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Little Brains in a Universe of Knowledge
According to the Museum of American Heritage, current estimates of brain capacity range from 1 to 1,000 terabytes. It would take 1,000 to 10,000 typical disk drives to store that much information.

Popular science writer Carl Sagan believed that the brain is capable of remembering 2 to the 10th billion power bits of information — this number represents the amount of information in 10 billion Encyclopedia pages.


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Co-director of the Harvard Library Innovation Lab and a senior researcher at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, David Weinberger's January Colloquium talk at NASA's Langley Research Center focused on the changing shape and nature of knowledge in the "Age of the Net." Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

Despite the brains’s storage capabilities, Harvard University Internet researcher David Weinberger based his latest book, and his January Colloquium talk at NASA's Langley Research Center around the idea that the knowledge available in our universe is simply "Too Big to Know."

“While we are superb knowers, the brain limits what there is to know,” Weinberger said.

Growing up in Long Island, Weinberger can remember his local library being one of the first to make catalog records publicly available. In 1968, he can recall about 100,000 encyclopedia volumes being available. Today, that library has made millions of digital records available.

That growth in availability is one effect of the Internet on western knowledge, something else Weinberger has written about. He has noticed most Internet-driven changes within the past 10 years.

"Libraries and books are filtered," he said. "Not all of them can make it to the shelf."

According to Weinberger, physical knowledge is disconnected and limited. If you were to go back to a topic source from the 1920s, you might uncover a single page.

"Litterally, in a literal sense, all you have is this page," he said, laughing. "This is all you could know."

The network knowledge of today allows us to search a topic and discover all types of sources, and other related topics.

With an encyclopedia, you might get 180,000 words for a topic. But on Wikipedia, you might find a 9,000 word article, which includes dozens of links.

With network knowledge comes a "messy" environment. Scientific papers without peer reviews can be published for the sake of making information available faster.

And then there's perception.

Using Wikipedia, Weinberger showed the difference between the ‘History of Aviation’ in the United States, and the ‘History of Aviation’ in France — One showing the Wright Brothers, and the other showing Icarus, who is seen as the mythical pioneer in Greece's attempt to conquer the skies. They are different, yet they are linked and one impacts the other.

"A network of knowledge would have no value if everyone said the same thing," he said. "It's good that cultures believe different things."

Another example is how photo sharing sites, such as Flickr, allows users to tag a photo with any search term. One person might tag an event, while another person might tag a year. Someone else might tag their aunt who resembles the person in the photo. While it is "messy," it shows different perceptions that can be valuable.

"The messiness makes the system useful," Weinberger said. "It allows us to explore meaning, and the relationship among those pieces.

"The mess is neccessary."

With network knowledge, people become the medium. They 'move' or share things that they care about. NASA is no exception.

"Massive amounts of knowledge being shared at a rapid pace can change the way research and technology is done here at NASA Langley," said Keith Belvin, chief technologist at NASA's Langley Research Center.

Science tends to narrow down data from research to a single result. But with network knowledge, users appreciate a broad knowledge and they want to discuss the issue at hand.

“Network knowledge might be more or less difficult, or more or less true about the world, but it is truer about human knowing,” Weinberger said.

Even if something is proven, there will still be discussions and arguments. According to Weinberger, someone will usually play the role of devil's advocate.

"You cannot force an agreement, even when you are right," he said.

NASA Langley's Technical Library will continue this dialogue through a newly formed book club to discuss "Too Big to Know" by David Weinberger. The book club will meet primarily online, investigating issues brought up by Weinberger and how they may (or may not) pertain to work at NASA Langley. It will culminate in a conference call to discuss those ideas directly with the author.

The Technical Library welcomes employees interested in reading "Too Big to Know" or discussing the impacts of searching, finding and working with information and data in the "Age of the Net."

"Our brains are small. We are trying to understand the universe by breaking off a brain-sized chunk of the world," he said. "But we can go to the experts to get our answer. Then, we can move on."

By: Denise Lineberry

The Researcher News
NASA Langley Research Center
Editor & Curator: Denise Lineberry
Executive Editor & Responsible NASA Official: Rob Wyman