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The world ends tomorrow, you can't stop it and you will die. You can, however, put information on a hard drive(s). What information has the best ratio of "days until world back to pre apocalypse state" reduction per gigabyte?

General assumptions:

  • The largest amount of data that can be used is 10TB (raw, compression will probably increase this), and it is transferred immediately (internet speed is not a limitation)
  • The hard drive(s) are found, intact and readable (this includes language, electricity and a windows machine) by the finder.
  • Most of humanity dies, but everything else is intact (except for things that need active maintenance from humans, for obvious reasons).
  • The person who finds the hard drive is part of a group of 150 survivors who all have the goal of "resetting" the world.
  • The most technically competent person in the 150 survivors has started programming/used the command line a couple of times/installed linux/will be able to find and read a README or similar

"pre apocalypse state" can be measured as:

  • Research is taking place (and common) that would not be out of place/receive grants/published in journals if it happened today.
  • Global supply chains and infrastructure are restored (I can buy a phone that can call someone on the other side of the planet and tell me my position to the nearest 5m)

EDIT: A better phrasing/version of the question would be "How does the best knowledge change with starting population/education levels?"

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Sep 5 at 5:24
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Everything

10TB can hold every scientific paper, technical manual, patent, textbook, and engineering schematic in existence with lots of room to spare, likely enough extra room to fit every published book. Compressed text data and technical diagrams really does not take up that much space. You might even have enough space left over for all the more popular movies and songs or a least a good showing.

The entire Library of Congress is only 208TB of uncompressed data and that includes a lot more than scientific and technical data. For one thing, it contains every US newspaper and magazine ever published as well as every movie and and song copyrighted in the US. This in addition to huge a collection of foreign material (the US Library of Congress is often the largest collection of material from X outside X) so it is not restricted to just US works. 10TB would cover the entire Library of Congress's print collection properly compressed. It will handle everything scientifically important with ease.

Futurama got it right

a still from Futurama: "DISC ONE" is labeled "FICTION" and "DISC TWO", "NON-FICTION"

Searching it will be a bit of a pain in the butt, but no one said the apocalypse would be convenient.

you have more trouble getting the information than storing it or choosing what to store.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Sep 5 at 5:24
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Antiseptic child birth and farming techniques are your greatest initial focus because modern civilisation requires a certain population density, and the diversification of labour that it allows, in order to function. You need as many people as you can get and the food to keep them feed more than anything else. Basic sanitation, food hygiene, general antisepsis, and antibiotics will help you keep people alive as well. Luckily most of the resistant strains can't compete favourably outside antibiotic saturated environments like hospitals so they'll die out when civilisation collapses and basic penicillin is literally child's play to cultivate.

But 10TB of data is enough for you to give them anything you don't think should be deliberately forgotten about as plain text, and much of that with diagrams etc... as well.

There are a few shortcuts that are worth pointing out to people as well; Stirling Engines can turn mechanical energy, like the motion of a waterwheel into cold for refrigeration without gas compression. Diesel engines are significantly easier to make and maintain than their four stroke petrol brethren, things like that...

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    $\begingroup$ which child do you know that cultivated penicillin while playing? $\endgroup$
    – user253751
    Sep 2 at 11:13
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    $\begingroup$ @user253751 Penicillin is literally just mold and was basically discovered by accident when a scientist didn't wash his petri dishes properly after an experiment. Any child who left out a sandwich to grow mold could grow it. $\endgroup$
    – Nzall
    Sep 2 at 13:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Nzall Penicillin was essentially a miracle and cannot easily be recreated, see worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/questions/13493/… $\endgroup$ Sep 2 at 15:50
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    $\begingroup$ @user253751 Me, I had a microscope set when I was 8 that came with several playing card sized experiments one of which was growing penicillin mold, they sold them by the hundreds in my little town alone. Isolating wild penicillin is the work of a few days, (as long as you know what you're looking for) hours with the right feed stocks, cultivating it once you do is dead easy. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Sep 2 at 21:12
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    $\begingroup$ @RotemShalev It was a miracle that it was discovered but someone who has a set of instructions specifically for it's capture and cultivation, or simply a decent grounding in lab biology, won't struggle nearly as much as the protagonist in the question. Oddly enough I learned the theory for prepping agar plates and the practical, using powdered agar, in Year 9 and again in Year 10 of general science at High School. I also know that, in NZ at least, penicillin is an endemic mold of wheat thus bread with a distinctive blue-green colouration which makes it relatively easy to find and cultivate. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Sep 2 at 21:37
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Almost all people die, a group of 150 people survives. They get to keep a small selection of books.

Modern civilization is as dead as the dodo. There is nothing they can do to keep it alive. Nothing.

Presuming that they have enough food and hand tools to keep them alive for the first few years, the best books they can have would be --

  • A set of 19th century or early 20th century encyclopedias, such as Chambers's Encyclopedia, Encyclopedia Britannica (1911 edition), La grande encyclopédie;

  • Plus some introductory manuals of mathematics (up to and including elementary calculus, say up ot the analysis of complex functions of one complex variable), physics (classical mechanics, classical electromagnetism and thermodynamics) and chemistry;

  • Plus a good selection of dedicated technology books from the 18th and 19th century such as the famous French series Descriptions des Arts et Métiers (Description of Arts and Trades) (1761-1788) (113 volums in-folio, with countless detailed illustrations);

  • Plus a smattering of highly specialized texts for diverse very specific purposes -- how to make stainless steel, how to make simple bacteriostatics and antibiotics such as sulfanilamide and chloramphenicol, how to make vacuum tubes (a.k.a. valves), how to make simple radio transmitters and receivers, how to make black and white photographs using Talbot's calotype process and other such individual pieces of early technology.

This will enable the recreation of late 19th or early 20th civilization in a relatively short time, maybe even less than a millennium.

Notes

  • You will also need a laser printer and plenty of toner and paper. Computers won't last for the time needed to recreate civilization. In fact, I strongly suggest skipping the hard disk and providing a large number of hard copies of the works from the very beginning.

  • For the first ten generations or so go soft on recreating modern civilization and concentrate on Genesis 1:22 "crescite et multiplicamini", be fruitful and multiply. Hopefully most of the members of the survivor group are women of child-bearing age who know how to grow food without modern technology.

  • If they can, I would strongly recommend that they keep a judicious selection of history books, novels and poetry.

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    $\begingroup$ 19th century English is very hard for someone educated in the late 20th century to read, and that is only going to get worse as time goes on let alone earlier works. You'll need modern translations of the information. There are also simpler modern technologies, like the Stirling Engine for refrigeration, that were invented much more recently than it became possible to build them those can shortcut your recovery a lot more than antiquated data collections. I do understand that older technical manuals etc... can be more useful because they're less censored though. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Sep 2 at 6:29
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    $\begingroup$ @HolocronCollector: You apparently have never perused a late 19th or early 20th century encyclopedia. They are very practical and down to earth. Only after WW2 did encyclopedias start skipping practical details, like Wikipedia does nowadays. I really believe that a late 19th or early 20th century encyclopedia is best, exactly because they go down into the nitty-gritty details of what is really means to plough the land for example. With detailed pictures. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Sep 2 at 7:32
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    $\begingroup$ @Ash: It may also be that foreigners are usually taught the written language, for obvious reasons of convenience and utility; written English is generally more conservative, and then of course the courses often use texts from older books (which are out of copyright). It may also be the case that when learning a foreign language historical evolution tends to be squished -- everything from Shakespeare onwards is "modern English", everything from Rabelais onwards is "modern French". $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Sep 2 at 21:25
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP We learn something closer to the English dialect than the American in NZ as well. You almost certainly have a point about the history/evolution of "foreign" languages being ignored/compressed when they're taught. Native Anglophones also get to take things about the language for granted that other people learn as technical details. I know (because of an argument on the Writing Stack) there are something like 14 different extended tenses you can use in English, I can use them all appropriately but I can't name more than 2 of them, I don't know the technical details of my own language. $\endgroup$
    – Ash
    Sep 2 at 21:26
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    $\begingroup$ @clockw0rk: Perhaps surprisingly, farming involves far more than putting maize grains into the ground and watching it grow. Your comment shows very clearly why actual books describing farming technology would be enormously useful. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Sep 3 at 12:37
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tl;dr: The front page of the information on that disk is concerned with preserving the infrastructure to read and preserve the information itself for as long as possible.

Computers and storage media — including, unfortunately, unwritten ones — have a very limited shelf life and will be irreplaceable without a working industrial infrastructure. There is no way that any gang of 150 will operate a wafer, hard disk or DVD factory. One of the first tasks for the survivors would be to obtain computers and electronics from warehouses, stores and factories and create a secure, cool, dry stash of them, with the goal to extend their shelf life to the achievable limit. A list of the essential parts should be on the front page of the electronic information.

The next task for the survivors will be to identify and preserve the essential parts of the stored information for future generations, when the stored electronics and storage media have ceased to function. Their best bet will be to print it. High quality paper lasts much longer than electronics (centuries, or even millennia instead of decades) under the right conditions.

Both tasks are not trivial. Identification will be easier if the information is accessible via indexes and proper organization of subjects, preferably already selected by importance for the survivors. Simply dumping the Library of Congress onto the disk is counter-productive.

Preservation is doable if the survivors have access to electricity generation, paper, toner, and and commercial grade printers including spare parts for a couple of months or better, years. The first challenge is power generation. Solar power is a good option. There is probably enough gasoline around to fuel generators for generations. But will the generators and inverters survive? All modern engines are electronically controlled; no modern car or generator will run once their chips fail (or, as we can see in the summer of 2021, if they cannot be obtained). Even failing capacitors, typically among the most volatile components, can present insurmountable challenges if there are no spares. How would you produce any without an industrial infrastructure?

Preservation by printing is to a degree depending on the identification of the essential information because large amounts of printed material are hard to produce, organize, store and use.

The bottom line is that the information must stay accessible. Ensuring that is the second most important task, right after the immediate survival. While the information is accessible in electronic form, which is likely at least for a couple of years, retrieving the bits that are needed for actual survival (medical knowledge, farming, various crafts) is relatively easy. For the mid- and long term industrial civilization reboot it is essential to long-time preserve the bits that are not immediately needed.

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  • $\begingroup$ i guess op intended the survivors have the ability to read the data. if you think "compact disk" read by laser, it is already hard to read them since many devices have no cd-rom drive $\endgroup$
    – clockw0rk
    Sep 3 at 12:35
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    $\begingroup$ @clockw0rk No disagreement there. But having the ability to read the data is not the same as retaining it. The latter was what I was afraid was maybe not considered. $\endgroup$ Sep 3 at 13:56
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Maybe you might read A Canticle for Liebowitz, by Walter M. Miller Jr. This looks at the aftermath, specifically a group of monks who are trying to find, preserve, and copy books from from before an apocalypse. One problem is that they don't understand much of what that are copying: one monk devotes years to making a beautifully illuminated copy of a blueprint, which is actually a circuit diagram.

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This question goes in the direction of the anime Dr. Stone which I highly recommend watching if you wanna see a setting like this.

Well, others stated that farming technology would be super important, I'm not so sure about that because even if the whole knowledge about farming is lost, it is not super hard to find out how crops grow on a field.

The anime has 3 major breakthroughs the protagonists need to overcome:

  1. Getting medicine up -> they need advanced chemicals, mainly acid like sulfure acid. Making medicine from chemicals is worth 1000 gold bars in post-apocalyptic worlds. Ofc you'd have to append the knowledge of producing glass and how to disinfect tools.

  2. Electricity -> While humans could remember taming the power of gods, they would probably not know how this is done from a physical perspective - after all, not everybody knows advanced physics. So a simple generator (which is at the same time a motor btw) could provide heating elements and light - and maybe they could plug some old technology onto it.

  3. This is debatable, but in the series there exist another human tribe at tech level spear & bow, so they try getting black powder production up and running to defend and conquer them. You may not like it, but warfare is an essential part in human nature. Also black powder opens up more advanced technical applications, you could f.e. explain how a basic otto-engine works, the rest is up to them.

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    $\begingroup$ Good farming practices are actually hard to discover, things like crop rotation, nutrient balancing, and other such technology took tens of thousands of years to discover. High output farming is advanced technology and essential for nearly all other technology. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Sep 3 at 22:13
  • $\begingroup$ yeah, so my question would be "do the humans REALLY start from 0?" - if somebody survives apocalypse, the knowledge of farming is relatively safe. you learn it in kindergarten and try it hands on in your mid-20s. everybody can get a weed plantage hydro system up and running. so the knowledge will persist i guess. but how would you preserve f.e. skills in c++ for over 1 generation without computers? or electricity? $\endgroup$
    – clockw0rk
    Sep 30 at 11:48
  • $\begingroup$ How many people actually know anything about farming 1/100, 1/1000, maybe less. gardening is not farming, in fact only understanding gardening might put you at a disadvantage because you have to unlearn so much. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Sep 30 at 21:08
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think you have any idea on how complicated farming is. There are university degrees about it, including chemistry, biology, geology, economics, ... . It took humanity millennias to get where we are now, and we're still learning and experimenting a lot. Farming in an efficient way, while ensuring year after year of food security without failing is very difficult. Famine were common even in the western world until recently, and it takes only one instance of failed crops to kill most of your 150 survivors. $\endgroup$
    – Legisey
    Oct 1 at 6:56

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