Sometimes, a simple, even childish question turns out to be connected to the deepest secrets of the universe. Here’s one: How many different ways can you tie your shoelaces?
Mathematicians have been puzzling over that question for a century or two, and the main thing they’ve discovered is that the question is really, really hard. In the last decade, though, they’ve developed some powerful new tools inspired by physics that have pried a few answers from the universe’s clutches. Even more exciting is that the new tools seem to be the tip of a much larger theory that mathematicians are just beginning to uncover. That larger mathematical theory, if it exists, may help crack some of the hardest mathematical questions there are, questions about the mathematical structure of the three- and four-dimensional space where we live.
“The central computational area,” said Slartibartfast unperturbed, “this is where every calculation affecting the ship in any way is performed. Yes I know what it looks like, but it is in fact a complex four-dimensional topographical map of a series of highly complex mathematical functions.”
“It looks like a joke,” said Arthur.
“I know what it looks like,” said Slartibartfast, and went into it. As he did so, Arthur had a sudden vague flash of what it might mean, but he refused to believe it. The Universe could not possibly work like that, he thought, cannot possibly. That, he thought to himself, would be as absurd as … he terminated that line of thinking. Most of the really absurd things he could think of had already happened.
And this was one of them.
It was a large glass cage, or box — in fact a room.
In it was a table, a long one. Around it were gathered about a dozen chairs, of the bentwood style. On it was a tablecloth — a grubby, red and white check tablecloth, scarred with the occasional cigarette burn, each, presumably, at a precise calculated mathematical position.
And on the tablecloth sat some half-eaten Italian meals, hedged about with half-eaten breadsticks and half-drunk glasses of wine, and toyed with listlessly by robots.
It was all completely artificial. The robot customers were attended by a robot waiter, a robot wine waiter and a robot maetre d’. The furniture was artificial, the tablecloth artificial, and each particular piece of food was clearly capable of exhibiting all the mechanical characteristics of, say, a pollo sorpreso, without actually being one.
And all participated in a little dance together — a complex routine involving the manipulation of menus, bill pads, wallets, cheque books, credit cards, watches, pencils and paper napkins, which seemed to be hovering constantly on the edge of violence, but never actually getting anywhere.
Slartibartfast hurried in, and then appeared to pass the time of day quite idly with the maetre d’, whilst one of the customer robots, an autorory, slid slowly under the table, mentioning what he intended to do to some guy over some girl.
Slartibartfast took over the seat which had been thus vacated and passed a shrewd eye over the menu. The tempo of the routine round the table seemed somehow imperceptibly to quicken. Arguments broke out, people attempted to prove things on napkins. They waved fiercely at each other, and attempted to examine each other’s pieces of chicken. The waiter’s hand began to move on the bill pad more quickly than a human hand could manage, and then more quickly than a human eye could follow. The pace accelerated. Soon, an extraordinary and insistent politeness overwhelmed the group, and seconds later it seemed that a moment of consensus was suddenly achieved. A new vibration thrilled through the ship.
Slartibartfast emerged from the glass room.
“Bistromathics,” he said. “The most powerful computational force known to parascience. Come to the Room of Informational Illusions.”
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