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How Stephen Wolfram Devised Interstellar Travel (And Code Samples) For 'Arrival' (backchannel.com) 102

The new movie "Arrival" depicts first contact with aliens, and its producers faced the question of how interstellar spacecraft would actually work. They turned to futurist Stephen Wolfram, who came up with an answer overnight, and also tasked his son with writing much of the computer code seen on displays in the movie. Slashdot reader mirandakatz brings us Wolfram's story: Christopher was well aware that code shown in movies often doesn't make sense (a favorite, regardless of context, seems to be the source code for nmap.c in Linux). But he wanted to create code that would make sense, and would actually do the analyses that would be going on in the movie... For instance, there's a nice shot of rearranging alien "handwriting," in which one sees a Wolfram Language notebook with rather elegant Wolfram Language code in it. And, yes, those lines of code actually do the transformation that's in the notebook. It's real stuff, with real computations being done...

For the movie, I wanted to have a particular theory for interstellar travel. And who knows, maybe one day in the distant future it'll turn out to be correct. But as of now, we certainly don't know. In fact, for all we know, there's just some simple "hack" in existing physics that'll immediately make interstellar travel possible.

Wolfram's theory posited that space is just one of the attributes emerging from a low-level network of nodes, where long-range connections occasionally break out of three-dimensional space altogether. His 6,900-word essay (originally published on his blog) also suggests film-making has "some structural similarities" with software development -- and grapples with the question of how we'd actually communicate with aliens once they've arrived.
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How Stephen Wolfram Devised Interstellar Travel (And Code Samples) For 'Arrival'

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  • by Jack9 ( 11421 ) on Sunday November 13, 2016 @03:47AM (#53274923)

    None of this was referenced in the movie. It was a lot of backstory to develop the boring nonsensical drama. The aliens could have been fairies or it's all a dream and the movie is the same.

    • by samkass ( 174571 ) on Sunday November 13, 2016 @04:05AM (#53274959) Homepage Journal

      Now that we've gotten the "why is this on Slashdot?" post out of the way, can someone please complain about Slashdot editors and then somehow find a way to work in a criticism of SJW's and Microsoft so we can get on with the rest of the comments?

      • by hughbar ( 579555 )
        OK, I hate SJWs who use Windows 10. They are the worst, not only do they kill kittens but they eat them too. Is that OK?
        • OK, I hate SJWs who use Windows 10. They are the worst, not only do they kill kittens but they eat them too. Is that OK?

          A Beowulf cluster of whining! Netcraft confiirms it! Moo?

          • by hughbar ( 579555 )
            Sh** I forgot to complain about Slashdot editors. Total fail as cluster-whinge, as opposed to cluster-****.
        • OK, I hate SJWs who use Windows 10. They are the worst, not only do they kill kittens but they eat them too. Is that OK?

          Not if they use systemd

        • It would be worse if they killed the kittens but did not eat them, meaning their deaths were a total waste.
      • by Anonymous Coward

        What would happen if one of the Slashdot editors was an SJW who had worked for Apple on iTunes, moved to Microsoft to work on the privacy features of Windows 10, was a scripting developer against strongly-typed languages and had once tweeted that Linux wasn't ever going to be ready for the desktop? Would that achieve peak meltdown or would she need to be against marijuana and piracy too?

    • I would have tagged this as flame-bait, troll, or just total BS, but the thread is way too long, and I don't have infinite karma points to nail each post.

      I guess it's just part of the crap we all live with in an open forum like /.

      I liked the article, enjoyed the insight into the usage of novel material in a new film, and would like to see this trend expand into future works of movie productions.

      • by Jack9 ( 11421 )

        Tracking everything Wolfram does (especially dead-end projects nobody sees) is not news. I agree it looks more like a viral marketing bit.

  • by hcs_$reboot ( 1536101 ) on Sunday November 13, 2016 @04:03AM (#53274953)
    Easy. He just asked Worlfram Alpha [wolframalpha.com].
  • I remember when "Elysium" came out, there was a similar campaign of 'suddenly' random story topics on every blog site about that movie too...

    Viral marketing and fake news.... blech!

  • by sp4ni3l ( 1417195 ) on Sunday November 13, 2016 @05:14AM (#53275065)
    As the code is real the rest of the movie now also must be real..........
    • by Anonymous Coward

      As the code is real the rest of the movie now also must be real..........

      Well yes... that's the idea, sometimes adding elements of realism enhances the immersiveness of the story when you introduce the non real elements, sureley that's not a bad thing, just good execution of story telling.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Sounds like he's been reading Greg Egan's "Schild's Ladder".
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

  • I app if there's a Wolfram app because I don't think I can fully app the Wolfram without an appy Wolfram to app.

    More seriously: Does Stephen Wolfram or ESR sound more pretentious and full of themselves when they switch into self-promotional blather mode (which, for either of them, seems to be at least a weekly event)? It's a tough call. "I wrote a book! I wrote this awesome code that everybody should use! Only I had the insights to address the problems of tomorrow, yesterday!"

  • attributes emerging from a low-level network of nodes, where long-range connections occasionally break out of three-dimensional space altogether.

    Like Alderson points? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Spoilers: if you still want to watch this movie, don't read this.

    Solid movie. The art was good, the dialogue felt alright, acting was fine, but then there's the thing of the plot.

    A respected linguist achieves a once in a lifetime achievement, far beyond any researcher's dream and all this is used for is a plot where she chooses to live out her own heteronormative fantasies of getting married, being a mother and so on. Does the world around her change? Apparently not, as her husband was unaware of their daug

    • Spoilers: as the above comment said don't read if you want to see the movie. Very true. The plot could have been much better. I mean the current whole movie could have been summed up in the first five minutes. The Army pulls in a world renowned linguist to communicate with aliens that have landed. After some dialogue with the aliens they give her their language as a gift in return for help in the future. She finds that the Alien language allows her to see the future. This is where the plot could open up, a
      • > I mean the sky is the limit when you can see the future.

        I would think lack of free will was the more pressing limit...

        > Who in their right mind would choose this existence!?!

        Someone who didn't have a choice, because they already knew what they would do?

        [haven't seen the movie, not sure if I will or not, maybe that's the point...]

      • It's worth reading Ted Chiang's short story, "Story of Your Life," which the movie is based on. It addresses this point in an interesting, even if not fully satisfying way.

    • by PPH ( 736903 )

      too busy being a stereotypical father?

      From Dave Barry's 'Guy Test':

      Alien beings from a highly advanced society visit the Earth, and you are the first human they encounter. As a token of intergalactic friendship, they present you with a small but incredibly sophisticated device that is capable of curing all disease, providing an infinite supply of clean energy, wiping out hunger and poverty, and permanently eliminating oppression and violence all over the entire Earth. You decide to:
      a. Present it to the president of the United States
      b. Present it to the secretary general of the United Nations
      c. Take it apart

      So, the movie was quite realistic IMO.

  • by Chewbacon ( 797801 ) on Sunday November 13, 2016 @10:40AM (#53275815)

    Unless there is the "simple physics hack" space travel will be a royal pain in the ass when you take the planning that is involved. The energy problems, bio issues, logistics, all of it.

    Even if we overcome all of that, you'll be flying into the unknown. Think about it: you want to go see the pillars of creation a thousand light years away. There was a discussion that an explosion may have occurred or was imminent that would destroy them... a thousand years ago. So even if you found the hack tomorrow (say toasting pop tarts still in the Mylar in an upside down toaster) that lets you arrive at the pillars, or anywhere else, instantaneously, then whatever you went to see would have changed or have been long gone over the millennia. This is something sci-fi never fully discloses: hey, see that in the telescope? Let's go! Wait, where the fuck is it??

    So for an advanced civilization to find us and make contact, they'd have to have been watching for the past, what, 100 years to pick up on the noise we make or make on hell of a guess as to where we are.

    Still sounds like an adventure.

    • by PPH ( 736903 )

      So for an advanced civilization to find us and make contact,

      The movie does raise some interesting questions. How exactly would we go about communicating with an alien race that appeared on Earth? Or caused some instrumentality of communications to appear (much more likely we'd get an automated probe)?

      Perhaps a hand raised with palm facing forward is an intergalactic sign of hostility and the middle finger extended indicates friendship. How would one go about establishing a common basis for communication? I'm not sure this movie went about it logically. The movie 'C

      • by Raenex ( 947668 )

        How exactly would we go about communicating with an alien race that appeared on Earth?

        Aliens smart enough for interstellar space travel should be smart enough to figure out our communications and communicate quite easily. They shouldn't even need to stick probes up our butt.

    • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

      This is something sci-fi never fully discloses:

      I take it you've never read Niven's A World Out of Time or Heinlein's Time for the Stars. Those are two off the top of my head. Are you one of those kids who hates to read and only watches movies? Because when it comes to TV and movies, most SF is terrible.

      Hell, look at The Martian. Wier did his homework, I saw nothing in the book that was bogus science. The movie? Guys, when you're in the airlock entering the station, the alarm will start out soft and low pitc

      • No, I haven't. Yes, I do like to read. We are talking about movies here, however... did you read that?

    • by Agripa ( 139780 )

      This is something sci-fi never fully discloses: hey, see that in the telescope? Let's go! Wait, where the fuck is it??

      It is disclosed sometimes if it matters although not by Hollywood. Just travel in the opposite direction. If it happened 1000 years ago, then move 1000 light years further back and use the telescope to watch what happened in real time.

    • by Agripa ( 139780 )

      Unless there is the "simple physics hack" space travel will be a royal pain in the ass when you take the planning that is involved.

      We never did do any of our experiments beyond the local singularity. Obscure?

    • by mattyj ( 18900 )

      Your ideas about time travel are limited by the breadth of current human knowledge.

      100 years ago people thought the moon was made of cheese, and now walking on it is passe. Your notion of a "simple physics hack" might be state of the art science for an alien species 200 light years away.

      What nobody proposes is that aliens think we're boring and would rather visit that one planet where where the ladies all have four boobs and men have feelings.

  • by holophrastic ( 221104 ) on Sunday November 13, 2016 @12:07PM (#53276179)

    I love when scientists describe intelligent alien communications as being difficult due to different "contexts". It really shows just how far scientists have travelled outside of their cities.

    Communications-outside-of-context are done all the time. Humanity's historical cultures don't play any role in a Canadian adult speaking with a third-world african child. Yet it's done all the time.

    Similarly, adopt a puppy. Learn to live with any intelligent animal. The first time that you catch your puppy in a lie, you'll know that you've learned to communicate across "contexts".

    If you want to communicate with an alien species, intelligent or otherwise, it's as easy as it's always been. Your "context" is the one thing you share -- the environment around you. Lock yourself in a room, a cabin in the woods, an asteroid adrift, a mysteriously-locked laboratory, and any two individuals (now sharing a "context") will figure out how to communicate with each other very very very quickly, and pretty darn efficiently too, using whatever works (physical touch, verbal commands, emotional cues, mechanical blocking, et cetera).

    In my life, I've trained two birds, four dogs, three cats, and a girl. I've been trained by one dog, two cats, and that very same girl.

    But this requires a very simple comprehension of communication, that I worry most people simply do not have. It is this: communication (of thought), however lengthy and prolonged, is the means to an end. That end is always action (or inaction). Taking away any opportunity for communication to surround action, makes communication utterly meaningless. It simply must relate to something else. And obviously so, since the communication of thought requires thought first, and that thought must be of something -- most often of truth. And any truth, once again, comes down to an observable and testable action.

    Train a puppy. Along the way, you'll discover that the puppy has trained you too. Sit back, and notice the new common language that's formed between you. It takes about a week -- most of which is about discovering the shared environment that now requires a common language -- you didn't need to talk to each other when you didn't share a house.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      "Any two individuals"

      Yes, you're both humans.

      You mention human-animal interactions. Humans and different species, while we manage some level of communication, often interpret things in entirely different ways. For example, if you point at something, another human will look at what you're pointing at. Most animals will look at your finger. Without training, most dolphins will look at your finger, despite that they themselves "point" things out to each other - not with fingers, but with ultrasound. Which

      • You won't do any of that garbage. When they move left. You'll physically block them, and say "no". You'll do it twenty times in a row. You'll be done.

      • Dolphins pointing with ultrasound isn't pointing like an arrow. Humans pointing with a finger also isn't pointing with an arrow. Stop seeing things as language and communication when it isn't.

        Both of those are nothing more than a first-step. If you want to walk to the door, you start by taking one step. Then everyone around you knows that you are literally moving towards the door.

        If you're a dolphin, and the first step of using an object is to highlight it with ultrasound, then every interaction begins w

        • >So, again. Want to understand a puppy? Notice that the very first thing they do any time they interact with anything of any kind any where, is to sniff it first. So, when your puppy moves his nose towards an object, whether or not he goes and smells it, he's talking about it to you. That's why one of the very first "tricks" I train in a puppy is "touch" where he touches his nose to something -- and if you really understand what I've been saying, then you won't be surprised that the first thing I teach h

          • That's funny. I'd prefer to call it "focus all of your primary senses on all of my primary senses" -- which includes vision, hearing, and presence too -- but yeah, "smell my finger" would be the easy way to remember!

  • It was an enjoyable read and provided some movie-making insight from a unique perspective. We could definitely use more scientific realism and plausibility in our movies. Thanks for posting.
  • I have a dim understanding that modern physics believes that faster-than-light travel is not possible, full stop. I don't quite understand the equivalence, but FTL is the equivalent of time travel, and since we believe that time travel would violate causality, we believe that FTL is impossible no matter what mechanism you propose (teleportation, hyperspace, whatever).

    Even with the pretty diagrams I'm not sure I get it.

    http://www.theculture.org/rich/sharpblue/archives/000089.html [theculture.org]

    I've also read that FTL shou

    • by Maritz ( 1829006 )
      FTL is only equivalent to time travel if it happens in a normal relativistic frame of reference. The idea of things like the Albubierre drive is that they cheat by getting the spacetime itself to move. Spacetime isn't subject to the usual restriction (in fact, if you believe in inflation {which you should} - space itself can expand many, many times faster than light) brought about by e = mc squared.
    • I have a dim understanding that modern physics believes that faster-than-light travel is not possible, full stop. I don't quite understand the equivalence, but FTL is the equivalent of time travel, and since we believe that time travel would violate causality, we believe that FTL is impossible no matter what mechanism you propose (teleportation, hyperspace, whatever).

      Not as I understand it. FTL travel is not possible in acceleration in Minkowski (flat) space (which most of our observable universe approximates very well). This is also where there becomes time travel. In Reinmannian (curved) space, things aren't so simple. Because it is curved there are multiple light-like paths between the same two points and these can be of different lengths, so one path can be considered FTL by the standards of the other path. Wormholes are an extreme version of this and although trave

  • Aren't the aliens already here? I saw it on a documentary called "The South Park Movie". Everything on TV is true, right ?

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