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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Cosmic Puzzle: A Science Fiction Story

The Cosmic Puzzle: A Science Fiction Story

It all happened in a single week: an extraterrestrial spacecraft was seen in orbit around Earth; a smaller craft was seen traveling from the spacecraft to the surface of Earth; the smaller craft deposited a huge metal sphere onto the surface of an Arizona desert; the smaller craft returned to the main extraterrestrial spacecraft; and the spacecraft then sped away out of the solar system.

Scientists and military personnel rushed to the Arizona desert where the huge metal sphere had been placed. They found that the bottom of the sphere had a locked entrance door. Next to the door was some kind of interface panel consisting of screens and knobs and user controls. Above the door was a sign which said:


At the White House the President of the United States talked with his advisers concerning what to do about the strange alien sphere in the desert.

“We think that the interface panel next to the door of this sphere is an interface challenging you to solve some puzzle,” said the White House science adviser Howard Fontaine. “We think if someone can solve that puzzle, the door will then open, and we can see what's inside the sphere.”

“Maybe the aliens who left this sphere didn't want anyone to learn their secrets unless the person was smart enough to solve the puzzle,” said the President. “What kind of puzzle is it?”

“We've had a few people try it, and it's very difficult,” said Fontaine. “The puzzle interface presents you with a few hundred 3D objects or pieces, which you can rotate and position in 3D space. But you can also specify the speed and motion direction of any object you assemble from the pieces. It's kind of like a 3D jigsaw puzzle, with the addition of a lot of Newtonian physics. We think that the puzzle can only be solved by correctly assembling the pieces to form some particular object or scene, with all assembled objects moving in some appropriate way.”

“Clearly only the most brilliant mind could solve such a puzzle,” said the President. “Let's gather the smartest people we can get our hands on, and send them down to Arizona to try and solve this puzzle. Then hopefully those doors will open, and we can get our hands on this treasure trove of alien knowledge.”

A long list of brilliant minds went to the alien sphere in Arizona, and each tried to solve the puzzle, so that the doors of the sphere could be opened. One was a Harvard PhD in Applied Mathematics. Another was the most successful 3D game designer in Silicon Valley. Another was a man who had won $500,000 on a TV game show called Puzzle Mania. Then there was the author of the most widely used textbook on computer graphics. Then there was an astronomer from Cornell University, who held the chair once occupied by Carl Sagan. Then there was the most brilliant mind used by the military to crack the codes used by foreign governments.

They all failed miserably.

The brilliant minds were able to figure out the basics of how to use the puzzle interface, how to position the 3D objects in space, and control their motion and trajectory. Some of the geniuses were able to use some of the puzzle pieces to assemble a scene, such as a bird flying around a house. But none of them was able to make use of all of the 3D puzzle pieces. It was as if they had taken some of the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, and assembled a little scene, but had still left most of the puzzle pieces unused.

But there was one person who was convinced he could solve the puzzle. The person was a boy named Waldo Shrumpdinkel, who was ten years old. Waldo was a funny looking kid, with red hair, a face full of freckles, and a gap between his front teeth. From the time he was three years old, Waldo had always loved to play with Lego blocks, that toy consisting of little plastic blocks you can connect together. Waldo would even play with his Lego blocks when he was riding on the school bus. The other kids gave him the cruel nickname Lego Boy. In the hallways of his school, Waldo would get taunts such as: here comes the Lego Boy, have you got some Lego blocks for me, Lego Boy?
While studying the alien puzzle online, Waldo became convinced he had the solution to the puzzle. So he insisted that his parents take him to Arizona, so he could give the puzzle a try. After much arguing, they finally agreed.

So Waldo approached the alien sphere in Arizona, which was guarded by a platoon of soldiers.

“Let me try the puzzle,” said Waldo. “I know I can solve it.”

You, little boy?” said the platoon leader. “Well, I guess my guys could use a chuckle. Go ahead, give it a try. Fellows, get a load out of who's trying the puzzle now!”

Waldo approached the alien sphere. Going up to the puzzle interface next to the door, he began trying his solution.

alien sphere

Somehow Waldo had been able to see the puzzle solution in his mind, which had been sharpened by thousands of hours of Lego practice. Using the interface panel, he assembled half of the puzzle pieces into a shape that matched the shape of the extraterrestrial spacecraft that had appeared orbiting Earth. He assembled the other half of the puzzle pieces into a shape that resembled a ringed planet. Then Waldo used some of the interface controls to make the spaceship shape start revolving around the planet shape.

“I did it!” said Waldo. “I used all the pieces! That's the solution to the puzzle: a scene that shows the alien spaceship revolving around its home planet!”

A strange loud noise came from the alien sphere. The doors at its base opened. Waldo ran into the sphere through its open doors.

“Follow him!” yelled the platoon leader. Some soldiers also tried to enter the sphere, but before they could enter, the doors closed.

Then for ten long days, there was no sign of Waldo. The doors of the sphere stayed closed. A huge crowd assembled around the sphere, waiting for Waldo to come out of the sphere. Waldo's parents were worried that he might have no food or drink inside the sphere.

“The message over the doors says that whoever solves the puzzle will be taught the secrets of thirty planets,” said Waldo's mom. “Let's hope Waldo is having a nice educational experience.”

Finally after ten days there was a loud noise from the alien sphere. The doors of the sphere opened. Waldo walked through the doors, and approached a crowd of reporters and television cameras.

As billions watched on television, the whole world waited breathlessly for what the little boy would say next. Then he began to speak.

“I have developed some useful...suggestions on how our society should be completely restructured,” said Waldo with complete confidence, “and I have some helpful...hints on how to reorganize life on this planet.”

The long era of human history known as the Atomic Age had now ended.

The next seventy years of human history would be known by all as the Age of Waldo Shrumpdinkel.