Blog Archive for the ‘Long Term Science’ Category

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Long Now’s Nevada and Artists with Lasers: January 02015 at The Interval

Posted on Thursday, December 18th, 02014 by Mikl Em
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Scotty Strachan speaks at The Interval - January 6, 02015

We have just announced our lineup of upcoming events at The Interval for 02015. The first four months of the year will feature talks on art, science, history, technology and long-term thinking. Tickets are on sale now for the first two:

January 6, 02015
Scotty Strachan: The Great Basin in the Anthropocene
environmental researcher at University Nevada-Reno
Scotty will talk about his scientific research in the Great Basin region including the Long Now owned site on Mount Washington in Nevada

January 20, 02015
Mathieu Victor: Artists with Lasers
artist, technology consultant (formerly of Jeff Koons studio)
first in a series on art, time, and technology talks produced with ZERO1

Space is limited at these events and tickets will sell out. So get yours early. If you make a tax-deductible donation to The Interval you’ll be added to our list for early notice about Interval event tickets. More information on these events below.

When we opened The Interval in June 02014 one of our goals was to host great events in our cafe/bar/museum space at Fort Mason in San Francisco. It was important that these talks complement our larger format Seminars About Long-term Thinking series which we produce for audiences of several hundred in San Francisco each month and are enjoyed around the world via podcast.

So The Interval’s “salon talk” series events are more frequent (2 or 3 times a month) and intimate: fewer than 100 people attend and have the chance to meet and converse with our speaker afterward. So far we’ve produced 14 events in this series and all of them have sold out. They are being recorded and will eventually become a podcast of their own. But we don’t yet have a timeline for that, so your best bet is to attend in person.

Scotty Strachan speaks at The Interval on January 6, 02015
Scotty Strachan speaks at The Interval - January 6, 02015

Tuesday January 6, 02015:
Scotty Strachan: Long Now’s Nevada: the Great Basin in the Anthropocene

Our first Interval salon talk of 02015 features geographer Scotty Strachan discussing the Great Basin region of eastern Nevada. Amonst his other work Scotty conducts research on Long Now’s Mount Washington property. Scotty has done extensive work with bristlecone pine trees which are amongst the oldest organisms on the planet often living for several thousand years. He will discuss his work in eastern Nevada and put it in perspective with climate science efforts worldwide.

Mathieu Victor speaks at The Interval on January 20, 02015
Mathieu Victor speaks at The Interval - January 20, 02015

Tuesday January 20, 02015:
Mathieu Victor: Artists with Lasers. Art, Tech, & Craft in the 21st Century

A creator, art historian and technologist, Mathieu Victor has worked for artists, galleries, and leading design studios. Mathieu’s study of past practice matched with his experience in executing extraordinary contemporary projects give him a unique perspective on how art in the physical world benefits from the digital age.

Other highlights of the 02015 salon talk schedule that we’ve announced: The Interval’s architect/design team Because We Can and Jason Scott of the Internet Archive will speak in February; and Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Rhodes will talk about his new book on the Spanish Civil War in March. More talks will be announced soon. We hope you’ll join us at The Interval soon.

Kevin Kelly: Long-term Trends in the Scientific Method — Seminar Flashback

Posted on Thursday, November 20th, 02014 by Mikl Em
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In March 02006 author and Long Now board member Kevin Kelly shared his thoughts on what awaits us in the next century of science. At the time Kevin was already at work on the book What Technology Wants which would be published 5 years later. If you enjoyed Kevin’s 02014 Seminar for Long Now “Technium Unbound“, then you’ll appreciate this talk as a precursor to his ideas about technology as a super-organism.

Long Now members can watch this video here. The audio is free for everyone on the Seminar page and via podcastLong Now members can see all Seminar videos in HD. Video of the 12 most recent Seminars is also free for all to view.

From Stewart Brand’s summary of the talk (in full here):

Science, says Kevin Kelly, is the process of changing how we know things. It is the foundation our culture and society. While civilizations come and go, science grows steadily onward. It does this by watching itself. [...]

A particularly fruitful way to look at the history of science is to study how science itself has changed over time, with an eye to what that trajectory might suggest about the future.

Kevin Kelly is a former editor of the Whole Earth Review and Whole Earth Catalog. He was the founding Executive Editor at Wired magazine, and his other books include Out of Control and most recently Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities (02013).

Kevin Kellly photo by Christopher Michel

The Seminars About Long-term Thinking series began in 02003 and is presented each month live in San Francisco. It is curated and hosted by Long Now’s President Stewart Brand. Seminar audio is available to all via podcast.

Everyone can watch full video of the 12 most recent Long Now Seminars. Long Now members can watch video of this Seminar video or more than ten years of previous Seminars in HD. Membership levels start at $8/month and include lots of benefits.

You can join Long Now here.

Mark Lynas: 9 Planetary Boundaries, Finessing the Anthropocene — Seminar Flashback

Posted on Friday, October 17th, 02014 by Mikl Em
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“The Holocene is over and welcome to the Anthropocene our very uniquely human geological era.” In March 02012 environmental activist and author Mark Lynas gave a sobering assessment of Earth in the Anthropocene.

Lynas offers a framework for tracking the health of our planet, outlining nine measurable “boundaries” that if crossed threaten the well-being of humans on Earth. And some already had been crossed in 02012. These systems go beyond climate and biodiversity to measures like ocean acidification, atmospheric aerosols, and excess nitrogen in agriculture.

Long Now members can watch this video here. The audio is free for everyone on the Seminar page and via podcastLong Now members can see all Seminar videos in HD. Video of the 12 most recent Seminars is also free for all to view.

From Stewart Brand’s summary of the talk (in full here):

We’ve raised the temperature of the Earth system, reduced the alkalinity of the oceans, altered the chemistry of the atmosphere, changed the reflectivity of the planet, hugely affected the distribution of freshwater, and killed off many of the species that share the planet with us. [...] Some of those global alterations made by humans may be approaching tipping points—thresholds—that could destabilize the whole Earth system.

Mark Lynas‘ books include Six Degrees (which Stewart Brand called one of the finest books written on climate), The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive the Age of Humans, and most recently Nuclear 2.0: Why a Green Future Needs Nuclear Power (02014). He is a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Decarbonising Energy, which focuses on sustainable energy to mitigate climate change.

Mark Lynas: Nine Planetary Boundaries, Finessing the Anthropocene

The Seminars About Long-term Thinking series began in 02003 and is presented each month live in San Francisco. It is curated and hosted by Long Now’s President Stewart Brand. Seminar audio is available to all via podcast.

Everyone can watch full video of the 12 most recent Long Now Seminars. Long Now members can watch this video in full-—you must be logged in to the site—and the full ten years of Seminars in HD. Membership levels start at $8/month and include lots of benefits.

You can join Long Now here.

What Nuclear Waste Management Can Teach Us About Deep Time

Posted on Saturday, October 4th, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
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courtesy of Vincent Ialenti

Many suggest we have entered the Anthropocene – a new geologic epoch ushered in by humanity’s own transformations of Earth’s climate, erosion patterns, extinctions, atmosphere and rock record. In such circumstances, we are challenged to adopt new ways of living, thinking and understanding our relationships with our planetary environment. To do so, anthropologist Richard Irvine has argued, we must first “be open to deep time.” We must, as Stewart Brand has urged, inhabit a longer “now.”

So I wonder: could it be that nuclear waste repository projects – long approached by environmentalists and critical intellectuals with skepticism – are developing among the best tools for re-thinking humanity’s place within the deeper history of our environment? Could opening ourselves … to deep, geologic, planetary timescales inspire positive change in our ways of living on a damaged planet?

Anthropologist Vincent Ialenti conducted two years of fieldwork among a Finnish team of experts in the process of developing a long-term geological repository for high-level nuclear waste. In a triptych of posts on NPR’s 13.7 blog, he reflects on the state of mind that is prompted when you begin asking the kinds of questions that nuclear waste experts confront in their work.

Describing the way an awareness of deep time scales began to seep into his own thinking as he immersed himself in the world these nuclear waste experts inhabit, Ialenti suggests that this kind of ‘attunement’ to long-term geologic processes may broaden and deepen our experience of our world.

In fact, Ialenti writes, this consideration of the long term is crucial in this Anthropocene age. In light of the irreversible impact we humans make and have made on our planet, we must begin to think about how that impact will reverberate throughout the millennia to come. This does not entail turning a blind eye to the concerns of the present moment, Ialenti cautions. But

What it does mean, though, is that we must have the backbone to look these enormous spans of time in the eye. We must have the courage to accept our responsibility as our planet’s – and our descendants’ – caretakers, millennium in and millennium out, without cowering before the magnitude of our challenge.

For more, you can read Ialenti’s three recent pieces on “deep time” on NPR’s 13.7 blog. Or visit his page on academia.edu.

Peter Schwartz: The Starships ARE Coming — A Seminar Flashback

Posted on Friday, September 12th, 02014 by Mikl Em
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In September 02013 futurist Peter Schwartz spoke for Long Now about realistic scenarios for human interstellar travel. Peter, a founding Long Now Board member, participated in “The 100-year Starship” project and contributed to the book Starship Century (Edited by Gregory Benford and James Benford) with scientists and science fiction authors positing realistic ways humanity could voyage beyond our Solar System.

Our September Seminar About Long-term Thinking (SALT) ”flashbacks” highlight Space-themed talks, as we lead up to Ariel Waldman’s The Future of Human Space Flight at The Interval, September 30th, 02014.

Video of the 12 most recent Seminars is free for all to view. The Starships ARE Coming is a recent SALT talk, free for public viewing until September 02014. Listen to SALT audio free on our Seminar pages and via podcastLong Now members can see all Seminar videos in HD.

From Stewart Brand’s summary of this Seminar (in full here):

Standard-physics travel will require extremely long voyages, much longer than a human lifetime. Schwartz suggested four options.

  1. Generational ships: whole mini-societies commit to voyages that only their descendants will complete.
  2. Sleep ships: like in the movie “Avatar,” travelers go into hibernation
  3. Relativistic ships: at near the speed of light, time compresses, so that travelers may experience only 10 years while 100 years pass back on Earth.
  4. Download ships: “Suppose we learn how to copy human consciousness into some machine-like device.

Peter Schwartz is a futurist, scenario planning  expert, and author of The Art of the Long View. Currently he serves as Senior Vice President for Global Government Relations and Strategic Planning at Salesforce.com. In 01988 Peter co-founded Global Business Network and served as their chairman until 02011. He is a co-founding Board Member of The Long Now Foundation and has spoken in our SALT series on four occasions.

Peter Schwartz

The Seminars About Long-term Thinking series began in 02003 and is presented each month live in San Francisco. It is curated and hosted by Long Now’s President Stewart Brand. Seminar audio is available to all via podcast.

Everyone can watch full video of the last 12 Long Now Seminars (including this Seminar video until late June 02014). Long Now members can watch the full ten years of Seminars in HD. Membership levels start at $8/month and include lots of benefits.

You can join Long Now here.

Drew Endy Seminar Primer

Posted on Wednesday, September 3rd, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
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On Tuesday, September 16th, Drew Endy presents “The iGEM Revolution“ as part of our monthly Seminars About Long-term Thinking. Each month, our Seminar Primer gives you some background about the speaker, including links to explore even more.

adventures-in2
From Adventures in Synthetic Biology, by Drew Endy

Biotechnology is a young science, but it’s already proven its (potential) benefit to civilization. We can now engineer bacteria to manufacture life-saving drugs, we have new ways to diagnose disease, and we know how to modify the genome of plants so they become resistant to certain pests. Yet so far, says Stanford synthetic biologist Drew Endy, biotech has only realized a few of the grand promises it made in the 01970s, after scientists first succeeded in the synthesis of recombinant DNA. How can we realize these promises? How can we make biology easier to engineer? Endy’s answer to these questions is the growing field of synthetic biology, and an open-source, collaborative approach to the development of new bio-engineering tools.

Synthetic biology is built on the technologies of genetic engineering that were developed during the 20th century, but takes them a few steps further. Genetic engineers can isolate blocks of a cell’s genetic material, extract it from its nucleus, and splice it into another cell’s DNA to create a recombinant genome. Synthetic biologists, on the other hand, splice in pieces of DNA that they’ve built from scratch. It’s like the difference between composing an essay by cutting and pasting word sequences from existing texts, or doing so by putting individual letters in sequence in order to create words of your own.

The Human Genome Project gave us the ability to read nature’s instructional manual – DNA – like words in a book. But the real opportunities, scientists say, lie in our ability to not only read genetic code, but to write it, then build it using off-the-shelf chemical ingredients, strung together like holiday lights. It is the creation of new genomes – and a new frontier in bioengineering. (San Jose Mercury News)

Drew Endy was trained as an engineer, but found his way to biology when a senior-year college class made him realize that living matter holds great potential as building material. “I like to build stuff, and biology is the best technology we have for making stuff – trees, people, computing devices, food, chemicals, you name it,” Endy explains in an Edge conversation. He went on to obtain a graduate degree in biochemical engineering. But in his postdoctoral research, Endy began to grow frustrated with the existing cut-and-paste methods of DNA engineering. It’s an inexact science that often produces unexpected side effects: evolution has turned DNA into a complex library of information, and simply splicing in a new gene may not always lead the host cell to express it in the way you had expected. As a feature in The Economist explains,

No intelligent designer would have put the genomes of living organisms together in the way that evolution has. Some parts overlap, meaning that they cannot change jobs independently of one another. Others have lost their function but have not been removed, so they simply clutter things up. And there is no sense of organization or hierarchy. That is because, unlike an engineer, evolution cannot go back to the drawing board, it can merely play with what already exists. Biologists, who seek merely to understand how life works, accept this. Engineers such as Endy, who wish to change the way it works, do not. They want to start again.

Image by Peter and Maria Hoey

The only way to fully control – and understand – what a cell does, Endy realized, is to build its DNA from scratch. We should think of cells a bit more like we think of computers: as hardware that can be fully programmed – by DNA, the perfect software language. In an interview for the Stanford Alumni Magazine, Endy proposes,

Let’s look at biology not as a science, but as a technology platform … Biology is the most compelling technology platform anybody has ever seen. It’s the stuff of life and it’s a reproducing machine! It’s a nanotechnology that actually works. You can program it with DNA – sort of. We’re learning how to do that. It’s the most overwhelmingly cool, impressive technology platform any engineer is ever going to encounter if they’re alive today.

Endy’s mission is to help the world learn this new technology – to make biology easier (and thereby faster, more accessible, and finally more productive) to engineer. And in order to do that, Endy identifies two crucial tools.

The first is standardization: rather than having to build pieces of DNA from scratch every time they want to create a new gene, synthetic biologists should be able to pick and choose ‘parts’ from a standard, universal toolkit of genetic material. Forbes explains:

The Industrial Revolution got a serious boost in 1864 when a machinist standardized screws. Henceforth someone trying to build an engine could pluck a standard 8-gauge, 32-threads-per-inch machine screw off the shelf. Endy aims for similar standardization in the new field of synthetic biology, and embraces the radical approach of creating a free registry of building blocks. In 2002 MIT professors started a not-for-profit called BioBricks that has collected 2,000 biological components, including gene sequences that sense light, produce light, send messages between cells and switch cell functions on and off.

We can think of BioBricks as the biological equivalent of Legos: they’re pieces of genetic material with universal connectors on each end, so they can be combined with any other piece to create novel strings of DNA. BioBricks make DNA easier to engineer because they create a certain level of abstraction. Rather than having to put the individual As, Cs, T’s and G’s of DNA together when building a synthetic gene, engineers can use BioBricks as a kind of genetic shorthand – just as software programmers make use of languages like Java to spare them the work of writing out their code in bits (Stanford Alumni Magazine). Endy imagines that these BioBricks will be manufactured in so-called BioFabs (International Open Facility Advancing Biotechnology) – a “biological design-build facility.” In fact, he helped launch the first one in Emeryville, in 02009.


Image from the European Molecular Biology Organization

The idea of facilities dedicated entirely to building BioBricks suggests that standardization also leads to a productive division of labor. In his interview with the Stanford Alumni Magazine, Endy explains, “Separation of design and fabrication can allow people to specialize, becoming experts in each area … We’ve seen this with microprocessors. Someone designs the chip and somebody else builds it.” It’s led to more sophisticated processors – by allowing people to specialize, greater complexity can be developed.

The second crucial tool involves making those standard parts publicly available and encouraging everyone – engineers and students alike – to get creative, share their findings, and help one another learn. The BioBricks Foundation, of which Endy is president and co-founder, works on the premise that “… fundamental scientific knowledge belongs to all of us and must be freely available for ethical, open innovation.” In his Edge conversation, Endy adds,

Biotechnology today derives investments from business models that support the exclusive application of different biological functions for a very small number of problems. For example, there are wonderful companies that have locked up most of the relevant intellectual property around how to engineer proteins to bind DNA. The products that they can deliver are going to be measured in small positive integer numbers, a few diseases. But, the real value associated with being able to engineer proteins that bind DNA are in the uncountable applications people could use the proteins for. It’s like a programming language where it would be a big downstream economic cost if you owned “if/then” and you were the only person who could use it.

Endy considers education a crucial component for fostering this open-source collaboration and innovation. He tries to get high schoolers and college students excited about synthetic biology in several ways – by writing comics about it, for example (and you’ll see several images from his Adventures in Synthetic Biology included in this post).

But Endy’s interest in education is truly epitomized by iGEM – the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition. It began as an undergraduate course that Endy developed while teaching at MIT, and has since evolved into a large annual event that draws thousands of participants from all over the world. Competing teams use BioBricks – which they get from and contribute back to the BioBricks Foundation’s Standard Registry of Parts – to engineer synthetic organisms that perform particular functions. The competition not only gets undergraduates excited about the field of bioengineering; its promotion of creative collaboration also spurs innovation and advances new technologies.

Of course, the widespread accessibility of new DNA-building tools isn’t entirely risk-free. Critics worry about what kinds of dangerous new things might be built if those standard parts fall into the wrong hands. Endy understands that advances in synthetic biology involve important questions about what new technologies might produce, who will control them, what cultural and ethical implications they’ll hold, and what safety issues may arise. He advocates discussion about these issues: in 02008, The Long Now Foundation hosted a debate between Endy and Jim Thomas, Research Programme Manager at the Action Group on Erosion, Technology, and Concentration (ETC), and an outspoken critic of synthetic biology.

Though he sees the value of open discussion about the ethics of bioengineering, Endy hopes we do keep thinking about how synthetic biology might benefit society – and how engineering tools can be leveraged to produce that benefit in an accessible and easy, but also responsible and ethical way. Endy will talk about the promise of synthetic biology, his work with iGEM, and more on Tuesday, September 16 at SFJAZZ Center.

Time Bottled in a Dozen 50-Milliliter Flasks

Posted on Thursday, August 21st, 02014 by Catherine Borgeson
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The 12 evolving E. coli populations

Photo by Michigan State University

For most living organisms, 60,000 generations is an extensive amount of time. Go back that many human generations, or about 1,500,000 years, and there are fossils suggesting Homo erectus were widespread in East and Southeast Asia at that time. Even for the fruit flies, which geneticists have studied for over a century because of their conveniently short lifespans, 60,000 generations equals about 3,750 years. But biologist Richard E. Lenski has observed 60,000 generations in under 27 years–all from a single strain of Escherichia coli (E. coli), the common gut microbe.

On February 24, 01988 Lenski and his team at Michigan State University embarked on an ongoing long-term evolution experiment (LTEE) to gauge the importance of chance and history on the adaptation of bacteria.  He started 12 genetically identical “lines” in 50-milliliter flasks from a single strain of E. coli. The bacteria reproduced every few hours. In April of this year, the population reached the milestone of 60,000 generations. In an interview with previous SALT Speaker Carl Zimmer back in 02009, Lenski explained:

I’ve always been fascinated by this tension between chance and necessity, the randomness of mutation and the predictable aspects of natural selection.

bacterial-growth-oEvolutionary biologists think about natural selection as a never-ending process because the environment is alway changing. However, LTEE takes place under much different circumstances than the “real world.” It is a very simple environment with no other species present. Researchers can expose populations to the same daily environmental stresses: a boom-and-bust cycle. Every 24 hours the bacteria are transferred to fresh glucose medium for 6 hours or so followed by 18 hours of starvation.

This constant laboratory environment allows for basic and rather abstract questions. How reproducible or repeatable is evolution? How long can fitness keep increasing and how high can it go? Do organisms ever reach their peak? And while the selective pressures and unchanging environment are not typically found in nature, Lenski argues there is still high value to his experiment:

The fact that the real world is a changing environment and not sort of this artificial constant environment we’ve made in the lab is a really important issue. But it’s doesn’t really tell us the answer in the baseline case, what would happen if the world did not change? And at least to my mind, science often progresses by coming to grips with these special cases, that don’t necessarily exist outside the lab….It’s really hard to make sense of the complicated, constantly changing world around us if we can’t make sense of these special, really simple cases.

The most obvious strengths of using bacteria for experimental evolution is the speed of generations, but an even more important advantage is that E. coli can be frozen. Lenski and his team have frozen the bacteria every 500 generations, creating what they call a “frozen fossil record.” Lenski explained in an interview for Science Podcast:

At different time points along the way we freeze the cells down and the frozen cells are actually viable, so we can bring them back from the freezer, we can resurrect them, revive them. That allows us to directly compete organisms that lived at different points in time.  So in effect, it allows us to do time travel.  The dream of any evolutionary biologist.

Petri dishes of E. coli

Photo via Beacon

In the November 02013 issue of Science, Lenski and two members of his lab – Michael J. Wiser and Noah Ribeck – published their most recent work looking at fitness over the 50,000 generations. They measured how much the evolved bacteria have improved relative to their ancestors under the same environmental setup.

They found that all 12 lines show consistent responses to selective pressures. For example, their descendants now grow faster in their standard sugary broth, and all populations show an increase in cell size.

Yet variation lies hidden underneath these parallel changes. The fitness increases were nearly uniform in all 12 lineages, but not exact; the cell size grew in all of the populations, but by different amounts. When Lenski and his colleagues studied the bacteria’s DNA, they found that after thousands of generations, the populations’ genomes were full of alterations. These changes were different in each population and had accumulated at very different rates, suggesting a prominent role of chance in setting evolution’s course.

In November 02013, after hitting the 50,000 generation mark, Lenski published a blog piece thinking about the long-term fate of his long-term experiment. He questions who will take over when he retires, and how the experiment will be sustained. He imagines his experiment being carried out by another 49,999 generations of scientists, each one overseeing another 50,000 bacterial generations. That is 50,0002 generations, or 2.5 billion generations in total, and would take about a million years to achieve. If this were to happen, Lenski predicts that the bacteria will reduce their doubling time from their ancestors’ ~55 minutes to ~23 minutes–which would also require a lot of freezer space. Lenski writes:

I’d really like science to test this prediction!  How often does evolutionary biology make quantitative predictions that extend a million years into the future?  Maybe the LTEE won’t last that long, but I see no reason that, with some proper support, it can’t reach 250,000 generations.  That would be less than a century from now.  If the experiment gets that far, I’d like to propose that it be renamed the VLTEE – the very long-term evolution experiment.

richard-lenski

Richard Lenski examines the growth of E. coli. Photo by G.L. Kohuth/Michigan State University

 

Stefan Kroepelin Seminar Media

Posted on Wednesday, June 25th, 02014 by Andrew Warner
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This lecture was presented as part of The Long Now Foundation’s monthly Seminars About Long-term Thinking.

Civilization’s Mysterious Desert Cradle: Rediscovering the Deep Sahara

Tuesday June 10, 02014 – San Francisco

Video is up on the Kroepelin Seminar page.

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Audio is up on the Kroepelin Seminar page, or you can subscribe to our podcast.

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The Sahara and civilization – a summary by Stewart Brand

“Almost everything breaks in the desert,” Kröpelin began. He showed trucks mired in sand, one vehicle blown up by a land mine, and a Unimog with an impossibly, hopelessly broken axle. (Using the attached backhoe, it hunched its way 50 miles back to civilization.)

The eastern Sahara remains one of the least explored places on Earth, and it is full of wonders. Every year for 40 years Kröpelin has made multi-month expeditions to figure out the paleoclimatological changes and human saga in the region over the last 17,000 years. There are no guides, no roads. When you find something—astonishing rock art (there are thousands of sites), an amazing geological feature—you know you’re the first human to see it in thousands of years.

A great river, 7 miles wide, 650 miles long, once flowed into the Nile from the desert. Now called Wadi Howar, its rich, still unstudied archeological sites show it used to be a thoroughfare from the deep desert. A vast spectacular plateau called the Ennedi Highlands, as big as Switzerland, has exquisite rock art detailing pastoral herds of cattle and even dress and hair styles. Mouflon (wild sheep) and crocodiles still survive there.

Most remarkable of all are the remote Ounianga Lakes, some of them kept charged with ancient deep-aquifer fresh water because of the draw of intense evaporation from the hypersaline central Lake Yoa. In 1999 Kröpelin began a stratigraphic study of the lake’s sediment, eventually collecting a treasure for climate study—a 52-foot core sample which shows every season for the last 11,000 years.

For Kröpelin, many strands of evidence spell out the sequence of events in the eastern Sahara. From 17,000 to 10,500 BP (before the present), there were no human settlements along the Nile. But the Sahara was gradually getting wetter in the period 10,500 to 9,000 BP, and people moved in from the south. The peak of the African Humid Period, when the Sahara was green and widely occupied, was 9,000 to 7,300 years ago. Then a gradual desiccation from 7,300 to 5,500 BP drove people to the Nile, and the first farms appeared there. From 5,500 BP on, the Nile’s pharaonic civilization got going and lasted 3,000 years.

Unique artifacts such black-rimmed pots and asymmetric stone knives, once used in the far desert, turn up in the settlements that created Egypt. Kröpelin concluded: “Egypt was a gift of the Nile, but it was also a gift of the desert.”

And of climate change.

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Multi-Millennial Portraits: The Deep Time Photography and Writing of Rachel Sussman

Posted on Wednesday, June 4th, 02014 by Catherine Borgeson
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The oldest living things in the world are a record and celebration of the past, a call to action in the present, and a barometer of our future, writes artist and SALT speaker Rachel Sussman in The Oldest Living Things in the World.

When Rachel spoke for Long Now in 02010 her book on organisms that have lived 2 millennia or more was only partially complete. Four years later The Oldest Living Things in the World is published and on the New York Times Best Seller list.

And as we prepare to welcome her back to San Francisco this month, we thought we’d take a closer look and a deeper read of this remarkable book.

Over the past decade, Sussman has been searching the planet to photograph continuously living organisms that are 2,000 years or older. She begins at year “0” and travels backwards from there, capturing millennia of living past in a fraction of a second. She writes in her book:

These ancient survivors have weathered the millennia on every continent, in some of the world’s most extreme environments, enduring ice ages, geologic shifts, and humans’ spread across the planet. Many are so small that you could walk right over them, none the wiser. Others are so large that you can’t help but stand in awe before them. I’ve photographed thirty different species, ranging from lichens in Greenland that grow only one centimeter every hundred years, to unique desert shrubs in Africa and South America, a predatory fungus in Oregon, brain coral in the Caribbean and an 80,000-year-old colony of aspen in Utah. I journeyed to Antarctica for 5,500-year-old moss, and to Tasmania for a 43,600-year-old clonal shrub that is the last individual of its kind, rendering it simultaneously critically endangered and theoretically immortal.

Sussman’s project also explains what it means to be in the year 02014 and the temporal tension that comes with photographing Deep Time. She uses the analogy of being in deep water–just like deep water, it is a battle to stay in Deep Time:

“It’s difficult to stay in Deep Time – we are constantly drawn back to the surface. This vast timescale is held in tension with the shallow time inherent to photography. What does it mean to capture a multi-millennial lifespan in 1/60th of a second? Or for that matter, to be an organism in my 30s bearing witness to organisms that precede human history and will hopefully survive us well into future generations?”

This 5,500-year-old moss bank lives right around the corner from where the Shackleton Expedition was marooned 100 years ago on Elephant Island, Antarctica. It was a victory simply being able to locate it. These days it’s easier to get to Antarctica from space. (Rachel Sussman via Time)

She has long been interested in the relationship between humanity and nature and expressed that through making landscapes. Contrary to what the book title may suggest, Sussman does not look at her subjects as “things” but over time came to see them as individuals. Instead of focusing on the aesthetics or the composition of landscape photography, she found herself creating portraits of these individuals. Her task became to capture their essence and spirit in order to better connect with them and through them to connect with Deep Time:

I approach my subjects as individuals of whom I’m making portraits. There’s a way to anthropomorphize the experience of these ancient organisms that have bore witness to millennia, which is something that is so outside of our human understanding of what a life span is–it is so outside of our temporal comfort zone.

This 9,950-year-old tree is like a portrait of climate change. The mass of branches near the ground grew the same way for roughly 9,500 years, but the new, spindly trunk in the center is only 50 or so years old, caused by warming at the top of this mountain plateau in Western Sweden. (Rachel Sussman via Time)

The end result of Sussman’s 10-year project is an archive; one that is part art and part science. Her book contains 120+ photos of the thirty subjects. Accompanying the photographs, Sussman writes of her personal journeys searching for these ancient organisms with insights from scientists who research each of them. Her essays weave together scientific explanations with artistic portraits, and invite the reader to understand and partake in her experience. The multiple layers of her work interconnect to help conceptualize the experience of being alive for thousands of years.

Lichens in Greenland that grow only one centimeter every hundred years.

Sussman writes about her experience photographing The Senator, a now-deceased Bald Cypress whose 3,500-year life was ended by a man-caused fire. In another adventure she had overcome her fear of deep water and learn to scuba dive (while injured) in order to photograph the 2,000-year-old Brain Coral, the first member of the animal kingdom she encountered to surpass the two-thousand year mark.

The Siberian Actinobacteria (pictured above) is believed to be the oldest continuously living thing, dating somewhere between 400,000 and 600,000 years old. It lives underground in the permafrost where the colony was found by planetary biologists who were looking for clues to life on other planets by investigating one of the most inhospitable places on Earth.

Over the course of their investigation, they found that these remarkable bacteria are actually doing DNA repair at temperatures below freezing, meaning that they are not dormant; they have been alive and slowly growing for half a million years.

This puts the life of a 5,000-year-old Bristlecone Pine into perspective, which is also featured in her book as the “oldest unitarian organisms.”

Sussman’s approach evolved as her work spanned multiple years, disciplines, continents and personal struggles.

I don’t think it would be the same if I had just used a checklist and went around the world and was done in a year. There is something about over the years wanting to do justice to this work. I realized I needed to keep myself in the story and to be vulnerable. It’s not an overly personal story but just that I’m a character in it. People need to have an entry point where they can connect. That’s really the point of looking at these organisms as individuals. But also the window is partially being pulled open by me as a person who is trying to communicate something that I’ve experienced, or learned, or some philosophical musing, or just how hard it was. I think it’s a way to remind people that nature and this idea of Deep Time are not so distant from our everyday lives. All of these things are intertwined and you bounce back and forth between the here-and-now and long-term thinking. The longer I’ve spent thinking about Deep Time and these old organisms, I find it now easier to connect with that.

Artist Rachel Sussman (photo by Victor G. Jeffreys II)

Long Now is proud to bring Rachel back to San Francisco for two very special events: on June 12th, 02014 with fellow photographer Mario Del Curto discussing photography and the natural world at swissnex. And then on June 13th Rachel appears at The Interval, Long Now’s new venue at Fort Mason, to talk about the book and her experience creating it.

We hope you’ll join us for one or both of these opportunities to see Rachel Sussman in person and hear more about her remarkable work.

Proof: The Science of Booze by Adam Rogers

Posted on Thursday, May 29th, 02014 by Mikl Em
link   Categories: Events, Long Term Science, The Interval   chat 0 Comments

Proof debuts at The Interval
Photo by Adam Rogers

The earliest evidence of a deliberately made alcoholic drink comes from a 10,000 year old piece of Chinese pottery. Lab tests revealed traces of a fermented mixture of rice honey and fruit. It would have been hard to mix those ingredients and keep it from fermenting.

Adam Rogers has held that shard of pottery in his hand and made an eminent archaeologist nervous in the process. He tells that story and many more in his new book Proof: The Science of Booze which tells the ten-millennia story of alcohol history from Yeast to Hangover.

Adam Rogers Speaks at The Interval
Photo by Alexander Rose

Long Now was honored to host the launch of Proof this week for the first salon talk at The Interval, our new bar and cafe. We are not yet open to the public, but we knew this was the perfect way to debut The Interval as a venue for smaller talks to complement our ongoing Seminar series.

If you missed his talk here, Bay Area folks can see him speak tonight (Thursday, May 29) at California Academy of Sciences’ “Chemical Reactions” NightLife event. Adam will also be talking about Proof in a few cities around the country including June 4th in Washington DC, on June 5th in New York City, and in Los Angeles (TBA).

Adam Rogers, author of Proof: The Science of Booze
Photo by Celine Mikahala Grouard

An experienced science journalist and great storyteller, Adam is the articles editor at Wired, and he also knows his booze. In fact his knowledge of the local spirits and bar scene have been invaluable to Long Now as we planned and built The Interval.

It was Adam’s recommendation that led us to Jennifer Colliau who designed and runs The Interval’s bar. And Adam connected us with St George Spirits who helped us make some very special whiskey and gin which have helped us raise construction funds for The Interval.

You’ll find the full story of Long Now’s Bristlecone Gin in Proof, learn about an alternate reality where Americans drink saki rather than whiskey, and learn more science than you knew existed about hangovers. Adam first began this line of boozy writing in 02011 when he wrote an award-winning story about a whisky fungus.

Reception for the book so far has been very positive:

Adam Rogers writes masterfully and gracefully about all the sciences that swirl around spirits, from the biology of a hangover to the paleontology of microbes that transform plant juices into alcohol. A book to be savored and revisited.
— Carl Zimmer, author of A Planet of Viruses former Long Now speaker

Reading Proof feels just like you’re having a drink with a knowledgeable and enthusiastic friend. —Adam Savage, host of MythBusters

Congratulations to Adam and here’s to the continued success of Proof. It was wonderful to celebrate it and The Interval’s debut together.

Adam Rogers launches Proof at The Interval
Photo by Alexander Rose

The Interval at Long Now is an intimate event venue that serves coffee, tea, beer, wine, and sensational cocktails in a time-themed menu. The Interval opens for regular hours in June, and will host a few salon talks each month, more events will be announced soon.