Monday, May 3, 2010

Erdös and Archive

In The Library of Babel, Jorge Luis Borges mentions, in passing, a circular room housing a great circular book whose spine follows the contours of the wall in one continuous loop. Aside from saying nothing of how we might enter the room (a hatch from above, a wormhole through the spine?) it begs us to speculate about the size of the room and what kind of story its pages might tell.

Borges's thought library (on the surface at least) doesn't follow this pattern, for Borges is concerned with infinitudes. His library is composed of a seemingly infinite number of hexagonal galleries buffered from one another by air shafts and connected by small chambers for either sleeping (standing up) or shitting. A spiral staircase from these chambers leads both up and down into a limitless succession of further hexagons.

Why hexagons? Well, as it turns out, the hexagon is the most efficient way of tiling a spherical plane, using the least material to create a latticework of cells within a volume. If, for example, you were able to uniformly heat a liquid in a flat spherical pan from below, at a certain temperature the fluid would flow into a perfect pattern of hexagons. 

Borges may have been thinking of the honeycomb pattern of a beehive when constructing his imaginary Library of Babel, his diligent researchers the worker bees, burrowing deeper and deeper into the hive to extract even one intelligible morsel of text.

But what set me thinking of Borges and The Library of Babel was another kind of library dreamed up by the David Garcia Studio, called Archive Series. Archive II, the one that caught my fancy, "is a circular library for the nomad book collector." The book lover can step inside and roll off with hundreds of books.

Of course this piece raises all kinds of questions about hoarding and freedom, nomadism v. sedentism, persistence and decay, etc. In a note to the piece, the artist explains that as a child he was introduced to a learned friend of the family, a man whom he would meet in the park or a café to discuss a wide range of topics. Due to the man's great erudition, the artist just assumed that he possessed an enormous library, but when he at last secured an invitation to the man's house, he was surprised to learn he had no books, only owning the book he had at the moment. The man told him that whenever he finished a book he would take a walk in the park and hand it off to a stranger.

The late Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdös once claimed that private property was a nuisance. He owned no home or other property, had no wife or children, and very little money. Scott Buchanan, in his book on networks, Small World, calls him a "nomadic hobo-genius" who co-authored more than 1,500 papers. He would show up at a colleague's door and declare "My brain is open," then proceed to help solve their most daunting problems. Fueled by amphetamines, he would exhaust his host before decamping to the next mathematician's couch.

My own brand of punctuated sendentism, staying in one place for a year or two before tearing everything down and starting over, entails a good amount of book packing and box shuffling and hauling or mailing. While Borges's Babel is slowly being virtually assembled on GoodReads and Google Books and Gutenberg, I need to start thinking more like Matsuo Bashō, to set out thinking to travel light, in only what I am clad, heading off into the interior, iPad in hand.


  1. A picture comes to mind of a beeker holding a liquid with bubbles on the surface. The bubbles, as they become crowded, will form into a three dimentional structure with some hexogonal sides. I also picture the geological formation in Northern Irland known as the 'Giants Causeway'. I don't agree that "the hexagon is the most efficient way of tiling a plane'. Efficiency would come from covering the same plane with as few butting edges as possible. The simple square would be better suited and produce less waste in a finite space. However, efficiecy does come from the Weaire-Phelan Structure where volume, not a plane, is filled. I sound padantic but what I know is superficial.

  2. I guess I should have said "tiling a spherical plane." But even with that there is apparently a more efficient way of tiling, albeit with some fancy human manipulations which wouldn't probably arise in a stochastic system, given nature's notoriously sloppy way of making things "good enough."