No one can know everything all the time—but we humans sure like to pretend we do. So it’s no wonder our species has a long-standing tendency to compile information. What started with some old dudes writing down their own observations morphed through the years into compendia, libraries, and now vast repositories of digitally gathered knowledge. Here’s how much space our worldly understanding took up, in bits and bytes, as we chewed off bigger and bigger chunks.
1. Natural history 3.06 MB
Over 37 volumes, Pliny chronicled the natural world, including quite a few fundamental misunderstandings. Did you know that fennel root somehow helps snakes shed their skin? It doesn’t. Sorry, Pliny.
2. Original Encyclopedia Britannica 3.59 MB
The first edition, published in 1768, comprised just three volumes, released in weekly installments. It included such scintillating six-word articles as “Woman: the female of man, see homo.”
3. Canon of medicine 7.5 MB
Persian Polymath Avicenna’s compendium served as the definitive medical textbook from its publication in 1025 all the way through the beginning of the 18th century.
4. Wikipedia (English) 27,000 MB
The internet’s proverbial monkeys have tapped out more than 5.5 million articles in our native tongue alone, showing no signs of stopping.
5. Encarta 1,600 MB
Microsoft’s brush with CD-ROM encyclopedias lasted from only 1993 to 2009, but masochists can still buy the full set of compact discs on eBay.
6. The internet (in 2014) 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 MB
We can only estimate the Web’s total size, and it’s growing too fast to keep up. But some experts think it’s zipping along at about 1.1 zettabytes (1,100,000,000,000,000 MB) per year. A 2015 study estimated it would take 2 percent of the Amazon rainforest to print out the whole thing.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2018 Intelligence issue of Popular Science.