Degrees of Freedom

A short story

Jonathan Kahan
19 min readJan 30, 2021

It is a trivial remark that life is short. But it’s not short in absolute terms: in absolute terms, time loses any meaning. It’s short in very specific ways. It is short compared to non-living matter in the universe: “Generations come and generations go, but the Earth remains forever,” as the Teacher says. And this is an objective truth. And it is short in the sense that it’s shortening. It always takes three hundred sixty-five days for the Earth to revolve around the Sun, and yet that year when Sean got his first video game console and kissed Sophia on her lips and won the school’s math prize felt a lot longer than this year that was just now coming to an end, which he mostly spent sitting at a dimly lit desk. If it’s perception that matters — and it is — life reaches its middle point at twenty five, and age fifty five is really heading towards the end.

The pieces of lives past stared at Sean’s face in his study like the leftovers of a decade’s long meal, which he ate lusciously and which left him utterly unsatisfied. Dozens of Mexican clay statuettes were neatly aligned on the windowsill. A chipped Yoruba mask was hanging next to photos of the Great Barrier Reef. The letters of dozens of women, each of them special in her own way, were spread out on his desk, as he indulged in memories. Which he promised himself many years before he would never do. Life was too short for memories, the doors left open too few to spend time contemplating doors long closed, no matter how enticing they may still look in hindsight.

Rita’s silken dressing gown was still on the floor and Sean could still smell her sweet fragrance. Rita wasn’t a bad companion. After two years together, she felt comfortable enough being the messy one sometimes, even in his sacred study. That didn’t bother Sean too much, not as much as the wrinkles that were starting to appear around her mouth when she smiled, or the fact that she did not seem to even try to understand the fact that he was not, and probably would never be, ready to consider a permanent attachment.

He had bought Rita that gown on a trip to China the year before. He remembered seeing a monk at the Lingyin Zen temple tracing ideograms on the black stone floor of the main court with a long brush soaked in water. The monk barely had the time to write ten-fifteen characters, and the first one he had traced would start disappearing in the sun. Soon, all those meticulously traced characters faded away, and the monk would patiently start again, gently dipping the brush in the water bucket, carefully tracing sign after sign. That exercise in impermanence had stayed with him. He didn’t know the meaning of the practice in Zen Buddhism, but he had given the scene a meaning of his own after replaying it dozens of times in his head. The water in the bucket could have been anything: as long as it stayed there, infinite possibilities were open to it. It was pure energy in potency, with effectively infinite degrees of freedom. In being spilled on the floor in the form of ideograms, the water fulfilled some kind of purpose; and yet, by this very act, the water was condemned to quick evaporation. Its possibilities played out, its options came to fruition; and within a few minutes, it was gone. Would it not have been better for the water to be left in the bucket?

Sean got up and went to his working table. A complex set of glass stills and pots and gas tanks were set on a metal scaffolding next to an electronic microscope. A large, spherical transparent glass tank lay there empty, but that barren womb wouldn’t have stayed such for long. “Operation Genesis,” as he called it facetiously with his colleagues, was all set to begin. Just like on a primordial Earth, he would take a soup of water, heat, electricity and various gases and turn it into a cradle of life.

A few had tried that endeavor before. Stanley Miller had proved that life can indeed arise out of inorganic compounds all the way back in 1952. But Sean was looking to take it one step further. After years-long theoretical work and countless experiments, he had discovered that by adding a tiny amount of helium to the mixture of gases and raising the soup to a higher temperature, he could speed up the life-generating process hundreds-fold. In effect, he wanted to demonstrate that within forty days he could reproduce a process that on the primordial Earth took around two-thousand million years: enough time to see a lot more than the simple proteins that Miller had observed. If the experiment worked, he would see the evolutionary process unfold and a variety of species appear, each trying to outcompete the other for resources. But what would these species, born out of water and gases and heat within a hermetically sealed sphere, be like? Would they look anything like those that evolved on Earth? If given a chance to start from scratch, does life develop along the pre-determined path we have seen unfolding on Earth, or would it give rise to a galore of new species?

I am Gilgamesh, son of Lugalbanda, the glorious king of Uruk. In my past, I have built my city, Uruk, solid walls twenty feet wide and raised temple pyramids that stretch to heaven. I have diverted the waters of the Euphrates and made my people dykes and canals for them to grow barley in abundance. I protected my city from a hundred sieges and razed a hundred enemy cities to the ground and reduced their people into captivity. I am a bull in the bridal chamber, a lion in battle. My legs are pure bronze, my arms are a storm to my enemies. Who can compare with me in kingliness?

Yet I too have failed in the greatest pursuit: for only to the gods immortality is given, and no man can enjoy the pleasures of life forever.

I, Gilgamesh, have sought immortality, and went to the underworld across the waters of death to find Utnapishtim whom they call the Faraway, who has survived the Great Flood and lived ever since.

I sought immortality when my friend, Enkidu, whom I loved, was taken away from me. Mighty deeds Enkidu performed with me, which are still sung about among men and gods alike. Together, we smote the demon Humbaba who dwells in the cedar forest, and felled his trees and feasted on his wine. Together we grappled with and killed the Bull of heaven, we grabbed him by the horns and drove an axe through his head. Then because of the ire of the goddess Ishtar, my friend, Enkidu whom I loved, fell ill and was taken from me. Six days and seven nights I mourned him and teared my hair, and on the seventh day I cried bitterly, roaming in the wilderness. I looked for Enkidu’s strength, and it was no more. I looked for Enkidu’s body, and it had turned to clay.

Am I not like him? — I thought. One day I will lie down and never get up again.

So I headed to the remote land of Dilmun, the Garden of the Sun, in search of Utnapishtim, who had survived the flood and to whom the gods have given the gift of immortality.

Many days and many nights I walked into the complete darkness under the mountains: I could see nothing behind me, nothing ahead of me. But I had to go on, because Enkidu, my friend whom I loved, was no more, and I too was soon to turn into dirt and ashes, and I had to find the secret to immortality. And I challenged the rage of the scorpion-men and crossed the water of the dead. And my cheeks were starved and my face was drawn when I finally arrived at the land of Dilmun and met Utnapishtim.

The day when he started the experiment was when he drew the first sign. Forty days and forty nights. It had a biblical ring to it. He opened the gas valve and turned on the thermostat. Methane, ammonia, hydrogen and helium started flowing into the main tank, recreating a primordial atmosphere. An electrode was set to discharge at every hour into the water. “And the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the spirit of God moved upon the face of the water.” Sean chuckled at the idea of the spirit of God moving at the bottom of his unceremonious tank.

He hadn’t believed in God for forty-five years. He remembered his tears in the shower and his love letter to Jane with a “returned” stamp on it laying on his bed. That day, he set the letter on fire and concluded that an unhelpful god was an unnecessary god.

As humble as the experiment tank was, he needed some celebratory ritual. After all, this was the experiment that was finally going to shoot him into scientific stardom. He took a non-fading marker from his desk and made one small vertical sign on the window. That was it. He would count the forty days of the experiment with a tally on the window, an on the fortieth day, his triumphant banner of white markings would be there for all to see.

And yet even as he was switching off the light of the study, the thought of alternative realities assailed him. Perhaps the addition of nitrogen to the mixture would indeed have been justified. Perhaps his ticket to success wasn’t work on abiogenesis, but something else. Maybe he should have gone into evolutionary theory. Or maybe he should have studied music.

He lived a comfortable, reasonably successful life. And yet, when he thought of the past, all he could see were doors shutting, one after another. He shut the door of the studio and went to sleep. Rita was out.

Many years before, in a place far away, there was a living room with a heavy carpet on the floor. There was birchwood on the fire, its light reflected in the brass pans hanging from the walls. There was Mother’s towering silhouette leaning on the fireplace with an iron tool. And there was him, sitting on a red couch that felt as big as a bed. He was looking at the fire floating above the snow on the black glass of the window. He smiled lightly at his knowledge of the fact that yellow flames were made of sodium, the green ones of barium. The day he would be awarded the Nobel prize, would he get a call in the middle of the night? Would he have to drive all the way to Stockholm? No, surely he would have a driver. Perhaps even his private jet, because surely he would have made a lot of money by then. But he knew he wouldn’t really care about money, and he wouldn’t want people to think he did. So it was best by car.

“When I’ll grow up I’ll make some great discovery” he said. “I’ll play with the elements and discover new rules of nature. I’ll search the Earth and dig up ancient species and ancient cities long forgotten. I’ll get on a spaceship and walk on the moon. I’ll live in a castle and fly on a plane, and everybody will love me and care about me.”

Mother turned around with a big smile: “Of course darling. You’ll make a great scientist or paleontologist or millionaire. Whatever you’ll set your mind to do, there will be no stopping you.”

“Sean” — he heard a voice calling him from far away.

“Sean, I’m home.” Hearing Rita’s voice, Sean slowly came back to reality. He had been daydreaming about the past, again. Ruminating about doors long closed, again. That feeling of possibilities blazing and vanishing one after the other hadn’t left him. His trips around the world were over, his ancient relationships broken. The spherical tank lay there quiet, and Sean was growing restless. He looked out of the window. Five marks. Those five days, he hadn’t gone out a single time, and the freezing, foggy weather looked most uninviting.

Rita knocked and came into the studio, with her cheeks still red. She had a light smile, but her voice was devoid of joy as she told Sean about some new pots she had bought.

All Sean could think of was the experiment, and the thought gave him instant reprieve and lit him again with excitement. The glass tank was still devoid of anything interesting, and while that emptiness could soon become worrying, now it had all the unbounded potential of a blank page. All the wonders that the sphere would reveal were still in potency, everything was possible.

Ultimately, life is short when it’s predictable, he had told Rita on their first date. High predictability means there is a limited number of possible states for a subject to be in, and throughout a lifetime, possibilities have this way of waxing and waning, of melting away until we are left with the absolute certainty and the stillness of non-existence.

Take plants. That young green birch out there enjoys the blessing of highly-ordered, usable energy coming to him in the form of photons from the Sun. Without any need for it to justify its existence or to thank anyone, the sapling stretches out its branches to receive the prevenient grace of sunlight. And this flow of ordered energy means there are unlimited possibilities to stretch out more branches in one direction or another, to sprout out leaves and flowers and fruits. But inevitably in time the tree will decay. Its bark will fall off, its wood will rot or be cut down and used by humans to make fire. All that energy from the sun will not be lost, but it will be dispersed in the universe in a chaotic, unusable form. And as energy disperses, so do the possible states of our once unbound tree, until they collapse in the certainty of death.

In other words, order is life, and life is the abundance of possibilities known and unknown. Life is keeping options open. Chaos is the reduction in possibilities, and the complete elimination of possibilities — in other words, certainty — certainty is death. And as the wood is consumed in the flame, its possibilities vanish out of the chimney, and all it is left with is the cold certainty of ashes and coals. This was why, he said, even if I really like you, you will never hear me utter the word “forever”.

After walking many days and many nights in the darkness and crossing the river of the dead, I arrived to the land of Dilmun, and found Utnapishtim the far-away. My cheeks were were starved and my face was drawn, and Utnapishtim asked me why I had come. I told him that Enkidu, my friend whom I loved, was no more, and I too was soon to be dust and ashes, and I had come to learn from him the secret of immortality. He spoke to me with these words:

“You will never find that life for which you are looking, Gilgamesh king of Uruk . When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man”.

“ I have walked many miles to find you, O Utnapishtim. I am a strong and powerful king, a bull in the bridal chamber, a lion on the battlefield, and many things I have done with my hands. But I now see how many more things I could have done. I see how, if Enkidu had lived, we could have walked Enlil’s mountains and trodden the paths of Ishtar. I could have conquered one hundred more cities or plowed one hundred more fields. And all these infinite possibilities are being consumed every moment by the black demon of time, even as we speak. How can I walk back to Uruk now, with heavy limbs and a heavy heart, resigned that my life and all the possibilities that go with it will inescapably end?”

Then Utnapishtim spoke to me with these words:

“You are strong and wise O Gilgamesh, but it is not good for mortal men to dwell on these thoughts. But if you wish, I’ll put you to the test: prevail against sleep for six days and seven nights, and immortality will be yours”.

I was sure in my heart that staying awake would be easy. I sat down under a tree and waited for the days to pass.

Then a great cloud came from beyond the horizon. And in it was a demon, black as the night, tall as the sky. It roared like a waterfall and strode like a hurricane towards the land of Dilmun.

The demon approached a pyramid temple, and out of its halls he picked out dozens of inscribed clay tablets, which he crashed in its claws. The tablets contained all possible stories: stories of kings and peasants, stories of of cities founded and destroyed, and of laws and of trades and of taxes, and all the stories that are possible for men to write. The demon picked the tablets by the dozen and crashed them with its claws and turned them into ashes with its breath of fire, and he kept striding toward the land of Dilmun.

So I leaped from my place and wielded my axe and spear. The demon came at me with all its might, and I thrusted my spear into its body. He swung its horns against me, and I grabbed them and wrestled with him for six days and seven nights. And at the break of the seventh dawn I wielded my axe against the demon and cut off his head, and his carcass lay slain on the cold ground.

A week later, thirteen white markings stretched proudly on the window. Snow had fallen and the entire campus was covered in a thick white blanket.

Inside, the warmth of life was palpitating. Something was starting to stir imperceptibly in the water, Sean knew it. A holy fire of excitement was burning inside his chest, and he spent most of his nights wandering through the house, checking gauges and stirring samples and reading research to back up his theory.

By the fifteenth day, it was unmistakable. His analysis showed that proteins had formed in the soup. Not quite life yet, but its final building block.

The world appeared again full of possibilities and wonder. What he was accomplishing was just short of divine. Where just a few days ago there was a mess of hot water and gas, patterns were now starting to emerge, that would soon further aggregate into organized systems that grow and reproduce and process information, and finally into creatures that would start fending for themselves, joining the mad arms race of natural selection.

After all, he had it. There was still time to be great.

Sean’s mood was one of utter ecstasy two days after. He had taken a sample to the lab to have it analyzed under an electron microscope and the unmistakable layout of an RNA molecule had shown up. The fabric of the cosmos had bent to create a particle that, as simple as it was, could encode information. If not just yet the stuff of a Nobel prize, this was definitely the stuff of tenure.

His euphoric mindset of that day was tarnished in the evening, when Rita came back. Sean was looking at her standing by the door with her coat still on like one looks at an out-of-focus screen with the volume turned down. She was shouting about it not being worth it, about him growing up. Then she was crying and talking about the meaning of love. Sean understood where she was coming from. He hugged her and dried her tears, and then he closed the door and went back to his study, where the wonders of creation were unfolding.

Love is a feeling with confusing properties. As an epiphenomenon, a side effect of the animalistic need for reproduction and safety, Sean understood it and felt it as real as anything. Sure, he needed love. And yet, when love becomes an exclusive attachment, when it requires the closing of all other options, it is clearly as undesirable as the fire is to the birchwood: it is one more step on the way to certainty, stillness and death. Monogamous attachment effectively meant the diminishment of life by one degree of freedom, one that once lost is never regained as the days and years pass and the doors close. And that Sean could not accept, even if there was a price to pay for that freedom.

That night, Sean struggled to fall asleep.

The morning after, still rabid with excitement and sleeplessness, he stumbled inside the studio and traced the eighteenth mark in his tally, which was starting to take up a good quarter of the window. He spent the day on the microscope except for a short nap in the afternoon, and by the evening his right eye was sore. Life was unfolding in the tank and every second counted. Rita’s dressing gown was still there on the floor, but her smell was gone.

Day twenty was when true life appeared. It was right there, near the hottest part at the bottom of the tank, that Sean saw a thin mat of microscopic cyanobacteria emerging. This was already way further than anyone had ever got, the experiment was already, as such, a triumph. The cyanobacteria were a crucial step in evolution, and by starting their photosynthesis process they would start injecting oxygen into the artificial atmosphere of the tank. But Sean was impatient to see more. Would the bacteria evolve and diversify? Would archaea appear?

The answer came a day later. On day twenty-one, Sean shuttled back and forth between the house and the lab on campus five times, taking samples and analyzing them at the electron microscope. He found twelve types of bacteria, all of them known so far, but who could tell what was to come?

At every tick of the clock, life was unfolding. Generations of microorganisms were being born and reproducing and dying, and soon enough the DNA of one of these bacteria would make a peculiar copying mistake, one that would reveal beneficial in the evolutionary arms race and give rise to an organism never seen before. It could happen any second.

Ablaze with trepidation, Sean spent the entire following day next to the tank, tracing a sign every hour instead of every day, because no hour was to be missed.

The twenty-fourth night was the first in which Sean didn’t sleep at all.

Over the following days, Sean worked furiously at taking samples out of different areas of the tank, closer and further from the source of heat and from the electrode, dropping them on a Petri dish and analyzing them on the microscope. The number of creatures kept growing, although none of them was yet unobserved.

Then on the thirtieth day, something unprecedented happened.

Scientists theorize about evolution proceeding in a non-linear way, with alternating periods of booms in life’s diversification and mass extinction events. What Sean witnessed was the former, in a way that was all but impossible in an artificial environment. At two o’ clock, there were hundreds of different types of organisms in the tank; at three o’clock, there were tens of thousands. In the following hours, Sean observed samples of fungi, and then of eukaryotic organisms, with the first cells starting to split through meiosis and mitosis. None of this was new. But the novelty had to be there, around the corner.

Sean moved furiously around the tank, his eyes wide open, his pupils dilated and his mind clouding up from sleep deprivation. Surely he had to start tracking minutes, not just hours.

And so he kept working, tracing a sign, taking a sample, tracing a sign, putting the Petri Dish under the microscope, tracing another sign. All of the organisms he saw were known.

His excitement started to be tainted with a creeping doubt. Could it be? Could it be that life proceeds uncaring on prearranged rails set by an immaterial architect? Could it be that, if we blew up the universe and created it anew, life would emerge again in exactly the same way it already has? Could it be that every organism’s sensations and thoughts and actions are condemned to unfold themselves again in every possible universe?

Suddenly I felt I could not remember what had happened. I was lying down, leaning with my back against a cedar tree. The sky was a clear blue, and I could hear the many-shaped birds of the immortal land of Dilmun chirping around me. Utnapishtim the far-away was standing in front of me.

“You have failed the test, Gilgamesh king of Uruk”, he said.

“I have not!- I replied. “I fought the demon of time. Six days and seven nights I wrestled with him, and on the dawn of the seventh day I smote it with my might”.

“You have been dreaming Gilgamesh” said the old man. “Look near you: every day that you were asleep, I asked my wife to bake a loaf of bread, so that you would know this to be the truth”.

So I looked near the tree, and lo! seven loaves of bread were there. The first loaf was hard, the second loaf was like leather, the third was soggy, the crust of the fourth had mould, the fifth was mildewed, the sixth was fresh, and the seventh was still on the embers. Indeed, sleep had taken me.

“What shall I do, O Utnapishtim, where shall I go? For I will soon be dust and ashes, and my possibilities are being burned like dry leaves in the fire”.

“I am immortal, Gilgamesh, but do not envy my gift. Having infinite possibilities for an infinite time, my life is dull and tedious. For any action I take has no meaning, because it has no cost. I have no regrets, because all options are always open; and yet I have no meaning either, as meaning is a measure of what is sacrificed.

So all I have to tell you is, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.”

The police found him sitting by the tank two days later. His head was tilted backwards, and he still had one hand on the microscope. The other hand was on his lap, holding a copy of “The Dreams of Gilgamesh, King of Ururk. A Modern Reading” by Valery S. Thompson. The agent mercifully closed his eyes, which were found still wide open, with the palm of his hand.

They found the room dark and moldy, immersed in a heavy, humid atmosphere. The spheric tank was there, glowing in a light that seemed to come from its inside.

The agents reported looking into the sphere and seeing marvelous creatures they had never seen before, of the most incredible colors and shapes. In their observation, the organisms seemed to live fast life-cycles of between thirty seconds and one minute, in which they had the time to grow, interact with their peers in what seemed like organized social behavior, reproduce, age and die, to be quickly replaced with new, mutated generations of being.

The report was widely disbelieved by the central police station and by the press, as by the time a photographer had arrived at the scene, all life in the tank had ceased and quickly decomposed. In the pictures, the tank’s internal surface looks opaque, as if it was pervaded by a thin, greenish-blue substance. Some of the scientists who saw it talked about an oxygenation event: too much oxygen created by photosynthesis had poisoned the air and the water. It appeared clear however that life had indeed been present, its possibilities had unfolded, and the system had now reached a quiet, certain equilibrium.

But what the press took the most interest in was the room itself: from the windows to the walls to the tables, every surface in the was covered in thousands of white signs.