When asked "If you were stuck on a desert island and you could bring only one book with you, what would it be?", chess champion John Nunn replied "How to build a boat".

I like this answer. But I myself would turn down a book as long as I could bring an extremely fine measuring ruler, an extremely fine pencil, and a small piece of paper. Provided whoever is putting me on this island all alone with nobody to talk to allows me this one favour, I would be able to effectively bring the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica. Do you want to know how? Well I will tell you.

First of all, come up with a system of associating each character that might appear in the encyclopedia with a two digit number. Spacebar is treated as a character. Whatever system you like. Now, go through the encyclopedia starting at page one and start converting the characters, in the order they appear in the encyclopedia, into these two digit numbers.

When you are finished, you have a really big number. But by putting a decimal point in front of this numerical monstrosity, you end up with a number between zero and one. Call this number x.

Now pull out your trusty ultra-fine ruler and pencil and (carefully now) draw a line of x centimetres. Or x inches if you are from the United States or some other country that has not yet realised that the metric system exists. Quarter pounder with cheese. What are you people thinking?

So now you have your small piece of paper with all the info you need and you are ready to be thrown on that island. Remember to bring your ruler because when you get there you are going to need to convert the distance of the line back to that long string of numbers. Then convert the string back into the encyclopedia. Enjoy.

An interesting proposal. Let's see how much data we could store.

It would not be possible, given our current laws of physics, to measure a distance shorter than the planck length, 1.6160*10^-35m. So your ruler could not be more accurate than this. Let's allow the line to be up to 1 meter long. It could, therefore, have 1m/(1.6160*10^-35m) different lengths, and therefore could encode that many individual states. To relate this to a common measurement of the size of data, you can store 2^n possible states in n bits. How many bits would it take to store this data? log2(1/(1.6160*10^-35)) = 115. So only 115 bits of data could be represented by our line of between planck length and 1 meter.

These calculations are based on our current understanding of fundamental limitations of the universe. They provide no examination of the engineering implications of building the appropriate material. Limitations in modern construction techniques will substantially reduce the number of states that can be reliably represented.

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