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Guan Pinghu and the Golden Disc

14th of January, 2022

When we produce the sorts of colourful renders of the Mandelbrot set that have been immortalised by unfathomable zooms on YouTube, we do so arbitrarily. The Mandelbrot set itself—the set of spaces in the complex plane that, under a specific sort of iteration, do not diverge to infinity—is not really the object of interest in those zooms. The interest, the aesthetic interest, is the space just outside the set where the values do diverge, and we colour them according to how quickly this happens.

On what basis do we colour these values? A quick survey of the different sorts of renders available reveals that it is according to aesthetic judgement: necessarily arbitrary. “Speed of divergence” cannot be quantified except according to specific sorts of computation and mathematical notation that, we must assume, no alien race will independently stumble upon in the same way that we have.

Nevertheless, it is conceivable that if we sent a little render of the Mandelbrot set into space on a golden disc, that some alien species might conceivably be able to reverse engineer our methods of rendering the thing and determine that, yes: these strange creatures that stand on two legs and encode information on golden discs have been able to discover complex analysis and fractal geometry, or whatever branch of their body of knowledge those things might best correspond to. My heart flutters at the prospect of an inconceivably different sort of intelligence recognising that we have mapped abstract values that refer to rates of exponential growth to different wavelengths of light. I wonder at the prospect of that intelligence discovering how we have done this and reacting in some way. In one sense I hope they are moved, but in another I hope that their intelligence permits such a profoundly different sort of cognitive abstraction that their reaction does not allow for specific description, except in its divinity.

This is a concrete little piece of science fiction that I have written. The most general form or mode of this fiction is that, in order to demonstrate to another intelligence that we are alive, we have used some novel representative system to encode information about a natural phenomenon. For instance, in the real life case, we take a sort of complex space of time and wave density that corresponds to a specific rhythmic and harmonic pattern, and represent that phenomenon by physically notching a wave pattern into a disc of gold. My heart flutters, etcetera.

An important thing to note about this general and dryly told science fiction is that its emphasis is not in fact on the alien intelligence that will discover the patterns we have encoded, but on the wonder that we feel at being seen by them. Though ostensibly the emotional payoff of the story happens thousands or millions or billions of years in the future, when the thing is finally found, the real emotional climax happens immediately: we collapse that possible spacetime in a conceptual ideal arc of narrative infinity by recognising that it doesn't matter if the thing is ever found. What matters is that we have discovered a new way to be seen: by conceptualising an intelligence that is other than our own, and coming up with devices—mechanical or narrative—that formally demonstrate to it that we are alive, we are thinking, and we are making music, and mathematics, and images of our own bodies.

This is a recording of “流水” by Chinese guqin master Guan Pinghu. The piece is often translated as “running water”, and is most famous for its inclusion on the Voyager Golden Record. This record was sent into fucking space in 1977, by the United States of America, and it included this recording of Chinese traditional music. Here, in this piece of information, is a concatenation of meanings—ideas imbued with narrative trajectories. One of these: shortly after the end of a disgusting war in the far East designed to curtail the spread of Communism, a small group of Westerners decided to include this recording of a Chinese master musician who, prior to the revolution by Communists in 1949, had to support himself financially by repairing furniture. Guan died in 1967, one year into the Cultural Revolution. As in the case of my science fiction, the emphasis and meaning of this narrative is reversible, its histories are collapsible, and it is only one among any number of readings one can make. I leave the rest for your consideration.

Photograph from the funeral of Mao Zedong (1976)