Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Deus Ex Decimal System

One of the popular conceits about the Library of Alexandria is the perception that the unfortunately destroyed archives contained in the dusty scrolls the answers to mysteries that will never be solved and secrets lost to the ages.

Tony Stark gets all misty-eyed in Sub-Mariner #1 (August 2007).

But, really? Maybe in a comic book universe a lost scroll held the secrets of eternal youth and spells leading to other dimensions, but not in our reality. In the real world the Library of Alexandria was a repository of all the knowledge that civilization had recorded up to that point.

Now think about that for a moment.

How smart were people of the third century AD? Not very. Culturally, they were barely out of the stone age. Human life was cheap, fire scared them and they saw magic and ghosts everywhere and they thought flies were born out of mud puddles. For all the advances in plumbing and infrastructure the denizens of that era were pretty primitive. After all, how smart do you have to be to figure out that if you poop where you live then horrible disease will result? Even forest animals know to eliminate outside the den. The library was a good idea in concept but probably failed in practice. Knowledge wasn't that important to most people then. The pressures of daily life took precedence. People didn't need to go to the library to research when to plant corn, they knew that already and didn't have time for learning.

The destruction of the library was certainly a crime against humanity but the idea that it held all the answers to arcane mysteries is doubtful. What library would store for public or scholarly perusal the method for making Greek fire, gunpowder or changing base metals into ones more precious? If there were tomes in existence that were full of dangerous ideas then I really doubt the average scholar would have had access to any of them. Imagine some high school kids checking out the Name of God scroll as a laugh and speaking the creator's name backwards thus unmaking the universe. Scary thought.

As an experiment try gathering up the collected knowledge of any modern city today and any archivist would be appalled at the pile of incorrect entries to wade through to get to the facts. The main sources of information would come from the misinformed, stupid, well-meaning but wrong, misanthropic and those with skewed agendas. The royal library was probably full of questionable material. In content the Library of Alexandria was probably somewhat similar to many current on line resources with poorly-vetted or wrongly accepted information that is taken as a definitive source.

Did the Library of Alexandria hold the answers to the many secrets of the universe? No. But I bet it had a great section devoted to tasty dung beetle recipes.

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  1. Um, third century AD, not BC. Also, by then humanity had largely stopped being afraid of fire and measured the circumference and diameter of the Earth to within 10% of their true sizes, among many other accomplishments of a relatively high order.

    Not that I think the secrets of eternity were lost there either. It definitely would've been nice to have their historical records, though.

  2. Plus Cleopatra restored a lot of the library anyway. While scrolls weren't exactly mass produced, there would be other copies of most of the library's stock, in many cases copied from the library original.

  3. AD? Damn you, Wikipedia!

    And I'm not saying a few facts were not shifting paradigms, but for the most part people still worried the gods would smite them when it rained.

  4. I would guess the value of the Library of Alexandria to us iPod-totin' futurians is that it would be invaluable culturally, maybe not so much factually. In other words, the breadth of what they knew and believed is more important than actually what they did know and believe.

    Also: ancient porn!

  5. Yeah, I think the losses are more to history and literature than to science, technology, or anything else practical. Although there was probably a lot of revealing stuff about the *history of science*.

    But there were histories and plays by Aristophanes and Euripides that will never be recovered, and that is sufficient tragedy, I think, without bringing up Greek fire or fanciful applications for Antikythera devices.

  6. Late to the game, but I beg to differ. While I agree that the ancients wouldn't have had crazy secrets of eternal youth or the Montesi formula, they might have had pretty advanced mathematics in the library.

    The recently discovered Archimedes Palimpsest contains what could be described as primitive calculus. If more of this kind of stuff had survived ancient times, Renaissance architects might have had calculus, and leading scientists from Isaac Newton onwards could have worked on more advanced topics.

    Conceivably, our current technology could have been decades ahead of what it actually is. Considering the development of tech in the past 10 decades, that's saying quite a bit.

  7. Also, today's dung beetle recipes would taste absolutely sublime.

  8. I doubt we would be very far ahead ABS. Batteries probably existed in Egypt and were not used until recently.The Antikythera mechanism was likely not the least of technology is use at the time but practicality and luxury of technology often gives way to the pressures of trying to survive.

  9. While I agree that most "futuristic" advanced "science" would probably NOT have been found therein (although... since we STILL have no idea how to make a pyramid or divined many other ancient building methods) the true loss would be all the HISTORY and facts.

    Many things that we GUESS at today would have been known.

    The past, to so many cultures, is a jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing.

    The valuable texts within the Library might have shed much-needed light on many things that we still bicker about today.

    Of course, History is written by the survivors, and no one's to say if even the ANCIENT history written there would have been 100% true and accurate.

    Still, if Atlantis ever existed (in any way, shape or form) and that info could be found there... it would have been fantastic.

    Oh, and the stuff about how Aliens helped build most ancient societies would've been neat, too!



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