It’s called an error correcting code, and it’s the basis of everything.
The Gunditjmara people’s creation story tells of an ancestral being called Budj Bim, who revealed itself in the form of a volcano in the land. The lava and rock were its blood and teeth, which it spat across the earth to flow into the sea, creating new land to sustain the people.
While many creation stories seem disconnected from actual events, this one appears to be based on truth. Budj Bim is indeed an extinct volcano that created the Tyrendarra lava flow that changed the land to create a uniquely habitable country.
But, here’s the thing. The last time Budj Bim erupted was 37,000 years ago. Pause for a moment and consider what this implies. This origin story has faithfully passed through over a thousand generations of people. It is surely the oldest true story ever told. That it has survived for so long ought to be mind boggling. Let me remind you why.
In the children’s game telephone, one person starts by whispering a word or phrase into the ear of the person next to them. The message is passed from person to person until everyone has heard it. The last person then says out loud what they heard, which is usually hilariously different from the original message. Now imagine playing telephone with a thousand people. The Gunditjmara people did it without error for 37,000 years. How did the story of Budj Bim possibly survive?
Magic number three
What’s more incredible than the survival of a single story is the sheer volume of information that oral cultures are able to store and faithfully pass down through the generations. There are, of course, many ways this has and continues to be accomplished, but the commonality is redundancy.
A story is not told only once and not only one way. It is sung and danced and connected to places and stars. But the most important technique to maintain its veracity is error correction. At any point in time, several people across many generations will know the story and ensure it is told correctly. A grandfather tells his children the story, and his grandkids check to see if it is correct.
The fact that three generations know the story is key. To see why we need to get a little bit abstract.
Simple error correction
As you have probably heard before, computers “speak” in 0s and 1s. My name, Chris, is read by a computer as follows.
01011100 01111000 00110100 00110011
01011100 01111000 00110110 00111000
01011100 01111000 00110111 00110010
01011100 01111000 00110110 00111001
01011100 01111000 00110111 00110011
Notice that since the letter r precedes the letter s in the alphabet, the third and final lines differ by only one bit (the last one). If a single error occurred in the last digit, my name would be shown as Chrir.
To avoid this scenario and faithfully store and transmit data requires redundancy. For example, instead of storing or transmitting a 1 alone, we encode 1 as 11. Similarly, 0 will be encoded as 00. Then, if 10 or 01 is received, we know there has been an error. But this is only error detection — we know an error has occurred but cannot correct it. For example, 10 could have been 11, the second bit having flipped from 1 to 0, or it could have been 00, and the first bit flipped from 0 to 1.
The minimal requirement to be able to detect and correct errors is the magic number three. If 000 represents the bit 0, and 001 is received, for example, we know that an error has occurred and that the correct message is 0. This technique is called the three-bit code. Of course, for added security, you could have a five-bit code, and so on. These, and much more sophisticated ways to protect information, are called error correcting codes and are the backbone of the internet that powers modern society.
The Gunditjmara people used many error correcting codes, but their use of the three-bit code is the most obvious. Their culture, identity, and even their survival rely on the faithful propagation of cleverly encoded information. As you are probably surrounded by data processing machines right now, you too are reliant on error correcting codes. But even if you somehow managed to get a copy of this text in some solitary cabin off the grid, you’d still be awash in codes because you yourself are an error correcting code. In fact, the entire universe is an error correcting code.
It’s all just information
Let’s get concrete. Look at all the stuff around you — tables, chairs, computers, walls, doors, your hands, even the invisible air you breathe is made of one thing: atoms. There are only 118 different types of atoms called elements, which you have surely seen on a classroom poster arranged on a table. Hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, and so on come together to make patterns forming all this stuff in the universe. But, every hydrogen atom is identical, so the only thing distinguishing one atom from another is its relation to all the atoms around it. You — yes, you — are no different from a pile of dirt except for how your atoms are arranged in relation to one another. What makes you you is the information needed to specify these arrangements. You are information.
Whether you believe the universe is made of atoms, fields, strings, or even branes in eleven dimensions is irrelevant. There is only stuff, and the information describing the patterns it is arranged in. Neither is more fundamental. By its nature, information demands to be shared, which requires encoding it in the state of physical systems. But matter without information is just that same dirt pile from before — a formless nothing.
You can encode information in a breath of air, but it would be fleeting. Information that has survived is that which has been stored as an error correcting code. The fact that anything at all exists to reveal information is thanks to the fact that the rules governing the universe are self-correcting.
Consider that if I say aloud the number 1, it is indeed redundantly encoded in the air around me. But, unless there is a microphone or an ear around, there is no mechanism to correct the errors which will occur as the sound waves bounce around and eventually dissipate into a forgotten bit of information. Suppose instead that I wrote the number 1 with ink on a piece of paper or etched it into stone. Why does this bit of information now last so much longer? It’s really as obvious as it seems. Solid matter is resistant to change. The arrangement of the atoms in it is a self-correcting code powered by what we would call the laws of physics.
Evolution on universal scales
Charles Darwin famously suggested that complex life arose through successive changes in the generations of replicating organisms that were subject to competitive selection pressures. This evolution by natural selection can be applied on a cosmic scale through the lens of information and error correction.
When you look out in the world, you see the survivors who won out in the evolutionary game. But it’s not the physics things themselves that are needed to survive — it is the information contained within them. In life, an individual of a species has a brief existence. When we say sea sponges have existed for nearly a billion years, we certainly don’t mean an individual sponge has lived that long. We mean the species has survived for that long. But a species is just information — an abstract description of the arrangement of atoms within an organism.
After Darwin, we discovered that this species information is an error correcting code carried by DNA. It’s not perfect, as you know, but parts of ancient genes that exist in all of us point to its general efficacy. So, not only are you information, you are an error correcting code.
Random arrangements of atoms do not form error correcting codes, and so the information they contain is temporary. The stuff in the universe that exists long enough to remark on is far from random. This is the stuff that has self-assembled into patterns that encode information redundantly with natural error correction properties. Indeed, some theoretical physicists suggest that the universe itself is a hologram with information encoded as an error correcting code on its outer boundary. But, as interesting as the past and present might be, let’s look to the future.
Forever error correction
The rock I etched my bit of information onto earlier might last for a long time, but it will not last forever. The natural error correcting properties of solid matter are not robust to every possible source of error, which will eventually accumulate, erasing the information I stored.
We don’t remember individual sea sponges, even though they are pretty robust carriers of the information they encode, but we know the common information in the DNA of sea sponges because life has evolved the powerful error correction strategy of spatially extended redundancy. Life makes copies of itself that spread and make more copies. This proliferation of redundantly encoded information is the only way for species information to survive in a world bent on erasing it.
All humans share 99.9% of their DNA, and the human genome project has digitised a copy of it. That copy will probably outlast the last individual of our species. But that doesn’t mean humanity lives forever — it’s not only DNA information that we have encoded outside of our bodies. Our shared knowledge is stored in books and hard drives, songs and stories, and our relation to people and places. Some of it will survive us, but most of it won’t.
To encode information in the physical world requires energy. But the universe is expanding and cooling, racing toward its final state of decay. In the end, there will be nothing but the cold vacuum of space and the occasional lonesome particle. The end of the universe is the death of information.
Our universe — our human story — was born when self-correcting codes allowed information to propagate through space and time. It will end when the last — potentially human-engineered — error correcting code is overwhelmed by decay.
We have developed an uncanny ability to ensure the fidelity of information. Now the story of Budj Bim is etched into the stored data of the internet. Redundantly and faithfully encoded, it will persist. Thanks to error correction, Budj Bim will forever be the oldest story in the universe until the last atoms decay into cold dead energy.