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Before there was Google, there were encyclopedias. The very idea of these vast collections of knowledge can be credited to Pliny The Elder. So who was he, and why does he seem to pop up everywhere from Alchemy to Zoology? Hank has the story in this edition of SciShow: Great Minds.

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Hank Green:  If you're over 30 like I am, you'll recall a time when you had to hit up a library or your family's rec room to find that multi-volume set of encyclopedias that you needed to write that report on African wild dogs, how clouds form, or the xiphoid process.  There was no instant gratification of Googling.

Whether you were looking up the mating habits of cuddle fish, the science of bee keeping, or St. Elmo's Fire, I bet you took the ease of gathering that information for granted just like we do today.  But whether you do it using dead trees or the Internet, the very idea of cataloguing everything we know about the world can be credited to one Pliny the Elder.

So who was this ubiquitous dude and why does he seem to pop up everywhere from alchemy to zoology?

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Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus was a Roman, scholar, statesman, and military commander but you know him as Pliny the Elder.  We remember his as the Elder not because he was old for his entire life but because his nephew, also named Pliny, rose to fame as an imperial lawyer and we don't want to get our Plinys mixed up.  That would be terrible.

Born around 23 CE, just a stone's throw away from George Clooney's current boat dock in modern day Lake Como, Pliny the elder was likely from decent but not extravagant means.  Educated in literature, law, rhetoric, and military training, he rose to become a cavalry commander in the Roman Army.  The man was definitely busy, but in between reading, writing, and advising, he managed to write an incredible amount of material.  At least 75 books, along with countless unpublished notebooks.  His most famous and only surviving book was Historia Naturalis, or Natural History, one of the most influential books ever written in Latin.

This was no normal book.  It was a 37 volume book.  A comprehensive beast collection documenting everything the Romans knew about the natural world.  In his preface, Pliny outlines 20,000 remedies, researches, and observations related to cosmology, geography, humans, plants, animals, agriculture, medicine, minerals, and a number of oddities compiled from 100 principal authors.

Other readers estimate these figures were closer to 400 sources and nearly 35,000 observations.  It was the first encyclopedia of its kind, and it was glorious.  But while other works of the time tended to be largely influenced by the authors' own opinions, Pliny's book remained the unique exception.  He wasn't trying to promote any sort of philosophical worldview.  He simply wanted the reader to know how many types of lettuce you can grow and what kind of trees produced pitch and how much an elephant weighed.  To him, nature was the sum of all its delicately detailed parts and in this context, "historia" didn't so much mean "history" as it meant "research."  So Historia Naturalis may be better described as The Research of Creation.  It wasn't enough just to know your way around nature, he wanted to count and itemize this knowledge.  Something that today is standard practice.

Now Pliny had something to say about almost everything in the natural world.  That didn't mean he was always right.  The book touches on mermaids and dog-faced tribes, headless people with eyes in their shoulders.  That's freakin' me out.  But despite its flaws, Historia Naturalis got a lot a lot of stuff right and remains an invaluable source on ancient Roman life.  As the Greek and Roman civilizations declined and many classic texts were lost, Pliny's Natural History became an often-copied, one-stop, general education well into the Middle Ages.  And much of the text was poached by subsequent encyclopedists.  It was a vital source of scientific information and entertainment.

Pliny lived an interesting life right up until his untimely death in Pompeii in 79 AD in the volcanic fallout from the eruption fo Mt. Vesuvius.  Accounts vary, but it seems that he was safe at sea with the Roman fleet when he decided to head into land, either to try to save a friend, reassure panicked citizens, or just because he was so curious that he wanted to document what was happening.

What was happening was a whole lot of nightmare. 

Likely, Pliny died from the fumes of the eruption, but he left a legacy that still sits on bookshelves around the world. 

Thank you for watching this episode of SciShow. If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions you can find us on Facebook and Twitter, or down in the comments below. And if you want to keep getting smarter with us here at SciShow, you can go to and subscibe. 

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