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Sunday, January 11, 1998
By Paul Ford
Can the perfect sentence be defined? Can you arrive at it? I took a trip to find out.
In 1992, the Combined Effect Center for the Literary Analysis of Texts announced the "Bibliometer." It's a complicated tool that will solve the pressing literary questions of the last century. Since CECLAT is a small side project of the Human Genome Project in Cold Spring Harbor, I drove out to see for myself.
"It's an overwhelmingly complicated supercomputer," said center president Eve van Pest. "We cool it with nitrous oxide. Very fun, very chilly."
When asked what questions the computer could decide, van Pest answered, "This machine solves thousands of frustrating problems that literary scholars face daily. For instance, let's ask it if a text is reader-centric or writer-centric."
She pressed several buttons and drops a copy of a book called Why Are We in Vietnam into a drop slot. Smoke came from the slot a few seconds later, and a large circular screen read, "Writer-centric."
"There, solves that," she said. "One of the things we've been working on is the perfect Western sentence."
I asked her to continue. "Well, we've been feeding in the Bible, and Shakespeare, and some of the great historical writers into the slot. The idea is to make a sentence that possesses the best qualities of our entire canon, sort of a ten-to-twelve-word container for our whole culture. Like those Gödel numbers that hold a whole system of equations in just a few numbers."
I asked about her progress, and how she would know the perfect sentence when she found it. "We'll know because, underneath it all, literature is an objective study of morphemes, and we've developed a series of mathematical tests as checks. In any case, none of the sentences have set off the Bibliometer perfect sentence warning system. But we're not giving up. I've got it hooked up to my pager, so if we find the perfect sentence, I get beeped," she said. "Some interesting tries, but nothing we could engrave in brass and send out on a space probe."
With further urging, she showed me some of the attempts.
"Well," she told me, "this one looked promising. We generated it about three months ago, but it couldn't pass several of our tests."
The sentence, laser-printed on a slip of paper, read: "Zounds! Three fish equal one cubit."
"It contains the best of the Bible and Shakespeare, and provides an axiomatic statement of equivalency--so it contains a solid statement of truth, that's a pretty high score right there, and it shows the range of human expression with the exclamation 'zounds', but it just didn't impress the computer. I thought it was pretty good, myself, although we're not sure exactly how long a cubit is."
She also told me about an annex project, the "non-canonical" sentence distillation project. "I had an intern, getting a grad degree in English lit at UVA, and he wanted to work with less traditional, more modern writing. He made some progress, but left last year to finish his thesis."
The next slip of paper, titled "Non-canonical Distilled Sentence," read only "Damn! That fish is gay!"
I asked, "So these two sentences are the sum of Western Culture?"
"So far, it's the best we can do. I find it interesting that fish appear in both," said van Pest. "Since fish are our evolutionary ancestors, it makes sense to include them. The whole range of human biological history in a single word. Thrilling."
I agreed, and shook her hand. "Thanks for coming," she said. "We don't see many visitors."
I wished her luck and asked to see the final sentence if she ever found it.
"Absolutely," she said. "It'll be in all the papers. Until then, we'll still be here."
That was 1992. I just checked their web page, she's there still.