Secret Project: The Theory of Everything

“The Earth is the cradle of the mind, but one cannot stay in the cradle forever.”

— Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, The Father of Rocketry, Datalinks

The Theory of Everything, based on the seventh-tier breakthrough in Unified Field Theory, represents the final word in basic physics. Henceforth, all the work left in the scientific endeavor is just working out the implications. In gameplay terms, this mammoth accomplishment doubles the labs output of the base in which it is constructed. It’s essentially a second Supercollider. One that can be stacked with the first one, if the player so desires.

In that light, the video the player sees upon researching this technology is quite curious. On the surface it seems to have literally nothing to do with the in-game context. It begins with a shot of a few droplets of water rolling off a leaf to ripple the pond beneath. Then we see a shot of Earth from space, followed by the wind carrying the seeds off a plant, and a view of a waterfall.

After all of those images of nature in its various guises, we are treated to a certainly-familiar shot of a launching Saturn V. This is then accompanied by a famous quote attributed to the “Father of Rocketry”. Once the quote ends, the video fades to black.

What is Reynolds going for here? Whatever it is, it certainly isn’t obvious. Upon reflection, I think the core constraint Reynolds is up against is that he can’t know yet what the key to an as-yet-undiscovered theory of everything would be. And he doesn’t want to back himself into a blind guess, because that would almost certainly take a subset of the player-base out of the game.

Now, this problem is distinct from just making a movie about a major physics breakthrough for non-specialists. For instance, if you wanted to make one of these movies about Newton’s theory of universal gravitation, you could show an apple falling and then the planets swirling around the sun, and then follow it up with a cool quote explaining that they’re both actually the same thing. This could be made to be compelling and on-point without needing to go into any of the math.

So Reynolds chooses instead to retreat into the abstract. He shows a few small clips of various distinct physical phenomena. In context, the hope is that the player will find himself filled with wonder. Or, barring that, at least put in a contemplative mood. Whatever the theory of everything might be, it at least has to describe the mechanics of all of these scenes in perfect detail.

Each droplet of water in the waterfall; each planet in the cosmos; each ripple in the pond are now all completely explained in principle. To put it another way, if a four-year-old child were to just keep asking “why?” in each of these scenarios, after a dozen or so questions, the parent would no longer have to eventually throw up his hands and say “I don’t know”. Instead, all the questions would necessarily end up in the same place: the compact Theory of Everything.

But then why would Reynolds cap this video with a quote that’s largely about space exploration? The point Tsiolkovsky was making is typically interpreted as an elegant statement of the fact that humanity’s destiny necessarily lies among the stars.

It is interesting, though, that he says that that the Earth is the cradle of the mind, rather than the cradle of the species. I suspect he was alluding to the likelihood that human-level intelligence appears to have arisen on Earth and nowhere else. So if the mind – the intellect – were ever to leave the cradle, it would have to be blasted off the surface of Earth with rockets.

But I think it’s precisely that slight ambiguity that drew Reynolds to use that quote for this particular project. See, in SMAC, the legacy of Earth necessarily means something rather different to the people of Chiron than it does to the player. For us, Earth is home. For them, Earth is the past.

To the future people of SMAC, when they refer to “the cradle of the mind”, I think that they mean it in a more of a philosophical sense than a physical one. By the time this secret project is finished, they must look back on the people of Earth as hopelessly ignorant savages. I imagine it’s quite similar to how people nowadays might use the term “medieval” to mean pathetically backwards.

They believe this with good reason. If you think about it, they skimmed off the best of us when they launched. The colonists who made Planetfall were already really impressive specimens. And then the pressures of the future have been relentlessly refining each generation of them into smarter, more capable, more reasonable people than their predecessors.

To them, the objectively-correct Ethical Calculus is old news. Their fathers and grandfathers already did the hard work to structure their societies to reward real Intellectual Integrity. And, thus, the politics and wars that have shaped their lives have not merely been about leaders and followers desperately seeking status. They have fought, bled, and died for their ideals.

And now they have finally put the capstone on three thousand years’ worth of systematic inquiry into the foundations of the physical universe. What comes next in the life of the mind when all the burning questions have answers? To people that need to seriously grapple with this question, is it any wonder that our own present-day concerns would seem so childish?

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