One book that I always feel like I should understand better than I do (it’s the mechanics concerning light cones that stretch my ability to visualise) is Professor Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’. The content is roughly what nowadays a Physics or Astronomy student would learn in first year cosmology, but when it was first released the content was close to the cutting edge of modern physics. It is a testament to the great charm of Hawking’s writing, as well as his ability to sell it, that the book has since sold millions of copies, and that Hawking himself is the most famous scientist of our age.

The reason I bring it up now is because of one passage from it that spring to mind the other day (I haven’t read it in over a year, but my brain works like that). In this extract, Hawking claims that some 500 years ago, it would be possible for a (presumably rich, intelligent, well-educated and well-travelled) man to learn everything there was to know about science and technology in his age. This is, when one thinks about it, a rather bold claim, considering the vast scope of what ‘science’ covers- even five centuries ago this would have included medicine, biology, astronomy, alchemy (chemistry not having been really invented), metallurgy and materials, every conceivable branch of engineering from agricultural to mining, and the early frontrunners of physics to name but some. To discover everything would have been quite some task, but I don’t think an entirely impossible one, and Hawking’s point stands: back then, there wasn’t all that much ‘science’ around.

And now look at it. Someone with an especially good memory could perhaps memorise the contents of a year’s worth of New Scientist, or perhaps even a few years of back issues if they were some kind of super-savant with far too much free time on their hands… and they still would have barely scratched the surface. In the last few centuries, and particularly the last hundred or so years, humanity’s collective march of science has been inexorable- we have discovered neurology, psychology, electricity, cosmology, atoms and further subatomic particles, all of modern chemistry, several million new species, the ability to classify species at all, more medicinal and engineering innovations than you could shake a stick at, plastics, composites and carbon nanotubes, palaeontology, relativity, genomes, and even the speed of spontaneous combustion of a burrito (why? well why the f&%$ not?). Yeah, we’ve come a long way.

The basis for all this change occurred during the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. The precise cause of this change somewhat unknown- there was no great upheaval, but more of a general feeling that ‘hey, science is great, let’s do something with it!’. Some would argue that the idea that there was any change in the pace of science itself is untrue, and that the groundwork for this period of advancing scientific knowledge was largely done by Muslim astronomers and mathematicians several centuries earlier. Others may say that the increasing political and social changes that came with the Renaissance not only sent society reeling slightly, rendering it more pliable to new ideas and boundary-pushing, but also changed the way that the rich and noble functioned. Instead of barons, dukes and the nobility simply resting on their laurels and raking in the cash as the feudal system had previously allowed them to, an increasing number of them began to contribute to the arts and sciences, becoming agents of change and, in the cases of some, agents in the advancement of science.

It took a long time for science to gain any real momentum. For many a decade, nobody was ever a professional scientist or even engineer, and would generally study in their spare time. Universities were typically run by monks and populated by the sons of the rich or the younger sons of nobles- they were places where you both lived and learned expensively, but were not the centres of research that they are nowadays. They also contained a huge degree of resistance to the ideas put forward by Aristotle and others that had been rediscovered at the start of the revolution, and as such trying to get one’s new ideas taken seriously was a severe task. As such, just as many scientists were merely people who were interested in a subject and rich and intelligent enough to dabble in it as they were people committed to learning. Then there was the notorious religious problem- whilst the Church had no problem with most scientific endeavours, the rise of astronomy began one long and ceaseless feud between the Pope and physics into the fallibility of the bible, and some, such as Galileo and Copernicus, were actively persecuted by the Church for their new claims. Some were even hanged. But by far the biggest stumbling block was the sheer number of potential students of science- most common people were peasants, who would generally work the land at their lord’s will, and had zero chance of gravitating their life prospects higher than that. So- there was hardly anyone to do it, it was really, really hard to make any progress in and you might get killed for trying. And yet, somehow, science just kept on rolling onwards. A new theory here, an interesting experiment here, the odd interesting conversation between intellectuals, and new stuff kept turning up. No huge amount, but it was enough to keep things ticking over.

But, as the industrial revolution swept Europe, things started to change. As revolutions came and went, the power of the people started to rise, slowly squeezing out the influence and control of aristocrats by sheer weight of numbers. Power moved from the monarchy to the masses, from the Lords to the Commons- those with real control were the entrepreneurs and factory owners, not old men sitting in country houses with steadily shrinking lands that they owned. Society began to become more fluid, and anyone (well, more people than previously, anyway), could become the next big fish by inventing something new. Technology began to become of ever-increasing importance, and as such so did its discovery. Research by experiment was ever-more accessible, and science began to gather speed. During the 20th century things really began to motor- two world wars prompted the search for new technologies to enter an even more frenzied pace, the universal schooling of children was breeding a new generation of thinkers, and the idea of a university as a place of learning and research became more cemented in popular culture. Anyone could think of something new, and in that respect everyone was a scientist.

And this, to me, is the key to the world we live in today- a world in which a dozen or so scientific papers are published every day for branches of science relevant largely for their own sake. But this isn’t the true success story of science. The real success lies in the products and concepts we see every day- the iPhone, the pharmaceuticals, the infrastructure. The development of none of these discovered a new effect, a new material, or enabled us to better understand the way our thyroid gland works, and in that respect they are not science- but they required someone to think a little bit, to perhaps try a different way of doing something, to face a challenge. They pushed us forward one, tiny inexorable step, put a little bit more knowledge into the human race, and that, really, is the secret. There are 7 billion of us on this planet right now. Imagine if every single one contributed just one step forward.

The Encyclopaedia Webbanica

Once again, today’s post will begin with a story- this time, one about a place that was envisaged over a hundred years ago. It was called the Mundaneum.

The Mundaneum today is a tiny museum in the city of Mons, Belgium, which opened in its current form in 1998. It is a far cry from the original, first conceptualised by Nobel Peace Prize winner Henri la Fontaine and fellow lawyer and pioneer Paul Otlet in 1895. The two men, Otlet in particular, had a vision- to create a place where every single piece of knowledge in the world was housed. Absolutely all of it.

Even in the 19th century, when the breadth of scientific knowledge was a million times smaller than it is today (a 19th century version of New Scientist would be publishable about once a year), this was a huge undertaking, this was a truly gigantic undertaking from a practical perspective. Not only did Otlet and la Fontaine attempt to collect a copy of just about every book ever written in search of information, but went further than any conventional library of the time by also looking through pamphlets, photographs, magazines, and posters in search of data. The entire thing was stored on small 3×5 index cards and kept in a carefully organised and detailed system of files, and this paper database eventually grew to contain over 12 million entries. People would send letters or telegraphs to the government-funded Mundaneum (the name referencing to the French monde, meaning world, rather than mundane as in boring), who in turn would have their staff search through their files in order to give a response to just about any question that could be asked.

However, the most interesting thing of all about Otlet’s operation, quite apart from the sheer conceptual genius of a man who was light-years ahead of his time, was his response to the problems posed when the enterprise got too big for its boots. After a while, the sheer volume of information and, more importantly, paper, meant that the filing system was getting too big to be practical for the real world. Otlet realised that this was not a problem that could ever be resolved by more space or manpower- the problem lay in the use of paper. And this was where Otlet pulled his masterstroke of foresight.

Otlet envisaged a version of the Mundaneum where the whole paper and telegraph business would be unnecessary- instead, he foresaw a “mechanical, collective brain”, through which people of the world could access all the information the world had to offer stored within it via a system of “electric microscopes”. Not only that, but he envisaged the potential for these ‘microscopes’ to connect to one another, and letting people “participate, applaud, give ovations, [or] sing in the chorus”. Basically, a pre-war Belgian lawyer predicted the internet (and, in the latter statement, social networking too).

Otlet has never been included in the pantheon of web pioneers- he died in 1944 after his beloved Mundaneum had been occupied and used to house a Nazi art collection, and his vision of the web as more of an information storage tool for nerdy types is hardly what we have today. But, to me, his vision of a web as a hub for sharing information and a man-made font of all knowledge is envisaged, at least in part, by one huge and desperately appealing corner of the web today: Wikipedia.

If you take a step back and look at Wikipedia as a whole, its enormous success and popularity can be quite hard to understand. Beginning from a practical perspective, it is a notoriously difficult site to work with- whilst accessing the information is very user-friendly, the editing process can be hideously confusing and difficult, especially for the not very computer-literate (seriously, try it). My own personal attempts at article-editing have almost always resulted in failure, bar some very small changes and additions to existing text (where I don’t have to deal with the formatting). This difficulty in formatting is a large contributor to another issue- Wikipedia articles are incredibly text-heavy, usually with only a few pictures and captions, which would be a major turn-off in a magazine or book. The very concept of an encyclopaedia edited and made by the masses, rather than a select team of experts, also (initially) seems incredibly foolhardy. Literally anyone can type in just about anything they want, leaving the site incredibly prone to either vandalism or accidental misdirection (see for Randall Munroe’s take on how it can get things wrong). The site has come under heavy criticism over the years for this fact, particularly on its pages about people (Dan Carter, the New Zealand fly-half, has apparently considered taking up stamp collecting, after hundreds of fans have sent him stamps based on a Wikipedia entry stating that he was a philatelist), and just letting normal people edit it also leaves bias prone to creep in, despite the best efforts of Wikipedia’s team of writers and editors (personally, I think that the site keeps its editing software deliberately difficult to use to minimise the amount of people who can use it easily and so try to minimise this problem).

But, all that aside… Wikipedia is truly wonderful- it epitomises all that is good about the web. It is a free to use service, run by a not-for-profit organisation that is devoid of advertising and is funded solely by the people of the web whom it serves. It is the font of all knowledge to an entire generation of students and schoolchildren, and is the number one place to go for anyone looking for an answer about anything- or who’s just interested in something and would like to learn more. It is built on the principles of everyone sharing and contributing- even flaws or areas lacking citation are denoted by casual users if they slip up past the editors the first time around. It’s success is built upon its size, both big and small- the sheer quantity of articles (there are now almost four million, most of which are a bit bigger than would have fitted on one of Otlet’s index cards), means that it can be relied upon for just about any query (and will be at the top of 80% of my Google searches), but its small server space, and staff size (less than 50,000, most of whom are volunteers- the Wikimedia foundation employs less than 150 people) keeps running costs low and allows it to keep on functioning despite its user-sourced funding model. Wikipedia is currently the 6th (ish) most visited website in the world, with 12 billion page views a month. And all this from an entirely not-for-profit organisation designed to let people know facts.

Nowadays, the Mundaneum is a small museum, a monument to a noble but ultimately flawed experiment. It original offices in Brussels were left empty, gathering dust after the war until a graduate student discovered it and eventually provoked enough interest to move the old collection to Mons, where it currently resides as a shadow of its former glory. But its spirit lives on in the collective brain that its founder envisaged. God bless you, Wikipedia- long may you continue.