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Perpetual Libraries Perpetual Libraries
by Jan Sand
2021-02-28 10:13:25
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One of the major tragedies frequently bewailed by historians is the destruction of the library at Alexandria which contained many ancient scrolls and much valuable information ranging from works by ancient Greek philosophers to records of histories and all sorts of artistic cultural material. It is uncertain exactly who the perpetrators may have been and guesses range from Caesar in 48 BC to Muslims in 642 AD.

Before the advent of printing written material had advanced to handwritten scrolls on flammable materials which were difficult and expensive to replace, not to speak of the loss of accuracy through copy mistakes and mistranslation. Fires in libraries were by no means rare so, from time to time, much material disappeared into the fog of history.

boolib0001_400Printing permitted quick and economic reproduction of multiple copies of books which are handier than scrolls but even books can disappear over time. Modern digital records are durable and proliferate far more easily than mechanical symbols on paper but these too have strong drawbacks. Not only are CDs vulnerable to the passage of time but much of the instrumentation and software required to read the recorded material is superseded over the short period of a few years and is no longer available. The Lear Wire Recorder I had in the late '40s has vanished totally along with the later tape recorders and even CDs are starting to move towards extinction. Information remains fragile and evanescent.

The science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury wrote a novel Fahrenheit 451 which describes a society that, much in the manner of George Orwell's dystopia, worked to totally control the minds of its citizens. To do this it needed to destroy much of the old recorded history and culture in literature so it perverted fire departments to start fires to burn books and obliterate the past. To counter this resistant individuals organized themselves to "become" books so that each individual spent his life memorizing one or two vital pieces of literature to preserve them.

That's a very romantic idea but as someone who has hung around for the better part of a normal lifetime I have become uncomfortably aware that material that should be easily retrievable in my memory requires considerable jogging or recourse to Google to bring back. And, as legal authorities have discovered, eye witnesses to an event are frequently quite unreliable as to an occurrence in even the very recent past. The Japanese film Rashômon clearly documents this problem. The mind seems very unreliable.

Recently a better solution seems to have presented itself. This quote is from a news report: "The researchers discovered a system to encode digital information within DNA. This method relies on the length of the fragments obtained by the partial restriction digest rather than the actual content of the nucleotide sequence. As a result, the technology eliminates the need to use expensive sequencing machinery."

Why is this discovery important? The human genome consists of the equivalent of approximately 750 megabytes of data – a significant amount of storage space. However, only about three percent of DNA goes into composing the more than 22,000 genes that make us what we are. The remaining 97 percent leaves plenty of room to encode information in a genome, allowing the information to be preserved and replicated in perpetuity.

Given the size of the DNA fragments (one base pair of DNA is 0.33 nanometers), one could store a large amount of information in a very small space. By storing messages within DNA, organizations can "tag" objects to verify authenticity, as well as to inconspicuously send data to a specific destination. "Already there are several companies using DNA to tag objects that they certify to be original and which then can be very difficult to counterfeit," says Stefano Lonardi, Associate Professor of Computer Science & Engineering at UCR's Bourns College of Engineering.

The possibilities of this new technique move in all sorts of new and fascinating and, perhaps, even threatening directions. A caution should be mentioned. Although it is pointed out that only a few percentage of the human genome is recognized to be utilized in operation of the human body and its reproductive function new discoveries are being made that those portions that were originally considered junk are now realized as having a necessary useful function. In general nature is economical in its structures and they are maintained for a reason. To dismiss the utility of physiological features carries with it the danger that something unrecognized as vital might be disabled causing great problems in the future that might prove fatal to the species. To divert a seemingly useless item to perform in a way divorced from normal function could conceivably lead to unperceived disasters.

Assuming this recording potential to be innocently available opens up the possibility, for one, that available genetic material could easily record the entire current knowledge of humanity extremely compactly and be easily self reproducible. It might be wise to avoid, at least initially, modifying human structures, but there are many non-human genetic structures that could be played with. If humans could be endowed with the physiological capability of interpreting the coded material it could conceivably be possible to gain at least the data if not the required skills (or perhaps even these) of a full university education by visiting the proper restaurant and eating a salad or two. Equally, if the proper emotional motivations could be codified and inserted into DNA, antisocial behavior could be inhibited by infecting suitable criminals with the properly modified virus.

But, as with the inherent power of current armaments and knowledge of the atom, the misuse of this very powerful technique has the potential to totally and permanently destroy human civilization as we know it.

All great power carries with it great responsibility and if the present is any indication of how intelligently humanity applies its increased capabilities we are in for a very rough time indeed.

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