“If math is universal, then its principles operate anywhere in the universe equally applying to whatever exists in the universe,” I said to my three friends, speaking confidently even though, as an art major, I had little to base that theory on.
It was my final year of college, and we were gathered at a Perkins restaurant in Fargo, eating muffins and loading up on caffeine and whiling away the night in a booth. It was common college activity. We’d gone to the movies—Independence Day, to be precise, even though it had been out for several months—and were now discussing whether or not it was a viable plot point in to use a Mac PowerBook to infect an alien ship with a computer virus.
I didn’t really believe it was a viable plot point, but the entire movie hinged on it and I felt someone had to be the devil’s advocate. Besides, what’s a rip-roaring conversation if no one ventures out on a limb to prod the crazy ideas?
It was such fun, rich conversation. It veered into physics and philosophy and theoreticals you could never get to without first travelling the verbal winding path with others, their ideas leading to the next set of ideas, the very thing that great conversation uniquely allows for.
Before you laugh at such a discussion, be aware that it’s been a popular topic of conversation for many. We spent an hour or two talking about it and other aspects of the movie, to much laughter and mental gymnastics. Not an important conversation as to outcome, that’s true, but it was memorable enough that I can tell you about it more than 25 years later.
These moments happen less and less. Frankly, almost nil at this point.
I don’t know what college is like now, but back in the day, we often found ourselves at Perkins or in the art department lounging area, having interesting conversations.
Perhaps it was because there were no smartphones and my internet experience at college was still on a Unix computer in the lab, with a two-toned monitor and dot matrix printer. We couldn’t simply pull out our phones and look something up and end the debate right then, shutting down the winding, wandering minds as each of us picked through our brains to find memories of things we’d read, weaving them into a salient point.
Nothing kills a conversation like the guy who whips out his phone and triumphantly ends discussion by informing you what the correct answer is.
“No need to wonder. I just looked it up on Wikipedia,” he says.
“Thanks for killing my wonder.”
Today, if I was sitting with those same four people, laughing and eating and having a great time, any one of us could have done a search on our phone and found the actual explanation provided by the screenwriter himself1:
“Okay: what Jeff Goldblum’s character discovered was that the programming structure of the alien ship was a binary code,” Devlin replied. “And as any beginning programmer can tell you, binary code is a series of ones and zeroes. What Goldblum’s character did was turn the ones into zeroes and the zeroes into ones, effectively reversing the code that was sent.”
That explanation still leaves much open to discussion, mind you, but it would have had a dampening effect on how we arrived at our final conclusions.
I miss good conversations, ones that aren’t consumed with the errands you have to run that day or who “done you wrong” or the latest drama with your kids, but on things like whether The Physics of Star Trek are worth considering. Maybe that desire leaves everyone once college is over, and I’m just stunted in my emotional growth for wondering if anyone would like to discuss section three of the aforementioned book on “The Invisible Universe, or Things That Go Bump in the Night.”
I suppose as people go on into life, they don’t have the time to think about alien spaceships and computer viruses, but must focus on getting the bills paid. Maybe as time goes on all they have to talk about are actual things in life instead of mere wandering wonderings.
Yet how strange in an era where we are constantly bombarded with activism that wraps itself as having a “conversation” that we have so little real conversation and so few good conversationalists.
Is dwindling conversation the natural process in the timeline of each person’s life? Is it something that’s grown more acute today because of instant information and over-connected isolation? I don’t really know, other than I think about this a lot, and I’ve talked about the art of conversation before.
In a busy world and busy life, it’s easy miss the lack of good conversation.
Oh, there’s plenty of talking, certainly, but talking only requires one direction for the words to flow. Talking requires a listener with a set of ears, nothing more. Conversation requires at least two minds and mouths, going back and forth.
Conversation is building activity, talking is a data download.
Conversation is fishing, talking is throwing a rock in the water.
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