Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Ancient Earth Celebrates HPMOR

On March 14th, 2015, Eliezer Yudkowsky will post the final chapter of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. If you've not read it, now would be an especially good time to start. If you have, you might want to join one of the many HPMOR Wrap Parties organized all over the world in celebration. I was asked to share a story at the Berkeley Wrap Party of how HPMOR has impacted my life, so if you plan to be there, you might want to hold off on reading this yourself. It does not contain specific spoilers for the book.

Even though I thought I wanted to be an an astronomer or a cosmologist growing up; even though my dad taught me to chart the movements of Jupiter's moons when I was ten; even though I read classic science fiction with first contact, generation ships, and interstellar empires; even though my family's trip to visit the VLA Radio Astronomy Observatory in Nevada was practically a religious pilgrimage for me; even so, the stars have always been abstractions. I didn't know that, of course. I understood what the stars were, intellectually, and I thought I understood what they meant. But when I looked up at the sky, they were still little holes in a great black dome to my emotions.

To put it mildly, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality has been a powerful catalyst in my life. I read it for the first time about two and a half years ago, and I haven't the time to summarize all that's happened since then. But I think I can tell you what, specifically, began it all: HPMOR made me feel the meaning of the stars.

I was at my dad's house in the middle of the country in Southern Indiana. I'd been reading the Humanism arc, and I'd gotten to about chapter 47. It was my first read-through, so I'd not slept in a while, and I'd reached the point where my eyes just couldn't focus on the page any longer. It was 3AM. As my mind was in no state for sleep, I went outside for some fresh air, and I sat down at the picnic table and poured a glass of cider. I listened to the crickets and peeping frogs, and watched the fireflies glittering at the edge of the forest.

And then I looked up -

- and if I'd not been sitting down, I would have fallen over. What I saw was the Milkey Way, only it wasn't above me. I wasn't looking up at all. I was on its outskirts looking in. And I suddenly felt, as surely as the ground beneath my feet, that I was stuck to the surface of a giant rock covered in trees and bugs and people, falling forever around a star.

And although I knew the lights were ancient, I felt I was seeing the future. Over there - right there, I could point straight at it! - across the terrifying empty distance I'd never really tried to comprehend, was a future home of our civilization. I felt that the stars, that night, were not pretty pinpricks in a black velvet dome, but beacons blazing across the cold and dark, calling from across the centuries. And I knew it is up to us, the original inhabitants of Ancient Earth, to answer.

I knew, then, that I would never again see the night sky the way I had in the past. What I did not yet know is that I'd never see anything else the same way, either.