Lem’s Law and the urge to quantify


Provocation, by S. Lem

Stanislaw Lem (1921-2006), a great science fiction writer (author of Solaris), made up a law, Lem’s Law, regarding the limits of human thought. I found it in a rather obscure book of his, Provocation, which is apparently only available in Polish (his native language) and Spanish (Editorial Funambulista, 2009). Quickly translated it states: “no one reads anything, but if they do read, they do not really understand what they’ve read, and if they do eventually understand something, they forget about it immediately”. Right. That’s quite depressing. Maybe near the end of his life, Lem was quite worried about the fate of mankind, and our inability to handle large amounts of data, but I think we can learn something from him.

We do many things, every day, but how much is retained, how much is learned? I for one keep hitting my head on the metro or bus every week, on something. Can I not learn where low hanging objects are? That’s a simple thing, but what about more complex things like learning not to fall into mental traps? I think my efforts, with the notebook and quantified self, aim at improving or changing Lem’s Law. The idea is to recall more, learn more and then apply it to daily life. In fact, I would argue that quantified self (QS) aims to reverse that law, making it more like, “we do a lot of things, and we try our best to keep a record of them, and then learn from them by applying that understanding to current activities”. Someone can make that a bit more elegant.

Back to Lem’s book, Provocation. It’s not very long (153 pages) and has two chapters, the first one deals with the horrors of the Holocaust, and is interesting, but the second little chapter is amazing and more relevant to QS. Using a technique copied from Jorge Luis Borges, he reviews a book which he has also invented, an imaginary book written by Johnson and Johnson that attempts to describe everything that happens in the world in one minute, the title of that chapter is “One human minute”. He feeds off the idea that we all have an urge to quantify, to know everything about ourselves and others. Why that urge? His explanation is that if we know everything, if we are able to quantify everything, nothing else can be more interesting anywhere else, we have it all, we’re not losing out on anything, we will know all there is to know.

However, our brain is limited, we can only handle a certain amount of data (and that statement itself is hard to handle!). It is difficult for me to understand that right now, on earth, all the seasons of the year exist, all climates, from the hottest to the coldest, while I’m in Madrid and it’s 6ºC. More difficult is to think about all the humans coming into and leaving this world with every breath we take (for real time stats and a cool page see http://www.worldometers.info/). Say my inhalation-expiration takes 2 seconds, I calculate about 44 births and 18 deaths in that time. I cannot really fathom what that means, my brain cannot really handle that data. As Lem says, we can feel sorry for one person, two people, but it’s harder or impossible to feel sorry for 800,000 people. For some silly reason, that reminds me of Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars IV, touching his chest after Darth Vader explodes Alderann (“I sense a distrubance in the force”). Are Jedi knights even capable of fathoming the death of millions?

One of Lem’s most memorable visuals is about copulations. He estimates that every minute there are 34 million men and women copulating, which produces about 45000 litres/min of semen, a non-stop human semen geyser. Fathom that, every minute. Given he wrote the book in 1982 (not long after Star Wars began), and there were only 4,610,000,000 humans on planet Earth, and we are now 7,215,000,000, a ratio of 1.56 more, this minute, today, there could be about 53 million people copulating, or 70200 liters/min, which makes 1170 liters/sec or 1.17 m3/sec. Not a big river (the Missouri river discharges 2445 m3/sec), but impressive nonetheless.

So here I am, just quantifying one person, and trying to deal with 400000 photos, 150000 words, 1000000 steps. Lem asks, how can we learn to fathom what we cannot currently fathom? Statistics, ok, numbers, yes, but one really needs to feel to believe. The closest I get when before a mountain of data is browsing, going through all photos of one day in a few minutes, going over all words written in a few scrolls, taking a look at the step graphs in the last three months, getting a feel for time. Impossible to fathom it all, probably, but tempting, definitely.

Although QS stories follow the sequence, what done, how done and what learned, we do learn little things along the way, when deciding what to do and how to do it, which are not always recorded. More importantly, however, although a project or show & tell provides a nice framework or summary, it’s hard to fathom all we do, so I think that the emphasis should be placed on how we can apply what we have learned into our ordinary lives. In the end, we could add a fourth step to the QS story sequence, after what learned, how was it incorporated into your daily life?


Plaza Castilla, Madrid, 13.04.2015



  1. Hey Morris, very nice article.

    I wouldn’t call Lem’s Law a “law” but more a conjecture,,, a sad one perhaps.
    But Stanislav makes his point and I’d said his conjecture is more evident nowadays than when he wrote it. Big data has its pros, but certainly cons as well. Definitively I’ll look for his provocation book.

    Cheers, Carlos

    PS. The reflection on the semen world production per second will turn into a big frustration on my lonely nights.


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