the balance of one thing against another

Something occurred to me this week that I’d like to spend some time exploring. It hit me during a short segment on CNN about Encyclopaedia Britannica, of all things. But then it’s interesting to follow these chains of memory sometimes.

I can remember visits to my grandparents’ house when I was young, and leafing through the 1912 edition of the Britannica that lived in a trunk in the attic. I loved the weight of the volumes in my hands and the feel of the pages. And when we were cleaning out the attic some years later, we found the original wooden crate in which it had been shipped, and we could see the extent to which the volumes had expanded over time and would no longer fit in that original container.

But the recent thought was a thought in a different direction. The Britannica is still for me, to a lesser extent than it used to be, a symbol of the totality of human knowledge. I’m sure that even the writers of the Britannica would probably acknowledge that they provided a summary, even in that 1912 edition, but holding those volumes gave me the illusion of being able to develop an understanding.

Developing that understanding has become more difficult over time, and becomes more difficult day by day. The speed at which we as humans are producing knowledge is fearsome. I subscribe to a daily arxiv.org update on the submissions in some areas of mathematics, and even that very limited picture is more than I can absorb, and I’ve chosen the areas I’m interested in.

And this brings me to the core of this thought. Even in very small patches in the overall space of the exploration of things known and not yet known, it is becoming increasing difficult to keep an eye on and understanding of what is known. On the one hand, this is very exciting, because the more hands, the merrier in terms of developing our understanding.

But on the other hand, and I am extrapolating from my personal experience here, we explore these areas because we want to understand, and so there can be a joyous frustration in trying to keep up with everyone else on the same quest.

So that is the balance that sparked this whole scree. The balance I’m thinking of here is the balance of breadth versus depth. We can focus our attention on a very very small patch, thereby denying breadth, and work in increasing the depth of our understanding. Or we can focus our attention on larger patches, with the consequent necessity of mining this patch to a lesser depth, if only because we are finite creatures and we have only a finite amount of time and effort that we can put into this work.

And we can leave this first part of what will undoubtedly be a discussion of several parts, by remembering VGER from Star Trek: The Motion Picture, naively tasked with understanding everything there was to understand, and then not knowing what to do once it had accomplished this mission. Fiction perhaps can bridge this divide between breadth and depth, but it seems to me to be beyond what we can do at present.

~ by Jim Anderson on 29 November 2020.

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