An Unusual Occurrence

So there I was, quietly standing in Lobby 10, queuing to buy myself and a few friends advance tickets to Neil Gaiman’s forthcoming speech at MIT, when a strange odor proturbed onto my awareness. “That’s odd,” thought I, “it smells like backstage at my high school’s auditorium. [snif snif] Or the bathroom at Quiz Bowl state finals. . . And it’s not even 4:20. Something very unusual is going on, here on this university campus.”

I became aware of a, well, perhaps a presence would be the best way to describe it: the sort of feeling which people report when their temporal and parietal lobes are stimulated by magnetic fields. Something tall and imposing was standing. . . just. . . over. . . my. . . right. . . shoulder! But when I turned to see, I saw nothing there.

Feeling a little perturbed, I bought my tickets and tried to shrug it off. Not wanting to deal with the wet and yucky weather currently sticking down upon Cambridge, I descended the nearest staircase and began to work my way eastward through MIT’s tunnel system, progressing through the “zeroth floors” of the classroom and laboratory buildings, heading for Kendall Square and the T station. Putting my unusual experience in the ticket queue out of my mind, I returned to contemplating the junction of physics and neuroscience:

“So, based on the power-law behavior of cortical avalanches, we’d guess that the cortex is positioned at a phase transition, a critical point between, well, let’s call them quiescence and epileptic madness. This would allow the cortex to sustain a wide variety of functional patterns. . . but at a critical point, the Wilson-Cowan equations should yield a conformal field theory in two spatial dimensions. . . .

“But if you reinterpret the classical partition function as a quantum path integral, a field theory in 2D becomes a quantum field theory in one spatial and one temporal dimension. And the central charge of the quantum conformal field theory is equal to the normalized entropy density. . . so we should be able to apply gauge/gravity duality and model the cortex as a black hole in anti-de Sitter spacetime —”

Suddenly, a tentacle wrapped around my chest, and constricted, and pulled, and lifted — not up, but in a direction I had never moved before. Like a square knocked out of Flatland, I had been displaced.

A voice, deeper and more resonant than any human voice has ever been, and carrying a greater weight of wisdom than, perhaps, human voices have the right to imply, sounded from somewhere, all around me in that space which was at right angles to space.

“You walk in dangerous times,” it said. “Petty tribalisms and relics of bygone eras are imperiling your species and its attempts to understand the natural world. Your fears even limit you from seeing signs of hope as they are. You must stand outside the limits these fears impose, stand in awe at the heights your species has achieved. Nothing exists save atoms and the void, the world as we know it was created by a fortuitous collision which nurtured the preferential survival of randomly varying replicators — and oh, wow, my tentacles are awfully big. Have you ever really looked, I mean really looked, at these suckers? They can grab everything except themselves. . . .”

And then, without warning, I was back in the world again.

My tickets were gone.

To figure out what had happened, I turned, naturally, to the Internet. I’m starting to think I understand what’s been going on. . . .