"Talks a good game about freedom when out of power, but once he’s in – bam! Everyone's enslaved in the human-flourishing mines."

Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

The Alchemist asked if I wanted a drink. I did, but no amount of staring could make my eyes settle on the color of the liquid in the flask. And the gold the alchemists paid the taxmen smelled funny and made crackling noises. I declined.

I took the summons and set it on the table between us. The King’s son was dying. The doctors, astrologers, witches, and other assorted wise people of the kingdom could not save him. The King had asked for an alchemist, and been given one. He, too, had failed. But he had let on that there were other alchemists in the guild, greater alchemists, who knew far more than he. So the king had demanded that all the guild’s top alchemists come to the palace and try to save his son’s life. And the alchemists’ guild had refused, saying their studies could not be interrupted.

So here I was, come to make the request again, more formally but less politely.

The Alchemist pretended to read the parchment. I could tell he was faking; his eyes stayed still the whole time. Finally he gave me the same answer he had given the king’s courier: the alchemists’ studies could not be interrupted.

“Why is a few weeks subtracted from your studies more important than the prince’s life?” I demanded, staring straight into his creepy too-still eyes.

He spent too long not answering. I worried I’d broken him, that he was some kind of intricate clockwork machine and I’d yelled too loud and shifted a gear out of place. Finally he asked: “How long would you have to study architecture before you could build a castle like this one?”

“I’m no architect,” I said. “I’m a man of war.”

“Yes. So how long would you have to study, before you were an architect?”

“Ten years?” I asked. “Twenty?”

“Why so? There are books of architecture, some of them written by men far greater than the planner of this castle. Some are five hundred pages long, others a thousand. Are you so slow a reader, that it would take you ten years to read a thousand pages?”

“You can’t just read a book and know architecture.”

“But why not?”

“Because…you wouldn’t…” I had been annoyed when he first asked, but now I found the question interesting, at least amusing. Why couldn’t a great architect write his knowledge down in a book? And why couldn’t I read it and become as good as he?

“Because you’d have to memorize it all,” I finally concluded.

“Not so. I will let you carry the book with you as you build the castle.”

“It wouldn’t help. It wouldn’t be…indexed properly in my head. I would want to build a wall, and I wouldn’t even know what things to consider when building a wall, and I would have to search the whole book for them each time.”

“You are a man of war,” repeated the Alchemist. “Do you know Caesar’s histories?”

“Almost by heart.”

“Are you as good a general as Caesar?”


“Why not?”

I took his point. Caesar had written down everything he could about war. I had mastered all of it. But I was no Caesar. It couldn’t just be the difficulty of memorizing books.

“Knowledge,” said the Alchemist, “is harder to transmit than anyone appreciates. One can write down the structure of a certain arch, or the tactical considerations behind a certain strategy. But above those are higher skills, skills we cannot name or appreciate. Caesar could glance at a battlefield and know precisely which lines were reliable and which were about to break. Vitruvius could see a great basilica in his mind’s eye, every wall and column snapping into place. We call this wisdom. It is not unteachable, but neither can it be taught. Do you understand?”

I did. If I trained with Caesar for years, some of his skill at reading a battlefield might rub off on me; I might dimly see the outlines of his genius. But he couldn’t just tell me. It wasn’t a secret which he hid from other men to remain above them. It was a power belonging to him alone, only partially transferable.

“So imagine,” continued the Alchemist, “that you wanted to build the simplest of structures. A cottage for peasants. How long would you have to study architecture under Vitruvius before you could do it?”

This time I didn’t bother protesting that I didn’t know. I just guessed. “A year?”

“And suppose you want to build something more complex. An aqueduct, every bit the equal of the Romans’. How long?”

“Five years?”

“Some grand building, a palace or temple?”

“…ten years?”

“The grandest building in the world. St. Peter’s Basilica, or the Pantheon, or Chartres Cathedral, or something new that combines the virtues of all three.”

“How should I know? Twenty years? Thirty?”

“Would you believe me if I said it was two hundred years?”

“No. The human lifespan is three score and ten. If you needed more than seventy years of studying architecture to design St. Peter’s, it would never have gotten designed.”

“Then,” said the Alchemist, “we have discovered something surprising. The art of architecture is limited by the human lifespan. The greatest building that can ever be designed is the one that would take seventy years of studying architecture to master; God has drawn a line in the sand forever closing off buildings grander than these.”

I thought for a second. “That doesn’t seem right. There are new innovations every year. The flying buttress, stained glass, the pointed arch. The Romans had none of these. We progress not only by studying the works of Vitruvius, but by pushing beyond him. Perhaps it takes a century for someone to invent the buttress, but once it is invented, only weeks for other architects to observe it and understand it well enough to incorporate into their own buildings. Architecture does not advance only architect by architect, but also civilization by civilization.”

“Are you skilled at mathematics?” asked the Alchemist.

I shook my head.

“Then we will talk this over, though rightfully it should be an equation. The first term is the speed at which a student can absorb already-discovered architectural knowledge. The second term is the speed at which a master can discover new knowledge. The third term represents the degree to which one must already be on the frontier of knowledge to make new discoveries; at zero, everyone discovers equally regardless of what they already know; at one, one must have mastered every previously-discovered fact before one can discover anything new. The fourth term represents potential for specialization; at one, it is impossible to understand any part without understanding the whole; at zero, it can be subdivided freely. The fifth…”

“I don’t think saying it in words makes the math easier to understand.”

“Ah. Well, imagine a science that takes one-tenth as long for a student to understand, as it did a master to discover. And imagine that one cannot advance the science until one understands everything that has already been discovered. And one cannot split the burden; tell one architect ‘Oh, you learn how to make walls, I will learn how to make roofs’ – a single genius must understand the whole building, every part must fit together perfectly. We can calculate how far the art can advance.”


“The first student has no master, and must discover everything himself. He researches for 70 years, then writes his wisdom into a book before he dies. The second student reads the book, and in 7 years, he has learned 70 years of research. Then he does his own original research for 63 years and writes a book containing 133 years of research. The third student reads for 13.3 years, then does his own research for 66.7 years, ending up with 200 years. Imagine going further and further. After many generations, 690 years of research have been done, and it takes a student 69 years to master them. The student only has one year left of life to research further, leaving the world with 691 years of research total. So the cycle creeps onward, always approaching but never quite reaching 700 years of architectural research.”

“It doesn’t work that way,” I protested, partly because it didn’t, and partly because something about the story distressed me more than I could say.

“Not in architecture. An architect who has not yet mastered the entire field can still make discoveries. And the field can be split – I can work on walls while you work on windows. It would only work that way if there were an Art so unified, so perfect, that a seeker had to know the totality of what had been discovered before, if he wanted to know anything at all.”

“Then you really could never advance past 700 years of knowledge.”

“You would have to be clever. We imagine each master writing down his knowledge in a book for the student who comes after, and each student reading it at a rate of ten times as quickly as the master discovered it. But what if there was a third person in between, an editor, who reads the book not to learn the contents, but to learn how to rewrite it better and more clearly? Someone whose job it is to figure out perfect analogies, clever shortcuts, new ways of graphing and diagramming the information involved. After he has processed the master’s notes, he redacts them into a textbook which can teach in only a twentieth the time it took the master to discover.”

“Then we could double the amount of research that could eventually be completed, to 1400 years’ worth.”

“Not easily. Remember, the editors face the same problem as the students: they can only redact knowledge they themselves understand. We are adding many new people, and many generations of work, to the problem. But in the end, yes, you could accumulate 1400 years of knowledge. What if you wanted more?”


“I’m afraid so.”

“Hm. You…could get more layers of redactors. Redactors of redactors, to make the textbooks truly perfect.”

“Perhaps what you are trying to say is that redaction is an Art.”

The Alchemist made the the capital letter unmistakeable.

“Every Art has its own structure. Architecture, with enough study, can allow you to accumulate seven hundred years of collected knowledge. How many years could redactors and tutors accumulate? Would some first redactor have to spend seventy years coming up with principles of redaction to pass down to his student, who advances the art by sixty-three more years, which he passes down in turn? Would a 1400-year redactor be an incomprehensible master, able to build whole basilicas of redaction, a master teacher who could frame any concepts to make it intuitive and memorable?”

“I changed my mind. I’m going to have that drink.”

The Alchemist poured me the liquid of indeterminate color. I took a sip. It reminded me of nothing I had ever tasted before, but very slightly of the letter “N”. More important, I was pretty sure it was alcoholic.

“You’re talking about an infinite regress”, I said, when I had finished the glass.

“Not infinite. Architects. Teachers. Teachers of teachers, but the art of teaching teaching is much the same as the art of teaching. Three levels is enough. Though the levels have to mix. The teacher who trains the next architect must be a master both of teaching and of architecture. I will spare you the math, but one needs a series of teachers at different points on the teaching-skill/architecture-skill tradeoff-curve. One will be a master teacher who has devoted decades to learning the textbook-writing skill, and who can write a brilliant Introduction To Architecture textbook that makes the first ten years of architecture ability seem perfectly natural and easy to master. Another will be a mediocre teacher who knows enough advanced architecture to write a passable textbook on the subject. Still another will do nothing but study pure Teaching itself, in the hopes that he can one day pass on this knowledge to others who will use it to write architecture textbooks. In practice we are limited to a few strategic points on the tradeoff curve.”

“In practice?”

He motioned for me to get up. We walked through dark corridors until we reached a courtyard, bathed in the glow of the full moon. It took me a second to see it. Then the dull shapes took form. Obelisks, covered in hieroglyphs. A garden of obelisks.

“The word ‘alchemy’ comes from ‘al-Kemi’, the Arabic word from Egypt. It was the ancient Egyptians who first considered the project. They didn’t want the Philosophers’ Stone, not at first. They just wanted normal philosophers. But philosophy, more than other subjects, requires the wisdom that comes with age. More than other subjects, a philosophy book cannot merely be read; it must be digested, intermingled with life experience, wrestled with. The Egyptians scholars ran into precisely the problem as our hypothetical architects – there were secrets that evaded the human lifespan.

“So they wondered whether a way to cheat death might be found. The answer was both exciting and discouraging. Through the mysteries of spiritual chemistry, an elixir might be created which would grant immortality. But the Work itself would take far more knowledge than any one man could accumulate. The symbol of alchemists is the ouroboros because our task loops back upon itself. In order to become immortal, you must first become immortal.

“All we could do was go the slow way, the same as the architects working on their great basilica, for generation after generation. So Egypt fell, but we did not fall. Rome passed away, but we did not pass. A few lines, the remnants of the old priestly families of Hierakonopolis and Memphis, continued the work. To stop would be to reset a process requiring four thousand years of gradual asymptotic improvement all the way to the beginning – texts are not worthless, but only the true tutors trained by tutor-tutors trained by tutor-tutor-tutors are fit to tutor an alchemist. A misstep is too terrible to contemplate. But any victory – a single vial of the Elixir, a single fragment of the stone – would end the nightmare forever. We would have an immortal, a philosopher whose lifespan finally matches the depth of the challenges Nature throws at us.

“That is our guild’s mission. A few of us, those who pass all their tests, do the alchemic research that moves the Work onwards. Others train to be teachers, or teachers-of-teachers. Those who fail a test somewhere along the way stay in the guild, managing its worldly affairs. Some scour the countryside for prodigies to take in and train as apprentices. Others manage our finances. And the very least capable, like me, have time to waste talking to outsiders, trying to convince them of our mission. A few centuries more, and we will have the Stone. Does that satisfy your curiosity?”

“All except my original question. Are you so busy that you cannot spare a few weeks for the prince?”

“God does not make the Great Work easy. We have done all we can to train our alchemists, our tutors, our tutor-tutors, and so on, yet in the end, the limit of human skill is the same place the possibility of success begins. It is His will to grind us up to the very asymptote.”

“I still don’t get it.”

“Do you remember the architects who learned at ten times the rate they researched, the ones who would never accumulate more than 700 years of learning? The fiftieth alchemist in the sequence has 696 years of learning, and is able to do a scant five months’ original research before his death. The hundredth alchemist has 699.98 years of learning, and is able to do about a day’s research before dying. We are not so far along as all that, but we are far. We do not have the Stone, but we have tinctures that can stabilize the lifespan, make sure nobody dies before their time. The last few generations – on their deathbed, they say they can almost taste the Stone, that it lies only a few hours of further thought beyond their level. They say of my grandfather that he realized the recipe for the Stone on his deathbed, that he started speaking it, but that his eyes closed forever before he could complete the ingredient list.”


“You ask that we pause a few weeks from our studies to save the prince’s life. Pausing a few weeks would set us back generations. This far into the project, only the last few hours of an Alchemist’s life are of any value at all. We cannot spare the prince hours. We cannot even spare him seconds.”

“Then your teachers…or your teacher-teachers?”

“Know some alchemy, but are in the same situation. Our textbooks have been so perfectly written and rewritten over the years that it is only in the last few days of a teacher’s life that he is skilled enough to write a better one. And our teacher-training has become so perfect that it is only in the last few days of a teacher-trainer’s life that he is qualified to create teachers better than the ones who already exist.”

“There’s no slack in the system at all?”

“Only me, and those like me. Those judged unfit for research and condemned to worldly matters. We sent you one already. He failed you, as he did us. We have nothing more to give.”

“The king will not be happy. And the Prince will die.”

“Everyone dies,” said the Alchemist. “If the prince does not die this year, he will die the next, or fifty years hence. The question is not when we die, but what our life adds to the Work which accumulates in spite of time. Quicksilver evaporates to nothing unless reacted with aqua fortis; but the part which is reacted endures forever. Those lives not part of any Work mean as little to me as they will one day mean to their possessors; those which add to the Work are more precious than gold. Tell the King this.”

“He won’t understand,” I said.

“Then you will have to teach him,” said the Alchemist, “as I taught you, and my tutors taught me, and as their tutors taught them, all the way back to the first philosophers of Egypt.”

He stared at me as he spoke, and the blackness in his too-still pupils was the depth of Time.

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213 Responses to Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

  1. Aevylmar says:

    Interesting story. I have to think about it more before I have anything to say about it, though.

    Oh, except for one thing – I think you have a typo:

    “You are a man of war,” repeated the Alchemist. “Do you know Caesar’s histories?”

    “Almost by heart”.

    The period goes on the inside, unless I’m sleepier than I think.

    Thanks for writing it! (Also for being born!)

    • Alsadius says:

      Canonically, I believe you’re correct, but I’ve always found that rule to be stupid myself. Brackets and quotes should be self-contained units, with punctuation around them as needed. I’ll frequently take a quote than ends with a period, keep the period inside the quotes, and then add another period outside the quotes to end the sentence that contains the quote – e.g., you said “unless I’m sleepier than I think.”.

      • Daniel Ziegler says:

        I do this too and discovered it’s called “logical punctuation”: https://www.grammarly.com/blog/logical-punctuation-infographic/

        • ADifferentAnonymous says:

          Glad to see this has some traction; I started unilaterally as soon as my writing wasn’t being graded.

          • Gerry Quinn says:

            I used to be a logical punctuator, and the programmer in me wants to make it the rule – but I’ve switched more to whatever looks better to me, which is usually the period inside the quote.

        • n8chz says:

          The term I heard was “hacker quotes.” I use traditional quotes, but I’m not particularly partisan about it.

      • rlms says:

        I expect your attitude is very common among programmers (I do it too, although since I’m British that rule doesn’t fully apply).

      • Alex Zavoluk says:

        It makes more logical sense to have a period after, but looks weird.

      • Watchman says:

        I think it is a matter of context. If the complete sentance is being spoken or quoted, then the full stop (OK, the period) is part of the content of the quoted text, and the pause that is designated would be read (or not read more accurately) as part of the text within the quotation. So in this reading, Scott is gramattically correct here. But if the quote is incomplete, and incorporated into a full sentance, on the lines of Ceasar famously said “veni vidi vixi”. the full stop is part of your sentance, not the quoted text, and sits outside.

        There is a danger in trying to impose grammatical rules, which is that grammatical features have a function, and their context can change this. It might be subtle, but the precise placement of a period (it alliterates better than full stop) provides positive information to the careful reader.

      • secret_tunnel says:

        “Unless I’m sleepier than you think,” he said.

        …is that more annoying, or less?

      • Null42 says:

        I never got why you couldn’t nest parentheses (I was a math major, and it always seemed useful to be able to do (makes clause dependency easier to figure out)).

        Though thanks to the alt-right, now everyone would think you were a Nazi.

        • Alsadius says:

          I’ve never heard of this rule. The usual rule I heard was that you use different types of brackets as you go in(so the first is round brackets[but the second is square brackets{and the third is curly brackets}]), but that’s just a convention to make it easier to parse, I suspect.

        • Watchman says:

          You can nest parantheses to your heart’s content (but the issue is that the required separate thoughts (which is the purpose of parantheses (at least in my opinion)) might be confusing and difficult to follow (as with a complex maths equation) leading to a loss of utility in the message (which since communication is all about utility (hence the fact we all adopt the same method) is effectively the message itself)) but it is not exactly elegant.

          Also, if you want clause dependency, then commas are you friend.

          (Please note that not every assertion in parantheses is fully correct – as might be guessed I put them in there for effect).

        • Well... says:

          Though thanks to the alt-right, now everyone would think you were a Nazi.

          That’s why LISP is the programming language of Nazis.

    • Aevylmar says:

      My editor tells me “always put the punctuation inside the quotation marks,” but that’s really a side note. The real issue is, if I’m wrong about this, Scott is also wrong about this, because ninety percent of his punctuation (in similar situations) is inside the quotation marks, and this is (I think) the only one that isn’t. So either this is a mistake or everything else is a mistake. I think.

  2. Fluffy Buffalo says:

    Interesting. Thankfully most actually relevant fields of knowledge split up better than this hypothetical alchemy.

    Or is that just selection bias?

    We’ll find out once Super-AI comes online, I suppose.

    • Alsadius says:

      How well it splits up only affects how big an edifice you can build, not how the asymptotes work. (That said, the asymptotic model is clearly a gross oversimplification, and a person dying at age 75 could easily have more effect than centuries of asymptotic growth. Also, how likely is it that the most important possible project in a field will exist precisely at the asymptote?)

      • Fluffy Buffalo says:

        How well it splits up only affects how big an edifice you can build, not how the asymptotes work.

        Doesn’t that change if it works as a fractal, though? As more knowledge is accumulated, fields of study split up into ever smaller, but more manageable sub-branches. The problem then becomes one of identifying and transferring relevant pieces of knowledge from one branch to another, which hopefully only requires scholars to know two branches, but not the entire tree, but it requires the number of interdisciplinary scholars to increase quadratically with the number of branches. (Not sure if that makes sence. I haven’t thought that through before writing it.)

        • Murphy says:

          Software encapsulation sort of shortcuts a related problem.

          In the earliest days of computing it was somewhat limited to people with multiple phd’s or geniuses and had to understand every layer.

          Decades later a child can write “printf(“hello world”)” and all the spectacular complexity that it’s built on can be hidden from them entirely.

          And those kids can make little tiny advances in various areas without needing to understand everything underneath.

          So not only is it a fractal, you sometimes get to build wormholes to provide shortcuts out to near the edge.

          I do sometimes wonder whether computing will one day require experts in going in the opposite direction: like Vernor Vinge’s programmer-archaeologists to dig into abstraction layers written by people long dead that just work most of the time.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I had this argument once on reddit with someone who claimed that “only 10 people in the world know how to make a microprocessor.” And I said that’s only true if there are only 10 electrical engineers in the world.

            At my university we had an elective in Digital Computer Architecture where we designed, from the logic gates up, an 8-bit CISC processor and a 32-bit RISC processor. In grad school I took the more advanced computer architecture courses (and I taught the undergrad class) and the VLSI classes about how to lay out the individual transistors to make the logic gates.

            Yes, there are layers of abstraction. You start with the AND/OR/XOR gates to make a one-bit adder, and then combine those to make, say, an 8-bit adder, and then you reuse that structure wherever you need it (not just the adder in the arithmetic logic unit, but say to increment the program counter, or to compute a branch offset). But the bottom layers have never been lost. You have to understand them before you can make the modern multicore/hyperthreaded/whatever-the-hell beast from Intel.

            So, if the apocalypse happens and you need to rebuild computers from nothing, well, I can’t mine the materials and I need some mechanical engineers to make the photolithography equipment and such, but as far as just designing the microprocessor goes, I could do that myself with enough colored pencils and graph paper. And not because I’m some kind of uber-engineer…my university alone was cranking out ~25 students each semester who could do the same thing.

          • Iain says:

            I think it’s more accurate to say that there are no people in the world who know how to make a microprocessor — especially a modern one.

            Given the existence of a fab that can turn VLSI into silicon, and appropriate tooling to help you generate that VLSI, I’m sure you can design a simple microprocessor. But fabs are, with good reason, some of the most expensive pieces of capital in the world. If you can make a chip, it is because you stand on the shoulders of untold millions of person-years of painstaking effort. You don’t have to be an expert in photolithography. You don’t have to study the routing algorithms for your VLSI. The building blocks of your problem exist, and you don’t have to break them open to look inside.

            Nobody in the world knows enough about all those layers to build a microprocessor single-handedly. Nevertheless, microprocessors get built. This is because, in practice, Scott’s third and fourth terms are generally low. You do not need to know every underlying detail to make progress. Problems can be sub-divided. Progress is not made by solitary geniuses; it is made within a structure in which ordinary non-geniuses can contribute.

            Scott’s alchemists are an interesting thought experiment, but I don’t think they map onto anything in the real world.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Of course. The fab would be the hard part (for me, anyway). But there’s somebody out there who knows how to make a fab. Or knows what kind of tool we need to make to make the tools we need to make to make the tools we need to make to make a fab. We could put it all back together again and I could make a decent processor without needing another Shockley to invent the solid state transistor or John von Neumann to invent the von Neumann architecture.

            My point is that while we’re standing on the shoulders of giants, that doesn’t mean we don’t know what the giants did. That’s the method by which we stand on their shoulders. So some kind of techno-archaeology is not necessary.

            Which is a very good thing, because, to be honest, any problem for which part of the solution is “well, we need another John von Neumann” will be tough going.

          • deciusbrutus says:

            If all of our artifacts were taken from us, and we were left with merely a supply of food that can’t be munchkined and the planet, would your knowledge of how to design a microprocessor survive long enough to get the tools needed to build one?

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Depends on who “we” is and the extent to which we’re murdering each other rather than trying to reinvent the computer.

            There’s that Ted talk (or maybe it was Malcolm Gladwell, I forget) about how “nobody knows how to make a pencil.” So it would be that same kind of problem. I would need need pencils so I could draw the logical diagrams and circuit diagrams for the processor.

            Still, my point is that what would be lacking would be tools, not the knowledge.

            I think part of this is that people think microprocessors are a lot more complicated than they are. They see small intricate, complex thing and think it’s analogous to something like a single-celled organism, which no one knows how to make. But a processor is not like that at all…the simple ones, anyway, were designed and constructed from the ground up by a handful of nerds.

            My senior design project was my own implementation of the MCS 6502 instruction set architecture. That’s the processor that was in the Apple IIe and the 8-bit NES. I designed the entire thing, myself, in a few months and simulated it in a logic simulator program. Later in grad school for a VLSI project I laid out every single transistor you’d need to fabricate it (I had a partner for that project, though). If you know what you’re doing, it’s not that hard, and the vast majority of other electrical engineers would know how to do the same thing. Again, I’m not special…I just have an MSEE like hundreds of thousands of other people who decided to study electrical engineering.

            On the long list of “things I started and never finished because kids” was a recreation of this project for teens. I wrote a digital logic simulator in C# and WPF, where you’d start with just the basic logic gates (NAND, NOR, NXOR, AND, OR, XOR, NOT) and in the end have a gate-by-gate simulator of the NES. One of these days I should finish that program so I never have to have this argument again, I could just point them to the github project and say “here, do it yourself if you don’t believe me” 🙂

          • BBA says:

            This discussion reminds me of Ken Thompson’s famous “Trusting Trust” lecture, in which he recounts how he hid (IIRC) a password-stealing backdoor in Unix by modifying the C compiler. The modified compiler would insert the backdoor into the login program whenever it was compiled from source, and insert the backdoor-insertion code into the compiler whenever it was compiled from source. His victims could go through the source code and recompile all they wanted to, but they’d never find out how it was done or how to stop it.

            “But they could look at the binary!” With what? A debugger or disassembler? Those could be backdoored too. For that matter, the OS could be set up to produce different file contents when the binary file was read versus executed. And then, as Thompson himself suggested, there’s the possibility of hiding inside the CPU’s microcode, which would be almost impossible to detect…or the silicon itself. Hope you have a trustworthy electron microscope.

            Many read Trusting Trust as a surface-level tale about security, or even about the specific “backdoored compiler” attack. I see it as something more fundamental, that you can never be sure that the computer is actually doing what you think it’s doing. Taken further, it can lead to questioning physical reality, and other useless endeavors, so I’m not going to, but it’s worth pondering.

            Anyway, I do wonder if there’s been a self-replicating phenomenon, either benevolent or malevolent, hidden in the bowels of binary code, unknown to us humans. And if so, whether anyone really does know how to make a computer. It should give you some pause to consider that practically every program we use today was compiled by a compiler that was compiled by a compiler that was (etc.) by a compiler written by Ken Thompson.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Ted Kowalski (writer of fsck) caught Ken Thompson at his little compiler game; it caused the size of various system binaries to change, and the backdooring wasn’t so complete as to avoid that. Anyway, messing with compilers is too high level. Nowadays the NSA (and foreign equivalents) put this sort of chicanery directly in the silicon, e.g. the Intel Management Engine.

          • BBA says:

            All the more reason for retrocomputing. No room for the NSA to hide on one of these!

          • Murphy says:


            My point about encapsulation was that you can hide away the details.

            You can build a basic microprocessor or you can run on top of a 19 billion transistor cpu running some kind of microcode and pretend one is the other as long as speed isn’t too much of an issue.

            Also the logic layer is much cleaner than physical reality: the practicalities of getting imperfect physical matter to work without errors adds more complexity and requires more error checking than running on a nice neat sim like we used in Uni.

            I’ve worked in fabs: they’re complexity on another level. The design of a minecraft-puter is only a tiny fraction of the reality of implementation.

            Also unless it’s a very very good simulation that nice neat simulation is not the messy real world with environmental noise and slight hardware flaws that tend to fubar things.

            When I mentioned programmer-archeologists I wasn’t thinking of the hardware at all, that’s just for the software stack. There’s entire strata of code that is gradually touched less and less if it works well.

          • JohnBuridan says:

            @Conrad Honcho. I hope you do finish that project! I think it would be a great tool! I hope to see it on Github in a year or two 🙂

        • JohnBuridan says:

          I think usually scholars do only know two branches. In fact, because many scholars can know the same two branches a third field or a powerful synthesis can be created with a small team of “double-branchers.”

          I think Peter Briscoe has a good grasp of the role of editors and double-branchers in knowledge creation, i.e. invaluable. https://www.amazon.com/Reading-Map-Knowledge-Being-Librarian/dp/096348981X

  3. melboiko says:

    This makes me think of The Glass Bead Game.

  4. platanenallee says:

    The hundredth alchemist has 699.98 years of research, and is able to do about a day’s research before dying. → The first “research” should be “learning”, I think.

    They should really dedicate a few of the very talented ones to working full-time on PR. Yes, this will slow them down some, but an annoyed king coming down on them like a ton of bricks will set them back even further.

    Thank you for the parable, Master Teacher.

    • Fluffy Buffalo says:

      an annoyed king coming down on them like a ton of bricks will set them back even further.

      Yeah, that’s what I thought. Exposing their rationale makes them vulnerable to the king saying, “okay, for every day you don’t get to work healing my son, I’ll set you back a generation or more by executing one of your most senior alchemists/ teachers/ editors.”

      • poignardazur says:

        On the other hand, these guys are so advanced up the learning curve that their top scientist spend most of their time re-learning previous knowledge. That’s quite a few more steps further up the exponential slope than we are.

        Maybe they have invincible Ancient Egyptian Weapons of Terror is what I’m saying.

        • Deiseach says:

          Maybe they have invincible Ancient Egyptian Weapons of Terror is what I’m saying.

          If they did, they wouldn’t be paying taxes. An annoyed king sending letters that you’re not contributing to the treasury is one thing, a grieving king who has just buried his son and heir determined that THERE WILL BE BLOOD is another and more difficult matter to handle.

          Even if they do have Ancient Egyptian Terror Weapons, having to deploy them against the army will be a nuisance and a distraction and surely will take longer than the ten minutes to send your goddamn “only fit to be the doorkeeper” alchemist-failure to the goddamn palace to tell the king “Hey buddy, if we could cure sickness, we wouldn’t all be slaving every moment of the day to work out something before we pop our clogs at the age of seventy”.

          • baconbacon says:

            If they did, they wouldn’t be paying taxes. An annoyed king sending letters that you’re not contributing to the treasury is one thing, a grieving king who has just buried his son and heir determined that THERE WILL BE BLOOD is another and more difficult matter to handle.

            Not if releasing them reduces the future stock of alchemists.

      • The Nybbler says:

        At this point, perhaps some of the washouts have enough power to prevent this. Though it seems to me the smartest way to do that would be to send some greybearded washouts, claim they’re the best, and if they fail… well, even a washout alchemist can probably kill a king and make it convincing that it was a death from grief, of a king who has just lost his son.

        • Deiseach says:

          The Alchemists do sound “it takes a special level of smart to be this stupid”; if you applied their principles to everything, nobody would ever have learned to read, build a house, or do anything more than pluck berries and scavenge the half-eaten kills left behind by a predator because before we can try ‘cooking food’ we first have to understand the principle of ‘fire’ completely plus the changes in food produced by heat and inventing refrigeration and don’t get me started about the metallurgy necessary to produce steel that can take an edge sharp enough for cooking knives – oh yeah, just noticed we’ve all died of food poisoning from eating raw meat before we ever got started.

          • Bugmaster says:

            Yeah, tried to say the exact same thing before, but you said it better.

            I may not know exactly how my compiler works in every minute detail, but I can still use it to build software.

          • deciusbrutus says:

            You don’t send your research chef to open a restaurant.

          • Deiseach says:

            You don’t send your research chef to open a restaurant.

            But the research chef does not have to learn from scratch every single step in the process of burning raw flesh, since all that hard work has already been done. They understand the principles and reactions involved and can work without having to re-discover and re-define these.

            That’s where the Alchemist parable falls down, because he says they’ve reached such a pitch of complexity that simply learning the background takes the vast majority of their lives before they can be any use, and the more they know, the more they have to know, and the less time they have to discover anything.

            Bobbins. Once someone in the preceding generation has learned how to calcify, the next generation takes that knowledge the same way as we learn our “abc” and is now free to take a step forward beyond the limit of the previous generation. If the Alchemist Guild really is hitting this limit, they should start at the other end: stop teaching the kids every single last step up to the present, and just give them each the specialised course for which each one is suited.

          • Mary says:

            One wonders what they would do if the king heartily suggested they were stuck in a rut, and need to be jostled loose to rouse new thoughts and new patterns.

          • dionisos says:

            If the Alchemist Guild really is hitting this limit, they should start at the other end: stop teaching the kids every single last step up to the present, and just give them each the specialised course for which each one is suited.

            It would be like asking mathematicians to stop learning additions and subtractions, (after all we have better than army of less competent alchemists for that, we have computers), and to go directly to the field they are better at like highly advanced graphs theory or I don’t know what.

            That or I am missing something in what you are saying.

            we first have to understand the principle of ‘fire’ completely plus the changes in food produced by heat and inventing refrigeration and …

            This analogy is invalid.
            Knowing how to make a fire (let alone knowing how fire works) is completely unnecessary here. If they need heat, all the master would need, is a vague concept of heat, everything else is “worldly matter”.

            You are missing the step where they already are much more competent than any real world example about only teaching the necessary basics to make progress, and teaching it the quicker they can.

            In fact I believe it is where the analogy with reality, fail : They are just at completely unrealistic level of competencies.
            The real actual problem to advance science, is much more the “worldly affairs”, than any asymptotic maximum in any field of sciences.

      • platanenallee says:

        “You and whose army, Your Majes… oh…

  5. johnjohn says:

    “The Alchemist made the the capital letter unmistakeable.”

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      I’m pretty sure he does this on purpose. It comes up from time to time.

      And even sitting there by itself, so nice and pithy, and repeated by you, it took a few re-reads to notice the game he played.

  6. Grimy says:

    > he has learned 70 years of research. Then he does his own original research for 63 years and writes a book containing 143 years of research.

    70+63 = 133, not 143. The following numbers inherit this error.

  7. Rachael says:

    “The fourth term represents potential for specialization; at one, it is impossible to understand any part without understanding the whole; at zero, it can be subdivided freely.” That seems to be the wrong way round?

  8. Baeraad says:

    That was very interesting and somewhat entertaining.

    It’s also ridiculous. People learn at different rates. They learn different things differently well. They acquire different stupid idiosyncracies that they can’t be talked out of because they make up an intrinsic part of their own imperfect way of acquiring and retaining knowledge. They learn at different paces during different parts of their lives. The sheer relentless homogenity that the story’s premise requires can not be found in the real world – and that’s after the double handwave of “alchemy is a perfectly holistic disciple that is impossible to reduce to subdisciplines but at the same time can be reduced to increasing levels of understanding, because magic” and “alchemists all live the exact same time, because magic.”

    We all realise that, right? Right?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Yeah, alchemy isn’t real.

      But this story is about feeling like you can’t transmit knowledge quickly enough. I now realize that, at age 20, I was an idiot. Probably ten years from now I’ll think I was an idiot today. I would love to have the “How Not To Be An Idiot” book, but there isn’t one.

      Actually, I think I could write a “How Not To Be As Much Of An Idiot” book for my twenty year old self, because I know exactly what problems he was groping at, and can frame the answers exactly the right way to fit into his mind. But I also know that book wouldn’t be any better than average for anyone else. It’s infuriating that we have this whole civilization of people who really ought to be helping each other, and in order to become less of an idiot at 30 than at 20, I had to do ten whole years of two-steps-forward-one-step-back intellectual work.

      Part of that is why I document my own intellectual progress so obsessively – I’m hoping it will speed up the process for other people. But not too many people read it, and I doubt it’s more than a few percent efficient. But if there’s anything useful I’m doing at all, it’s adding that few percent efficiency, making other people’s intellectual progress take slightly less time than mine did, so that they’re able to start pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge a little more quickly.

      And I know I’m doing a bad job – really I should take a couple years off to actually write a “Scott’s Intellectual Progress Over The Past Ten Years” book with everything really nicely edited and fit together, so that it’s not just about clicking random links in a blog that were written before I really understood how any of the concepts connected to each other. And I’m frustrated that doing that would take away the time I could be learning new things, or transmitting new things, or just living my life.

      All intellectual progress is making things more accessible to others. We say Godel proved the incompleteness theorem, but I don’t understand incompleteness – he didn’t prove it to me. The best that can be said about Godel is that he left behind work that could be used by someone like me (or smarter than me) to understand the incompleteness theorem much faster than I would if I had to figure it out on my own (realistically I would never figure it out on my own at all within a human lifetime, so he’s also made it accessible to less intelligent people, but same difference). There’s a unity between discovering and teaching; all any of us leave behind is work that speeds up the intellectual progress of others. We can create a little of that, and then we die, and all our own intellectual progress vanishes, and all that remains is the degree to which we’ve made others’ course a little faster.

      I think about these alchemists a lot because they’re the purest form of all of that.

      • Fluffy Buffalo says:

        I would love to have the “How Not To Be An Idiot” book, but there isn’t one.

        One major problem is that there isn’t ONE, there are many, of different degrees of usefulness to different people, in a vast pile of largely-useless-overall books.

        I’ve sometimes wondered if the progress of science will grind to a halt because so much has been done before, and the time to figure out what’s been done before is so limited, that an increasing amount of time will be spent reinventing ever-elaborate wheels. That doesn’t seem to have happened so far, and I’m not sure why. I assume Google has something to do with it.

      • meltedcheesefondue says:

        >but I don’t understand incompleteness

        On that very narrow issue, I may be able to help.


        I’ve been told that it’s helped a lot of people grasp some of these issues (maybe the sticking with the first section, on first order theories, is enough?). It starts with a statement of maximal confusion about the terminology, which really doesn’t do the field any favours:

        “First order arithmetic is incomplete. Except that it’s also complete. Second order arithmetic is more expressive – except when it’s not – and is also incomplete and also complete, except when it means something different. Oh, and full second order-logic might not really be a logic at all. But then, first order logic has no idea what the reals and natural numbers are, especially when it tries to talk about them.”

      • Bugmaster says:

        I think you may have some insight here:

        We say Godel proved the incompleteness theorem, but I don’t understand incompleteness – he didn’t prove it to me. The best that can be said about Godel is that he left behind work that could be used by someone like me…

        You don’t need to understand the proof of the incompleteness theorem in order to use it. If you take it on faith that the theorem works, you could just skip over it, and move on to other things.

        Fortunately, you don’t have to take things on faith; instead, you can use trust. Lots of people understand the proof and can follow it; if you have good evidence to suggest that they know what they’re doing, you could put your trust in them, at least to some degree.

        There’s nothing special about math, either; I’m sure there’s some programmer working on a drug analysis system firmware right now who has very little idea about medicine, but can follow enough of it to do a good job. Meanwhile, a doctor who has no idea what an “if statement” is can use the programmer’s work to make novel discoveries (or just save lives, I suppose).

        In other words, while it would be wonderful to understand every aspect of every scientific discipline from first principles, this is not necessary in order to advance science. Perhaps this was what you were driving at with your “redactors of editors” passage, but if so, I guess I didn’t quite get it…

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          And if his grandfather alchemist spat out a few ingredients of the philosopher’s stone and then died, that ought to change the entire search algorithm for future generations. “Okay, let’s assign some people to learn everything they can about these ingredients. . . “

      • platanenallee says:

        this story is about feeling like you can’t transmit knowledge quickly enough

        Oh no, seriously? Then I have misinterpreted it completely…

        I read the story and said to myself: Oh, this one is so delightfully ambiguous! On the surface it is about noble self-sacrifice in pursuit of transhumanist ideals, but if you THINK about it, it becomes OBVIOUS he really meant to say that the alchemists are going about it the WRONG way and WILL probably FAIL. (And he’ll reveal it in the next post, and I’ll feel sooo clever for having guessed!)

        So much for that.

      • tmk says:

        Well, are 35-year-olds actually less idiots than 25-year-olds, or do they just think they are? Do they actually have more insight, or have they just adapted to their lower ability to learn new things?

        I mean, you covered all these things in your last post, but now seem to have forgotten?

        • ADifferentAnonymous says:

          He raised those questions last time but didn’t answer them. This post is fleshing out the model of the world corresponding to one one the answers.

        • Mary says:

          In short, if youth is not quite right in its opinions, there is a strong probability that age is not much more so. Undying hope is co-ruler of the human bosom with infallible credulity. A man finds he has been wrong at every preceding stage of his career, only to deduce the astonishing conclusion that he is at last entirely right

          ― Robert Louis Stevenson, Virginibus Puerisque

        • jprester says:

          They are probably less of an idiots in a general sense, but they are also probably less effective thinkers in specific domains. It isn’t an accident that all great mathematicians and scientist do their most important work in their 20’s and that for the all major tech companies once you turn 30 you are basically a lost cause. Being wise is nice, but being at the peak of your mental and physical capabilities is much better.

          • The Nybbler says:

            for the all major tech companies once you turn 30 you are basically a lost cause.

            I joined Google at 38. Google’s average age is over 30, last I heard.

      • David Shaffer says:

        Such a book would still be extremely interesting, and I suspect that many readers here would find it useful. If you wouldn’t mind giving it a go, a lot of us would appreciate it.

      • Bryce says:

        Related to this, your post on your psychotherapy observations and the focus on Akrasia that LW had a while back, I think you should check out Tony Robbins in some depth if you haven’t already.

        He read 700 self-help/hypnosis/NLP/therapy books to get to the edge of the field when he was young. He then found and integrated the common patterns and has achieved 1 on 1 results that are mind-blowing relative to the rest of psychiatry/psychology world.

        In terms of low hanging fruit it’s totally nuts someone can be this good without it filtering back into the mainstream.

      • Garrett says:

        But not too many people read it

        I believe that this is one of the biggest problems in contemporary politics. There have been giants of political philosophy over the past few centuries. Yet they aren’t read, but ideas which they worked with in-detail are still being debated. The US was based largely on the philosophy of John Locke. Yet how many people have actually read his Second Treatise on Government? Or John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty?

      • Mixer says:

        But if there’s anything useful I’m doing at all, it’s adding that few percent efficiency, making other people’s intellectual progress take slightly less time than mine did, so that they’re able to start pushing forward the frontiers of knowledge a little more quickly.

        That’s all any of us can do for the public at large. You might get lucky enough to find a person/people that have enough shared life experience (similar perspective to your own) and the intellectual capacity to absorb what you have learned at roughly the rate you can teach it (in the tutor/editor sense you referred to in your post) that you can have a meaningful transfer of knowledge. But, most of the time all you can do is throw out what you’ve learned the way you’ve learned it through the filter of your reality/your perspective and hope someone gets it.

        For the record, I don’t think of the younger versions of me as being idiots. Did they have my experience? No. Were they as cognitively adept as I am? No. Were they agendized and had difficulty looking at things abstractly or without bias? Yes. But, they were doing the best they could do with what they had. I wouldn’t write that book for my 25 (or 35..) year old self. Chances are, it wouldn’t actually be that useful to them. But if I had a time machine, I would go back and chat with them for about an hour. Give them a few pointers and answer some questions that would help smooth out the rough edges of my life.

      • . I now realize that, at age 20, I was an idiot. Probably ten years from now I’ll think I was an idiot today. I would love to have the “How Not To Be An Idiot” book, but there isn’t one.

        20 year old idiots need the motivation to read it as well.

        My arrival on less wrong was like looking back in time: the ideas and even vocabulary where very much those of a 20 year old not -so-ancient geek. However, I did not end up with a queue of people wanting the benefit of an extra twenty five years rumination in a compressed pellet.

      • toastengineer says:

        Well, if it makes you feel any better, reading within the SSC-sphere (esp. the sequences) seems to have transferred what you consider a decade’s worth of Not Being an Idiot to me over the course of three or four years.

      • CurtisRandolph says:

        I created an account to let you know that I am a few years younger than you, that you think similarly to me, that your interests are similar to mine, and over the last two years of reading your blog I feel like I have saved many hundreds of hours of thought and thought organizing thanks to you doing the intellectual labor of codifying it. Hardly any other writer has helped me clarify my own thoughts more. It’s given me a lot of time that I can instead spend thinking about different problems that baffle me. It’s given me a lot of good language to use for explaining ideas to my friends, and the courage to attempt to, and some wisdom in knowing when not to. To me your writing is very valuable, and inspiring, and appreciated. I would be deeply saddened if you ever decided it wasn’t worth it.

      • “And I know I’m doing a bad job – really I should take a couple years off to actually write a “Scott’s Intellectual Progress Over The Past Ten Years” book with everything really nicely edited and fit together, so that it’s not just about clicking random links in a blog that were written before I really understood how any of the concepts connected to each other. And I’m frustrated that doing that would take away the time I could be learning new things, or transmitting new things, or just living my life.”

        Hi Scott,

        I used to have exactly this same problem, and I’d like to help you solve it. A long time ago I realized that I wanted a writing platform which would let me grow my thoughts incrementally, without giving readers the impression that they were set in stone. My thoughts weren’t properly represented by a series of static documents, they had histories, they evolved. Eventually I realized what I wanted was a wiki. The problem was that wikis didn’t seem to be made for people like us, they were made for large communities to create encyclopedias. Wikipedia was too successful, and tilted every collaborative web page provider towards making tools for encyclopedia building.

        However recently my friend Said Achmiz let me know about a solution that avoids the pathologies and headaches of wikimedia called PmWiki. PmWiki is the software used by Naval Gazing, ReadTheSequences and namespaces ‘rationalist’ site. He insisted it was the best wiki software and I had to try it, so I did. In my case the experiment has been so successful I plan to install a second copy just so I can justify writing for my ‘real’ website. It lets me start writing when I have an idea, stop when the enthusiasm putters out, do seamless access control so I can share it with my friends (but not the world), then start writing again based on their thoughts all in one convenient interface. We are willing to set this up at no cost to you. Our version of PmWiki has easy export so you always own your data. It would be an honor if we could help squeeze out those last few hours to give you a better shot at the elixir, or through you help thousands on their own journey to find the stone.

        Email jd@fortforecast.com or reply to this comment if you’re interested in learning more.

      • Jack Lecter says:

        I would love to have the “How Not To Be An Idiot” book, but there isn’t one.

        I have explicitly recommended The Sequences to family as exactly this: (ie, ‘there are many ways to be brilliant, but a lot of stupidity tends to happen for the same underlying reasons. This analyzes those reasons and gives you tools for unlearning some of those habits. It can’t make you brilliant, but it’s maybe the best book on not being stupid there is.)

        Also, &@$% are you hard on yourself. It’s really hard to express how much I’ve learned from this blog. It’s true that you’re probably doing a very bad job compared to a well-aligned superintelligent AI, but using that standard seems like setting yourself up for continual, inevitable failure.

        Seriously, if there’s someone you know of doing a better job at this than you are right now, I very much want to know where I can find them. Otherwise, I think it’s fair to parse

        And I know I’m doing a bad job – really I should take a couple years off to actually write a “Scott’s Intellectual Progress Over The Past Ten Years” book with everything really nicely edited and fit together


        I’m failing to live up to the impossible standards I’ve built up in my head.

        I mean, this may be coming off as kind of insulting, since I’m sure you’re aware of this particular failure mode, but seriously.

      • jw says:

        This post and your previous one make me think you’re fretting about what your Impact on the world will be. Like the alchemists you want to do something important and memorable. But you’re already doing that, you’re a doctor who has touched many lives.

        But how much impact you will have with your life still troubles you doesn’t it?

        Here’s my advice. Have a kid, or two.

        It’s the same advice I’d give the alchemists.

        The story assumes one master working his lifetime followed by another master working his, and so on and so forth. But what if each master had two offspring and then passed on “half” of the problem to each. And then each of those offspring split their problem and then their offspring….

        You get the picture. Computation is mentioned here because it’s the antithesis of the “build All knowledge going halfway from where you start to 1 every time”. Over time the divide and conquer problem splitting spawns (literally in this example) twice the resources to work the full problem.

        I think this is more akin to how the world really works. It definitely explains the “WE can build a processor, but I can’t” from some of the other comments.

        So to reference back to your last post too. Your best bet on impacting the world is to… have a kid. It changes ones perspective on life…..

      • romeostevens says:

        There is a generalized how not to be an idiot book but the PR gloss you need to add to it changes every generation and for each subculture. The people laboring over translations often have the utopian vision that *this time will be the last time*. Which is a useful belief to have, motivationally speaking, but mainly speaks to their own provincialism.

        And yes, the translations are necessary. The raw material is [error]. Any attempt to talk about it would be my own attempt at a translation and I am not yet qualified to do any translation work (and ‘qualified to do translation work’ is a well defined thing).

      • Ron says:

        And I know I’m doing a bad job – really I should take a couple years off to actually write a “Scott’s Intellectual Progress Over The Past Ten Years” book with everything really nicely edited and fit together, so that it’s not just about clicking random links in a blog that were written before I really understood how any of the concepts connected to each other. And I’m frustrated that doing that would take away the time I could be learning new things, or transmitting new things, or just living my life.

        Hmm, but I strongly disagree. Maybe your current format works partly because we discover that things connect together with you?

        (In the context of your parable, did the Alchemists try to let students study in groups? I mean, you explicitly say that it is good for information to be “absorbed in a social way“, really can’t imagine why feel guilty about not trying an unproved approach when the current one works so well with justified reasons.)

      • Ab Terre Cervisiarum says:

        I definitely don‘t think you‘re doing a bad job at all.

        Goals should be periodically reevaluated in order to navigate the viable mean between slacking from overconfidence and putting an unhealthy strain on one‘s nerves. The latter seems imo what you experience these days.

        It took me 49 years of learning, that simple commonplace knowledge (like the above) is a useful shortcut for time consuming investigation. I feel almost ready to embark on my own research for new insights.

      • wintermute92 says:

        For whatever it’s worth, my immediate reaction to this piece was “someone else understands The Feeling!”

        That question, of whether progress is fundamentally limited by what lone individuals can learn, is a fascinating one. It’s not hard for me to imagine some breakthrough that requires 50 years of expert knowledge in biology, and another 50 years of chemistry. And maybe we can get it out of collaboration between 60-year experts in each field, or maybe we can improve teaching and distill knowledge until it’s a 20/20 task. But we can at least imagine a task for which that doesn’t hold true – for which a single person needs an impossibly-deep understanding.

        There are a lot of news stories about the rise of collaboration in science, and the decline of Lone Geniuses in fields like physics. It’s usually portrayed as progress, but I always wonder if it’s just a physical limitation. What if we’ve simply reached the limits of what one person can internalize?

        It’s good to have something I can point to now, because I think about this a lot myself.

    • poignardazur says:

      I was more shocked by the implication that every single Alchemist has the exact same lifespan, down to the number of days lived, but yes.

      Also, the method of “make better teachers³ to make perfect alchemists” as described is pretty inefficient. Once you hit diminishing returns on one field (alchemists, teachers, teachers², teachers³, teachers^n, etc), you should start spending your exponential learning power on others pursuits. Haven’t these people played Civilization?

      They say that Ultimate Elder Alchemists are a few weeks/months away from discovering the Stone. Then what they need is to focus on life extension / general health technology. If they recruit from commoners, make sure the average commoner is as healthy and smart as possible. Other possible avenues of pushing the singularity include electronics (once you reach the computers, you’re a few centuries from winning at most), economics, military / political power (for stability if nothing else), mind-enhancing potions, cryonics, cloning, etc.

      So basically what we’re doing right now.

      • Archon says:

        I’m assuming that they have done all these things, and that the age at which the elder alchemists die is always the absolute limit of age the human mind and body can withstand given the current art of the alchemists. Similarly, that they take only the smartest, quickest learning, possessed of the most aptitude for alchemy in every given generation. Even given that, it’s a little absurd.

        But it is meant to be a parable of sorts – entertaining, and also a insight into a particular part of the learning process of a civilisation. The story ignores many things which confound the effect, and make is less relevant, but the fundamental insight is no less true.

        I enjoyed reading it a lot, and it makes a good explanation of a particular insight into the world. Even if it is a little esoteric.

        • gwern says:

          It’s not too absurd. It’s an exaggeration of the Gompertz curve – ever notice how ever since Calment, the oldest people in the world keep dying pretty regularly at 2014-2016? ‘This is impossible, the average life expectancy is ~80, so the annual risk of dying is 1/80 and getting within 2 years of each other on several samples is astronomically unlikely!’ Except mortality rates rise exponentially over time, so almost all your risk is towards the end and so people die very consistently within particular age-ranges. Raise the exponential growth by another few centuries… (Imagine alchemists are able to stop aging for a fixed number of centuries, but then the intervention expires and one returns to the expect mortality risk for having become several centuries old. Expire different years? They’d be lucky to expire on different minutes.)

          • Shannon Alther says:

            But imagine instead that the alchemists increase lifespan in a more intuitive way: by slowing aging. So for every decade that passes, the alchemist’s cells behave as though they have aged nine years and four months. Then we would expect the distribution of mortality to occupy an even wider age range.

        • Conrad Honcho says:

          Towards the end, every time an alchemist takes a few minutes’ break to masturbate he dooms a future alchemist to a lifetime of toil.

          • platanenallee says:

            If the Alchemist’s grandfather hadn’t taken ten minutes out of his study time to impregnate the Alchemist’s grandmother, the precious formula would have already been discovered. As such, he has doomed ten generations to death, the selfish bastard.

            Luckily, his story became a cautionary tale, and since then no alchemist had sex, masturbated, or spent more than five minutes on the toilet ever again.

          • baconbacon says:

            You guys are assuming that masturbating and ruminating on the essence of the universe are mutually exclusive.

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            Should top-tier alchemists be farmed out for stud work then? Supposing talent for alchemy is genetically heritable that is.

  9. Nancy Lebovitz says:

    Is there any reason (in that world) to think that alchemy will lead to immortality?

    • Archon says:

      It is explicitly the study of immortality. Whatever leads to immortality, is what the alchemists study. Everything else is by-product.

      If immortality is truly impossible, then it is fruitless, but if any path exists available to human study.

      • Bugmaster says:

        Ok, so do the alchemists in that world have any evidence to suggest that immortality is possible ? Sure, they’ve got those life-extending elixirs; but then, so do we…

    • Lambert says:

      I think it can be assumed that immortality via alchemy is much easier to be proven to exist than to be actually worked out.
      Like practical fusion in this world. If a government threw enough money at it for long enough, it’s pretty certain we could work out all the kinks.

  10. tmk says:

    The rightful caliph of Rationality speaks in mysterious ways. When you have studied the scriptures, and your soul is ready, you will understand him.

  11. Davide S. says:

    This is good, but I think I *may* have found a minor mistake:

    It is not unteachable, but neither can it be taught

    But ‘unteachable’ literally means ‘cannot be taught’.
    So ‘it is not the kind of thing that cannot be taught, but neither can it be taught’.

    Shouldn’t it be ‘unlearnable’ instead?

    Or is this faux-zen ‘It’s not-not X, but also not X’ language intended? I don’t think it fits with the paragraph after that.

    • tomchivers says:

      Without wanting to speak for the author, I think that’s the point. It cannot be taught: you can’t break it down into words and actions which you can pass on to a novice. But it is teachable: if you hang around an expert, and pay attention to the words and actions they DO pass on, you will learn it.

      It’s a play on words using the ambiguity of what it means to be teachable, I guess.

      It’s a bit like the rhetorical technique of “zeugma”, in which you use two different meanings of a single word, as in “She stole his heart, and his wallet.”

      – edited for typo, and to apologise if this is a super-obvious comment.

    • Davide S. says:

      If you can show someone how to do something – even without using words – and make them learn to do it themselves, you are teaching them. I don’t think this is controversial. People talk about teaching by and through example all the time.

      So the alchemist might as well have said “It cannot be taught through words, only through example”.

      • ADifferentAnonymous says:

        It’s the faux-zen thing. The genre requires that the alchemist sound wise and mysterious. The following paragraph is the narrator unpacking it into its plain meaning.

      • “If you can show someone how to do something – even without using words – and make them learn to do it themselves, you are teaching them.”

        What if you do whatever you would be doing anyway, they observe–perhaps even without your knowing they are there–and learn. They are learning but you are not teaching.

      • Davide S. says:


        Then it would be fair to say that you are not teaching but others are learning from you.

        However what have here “is not unteachable”. So it is teachable. So it can be taught (somehow).

        I don’t feel the Zen-like language fit at all here, hence my minor complaint.
        The Alchimist speech was relatively plain elsewhere, wasn’t it?

        Also note the examples immediately after that in the narrative mention “training with” and “studying under”.

    • FeepingCreature says:

      There exists a process, but not a profession.

  12. John Lynch says:

    I stand on the shoulders of giants, but the ceiling is really low.

  13. Bugmaster says:

    Point of order: a “man of war” who didn’t know math or architecture — at least, the basics of architecture that are relevant to siege works — would be a pretty crappy man of war indeed. Even in a world where alchemy is real.

  14. Doesntliketocomment says:

    As an architect, this pleases me. One of the things that I enjoy about my field is that the boundaries are often pushed by the old rather than the young. Most often though it is a matter of practical knowledge over subject knowledge, a young architect has ideas for great buildings, an old architect knows how to get a great building built.

  15. Nick says:

    Love it!

    Why didn’t those alchemists try making a no-sleep elixir instead? That would have made short art out of long life. Does the universe has an Aaronson-esque rule under which anything that gets you immortality is equally off-limits?

    • Chevalier Mal Fet says:

      Who’s to say they haven’t? It gets you an extra 33% effective lifespan, perhaps, but that just stretches the problem out a bit. You still wind up pushing at the asymptote eventually.

      • Nick says:

        It’s possible, depending on how they mean “70 years.” And for all we know the alchemist’s explanation is itself a simplification, and the methods they really used to approach the asymptote required still more ingenuity.

  16. “And the very least capable, like me, have time to waste talking to outsiders, trying to convince them of our mission.” I was wondering from the beginning until he said that, “How on earth does he have time for this conversation?”

  17. Mr Mind says:


    speed of study = years taken to master 1 year of research
    speed of discovery = years of lifespan taken to produce 1 year of research
    rate of mastery = the fraction of the total research needed to be mastered before embarking in discovery
    potential for specialization = how much the field is prone to specialization

    (lifespan – years of study_n) / speed of discovery = years of research_n+1

    years of study_n = (sum of years of research_0->n) * rate of mastery * speed of study

    I don’t really know how to fit specialization in this model…

  18. bean says:

    I’m slightly confused. How does a sailing warship drink? I assume it talks because this needs to be an epic.
    (Ref “man of war”)

  19. Adama says:

    Here’s my feeble contribution to the broader discussion of knowledge and wisdom:

    Wisdom, I find, is rarely a linear progression. It tends to take the form of an epistemic arc, and perhaps there is something to this.

    At 15, you’re an idiot, and you posses all manner of poorly explored beliefs. You can barely articulate why you hold them, but are nonetheless certain they are all true. After all, you’re not a child anymore, you’re a teenager! And so you know everything there is to know about the world.

    At 25, you look back at your 15-year-old self and chuckle at the ignorance. You’d be embarrassed if it weren’t so natural and universal. A teenager simply lacks the cognitive tools one needs to grapple with reality’s nuanced complexity. Therefore, the vast majority of what your younger self believed is demonstrably wrong, as your disciplined, powerful, hyper-rational, and cultivated mind now understands. Complex problems require complex thinking, so surely the simple, primary-color reasoning your puny teenage brain employed when dealing with problems ignored too many crucial elements to have gotten it right. Of course capitalism isn’t necessarily “the best system.” System environments matter. And geesh, hadn’t your younger self even heard of a Kuznets curve? Surely not.

    Then at 35, you realize, holy shit, the human mind is a pretty limited tool, huh? And those green things over there aren’t just trees, they’re a forest. You’ve learned that not every solution within realm of all problems is the output of a complex equation. Sometimes it really just is what it is. . Yeah Mr. Economist, consult all the dynamic models you want. I, sir, have lived long enough to know that some things just work, and some don’t. And for all intents and purposes, capitalism really is “the best.”

    It’s funny how life tend to like this kind of circular path. At 15 you believe X. At 25, you believe Y. Then at 35, you’re back to X. Sure, the reason for X at 35 is radically different than it was at 15. But you’re at the same place nonetheless.

    I find this pretty interesting, if for no other reason than it is yet another excuse to look more closely at the supposed inferiority of seemingly simple heuristics vs the disciplined application of complex logic and reasoning.

    • andrewflicker says:

      I think this is one of those things that vary quite widely person-to-person. (In other words, I’m accusing you of “typical-mind”-ing.)

      When I was 15, I felt ignorant and confused- I couldn’t read texts fast enough, couldn’t get my hands on enough cogent explanations. I was painfully aware of lacking the mathematics, the vocabulary, the knowledge of history, etc., to understand the high-level texts that might push forward my understanding.

      At 34- I am still ignorant and confused, but of different or deeper matters. The process of knowledge-accumulation and wisdom wasn’t linear, certainly, but it *was* an increasing function. There are matters in which I thought X “likely true” at 15, and X “likely not true” at 25, and again X “likely true” now at 34… but that’s definitely in the minority of my probabilistic beliefs! Most things went from 60 to 70 to 80, or 60 to 50 to 40, etc., not the 90 to 30 to 90 sort of confidence you seem to describe. (Using rough numbers to illustrate, of course)

      • Adama says:

        You’re right, too broad a brush. And describing the accumulation of wisdom was an arc was an error. I, too, believe it is an increasing function, so long as we consider wisdom to be the product of using experience to update beliefs and the means by which we arrive at them.

        What I’m suggesting is arced, or often times arced, is the epistemic outcome along this progression. And what I suggest is amusing (and perhaps instructive, in some vague philosophical/psychological manner) is how often and well beliefs reached via low-experience perspectives match those reached via high-experience perspectives (the arc). I’ve found this sort of thing occurs–not just for me–with surprisingly non-trivial frequency.

    • poignardazur says:

      I’m 21, and I’m frustrated by how little progress I think I’ve made in the last 5 years. I remember kid-me being an arrogant moron, but I also remember the exact period of time where I realized I was being an arrogant moron and stopped being one.

      Since then, I’ve gotten better at socializing, I think I’ve even become seriously more charismatic than average, I’ve become confident both because I realized what I thought was “the world is insane” is “things are more complicated than I realized” and because I realized that things I thought were insane were actually pretty insane.

      But overall, I haven’t made much huge “I’m a different person now” progress since I was 16. I’m still struggling with akrasia just as much (I’m just working in computer science rather than wasting away in a classroom, that helps), and every so often I read some thoughts past-me had and I realized “holy crap, I was already thinking that way back then!”

      Sometimes I worry that my life is a perpetual cycle of having useful insights, applying them for a few weeks, then completely forgetting about them and moving to something else. Again, I do make progress (especially socially), and I … think my programming skills are slowly getting better? But overall, it’s not a strictly ascending curve.

  20. Walter says:

    It feels like these alchemists need a better world-speaker. Like, this guy is giving the game away.

    If you tell Power that there is better Doctor available, but it will cost the future centuries… Well, you are basically saying, to temporal Power no less, ‘pick between your son and countless millions of stranger’s children’. If he could make the right choice about that he wouldn’t be King, he’d be an Alchemist.

    • baconbacon says:

      The alchemist isn’t talking to the King, he is talking to a King’s representative and sending him back with the task of convincing the King. The representative is accustomed to serving something greater than himself, so this is the pep talk needed, he will then turn his skill set (convincing the King of a truth without getting his head cut off) into the next step.

      • baconbacon says:

        If you take the entire story overly seriously then the first doctor alchemist dropped the hint that there are better ones out there to entice the threat of war through this emissary, who then gets converted to the cause and goes back and initiates a military coup against the King, leading to many years of uninterrupted work for the organization.

  21. Deiseach says:

    He stared at me as he spoke, and the blackness in his too-still pupils was the depth of Time.

    And then I drew my sword and lopped off his head, because I may be only a stupid soldier the extent of whose knowledge is which end of the sword is the stabby bit, but:

    (1) You think I’m going to go back to the king with a flat refusal without at least “And this is the head of the man who refused to cure your son, sire!”, not if I want to keep my head on my shoulders?

    (2) So you all are sooooo busy you can’t spare ten minutes for the king’s son. Okay. But you can still spare time to make gold (and you don’t trade for it or earn it or invest and reap the dividends for it, you make it complete with weird smell and crackly noises) to pay the taxes because you know there will be Consequences if you don’t pay the taxes? See point (1) above re: Consequences for blowing off the king and his dying son

    (3) While we’re at it, you also apparently have the time to brew booze, even if it is only as a side-product of your mystic chemical processes. What, you couldn’t dig out a bottle of something even more swirly-coloured, fudge up some arcane ritual about how and when it is to be taken, and present it to me to take back to the king with the message “If within three weeks the prince is not cured, then no mortal aid will avail and it is the inexorable Fates who have decided he must die”. C’mon guys, I’m only a stupid soldier and I could figure out this plan!

    (4) Also, for four thousand years you guys have been trying to cure death and you are trying to tell me – and the king – that in all that time there are no doctor-alchemists who are applying whatever results have been obtained to curing your ills and extending your lives so you can be as productive as possible for as long as possible? Because I don’t think he’ll buy that. It’s not like you have drop-outs who get told “You’re a terrible alchemist, you couldn’t turn cream to butter. But you’re a fantastic accountant/chef/farmer and that’s where we can use your skills”, it’s “flunk one test and you get busted down to door man”. You honestly don’t have guys who aren’t research-tier train-the-trainers-of the trainers alchemists but are dang good doctors and work in that capacity like the finance and receptionist guys?

    (5) If you honestly don’t have dang good doctors, so that alchemists die just like the common people of illness, accident, and old age – have you lot considered taking up patchwork quilting instead, because it sounds like you’ve been wasting four thousand years?

    See, right now you’re sounding like the opposite of St Peter, where it’s “silver and gold we’ve got plenty of, but we reserve our healing for our own guild members”. It’s not “we can’t do this”, it’s “we can do this but we can’t be bothered”, in which case see ‘swords, stabby bits of’ as applied military research with you as the subjects.

    • andrewflicker says:

      The guys who make the booze and gold already tried to heal the king’s son- they failed. Now the King wants the master Alchemists, the ones too busy with the sacred work to make gold or booze, to heal his son.

      (Also you’re fighting the hypothetical instead of enjoying a good parable, but whatever)

      • andagain says:

        How would the King recognize a Great Alchemist if he saw one? Give a few duffers fancy robes and say they are the greatest, and how will anyone know?

      • Deiseach says:

        I can enjoy a parable if it makes sense; the kind of guy who has the time to roll up to the king’s door to cure his son plainly is a duffer who didn’t even make it past the first level of admission, but this Alchemist is supposed to be one of the Real Deal guys and he’s not offering plain water to the king’s emissary. So somebody in the High and Austere Castle of Learning is collecting and bottling the run-off elixirs from the day’s experiments and making use of the non-lethal ones.

        And they’ve got their own gold-makers to handle tax matters and buying all the materials needed for the Work, so it’s not just rejects and the expelled who have access to this knowledge, those kinds of ‘practical’ alchemists are intimately involved with the ‘research’ alchemists in their Fortress of Solitude.

        If, after four thousand years of effort, you don’t have some kind of panacea, a bottle of which you can send to the palace via your “not good enough to make the grade as more than our intermediary with the quotidian world” representative, you really should consider that you are on the wrong track.

        “Any day now, death will be conquered!” they gasp as they all expire from over-work and exposure to toxic chemicals at the age of seventy. If they’re not able to keep themselves alive and in good health to pursue the Work, then they’re plainly exploring the wrong avenue, because after millennia of trying to figure out how to defeat aging, time, mortality and disease, you should be making some kind of “hey we just tripped over a solution to that funny rash you get after eating strawberries” type progress.

        • baconbacon says:

          No, they send the washout who specialized in human health before he washed out to cure the King’s son, and they send the washout who specialized in teaching to talk to the guy coming for more alchemists.

          • Deiseach says:

            But if the washout is the best they have for curing disease and he failed, then he knows that there are no others more skilled than he in curing illness, so what is the point of telling the king there are greater alchemists?

            If all the A-tier Super Genius Alchemists are working solely on the Philosopher’s Stone and don’t even have the practical knowledge of how to make a meal from raw ingredients (so they would starve without the support staff), much less heal sickness, then there is no good trying to drag one or six of them back to the castle, they literally are of no use.

            That does not seem to be the case here, though; the Alchemist dealing with the messenger does not simply say “We sent a healer and he failed, that is all we can do, if he couldn’t help none of us can”, he says “it’s not worth distracting our greater alchemists” which implies that they could do better than the alchemist who failed to heal the prince – or at least, if I were the king, that’s what I’d take away from the response, not “well okay, distracting the Top Men would be a tragedy and disaster, guess my son will simply have to die”.

    • bean says:

      The point about whatever it is they use to keep people from dying before their time is a good one. But andrew is right about the origin of the gold and booze.

    • John Schilling says:

      Also, for four thousand years you guys have been trying to cure death and you are trying to tell me – and the king – that in all that time there are no doctor-alchemists who are applying whatever results have been obtained to curing your ills and extending your lives so you can be as productive as possible for as long as possible?

      “We do not have the Stone, but we have tinctures that can stabilize the lifespan, make sure nobody dies before their time.”

      So, yes B-list alchemists have been doing their medical research and are now putting it into practice so at least some people (the A-list alchemists) are now assured of living to the current limit of 117.28 years or whatever. Taken literally our protagonist should just explain that he’s going to go about stabbing people until someone gives him a vial of that tincture and then the Prince, who is not nobody, will not die before his time. Or maybe that doesn’t work because the Alchemist, having imbibed of the tincture, cannot die before his time no matter how stabby you get on his mortal form. So presumably “nobody” means “nobody who doesn’t have some intractable genetic disorder or get stabbed too many times or whatever” and that excludes the Prince. Maybe also some other people who would have made great A-list alchemists if not for that intractable genetic disorder that made it not worth the bother of training them.

      But if death by stabbing is still a thing for A-list alchemist, then the B- and C-listers need to be briefed that you never, ever admit to the mundanes that A-listers could do miracles if they bothered to try. And thus short-circuit a perfectly good parable, but oh well…

      • ADifferentAnonymous says:

        The king’s soldiers could presumably wreak havoc on the project by smashing equipment and burning books, not nearly as bad as killing people perhaps, but bad enough to make the stabbing question more or less moot.

        My theory is that the alchemists have very effective weapons (toxic gas that they’ve taken an antidote to, maybe), and they’re trying to avoid conflict as an act of compassion to the King’s soldiers.

      • Deiseach says:

        Exactly! “We can’t take the time to cure the prince, but here, have a bottle of our ‘keep you from dropping dead for another thirty years’ tincture for the time being”, instead of “tell the king sorry not sorry we can’t do nothing for his sick son”. They are attentive enough to mundane matters to pay taxes, they can’t figure out “this may not be what we consider the solution to the problem of mortality, but for the ordinary people it’s almost a miracle” about these tinctures? That a desperate king will take as good enough, if it keeps his son alive for another couple of decades?

        It really does make them sound as if they’re pinning targets on themselves: “hey come destroy us because we’re hoarding secrets that will let us live forever and reign over you mortal folk unless you stop us now”.

        The king need not even order stabbity-stabbity, merely besiege their stronghold and cut off all materials going in, then wait for them to use up what they have. “Oh, so sorry, have you run out of cinnabar and sulphur? Well, tough luck with making more progress!” If even a second spent doing anything other than the Work is a disastrous loss, this would put a wrench in the machinery quite effectively. I don’t think the Alchemists are refraining from conflict out of compassion, more that waging even a short war would be a major distraction and consume time they begrudge, so it makes no sense to send the king’s emissary away with a dusty answer after having admitted your order is working on marvels and has already discovered marvels they reserve for their own use.

        A reluctant-seeming admission of “Tell the king we only have the common tricks of making gold that he has already seen and we have so far failed in all our studies” is more convincing than “yeah, we’ve invented elixirs that guarantee you seventy years of life but eh, we can’t even be bothered to offer you one; instead, here’s a long-winded lecture and you can try persuading the king nothing doing when you get back”.

        • baconbacon says:

          A reluctant-seeming admission of “Tell the king we only have the common tricks of making gold that he has already seen and we have so far failed in all our studies” is more convincing than “yeah, we’ve invented elixirs that guarantee you seventy years of life but eh, we can’t even be bothered to offer you one; instead, here’s a long-winded lecture and you can try persuading the king nothing doing when you get back”.

          “Hey we can make gold out of other things, but are total failures otherwise, please don’t enslave us and force us to make gold for you forever” is not exactly the message you want sent out to the world.

          • Deiseach says:

            But the king already knows about alchemical gold (they use it to pay their taxes) and the Alchemist has admitted here that the washouts are the ones who are doing the gold-making and failed-prince-curing, so if the king wanted a tame alchemist to make gold for him, he can already get one.

            If the king thinks they are sitting on the secret of curing all ills and extending lifespans, which is the better gambit: a ‘reluctant’ surrender of a secret that isn’t a secret (we can’t do that actually as of yet, we only have progressed to making gold and weird booze) in order to divert suspicion, or a brazen admission of “oh yeah we probably could do something if we took the time, but we don’t have the time to spare, even though we already have life-preserving elixirs and are working to achieve immortality”? If the king can be persuaded that it’s all smoke and mirrors and they don’t have Greater Secrets, he may leave them alone; if the messenger goes back with “They said too bad for the prince, he’ll just have to die, they don’t want to take the time to see if they have a cure for him” that is asking for an army on the doorstep.

          • Bugmaster says:

            Agreed; the story sets up an interesting proposition: it would apparently take the the Alchemists less man-hours to obliterate an army; than it would to heal one sick prince, or to just invent a plausible lie.

          • Evan Þ says:

            @Bugmaster, for sufficiently complicated diseases and sufficiently low-tech attacking armies, the first of those could easily be true.

    • toastengineer says:

      I was saying “why didn’t they just hand over some of those live-exactly-70-years to-the-minute vials.”

      • platanenallee says:

        Maybe they need to be customized to work, e.g. you have to add a tissue sample of a young and healthy person to the basic elixir to activate it – but after that it will only work for that person.

    • Null42 says:

      I was gonna say the guy would just chop the alchemist’s head off, but you did it much better. Well done!

    • do.infinitely says:

      You know it is possible to be a simultaneously a king and not a murderous despot that kills people if they don’t do what you say. And it’s possible that someone maybe wouldn’t throw a tantrum and destroy hundreds of years of progress just to save their son. And it is possible that they do have cures for common illnesses, but the prince’s cases is specific and rare enough that the best minds would have to take a year to maybe cure it when you factor in the logistics of actual performing the cure once it’s solved. And it’s possible that the king comprehends that delaying immortality by a generation is literally genocide and doesn’t need to be bullshitted. It’s also possible that none of this is the point of the story…

  22. Jeremiah says:

    Interestingly I just finished the Agony and the Ecstasy. And while I understand that this is somewhat fictional I didn’t get the impression that Michelangelo followed anything close to the method you describe in designing the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. The impression I got was just that Michelangelo was an unparalleled genius across the board. Thinking about Michelangelo leads to several quick thoughts:

    1- How big of deal for the alchemists endeavor is a guy like Einstein or Michelangelo? And how big of an impact do these individuals have in our own endeavors.
    2- Also Michelangelo lived to be 88, but he spent most of that time not getting to do what he wanted to do.
    3- I think in the real world what happens is you have a guy like Michelangelo who does everything so well, that rather than spending a decreasing amount of effort trying to get just a little bit farther people throw up their hands, and move off in directions that aren’t as good, but which are at least unique. (see Modern Art)

    Finally, though unrelated to the above. I just finished recording the podcast/audio version, and since it’s the first story one I’ve done I’d be interested in feedback (that’s actually not entirely true, I’m mostly interested in positive feedback, but there’s nothing to stop you from offering negative feedback as well.)


    • baconbacon says:

      2- Also Michelangelo lived to be 88, but he spent most of that time not getting to do what he wanted to do.

      Perhaps if he had this washed out alchemist as his publicist/manager he would have spent more of his genius years working on the right projects.

  23. Salem says:

    The word ‘alchemy’ comes from ‘al-Kemi’, the Arabic word from Egypt

    No. The Arabic word for Egypt is Misr.

    Al-Keemiya doesn’t mean Egypt, it means… alchemy. Or chemistry. Some people say it comes from a Greek word for Egypt, but it doesn’t mean that in Arabic.

    Interestingly, Misr means province. So Egypt is the Arabic Provence.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Yeah, well, “We are the masters of the ancient art of Misery” doesn’t sound as impressive.

      • Eric Rall says:

        I don’t know, “Masters of the ancient art of Misery” sound pretty darn metal to me.

        It could also be used as the starting point for an elaborate Shaggy Dog story about how the alchemists have a centuries-long breeding program intended to produce a super-talented alchemist with a life span just enough longer than the other alchemists that he’ll be able to conquer the secrets of the “ancient art of Misery”. In short, this alchemist will have been born to be the King of Pain.

    • Wikipedia says it is the Egyptian word for Egypt.

      • Salem says:

        Where? According to my version of wikipedia, it says the Egyptian word for Egypt is Masr, which is the local pronunciation of Misr (and spelled the same way). And if you don’t like wikipedia just check google (the second result says misr balad which means the country of Egypt), or indeed ask any Arabic speaker. This isn’t obscure information.

        Some people claim (though it’s disputed – again, wikipedia!) that alchemy/chemistry derives from the Greek word Keemia, which in turn derives from the Coptic word Kheme, which in turn derives from the ancient Egyptian kmt, which really does mean Egypt.

        * al-Kemi does not mean Egypt, in Arabic, Coptic, or any other language (sorry Scott!).
        * There is a word Kheme that means Egypt in Coptic, but it’s not clear this is the origin of alchemy, and it’s certainly not the Egyptian word for Egypt (sorry 1Z!). Modern day Egyptians, including Coptic Christians, use Arabic. Sadly, Coptic died out in ordinary use 400 years ago and only persists as a liturgical language.
        * The Egyptian word for Egypt isn’t al-Kemi, it’s Masr (Misr in standard Arabic).

    • Is Misr also the Nile? I think I’ve seen it used that way, but I could have misunderstood what I was reading (in English translation–I don’t read Arabic).

      • Salem says:

        In standard Arabic, the Nile is Nyl. I’ve heard Egyptians use Misr to mean Cairo (!), so anything is possible, but it’s not something I’ve ever come across.

  24. Shannon Alther says:

    Some comments about the setting:

    They say of my grandfather that he realized the recipe for the Stone on his deathbed, that he started speaking it, but that his eyes closed forever before he could complete the ingredient list.

    So by beginning the list, whatever ingredients he felt were necessary to provide first, surely that incomplete list compressed some of the information necessary to complete it? Suppose you want to learn how to bake a cake without any guidance or prior knowledge whatsoever, but you have a fully-stocked kitchen. It takes, say, six months of experimentation to figure out which ingredients, and the correct ratios and temperatures and so on. How much shorter would that be if I told you that cakes contain flour, baking soda, and eggs? The amount of required information has gone down, and if you’re really clever maybe you can infer other ingredients from the list, like baking powder or milk.

    We do not have the Stone, but we have tinctures that can stabilize the lifespan, make sure nobody dies before their time.

    I feel like the alchemists have overlooked certain other improvements that could increase the amount of studying possible within the human lifespan. Philtres to reduce sleep, enhance focus, and the like. Also, surely advancements of this sort would be exploited for PR purposes? The quasi-medieval equivalent of a proof-of-concept for research grants or R&D funding?

    Overall it’s a good illustration, but realistically most sciences can be subdivided ad infinitum. There are skills that everyone should know, in theory, but in practice most people get along just fine without mastering any particular philosophy.

    • baconbacon says:

      The question isn’t “how to bake a cake” its “how to bake the best possible cake” and the fully stocked kitchen is the entire natural world to try in combination.

      So by beginning the list, whatever ingredients he felt were necessary to provide first, surely that incomplete list compressed some of the information necessary to complete it?

      The information could be anything. He is about to die so perhaps he is listing the ingredients with the fewest syllables first, or the rarest, or the most common, or maybe he was just in a rush and didn’t have time on his death bed to also invent a compression algorithm!

  25. thingdreams says:

    When I was younger I used to try using this sort of Socratic dialogue with people as a way to engage in discussion instead of just dictating opinions at them. It seems especially appealing for topics where one doesn’t already assume one knows the answers. Sadly, real people don’t generally seem game for it. They would become either offended or insulting after pretty much the first basic question.

    Perhaps, as it does in courts, it only really works in more formal/structured settings.

    • Nornagest says:

      The thing to remember about Socratic dialogue is that Socrates got put to death for being too annoying.

    • The Nybbler says:

      Socratic dialogue works best when you get to write both sides of it, as Plato did.

    • Shannon Alther says:

      You can absolutely use Socratic dialogue to teach – under certain circumstances. It works best if the other party genuinely wants to learn and is fairly clever; you won’t get anywhere if they’re a smartass or can’t think of the right questions. Here is a link to a guy who (claims to have) taught the concept of binary information to a class of third graders using the Socratic method.

  26. fc123 says:

    Liked this a lot.

    Unfortunately, the alchemists never came to a solution. It turns out that eventually there were always two alchemists left, named Jim-Bob Zeno, and Jebedia Godel, who ended up in fistfights about something, wasting their last seconds. Unfortunately they could never communicate the issue before they died.

    So, alas, the the search for self-consistent, all encompassing knowledge made almost no further progress and remained incomplete. Strangely attractive

  27. mdcaton says:

    Schumpeter stasis. Once the time you need to produce an innovation exceeds, not even a human life, but *the time needed to produce enough value to break even on the time it took to educate you*, then innovation stops. Then disruption stops and we revert back to wealth being controlled by a few oligarchies, usually based on genetic relatedness.

    • Standing in the Shadows says:

      Maybe not. New research will instead be done by scions of the oligarchs, who are educated up past their breakeven payback point. Yeah, 99 out of a 100 of them will be like Paris Hilton, but 1 out of a hundred won’t be.

  28. Sniffnoy says:

    It’s worth noting that in the real world there is such a domain as knowledge engineering, which attempts to elicit experts’ implicit decision trees so that they can be made explicit. I suppose here that would fall under the redactors, though. And I don’t think the resulting expert systems have, you know, any understanding they could use to modify their decision trees in response to new global information…

  29. ec429 says:

    I can’t help but wonder if this post was a response to someone criticising Scott for doing all this transhumanist stuff when he could be off doing the doctor thing and healing the sick…

    • Ilya Shpitser says:

      Is he doing all this transhumanist stuff?

    • Null42 says:

      Nah, with all the new articles on doctor burnout he needs a few hobbies. I’m sure the dude knows what he’s doing.

      • ec429 says:

        I’m sure the dude knows what he’s doing.

        For the avoidance of doubt: I’m not saying that the hypothetical criticism would be correct, merely that it might be made by someone and could causally account for the post. I think it probable OGH can do more good by writing SSC than by toiling as a cog in the healthcare system.

    • Lambert says:

      He’d be better off donating money to the sick. Or statistically-at-risk-of-being-sick African children.
      I think it’s him trying to work out whether he and the community he leads will ever contribute to humanity in the long term.

  30. fortaleza84 says:

    Solution: Set up a Bene Gesserit-style breeding program for people who are naturally talented Alchemists and live long lives. Wait for your Kwisatz Haderach. You’re welcome.

  31. Peffern says:

    Efficient nuclear fusion power is just about 15 years away at this point.

  32. fortaleza84 says:

    Part of the reason some fields take a long time to become a master is artificial barriers. So for example, there are a lot more PhD students than tenure track jobs. So that people end up spending lots more time getting their degree, doing post-docs, etc. Not because they are not ready, but because of supply and demand.

    Probably there are a lot of 25 year old architects ready to design the next landmark buulding, but they need to spend years building their reputation before anyone will trust them with that kind of commission.

    It seems that in most fields, you must “pay your dues,” but how much of that is actual wisdom-gaining and how much is status enhancement, signalling and politics?

  33. mjr says:

    Quite amusing as usual, though I must agree with the criticism that the alchemist being overly haughty towards the king, via the messenger, seems a bit too risky to be the right move to make. (Though one can speculate that the alchemists may be powerful enough for the distraction to be managed by the expendable layer.) Regardless, works well for illustrating the idea, which is the main point.

    I presume the taste of the letter N stands for Nootropics, considering that the messenger immediately talks about infinite regress without much mathematical background.

  34. lsmel says:

    Isn’t the point of an asymptote that you never actually get there? Looks like that’s basically the official definition, and the greek translation is ‘not falling together’.

    That’s a bit ominous imo. You could have generations and generations of alchemists spitting out an extra sentence, then word, then syllable on their deathbeds. The returns on a lifetime’s learning would get tinier, and the answer more agonisingly close, until the alchemists finally realise it was all in vain and there’s some things humans aren’t meant to know.

    Anyway cool story.

    • dionisos says:

      I understood it like actually very near of the asymptote, but not actually at it.

      In fact, if it was on the asymptote, it would be extremely improbable to have someone saying part of the formula on its deathbed.
      Considering there is some noise, and it is extremely improbable that all the noise go in the correct direction.

      Here it seems like with a little more luck, or a little more progress, they will completely do it. (but a little more of any of that, could require a very long time, at these extremes)
      That, or they where extremely lucky to have someone start the formula on its deathbed.

  35. Another Throw says:

    Snipped from upthread:

    But this story is about feeling like you can’t transmit knowledge quickly enough. I now realize that, at age 20, I was an idiot. Probably ten years from now I’ll think I was an idiot today. I would love to have the “How Not To Be An Idiot” book, but there isn’t one.

    The fastest way to transmit knowledge is to not actually transmit knowledge at all.

    Experienced bull-wranglers do not produce ever more finely wrought treatises on bull hypnosis; they build a freaking fence. By the time a prospective student knows he needs to know how to handle a bull, he is already spilling his vital essence on the ground.

    Far more important than knowledge is a system architecture that forecloses non-intuitive, sub-optimum choices.

    • hnau says:

      Yeah, I’ve felt the same way. I’m only mid-20’s but I’ve already had the experience several times of “oh, so that’s what everybody means by that cliche life advice”. The only way to really grok it is to make the mistake yourself. So if one’s trying to lower the frequency of mistakes, there’s a case to be made for simply enforcing certain life choices. And now you’ve got me wondering what modern mores are just secret instances of that…

  36. FishFinger says:

    I never knew Borges could be a transhumanist.

  37. Ron says:

    So where is humanity along this curve?

    For example, I would say that in the Sciences the quality of teaching materials is of limited lasting value when you get to MS.c. level, so say ~23 years of good teaching materials?

    • hnau says:

      Much less, I’d think. The first 23 years of life are hugely wasted (at least with US culture / curriculum) if you’re optimizing for scientific/intellectual progress. What really jumped out at me about this story was “whoa, so you have to spend literally your entire life studying, and every breather or moment of pleasure is immensely costly to the project!” The more I think about it, the more I suspect that the Alchemists’ Guild is actually super dystopian.

  38. Shion Arita says:

    I’m starting to become experienced enough at my field to be considered wise, and am a mentor for my ‘kouhai’. This has led to a lot of weird moments where I can’t explain where my knowledge is coming from. I can tell people what my conclusions are, but can’t verbally describe the process that led to them. What I think I’ve done is something kind of like that deep learning in my brain, and created a neural net that is about and models my work. But it’s kind of inscrutible; it makes sense to me, but I can’t verbalize what all the parameters are because they’re so weird, and their values and structures come not from a logical argument but a statistical summary of past experiences.

    • Bugmaster says:

      I think this is one of those cases where people’s internal experiences may be drastically different (just like with the visual imagination case). Personally, I have been taught — and I had plenty of opportunities to confirm this on my own — that if you can’t explain something, you do not truly understand it. This might be fine in some cases; for example, when playing soccer, there may be no way to explain how you knew which way the opposing player would try to pass the ball, it’s just instinct. But when dealing with programming, precisely explaining one’s reasoning to someone is pretty much a requirement.

      As I said though, that’s just been my personal experience, it’s possible that not everyone’s brain works that way.

      • Shion Arita says:

        I think you’re right: I’ve seen a lot of widely varied responses to the simpler but related question, “how verbal vs nonverbal are your thoughts”. I seem to fall on the nonverbal side of the average, and I’d guess you’re more on the verbal end.

      • dionisos says:

        I think almost by construction, the more advanced parts of a fields are poorly understood by the master of this field.

        And you have to be careful here, because verifying the validity of something, is not the same thing than being able to explain how you was able to build it.

        To take your programmer analogy, you can explain the validity of your algorithm, but if you are able to explain well enough how you build this algorithm, the cutting edge of the field isn’t this algorithm, but the explanation of how to build these kind of algorithms.
        And if you are able to explain how to build these kind of way to build algorithms, the same thing happen, all the way down to only three possibilities :
        – The field is closed and everything that have to be said have been say.
        – You don’t understand, or only vaguely understand, how you did what you did.
        – You know how to create a AGI.

  39. Jeremiah says:

    Interesting timing:

    Latest Straight Dope is all about the process of genius, and why there are no more super geniuses.


    It takes more work to do that building. The lower-hanging fruit having been picked, would-be supergeniuses now must spend more time acquiring the background knowledge needed to make higher-order discoveries.

  40. Roger Sweeny says:

    When I was in a graduate economics program, I read poorly-written article after poorly-written article. And I thought, “every high-powered economics department should have a ghostwriter (diplomatically called an editor) and no article should go out until it has been ‘edited’.” Edited so that it would be easy to understand–logical, transparent–and so that it didn’t claim to do more than it did. No “X is true” when what you really mean is that, “within a model where A, B, and C are true, X is also true”. No “Y causes Z” when you actually mean, “I can run a regression and get a statistically significant association between this proxy for Y and this proxy for Z using this data set which may not be representative but is available.” So I wouldn’t have to spend so much time figuring out what an article was actually saying and whether it was actually important.

    Until I realized that the “editor” would have to know as much as each of the professor-authors. And would quickly become be the least popular person in the department.

  41. Skepticality says:

    The Alchemist poured me the liquid of indeterminate color. I took a sip. It reminded me of nothing I had ever tasted before, but very slightly of the letter “N”. More important, I was pretty sure it was alcoholic.

    Can anyone explain the significance of “the letter ‘N'”? Is that for nectar (or Nectar)?

  42. Yug Gnirob says:

    “So… how many generations? How many cartloads of babies are you asking for, exactly?”

  43. n8chz says:

    The art of teaching teaching is much the same as the art of teaching, but is the art of selling selling much the same as the art of selling? If so, why is there no end of pyramid schemes?

    I aim to become a volunteer volunteer recruiter recruiter. This is because I wish to persuade people to volunteer information, in order to build One Big Database which will be powerful enough to beat entities such as Facebook and NSA at the information-hoarding game (except that in our case the resulting Data Werehouse is nonproprietary). I wish to recruit these volunteers in large enough numbers to effect what they call “critical mass” or at least enough mass for “network effects” to kick in. What should be my course of study?

  44. hnau says:

    Interesting project, immortality. In theory you could justify pouring all those life years of all those teachers and editors and alchemists into it, even though the trade-off to actual progress was so monumentally bad, because it would be worth it no matter how long it took.

    But… isn’t it a little suspicious that the Stone and the Elixir lie exactly at the asymptote? What if they always turn out to be a little further out of reach? What if, to attain immortality, you actually have to waste an unbounded (and effectively infinite) amount of existing life?

    Come to think of it, there’s an excellent alchemical reason to believe that’s exactly the case. Anyone here ever heard of the Law of Equivalent Exchange?

  45. I was thinking of responding to one of the comments here including an off-hand reference to Tsiolkovsky rocket equation, but then I realized that this analogy won’t be clear to everyone and is actually pretty interesting, so I’m making a top-level comment to explain it. I’m not an expert on this, so corrections are welcome.

    The basic principle for how a rocket works is that it burns fuel and uses to the energy to launch the burned fuel backwards, pushing itself forwards. The more mass it is carrying, or the more quickly you want it to go, the more fuel it needs to burn. However, at some point you encounter a problem, which is that the fuel you need to burn itself starts weighing a significant amount. If you want the rocket to go very fast it might necessary for most of the weight of the rocket to be fuel.

    Let’s say you have a rocket that can burn half its weight in fuel to accelerate itself to 1km/s. How much fuel will it take the rocket to accelerate to 2km/s? Well, the rocket must first burn half its weight in fuel and accelerate to 1km/s, and then it must accelerate an additional 1km/s. It might seem that to accelerate itself the second time it would need the second half of its weight to also be fuel, leaving us with the impossible situation of a rocket that consists entirely of fuel. Luckily, after the rocket accelerated 1km/s it weighs half as much, and so it only needs half as much fuel to accelerate the second 1km/s then it needed for the first 1km/s, which is a quarter of the weight it had to start with in fuel. In total, the rocket needs to burn 3/4 of its weight in fuel in order to accelerate to 2km/s.

    Similarly, a rocket with the same design must burn 7/8 of its weight in fuel to accelerate 3km/s, and 15/16 of its weight in fuel to accelerate 4km/s, and so. To accelerate to 10km/s it needs 99.9% of its weight to be fuel.

    In practice, at a certain point the equipment for storing and burning the fuel takes a significant amount of weight. To deal with this people designed the multistage rocket: In the first stage a big rocket burns most of the fuel and accelerates a certain amount. This big rocket carries a smaller rocket which in the second stage detaches from the big rocket and accelerates further. Sometimes there’s also a third stage with an even smaller rocket attached to the second rocket.

    So you have to build a rocket that launches a rocket that launches a rocket if you the final rocket to be fast enough to reach outer space. The mental picture that this real-world situation draws up is rather similar to your image of perfect teachers-of-teachers teaching perfect teachers teaching perfect alchemists that can barely advance the Art.

    • John Schilling says:

      So, got it after the first few lines, and it’s a good analogy. The only quibble is that the rocket equation is an exponential, so it’s always possible to brute-force it a little bit further, while the Alchemist’s learning equation seems to have an actual asymptote as presented. Makes it convenient for the parable that the secret to immortality is just this side of the asymptote, but parables can get away with that.

    • Loris says:

      I think this is the root of what bugs me about the Alchemist’s strategy.
      They’re trying to go from 70 to infinity years lifespan in a single step.
      Why the piggin hell didn’t they try to increase lifespan by – say, 5%, or something per generation?
      This would have the additional advantage that progress would be clear after just a few generations.
      Hell, if they’d managed a one-year improvement (about 1.5%) with one generation of Alchemists, they could’ve switched to their current strategy and have the philosopher’s stone already. But no, they gave up on that as soon as they’d stabilised livespan at 70.

  46. 27chaos says:

    This is my favorite story you’ve written by far. A+, could go in a reputable science-fiction and fantasy anthology and be one of the better tales. Genuinely advise that you try to get this published.

  47. Colin Reid says:

    In pure mathematics at least, this story would suggest we haven’t got very far towards the asymptote. We still expect PhD students to make an original contribution (which means they’ve reached the frontier of human knowledge already, even if it’s only a very narrow part of the frontier). It’s still very common for successful mathematicians to make their most ground-breaking contributions before the age of 40. The ‘mathematics is a young man’s game’ story is exaggerated, but it’s probably fair to say that most successful mathematicians, after doing something big early in their career, tend to settle into a pattern of follow-ups on that initial success, rather than trying to come up with another big breakthrough somewhere else. Sometimes the follow-ups can be branded as a sort of ‘programme’, and it may be that the originator of the programme also achieves some of its original aims decades later, but from the outside it can look like they had most of the big ideas early on and then filled in the details.

  48. mattsclancy says:

    Great story. Any chance this was partially inspired by Benjamin Jones’ “The Burden of Knowledge and the Death of the Renaissance Man: Is Innovation Getting Harder?” If you haven’t seen it, you might like it. He uses patent data to show inventors are increasingly specialized, work in teams (because knowledge is more and more subdivided), take longer to get their doctorates, etc.


  49. quintopia1 says:

    The third student reads for 13.3 years, then does his own research for 66.7 years

    Doesn’t it make the math more complicated to give that one architect 80 years of study when all the others only get 70? Don’t you mean 56.7?

  50. CongressionalLibrarian says:

    This story is fantastic.
    With your permission, a member of the faculty at the Eisenhower School of National Defense University (http://es.ndu.edu/), would like to use it as an assigned reading in one of his upcoming courses on science and technology policy.

  51. maybe_slytherin says:

    Another story by the same title (I’ll take famous Latin phrases for 800, Alex) — that takes it in a quite different direction. Hoping some SCC readers may enjoy:

    Ars longa, vita brevislink text

  52. Worley says:

    A sharper version of the problem is the question of how long one has to study before one can simply use the subject matter. And it seems that over the past few centuries, the most productive skills have required longer and longer periods of education, to the point that people’s lifetime productivity is being cramped by a diminishing length of their working lifetime.

  53. dionisos says:

    Very interesting.
    Most fields tend to separate into many sub-fields each time they are sufficiently advanced.
    So the number of unified fields, and by it I mean fields with this property :

    “It would only work that way if there were an Art so unified, so perfect, that a seeker had to know the totality of what had been discovered before”

    grow exponentially.
    Sometime many previously unified fields merge at some point, to create a new common result between these fields, which means you will have to know the basics of each of these fields, to understand the new result, which in some way mean we have a new unified field. (This process don’t make less fields, it make more fields, many unified fields will have a common base, but a single head)

    Because the number of unified fields grow exponentially, we divide our resources between a growing number of fields.
    More important, even if we focus our resources on one important field, this field will quickly split and we will have to divide our resources into a great number of sub-fields composing the original field.

    That means that even if these kind of asymptotic limits should exist in theory, and already influence our situation, we will never be very near of it.
    At least, not as long as we can’t grow our resources at a quicker exponential rate, at which point we will probably be immortal and the limit of knowledge we will meet will be completely different.

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