Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Lone Survivor: A Knowledge Problem

I've sometimes imagined what it would be like if I had to bear the sole responsibility of passing on all the world's knowledge to the next generation. What if, through some apocalyptic scenario, only I and a small band of people remained on the earth.

How good a job could I do at preserving the knowledge of the centuries? Perhaps I could sit down and make an effort to write down everything I could remember about every subject. On many subjects, I'd only be able to write the merest hints about the depth of the subject.

  • Pi is a handy number that is defined by the relationship of the length of the perimeter of the circle to its diameter. It is a number that you can never get to the end of writing because it just goes on and on forever. There is a way to calculate it out by hand, but I've never had to do so and don't know the procedure.
  • A laser is a beam of light that is so focused that it can travel for a long distance without becoming diffuse. It is being used for all sorts of things, including medical procedures. I'm not sure how to make a laser, but I think it has something to do with generating a light and getting it to pass through the right lenses back and forth to focus it.
  • An iPhone is a device with a billion tiny transistors and integrated circuits that allow it to do general purpose calculations and communicate over large distances wirelessly. There are so many steps required to put technology like this together, including the production of the necessary metals, that I have no hope of being able to write enough to help our little society get to the point. The machine is wonderful, though. I can see on a small screen the words of thousands of books and I can listen to music stored in the device and I can play games of complex strategy. It responds to my touch though it has almost no moving parts. 
Future generations would refer back to my works to mine them for ideas of what to create and build. The words would seem strange and distant to them. Without all the background knowledge that I failed to write, they would probably misinterpret many of the things that I wrote. They would think they built some of the things I described, though they would probably be very different than what I would recognize by the same name.

I wonder if it is like that when we read the words of a prophet after a vision. John or Nephi describe things with the best language available to them, but we are missing so many details that it is hard to imagine what they really meant sometimes. 


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