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Dizzying Intellect » Don’t. Even. Ask.

Don’t. Even. Ask.

I’m reading Diamond Age again — it’s probably in my top twenty favorite books — and something keeps bugging me. It’s not even really about the book, exactly, it’s just something that keeps nagging at my brain.

They have these Matter Compilers, machines that take individual atoms, and build whatever you need. Or whatever you ask for, rather. Anything from a bed to roller skates to sushi, to whatever. They apparently don’t do food well, and everything’s really hollow and lightweight, but it can produce a fully-functional facsimile of almost anything.

And it got me thinking. Which is never a good thing. The basic “building blocks of life” are primarily from the upper right corner of the periodic table, and looking at these pieces, we have… Oxygen, which smells like ozone, like the air just before a thunderstorm. Carbon, which smells like ashes. Copper, which tastes like a mouthful of pennies. Iron, which smells like rusty old cars. Sulfur smells like rotten eggs (or hell). Nitrogen smells like ammonia.

But everything’s made up of atoms. So how to you combine ozone, ashes, and rust, and get something that tastes like a strawberry? Or smells like a banana?

I’m not looking for an answer, really. I know it’s just a fluke, like poisonous sodium and poisonous chlorine combining to form something you use to garnish a margarita. It’s just poking my curiosity. And now you can share my pain. You’re welcome.

12 Comments

  • By Robb Allen, January 8, 2009 @ 12:15 pm

    How can you have only 3 primary colors and still enjoy rainbows?

    Same thing.

  • By Tanya, January 8, 2009 @ 12:17 pm

    Yeah, but red and blue obviously make purple. There’s no complicated chemical reaction involved.

  • By Scotaku, January 8, 2009 @ 1:16 pm

    “The trick is in knowing how to do it,” is I suppose the best answer we have right now. Kinda makes me think of some old-timer who’s been everywhere, done everything, probably knows how to make real Irish Coffee.

    I suggest we keep looking at the problem & trying to figure it out. I bet it’ll be pretty cool when someone rings up the correct answer.

  • By radix, January 8, 2009 @ 1:26 pm

    It has to do with the shapes of the big long carbon chains. Glucose, a sugar, is C(sub6)H(sub12)O(sub6) which is basically the carbons as links in a chain with H (+1) and O (-2) ornaments (note there are twice as many H’s as O’s (12 x 1 = 6 x 2). There are also issues of symmetry and handedness in the molecules. If you know a ChemE, they have some nifty software now that will draw the molecules. I would imagine the consistency problems they mention in the book would be akin to the ‘fakeness’ of rendered images. (which can be addressed with good detail, lighting algorithms and of course fractal details)

    Was that the direction you wanted to geek in? :)

  • By Tanya, January 8, 2009 @ 2:29 pm

    No, like I said, I’m not looking for an answer. (And I know how molecules are formed. I did attend 9th grade, just like everyone else.)

    My point is simply that it’s quirky that sour + bitter + poison = fruity and delicious. I never thought about it before.

  • By Matt, January 8, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

    I love the book, too. My problem with the matter compiler was one of scale and my tendency to visualize everything. Does it look like a snack machine or an ATM or what? Then you start thinking that if you had sufficient credits, you could compile yourself a Ferrari, but the machine would have to have one hell of a slot if you wanted to get it out.

    One thing I do know is that Nell looks like a young Jodi Foster and no matter how hard I try, Judge Fang is Pat Morita (Yes, I know he was Japanese).

  • By Albert, January 8, 2009 @ 5:40 pm

    I just finished Anathem, the first of his books I read. I really liked it but thought it could have been 200 pages shorter without any loss of story or coolness. Should I read Diamond Age? Is it under a gazillion pages?

    Re “Sour + bitter + poison = fruity and delicious”:
    It’s like that with all very complex stuff, no? Multiple non-living molecules assemble to form a cell that’s alive. Each neuron is not conscious, but the brain is… Fruity deliciousness is a molecular or cellular phenomenon that doesn’t exist at the atomic level.

    Or something like that. Must go think about something simple now like socks.

  • By Tanya, January 8, 2009 @ 7:07 pm

    Matt: MC’s come in different sizes, I know, because he had to find one of a certain size to compile the mechanical horse. The scale of the household ones confuses me little, but big things like the mattress come out squished down, and puff up afterward. I’m not sure how you’d get a couch out.

    I picture them more like a big glass (diamond) box with a rather insignificant control console attached. But then the household ones would look more like a big microwave.

    Judge Fang is Judge Ito, to me, only bulkier and taller. And less smiley. Like a cross between Bill Richardson (bearded version) and Judge Ito. I don’t really have a face for Nell so much. Have you seen the movie Nell, or is it a coincidence that she looks like Jodie Foster?

    Albert: He can be really wordy (I loved Cryptonomicon, for example, but it took me about 14.2 years to read), but I find this book to be just about right. There’s some stuff in the primer itself that could maybe be shorter, but it has a point in the end.

  • By Matt, January 9, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

    Oh, dear god no. It had nothing to do with that movie. More of a Bad News Bear era Jodie. I swear to god, though, if Judge Ito is in the book the next time I read it, you’re going to pay. Your matter compiler visualization works better than mine.

    Albert: Second on Cryptonomicon, it’s my favorite of his. Diamond Age and Snow Crash are much shorter, though. I guess it’s relative, though. I just read The Baroque Cycle again after I finished Anathem and hated it when it ended.

  • By og, January 11, 2009 @ 12:51 pm

    Doesn’t need an answer- obviously- but it oughta be on a Tshirt. Send it to thinkgeek.

  • By Albert, January 23, 2009 @ 6:58 pm

    Tanya: Well, I just started Cryptonomicon after your and your commenters’ recommendations. Great stuff! Just a dozen pages into it: Alan Turing, the Reimann zeta function and other major geekery! I’m in math heaven!

    Thanks. I owe you one.

Other Links to this Post

  1. Dizzying Intellect » Cooking with Molecules — November 3, 2009 @ 7:44 pm

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