Anybody who has known me for more than 15 minutes knows that I’m a big fan of Wikipedia, the world’s largest free online encyclopedia. I’m one of their editors and a frequent contributor to their effort. They have a rather lofty goal: to organize and make available to the world for free the sum amount of all human knowledge. So far they’re doing a pretty good job of it. But I have a feeling that they still have some catching up to do.
The sum of all human knowledge is, well, it’s a lot. We’re getting smarter every day. And knowledge, by its very nature, is cumulative. That means I need to know everything that I have learned, plus everything that my parents learned, and so on back to the days of Adam and Eve. Or at least back until the time that mankind figured out that fried chicken tastes better than the feathery kind.
Let’s think about a few ways to measure the sum of all human knowledge.
Twenty years ago, I was the manager of the computer system for a manufacturing company. I remember the day when we finally bought enough disk space for our mainframe computer (Boy, there’s a term you don’t hear much any more – ask your teenager what a “mainframe” is.) so that now we actually had a full gigabyte of storage. That’s it. A gig. One.
But we couldn’t fit this gigabyte of silicon in one physical drive. No, we had to chain together three separate units, each the size of a washing machine, to reach that milestone. Three washing machines; one gig.
Under the desk where I’m sitting now there is 1,000 times that storage capacity in a space smaller than a shoebox. And it cost less than one-fourth as much as that 1985 gigabyte did – in pre-inflation adjusted dollars.
Such advancements in technology are almost impossible to imagine. Let’s put it another way.
A Mersenne prime number is a prime number that can be represented by one less than two raised to the power of a prime number. (Did you get that? I think the sum of all human knowledge is increased every time I explain that definition to somebody.) It’s one of those “Holy Grails” of computing. For years scientists have sought to spin electrons as fast as possible in search of larger and larger Mersenne Primes.
In 1952, the largest Mersenne Prime known to exist contained 157 digits. That's a pretty big number — larger than I want to count in my lifetime. But it got bigger and bigger every year.
By 1957, they had found one that was 969 digits long. By 1963, they finally found one that was 3376 digits.
Last year, scientists found a Mersenne prime that was 9,152,052 digit long. Almost ten million digits! If you wanted to “say” that number, you'd have to speak for eight hours a day for 28 days.
Here’s the way I like to look at it. If the sum of all human knowledge twenty years ago was the size of a baseball and could be held in your hand, the sum of all human knowledge today would be about the size of a four-story office building. And it would cost about as much as a cup of coffee to store that knowledge on a smart stick that you could fit on your key ring. (You get the idea.)
Not only are we learning more, we are learning more at a faster rate. I remember my high school algebra teach mentioning something about geometric progressions. Funny thing about those geometrics, they tend to become almost vertical after a while.
Aren’t we just about ready to go into orbit?