An “infinite” tunnel of books in a Prague library. Photo: vladj55 (Getty Images)
So I figured if I can find the cure for cancer, I’ll make a lot of money. I don’t have time to “study oncology” or “learn how it all works”, but I like money and have an acronym: The Library of Babel. If there is a cure for cancer, it is already written there and it’s just a few clicks away waiting for me to discover it.
The work of Brooklyn writer and programmer Jonathan Basile, this website makes the bold claim that it contains every page of up to 3,200 characters ever written, every page ever written, and every page ever written could be. That means that on his virtual shelves lie the answers to all the secrets of the universe: the true identity of the Zodiac Killer, the winner of every upcoming Super Bowl and the cure for cancer – that I will find. I can make a lot of money with that.
How does it work?
I’m not going to pretend I fully understand the math and programming behind it, but in the Library of Babel, every possible permutation of 3200 letters, spaces, commas, and periods is now supposed to be in one of the library’s “books”. Literally search through anything you can think of – cut and paste this paragraph, type in your next un-tweeted tweet, type in random gibberish – and you’ll find it’s already there somewhere in the library is. It was already there if you had only known where to look.
The library doesn’t create or store near infinite combinations of randomly generated collections of letters and punctuation marks – there isn’t nearly enough hard drive space in the world for that. Instead, it uses a “pseudo-random number generation” algorithm to produce the books in a seemingly random distribution without having to store anything on disk.”
It’s like the seeds Minecraft uses to generate “random” worlds: put in the right seed, and everyone can find every possible page that exists for everyone in the same place. (Check this out to learn more Take a closer look at the secret sauce behind the website.)
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In search of the cure for cancer
The first challenge (that’s what I call “problems” because I’m a positive thinker) in my search for a cure for cancer is that I don’t know where in the library to find the book that contains the cure for cancer. But the page is waiting somewhere on one of the many shelves. I can feel it.
Like the imaginary universal library in the short story by Jorge Luis Borges “The Library of Babel“That inspired the site, the content of the library is divided into numbered hexagonal” rooms “(not that they actually exist, they theoretically exist depending on how the data is sortedwhich essentially boils down to the same thing). Each room has four walls, 20 shelves and 640 volumes. You can enter a hex room and randomly dragging a book from the shelf, but nothing is sorted by subject.
I started with enter random rooms and checking out random books but only found gibberish. Then I crossed my fingers and clicked the “Random” button in the search engine of the site that gave me the right to a book called “Jdr, xblx, mormfic, nvuo, 1” This volume didn’t seem to have anything to do with oncology. The same on my second, third and fourth attempts. I realized that if I was browsing the shelves or manually clicking “random” the Big Freeze would take the Universe to end until I happened to find the right book, so I had to improve my time management.
I backwards scanned every page of the library for the phrase “Here’s how to cure cancer” and switched to the “Surrounded by English Words” tab and found a text with the following sentence:
“Here’s How You Can Cure Cancer Mailgram Regulates Caenogenesis-Rental Esophagus.” Very promising. But a second search for the phrase “Here’s how to cure cancer” resulted in an entirely different set of random words surrounding him. And so on and on.
Infinity is very big
You could possibly automate this task – design a search engine that would search Babel for books on curing cancer and only return results in understandable English. But even with the fastest computer, searching through such a large number of volumes would be impossible – there are 10 ^ 4677 books in the library. In comparison, there are about 10 ^ 78 atoms in the universe.
But what if you had some kind of super-advanced? Quantum computer that could manage the search? (I’m using “quantum” here as an abbreviation for “something that is impossible, but that would be cool.”) Could it be used to find the cure?
No, sorry: this theoretical computer would presumably return many – many, many – readable, understandable documents that purportedly contain the cancer cure, but along with the actual cures (if any) you will also find a description of every possible cure that Cancer doesn’t actually heal, as does anything that causes cancer, although it does say it cures cancer. You would also find every possible permutation or variation of these pages that could fit within the character limit, i.e. billions / trillion / quadrillion of pages that are identical except for a single character. There’s a lot to go through.
There are turtles at the very bottom
You could try using your quantum computer to determine the accuracy of a cancer statement in the library. Perhaps look in the library for a page titled “How To Tell If a Cancer Cure From The Library Of Babel Is Correct?”
Otherwise you would have all sorts of methods to determine the accuracy of cancer texts. You will need another guide called How To Determine If the Guide to the Cure For Cancer from the Library of Babel is Correct, and on and on towards infinity. There are turtles at the very bottom.
Even if you could devise a program that filters out every book except those that contain cancer cures that are at least plausible based on what we know about cancer, you would still end up with a nearly infinite number of untested cancer cures. Including “Eat lots of onions,” “Oddly enough, cigarette smoking will cure cancer,” and literally every other “cure” you can think of / write down in 3,200 characters. Far too many to read, let alone test in a meaningful way, even if every person who has ever lived devoted their life to the task.
What I’m saying is: Infinity is very big. And although the cure for cancer is right in the library (maybe on the shelf next to “df kl, gjtg, whzdfozdf”), I won’t find it and I’ll get rich. You neither.
So what’s the point of the library?
In Borges short story, When the librarians of the Infinite Library discover that their universe really does contain all kinds of knowledge, they are at first excited and believe that they are “the masters of an intact and secret treasure”.
They act as search engines looking for books that “forever affirmed the deeds of every person in the universe”, or they look for books that explain how the library works, or they look for The Man of the Book, a mythical figure who should have read the index of the library. But no matter how hard you search, you won’t find any of it. Too many books.
Like a filtering program, a cult of librarians decides to dispose of any books that don’t make sense, but even destroying millions of unique volumes makes no difference to the library, as there are innumerable near-exact versions of every destroyed book elsewhere in the library.
Surrounded by useless information, librarians largely despair or try to ward it off by inventing systems designed to give meaning to their work and life. Despite the futility of the search, they are still trying to find a signal in the noise. (Maybe one of them blogged about it, I don’t know.)
So what’s the point of the library? What’s the point of it all? It’s an interesting thought experiment about infinity, a way to visualize the actual universe we live in, or a cool way to waste a few minutes. Listen and let me know what you think or join ushe librarian over on Reddit.
But I have doubts about the cure for cancer if you find it.