If you could meet one person in history: a painter, a physicist, a playwright, a politician and listen to them talk at length about their life's work, who would it be? It's a spin on a familiar dinner-party teaser and the answers tend to lie well outside the realms of possibility, usually because of the one-way traffic system of time.
Peoples Archive (peoplesarchive.com), a video resource founded in 1995 and launched on the Internet three years ago, can't secure you an audience with Shakespeare, Darwin or Napoleon, but it is working to bring future generations face-to-face with the great minds of our age. Web users in 2307, therefore, will be able to watch the inventor of the contraceptive pill talking in detail about his life, learn about the first staging of Waiting for Godot straight from its director or spend quality time with the guy who created Spider-Man.
The project is still in its infancy (and its growing contributor list is, as yet, exclusively male, with a bias towards the sciences), but the stature of those involved and the length and breadth of each talk is impressive. This is why Peoples Archive deserves praise. The average filmed session lasts about five hours, although biologist Sydney Brenner is happy to go on for 814 minutes. These are life stories, so they are ordered chronologically (and edited into bite-size chapters), but otherwise, subjects are free to speak as esoterically, and digressively, as they please.
"Now I would like to tell you a few stories," says the late Hungarian physicist Edward Teller, who goes on to describe a late-era Einstein lecture he attended in Berlin at 21. "I listened carefully and I understood everything for the first 30 seconds."
Later, he bemoans his stupidity to a friend, who tells him: "Yes, stupidity is a general human property."
"The point that I did not know then but I know now," Teller says, "is that among the people who did not understand what Einstein was saying was Einstein himself."
Peoples Archive requires and rewards patient exploration, but there's so much here to enjoy that even a brief visit will turn up some priceless nuggets. This site is for us, not just our descendants and the list continues to grow: future contributors will include Chomsky, le Carre and -- at last, women -- Doris Lessing and Paula Rego.
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