Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Greatest

When I contemplate the vast amount of information now in digital form—or projects that capture ancient books in digital format, a goal pursued by Google—I wonder what will happen to accumulated knowledge as we leave the fossil age. How that transition, which is less than a century away, will actually play out is really the big question—but only for those with generous time horizons. A baby born today will be 69 when it happens around about 2081 (link). Most of the adult population of that year has some decades to wait before being born. Now the up-beat narrative has us transiting smoothly as “new technology” comes on line betimes, but I rather think that those times will be extraordinarily turbulent. And in such times all sorts of printed matter will be lost—never mind digital stuff.

This thought arose again when I came across a reference to Ptolemy’s Almagest. That book dates to about 150 AD. Ptolemy was a Roman-Egyptian and lived between 90 and 168 AD. His book was a greatly valued source of information on astronomy and mathematics. It informed Byzantine, Islamic, and European scholars for many generations. It had thirteen "books" (naturally, I would say). Among other things, the work captures the teachings of Hipparchus (190-120 BC) on trigonometry. Its original title was Mathēmatikē Syntaxis, in Latin Syntaxis mathematica. Syntax means “orderly arrangement.” In due time the name morphed to The Great Treatise, and it is the Greek word, μεγίστη (megistē), meaning “greatest,” rendered untranslated into Arabic as magest, with the article al added at the front, that gives us the Almagest. (Have always wondered where that word came from.)

If I were a multi-millionaire, I’d start a project. It would produce printed versions of the great surviving books of our own and other cultures, ancient and modern, and cause them to be deposited at thousands of locations across the globe in anticipation of a post-fossil melt-down. Lots for my staff to think about as they get going. The printing surfaces should not be useful for burning, say. They should resist corrosion and be impossible to melt. And that for starters. Then, in some distant time one of these stations might survive and, the books once more recovered, they’d give the learned of that time something useful to do. This idea is free, multi-millionaires. You don’t even have to give me a hat tip.
The image of Ptolemy, from Wikipedia (link), comes from a sixteenth century edition of the Almagest and is one of its frontispiece images. Each age dresses its heroes in the garb of its time.

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