Colliding galaxies, p.1
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       Colliding Galaxies, p.1

           Philip Bosshardt
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Colliding Galaxies
Colliding Galaxies

  Copyright 2017 Philip Bosshardt


  When galaxies collide in outer space, nothing much happens for a very long time. Surely, when the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies merge in about four billion years, as astronomers insist they will, it will be one of the most epochal events in our cosmos. Yet you’d probably fall asleep watching it, if you could live long enough to witness the whole event.

  That’s because galaxies are mostly empty space.

  Yet when galaxies collide, and dust gets stirred up, strange and violent things do occur, given enough time. Dust clouds collapse. Gravity builds up. Matter gets compressed. Before you know it, the thing ignites. A star is born. And it burns hot and bright for billions of years.

  Words are like that too…whether on a piece of paper or arrayed as bits on a disk. When put together the right way, words get compressed. They ignite. Light and heat follow. Readers exposed to all this find new ideas, like new elements, bubbling to the surface. Illumination follows, if the writer did his job and pushed the words together the right way.

  My hope is that something like this will happen while you’re reading the stories gathered in this collection. Something sparks. Boom! A new idea…something you never thought of before pops into your head. I’m not content just to entertain or divert you from your troubles for a few hours, though there’s nothing wrong with that. I want to start a fire in your head. I want to slam atoms together, compress them and create something new…a whole new world.

  I’m leery of themes in story collections. If there’s any theme in Colliding Galaxies, it’s that they were all written by the same writer. Here, you’ll find a strange bunch of people, ostensibly normal in their backgrounds: an architect, a detective, a kid with a life-threatening disease, a physicist and a group of nursing home residents—but all of them eventually get smashed into new realities like planets pulled into a black hole. Here, you’ll find angels, aquadapts, atomgrabbers and archeologists, each drawn to their own personal event horizons, some wide-eyed and eager, some fighting all the way.

  What I’m trying to say is that free will ain’t what it used to be.

  These stories, as originally written, span nearly thirty years of my literary life, from fresh out of college (Georgia Tech, class of ’75. Industrial Engineering, thank you very much) to as recently as a year ago. That’s a span that encompasses Richard Nixon and Watergate and the arrival of Donald Trump in the Oval Office. In this time frame, we’ve landed on the Moon, created Lady Gaga and sold a few billion I-phones around the world.

  Many of these stories started out one way and changed dramatically in the writing. That happens to a lot of writers. Sometimes, the author is the most surprised one of all. Many of the characters in these stories, like Detective Lieutenant Stan Benecky of ‘The Cold, Hard Facts,’ are explorers and discoverers. Most of them discover things about themselves too. And what they discover is not always what they wanted to learn.

  Recently, in my blog The Word Shed, I wrote about research into why we love stories so much…neurological research that’s taking advantage of new neuro-imaging techniques, along with some pretty cleverly designed experiments.

  In October 2014, neurobiologist Paul Zak wrote these words in a journal devoted to brain research:

  “As social creatures, we depend on others for our survival and happiness. A decade ago, my lab discovered that a neurochemical called oxytocin is a key “it’s safe to approach others” signal in the brain. Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others. It does this by enhancing the sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions. Empathy is important for social creatures because it allows us to understand how others are likely to react to a situation, including those with whom we work.”

  The truth is that oxytocin is one key reason for why humans are hard-wired to love and respond to stories. Much of what Dr. Zak has found in his lab supports what writers and editors and readers have known for generations. Tell a rip-roaring story full of action, involving sympathetic and believable characters and you’ll hook your audience for the duration.

  Dr. Zak goes to report on neurobiological evidence that supports what we’ve all know about telling good stories….

  “More recently my lab wondered if we could “hack” the oxytocin system to motivate people to engage in cooperative behaviors. To do this, we tested if narratives shot on video, rather than face-to-face interactions, would cause the brain to make oxytocin. By taking blood draws before and after the narrative, we found that character-driven stories do consistently cause oxytocin synthesis. Further, the amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted how much people were willing to help others; for example, donating money to a charity associated with the narrative.

  In subsequent studies we have been able to deepen our understanding of why stories motivate voluntary cooperation. (This research was given a boost when, with funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, we developed ways to measure oxytocin release noninvasively at up to one thousand times per second.) We discovered that, in order to motivate a desire to help others, a story must first sustain attention – a scarce resource in the brain – by developing tension during the narrative. If the story is able to create that tension then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviors of those characters. This explains the feeling of dominance you have after James Bond saves the world, and your motivation to work out after watching the Spartans fight in (the movie) 300.”

  Why does our brain love stories so much? In an article from the Greater Good Science Center (University of California, Berkeley) in December 2013, Zak says this: The first part of the answer is that as social creatures who regularly affiliate with strangers, stories are an effective way to transmit important information and values from one individual or community to the next. Stories that are personal and emotionally compelling engage more of the brain, and thus are better remembered, than simply stating a set of facts. Think of this as the “car accident effect.” You don’t really want to see injured people, but you just have to sneak a peek as you drive by. Brain mechanisms engage saying there might be something valuable for you to learn, since car accidents are rarely seen by most of us but involve an activity we do daily. That is why you feel compelled to rubberneck. To understand how this works in the brain, we have intensively studied brain response that watching (compelling video) produces. We have used this to build a predictive model that explains why after watching the video, about half of viewers donate to a charity. We want to know why some people respond to a story while others do not, and how to create highly engaging stories. We discovered that there are two key aspects to an effective story. First, it must capture and hold our attention. The second thing an effective story does is “transport” us into the characters’ world.”

  Grabbing and maintaining attention and building empathy for your characters are thus two critically important jobs that any storyteller has to complete. There is now strong neural evidence to support this.

  I said before that I wasn’t a big fan of big themes but it is a fact that there is some subject commonality among these stories. Two of them deal with time travel (‘Star-Crossed in Voidtime’ and ‘The Time Garden’). Four of them deal with the ramifications of a technology that has long fascinated me…the advent of nanoscale robotic assemblers with the ability to mass and swarm into all sorts of interesting formations. The stories dealing with this technology are ‘Homo Roboticus’, ‘Atomgrabbers’, ‘The Cold, Hard Facts’, and ‘The Better Angels.’ The onset of
this technology, which we may well see in our lifetimes, is something I would rank with human-level AI…something so fraught with consequences and so potentially horrific that I have found myself lying awake at night just trying to put the demons to bed when I consider all the uses this technology might be put to.

  In any case, I hope you’ll find the stories herein both enjoyable and thought-provoking….more of the latter.

  Read on, my friend. And do keep the lights burning tonight….

  Philip Bosshardt

  Atlanta, Georgia

  February 2017

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