Mathematical and scientific inventions have scored the history of mankind just as the great poems of the West and the East have left their indelible mark. These marvels tell our shared story, but they would be nothing without the paper they’re written on. That may seem trite but it’s not. Let me tell you why, with three examples that show how important it is to store information.
The first is the Iliad and the Odyssey. Writing was not widespread in Greece until the sixth century BC, when, fortunately, some unknown bright spark had the idea of setting down in black and white the poems attributed by custom to Homer. Whoever that was deserves a posthumous Nobel Prize.
The second example is less fortunate and concerns the work of one of the fathers of Western thought, Heraclitus. Fragments are all that remains of his On Nature, penned between the sixth and fifth centuries BC. We know that a copy of the book was kept at the library in Constantinople, but it went up in flames during one of the Crusaders’ futile slaughters in the Byzantine capital.
The third example was lucky, however – very lucky. Archimedes is well known for coming out with some good ideas. The Arabs of the early Middle Ages credited him with an integral calculation method almost two thousand years before the first coherent definition of an integral of a mathematical function, in the second half of the 17th century. Archimedes wrote down his calculation system, along with others, in a weighty scroll that ended up in Constantinople, then Jerusalem, where it was washed and reused by a copyist for a prayer book. That might have been the end of Archimedes’ integral calculation, had it not been for a Greek scholar in the late 19th century who made out the earlier text written backwards underneath the prayers. Just a century later, in 2008, Stanford University’s laboratories finished the painstaking work of drawing out everything the old mathematical genius had written.