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Svalbard Seed Vault trip report

Posted on Monday, July 25th, 02011 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
link   Categories: Clock of the Long Now, Long Term Science, Millennial Precedent   chat 0 Comments

Svalbard February 02011, (most photos, video and sound recordings by Steve Rowell)



The Planning:

Over the last couple years artist Steve Rowell has been planning a project to document the Svalbard Global Seed Vault as part of a larger project about the beginnings and future of agriculture.  The Seed Vault is designed with a 1000 year design life to store back-up samples of every food crop seed in the world.  About a year ago Rowell contacted me to see if Long Now would be interested in participating in his project.  I said that we would as long as I got to come along on one of the trips to Svalbard and meet the creators of the Vault.  The Norwegian government management of the vault required that Rowell also get participation from Scandinavian nations, specifically Norway as part of his project.  Over the last year he was able to secure funding and collaboration with a Norwegian and a Dutch artist, and with it an official invite to visit the Vault.  Long Now would cover our accommodations for this scouting trip, and I would cover my own flight.  The Seed Vault administrators seem to be a bit overwhelmed with the interest in the Vault.  They open the Vault about twice a year to deposit new seed stock and they are apparently inundated with requests to visit.  However the remoteness of the location and their limited time on site means they really don’t have time to give many tours.   But with persistence and the Scandinavian participation Steve was able to secure us the invite.  We quickly booked our complicated flights, and found accommodation in one of the few places to stay in winter.

The Journey:
On February 22nd I boarded a Lufthansa jet bound for Munich out of San Francisco.  I would be meeting Steve in Oslo the following evening as he was traveling from Washington DC.  It took three tries to fly out of Munich due to aircraft difficulties that resulted in me arriving at 1:30 am in Oslo.  After a couple hours of sleep I met Steve the next morning at the airport hotel breakfast area, and we boarded our SAS flight to Tromsø at the northern tip of Norway.  It was a rare clear day, and I was able to see the stunning fjords of Norway as we crossed the 66th Latitude into the Arctic circle.

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In Tromsø we were asked to exit the plane and go through an ID check.  I think it has something to do with the unique treaty status of the Spitsbergen Archipelago where Svalbard is.  The Spitsbergen Treaty, ratified almost a century ago, gives Norway sovereignty over the area, but they have to grant completely equal access, immigration, and commercialization to any signing nation with minimal taxation.  This also means that there are a number of refugees on the island, and I suspect they want to keep track of them.

We re-boarded in Tromsø to find the plane completely packed.  Aside from it’s major coal mining activity and arctic scientific research, Svalbard is a winter tourist destination to see the northern lights and wildlife.  Crammed onto the plane were Swedish grandmothers, Russian coal miners, scientists and even a couple babies.  Everyone had shed the usually fashionable northern European winter-wear for serious expedition wear.  Huge gore-tex parkas with fur lined hoods and patches reading “Antarctic Survey 1996″ abounded.  We landed in 30 mph crosswinds and driving snow.  The pilot was clearly used to the airport bringing the plane down fast, but touching down without even a bump.  We caught the local bus to our accommodation – Mary-Ann’s Polarrigg, and even glimpsed the Seed Vault perched just above the airport.

Longyearbyen:
The town of Longyear was founded by an American from Massachusetts of the same name.  He bought the rights to a coal deposit from a Norwegian company and established one of the first permanent outposts on the island.  With the coming of the airport in the 70′s, Longyearbyen changed from a tiny mining town to a University town and adventure tourism destination.  I will not recount the history of Svalbard in any detail, it is well recorded by many sources including Wikipedia.  I do recommend The Future History of the Arctic by Emmerson for anyone interested in the bizarre and increasingly consequential future, present and past of the Arctic region.

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Mary-Ann’s Polarrigg (entry shown above) known locally as “The Rigg” is a long row of prefab buildings from various eras, mostly leftover from the mining industry.  Mary-Ann the proprietor is an amazingly sweet lady who has filled the place with the wildest and weirdest eclectica to be found on Svalbard.  Stuffed polar bears and arctic foxes mingle with old mining equipment and incredible historic photos.  She is also the chef, preparing hearty Nordic breakfasts and dinners of local seal, trout, reindeer and of course… whale. (In Norway they have t-shirts with a picture of a whale and the tag line “Smart food for smart people”.

Our first two bone-chilling days on the island we spent touring around in a borrowed car from Mary-Ann as our appointment at the Vault was not until our third day.  There are only a few miles of road there, the longest runs of which service the airport and the coal mines.  We got a tour of the Polar University where every student is taught arctic survival and how to use a rifle.  Everyone on Svalbard is required to own a gun, and be trained in its use, for protection from polar bears.  Svalbard is the first place I have ever seen 20 year old students walking in and out of school with rifles slung over their shoulders.

There is a strange basic irony about Svalbard that we discovered on the University tour.  One of the main research topics and political focuses on the island is climate change and atmospheric pollutants.  While the Norwegian mainland gets all its electricity from clean hydro-electric power, the only coal fired power plant in Norway is actually on Svalbard.  But without this coal power, the island would have to evacuate in less than 48 hours.  On Svalbard coal equals life.

The Seed Vault:
Sunday was the scheduled day to visit the Vault, and that morning it was a white out blizzard.  We had been told that not even the Royalty of Norway were allowed in the actual seed vault, and to expect to only see the entry hallway.  Our guide at the University, a few days before, was shocked that we would even be allowed to see the hallway.  The drive up the switchbacks was a bit perilous in the snowstorm.  We had to stop multiple times as visibility dropped to zero.  We met our hosts Roland von Bothmar and Anders Nilsson of NordGen at the top of the road, and together approached the vault.  Apparently they had spent a lot of time the previous day cracking and melting ice off the door as it had been above freezing allowing water to run down, and then freezing the door shut as the evening temperatures dropped. (Note that there is a lot value to a design that sheds water away from hinges, seems, and especially locks.)  Their work had paid off though as they were able to open the door quickly and we all scrambled in out of the nearly horizontal snow stinging our faces.

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The 320 feet of fluorescent lit down sloping entry hallway is separated into three equal sections.  This first section we enter into from the outside door is not completely sealed off from the outside air.  You can see where the permafrost meets the building in a sloping line of hoarfrost built up on the wall.  We move deeper toward the next door.  Roland asks us to watch out for the ice on the floor, apparently the freeze thaw cycle melts the frost on the walls which then runs down the floor and then freezes again, making the ramp treacherous.

20110227_105216_Rowell-entry.jpg

On the other side of the door the hallway widens to a 20 foot diameter corrugated metal tube with a concrete floor.  Roland explains that this part of the vault has been shifting as the permafrost around us thaws and freezes.  Indeed the concrete on one side of the floor is cracking as evidence of this.  The wall at the end of this section is a new addition and is still covered in a tyvek like building wrap.

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Once through this next doorway the floor curiously transitions to asphalt, possibly to allow more flexibility and water permeability.  There is a pump system and grating newly installed in the floor to deal with the water from the thawing frost.   All of these water and freeze-thaw issues have been discovered since the vault was finished in 02008. The walls and ceiling of this section are about 25 feet wide and tall.  The very rough surface is a product of the drilling and blasting into the loose local shist.  The rock has been stabilized with large bolts roughly every 4′, covered in shot-crete, and then a white paint.  This wall, ceiling and floor finish is the same for the rest of the vault, including the seed chambers.  This hallway terminates in a large concrete wall with a metal door in it, and there are a few other doors on the right hand side at the end of the hall.  Above are cable racks and the ever present ventilation tubes.  One set of the tubes has frost building up on each joint section, these are the cooling pipes for the seed vault bringing them down from today’s ambient -5C to the desired -18C.  We enter the doors on the right into a control room.  This area has desks and a PC and a sign in book.  The list of people who have signed in is impressive,  Everyone from UN president Ban Ki-moon to President Jimmy Carter, and… us.  I had assumed this was as far as we were going to get, but then Roland says that he is turning the lights on in the next section for us, and warns that camera lenses brought into the colder areas will fog up.  We leave a selection of lenses here, and pass through the third lock. (Sound recording in the last hallway section)

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Through the doors the asphalt starts sloping back upward and we enter into a lateral access hall where you can see each of the three seed vault doors.  The doors are embedded in concrete walls blocking off each rough blasted chamber.  The central chamber, vault 2, is covered in a thick layer of frost, cracked away around the door from the recent depositing of this years seed stock.  The cooling pipes above are fully covered in thick frost here as well.  The only adornment in the whole space is a spear-like metal shape on the wall, a seed sculpture by a Japanese artist who donates these pieces to seed banks all over the world.

There is a shelf here with some plastic bins and seed samples of the types found in the vault.  Glass jars, vials and bags each containing labeled seeds from different seed banks around the world.  Now they use a standardized mylar zip lock bag and plastic bin.  However Roland points out the USDA submissions always use their own box, a cardboard one.  It turns out that this seed vault is the second one on Svalbard.  There was one created in the 01980s for just Scandinavian species which is inside a shipping container in one of the old coal mines.  It was sealed 30 years ago and Roland hasn’t even been there.  Roland explains that all the seeds arrive by cargo plane a week ahead of each deposit, upon arrival they use the airport x-ray machine to make sure there are only seeds being deposited (e.g. no bombs).  In the last 3 years since the vault opened they now have over 637,000 varieties in the vault, and they have not even filled up one chamber yet.  Roland also confirms what we learned from the University, that all the seeds here are edible crop seeds with one exception.  Through a partnership with the University at Svalbard they have stored about 60 varieties of plants from the Spitsbergen Archipelago, none of which are edible.

20110227_112436_Rowell-seeds.jpg

Roland also mentioned all the crackpot theories and stories people have about the vault – like the one where it is really all the big bio-tech companies trying to control the world food supply. These of course are not true in the least. It is a Norwegian government project run by a consortium of academic, government and non-profit scientific entities. The seeds remain the property of each donating country, and the manifest is public (you can go to the website and download it now if you like). Depositors can pull their seeds at anytime for any reason. So far no company has submitted GMO seeds, likely because of how much disclosure they would have to do around them as part of the process.  The really interesting question though is what happens if a country ceases to be a country, who then owns the seeds and the rights to access them? (Sound recording in the transverse tunnel)

Roland opens one of the empty vaults for us.  We shuffle into the air lock area and after the outer door is closed, the next door is opened.  This vault, number three, has no seeds or cooling system.  It is about 100 feet deep and 30 feet wide and tall.  Some of the same shelving used in the active vault is in here, along with the plastic bins ready for more seeds to be delivered.  Amazingly the thick stone wall shared with the active vault two is covered in frost.  Wires dangle from sensor equipment on each wall, and there is one spot you can see the fractured native shist where the shot-crete doesn’t quite meet the floor.  We also go into the other empty vault, number one, and it is similar, except it is completely empty.  We ask if the spaces were sterilized or treated in any way before the seeds go in.  Roland says that they are not, and that the mylar bags and the cold are all the seeds need.

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Then to our surprise, Roland offers to open the active vault.  Jimmy Carter wasn’t even allowed into that vault.   We crowd close to the ice covered door, we need to let as little cold air out as possible.  Roland unlocks the door with one of only four keys in the world, and we hear the frost crack at the hinges.

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We rush into the airlock, and the next door is opened.  This vault is COLD.  The difference between -5c and -18c (0F) is palpable.  The inside of my nostrils hurts and the skin on my face tightens.  Most of the space near the door is taken up by the cooling equipment.  Apparently this equipment was installed just 6 months ago to replace the original equipment that was less efficient, loud and blustery.  Ten feet in front of us is a locked gate, and ten feet beyond that are the shelves and shelves of boxes.  Each box is marked with the logo of a seed bank from a different nation, the USDA cardboard boxes are front and center in the second row of shelves.  We are allowed a few photos and video and are ushered quickly back out again.

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After the visit I read some of the material we received.  It doesn’t go too much into the “why” of things, just what happened in the building process.  But what was apparent was that they had a very tight deadline, and I am not sure why.  Most of the decisions, location, contractors, and material choices were made solely for this expediency.  While it will likely be okay if people are there to maintain it, it seems some of the issues like the shist rock site, ferrous metal reinforced concrete, permafrost shifting and flooding, may require a lot of intervention to maintain the integrity of the vault.

I certainly learned a lot being here.  Mainly that even if you put your site in the hardest to reach place in the world, people will still want to come and visit it – in droves.  They did not design it for visiting, and are having to deal with this fact now.

We ended the day with a dinner up at Huset, the most northerly restaurant with a Michelin star.  We ate scallops and reindeer with Roland and Anders as well as a seed scientist from University of Arizona who was in town to deposit their collection of desert legume seeds from around the world.  What an amazing day.

Other Travel Notes:
Our last day here we finally got an opening in the weather.  We arranged a guided “skooter” (snowmobile) tour and our original plan was to visit the Russian coal outpost of Barentsburg, but after talking to some folks we switched it over to Temple Fjord.  I cannot recommend touring Svalbard this way enough.  We even saw the direct sun for the first time since our arrival when out on the fjord.  Be prepared for cold unlike anything you have ever experienced. Under the thick “skooter suit,” boots and helmet loaned to me by the guide I wore: expedition weight base layers, a complete down suit, a fleece, two pairs of thick socks, a neck gator and a balaclava.  I still got chilled to the point of numbness.  Any small chink in your armor, and the wind augmented by 50km/hr on the scooter cuts right to your bones.  We encountered a dutch two masted sail boat that purposefully traps itself in the sea ice each year there.  They operate it as a kind of outback adventure hotel.  Do not miss touring these outer areas, they are spectacular.

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Some notes about clothing.  The Norwegian tradition of removing your “outside shoes” is honored almost everywhere on Svalbard.  Bring snow boots that are easily removable, and carry some slippers or flip flops around with you so you don’t end up in your socks everywhere.  The other pro-tip is to bring a pair of ski goggles with clear lenses (not dark tinted as you wont be able to see).  Even if you are walking 500 yards, you will be glad you did in a snow storm.  As you might expect bring lots of down, fleece and gore-tex layers.  Neck gators, balaclavas, mittens and glove liners are also a must.  It can rain, snow, blow 40 mph, and then turn to sunshine all within an hour.  Headlamp and even a little red flashing jogging light is also a great idea for walking around after dark (eg. after 3pm).

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There are some excellent eating and drinking establishments on Svalbard.  The Michelin starred Huset up high in the valley is astonishingly good, (but pricey) and includes a wine list of over 1100 titles.  Also the pub in town next to the market has one of the largest single malt whiskey collections in all of Europe, not to be missed.  You should also stop by the Svalbard Museum, it has won several well earned exhibit design awards.  Likely one of the most interesting and informative small museums I have ever been to.

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A general note that if coming in winter (which I do recommend) that you put at least a day or two of float in your schedule.  While you can do most things even in the worst weather here, it seems a bit silly to tour the fjords when you have 20 feet of visibility.  Also note that there are 4 months of the year where there it basically as dark as night.  We had plenty of indirect light on our trip at the end of February.

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Living and travel costs in Scandinavia are expensive, but Svalbard is even more so.  Pretty much everything aside from water, reindeer, and polar bears has to be imported by air to Svalbard.  A personal pizza and drink can easily run $20-30, a simple dinner for two and a couple beers can come in well over a $100.  Simple accommodations even in the slow season are hard to book and expect to pay over $150-300/night.  The Polarrigg was nice as they have a full kitchen for guest use, and Mary-Anne let us use her vehicle several times at no charge.  There is a Radisson which is very central, a huge benefit as its a very short walk to most local services (you can walk from the Rig as well but it’s about 1/4 mile in often bad weather).  The funny thing though is some things cost less than on the mainland because of the unique tax status of Svalbard.  Alcohol is much cheaper here, basically US prices.

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Like many Scandinavian and northern areas where alcoholism is rampant, the state controls the liquor stores here.  However Svalbard has the most control I have ever seen.  There is one liquor store, and each citizen’s purchases are allocated and recorded.  In addition visitors must present their plane ticket on which they write what you have bought to be sure you do not go above your personal allocation while there.  You can fly in with liquor though…

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Major Update on the 10,000 Year Clock Project

Posted on Friday, June 17th, 02011 by Danielle Engelman
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Clock site in Texas

The Long Now Foundation has started excavations for our first 10,000 Year Clock in west Texas.

Though the date of completion of the 10,000 Year Clock has not been set, and it is still many years into the future, we’re very pleased to let you know that you can now sign up on our waiting list to visit the Clock!

Long Now Members will have priority to visit the Clock when it is completed and should check the Visit the Clock box in the Notifications tab in Member Settings when signed in as a member on the Long Now website.  We will also continue to post project updates on the members only Clock Blog.

Jeff Bezos’ team at Amazon have also created a new website at 10000YearClock.net with information for the public about the project as well as a public sign up page for learning about the eventual visiting opportunities there.

We’ve also updated the Clock section of our website; you can read Kevin Kelly’s new piece on the 10,000 Year Clock project, with diagrams of how the Clock will work.

Long Now remains committed to developing our site in Nevada as a 10,000 year installation in parallel with The 10,000 Year Clock in Texas.

All of us at Long Now who are working on the Clock project, the Board, Clock team and Foundation staff are very excited to see the work of the last two decades coming to fruition.  Thank you all for your support.

The Lego Antikythera Mechanism

Posted on Thursday, December 9th, 02010 by Simone Davalos
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The Antikythera Mechanism, pulled from the depths of a 1st or 2nd century wreck off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera, is the oldest known complex scientific calculator. From the moment it was discovered it baffled scientists and historians who wonders what the provenance and purpose of such a machine could have been, especially since a machine of that complexity didn’t enter into the historical record for another thousand years.

Hypotheses abounded: it was an orrery, it was a navigational device, it was a method of contact with extraterrestrial beings that left it as a gift for the human race. It has only been over the last fifty years that any headway at all on what the device did has been made, and, to the great disappointment of the alien conspiracists, what it actually does is probably way cooler for such an ancient culture than anything the aliens might have left.

The machine tracks complicated interactions between heavenly bodies, such as eclipses, and does it all with gears and cams and a healthy helping of deep-fried awesome. Sound familiar?

These guys have taken interest in the mechanism to a beautiful, meticulous extreme, and have constructed one out of Lego.

Here is a time lapse of how the video was made, which is just as neat as the actual video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kSzQ9H6kwCM

The Clock of the Long Now is right up there in elegance of design with the Antikythera mechanism, although of course this author is biased. The Greeks, however, have the sheer engineering bad-ass advantage, as they made their machine without PTC Pro Engineer.

For more information about the history of and research on the Antikythera Mechanism, please see the very fine Antikythera Mechanism Research Project, a multi-national collaboration of scientists and historians, which drops mad science from a huge variety of fields.

[Thanks to Boing Boing for the original video link]

Emerald Observatory iPad app

Posted on Friday, December 3rd, 02010 by Paul Saffo
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This is my hands-down favorite clock for the iPad, and could well be the coolest astronomic/civil clock I’ve ever seen: http://emeraldsequoia.com/eo/

Emerald Observatory has everything a time geek could ever want, plus everything an astro geek would want, all in a stunningly elegant interface.

[decription below from Emerald]
Emerald Observatory displays a wealth of astronomical information all on one screen, in a unique but understandable format.

  • Times of rise and set for the Sun, the Moon, and the 5 classical planets
  • Times of the beginning and ending of twilight
  • Heliocentric orrery (display of the planets in orbit around the Sun)
  • Altitude and azimuth for the same bodies (one body at a time)
  • Current phase and apparent orientation and relative size of the moon
  • Current regions of day and night on a world map
  • The Equation of Time, solar time, UTC time, and sidereal time
  • Month, day, year, and leap-year indicator
  • Daily alarm
  • Displayed times are synchronized via NTP to “atomic clock” standard
  • Uses iPad location, or the latitude and longitude may be set manually

A setting is available to allow the display to stay on continuously.

Tap on the display to move forward by a month, day, year, or minute.

If you are having any trouble with the application whatsoever, please see our FAQ on the support page listed below and then contact us through that page if your problem is not resolved. We take pride in responding promptly to all support email requests.

10,000 Years of stellar motion

Posted on Tuesday, November 2nd, 02010 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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10,000 Years of star motion Credit: NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)

There is an interesting bit of astronomy published over at PhysOrg.com sent to me by way of Danny Hillis and Tom Shannon.  Apparently astronomers focused Hubble on a certain region of Globular Cluster Omega Cantauri several times over 4 years.  They were then able to calculate how each of those stars will move in the next 10,000 years.  You can see a video of this after the jump on their site here.  It reminds me of our recent blog piece on how the constellations will change over the next 50,000 years.  All of this is of interest to us on the Clock project as one of the main references we use is an image of the night sky for one of our slowest moving dials.  We have to choose stars that do not move very much over the next 10,000 years to use as a good reference in the 26,000 year precessional cycle.

Prague Astronomical Clock – 600th Anniversary Show

Posted on Wednesday, October 13th, 02010 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
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The 600 Years from the macula on Vimeo.

Member Trey Darley sent in this absolutely stunning video mapping show done for the 600th anniversary of one of the greatest clocks ON the planet:  The Astronomical Clock in Prague.  This was done a few days ago on October 9th. Worth watching all the way through.

Prague has a 600 year head start on The Clock of the Long Now, maybe they will be the first to reach 10,000…

BB reader Kerray says, “The people who worked on it are themacula.com, duber.cz and michalkotek.com, and the projection itself was done by avmedia.cz. Four months of work, 5000×1200 resolution, 2x Christie 18K HD projectors.” .

From Wikipedia, this schematic explaining what the various interlocking dials on the Prague Orloj represent.

(A lot of people documented it if you want to see other vantage points)

Sound Tower Event with Misha Glouberman

Posted on Friday, September 10th, 02010 by Danielle Engelman
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Long Now has been invited by experimental artist Misha Glouberman to be a partner in a commissioned performance he’s created for Ann Hamilton’s Sound Tower – an 80-foot tall site-specific sculpture located on the Oliver Ranch in Geyserville.   This participatory event takes place on Saturday September 25, 02010 in Geyserville California.

Terrible Noises For Beautiful People is a performance where all the sounds are made by the audience, using their voices, in a series of structured improvisations and games led by Misha Glouberman. Glouberman predicts “some amount of yelling, a certain amount of running around, and also some really quiet parts,” and hopes to create an audible environment that will be exciting, alarming, and sometimes beautiful.

The Sound Tower has a resonance for Long Now as both Ann Hamilton and the Clock Team used the Well of St. Patrick in Orvieto, Italy as a source of inspiration.   Ann Hamilton, for this site specific, 8 story high Sound Tower and Long Now, for the underground chamber that the Chime Generator and other Clock components will be placed in for the 10,000 Year Clock.  This is a chance to feel what it may be like to visit part of the Clock.

Limited tickets for the Saturday performance are available for Long Now Members and their guests, there are 2 additional nights of this performance which are open to the public through a partnership with the Arts Council of Sonoma. Please email events (at) longnow (dot) org for more information.

Pendulum, Escapement Prototypes Installed in Museum

Posted on Thursday, June 24th, 02010 by Austin Brown
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photos by Contessa Trujillo

After its initial public appearance at this year’s Maker Faire followed by an evening at the Exploratorium, the escapement, circular pendulum and Clock face were installed at our Long Now Museum and Store at Fort Mason Center and can be viewed seven days a week – just check our website first for our hours.

About the escapement, circular pendulum and Clock face:

 Escapement Maechanism for the 10,000 Year ClockThis pendulum and escapement represent a snapshot of our development process in timekeeping for the monument size clock. The dials in the center are non-functioning in this model and were used as a visual mock-up for a scaled up version. The function of the escapement is to both drive the pendulum and transfer the regular beat of the pendulum to the timekeeping elements of the Clock. This allows the Clock’s stored energy to ‘escape’ at a regular rate, thus advancing the drivetrain and displays in a manner that allows them to keep time.

This particular pendulum and escapement system is unique in several ways, one of which is likely obvious at a glance. The large ring around the face is actually a pendulum suspended on a specially designed flexure. With most pendulums, the weight is completely below the point of rotation and the distance between the two is what determines the period (the time between ticks). The ring configuration in this pendulum adds weight above the point of rotation, which causes it to swing more slowly than it would otherwise; the period is 10 seconds. By reducing the number of ticks the Clock will go through, the rate of wear can also be reduced.

The second unique element of this mechanism is in the small gear system above the pendulum; the escapement itself. Danny Hillis explains:

One problem with clock escapements is that there is normally some variability in the drive torque of the escape wheel, which can lead to variability in the energy applied to the pendulum. This can in turn lead to inaccuracies in the clock’s ability to keep steady time. One method of reducing this variability is delivering the impulse to the pendulum indirectly through an intermediate energy storage device that delivers a more constant impulse. For example, in a typical gravity escapement, the torque from the escape wheel is used to lift a weight to a fixed height, and the dropping of that weight delivers the impulse. This isolates the strength of the impulse from the torque applied to the escapement, but it does not solve the problem entirely, because the energy that must be removed from the pendulum to release the escape wheel may still depend on the torque applied to the escapement.

The two-phase detached escapement solves this problem by releasing the escapement wheel utilizing the residual energy of the falling gravity arm’s weight. This happens after the gravity arm has delivered its impulse to the pendulum. Because the interaction with the escape wheel only happens after the escapement has delivered its impulse, the escape wheel cannot affect intensity of the impulse. In the first phase, the pendulum releases the gravity arm, which is decoupled from the escapement and the falling gravity arm impulses the pendulum. In the second phase the gravity arm continues to fall until it becomes totally detached from the pendulum, and then the falling gravity arm releases the escape wheel, which restores the gravity arm to the initial position and the escape wheel continues rotating until it is no longer in contact with the gravity arm.

Clock Face for 10,000 Year ClockAt the center of the pendulum is a prototype for the Clock’s face. Rather than hours and minutes, the face displays information about the movement of the sun, stars and moon. The outer ring is shows the movement of the sun; it rotates once per day, passing horizon indicators that show sunset and sunrise. Those horizon indicators change along with the seasons to show the progressive lengthening and shortening of days. The next ring into the center reveals the current phase of the moon and it will rotate along with the lunar cycle; all 32 phases of the moon are shown by this ring.

The center of the face shows the stars of the night sky. The face is intersected by six arcs collectively known as the rete. The wide arcs represent the horizon, so that above them the stars that can be seen at a given time are visible. Stars below those arcs will not be currently visible as they’re blocked by the planet you’re standing on. The four arcs that terminate near the center point towards the celestial north pole, the point around which we observe the stars rotating. Polaris is currently the closest star to that point, which is why we call it the North Star, but as the earth’s axis precesses, Vega will move closer to that position and become our “North Star” in about 13,000 years. On the Clock’s face, the rete rotates along with the earth to show the daily movement of the stars. To account for the axial precession, the black surface with the stars on it will turn around in a 26,000 year-long rotation.


The woman that programmed the first computer

Posted on Thursday, June 17th, 02010 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
link   Categories: Clock of the Long Now, Long Shorts, Long Term Science   chat 0 Comments

“Long Shorts” – short films that exemplify long-term thinking.  Please submit yours in the comments section…

Information Pioneers: Ada Lovelace from Information Pioneers on Vimeo.

This is a nice intro to Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer who wrote programs for Babbage’s mechanical computer. While this computer is similar to the binary mechanical computer used in the first 10,000 Year Clock prototype, Babbage’s computers are decimal based.

Climate Change and Accurate Timekeeping

Posted on Monday, May 24th, 02010 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
link   Categories: Clock of the Long Now   chat 0 Comments

arctic-sea-ice-decline

One of the critical elements of the Clock of the Long Now to keep good time over ten millennia is the part of the clock that is synchronized to solar noon. We have several schemes that allow this mechanical synch from sunlight, but one of the questions that came up as we designed these systems, was how much we might expect solar noon to drift in 10,000 years.  We had already compensated for the earth’s ~26,000 year precessional cycle, and the average rotational dampening of about a second per century, but it was not until Danny Hillis requested this paper from Astrophysicist Michael Busch that we appreciated how much climate change will play a role.

Many people bring up the recent earthquake and tsunami events that have altered the earth’s rotation, or even the filling of the Three Gorges Dam.  While those events have a theoretical effect, it is so minute that they are generally not detectable empirically.  Polar ice however is the real game changer, it could effect when solar noon is over 10,000 years by weeks not minutes or seconds.  Below is the paper by Busch for your reading pleasure…

Climate Change and the Clock
Michael W. Busch
2010 April 9

Based on a request from Danny Hillis for a check of the Clock’s accuracy requirements

There is now a consensus that the Earth’s climate is changing and that it can be greatly influenced by human activity. While we can argue about predictions of the particular form climate change will take, any changes in the climate will have important effects on the Clock.

The most direct effect will be power: the Clock’s core oscillator is powered by focused sunlight. Climate changes leading to frequent clouds over the site in the American Southwest would interrupt that supply. This is not likely to be fatal, since the Clock can operate for fifteen years without sunlight and even the cloudiest places on Earth have sunny days more often than that. But climate change will also affect the Clock indirectly, by disrupting its timekeeping.

The Clock keeps the oscillator calibrated by resetting it at local solar noon – the time of day when the sun is directly south as seen from the mountaintop – at the solstice. On cloudy days, the oscillator keeps running without being reset, and begins to drift away from the true time. However, again, unless the weather becomes implausibly bad at some point in the next ten millennia, the errors in the oscillator will not grow to an entire day before it is reset, and the overall count of how many days have passed will be correct. The problem is connecting the number of days the Clock has counted to the true amount of time that has passed. For everyday life, we treat days as being all the same length (86400 seconds from one solar noon to the next), but they are not. In addition to slight changes in the time of noon on each rotation of the planet since the Earth’s orbit is not quite circular, the length of the day is determined by how fast the Earth spins, and that changes slightly all the time (Hide & Dickey 1991). From day to day, some amount of angular momentum is transferred between the solid body of the Earth and the atmosphere. Adding angular momentum to the Earth makes it spin faster and makes the days shorter, and taking angular momentum away makes the days longer. Each year, a large amount of water moves from the equator to the high latitudes as snow and back again as water and water vapor. Moving mass from the equator to the poles means that the same mass can spin faster with the same angular momentum, and the days get shorter. The standard analogy here is a figure skater pulling his arms in to spin faster.

For the Clock, these daily and yearly changes in the length-of-day average out and do not matter too much. But there are longer term and much larger changes in length-of-day. Mountain ranges get raised up and oceanic crust gets subducted, moving mass around. Earthquakes and the emptying and filling of lakes move around much smaller masses, which can also be estimated. The tides from the Moon and the Sun are slowly subtracting angular momentum and spinning the Earth down. These trends can be measured and estimated over millennia by comparing records of solar eclipses. Over the last 3500 years, the length of the day has increased by 84 milliseconds, give or take a few (Stephenson & Morrison 1995).

Having the length of day off by about tenth of a second may not seem like much, but over ten thousand years it adds up to a difference of several hundred thousand seconds (a few current days) between an estimate of the time based on how many days there have been and the true amount of time that has passed. The tide-produced natural change in the length-of-day can be predicted and corrected for in the design of the Clock. The Earth has been spinning down at a roughly constant rate for more than three thousand years. But climate change may change that.

One of the most dramatic climate change predictions is the possibility of large changes in the mass of the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica. Doubling the mass of the ice sheets or completely melting them takes many hundreds of years, if the most extreme instances during the last ice age are a guide (Clark & Mix 2000), but that is far less than the lifespan of the Clock. Just as seasonal motions of water change the length-of-day, so does either melting the ice sheets into the ocean or freezing more ice into them (Trupin 1993, Wahr et al. 1993, Nakada & Okuno 2003). The ice sheets are near the poles. Melting the current ice sheets completely would move about 0.001% of the Earth’s mass from near the pole to much nearer to the equator (since the ice goes into the oceans), and increase the length of the day by roughly 1 second. Freezing out ice sheets comparable to the last glacial maximum would put four times that much mass near the poles, making the day about 4 seconds shorter.

The current Clock design calibrates the oscillator at the solstice. The time of the solstice is determined by the direction of the Earth’s rotation axis relative to its orbit around the Sun, and not by the length of the day. If the conversion from the day count to true time is off by more than about 20 days, the Clock won’t be able to connect the oscillator to the Sun, and the accuracy will rapidly decay. This is only of concern if there is a large change in the length-of-day that lasts for most of the Clock’s lifespan.

Since climate change is a chaotic process, and human decisions and actions in the next several centuries are very likely to have a significant effect on it, it is impossible to predict the length of the day to better than a second or so over the next ten thousand years. The inherent uncertainty in the future climate places a limit on the accuracy of the Clock. It can measure time to about ten parts per million, or a few weeks over ten thousand years.

References:

  • Clark, P.U., Mix, A.C., 2001, Ice sheets and sea level of the Last Glacial Maximum, Quat. Sci. Rev. 21, 1-7.
  • Hide, R., Dickey, J.O., 1991, Earth’s variable rotation, Science 253, 629-637.
  • Nakada & Okuno, 2003, Perturbations of the Earth’s rotation and their implications for the present-day mass balance of both polar ice caps, Geophysical Journal International 152, 124-138.
  • Stephenson, F.R., Morrison, L.V., 1995, Long-term fluctuations in the Earth’s rotation: 700 BC to AD 1990, Phil. Trans. Phys. Sci. & Eng. 351, 165-202.
  • Trupin, A.S., 1993, Effects of polar ice on the Earth’s rotation and gravitational potential. Geophys. J. Int. 113, 273-283.
  • Wahr, J., Dazhong, H., Trupin, A., Lindqvist, V., 1993, Secular changes in rotation and gravity: Evidence of post-glacial rebound or of changes in polar ice? Adv. Space Res. 13, 257- 269.