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Perpetual Libraries
by Jan Sand
2008-02-29 09:00:37
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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.

Printing 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to the passage of time but much of the instrumentation and software required to read the recorded material is superseded over the short period of a few years and is no longer available.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 recent news report at www.sciencedaily.com:

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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Emanuel Paparella2008-02-29 12:19:44
A brief historical footnote: who indeed burned the Library of Alexandria? Unfortunately most of the writers from Plutarch (who apparently blamed Caesar who of course never admitted it since he always “came, saw and conquered” and never did anything wrong) to Edward Gibbons (a staunch atheist who liked very much to blame Christians and in fact did so) to Bishop Gregory (who was an anti-Moslem and blamed the Moslems) all had an axe to grind and consequently it is safe to see them as biased and not very reliable. So much for written documentation purportedly more reliable simply because it is written (as our DNA is as the library of our bodies…but then again Stephen Hawking assures us that all will be lost eventually in a black hole...) than mere oral transmission which however honors the truth.

Most probably everyone mentioned above had some hand in destroying some part of the Library's holdings due to their own regrettable bias toward some of its holding (rember the bonfire of 1932 in Germany?)not to their particular taste. The collection may have ebbed and flowed as some documents were destroyed and others were added. For instance, Mark Antony was supposed to have given Cleopatra over 200,000 scrolls for the Library long after Julius Caesar is accused of burning it. Go figure!

Linda Lane2008-03-01 20:02:02
The Library at Alexandria! Ah I still grieve over it's distruction, like that of Tibet. Who knows what we left there?

Emanuel Paparella2008-03-03 11:51:11
Indeed Linda, to transform a perpetual library in a cemetery with perpetual peace all that is needed is to have books (even the books in the DNA) just languish there unread and undiscussed.

Chris2008-03-04 00:12:16
Well written, Sand. I am reminded of the Indian tradition, which lived on in Tibet, where people memorized books -- even large books. They would gather to recite the books to new readers and to guage correctness with other living book people. The film Alter of Fire documents this tradition in Vedic literature -- never written down but surviving thousands of years. As for the DNA idea, you seem to assume that all possible knowledge is not *already* encoded in our DNA. Many would say that the process of learning/reading is one of pulling the info out of that genetic store, and that the state of the art is only the state of the mind. I really don't know anything about it. Your words inspire. Thank you.

Sand2008-03-04 06:19:59
Although Our DNA encodes the physiological structures of our bodies and how they function the individual life experiences disappear with each of our deaths. If Shakespeare and Poe and Gibbons and Shaw and all the knowledge gained through physics and astronomy and chemistry etc. and technology were encoded in DNA it could be available through mere reproduction as are the fantastic necessary knowledge to stay alive. It has drawbacks also as obsolete knowledge is also preserved and there has to be some way of giving knowledge some value. If it comes about there will be great struggles as to which knowledge has value and which might be detrimental.

Emanuel Paparella2008-03-05 20:58:12
Of course the first books to be eradicated by Big Brother who knows best would be those on religion. They are pretty useless and for Big Brother and therefore they must be useless for everybody else. Thanks but no thanks; I'd rather keep my freedom.

Sand2008-03-07 20:58:29
That's a pretty definite confession that you believe the world will definitely line up against religious literature. Since most religious literature is great fun and frequently delightfully poetic it seems most likely that, along with much of Lewis Carroll's and Dr. Seuss' works it will be preserved in its proper category.

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