Trees of Knowledge
10 October 2002
Working as I do close to the British Museum, I find the central Great Court a fine place to drink my Starbucks and unwind at lunchtime. The large courtyard is enclosed completely by the museum proper and topped, two storeys up, by a delicate bubble-film of glass. Triumphantly placed in the centre is the circular tower of the Reading Room which sits so squat it actually takes up most of the open ground. Following with the eye the spiral staircase around the outside of the Room draws you up where the tower bulges through the roof into the sky. The whole, tower, courtyard and all, is faced in bright white stone.
In those dozy moments with my coffee sitting on the warm rock I feel as though I'm held in a womb, but the womb of a brain, all knowledge gestating in here before it's born into the world. On a particularly sunny day the glass roof warms the Court as a greenhouse and I go into the cortex, the Reading Room hub, and this impression is even stronger. The air almost at body temperature removes any sense of feeling from my skin and I feel like I'm floating, the vast span of the open space in the Room sends my eyes into a stupor, the library quiet deactivates my ears, and in the centre of this vast proto brain I bob as in an isolation tank. Browsing the books on a million subjects I learn paragraph snippets about the metaphor of money through the ages, the domestication of the sunflower, the role of smell in Roman law. The mention of smell highlights the only sense that remains, the musky scent of pages turned by my fingers, and more than ever I have the sensation of meandering through a Palace of Memory.
So forgive me if I didn't recognise to begin with, and walked blindly into, my old college professor Dr L---, thoroughly outside the shelves holding his own expertise (revolution in post-war Europe) and skittishly reading a page from this, two pages from that among the sections on medieval music and legal documentation standards.
L---, for his part, merely gave me a blank stare and returned to his foraging. I recognised this behaviour as a sign of particularly intense research; I'd abandoned many a tutorial as fruitless when, an hour in, he'd suddenly gaze into the middle distance and mumble references to political commentaries as if in some Delphic trance. This would be followed the next morning by yet another incisive article to be published with not a comma changed in some Journal or another.
Two weeks later I encountered the professor again, this time dashing away from the Celtin runes displayed in the Great Court. Following after him I arrived just in time to see him run on from the Rosetta Stone, only to lose him somewhere in the hieroglyphs. The next time we met it was outside the museum and he seemed considerably calmer, so I took the opportunity to lead him into Starbucks and extract the basics of his current thinking from him over a nutmeg latte.
It turned out that L--- had travelled a long way from the events and analysis of 1989 and subsequent years since last we'd talked, and in the cafe his talk of branes, superstructures and parse trees was way beyond me. He was claiming to have found some way of passing into the Platonic plane of forms itself, or so I understood, and I must confess it was sooner rather than later I was lost. But I jotted down a number of references and educated myself on the odd weekend at the British Library, my old reader's card still being valid.
Most of the articles were published in esoteric journals and by the professor himself, exploring a new field with poor reputation named Solid State Linguistics.
Sentences of speech (the theory's premise went) weren't continuous streams of text, but finely structured and broken into discrete chunks or phrases. These chunks are best understood as growth points, self-contained areas of meaning that can be expanded into themselves. Thus the sentence "The dog is brown" follows a form "(The dog) (is brown)" where the parentheses denote the phrase boundaries. The first phrase may grow: "(The dog (that is over there)) (is brown)". Phrases may contain phrases.
The structured sentence understood like this is referred to as a parse tree, the root being the abstract sentence and the leaves being the words themselves. So much is already understood in traditional linguistics, as is another of Solid State Linguistic's declarations, that nuggets of meaning are linked to one another by explicitly declared references, and implicit references. The latter are semantic connections between similar or joined ideas.
Where linguistics and Dr L---'s field depart is with Solid State Linguistics' hypothesis that these connections are not simply localised in the human brain upon hearing, but have an objective existence in some alternate dimension.
This dimension is the plane of ideas where distance is measured not in kilometres or lightyears, but the similarity of concepts. A very definite idea, say a horse, would have a sharply defined pointlike shape, whilst a more mutable idea - that of "good" perhaps - would take on the appearance of a swarm of bees, or a shoal of fish. This ideas dimension is what in other literature has been referred to as the Platonic plane of forms, or more recently the noosphere.
My professor had claimed that by certain incantations of carefully constructed sentences containing specific patterns of ideas, the parse trees could be coerced to overlap in such a way as to create new shapes in this other dimension. Firstly, just dust like points of new ideas that had never previously existed, then next more complex shapes: strings, loops, and sheets (which he had called branes).
However when I saw him next I found he'd grown far far beyond those simple beginnings.
It was eight months later and I'd returned to work after holidaying. Naturally, acclimatising was proving difficult so once again I'd returned to the Reading Room for tranquility. From my vantage point on the perimeter balcony I had full view as L--- entered the Room and began constructing a complex mesh of bent wire and mirrors from pieces in a paper bag. It took a full ten minutes, but I was rapt. He was aligning the mirrors at both certain books in all positions around the library, and at one another. As he turned what happened to be the final mirror into place, a shaft of light glanced me in the eye and I had a sudden glimpse of the infinite recursion of shelves before it passed. A white pinpoint at the centre of the machine appeared, like a star, and expanded rapidly, flaking coloured shells of light that expanded outwards, passing through mere solid matter. As the white orb expanded over me, I saw another world entirely inside.
An exact replica of the machine Dr L--- had constructed in the library lay at the centre of this vista, but composed of shards of shining crystal and semi-transparent mirrored surfaces. These were the branes and shapes I'd been reading about! It seemed L--- had not only been experimenting with making new idea-shapes in this dimension, but he'd constructed a device, remotely, in this parallel universe, using only words and concepts.
Not only that, but a crystal figure lay on what used to be the ground of the library, the figure of an elegant woman. Her skin shimmered, as if underwater. The professor leant down and breathed gently on the woman's lips, at which point a fluorescence flowed through her and she stood. The two embraced.
Around them I saw a grove of cherry trees where the reflected books had been, parse trees branching and branching into blossoms of multiply refracted dancing hues. Constellations of coloured stars turned and swirled, brilliant nebulae spun and transformed around the couple, jagged sparks of rainbow lightning leapt from glittering clouds, and L--- and this beautiful memetic mannequin kissed.
A perfect Platonic unicorn with a shimmering violet coat and mother-of-pearl horn stepped gracefully out of the trees and my vision of the noosphere began to recede; the rainbow world shrunk away. Then I was left, alone in the Reading Room. In the Great Court as I stumbled out the strong blue sky, the bright white cladding seemed pallid, muddy and dull around me. And I never saw the professor again.