Inside knowledge: The maximum any one person can ever know
The brain is like a petabyte memory stick, and no one has ever managed to fill theirs up. There’s just one problem – our phenomenally low bandwidth
ARISTOTLE, of course, was the “last man to know everything” – everything useful to know about the world during his lifetime. No wait, it was Leonardo da Vinci. Or was it Goethe, or his equally brilliant Teutonic contemporary Alexander von Humboldt?
The trope of the last universal polymath is a common one – along with the idea that, as our compendium of knowledge grew, at some point it outstripped the capacity of one brain to house it.
If so, that happened a long time ago, says Chris Stringer, a palaeoanthropologist at London’s Natural History Museum. “Given the diverse environments in which humans lived even before migrating from Africa, I doubt that any one human could have maintained all the required information needed to survive across the human range.”
A similar “experential” limit still applies, but in today’s world the sheer amount of raw information to be processed undoubtedly far outstrips the capacity of any one person to process it. A human brain has roughly 100 billion neurons connected in labyrinthine ways by 100 trillion synapses. According to a 2015 estimate from the Salk Institute near San Diego, that amounts to an information storage capacity measured in petabytes – millions of gigabytes. By comparison the Large Hadron Collider, the particle smasher at CERN near Geneva,