Infinity is a metaphor. When taught to children, it’s typically presented as a synonym for “really really big, like super big, like so big you just don’t even know, you guys.” This is absurdly misleading pedagogy, and is surely responsible for playground taunts containing the innumerate phrase “infinity plus one” or some variant.
Consider the Infinite Monkey Theorem. Usually attributed to French mathemetician Émile Borel, the thought experiment is one part applied probability theory and one part “marvel at the power of large numbers.” You’ve probably heard it before. It goes a little something like this: an immortal monkey eternally striking keys on an indestructible typewriter at random will eventually reproduce the complete works of William Shakespeare. Alternative formulations of the same thought experiment will substitute infinite monkeys with infinite typewriters, obviating the need for an immortal primate, but the idea is the same, as is the Drake-Equation-Style proof that every cheerful high school mathematics teacher is more than pleased to demonstrate to any given clutch of rapt fifteen-year-olds.
The difference between Frank Drake estimating the cross-sectional probability of extraterrestrial galactic civilizations and Émile Borel tinkering with eternity is one of scale. Compared to even Aleph-naught infinity, even mind-bogglingly huge cosmic time and space scales are indistinguishable from zero. I’m sure you recall from your primary education that infinity equals infinity plus one, yes? Well, that scales. Infinity plus the breadth of the universe is infinity. Eternity plus the lifespan of the cosmos is still just eternity. Infinite randomly-hammering monkeys at infinite typewriters won’t just produce the collected works of William Shakespeare, they’ll do so an infinite number of times.
And you know what’s great about this? This all happens in the infinity kiddie pool: Aleph-naught. The smallest of the infinities, the countable one. If you really want to get weird, you need weaponized infinity, infinity on steroids. You need uncountable infinity. Assault infinity. But learn to crawl before attempting a triathlon. Take a moment to appreciate something so large that it dwarfs all of knowable reality into a rounding error. And then snicker a little at the all-too-human hubris of banal platitudes like “infinite diversity in infinite combinations.”
Anika: “What does a mad prophet look like, anyway?”
Me: “Filthy clothes, ragged beard, long fingernails, mud. I dunno, a broken top hat maybe? Think early 20th century hobo stereotype.”
Anika: “You’re messing with me.” She leaned back against the splintery bench.
Me: “I’m messing with you. I’m not sure I’d recognize one on sight. The ones that I’ve met seem to be regular people till you get them talking.” I hesitated a moment. “Well, as regular as you can get anyway.” I squinted as I glanced back down the rail line. We’d already waited longer than I’d expected.
Anika: “How are you supposed to write down what one says without Brigit and Clay noticing?”
Me: “I’m not sure. I guess I have to be sneaky. Or have a good memory. Maybe you can help.”
Anika: “Me? How?”
Me: “How about you help me memorize what he says so that I can write it down afterwards.”
Anika: “I think I can handle that.”
Me: “Or you can run interference.”
Anika: “Run what?” Without full-time rail workers to keep the right-of-way clear, the aspens had started to encroach on the station, a full sprint towards reclaiming man’s takings. The leaves shivered in the north Oregon breeze.
Me: “It means make a distraction. Do something to get Clay and Brigit away for a little while so that I can take notes.”
Anika: “I still don’t understand why we have to keep this some big secret. If it’s so important, why even send them along?”
Me: “It seems knowing the answer to that question isn’t part of the deal.”
Anika: “I don’t like it. I never agree to anything unless I know exactly what it is and what it means.” She slapped her thigh to get Clotho’s attention. “Here boy.” He wagged his tail and trotted over. “I mean, you didn’t even get anything in return. Just a favor. You can’t eat favors, you know.”
Me: “If you’re hungry enough , you can eat just about anything.”
She looked at me as if I’d just stuffed a caterpillar up my nose.
Anika: “Is that your idea of a joke?”
Me: “Everything is for sale if the price is right. That includes uncertainty over the terms of the contract itself.”
Her eyes said “I’m skeptical” but her derisive snort said “I think you’re full of it.”
Anika: “Maybe for you, but if I don’t know what I’m getting into, that price is infinity.”
Me: “Infinity?” I elected to refrain from pressing the mathematical issue. “Are you calling me a cheap date?”
The Baroness had given Anika a new set of clothes. The trousers were double-pleated at the waist and the cuffs. This old frontier sartorial technology allows the clever seamstress to let out the clothes as the child grows. There’s no sense in letting perfectly good fabric go to waste, particularly when gingham, denim, and flannel are dear. The aviator cap complete with goggles seemed a bit much, but Anika liked the getup well enough that I kept my doddering fashion sense to myself.
Anika: “I don’t want you to do something you’ll regret later.”
Me: “Regret? I seem to recall that when I met you, your regular companion was a rat.”
Anika: “So what? He was nice. He never even tried to bite me even once.”
Me: “Rats are carriers of disease. Sometimes fatal disease.”
Anika: “Fatal disease?” She scoffed. “I think I know what it looks like when animals have rabies, you know.”
Me: “Do you now? Tell me, what does it look like when a rat is carrying toxoplasmosis gondii?”
Anika: “What, It’s eyes bug out like this?” She craned her head around to show me her wide-open eyes. “And its tongue thickth out like thith?” She began prancing about, flapping her arms, mocking in the way children do best. It was adorable.
Me: “They develop an affinity for the aroma of cat urine and lose some of their natural fear. Other than that, you’d never know they were infected by a neurologically active parasite.”
She ceased dancing, torn between the possibility I was making things up again and that I might be close enough to the truth to be trouble.
Anika: “So it what, it lives in rat brains?”
Me: “It lives everywhere. You can become infected by eating unwashed vegetables or by breathing in the dust from dried cat poop.”
Me: “Gross, but haven’t you ever wondered how cats became domesticated?”
Anika: “No. Why? Have you?”
Me: “The advantages of a dog are obvious. Dogs help hunt, they defend against predators, they bear heavy loads. They’re useful for both foragers and farmers alike.” I couldn’t help but retrieve a treat for loyal Clotho. “But cats? Cats do what, exactly? Catch mice?” A canine tail thumped the weathered timbers of the platform decking. “It doesn’t much sound like they’re worth the bother if you ask me.”
Anika: “Worth the bother? Are you kidding me? Cats are cute. They’re cuddly. Have you even heard a cat purr?”
Me: “It is more to the cat’s advantage than to your own that you think it is cute.”
Me: “Think about what you get out of the deal and what the cat gets out of the deal. Cui bono?”
Anika: “Cooey what?”
Me: “It’s Latin for ‘who benefits'”
Anika: “Okay, so the cat gets shelter, food, safety from wild animals, and belly rubs. People get a very clever hunter that will protect grain stores. Have you ever tried to store wheat or barley without having a few cats around? Mice will eat the whole thing.”
Me: “I’m glad you brought up grain storage. It’s likely that this is the chief transmission vector.”
Anika: “I beg your pardon?”
Me: “What does a toxoplasmosis infection do in rats?”
Anika: “You just said it makes cat pee smell good.”
Me: “It makes cats more appealing for their chief prey. On the margin, anyway. Or at least less unappealing. That’s pretty much the same thing, right?”
Anika: “Sure. So what?”
Me: “Cats were first domesticated,” I grimaced at the word. “Well, semi-domesticated at least, in the Fertile Crescent about 10,000 years ago, based on the genetic and archaeological evidence I recall from before the world ended.”
Anika: “Yeah? So?”
Me: “So, what do cats do after they poop?”
Anika: “They bury it. So what?”
Me: “You used to work on a farm. Did you ever have to clear cat turds out of your silo?”
Anika: “We didn’t have a silo, we had a grain shed, and yeah. That job was for the little kids most of the time. I didn’t like it at first, but you get used to it after a while.”
Me: “Think about that for a minute.” It took her less than a minute to think about it.
Anika: “Are you telling me that I’m like a rat? That I got infected and started being not grossed out by cat poop because of this toxo-whatsit?”
Me: “That’s one possibility, isn’t it? From the cat’s point of view, and mind you I’m talking about the species, not an individual cat, from the cat’s point of view, you do a little work, but you get a life of luxury. At least compared to what you’d have in the wild, anyway. From the people’s point of view, there’s a new animal living with you that kills mice maybe a little better than the dogs can, but that’s about it. Everything else is just charm, and that charm is wasted on a lot of people.”
Me: “You know how some people are dog people and some people are cat people?”
Anika: “I guess. Sure.”
Me: “Okay, so cat people don’t really hate dogs. They’re just sort of indifferent towards them, right?”
Anika: “I don’t know. I know people who are deadly afraid of dogs.”
Me: “Fair point, but that’s fear, not contempt. And it’s probably linked to something an actual dog actually did to them once.”
Me: “Some people, and I’m talking about dog people here, some people actively loathe cats and will go out of their way to kick them if they can. No one.” I paused again. “Well, almost no one,” I have never been ford of contemplating the depths of natural human depravity, “takes time away from their busy schedule to kick a dog.”
Anika: “You didn’t spend that much time on our farm, did you?”
Me: “I didn’t, but my hunch is that the natural state of humanity is to be contemptuous of cats. My hunch is that the cats need to convince people to love them. Part of that is killing mice to protect grain stores, part of that is purring and curling up on warm laps, and a big part of that is a quiet sentiment of warm affection brought on by a brain infection courtesy of toxoplasmosis gondii.”
Anika: “Sounds like something you just made up.”
Me: “Yeah, well, it’s tough to prove. But you said it yourself: it took a while cleaning up cat turds before you didn’t find them as nasty anymore, right?”
Me: “Did the same thing ever happen with dog turds?”
Anika: “Now that you mention it, no. Dog crap is always gross.”
Me: “In court, we’d call that ‘circumstantial evidence,’ but it’s something to think about. Consistent with my hunch, if you will.”
Anika: “So your hunch says that cats don’t have to be obedient and faithful so long as they can infect your brain with ‘love me love me’ parasites?”
Me: “Sure, something like that.”
Anika: “Sounds spooky.”
Me: “You don’t know the half of it.”
Anika: “How’s that?” She hopped down to the tracks and put the back of her hand against the rail.
Me: “If one animal can do it, why not another?”
Anika: “I suppose, but we’ve only got a few domesticated animals out there.”
Me: “The Baroness has us talking to mad prophets for a reason.”
Anika: “That has something to do with cats?”
Me: “With brain parasite infections.”
Anika: “You think mad prophets have brain infections?” She lowered her head to the tracks, pressing her ear against the warm steel.
Me: “Sort of. Have I ever told you what an egregore is?”
Anika: “Eggy-what?” Her eyes widened. “I hear something. I think the railcart is coming.”
Me: “Let’s talk more later.” Lachesis would probably be lounging on Brigit’s lap, and I couldn’t wait to see that cutesy little ball of purring fluff again.