The lifeworld and deathworld meeting and overlapping; viruses evolving into unique protective bodily organs; ethical questions raised by VR communication “with the dead”; a nation’s official insistence that it isn’t building a time machine. In this post, we look at some recent science on the edge — or several edges — of lifeworlds and deathworlds, of the possible and impossible.

First, we have the placenta, which is unlike any other organ, and which evolved from a retrovirus over a hundred million years ago. One of the coolest science pieces I’ve ever read describes a scientist’s early experience watching a birth and being fascinated by the placenta, and then subsequently learning that “once upon a time some retrovirus infected an egg-laying vertebrate. And by chance, that virus settled into that animal’s egg cells. And it just so happened that that particular infected egg was fertilized. The baby that was hatched — whatever kind of protomammal it was — now had copies of that virus’ DNA in all its cells.” What this shows is that things can be both agents of breakdown/death and incubation/birth — that’s what edgy science is all about.

Second is the rumor (substantiated by some weird documents) that Chinese researchers are messing around with time. “Earlier this month,” according to Popular Mechanics, “unsubstantiated documents began circulating online that seemed to suggest the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of High Energy Physics is partnering with the private Ruitai Technology Development Technology on something called the ‘Space-time Tunnel Generation Experimental Device.’” The article then includes a series of leaked documents including a powerpoint presentation about a device that can allegedly “distort time and space, control the flow rate of time,” and be used to travel through time. The documents include mention of a “base” for the experiment eventually being built at some select location in China.

But the article goes on to say that shortly after the leak of the powerpoint, the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of High Energy Physics put the nix on the rumors (or at least tried to), denying the accuracy of the documents and calling the whole thing “false propaganda.” In fact, to make things weirder, one of the companies mentioned in those leaks, Ruitai Technology, was created at the end of 2020 — right on December 31. The documents also refer to a Nobel Laureate who doesn’t actually exist. Upon further investigation, it also appears that the processes upon which these phantom researchers are speculating aren’t so much “time travel” as hibernation — suspended animation so that people can “journey” into the future without getting old. That’s moving forward through time I suppose.
Third and finally: though avatars of the dead are ubiquitous and pre-date digital technology, a new type of projection has been developed and parents of deceased children are now able to visit with those kids via VR. A company will collect data about the child, including their favorite places, aspects of their voice and personality, and other unique information, and program it into a visual image using a child actor as a model for the simulation. The grieving parent can then don VR equipment and visit with the child. It is, however, not very interactive… yet. But as asks: “how far can we be from a platform that lets anyone upload footage of a deceased loved one and then interact with a virtual version of that person? Years? Months? And what sort of impact will that have on the grieving process?” The article notes that a handful of startups and entrepreneurs are collecting data on people, both generally and specifically, to create templates for eventual simulations, which might even include “robot clones of real people.” Naturally. Or, unnaturally.