As you guys know, I’m pretty much solely a Marvel guy. Don’t really read DC. No strict or philosophical reason. I started with Marvel as a pre-teen, so when I finally took a look at DC’s characters, they just didn’t “grab” me the same way. Now I’m old and set in my ways with only room for one fictional universe in the rapidly shrinking space between my ears.

But I will concede, despite gems like Spectacular Spider-Man and Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, DC has historically dominated in the animated arena. I didn’t even need to be familiar with three-fourths of the characters to understand how special Justice League Unlimited was. Still, I didn’t get to watch much of it during its initial run. I blame Cartoon Network and their constant timeslot-hopping.

So it’s an especially nice treat for me that the CW Network has been rerunning JLU as part of its Saturday morning Vortexx block. I’ve gotten to relive the precious few episodes I remember and fill in what I missed, including the epic series finale in which Darkseid, thanks to Lex Luthor, finally obtained the Anti-Life equation that he’d so fervently sought, and then promptly popped out of existence in a flash of light.

Here’s where ya’ll might be able to help me out. As a science guy, and someone who respects the great explanatory power of mathematics – even if I’m not very good at it myself – this concept intrigues me. But I’m not really sure what it’s supposed to represent.

It sure is sparkly. Much more colorful than my college advanced mechanics textbook.

According to the DC Animated Wikia, the Anti-Life equation “mathematically proves that hope, love and freedom are all meaningless and effectively destroys a person’s free will.” That’s fucking wild, but awfully imprecise for a formula. Granddaddy Wikipedia says Grant Morrison went ahead and defined the terms, in 2005, thusly:

loneliness + alienation + fear + despair + self-worth ÷ mockery ÷ condemnation ÷ misunderstanding × guilt × shame × failure × judgment n=y where y=hope and n=folly, love=lies, life=death, self=dark side

Although I still don’t know how you’d quantify any of those things.

The Language of the Cosmos

Here’s what I do know. The universe really is governed by mathematics. As physicist Roger Penrose describes in his monumental tome, “The Road to Reality,” that truth began to be glimpsed by the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians, but it was the Greeks of about 2,500 years ago that introduced the idea of a mathematical proof. Pythagoras especially latched onto the idea, formulating his famous right triangle equation and noticing how an instrument’s harmonic chords correspond to its length.

Considered so simple now it’s taught in middle school, the Pythagorean theorem was part of the insightful breakthrough that physical reality could be represented in abstract, symbolic language.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, Isaac Newton, perhaps the most brilliant scientist of all time, went further in showing that mathematics can and should be applied to observation in the service of making predictions of future outcomes. His careful calculations describing the precise motions of the planets shattered his time period’s imagined boundary between the heavens and the Earth and set the stage for all of modern science as we know it. Today we don’t see the universe being as deterministic as Newton did, as probability has crept in thanks to quantum mechanics, but those possibilities are still quantified as a single term in Erwin Schrödinger’s oft-referenced wave equation.

Obligatory “Schrödinger’s Cat” image. Potential victim of the Anti-Life probability distribution.

And yes, even human behavior is not immune from mathematical modeling. Astrophysicist Mario Livio, who brought the creepily omnipresent “golden ratio” to the world’s attention, points out in his provocatively–titled 2009 book Is God a Mathematician? that the Nobel Memorial Prize in economics was once awarded to a duo who used Brownian motion, a model more often utilized to describe pollen grains or smoke particles, to understand the pricing of stock options. That’s not the only example, as the “Journal of Mathematical Sociology” exists solely to study social structures and organizations.

Sometimes the actions of “financial geniuses” follow the same patterns as mindless molecules.

Fact or (Useful) Fiction?

Here’s where I’m a little fuzzy. Did someone formulate the Anti-Life equation, or is it just something that’s thought to exist and is out there waiting for Darkseid to stumble upon it? If there’s no obvious answer to that question, that’s okay. Scientists in the real world wonder the same thing.

In fact, that’s the central thesis of Is God a Mathematician?. Is math invented or discovered? Is it something intrinsic to nature, or does it work so well in modeling the universe because we made the whole fucking thing up to serve just that purpose? The debate still rages, as it has since Pythagoras, partially because it’s hard to understand why math works as well as it does. It’s hard to even dream up an equation that DOESN’T have some kind of use in describing a physical system. Pure mathematician Godfrey Harold Hardy, for example, once boasted how none of his work would ever make a difference to humankind – a strange thing to be proud of. He was proven wrong several times over when his ideas were used in the fields of genetics, cryptography and elsewhere.

Anti-Life equation wouldn’t work on him. He was happy with futility.

Either way, the citizens of the DC Universe can take slight solace that even if Darkseid did possess the Anti-Life equation, he might not know what to do with it. There are plenty of problems that don’t currently have solutions and may not ever. Or maybe they have solutions that are totally inconceivable to humans. We’ve been pretty lucky to not have run up against any obvious roadblocks in our figuring, but there’s no logical reason to think we’re capable of understanding all there is. Everything has limitations. Monkeys can’t do calculus, for instance, even if you entice them with all the bananas in the world.

“He’s still forgetting to include the differential!”

But then again, maybe Darkseid is on a plane above us, a “12th level intellect,” as Metron puts it in that JLU episode. Seemingly unsolvable problems do occasionally go down. In the year 2000, the Clay Mathematics Institute began offering a $1 million prize for anybody who could figure out one of seven such puzzlers. A decade later Grigori Perelman made the Poincaré conjecture his bitch. He declined the prize, but his feat serves as a reminder of continued human ingenuity – and perhaps a warning of what the minds of higher beings could achieve?

  • Paul

    As our author can attest, I have also had a long but more varied relationship with the comic universes. While I often agree that Marvel does indeed offer better stories and more believable characters, I have always had an affinity for some aspects of the DC universe. Superman was not the first comic , and not even the first superhero, but he has easily taken the top slot as the universal definition of what it is to be a hero. Then you have Batman, which comes in a very close second despite being a mere mortal. I believe that Batman relates to readers in a way that even Superman cannot match. Only the mentally unstable attempt to fly, but it is not uncommon for men to take the law into their own hands, or at the very least have strong urges to.

    I have watched JL and JLU for years, both in the initial run, and several times to completion since. When there is simply nothing else on I will throw one up on Netflix. As animation goes, I believe it to be one of the best and most true to source show ever created. While much of the sci-fi aspects are unrealistic, they go that extra mile to make it theoretically plausible. Sure it is nonsense , but they at least state that science is the key to understanding these things. (provided it is not shenanigans of Morgana or Mr. Myxlplyx)
    When it came to the matter of the Anti-Life equation, I was particularly entertained. I spent many an afternoon since those episodes thinking about it. To be quite frank, It irks me. I see several flaws with it and think that it was a horrible way to end that show.
    1) For ages Darkseid has been talking about and searching for this equation, and we are told he intends to use it to wipe out ALL LIFE. Now he has the it, and he simply blinks out of existence with Luthor in tow? My first question would be why did Luthor not vanish to start? How was he able to survive long enough to bring it to Earth? If he was able to survive because he was so intelligent, then he should have survived when Darkseid popped off?
    2) I fail to see how knowledge, even ULTIMATE knowledge can destroy? The APPLICATION of knowledge, sure…. but how can simply knowing a math problem cause spontaneous energy incineration? I see it as a rather strange and convenient cop out.
    That being said, I find that the finale’s saving grace to be the fact that it WAS Luthor that ends up saving the day. Perhaps it is the hopeless optimist in me (yeah, right) but I find it particularly important to note the decision they made here? This was a show about a group of people that always tried to do the right thing, and put others before themselves. The guy that was painted to be the most evil man on Earth the entire time is the one that takes the bullet for all humanity. I like to think that it is trying to say that anyone can be the hero, and that nobody is above redemption.

    • Paul

      looking over this wiki definition of the equation I also find it to be rather odd. Upon some thought I propose a more realistic version which serves as both life and anti-life equations in a way.

      life = )odds of conception X years in lifespan) / (number of tragic events + number of happy moments) + (if spouse go to A if not go to B)

      A + (odds of conception X years in lifespan) / (number of tragic events + number of happy moments X (if kids go to C if not go to D )

      B + ( knowledge acquired X people taught ) = ?

      C + (number of children) X (odds of concept. X years in lifespan) + ( if grandchildren go to E if not go to F)

      D + ( knowledge acquired X people taught ) = ?
      and so on and so on… I highly doubt it is functional but I think ya get where I’m going. I am not sure if it would be never ending like pi, or if it is finite? I do think it is closer to a life equation, therefore the anti-life equation by default would be something of an inverse?

    • Russ Dobler

      Dwayne McDuffie said that Luthor and Darkseid became part of the Source Wall. I guess that’s what happens to people who try to unravel the secrets of the universe?

      • Paul

        Basically an automated self-defense mechanism for the universe to prevent anyone knowing too much. I can go with that , but still wonder how Lex managed to get it, leave, THEN vanish? I suppose a cheap answer would be to say that Lex did not read it until he arrived, but we all know Lex would have peeked.