Posts Tagged ‘Athanasius Kircher’

On the quality of information

January 27, 2019

I’ve always read quite widely, beyond my own specialisms as an English teacher and student of literature and into other areas which I could understand, and used to find it rather disconcerting as a teacher when I would mention a fact or some information outside our subject, and a student would ask, “Sir, how come you know so much stuff?’ because it seemed natural and normal to know such things. I don’t think I ever gave a satisfactory answer to the question, but one of my lines was that I always liked to learn a new fact each day, and would offer them that fact as their knowledge gained ration for that day.

There is now an incomprehensible amount of information available, at most people’s fingertips, instantly. Several billion pages out there on the web, last time anyone informed me. And yet, how reliable, how accurate, how findable? The school librarian used to describe the internet as the world’s largest library, but with all the books thrown randomly on the floor.

Back in the past, a learned person could know everything. Reading Pliny’s Natural History is eye-opening: that’s what was known about the world back then. A few hundred years later, in the early seventh century, Isidore of Seville wrote his Etymologies, which has a claim to be the world’s first real encyclopaedia. In a few hundred pages we find everything that was known: as the author, he knew it all… and for that, he has been named patron saint of the internet by the Catholic Church.

Athanasius Kircher lived in the seventeenth century; a polymath, some regard him as the last person able to know everything that was known, in the days before the explosion of knowledge in all areas.

I love the internet and the access it gives me to so much information, and I have learned to be very cautious and very sceptical too. Wikipedia is a stunning resource and one I am happy occasionally to donate money to, and one of its virtues is that anyone can contribute to it, but this obviously raises the question about how reliable some of its information is. Back in the old days of printed reference books, these were compiled by experts, checked before printing, and expensive; the gold standard for more than two centuries was the Encyclopaedia Britannica. But who goes there as their first call for information now? A search for anything throws up hundreds or thousands of hits; who ever goes beyond the first couple of pages? And how many look carefully at the source of the information? If we are dubious, we can’t easily check, so we just move on to another result.

In former times, we could assume that information was accurate because of how it was collated and disseminated; nowadays I suggest it doesn’t often occur to us even to question the accuracy of what we find in a web search, and this does disturb me. Inaccuracy is possible accidentally, because of carelessness, and when anyone can post information online, inaccurate information can be deliberate, and increasingly is; if we are not alerted to engage our critical faculties, this is surely dangerous.

Money is involved behind the scenes, of course. The Encyclopaedia Britannica cost hundreds of pounds, and once printed, a good deal of its information was already out-of-date. Smaller reference books – dictionaries, gazetteers, atlases and the like – all cost money. Nowadays because “free” information is available in vast quantities, we feel entitled to have it for nothing. A good deal of quality information online is only available by subscription, and our first reaction when faced with a need to shell out for information is to look elsewhere for a free source. This is even more true when it comes to news, current affairs, and analysis thereof: we used to buy newspapers and read them without too much complaint; now we expect our news free.

We were shaped – manipulated, perhaps – in the past by the power of the wealthy to control the publication and dissemination of knowledge: no change there, then. And it continues today in different ways, and not many of us are wary enough. All I can hope to do is make more people aware of this; I have no solutions to offer to the problem.

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August favourites #28: author

August 28, 2018

51aPP6fCRbL._AC_US218_The idea of someone who is widely knowledgeable – a polymath? – is an old one, harder to countenance in these times of so much knowledge and data. It’s been a long time since it was possible for one person to ‘know’ everything that could be known – Isidore of Seville wrote the first encyclopaedia in the seventh century, and Athanasius Kircher in the seventeenth is regarded by some as the last person who knew it all. But in our own times, I was always impressed by the Italian writer, critic and philosopher Umberto Eco, who produced novels, art criticism, philosophy, works on linguistics, and – in his own language, and as far as I know, still largely untranslated – regular newspaper columns on an incredible variety of learned and light-hearted topics. The Name of the Rose is probably my all-time favourite novel. I’d really like to have met him, and I don’t say that about a lot of my heroes.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

On perspectives (2)

July 5, 2017

Isidore of Seville wrote what is generally acknowledge to have been the world’s first encyclopaedia in the seventh century CE; he is now the patron saint of the internet (!). Athanasius Kircher, in the seventeenth century, may have been the last human to have known everything that was known; today we have the web, billions of pages of… what? I’ve never forgotten a librarian friend describing the internet as an enormous library, with all the books thrown in a heap on the floor.

It’s clearly an aspect of growing older, but I do find myself thinking that there isn’t enough time to read all the things I want to read, to understand all the stuff I want to understand, to visit all the places I want to visit: I find myself mentally deferring things until my next existence…

So, how does one cope with the vastness of the world and its possibilities? The easy way is gradually to retreat into one’s own personal bubble, a relatively narrow, restricted world, and stay in it. It’s the Brexit world to me, for want of a better image. And not only is this an easy choice, it’s also often an unconscious choice. Or one can try to engage with the world in some of its vastness, and attempt to comprehend it in various ways: I read about it, talk to people about it, travel and read about the travels of others.

What sense can one person make of the world? Here one runs into the dangers of moral relativism: let’s try and be as open-minded as possible, accepting that there are very different societies with very different behaviours, morals, customs which we are not part of, therefore let’s not be judgemental… and suddenly we may find ourselves silently condoning genital mutilation or stoning people to death for adultery and other such enormities. By what right and criteria do we allow ourselves then to pass judgements on, to evaluate others’ behaviours? Somewhere way back in my studies of renaissance French literature I remember an adage from someone, which I found wise then and still do now: anything which brings pleasure and does no harm to others, should be allowed. And yet the terms are somewhat elusive, even here… At least this takes us beyond the narrowness of ‘what I like’ and ‘what I understand’.

I do find the world a very challenging place; I know it’s the only place I have to live, though there have been times when I’ve fantasised about moving to the depths of Siberia or somewhere else where I might avoid the rest of the species. I’m astonished at some of the amazing things we have done – such as the exploration of the world and outer space, and travelling to the moon – and some of the geniuses that have emerged from humanity – Bach and Shakespeare to mention my favourite examples – but in my darker moments I do feel that we really are not a very intelligent species, and perhaps do not deserve to survive. Then, when I remember a book like Olaf Stapledon‘s brilliant Last and First Men, which takes humanity several billion years into the future, I sorrow at the vanishing of our achievements in the mists of time, a true Ozymandias moment.

I think I like challenges (moderate ones, at least), and I do like learning new things. The older I get, the less I realise I really know, and I suspect that this is a function of age. The world, and the understanding of it, is a quest that has to go on forever, for me personally at least.

On the two cultures

March 14, 2017

Years ago C P Snow wrote about two cultures, the arts and the sciences, and the gulf between them. I oversimplify greatly, I know, but it’s an opposition that I regularly return to in terms of my own life and experience.

I’m clearly on the arts side, from my studies at school, at university and my teaching career, as well as my wider interests throughout life: languages, literature, history, religion for starters. I was about to say that science never really got a look in, when I recalled an interest in astronomy from a very young age, and that at primary school, my best friend and I wanted to be the first men on the moon (!). He’s now a Russian Orthodox priest, by the way, or was when I last had news of him…

At boarding school, there was no real opportunity to study science properly, and so the die was cast, I suppose. Maths was interesting, as our teacher was one of the pioneers of what was called ‘modern maths’ in those days; I understood and liked a good deal of it as far as O Level where I managed grade 2, but it was arithmetic, especially mental arithmetic, that was always my strongest point. I retained my interest in astronomy, even going to evening classes at one point, but whenever it strayed into the realms of maths and physics, I have to say that I very quickly got lost, and began to develop a headache. I genuinely do seem to have a mental block about some things once they go beyond a certain level… How much of this is because of my background, my upbringing and how much is the real me, as it were?

I do stray out of the arts bubble in my reading. I’ve long been interested in the calendar and its development over time, and there’s a fair amount of arithmetic involved in that. I’ve read some works on science and astronomy – Carl Sagan on the search for life elsewhere in the cosmos I found particularly interesting, and I have actually read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, though how much of it I understood I cannot honestly say. I like to read about the development of human knowledge in all fields, and find books like Pliny’s Natural History and Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies fascinating because they show us learning about ourselves and our world, developing our understanding over time. This relentless desire for knowledge, and the pursuit of it, are surely one of the things which make us human and allow us to be proud of our species.

I’ve also found myself wondering about gender-related issues in connection with the arts/sciences dichotomy. I have the picture that maths and sciences are largely a male field, and the arts rather more female, and yet I know this is clearly a gross oversimplification. But do some subject areas and ways of thinking lend themselves more readily to brains of one or the other gender, despite the opening up of opportunities in recent decades? And what does this say, if anything, about female scientists and mathematicians of whom I have known many, or male students of literature and languages, of whom I have known rather fewer. And what about me?

Is the separation between arts and sciences inevitable, a result of there nowadays being so much knowledge in so many areas that it’s impossible for anyone to acquire mastery of everything? It has been said that Athanasius Kircher, in the seventeenth century, was the last man who knew everything, as in the amount of available learning and knowledge was capable of being mastered by a single person. I don’t think that the separation does us any good, in terms of our society, or our education systems; I have often felt intellectually poorer for my lack of scientific and mathematical knowledge. And of course currently we are made to feel that only subjects with practical applications, ie maths, science and technology, are worth expending the time and money on, and our country and the world is the poorer for such philistinism. It is curiosity, the act of studying and the eagerness to learn that are important, rather than the subject-matter.

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