Proceed to Safety

The Amygdalan Sects (part 1)1    

by John D. Jones

From the Encyclopedia Galactica, 19th Edition:

"The decline and eventual collapse of Earth's earliest space-faring civilizations had long mystified archaeologists. It was Dr. Martin Dace's2 work on the Amygdalan Sects which eventually provided an explanation. Dr. Dace was at that time a postgraduate student at the Theological Department of the University of Altair, and had become interested in the psychology of the many bizarre and irrational cults that had sprung up around the time of the collapse. That he picked the Amygdalans for his thesis topic was perhaps pure serendipity. But the skill which he brought to piecing together the strange history of the sect from its fragmentary records shows imaginative genius of the first order.

"Shortly before the collapse, human civilization had constructed its first computers. Crude by our own standards, these machines still used electronic circuitry as a basis for operation. Nevertheless, they were sufficiently powerful to provide glimpses of the M Object3. The Object, infinitely complex and infinitely beautiful, acted like a lodestone to the finest minds on Earth at that time. They found in it deep mathematical theorems, hinting at insights into phenomena of the natural world; they found aesthetic satisfaction in contemplation of its intricate form; their curiosity led them to explore ever further into its infinite labyrinths. To this task they harnessed the most powerful tools available to them: the computers of industry, of government and of the war lords spent every spare moment focused on the Object.

"The more deeply the Object was investigated, the more alluring it became. Its investigators applied their ingenuity to securing more computer time and access to faster computers. Because the Object's appeal was greatest to the most imaginative and able members of terrestrial society, they were largely successful in gaining access to the resources they required. Openly or surreptitiously, a growing fraction of Earth's intellectual and electronic resources were committed to exploration of the Object. The effects of this were slow to be felt; the diversion of resources was greatest in areas least subject to outside supervision — academia, government laboratories and military research.

"The extent to which the Object had preoccupied Earth's information-processing systems became dramatically apparent in the 'Fizzle War' between the two major power-blocs on the planet at that time. The political leaders on either side had escalated through a series of ritual insults, provocative gestures and grandstanding to a level from which they could not back down. Having carefully checked the contingency plans for their own survival, they gave orders to commence global thermonuclear war.

"Nothing happened. The computers on both continents were locked in contemplation of the area around 0.0155 - 0.7398i (fig. 1), where it was suspected that an intriguing new feature lurked. After several embarassing hours, the politicians found a face-saving formula and backed off.

Figure 1: 0.0155 - 0.7398i  0.0002
Figure 1: 0.0155 - 0.7398i @ 0.0002

"This happy outcome, however, presaged a more complete breakdown of society's mechanisms. Computers had penetrated most of the manufacturing and service industries, and as their attention came increasingly to rest upon the Object, the fabric of the industrial civilizations came apart. This collapse fed upon itself, as more and more of those who might have averted disaster chose to turn their attention from the collapsing economy and garbage-strewn cities to the serene beauty of the Object. It was as though the electronic brains that supervised the world's maintenance systems had become absentminded; flickering traffic signals grid-locked the traffic in city streets; monitored reactors melted down or quietly switched themselves off.

"Then the ultimate calamity occurred. The collapsing infrastructure could no longer provide the steady diet of smoothed electrical power that the computers required. One by one, the windows looking in on the Object slammed shut.

"A profound sadness settled over the world. As a philosopher of a slightly earlier period had said, the loss of any pleasing object is painful; the loss of an infinitely pleasing Object must necessarily be infinitely painful. There were, of course, pictures that had been taken before the loss of contact, but these, finite, static, and limited, seemed only to mock the vibrant interaction that had been possible with the Object itself.

"This, then, was the picture Dr. Dace pieced together of the collapse. And this, too, was the origin of the Amygdalan Sects — the small groups that grew out of the collapse, following diverse routes but all motivated by a deep yearning for lost beauty. We append here an extract from Dace's thesis, describing the festival rite of one of the Sects:

"... on the Festival Days, the worshippers gather in the Central Park in the evening. Each, carrying his abacus and the Seven Parasols, goes to his preassigned spot; the priests assist any who are in difficulty. At sunset, the High Priest reads out the Objective Coordinates of the northeast and southwest corners of the park; his words are passed through the assembly by special messengers, and the congregation then sits down to compute. Each first computes his own Objective Coordinates, and then Iterates, intoning the mantra of the Sect — the MO mantra. On reaching a result of magnitude greater than twice Unity, he sets aside his abacus and sits in silent meditation. From time to time the priests pass among the congregation, checking the total iterations that each of the meditators has achieved.

      "Just before dawn on the following day, all cease their iterations and wait. From the Tower of Objective Vision, the High Priest announces the numbers limiting the seven ranges. Then, just as the sun rises, each worshipper erects the parasol corresponding to his calculated number. The effect is incomparably beautiful, although it can only be appreciated fully from the top of the Tower..."

John D. Jones is on the faculty of Applied Sciences at Simon Fraser University. More information is here.


1 : Originally published in Rollo Silver's newsletter Amygdala

2 : Dr. Martin Dace is a real person, a London doctor and painter with an interest in fractals,

3 : "The M Object" is the Mandelbrot set; there is more about it on Robert Munafo's mu-ency pages.

Copyright © 1988-2010 John D. Jones. All Rights Reserved. This online version is provided by permission of the author.

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