24 February 2010

All the images

Barbarian Blog | Andrew Bell | Running out of images

The total number of pixels [in a 1080p HD image] is 1920 horizontally x 1080 vertically = 2,073,600 pixels. There are 256 possible intensities of red, green and blue for each pixel, so that’s 2563 = 16,777,216 possible colors. To figure out how many possible images there are, we need to raise the second number to the power of the first, so 16,777,2162,073,600 = 1.5 * 101,4981,180 possible images. That’s a pretty big number — it’s almost a million and a half digits long. Printing it in 10 point Monaco would take over 2,700 pages of paper. Scientists estimate that there are 1080 atoms in the observable universe — a tiny number in comparison.
To give you an idea of just how tiny it is in comparison, if you were to convert the entire universe into viewing screens, using only one atom per pixels, and you ran images through all of these screens in parallel at a rate of one per Planck time, you would need something on the order of 45 million times the age of the universe to get through them all.
However big it may be, the fact that the number is finite is a surprising thing to realize. It means that every possible image has a unique ID number. So instead of asking me, “did you see that picture of MIA performing pregnant at the Grammys”, you might ask, “did you see image number 1,394,239,...,572?” Obviously that is totally impractical and it would make you a huge nerd, but it’s interesting that you could.
We think of visual artists as generally creating things that are original, and if they’re doing their job, they are. But I think it’s also surprising to realize that in another sense, they are just exploring a fixed set of possibilities. “After all that hard work and all those revisions, we decided on image number 884,297,...,493.”
Another weird thing is that the answer to nearly any question is contained in these numbers. Who killed JFK? There is a number which is a picture of the answer. What would Michael Phelps hitting a bong wearing an orange floral sari on the moon on July 19, 2033 at 3:19pm look like?
This reminds me of my favorite Borges story, The Library of Babel, in which the entire universe consists of nothing but an infinite library containing all possible books.
Wikipedia | The Library of Babel

Though the majority of the books in this universe are pure gibberish, the library also must contain, somewhere, every coherent book ever written, or that might ever be written, and every possible permutation or slightly erroneous version of every one of those books. The narrator notes that the library must contain all useful information, including predictions of the future, biographies of any person, and translations of every book in all languages. Conversely, for many of the texts some language could be devised that would make it readable with any of a vast number of different contents.

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