So I figured if I find the cure for cancer, I’ll make a lot of money. I don’t have time to “study oncology” or “learn how anything works,” but I like money, and I have a shortcut: The Library of Babel. If there’s a cure for cancer, it’s already written there, and it’s only a few clicks away, waiting for me to discover it.
This website, the work of Brooklyn author and coder Jonathan Basile, makes the bold claim that it contains every page of up to 3200 characters that has ever been written, every page that ever will be written, and every page that could ever possibly be written. That means that within its virtual shelves lie the answers to all of the universe’s mysteries: The true identity of the Zodiac Killer, the winner of every upcoming Super Bowl, and the cure for cancer — which I’m going to find. So I can make a lot money.
How does it work?
I’m not going to pretend I fully understand the maths and programming behind it, but within the Library of Babel, every possible permutation of 3200 letters, spaces, and commas and periods is said to be accessible, right now, in one of the library’s “books.” Search literally anything you can think of — cut and paste this paragraph, type in your next as-yet-untweeted tweet, type random gibberish — and you’ll find it already exists somewhere in the Library. It was already there, if only you’d known where to look.
The Library doesn’t create and save nigh-infinite combinations randomly generated collections of letters and punctuation — there isn’t nearly enough hard-drive space on the planet to do that. Instead, it uses a “pseudo-random number generating algorithm to produce the books in a seemingly random distribution, without needing to store anything on disk.”
It’s like the seeds that Minecraft uses to generate “random” worlds: Put in the right seed, and anyone can locate any possible page, which exists in the same place for everyone. (Check this out for a more in depth look at the secret sauce behind the site.)
Searching for the cure for cancer
The first challenge-tunity (that’s what I call “problems” because I am a positive thinker) in my quest for a cancer cure is that I don’t know where in the library to find the book that contains the cure for cancer. Still, somewhere on one of its many shelves, the page is waiting. I can feel it.
Like the imaginary universal library in Jorge Luis Borges short story “The Library of Babel” that inspired the site, the Library’s content is divided into numbered hexagonal “rooms” (not that they actually exist, they exist in theory, as an function of how the data is sorted, which amounts to basically the same thing). Each room has four walls, 20 shelves, and 640 volumes. You can enter a hex-room and pull a book off a shelf at random, but nothing is organised by subject.
I started by entering random rooms and checking out random books, but found only gibberish. Then, crossing my fingers, I clicked on the “random” button on the site’s search function, which brought me to a book called “jdr,xblx,mormfic,nvuo,1” This volume didn’t seem to have anything to do with oncology. Same with my second, third, and fourth try. I realised that poking through the shelves or manually clicking “random” until I happen to hit the right book would take until the Big Freeze ends the universe, so I had to get better at time-management.
Working backwards, I searched all the library’s pages for the phrase “Here is how to cure cancer” turned on the “surrounded by English words” tab and found a text with the following sentence:
“Here is how to cure cancer mailgram regulises caenogenesis tenancy ostreophagies.” Promising. But a second search for the phrase “Here is how to cure cancer” resulted in a totally different set of random words surrounding it. And so on and on.
Infinity is very large
You could, conceivably, automate this task — design a search engine that crawls Babel for books about curing cancer and only returns results that are in understandable English. But even with the fastest computer, the process of looking through such a large number of volumes would be impossible — there are 10,4677 books in the library. By 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 use “quantum” here as shorthand for “something that is impossible but that would be cool.”) Would that be able to find the cure?
Nope, sorry: That theoretical computer would presumably return many — many, many — readable, understandable documents purporting to contain the cure for cancer, but along with the actual cure/cures (if they exist), you’d also find a description of everything possible cure that doesn’t actually cure cancer, as well as everything that causes cancer even though it says it cures cancer. You’d also find every possible permutation or variation of these pages that could fit within the character limit, so billions/trillions/quadrillions of pages that are identical but for a single character. That’s a lot to go through.
It’s turtles all the way down
You could try to use your quantum computer to determine the accuracy of a cancer claim located in the library. Maybe search the library for a page called “how to tell if a cancer cure from the Library of Babel is accurate.”
Except then you’d end up with every possible method for determining the accuracy of cancer texts. You’d need another guide called “how to tell if the guide to a cure for cancer from The Library of Babel is accurate” and on and on towards infinity. It’s turtles all the way down.
Even if you could devise a program that filtered every book except those that contain cancer cures that are at least plausible based on what we know about cancer, you’d still end up with a nearly infinite number of untested cures for cancer. Including “eat many onions,” “weirdly, cigarette smoking will cure cancer,” and literally any other “cure” that could possibly be imagined/written down in the space of 3,200 characters. Far too many to read, let alone test in any meaningful way, even if every human who ever lived devoted their lives to task.
What I’m saying is: Infinity is very large. And even though the cure for cancer is right there in the Library (maybe on the shelf next to “df kl,gjtg, whzdfozdf”), I’m not going to be able to find it and get rich. Neither are you.
So what’s the point of the Library?
In Borge’s short story, when the librarians of the infinite library determine that their universe truly contains all possible knowledge, they are at first elated, believing themselves to be the “masters of an intact and secret treasure.”
They act as search engines, looking for books that “vindicated for all time the acts of every man in the universe,” or they search for books that explain how the library works, or they look for The Man of the Book, a mythical figure who is said to have read the index to the library. But no matter how diligently they search, they never 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 countless nearly-exact versions of each destroyed book somewhere else in the library.
Surrounded by useless information, the librarians largely fall into despair, or try to stave it off by inventing systems designed to create meaning in their work and lives. In spite of the futility of the quest, they still try 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 anything? It’s an interesting thought experiment about infinity, a way of visualising the actual universe we inhabit, or a cool way to waste a few minutes. Check it out, or join the librarians over at Reddit.
But I have dibs on the cure for cancer if you find it.