Let’s start, say, with the Ophites. Our destination will be the Wu Experiment. The task we’re attempting is known as “The Wikipedia Game.” Are you familiar with it? It’s a sort of informational orienteering. Rather than crossing Patagonia or Finland with maps, compasses, and boots, we’ll be navigating articles and links. According to the Wiki for the game, “Players (one or more) start on the same randomly selected article, and must navigate to another pre-selected target article, solely by clicking links within each article. The goal is to arrive at the target article in the fewest clicks (articles), or the least time.” Today, we’ll be going for the fewest clicks rather than least time.
So here we are at the starting checkpoint. Let’s have a look around. What, exactly, is an Ophite? This article suggests that they were a heretical sect of Christian Gnostics. Their particular heresy was that they either (accounts differ) preferred the serpent from the Garden of Eden to Jesus or else considered them identical. These sound like my kind of Christians. The type who might respond to the gospel by saying, “Yes, yes, that Christ fellow seems like a very charming chap, but could you tell me a little more about this serpent character? He seems interesting.” I’d love to spend more time with them, but we can’t stay to investigate much deeper. We have places to be. How do we get from a bunch of snake-worshiping Christian heretics to an experiment in particle physics? What route would be quickest? Well, they both deal with the concept of knowledge. Which of the links available will take me in the direction of knowledge? Scanning the page, I feel like a tourist at a subway in a foreign city, trying to decipher the map to see which train will take me in the direction of my hostel. Some of the available links are:
- Hippolytus of Rome
- Serpent of Genesis
The Serpent of Genesis is promising. It’s certainly known for its interest in knowledge. However, cosmogony seems like an even more direct route. It’s basically astronomy’s hippie older sibling and astronomy lives right around the corner from physics. Let’s go with cosmogony (click #1). Sure enough, astronomy is one of the first links in one of the first paragraphs. On we go (click #2). After a moment of enjoying the sci-fi thrill of seeing the words “gamma ray bursts, quasars, blazars, pulsars,” I notice the word “physics.” I open it in a new tab so I can come back to find out what “quasars” are (click #3). Now we’re really close. From physics we move to the list of physicists (#4) and from physicists I go to Chien-Shiung Wu (#5) and from her I go to the page for the experiment in which she proved that there’s a way to “operationally define left and right without reference to the human body” (#6). We did it: in one sitting and six clicks we went from the snake worshippers of the second century CE to a 1956 experiment in particle physics. The Wikipedia game is a great activity to play during zoom hangouts with your friends (especially because it converts easily into a drinking game. Take a sip for each link you click. Whoever takes the most clicks to arrive at the destination page drains their glass). But it’s more than that. It’s a chance to demonstrate in real time how every subject is connected to every other subject, that whether you enter through zoology or metaphysics or numismatics, it’s all the same maze.
But most of the time we spend on Wikipedia is not so carefully directed. We’re likely to end up in some far-flung corner of the maze, having been blown far off course from our original interest, a little confused as to how we ended up there. We’re likely, I mean, to fall down rabbit holes. Going down a rabbit hole feels like bingeing on knowledge. There’s that same shame of having consumed too much. Facts, it seems, are the snacks of learning. However many you eat, they never quite add up to a full meal. I’ve never finished a Wikipedia rabbit hole and felt, “Yes, that’s enough for me. I learned just what I was hoping to learn.” My understanding is scattershot. I feel less like a student and more like an intellectual tourist: “I’m just here in computational biology for a few minutes on my lunch break. I’m hoping to visit the article on bioinformatics, the one on metabolic pathways, and maybe the one on genetic algorithms. Do you think half an hour should be enough?”
After these Wikipedia excursions, I carry away a disordered bundle of facts like souvenirs from my trip to the discipline. Some examples: that during World War II the US developed a bomb that used bats to deliver its payload, that Australia waged a war on emus and lost, that the ancient Assyrians had a ritual in which the king stepped down from the throne and went into hiding while a substitute took his place for 100 days. These are orphan facts torn from their context. They feel like single jigsaw pieces that imply the existence of more jigsaw pieces spreading out around them in all directions. For example: Why did the Assyrians perform this ritual? How did they choose who would be the substitute king? Where did the king go when he was in hiding? When I read, I hope to fill in the rest of the pieces and see the picture of the whole puzzle. And I do see a little more of it. It seems that the ritual of the substitute king was performed when a bad omen (often in the form of an eclipse) predicted a catastrophe on the horizon. It was a way to make sure that bad luck hit someone else rather than the king, a sort of religious bait-and-switch. The person picked to be the substitute king would usually be “a condemned criminal, a prisoner of war, a political adversary, or a menial laborer. An ideal substitute was someone whose death would not cause a great deal of unrest amongst the people.” The king stayed in the palace while he was in hiding and was referred to by his advisors as “the peasant” or “the farmer.” But each of these puzzle pieces also imply the existence of even more puzzle pieces, that there’s more of the picture to be revealed. What did Assyrian palaces look like? If they had condemned criminals, then who did the condemning? What did the Assyrian legal system look like? Did they really think they could fool the gods by swapping out the king with a scapegoat? This is how learning tends to go. It increases curiosity at the same time that it satisfies it. So the more I read, the more my reading list grows; the main thing I learn from reading is how much more there is to know.
But maybe that’s not such a bad thing. For example, take the opening paragraph of The Seven Day Circle: the History and Meaning of the Week by the sociologist Eviatar Zerubavel: “One summer afternoon several years ago, as we were heading back home from the park, I mentioned to my 3 ½-year-old daughter something I planned for the following Thursday, when my inquisitive young friend asked me: ‘Daddy, what’s Thursday?’ As I soon found out, that was much easier to ask than to answer, and to this day I still regret not having taped my desperate attempts to satisfy her refreshing and inspiring curiosity. Yet it was on that afternoon that the seeds of a book on the week were sown.” Zerubavel had a PhD and even then everything he knew was no match for the questions of a toddler. How can we hope to know anything if even a concept as ordinary as the days of the week takes a sociologist an entire book to explain?
Tell me, how long is the coastline of Iceland? Either kilometers or miles will do. The answer? It all depends on how you measure it. This fact, known as The Coastline Paradox, was first discovered by the English mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson. He was studying whether the amount of border two countries share correlates with the likelihood they will go to war. While conducting his research, he noticed that the Spanish considered their border with Portugal to be 1214 kilometers long. However, the Portuguese considered their border with Spain to be only 987 kilometers long. Was this the same border they were talking about? Yes: they were just measuring it differently. As Wikipedia puts it, “In effect, the shorter the ruler, the longer the measured border; the Spanish and Portuguese geographers were simply using different-length rulers.” This “shorter ruler = longer measurement” phenomenon is known as the Richardson effect. If you measured the coast of Madagascar in a small enough unit you could get a larger figure than measuring the coastline of Australia with a sufficiently larger one. You would include every nook and cranny of Madagascar’s shoreline, every last tidal pool and alcove and jutting outcrop. Every centimeter of coastline would count for more. Linguistics, mycology, the phylogeny of lagomorphs, every object of study is a Madagascar. They all have a near infinity of nooks and crannies, tidal pools and hidden alcoves. The person who quickly surveys something, say a beach, and walks away thinking they know it well enough doesn’t understand nearly as much as the person who examines it closely and walks away not even sure what exactly a beach is. There is as much to find in them as you’re willing to look for.
And so you can never really expect to finish studying anything. But that’s not so bad because it matters less how deep you go into a discipline and more how deep it goes into you. As you go down one rabbit hole after another, you start to become one yourself. Their depths become your depths, their twists become your twists, their turns become your turns. The more you learn, the more the whole world around you undergoes the Richardson effect. You learn that there is no final word on any topic, that the longest tome is still only an introduction, that there is more in heaven and earth than your philosophy. But what makes any of this at all worthwhile? Well, people who think they already understand everything or don’t care to are either fascists or bores. I don’t know if knowledge makes me better, but if it makes me any less like them, I’ll take my chances with it.