February 24, 2006

The House of Fame

I didn't know the marvelous passage from Charles Babbage's Ninth Bridgewater Treatise that Ben Zimmer quotes at the end of his post on the ancient-pottery-as-sound-recording urban legend. But Babbage's argument that "The air itself is one vast library, on whose pages are for ever written all that man has ever said" reminded me of a similar idea expressed in Chaucer's House of Fame. The narrator is being instructed (in his dreams) by a giant eagle who has grabbed him "with his grimme pawes stronge / Within his sharpe nayles longe" and is carrying him off to what will turn out to be a special place, a sort of Elephants' Graveyard of the spoken word.

The eagle explains, in a modern-English translation:

... speech is sound, else no man could hear it. Now hearken to what I shall teach you. Sound is naught but broken air: and every speech that is uttered, aloud or privily, good or ill, is in substance nothing but air. For as flame is but lighted smoke, sound is broken air. But this may be in many ways, of which I will tell you two; as sound that comes of pipe, or of harp when a pipe is blown strongly, the air is twisted and rent with violence; lo, this is mine interpretation. And when men smite harp-strings, heavily or lightly, lo, the air breaks apart with the stroke. Even so it breaks when men speak, thus you have learned what speech is.

Next now I will teach you how every word or noise or sound, though it were piped by a mouse, must needs through its multiplication come to the House of Fame. I prove it thus: take heed, now, by experiment; for if now you throw a stone into water, you know well that anon it will make a little round spot like a circle, peradventure as broad as a pot-lid; and right anon you shall see how that wheel will cause another wheel, and that, the third and so forth, friend, every circle causing another wider than itself was. And thus from small circle to great, each circumscribing theother, each caused by the other's motion, but ever increasing till they go so far that they be at both brinks. Although you cannot see it from above, these circles spread beneath the water as well, though you think it a great marvel. And whoever says that I vary from the truth, bid him prove the reverse. And even thus, of a certainty, every word that is spoken, loud or privy, first moves a circle of air thereabout, and from this motion anon another circle is stirred. As I have proved of the water, that every circle causes a second, even so is it with air, my dear brother; each circle passes into another greater and greater, and bears up speech or voice or noise, word or sound, through constant increase till it come to the House of Fame; take this in earnest or no; it is truth .

And in the original:

762 ... speche is soun,
763 Or elles no man mighte hit here;
764 Now herkne what I wol thee lere.
765 `Soun is noght but air y-broken,
766 And every speche that is spoken,
767 Loud or privee, foul or fair,
768 In his substaunce is but air;
769 For as flaumbe is but lighted smoke,
770 Right so soun is air y-broke.
771 But this may be in many wyse,
772 Of which I wil thee two devise,
773 As soun that comth of pype or harpe.
774 For whan a pype is blowen sharpe,
775 The air is twist with violence,
776 And rent; lo, this is my sentence;
777 Eke, whan men harpe-stringes smyte,
778 Whether hit be moche or lyte,
779 Lo, with the strook the air to-breketh;
780 Right so hit breketh whan men speketh.
781 Thus wost thou wel what thing is speche.
782 `Now hennesforth I wol thee teche,
783 How every speche, or noise, or soun,
784 Through his multiplicacioun,
785 Thogh hit were pyped of a mouse,
786 Moot nede come to Fames House.
787 I preve hit thus -- tak hede now --
788 Be experience; for if that thou
789 Throwe on water now a stoon,
790 Wel wost thou, hit wol make anoon
791 A litel roundel as a cercle,
792 Paraventer brood as a covercle;
793 And right anoon thou shalt see weel,
794 That wheel wol cause another wheel,
795 And that the thridde, and so forth, brother,
796 Every cercle causinge other,
797 Wyder than himselve was;
798 And thus, fro roundel to compas,
799 Ech aboute other goinge,
800 Caused of othres steringe,
801 And multiplying ever-mo,
802 Til that hit be so fer ygoo
803 That hit at bothe brinkes be.
804 Al-thogh thou mowe hit not y-see,
805 Above, hit goth yet alway under,
806 Although thou thenke hit a gret wonder.
807 And who-so seith of trouthe I varie,
808 Bid him proven the contrarie.
809 And right thus every word, y-wis,
810 That loude or privee spoken is,
811 Moveth first an air aboute,
812 And of this moving, out of doute,
813 Another air anoon is meved,
814 As I have of the water preved,
815 That every cercle causeth other.
816 Right so of air, my leve brother;
817 Everich air in other stereth
818 More and more, and speche up bereth,
819 Or vois, or noise, or word, or soun,
820 Ay through multiplicacioun,
821 Til hit be atte House of Fame; --
822 Tak hit in ernest or in game.

Chaucer and Babbage have got hold of a simple idea -- that all sounds ever made ought to be somewhere, somehow recoverable -- which is pretty obviously false, but not easy to show to be impossible.

Chaucer flourishes some obviously funky renaissance science, about how sound, being light, will always rise ("fyre or soun, Or smoke, or other thinges lighte, Alwey they seke upward on highte"), and about how everything has a particular place that it naturally tends to seek ("every river to the see Enclyned is to go, by kinde. ... Thus every thing, by this resoun, Hath his propre mansioun, To which hit seketh to repaire"). Babbage's argument is in tune with the physics and mathematics of his own era:

these aerial pulses ... are ... demonstrated to exist by human reason ; and, in some few and limited instances, by calling to our aid the most refined and comprehensive instrument of human thought, their courses are traced and their intensities are measured. If man enjoyed a larger command over mathematical analysis, his knowledge of these motions would be more extensive ; but a being possessed of unbounded knowledge of that science, could trace every minutest consequence of that primary impulse.

I guess that classical statistical mechanics is enough to demonstrate that this requires more exactness of measurement than could ever plausibly be achieved; and quantum theory presumably turns this from a practical to a theoretical impossibility; but I haven't seen a rigorous demonstration of either of these ideas. This reminds me a bit of Olber's paradox, where the correct argument for a simple conclusion is not trivial to find.

And intuitive notions of what "mathematical analysis" can and can't do are not very reliable either -- how many people would have imagined that a two-dimensional Fourier transform of the human body's re-radiation of appropriately shaped radio-frequency pulses in a magnetic field gradient would produce a tomographic image of the internal anatomy, i.e. MRI?

Anyhow, I've sometimes wondered whether some wag at the NSA might have put up a sign in their computer room: The House of Fame.

Posted by Mark Liberman at February 24, 2006 09:46 AM