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At least a year ago, I remember reading an online short story which was mostly about a conversation between the narrator and an alchemist. The alchemist described the difficulties of alchemy's search for the philosopher's stone; the primary complication was the fact that, in order to make new discoveries, you had to know every piece of information about alchemy that existed at the time.

This meant that, as the field expanded, there was more and more study required to get to the point where one could progress the field. Eventually this led to the scenario in the story's present, where nearly an entire lifetime's worth of study is required, and the discoveries of contemporary alchemists are only made in their last few breaths. There was more to this story than that, and I think I remember something about writing textbooks being important, but it was this mechanic that I remember most strongly.

I haven't been able to find this story again, so any help finding it would be appreciated.

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  • How is it on topic here? Is the story science fiction or fantasy?
    – user14111
    Aug 19, 2022 at 9:34

1 Answer 1

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Found it, finally! "Ars Longa, Vita Brevis" (2017) by Scott Alexander.

A relevant excerpt from the story:

“The first student has no master, and must discover everything himself. He researches for 70 years, then writes his wisdom into a book before he dies. The second student reads the book, and in 7 years, he has learned 70 years of research. Then he does his own original research for 63 years and writes a book containing 133 years of research. The third student reads for 13.3 years, then does his own research for 66.7 years, ending up with 200 years. Imagine going further and further. After many generations, 690 years of research have been done, and it takes a student 69 years to master them. The student only has one year left of life to research further, leaving the world with 691 years of research total. So the cycle creeps onward, always approaching but never quite reaching 700 years of architectural research.”

The full story can be read here.

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  • 8
    Apparently the third student gets to live an extra decade?
    – Michael
    Mar 8, 2022 at 10:07
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    @Michael - Hush, they're doing alchemy, not math!
    – Vilx-
    Mar 8, 2022 at 12:12
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    No wonder alchemists want to live forever.
    – NomadMaker
    Mar 8, 2022 at 19:19
  • What is the point of this story? That there should be more than one person researching any field, or that it's good that humans can live for more than 70 years?
    – Adamant
    Aug 19, 2022 at 17:38
  • Or, knowing a bit about the murky nexus between self-declared rationalists and adherents of the discipline of effective altruism, particularly in its recent manifestations, I might guess that the point is "I shouldn't take any time away from my well-compensated technology job to help anyone, because technological growth is the most important thing for the well-being of future humanity."
    – Adamant
    Aug 19, 2022 at 17:46

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