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How Many Books Have Ever Been Published?

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When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440, he couldn’t have foreseen how his humble creation would eventually lead to a global industry churning out millions of books each year. In the centuries since, new books continue getting published while old books pile up so that the total number of books that exist would be inconceivable to a man who placed every letter by hand. While counting up all the actual individual texts populating bookstores, public libraries, and private collections throughout the world would be a Sisyphean task, there might be a way to at least approximate how many unique book titles have ever been published.

Trying to determine how many books there are first raises a deceptively simple question: What is a book, anyway? That can get deeply philosophical very quickly, and there’s no single answer to it. The team behind Google Books (whose ambitious goal is to digitize all printed material, allowing unprecedented access to the world’s knowledge in a single database) came up with their own definition in 2010, in an attempt to answer this thorny query: What they refer to as a “tome” comprises an “idealized bound volume,” covering the range from a bestselling novel with copies available at every airport newsstand to a rare, leather-bound out-of-print edition to a single catalogued manuscript of someone’s PhD dissertation going quietly unread in a university collection.

On its surface, this definition replicates the concept underlying International Standard Book Numbers (ISBN), the universal identifiers for all books in the commercial marketplace. However, ISBNs have only existed since the mid-1960s and have yet to be widely adopted in non-Western regions of the world, so relying solely on that single number omits vast portions of printed material. Even when they are used, the process of assigning ISBNs isn’t particularly rigorous, so plenty of “book-like objects” that are definitely not books come with an ISBN: audiobooks, instructional DVDs, flash cards, etc. Relying solely on ISBNs to determine the number of published books offers a murky, unsatisfying answer.

Other institutions have attempted to standardize their comprehensive book catalogs, among them WorldCat and the Library of Congress, but these numbers are even more likely to be assigned in multiples to the same titles due to different cataloguing rules. Simple titles, author names, and publishing companies are less reliable still, as human error in transcribing all that information into a database can also lead to duplicates.

The success of Google Books’s attempt at solving this problem takes into account all these various shortcomings, and uses them to cross-reference nearly a billion raw records from 150 distinct providers to narrow down the number to just one of each book. After weeding out all the assumed duplicates, there are still certain non-book entries that need to be discarded, including two million videos, two million maps, and a turkey probe that was once added to a library card catalog as an April Fools' Day joke. All told, Google Books came up with—drumroll, please!—129,864,880 books total. Phew.

But wait, there’s more! Despite Google’s best efforts, their algorithm fails to account for certain crucial factors: Not only is their calculation outdated, having been tallied in 2010, but it predates the recent surge in self-publishing, especially in digital formats. Though ISBNs are recommended for all titles, they are not required for self-published works carried in most e-book marketplaces, and there is no reliable system for keeping track of them otherwise. As the popularity of self-publishing increases, with nearly half a million new titles released in 2013 alone, the Google Books algorithm only gets further from reality.

Until Google updates its methodology, we can at least do a little extrapolation with the data we have to figure out a more accurate number of published books in existence in 2016. It’s a moving target, relies on unreliable ISBNs, and will require some educated guessing along the way, but here it goes anyway.

According to Bowker, the organization responsible for keeping track of all newly assigned ISBNs in the United States, the years 2011 to 2013 saw the publication of nearly one million new titles (and maybe a few reprints). A U.S. Industry and Trade Outlook statistic indicates that the United States produces about 40 percent of the world’s printed material; if it would be fair to assume that the U.S. is responsible for a similar percentage of non-printed text, it becomes possible to estimate a figure for total global book production, which comes out to about 2,267,265 new books published worldwide from 2011 to 2013.

More recent data is hard to come by, so the best way of filling in the gap between 2013 and now may be to average book production over the last three years (755,755 new titles annually worldwide) and add that to the 2013 total. After some basic arithmetic, it seems that a low threshold for the number of unique books in existence as of halfway through 2016 is (another drumroll, please) 134,021,533 total. And that’s all she wrote—for now, anyway.

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Big Questions
How Do Aerial Skiers Perfect Their Jumps?
Cameron Spencer, Getty Images
Cameron Spencer, Getty Images

If you've ever watched an aerial skier in action, you know that some of the maneuvers these athletes pull off are downright jaw-dropping—and you've probably seen more than a few of these skiers land on their rear ends at some point. The jumps are incredible, but they're also so technical that one seemingly insignificant motion can drop a skier on his or her tail.

Given that the skiers can fly up to 60 feet in the air and come down on a 37-degree grade, it seems like just going out and trying a new trick would be a good way to break your neck. That's why you'll need one unexpected piece of equipment if you want to start training for aerials: a towel.

Instead of perfecting their flips and twists over the snow, aerial skiers try out their new maneuvers on ramps that launch them over huge swimming pools. The U.S. national team has facilities in Park City, Utah and Lake Placid, New York that include specially designed pools to help competitors perfect their next big moves. The pools have highly aerated patches of bubbles in their centers that decrease the surface tension to make the water a bit softer for the skiers' landings.

If you're an aspiring aerial skier, expect to get fairly wet. New skiers have to make a minimum of 200 successful jumps into water before they even get their first crack at the snow, and these jumps have to get a thumbs up from coaches in order for the skier to move on.

This sort of meticulous preparation doesn't end once you hit the big-time, either. American Ashley Caldwell, one of the most decorated athletes in the sport, is competing in her third Olympics in Pyeongchang, but failed to advance past the qualifiers on February 15, as she wasn't able to land either one of the two triple-flipping jumps she attempted. Still, it's this very sort of risk-taking that has brought her to the top of her game, and caused friction with more than one of her past coaches.

"Why win with less when you can win with more?" Caldwell said of her competition mentality. “I don’t want to go out there and show the world my easiest trick. I want to show the world my best trick, me putting everything on the line to be the best.”

You can check out some of Team USA's moves in the video below:

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Is There Really Such Thing As 'Muscle Memory'?
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Is there really such a thing as 'muscle memory'? For example, in the sense of your fingers remembering where the keys of the keyboard are?

C Stuart Hardwick:

Yes and no. There is no literal memory in the muscles, but the thing people call “muscle memory” exists, though the name is a misnomer.

A better name might be “subconscious memory,” as the information is stored in the brain, but is most readily accessible—or only accessible—by non-conscious means.

What “non-conscious” refers to here is the brain’s enormous capacity to train up what might almost be called “subroutines,” that exist outside our conscious experience. I like the term for this that at least one researcher in the field uses: “zombie agency.”

Zombie agents are non-conscious, or sub-conscious (in the literal, not the Freudian sense) that can do essentially everything you can do except make value judgments. So, for example, you don’t consciously know how to control your muscles in order to walk —in all likelihood, you wouldn’t know where to begin—but your zombie agents do, and they’ll take you wherever you want to go, dodging curbs and puppies, and “waking you” when appropriate to decide which babies to stop and kiss.

Zombie agents can be rather startling things. When you suddenly become aware that you’ve driven halfway across town in the direction of the office instead of going to the shoe store Saturday morning, you have zombie agents to thank. You “wake” as if from slumber, and with the frightening realization that you’ve been flying down the highway at prodigious speed while your mind was on other things. You feel as if you’ve been asleep, and in a way you have—but a very funny kind of sleep in which it is only the uppermost layer of abstract reason that is disassociated from the rest of conscious experience. Your zombie agents have been driving to work, responding to traffic, adjusting the radio, noting the check engine light, all the things you think of as “you, driving the car,” except the big one: deciding where to go. That part was on automatic pilot (which is another good way to think of this).

This is at the advanced end of the spectrum. Typing your friend’s phone number using “muscle memory” is at the other, but it’s the same phenomenon.

We didn’t evolve to remember phone numbers, so we aren’t very good at it. In fact, we are so bad at it, we invent all sorts of mnemonic devices (memory aids) to help us [in] relating numbers to words or spacial memory, either of which are closer to the hunting and gathering we are evolved for. The illusion of “muscle memory” arises because we are supremely well adapted to manual manipulation and tool-making. We don’t need to invent a memory aid to help us remember what we do with our hands, we only have to practice.

So the conscious mind says “dial Tabby’s number,” and our fingers—or more correctly, the zombie agent which learned that task—do it. Similarly, after sufficient training, we can do the same thing with tasks like “play a major fifth,” "drive to work,” or “pull an Airbus A380 up for a go-around.”

It feels like muscle memory because the conscious mind—the part you experience as being you—is acting like a coach driver, steering the efforts of a team of zombie agents, all harnesses to collective action. But it isn’t muscle memory, it's just memory—though it may be stored (or at least some of it) in the deeper, motor cortex parts of the brain.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

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