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Monday, September 22, 2014

Christopher H Bidmead on How Numbers Define Reality

An early "Digital Computer," built by the Burroughs Corporation
to track rocket and missiles' 
radar and trajectories
in the United States.

In "Logopolis," a Doctor Who story written by Christopher H Bidmead, the Doctor's concern for his aging TARDIS takes him to the planet Logopolis. This planet is populated by mathematicians who live like monks, and the numbers they manipulate hold real power. No computer could process their equations, as the numbers they compute create a physical reality. So the Doctor and his companion Adric give the mathematical monks the measurements they recorded, which attempt to describe the time machine in all thirty-seven dimensions. (Remember, the TARDIS is bigger on the inside than on the outside). Then the monks retire to their alcoves, and each chants his portion of the computations, a type of math the monks of Logopolis call Block Transfer Computation. 

Through their efforts, the Doctor hopes he can restore his TARDIS to operational proficiency. Instead, he discovers that the sluggish performance of his TARDIS is due to the machinations of his archenemy the Master. The Doctor also learns that the universe has long passed the point of breaking down, and only the mathematicians' ongoing efforts have prevented everything--all matter, everywhere--from dissolving. When the Master's schemes to destroy the Doctor, and harness the efforts of the Logopolitans go awry, entropy sweeps through the universe, wiping out planets and solar systems. Entropy even overtakes Logopolis, erasing the monks from existence. So it's up to the Doctor to find a way of stopping the Master, and preventing the complete destruction of the universe.

On the DVD commentary, Christopher H Bidmead explained that the inspiration for how the mathematicians on Logopolis worked out their equations came from Slide Rule, an autobiography by Nevil Shute, in which he recounted the method of three-dimensional stress calculations involved in mid-twentieth century airship design. The conversation about the story's overall theme of entropy then evolved (or devolved?) into a discussion about fellow actors' hair falling out, and I learned that Anthony Ainley, who always sported a full head of hair as the Master, was in fact wearing a wig. Christopher H Bidmead is also losing his hair, so he's entropy in that aspect of his life. But Tom Baker contributed the best story of all, about an actor who was so concerned that others didn't notice he wore a toupee, that every time he went to the bathroom, he sprinkled salt on his shoulders, then emerged complaining about the inadequacy of his anti-dandruff shampoo. "Oh, who will deliver me from this terrible dandruff?"

Mostly though, the two stories reminded me of how terribly important numbers are to us, and how much they define our lives. The automated systems that allow planes to arrive and depart safely, and transfer money all over the world. The software code that runs our computers, tablets, and cellphones, which we couldn't do without in the modern world. The hours of the day that we mark out, that we plan our activities around. They're just numbers, arranged in a circle on the face of our watches, with a dial that spins around, yet they place us under so much pressure and stress. The dates on the calendar, and the passing of the years, and how we fear getting older. How we reassess our lives every 365 days, as well as when we begin a new decade of our lives. 

And then there are the rises and falls in temperature, marked out in Fahrenheit and Celsius degrees. "Oh, the mid-80s aren't hot," my friends who live and work more inland tell me, where they regularly experience triple digit temperatures. "I guess you're right," I respond, my body bathed in sweat.

Best of all are the ratings systems we ascribe to works of art and fiction. Stories interact with us all in completely different ways. Yet we attempt to give them an objective reality by assigning numbers to an intellectual, emotional, and spiritual journey. "Oh, that's only a two-and-a-half star movie, it can't be worth watching," we reason. Or: "Oh, that's a five-star book: I'm sure to enjoy that one!" Numbers, glorious, wonderful numbers.

Dragon Dave

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