Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

December 17, 2018

Donald Knuth in the Galactic Library!

Filed under: Donald Knuth,Future,History — Razib Khan @ 4:57 pm

If you are a nerd you have been waiting for George R. R. Martin to complete his A Song of Ice and Fire series. But if you are a next level nerd, what you’ve been waiting for is for Donald Knuth to finish The Art of Computer Programming.

If you’ve never heard of Knuth, The New York Times has a nice profile up, The Yoda of Silicon Valley-Donald Knuth, master of algorithms, reflects on 50 years of his opus-in-progress, “The Art of Computer Programming”. When you first encounter Knuth and his life you get a sense of what it means to live and breath the life of the mind (Paul Erdos seems in the same category).

But this got me to thinking: if human civilization collapses would The Art of Computer Programming make it through to the successor societies? Enough people have memorized large sections of the Bible and the Koran, and various other religious and mythic works, that we’d be able to reconstruct them (and they would be passed down orally in rough form). It is unlikely that all the books would be destroyed. Similarly, great works of literature such as Shakespeare are widely read and internalized by the public.

This is not the case for a lot of detailed technical knowledge. From what I know the paper we use today is relatively perishable. If our civilization collapsed, it isn’t assured that low volume publications wouldn’t simply disappear as the books degrade beyond recognition without being copied (and without our modern technology digital storage will disappear).

Though I do think religious and literary works have value, to be frank it seems that any sufficiently advanced civilization has to converge upon similar narratives to encapsulate the sort of normative framework around which a society can function. For example, cannibalizing other human beings “because you can” always seems to be understood to be in the “bad” category. Some level of generosity toward the downtrodden is usually classed in the “good” category. I don’t think this is arbitrary, I think it’s an interaction between social complexity beyond the tribal scale, and our cognitive architecture which has first-order “natural tools” to deal with clan-based dynamics, but not supra-clan systems.

In contrast, a lot of technical knowledge, what we bracket into “natural science”, is quite counter-intuitive, and has appeared in one single civilization, that of early modern Europe. I’m particularly thinking of the fruitful synthesis of mathematical formalism and empirical testing which has characterized natural philosophy since Galileo. The historical record is clear that proto-scientific thinking in various forms emerges in many societies, with disparate threads in the same culture even (e.g., empiricism and mathematical formalism were present, but not fused, in the Classical world). But the combination in early modern Europe that kick-started modernity as we know it is rare, and takes a fortuitous combination of circumstances to allow for its flowering.

I hope that the Long Now Foundation has figured out a way to inscribe various technical texts on long-lasting tablets (perhaps stone?) and store them somewhere!

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