t think I’ve advanced my knowledge of these things in any material way, but it didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book.

  • Phil Yerkes

    Brad – not sure if you’ve seen, but we launched Kindle instant previews recently. Allows your readers to start reading the book, in addition to linking to the detail page.

    • Neat – I’ll start doing that.

  • Glenn Neal

    I find it curious that we seem to be sure we know what time is, yet we ‘re-synchronize’ our concept of time continually. Go into a movie — you go through weeks of someone else’s adventure, yet when you come out it feels like no time at all has elapsed, then we look at our watch and say ‘Oh my brain’s happy knowing it’s this time on my watch.’ What if we go into a parallel dimension during the movie? — we would then come out with no need for resynching – in a way that makes more sense to me than our current concept of time. So why do we have our current concept of time?
    I happen to believe, for whatever reason, our scientists think we’re ‘dead machinery’ with chemical processes with some weird spark within us — that’s not me I don’t feel like a separate piece of machinery from the world (could be a partial definition, but not a complete one). But it then makes sense in a culture like this, then it follows we may feel time is something compared to the most ‘dead material with constant decay we know’ – the crystal — which seems to be our culture’s definition of time – the counting of the decaying processes of very very dead things. But I’m not a dead crystal, so it’s curious why that’s our definition. An old greek mind back when once said ‘if someone tries to describe time to me, then they know not what time is, yet if he doesn’t try to describe it, then he may.’
    I think time is a convenience ours (and every culture’s) come up with to make sense how one’s culture observes things moving — everyone appears to see movement differently (and every culture, from my reading, appears to have a different definition of time).
    And I’ve never heard someone try to describe to me *why* things start – why is that missing from our math – and how can our definition of time be complete with our scientists not talking about that part of it (all our equations start from when things have started)?. I find it incredibly interesting to think about questions such as this. Excuse all my words… just my mind meandering… I guess I had a little time…

  • DaveJ

    Stay away from metaphysics, it is a tar pit of despond.

    • Glenn Neal

      I still find it very interesting how time seems to trick the mind into believing you’ve spend so much more time than two hours during movies – like you’ve been with them for the period of time that the movie covers. I find that fascinating. I agree when things start contradicting logic, they are wrong.

      • The movie problem is a good one. It immediately makes me think of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his notion of Flow –

        • Glenn Neal

          Personally, I’ve found gold is in the things not yet uncovered – whether they’re scientific based or not – whether they’re on the ‘off kilter’ side or more authoritatively sanctioned. I have 18 minutes and 55 seconds available later today where I will check out Mihaly’s Flow ideas. Thanks.

        • Glenn Neal

          Listened to Mihaly’s flow presentation during Friday’s snowy day. Certainly appears he’s delving into primordial areas. Flow definitely around my area mid-last-October. The world doesn’t come together in simple puzzle pieces. Thanks again for pointing to talk (and thanks to DaveJ for starting these response ‘stones’ skipping, creating this discussion path).

    • Eh – I’m just going to skim the surface, like a flat rock skipping on water.

      • DaveJ

        Confucius say “flat rock keep skipping shorter distance until it sink.”

        • Glenn Neal

          Yet in a good musical composition, it’s not the last note (skip) that makes the difference, it’s how all the notes/skips work together to make that the composition one of a kind. — Great back and forth…

        • Unless it is powered by anti-gravity

  • Stephen Daniels

    I am seldom nostalgic but this book really made me think back to the days in high school hanging out with my nerdiest friends discussion our place in the universe. But that was only my second-favorite thing about the book. The tiny glimpse it gave us into Chinese culture and history was fantastic. Getting to enjoy it from the perspective of someone who lives it is a true treat.

    • Yeah – those days extended through college for me. They were fun. I miss them.

  • Dustin Freeman

    Based on your recent sf reading, and if you’re curious about more
    thoughts on the state of life in the universe, I STRONGLY recommend you
    read Peter Watts’ Blindsight