A Skeptical Engineer
Library of Babel: Genius, Insanity, or Computer Geeks Gone Mad?

Library of Babel: Genius, Insanity, or Computer Geeks Gone Mad?

Tower of BabelIn an odd but creative display of computer engineering, Jonathan Basile—a writer, computer programmer, and fan of Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges—has managed to catalog every possible 3,200-character page consisting of permutations of the 26 lower-case letters, commas, periods, and spaces. That adds up to about 104677 books, each with 410 pages, and with each page holding one 3,200-character passage. To show just how large that number is, compare it to the estimated number of atoms in the Universe: between 1078 and 1082.

Inspired by Borges, who wrote about such a library, Basile even adopted Borges’ coding system and configuration for the Library of Babel. So those 104677 “virtual” books are arranged in shelves on walls in hexagonal rooms. For example, the volume jeb0110jlb-w2-s4-v16 is the 16th volume (v16) on the fourth shelf (s4) on the second wall (w2) of hexagon jeb0110jlb.

The library, a collection of hexagonal rooms, is searchable. Type in a phrase, sentence, or just a string of characters, and the library’s search engine will find all occurrences. And all such occurrences will always be found in the same places. These books aren’t just created on the fly (or at least, that’s what Basile claims).

For example, the words “machine design is the greatest engineering magazine in the world”: can be found in volume 21 on shelf 5 on wall 2 of the hex titled 12xq4p6h5qt4imiadzjfhayhc4a6896rrjoy8lm (I have no idea how the hex names are derived) It can also be found in 1029 other places. While it’s gratifying to see those words in print, it’s sobering to realize the phrase “machine design is the worst engineering magazine in the world” can be found just as often. In fact, every sentence ever written or to be written, and in every language that uses the 26-letter Latin alphabet, is contained in this library. But they are buried in gobbledygook and nonsense.

Basile plans on expanding his library so that it contains every possible combination of 1,312,000 characters. That roughly equates to 410 pages. When that is complete (and Basile is seeking donations), it will contain every book that will ever be written or could be written—including every play, song, scientific paper, legal decision, constitution, and piece of scripture.

I have no idea what people will do with this library, and I’m not completely sure how it is generated. Basile says it’s “a place for scholars to do research, for artist and writers to seek inspiration for any with curiosity or sense of humor to reflect on the weirdness of existence.” I guess I fall in the latter category, for now.

I stumbled onto the Library of Babel website courtesy of my longtime art director, Randall Rubenking.

Looking for parts? Go to SourceESB.

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