Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Reveries of libraries, the nineteenth : POSTAGE STAMPS AND PLANETS

Philip Harvey

Have you ever noticed how the pages of an average book when opened are about the size of the human face? This is worth keeping in mind when pondering the news that all books could now be stored on a device the size of a postage stamp. 

A team of scientists in the Netherlands have, through the manipulation of single atoms, made the world's smallest hard drive. It gives new meaning to the word netherlands. Without going into details of what they mean by “all the world's books”, the team claims the technology is “so dense” it could hold this quantity of book content. One professor at Delft University describes this invention as “an atomic-scale printing press.” Another gave a lecture, in which he asked “What would happen if we could arrange the atoms one by one the way we want them?” The University team even encoded this lecture in a grid 100 nanometres across, a hundredth the width of a human hair, and in appropriate Delft Blue.
Photo: Delft University/Sander Otte

The fact that this postage stamp has to be kept at liquid nitrogen temperature (-196.15 degrees) does not tempt this reader, who prefers reading anything at a mild temperature of 21 degrees celsius, near a sunny window, on a lovely Spring morning, nowhere near a laboratory.

That this microdot postage stamp is some kind of ultimate library, albeit virtually invisible to the naked eye, may leave librarians and readers alike asking, so what’s the point? The issue, it seems, is not the readability of a microdot but its capacity for storage and retrieval of information, all of it in binary form. We understand that bit, at least. While someone can retrieve the right kinds of atoms in the right order, then librarianship is entering a new phase.

The material universe is mighty big. Vast, humungous, tremendous, super, ginormous and other synonyms strive to describe the mightily big. When people say, philosophically, we are only a speck in the universe they have imagined a similar planet to our own in a distant galaxy, then reached the obvious conclusion. If they’re a speck then we’re a speck. This merely materialistic conclusion about the situation of the universe is a fallacy. After all, we as persons are not specks, anymore than the Earth we inhabit is an infinitesimal postage stamp. It’s all we know, both its human scale and its extra-human dimensions. True, our bounds are horizons. Even on the Moon we can only see half the picture, but as persons, reading our book on a Spring morning, it’s as much as we’re going to know in this world.

Which is why science can seem such a misguided adventure, planning to put all books on a postage stamp. It is we in our own space who will choose to read the pages we read, up close, with our best spectacles if needs be. The microdot library is incidental, storing all of that other stuff we may never get around to reading.

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