(Translated from the Italian by Sarah Jane Webb)

 

Alberto Foscarini stretched out his legs, leaning against the backrest of his armchair. Logs crackled in the fireplace, rain pattered steadily on the roof.

“This is the third time, isn’t it?”

Marcello Sentati fixed his gaze on him, with a broad smile.

“Yes. An extraordinary result. And they get better and better! The first time, it took them three days to find out. Eight hundred thousand generations. The second time, twenty-five thousand generations sufficed; but this time they latched on in less than a thousand.

“Incredible.”

Foscarini glanced down at his tumbler of transparent, amber-tinged liquor.

“But what’s most amazing is how they get there,” proceeded Sentati, his phrasing jerky, as if words couldn’t keep up with his thoughts. “This time they’ve discovered atomism.”

Foscarini looked up, perplexed.

“In what way, exactly?”

“It’s a metaphor, of course. They understood that their reality, if I may call it that, was not consistent with continuous processes.”

“So they realised they were in a digital system?”

“Exactly! At which point they pondered the matter, and concluded that their world must have been designed by someone. Isn’t that fantastic?”

Foscarini smiled, somewhat wearily. His headache was coming back.

“If I remember correctly, the others had also reached the same conclusion.”

“Yes, but not so fast. And not in such a subtle manner.”

After a long pause, Foscarini resumed.

“But why do you delete them every time? Wouldn’t it be interesting to see what else they can come up with?”

“It would be extremely interesting, I agree, but unfortunately they get caught in a loop. Once they form the idea that their universe is a simulation, they do nothing but try to get in touch with us. This becomes their exclusive objective, generation after generation.  There’s no way to establish contact, of course, but they don’t know that.

Foscarini squinted briefly. Another stab of pain. They came and went, suddenly. Over the last month this had happened more and more often.

I must go to a specialist. I’ll see to it tomorrow.

“Don’t you think there’s an ethical issue involved in this research?”

“Ethical? What do you mean?” Sentati frowned at him.

“After all, they’re intelligent entities…”

“They’re agents, Alberto. Robots. They’re mere software.

Foscarini was shaking his head.

“They’re only prototypes. Nothing in their world is of any interest. They’re limited, incomplete. Rough outlines. A mere first step towards the creation of truly intelligent forms.

“Does that mean that if they were truly intelligent forms, you wouldn’t have the courage to destroy them?”

“I don’t know. That’s a very complex matter you’ve just raised.”

“Have you ever considered that we, too, could be part of a simulation?”

Sentati wondered whether his guest was joking.

Foscarini’s expression was serious. Yet lately, he’d noticed, a strangely troubled look often clouded his features. He shrugged.

“Sci-fi has been proposing this scenario for a hundred years.”

“There’s this guy in Oxford, a theoretical physicist, who maintains he’s found proof that this is actually the way things are.”

“Really?”

“Yes. His name’s Smithson. If you’re interested, he’ll be holding a seminar at our institute tomorrow. I expect sparks will fly.”

“What’s it based on?”

“On the old idea of the fine-tuning of physical constants: even a slight change in their values would render the universe uninhabitable. It’s as if the world had been designed to make our existence possible.”

Sentati shot him a glance and frowned.

“Is this thing true?”

“Of course, it’s been a known fact for decades. The simplest explanation (if we can call it that) is that our universe is part of a myriad universes whose physical constants are different. A precise model based on this theory was proposed, for example, by Linde, an esteemed astrophysicist. If that’s the way things are, we wouldn’t exist unless we found ourselves in a specific point in the super-universe finely tuned for the emergence of life. This is called the anthropic principle.”

Sentati shook his head and smiled.

“Fantastic. I’d never heard of it. And this Oxford professor, what does he suggest? Doesn’t he agree with the super-universe theory?”

Foscarini leaned against the backrest of his armchair. A sudden twinge of pain. Recovering immediately, he resumed talking. For some reason he was bothered by the thought that his condition should become of public domain – as if he was ashamed of it.

“Smithson claims to have demonstrated that physical constants cannot be different from what they are. If this were true, all universes would necessarily be identical. All of them would be inhabitable; or none of them would be. In other words, they wouldn’t help us explain a thing.”

“And so, what is the explanation of this paradox?”

Foscarini shrugged.

“That our universe has been engineered. That there’s a Cosmic Designer.”

Sentati stared at him wide-eyed.

“Do you mean to say that this Smithson fellow has proven the existence of God?”

“It doesn’t follow that the Cosmic Designer is God, in the normal sense of the term. From the point of view of the virtual intelligent entities that you create (and destroy with such nonchalance), you are the Designer. I hope your simulation hasn’t led you to believe you’re God…”

Sentati shook his head, smiling.

 

Foscarini placed a bookmark between the pages of the tome he was reading, and laid it on his bedside table. The headache that had been tormenting him so often seemed to have subsided, and he floated pleasantly between wakefulness and slumber. His conversation with Sentati on the Cosmic Designer came back to mind. When it came to religion, like many scientists he was an agnostic. As a young man he’d found philosophical matters totally pointless. Questions without answers: a complete waste of time. He detested the lack of certainties that philosophy instilled in him. As he grew older, however, he’d come to realise that some of those unanswerable questions could be defined as nothing other than central. Who are we really? What’s the meaning of the world we live in? Why are there laws of physics? When we die, do we merely disappear? Do we slide into nonbeing: is that all there is to it? And what is this nonbeing?

Ancient memories resurfaced: the old classroom at high school, with his philosophy teacher explaining Kant’s antinomies. He wondered why this particular recollection had crystallized in his memory. The haloed silhouette of the island of Crete materialising on the horizon at dawn, as he stood on the deck on a ferry. Francesca, in the library of the computer science institute: an angel intent on reading, twirling a strand of her hair. He remembered how she’d smiled at him, and it was as if she were there, before his very eyes.

Instead of which, where was she now? In “nonbeing”? And where was this nonbeing place supposed to be? Why should there be a nonbeing where people disappeared to?

He remembered the first time they’d gone out together. But was it really a memory, or already a dream? They stood apart, making frivolous chit-chat. All around, the city seemed happy to watch them stroll together. The old buildings in the centre, the narrow lanes illuminated by tall lamp posts, the park benches on which lovers embraced. They too sat on a bench, like two strangers trying to work up some courage. A grey cat ran along the wall. An old man slowly limped by. Opposite those gardens was a house with a sloping roof, beneath which shone a single illuminated window. He wondered who lived there. Maybe a wife waiting for her husband, on the night of their anniversary. The table was already laid, and on his return she would light the candles. Above the roof stretched a black sky. Even blacker, the outlines of chimneys resembled waiting owls. Spring was in the air, along with the scent of burnt wood. And suddenly in the sky a grey rectangle appeared: medium grey, halfway between white and black. Perfectly squared. Then another one, and another. The chimney vanished, leaving nothing but a square void. Now the roof was disappearing, and the window, the house. The old man was gone, and so was the cat. Over the gardens, a shadow – grey as the sky, the chimney, the cat – reached across, advancing towards the two figures frozen on the bench.

Foscarini awoke with a start, lathered in sweat. The headache was back, stronger than ever. The dream had produced a strange mental association. He stared at the ceiling, dimly lit by the lamp on his bedside table, then rose to his feet and shuffled to the kitchen in his slippers.

Twenty drops. No, better make that thirty. Who cares. I have no desire to have my head drilled, or whatever it is they would do to me. I’m over seventy. Why should I keep on looking at my haggard face in the mirror? In order to undergo treatment, I’d have to want to go on living.

He poured the drops into a glass, counting them carefully, though whether there were twenty or thirty clearly didn’t matter.

In a few minutes the pain should abate.

The grey rectangles of his dream came back to mind, along with the small virtual beings, wiped out by their creator for their one sin: to have understood that he existed. Then he remembered the forthcoming seminar of the English professor, Smithson. Foscarini felt lightheaded – maybe he’d taken too many drops – but not sleepy. In his dressing-gown and slippers he padded to his study and turned on the lights. The large room, lined with books, was steeped in silence. The whole house was silent, since she’d been gone. He hesitated briefly in the doorway, then walked towards his desk and sat down. While his computer was booting he observed its monitor, frowning.

How many ideas did it take to create this thing? How many brilliant intuitions? We use computers as if they were ordinary objects, almost dismissing the time, creativity and effort that went into their development. Into these devices we install intelligent systems; we infuse life into them; then, when they’re no longer needed, we remove them. But what’s so strange about that? We created them, after all. In a few years’ time, this black box will run a truly intelligent program, capable of talking to me, of expressing its feelings. At that point, will we still have the courage to delete it, I wonder… Anyway, I won’t be around anymore.

The idea struck him suddenly, with inescapable certainty. See a specialist, accept the need for examinations, surgery, aggressive therapy; or do nothing, and wait for his personal grey rectangle to reach him?

What does it matter? I just hope I won’t have to suffer too much.

He went online, focusing on what he wished to know. Doctor Smithson. Theoretical physicist. Multiverse theory. Anthropic principle. He looked up various connections, almost oblivious of the fact that his headache was subsiding, leaving him with an odd woolly-minded sensation.

The rate of expansion of the Universe is seemingly calibrated to enable the existence of galaxies as we know them. Had this rate been faster, they wouldn’t have formed. Had it been slower, the enormous black holes of galactic nuclei would have quickly devoured everything. But galaxies are essential for the dissemination of heavy elements among the stars. If such heavy elements didn’t form, we wouldn’t exist.

Another connection.

Linde. Andrej Linde. Physicist. The real universe is formed by inflating bubbles of mind-boggling magnitude. On the outskirts among the bubbles – filmy as layers of nothingness, yet inconceivably immense – there are regions in which inflation has stopped. There, and only there, can sentient life exist. Not everywhere, however, but only where physical parameters are suitably fine-tuned. Where we are, for instance. In a remote point that represents our entire horizon of events, is a microscopic thing we call the Milky Way, inside which is an insignificant star we call the Sun: the celestial body that illuminated our days when we were young, and in love.

Foscarini pressed his lips together. Another connection.

Smithson. Nominated for a Nobel prize. His research on quantum gravity considered fundamental. Believes that no fine-tuning can exist because the values of physical parameters are set by rules of logic. If this were true, that would be the end of the anthropic principle, and the only possible explanation would be the existence of a Cosmic Designer. However, Smithson has never shown evidence to support his claim.

He lifted his eyes from the screen.

He’ll do it tomorrow, during his seminar. He might actually have managed to prove it. He’s not one to prattle on about nothing. For the  moment, however, he’s the only man on Earth to know the truth.

Foscarini leaned back with all his weight into the backrest of his chair.

 

Professor Smithson was tall and thin. He was tie-less and wore a woollen jacket, somewhat threadbare, over a white shirt and grey corduroy trousers. He stared coldly at his audience, pronouncing each word distinctly, as if he were dealing with a class of students.

“We’re coming up to the most interesting point. How are physics parameters set? As you know, according to the standard model of particles, these are merely empirical values. They are what they are because that’s what they are. However, this claim fails to consider an essentially simple fact which, after in-depth analysis, leads to a significant conclusion…”

Smithson was forced to break off. On the right side of the auditorium, near one of the two entrances, people were getting to their feet and a hubbub was making itself heard. A young woman-researcher rapidly retreated from the door, while one of her colleagues bent over. A man had appeared among them. Elderly, pale-faced, he was scanning the room, a bewildered expression on his face. He had a gun in his right hand. Smithson stared at him in dismay. The man held his arm out straight, yet didn’t seem to be aiming in any particular direction. Rather, he was looking around, gazing at the face of the bystanders who had turned towards him, gaping, unable to believe their eyes. In such circumstances, speed is a critical factor. Before the man had time to shoot, a robust security guard had already grabbed his arm, lifting it upwards. The man pulled the trigger. There was a deafening bang, as half an insulating panel became dislodged and dangled from the ceiling.

 

Shut in the police car, Foscarini reflected. Over an hour had passed since he’d entered the seminar. The policemen, who’d been rough with him to start with, had eventually been mollified by his deportment. The old man clearly wasn’t well: there was something wrong in his head. He’d done nothing but apologise, over and over. His words were indistinct, almost senseless. They wondered what had come over him, what he’d intended to do. He kept asking if the conference had been suspended after he’d crashed in. On learning that the seminar had been resumed, he’d slumped in his seat. The woolly-headed sensation that had afflicted him the night before was now extreme, as if someone had covered his brain in wool fabric.

I didn’t make it in time. I’ve run out of time. Time is finished.

He glanced outside the car window. The vehicle proceeded slowly in heavy traffic. There were people of all kinds. Young, old. Most of them in a hurry. Shops, buildings. Strangers, each of them with a problem, a destination. Happy, unhappy, worried. All of a sudden, above one of the houses, he saw a grey rectangle forming. A medium grey, halfway between white and black. In the daylight, however, it looked darker than he remembered. Then another one appeared, and another.