Author: gleick

For Sale: Magna Carta. Slightly Used.

What is MagnaCarta worth? Exactly $21,321,000. We know because that’s what it fetched in a fair public auction at Sotheby’s in New York. Twenty-one million is, by far, the most ever paid for a page of text, and therein lies a paradox: Information is now cheaper than ever and also more expensive. Mostly, of course, information is practically free, easier to store and faster to spread than our parents imagined possible. In one way, Magna Carta is already yours for the asking: you can read it any time, at the touch of a button. It has been preserved, photographically and digitally, in countless copies with no evident physical reality, which will nonetheless last as long as our civilization. In another way, Magna Carta is a 15-by-17-inch piece of parchment, fragile and scarce and practically unreadable. Why should that version be so valuable? Magna Carta itself is a nice reminder of how costly it once was to store and spread information. Its very purpose was to get the king’s word down in tangible form, safeguard it, …

Today’s Dead End Kids

Who can “claim the name” of Anonymous? Anyone. The lack of identity may not be ideal for organizing a political philosophy or program, but that is not seen as a drawback. When the Anons at their computer terminals call themselves freedom fighters, and law enforcement and security agencies call them terrorists, they are not working entirely at cross-purposes; they are empowering each other.

Why Must an Author Twit?

Howard Jacobson: “So that you can do our business for us. So that you can connect to your readers, tell them what you’re writing, tell them where you’re going to be speaking, tell them what you’re reading, tell them what you’re fucking eating.”

“You Are Old, Father Feynman”

You write a book; time passes. Toward the end of Genius I quote a bit of doggerel by “a young friend” of Richard Feynman: You are old, Father Feynman … And your hair has turned visibly grey; And yet you keep tossing ideas around— At your age, a disgraceful display! Where did I find that? I have no memory. Now comes email from Tom Ferbel, a distinguished particle physicist at the University of Rochester, claiming authorship. Ferbel has been around: Fermilab, CERN, the  Max Planck Institute, SLAC—wherever a big high-energy collider can be found. In 1977 he and Feynman met at a conference on multiparticle dynamics in Kayserberg, France. Feynman was 59—about this old: Also present was Giuliano Preparata, a 35-year-old firebrand from Padua by way of Rome and Princeton, then working as a theorist at CERN. Apparently Preparata and Feynman got into a shouting match about quantum chromodynamics, then in its heyday, and the hypothetical elementary particles known as gluons. (Gluons are needed to bind quarks. They’re the glue in the strong nuclear force—get it?) For …

Total Noise, Only Louder

Kids used to ask each other: If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears, does it make a sound? Now there’s a microphone in every tree and a loudspeaker on every branch, not to mention the video cameras, and we’ve entered the condition that David Foster Wallace called Total Noise: “the tsunami of available fact, context, and perspective.” When terrible things happen, people naturally reach out for information, which used to mean turning on the television. The rewards (and I use the word in its Pavlovian sense) can be visceral and immediate, if you want to see more bombs explode or towers fall, and plenty of us do. But others are learning not to do that. The Boston bombings, shootings, car chase, and manhunt found the ecosystem of information in a strange and unstable state: Twitter on the rise, cable TV in disarray, Internet vigilantes bleeding into the FBI’s staggeringly complex (and triumphant) crash program of forensic video analysis. If there ever was a dividing line between cyberspace and what we used to call …

March of time, arrow of time, time warp

This is the kind of thing that’s buzzing through my head as I work on the next book. (It’s an N-gram, computed on the fly by Google here, from the contents of all the books they [in some cases illegally] scanned from libraries.) (Were you wondering about those “time warp” occurrences in the early 19th century? They come from passages like this (1812): “By keeping up the sluices, and drains, and banks, the land can be refreshed at any time. Warp land has had crops of flax …”)