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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Data storage, the Jane Austen way

Anyone whose college papers reside on now-unreadable floppy disks has probably wondered whether the human race is on the brink of an information disaster, with increasing amounts of irreplaceable data stored using methods inevitably fated for obsolescence.

You may not have figured that Jane Austen could play a role in solving this information-age conundrum. But last month, chemistry researchers at the University of Texas at Austin (now do not be suspecting me of a pun) published the results of an information-storage experiment featuring a passage from Mansfield Park.

The experiment is reported in the online journal Cell Reports Physical Science, in a paper with the catchy title of “Efficient molecular encoding in multifunctional self-immolative urethanes.” Much of the article might as well be written in Sanskrit for all the sense I can make of it, but after perusing a couple of less technical summaries (here and here), I think I get the gist:

Apparently, the UT team translated Austen’s words into a mathematical language readable by computer software and then encoded the results in a sequence of synthetic molecules known as polymers. Using techniques that you’d better not ask me to explain, they were then able to convert the polymers back into text, demonstrating the possibility of using such molecules as an efficient form of data storage.

“Encoding data at the molecular level could dramatically increase storage densities . . . and overcome some of the significant drawbacks encountered with conventional silicon-based data storage, such as durability and longevity,” the researchers explain.

But enough of all this science! Let’s get to the Austen.

The passage selected by the UT team comes from chapter 5 of Mansfield Park, when Mrs. Grant and the Crawford siblings turn from a discussion of the relative attractions of Julia and Maria Bertram to a more general conversation about marriage. Mary Crawford expresses the characteristically cynical opinion that the “manoeuvring business” of marriage inevitably involves spouses in a dance of deception fated to end in mutual disappointment.

Mrs. Grant urges a more temperate view: Yes, marriage involves disappointments, but it also has its consolations, she says. “If one scheme of happiness fails, human nature turns to another,” she explains, in words fated to be encoded in a polymer. “If the first calculation is wrong, we make a second better: we find comfort somewhere.”

"This particular passage was chosen because we felt it was uplifting in these trying times, and it is easily understood without the context in the book," says UT grad student Samuel Dahlhauser, the journal article’s lead author.

Personally, I would say that, in context, this passage is less uplifting than Dahlhauser claims, and more typically Austenian in its ambiguity: Is Mrs. Grant describing the joy to be found in resilience and adaptability, or is she counseling the bleak necessity of settling for what you can get? Either way, the polymers aren’t telling.


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