Sunday, March 08, 2015

Congohelium and computronium: the thinking materials of the far future

This is my abstract for the Theoretical Archaeology Group New York University conference in May 2015.

In this paper, I want to explore two materials of the far future and use them to imagine the material worlds they inhabit. In Cordwainer Smith’s classic short story Under Old Earth, congohelium is an unstable material composed of “matter and antimatter laminated apart by a dual magnetic grid” (Smith 1966). The Douglas-Ouyang planets, an artificial cluster of planets with a dull malevolent sentience, communicate with Earth through the music of the congohelium.
Sunboy makes music with the congohelium.
Illustration by Virgil Finlay.
Computronium is the material of a hypothetical giant super-computing Matrioshka Brain, structured as nested Dyson shells of processing elements which employ the entire energy output of the sun. In Robert Bradbury’s conception, an element of computronium consists of a cooling system, a solar power array, a nanoprocessor and vernier thrusters for station-keeping – very like contemporary satellites. In the far future, today’s satellites could be considered equivalent to eoliths, with some resemblance of form, yet barely recognisable as cultural artefacts.
In both cases we have materials which act as the intermediary between an unimaginable entity and the humans who desire to communicate with it. They are the new elements in a periodic table of thinking materials. How would we classify these materials as archaeologists, or use them to infer the behaviour of mega-engineered structures? This is the most extreme anthropocene, where the balance of materials between ‘natural’ and ‘manufactured’ is altered at the nano- and solar-system scale; where prosaic science meets a new poetics of space.

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