Sunday, September 27, 2009

Deep Thoughts on Deep Time

Deep Thoughts On Deep Time

Ten thousand years is a very long time. It’s so long a time, in human terms, that it’s hard to convey just how long a time it is. It’s a hundred centuries. Probably five hundred generations.

A thousand years ago, the Norman conquest of England wouldn’t happen for another half-century. The Byzantine Empire and the Abbasid Caliphate were going concerns.

Ten thousand years is five times the length of time since Augustus Caesar and Jesus walked the earth. The Second Temple still stood in Jerusalem. Some of the Dead Sea Scrolls hadn’t been written yet.

Ten thousand years is four times as long as the length of time since the Buddha achieved enlightenment. Classical Greek and Roman civilization lay in the future, and the mightiest empire on the planet was Achaemenid Persia.

Ten thousand years is about twice as long as the length of time since groups of bronze-armed Sumerians skirmished on the banks of the Euphrates, having probably not even domesticated the horse yet.

Ten thousand years ago, saber-toothed tigers and mammoths walked the earth in North America. Glaciers were retreating from large chunks of what is now settled land at the end of the Younger Dryas cold period.

In fact, the entire history of civilization, written and unwritten, is far less than 10,000 years old. Agriculture in the Middle East began only slightly more than ten millennia ago, in the Neolithic Period. The first cities of any measurable size date from about 3,000 BCE.

With the exception of a sprinkling of Paleolithic and Neolithic hand tools and other artifacts such as stone arrowheads, virtually nothing man-made is more than 5,000 years old.

If ten thousand years is a span of time longer than the duration of civilization itself, why, then, would someone want to design a clock that would keep time for ten millennia? Supercomputer engineer Danny Hillis and the Long Now Foundation have done exactly that, conceiving the Clock of the Long Now in 1986. The first of the working prototypes struck twice at midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1999. The Foundation describes itself thus:

The Long Now Foundation, was established in 01996* to develop the Clock and Library projects, as well as to become the seed of a very long term cultural institution. The Long Now Foundation hopes to provide counterpoint to today's "faster/cheaper" mind set and promote "slower/better" thinking. We hope to creatively foster responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.

Hillis, for his part, simply said “I want to build a clock that ticks once a year. The century hand advances once every one hundred years, and the cuckoo comes out on the millennium. I want the cuckoo to come out every millennium for the next 10,000 years. If I hurry I should finish the clock in time to see the cuckoo come out for the first time.”

The term “Long Now” was itself coined by musician and producer Brian Eno in 1978, in the context of the differences in the perception of the duration of a ‘now’ between Europe and New York, with ‘now’ being a span of time of variable length, rather than an instantaneous point. As he described it:

The incident stuck in my mind. How could you live so blind to your surroundings? How could you not think of ‘where I live’ as including at least some of the space outside your four walls, some of the bits you couldn’t lock up behind you? I felt this was something particular to New York: I called it "The Small Here". I realized that, like most Europeans, I was used to living in a bigger Here.

I noticed that this very local attitude to space in New York paralleled a similarly limited attitude to time. Everything was exciting, fast, current, and temporary. Enormous buildings came and went, careers rose and crashed in weeks. You rarely got the feeling that anyone had the time to think two years ahead, let alone ten or a hundred. Everyone seemed to be ‘passing through’. It was undeniably lively, but the downside was that it seemed selfish, irresponsible and randomly dangerous. I came to think of this as "The Short Now", and this suggested the possibility of its opposite - "The Long Now".

The Foundation in turn has high hopes for the Clock of the Long Now as a teaching instrument:

Such a clock, if sufficiently impressive and well engineered, would embody deep time for people. It should be charismatic to visit, interesting to think about, and famous enough to become iconic in the public discourse. Ideally, it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment. Such icons reframe the way people think.

This is a particularly ambitious piece of pedagogy, but one of the little-remembered sparks that lit the fuse on the modern environmental movement was the photographs of the Earth taken by the Apollo flights in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The photographs’ importance was that they made the Earth look small and delicate, in sharp contrast to the longstanding attitude of a world big enough for anything.

If you consider that during the whole of recorded human history, the Clock of the Long Now would have ticked a mere five thousand times and the millenarian cuckoo would have popped out only four or five times, that will give you an impression of the time-scale involved in the project. The last time the cuckoo popped out before the year 2000 would have been in the early medieval period. Consider the differences between the world of 1000 CE, with stone castles, Vikings, feudalism and peasantry, and the year 2000, with cheap consumer electronics, aircraft carriers, and the Hubble Space Telescope.

Designing and building a machine that has to function over a period of time that is almost beyond real human comprehension is understandably quite the challenge. The Beverly Clock, maintained by the Physics Department of the University of Otago in New Zealand, hasn’t been wound since 1864 and functions off of atmospheric pressure, but it still requires repairs, and the advent of central climate control in the departmental buildings nearly caused the clock to run down altogether.

Together with the Long Now Foundation, Hillis’ engineering priorities included the following principles:

• Longevity: The clock should be accurate even after 10,000 years, and must not contain valuable parts (such as jewels, expensive metals, or special alloys) that might be looted.

• Maintainability: Future generations should be able to keep the clock working, if necessary, with nothing more advanced than Bronze Age tools and materials.

• Transparency: The clock should be understandable without stopping or disassembling it; no functionality should be opaque.

• Evolvability: It should be possible to improve the clock over time.

• Scalability: To ensure that the final large clock will work properly, smaller prototypes must be built and tested.

The resulting clock was, perhaps ironically in this era of microprocessors and atomic technology, a clicking, ticking brass machine that, although idiosyncratic and innovative, would probably have made perfect sense to a natural philosopher from three centuries ago, such as Robert Hooke, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, or Christiaan Huygens. In fact, some of the clock’s calculation elements owe a particular debt to Leibniz’s seventeenth-century work in binary mathematics.

Some of the reasoning in the clock’s design is obvious—the clock couldn’t depend on an external power supply, such as electricity, since electricity may not be available someday. Nor could it even depend on regular, intensive human maintenance, since mechanical skills can be lost. Three centuries from now, the world could be in a post-nuclear dark age, with a vastly-reduced population having abandoned cities for subsistence farming. Some technology, such as measurement of atomic decay, was too recondite for most people to understand and therefore not viable for the long term—you probably wouldn’t have a nuclear physicist around to fix the thing if it broke.

The first prototype, currently on display in London.

The full-scale clock, which will likely be the size of a house if not larger, is intended to be constructed in a bunker on top of Mount Washington, Nevada, in the middle of Great Basin National Park. Not only must the clock’s design account for ‘normal’ problems such as mechanical wear and tear, corrosion, or inaccuracy (imagine having to cope, not with leap years, but with leap centuries), but due to the chronological scale of the project it must also consider phenomena with much longer cycles, such as the precession of the angle of the Earth’s axis, changes in the length of day due to changes in the speed of the planet’s rotation, global warming and cooling cycles, and changes in the tidal forces exerted by the Moon. On these timescales, even relatively stable materials such as brass or gold can fail—if you leave a pure lead brick sitting atop a pure gold brick for a few thousand years, eventually microscopic but unstoppable forces such as Brownian motion and molecular diffusion will percolate lead atoms clean through to the other side of the gold brick, and will ultimately weld the two masses together. Granted, this will take millennia if not longer, but that is the sort of time-scale the Long Now Foundation is working with—this is mankind’s first try at wading into deep time.

This splashing around the edges of the bottomless pool is more of an adventure than is generally understood. The concept of how old the world really is—about 4.5 billion years by most estimates—was one of the biggest psychological shocks the post-Roman Western mind ever experienced, easily on par with the heliocentric solar system. In fact, this concept of “deep time” or “geologic time” is one of the physical sciences’ most profound impacts on the fields of philosophy, literature, religion, and other arts and sciences in the developed world.

John Playfair, a 18th-century Scottish mathematician and natural philosopher remarked on a 1788 visit to a geologic feature known as an angular unconformity at Siccar Point in Scotland that "the mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time.” James Hutton, a colleague of Playfair’s who while working as a geologist and engineer developed the concept of geologic time, was vilified by many religious leaders as an atheist and heretic for challenging the Judeo-Christian creation narrative of the Biblical Book of Genesis.

Prior to the articulation of geologic time in the public sphere during the Nineteenth Century, the common understanding in the Western world, as well as in the Islamic world and most of the other civilizations, was essentially what would now be termed “Young-Earth Creationism,” a closed-system cosmos, about six thousand years old, that was created at a specific moment. James Ussher, a seventeenth-century Archbishop of Armagh, actually spent several years of his life attempting to calculate the exact age of the Earth based on a Biblical chronology, eventually producing in 1656 what he believed to be a precise result: the night of October 22, 4004 BCE. Although the most famous such scriptural exegete, Archbishop Ussher was by no means the only one. Medieval Jewish scholars put the date of the Creation at 3760 BC. Greek Orthodox theologians put Creation as far back as 5508 BC. It is likely no coincidence that these ‘creation’ dates roughly coincide with the beginnings of settled civilization in the Middle East and other areas.

Other civilizations, such as the Mayan and some Hindu cultures, articulated a nonlinear, cyclical and metacyclical concept of time, such as that presented by the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar’s sequence of repeating worlds (the Fourth World being the present, created in 3114 BCE) and the cosmic Hindu concept of yugas, multi-billion year epochs that are days in the life of the godhead Brahman.

The unthinkably ancient now seemed entirely possible, an eerie bottomless abyss of time that made the known span of human history seem less than a flyspeck on an elephant’s back. Since culture abhors a vacuum, the human mind went to work to fill in the blanks. The sciences produced the new disciplines of paleontology and evolutionary biology. Theologians reevaluated the nature of sacred theology, weighing doctrines of inerrancy against geologic evidence. Popular writers such as H.P Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard explored the newfound past as a setting for stories; Lovecraft gave Cthulhu and the other Great Old Ones their origins in the Precambrian, and Howard created a sprawling timescale to serve as a stage for Kull of Atlantis (supposedly 20,000 BCE) and Conan the Barbarian.

Given civilization’s history of repeated rises and falls, expansions and contractions, it should be no surprise that the concept of building or preserving something for the future. It is no coincidence at all that “built to last” is a sincere if wistful compliment.

The preservation of ancient knowledge through catastrophe is also a recurrent theme in history and fiction, particularly science fiction dealing with post-apocalyptic themes; three examples would be Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Liebowitz, published in 1960, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, published during the 1940s and 1950s, and Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, published in 2008. In each case, a small elite struggles to preserve something for the ages, whether it is fragments of religion and knowledge in a post-nuclear wasteland, advanced technology from a mathematically-modeled collapse of civilization, or a way of life amid the gnawing chaos of human nature. Real-world historical precedents for this phenomenon include the preservation of Christianity by monastic communities during the western European Dark Ages, and the survival of elements of Roman civilization in the Byzantine empire.

If the Clock of the Long Now seems a strange and almost quixotic attempt to create a lasting monument for mankind, consider the Church of Spiritual Technology’s massive Trementina Base in New Mexico. The facility is less secret than most of Scientology’s inner workings—the ABC Network’s news program 20/20 was given a guided tour in 1998.

The goal of the project is simple—to provide an indestructible safe storage place for the works of L. Ron Hubbard, the science fiction author and founder of the Scientology movement (who died in 1986), to which Scientologists can return for guidance from other galaxies in the future, according the predictions of Scientology’s peculiar doctrines.

The Church of Spiritual Technology, a multimillion-dollar nonprofit that maintains and licenses the archives of L. Ron Hubbard’s writings and other leavings, has spent the last twenty years engaged in a quarter-billion dollar effort to preserve Hubbard’s writings for all time, including etching text onto stainless-steel plates, which are then placed in titanium canisters, wrapped in Kevlar, and stored hundreds of feet underground in a bunker carved out of solid rock in a New Mexico mesa, behind a series of four doors supposedly proof against nuclear weapons. Audio recordings of Hubbard’s speeches are recorded onto various media, including pure gold compact discs and steel records playable on a solar-powered record player. One only hopes that they didn’t pick HD-DVD over Blu-Ray.

Compared to the 10,000 year design period of the Clock of the Long Now, Trementina’s projected thousand-year lifespan is trifling, but it should survive well enough unless the Internet-based group known as Anonymous, which has a record of mocking Scientology, inaugurates a corps of combat engineers.

On the other side of the coin, for all that humans feel the urge to preserve things for the ages, humans are generally aware of the ultimate futility of that urge. Consider Shelley’s Ozymandias, written in 1818 during the first flush of the archaeological exploration and plundering of Egypt. The poem, allegedly based on an Egyptian inscription referenced by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, reads

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The inescapable message is that however mighty Ozymandias was, how flourishing his civilization, and how eternal his works were meant to be, within a few thousand years of the statue’s construction the vicissitudes of time and fate had all but wiped him and his away, leaving nothing for the future but a broken statue.

Another essential question is whether or not human artifacts, however well engineered and carefully built, can last for millennia on end. Most of the infrastructure built by Rome was in ruins within one or two centuries of the collapse of the western half of the Roman Empire in the late 400s, victims in equal measure of willful destruction, the elements, neglect, and the corrosive effect of local villagers pillaging building stone.

Even assuming an absence of malicious or accidental damage, such as the Goths pulling down Rome’s aqueducts, under the onslaught of the elements, the laws of physics and Earth’s climate are ultimately destructive. The Great Pyramid of Giza is less than 5,000 years old, and even though it is of relatively simple construction—few manmade things are more durable than a massive solid stone block on flat ground—but the pyramid is certainly the worse for wear after centuries of sandstorms.

The mechanical death-traps which beset the fictional Indiana Jones, for example, are essentially impossible. Assume that whatever civilization built the temple from which he escaped at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark were exceptionally capable engineers within the technologies available, and that they could actually build a clockwork mechanism that would shoot arrows, open and close doorways, and roll massive stone balls at whoever sets off the trap. Wood rots. Moss and vegetation grow, spreading roots and tendrils into available crevices. Stone cracks and spalls into gravel, which jams things in place. Rainwater or groundwater carry silt into mechanisms. Metal rusts or buckles under loads. Vermin build nests in gearboxes. Rather than Indy’s epic escape in a hail of dust and arrows, it’s more likely that his theft of the golden idol would have triggered nothing more than a loud crunching and snapping noise as the machinery self-destructed, if it even got that far.

The concept of the ‘design period’ is an essential one in any field of engineering, as well as many associated disciplines and other fields such as real-estate development. The heart of the matter is that a good design, whether it be for a computer, building, machine, or sewer system, must take into account not only the needs of the present, but carefully-considered assumptions about future needs, as well as careful selection of building materials, construction methods, capacities, and other requirements. For example, the sewer system of metropolitan London, designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette in the 1850s, so thoroughly considered the potential for urban population growth that it could even accommodate the vast sanitary output of a skyscraper-studded 21st-century metropolis, and most of the system remains in service over 150 years after construction, having been augmented and expanded but never replaced. The infamous ‘click wheel’ iPod of 2004, by contrast, so consistently failed within 18 months of purchase that the United Kingdom’s Office of Fair Trading investigated the product as an instance of unlawful intentional design-to-fail.

Sometimes unforeseen changes in technology or other considerations render the design assumptions invalid, or at least less valid. For example, the architects of a school building constructed in 1920 could well have foreseen population growth, but could not have been expected to factor into their design technologies such as the Internet and the current mania for computers in the classroom. Likewise, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the destitute state of its successor entities virtually obliterated any budgets for maintenance on the USSR’s once-mighty railroad network. The net result is that many outlying communities in Siberia and the former Soviet Far East, which depended on the railroads for communications, became so isolated that they had to be abandoned.

Bearing the above in mind—the difficulty in engineering for deep time, or even for a millennia or two, there naturally arises the question of ‘why bother?” In a world of constant cost/benefit analyses, a project such as the Clock of the Long Now or Trementina Base, absent other considerations such as the need to hedge one’s bets on a future survival of Scientology or the goal of educating people on truly long-term thinking, generally looks pointless to the outside eye. Scientology gambles that there will still be Scientologists in the future, but the Long Now Foundation is wagering that there will still be humans interested in clocks around in 10,000 years. Both assume that things will not get so bad that, for example, the plates on which L. Ron Hubbard’s books are recorded haven’t been chipped up into arrowheads, and the pawls of the clock broken down for use in crossbows.

It is entirely possible that a massively-dispersed, decentralized and somewhat viral entity, such as Christianity, Freemasonry, Anonymous, the scientific method, or Linux, may survive in the long term better than a single engineered edifice such as the Clock of the Long Now or Trementina Base.

In favor of seeking a measure of longevity through one’s creations or the preservation of knowledge, however, remember this—our world was profoundly shaped by the Irish monks and Greek bureaucrats who preserved what western Europe lost after the fall of Rome, and we at least know who the pharaoh Khufu was (if not much about him) because his pyramid survived.

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