Obscure Box

Thoughts from inside the obscure box

June 9, 2010

“I search, therefore I am” says Google

Posted by : Michael Lund
Filed under : Internet, Online

When 17 Century philosopher Rene Descartes penned a letter to a mate back in 1641 it's safe to say he'd never heard of Google, let along the internet.

Rene Descartes letter

A philosopher's stolen letter found in a Google search (Source: Haverford College)

The letter to Marin Mersenne later found itself as part of a collection of documents at the Institut de France (Institute of France). From here it was one of many items stolen Italian mathematician Count Guglielmo Libri in the 1800s, according the Associated Press article "Pa. college to return stolen letter by Descartes" (Monday 31 May 2010).

He was convicted in absentia of several thefts in France in 1850 but had already fled to England, selling the documents to collectors and booksellers.- AFP

Rene Descartes

Rene Descartes

Along comes Erik-Jan Bos, a Dutch scholar of Descartes, who late one night January night enters "autographed letter" and "Descartes" into the Google search box.

He finds the letter at Haverford College, in Pennsylvania in the US, and promptly contacts the school about his find seeking a full scan of the letter. The school was somewhat shocked to find it was the holder of stolen goods.

"We're not in the business of keeping stolen property," college President Stephen Emerson is reported to have said in the AP copy.

The tale ends well though as the school has now returned the original letter to Institut in Paris, says the Agence France Presse article "Thinking man's mystery: Stolen Descartes letter returned" (Wednesday 9 June 2010).

"I thought that if the shoe had been on the other foot, that if material had been stolen from our library, we would be very grateful if it were returned," John Anderies, head of special collections at Haverford, said in the article.

As for Google, the search engine darling is naturally delighted in the role it's played.

"Search isn't a solved problem, but it certainly helps solve problems ... " John Saroff, Strategic Partnership Development Manager, Google TV Ads writes in the Official Google Blog post "Searching for Descartes, solving a centuries-old international mystery" (Sunday 6 June 2010).

A good point indeed. Searching is one thing, but knowing how to search, what to look for, where to look and what to do with what you've found is another thing altogether.

I wonder what Descartes would have thought of all this? A man famous for the phrase "I think, therefore I am" and a man famous for his own search for knowledge.

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All thoughts and comments here are the honestly held personal opinion of Michael Lund and are based on the information available at the time of publication.