Black hole

When my son studied physics at Princeton (…) we exchanged many letters. He complained to his mother that I, instead of writing about my inner life, discuss galaxies, black holes and curved space. My wife responded: your father’s internal life ARE black holes and galaxies.
Stanislaw Lem and Tomasz Fiałkowski, “Świat na krawędzi” (“The World on the Edge”), 2018

Planet LEM

Below please find the final five (from 44) architectures projects of the “Planet Lem” — a Literature and Language Centre in Krakow dedicated to Stanislaw Lem.

Golem XIV and the talking bacteria

imaginary_magnitude_reviewIt has been said, and with much justice, that Stanislaw Lem has transformed science fiction from a genre to a literature.

lem imaginary magnitude mandarinHis current collection of short stories, essays and obiter dicta bear out this high characterization because it shows that Lem has lost none of his inventive powers, ironical musings, corruscating wit and narrative skills. The concept of Imaginary Magnitude is itself thought provoking: In the next century people will be too busy to read books from cover to cover. Accordingly Lem provides us with the prefaces to important volumes.

In these prefaces Lem parodies the literary shorthand so often found in the preamble of multi-volume histories of science, art and literature. The Lem approach is to caricature bibliographical pretentiousness and the other esoterica of the publishing scene. Lem’s caricatural skills go far beyond style. In his introduction to “Bitic Literature,” be instructs the reader in a new genre which the future will produce: “work of nonhuman origin — one whose real author is not a human being.”

In the fantasy which Lem concocts, all of Bitic studies arc subjected to scientific analysis while a special emphasis is placed on four “peaks,” namely monoetics, mimesis sophocrisis and apostasy.

The high point in Lem’s reconstruction of future umes is his introduction to “Eruntics,” in which the Golem XIV and the talking bacteria reader is treated to a highly sober account of how Reginald Gulliver (the name is not accidental), an amateur bacteriologist, decided to teach bacteria English.
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Provocation

stanislaw_lem_provocation“Provocation” is probably one of the most important of Lem’s essays, unfortunately never translated into English. It is a review of a non-existent book about the Holocaust. The review was so suggestive that one of the members of the Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Poland had publicly claimed to have this non-existent book in his library.

If a crime is not a sporadic transgression of norms, but a rule shaping life and death, it creates its own autonomy, just as culture does. […] With respect to industrialized crime traditional categories of guilt and punishment, repentance and revenge, become helpless.

grandmother dead funeral wednesday

The view of many notwithstanding, the conceptual convergence of all the languages of Earth’s cultures, however varied they may be, is striking. The telegram GRANDMOTHER DEAD FUNERAL WEDNESDAY can be translated into any language you like—from Latin and Hindustani to the dialects of the Apaches, Eskimos, or the tribe of Dobu. We could even do this, no doubt, with the language of the Mousterian period, if we knew it. The reason is that everyone has a mother, who has a mother; that everyone must die; that the ritualization of the disposing of a corpse is a cultural constant; as is, also, the principle of reckoning time. But beings that are unisexual would not know the distinction between mother and father, and those that divide like amoebas would be unable to form the idea even of a unisexual parent. The meanings of “grandmother” thus could not be conveyed. Beings that do not die (amoebas, dividing, do not die) would be unacquainted with the notion of death and of funerals. They would therefore have to learn about human anatomy, physiology, evolution, history, and customs before they could begin the translation of this telegram that is so clear to us.

The example is primitive, because it assumes that the one who receives the message will know which signs in it carry information and which constitute their unessential background. With the letter from the stars our position was different. The recorded rhythm could have represented, for example, only marks of punctuation, while the actual “letters” or ideograms could have failed completely to affect the surface of the tape’s magnetic coating, being impulses to which the machine was not sensitive.

A separate problem is the disparity between the levels of civilization. From the gold death mask of Amenhotep the art historian will read the epoch and its style. From the mask’s ornamentation the student of religions will deduce the beliefs of that time. The chemist will be able to show what method was used then to work the gold. The anthropologist will tell whether the specimen of the species from six thousand years ago differs from modern man; and the physician will offer the diagnosis that Amenhotep suffered from a hormonal imbalance, acromegaly, that gave him his deformed jaw. In this way an object sixty centuries old provides us, in modern times, with far more information than its creators possessed—for what did they know of the chemistry of gold, of acromegaly, of cultural styles? If we turn the procedure around in time and send to an Egyptian of the era of Amenhotep a letter written today, he will not understand it, not only because he does not know our language, but also because he has neither the words nor the concepts to set alongside ours.

Stanisław Lem “His Master’s Voice”, translated by Michael Kandel

chaos and order


Let us imagine that Mr. Smith, a bank clerk, is living with his puritanical aunt—who has a female lodger—in a multistorey house whose front wall is made of glass. As a result, the learned observer on the other side of the street is able to see everything that goes on inside. Let the interior of the house represent the “universe” we are supposed to examine. The number of “systems” that can be distinguished within this universe is practically infinite. We can approach it, for example, on an atomic level. We will then have groups of molecules from which chairs, tables, and the bodies of the three persons are made. The persons move; we want to be able to predict their future states. Since each body consists of around 25 molecules, we would have to outline 3 x 1025 trajectories of those molecules, that is, their spatiotemporal paths. This is not the best approach, as before we manage to establish just the initial molecular states of Mr. Smith, the female lodger, and the aunt, around fifteen billion years will have passed, those people will have fallen into their graves, while we shall not have even managed to provide an analytic representation of their breakfast. The number of variables under consideration depends on what it is that we actually want to examine. When the aunt goes down to the cellar to fetch some vegetables, Mr. Smith kisses the lodger. In theory, we could arrive at who kissed whom just on the basis of the analysis of molecular behavior, but in practice, as we have demonstrated earlier, the Sun is likely to go out first. We would be unnecessarily diligent because it is enough to treat our Universe as a system that consists of three bodies. Conjugations of two bodies periodically occur within it when the third body goes down to the cellar. Ptolemy is the first one to appear in our Universe. He can see that the two bodies conjoin while the third one moves away. He thus develops a purely descriptive theory: he draws some cycles and epicycles, thanks to which one can know in advance which position will be taken by the two upper bodies when the lower one finds itself in the lowest position. Since in the very middle of his circles, there happens to be a kitchen sink, he declares it the center of the Universe, with all the significance this carries. Everything then revolves around the sink.
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nature and technology

even if we ourselves choose the end point, our way of getting there is chosen by Nature

Stanislaw Lem Summa Technologiae 2013
We have to differentiate between possibilities and realistic goals. In science, possibilities have always had their “negative prophets.” The number of such prophets has at times surprised me, as has the passion with which they have been trying to prove the futility of constructing flying, atomic, or thinking machines. The most sensible thing we can do is refrain from arguing with those forecasters of the impossible not because we have to believe in everything coming true one day but rather because, when drawn into heated debates, people can easily lose sight of what the real problems are. “Anti-homunculists” are convinced that in negating the possibility of a synthetic mind, they are defending the superiority of man over his creations creations that, they believe, should never overtake the human genius. This kind of defense would only make sense if someone were really trying to replace man with a machine, not within a particular workplace but rather within civilization as a whole. But nobody intends to do this. The point is not to construct synthetic humanity but rather to open up a new chapter in the Book of Technology: one containing systems of any degree of complexity. As man himself, his body and brain, all belong to such a class of systems, such a new technology will mean a completely new type of control man will gain over himself, that is, over his organism. This will in turn enable the fulfillment of some age-long dreams, such as the desire for immortality, or even perhaps the reversal of processes that are considered irreversible today (biological processes in particular, especially aging). Yet those goals may turn out to be a fantasy, just as the alchemists’ gold was. Even if man is indeed capable of anything, he surely cannot achieve it in just any way. He will eventually achieve every goal if he so desires, but he will understand before that that the price he would have to pay for achieving such a goal would reduce this goal to absurdity.

It is because even if we ourselves choose the end point, our way of getting there is chosen by Nature. We can fly, but not by flapping our arms. We can walk on water, but not in the way it is depicted in the Bible. Perhaps we will eventually gain a kind of longevity that will practically amount to immortality, but to do this, we will have to give up on the bodily form that nature gave us. Perhaps, thanks to hibernation, we will be able to travel freely across millions of years, but those who wake up after their glacial dream will find themselves in an unfamiliar world, since the world and the culture that have shaped them will have disappeared during their reversible death. Thus, when fulfilling our dreams, the material world requires us to undertake actions the realization of which can equally resemble a victory and a defeat.

Stanisław Lem “Summa Technologiae”, translated by Joanna Zylinska, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis 2013, p. 90-71