Last year I had the opportunity to give a talk and tour of the US Naval Observatory in Washington DC at the invitation of Demetrios Matsakis, the director of the U.S. Naval Observatory’s Time Service department. The Naval Observatory hosts the largest collection of precise frequency standards in the world, and uses them to, among other things, keep services like internet time and the global positioning system in your phone running correctly.
The USNO Master Clock is actually an average of many timing signals
The US Naval Observatory keeps track of time and distance in what seems like obscure ways, but these signals are used for some of the most widely trusted and life-critical systems on the planet. The observatory uses a series of atomic clocks, ranging from hydrogen mazers to cesium fountain clocks, which are averaged into the time signals we all use in synchronizing internet servers and finding our way with the guidance of our phones. In fact GPS would not be possible without the highly accurate time signals generated by the observatory, as time very literally equals distance when you are a satellite flying overhead at speeds that actually have to account for Einsteinian relativity.
The humble rack servers pumping out one of the most accurate and life-critical time signals in the world
The Naval Observatory is also part of the larger network in the US that includes NIST and several labs around the world that contribute to the international standards of time like Universal Coordinated Time or UTC. These time standards are defined in collaboration: many of the world’s national labs send in how long a second lasts based on their clocks, and these seconds are then averaged to define the second for the month. But ironically, they do this in retrospect and sometimes add leap seconds, so they only know what the ‘second’ was last month, not this month.
I am often asked when explaining the 10,000 Year Clock why we do not use an atomic clock, as they are often reported to be accurate to “one second in 30 million years”. But this does not mean they will last 30 million years; it is just a way to explain an accuracy of 10-9 seconds in everyday terms. These atomic clocks are extremely fragile and fussy machines that require very exact temperatures and deep understanding of atomic science in order to even read them. They sometimes only last a few years.
Two of the Rubidium Fountain Clocks at the USNO used to create the master time signal
Demetrios was also able to tell me more about some of the long-term timing issues that affect The 10,000 Year Clock. Because the Clock synchronizes with the sun on any sunny day, one of the effects that we have to take into account is the rate at which the Earth’s rotational rate may change from millennium to millennium. It turns out that the earth’s rotation can be greatly affected by climate change. If the poles freeze in an ice age, and all the water freezes closer to the poles, the earth spins faster. If the current warming trend continues and the poles melt extensively, the mass of the water around the equator will slow the earth’s rotational rate. All these changes affect where the sun will appear in the sky, and since our clock uses the sun to synchronize, it is an effect we have to account for. While this was all known to us, there is a counter effect that Demetrios told me about. It turns out that when there is less water weighing down one of the tectonic plates of the earth, it rises up higher, counteracting some of the mass altered by the shift in water. We will be investigating this further to see if it changes our calculations.
Many thanks to Demetrios Matsakis for inviting me to the Naval Observatory, it was an honor to present to some of the most technical horologists in the world, and witness the place where the ephemerality of time is pinned down to just “one second in 30 million years”.
It started with a seed planted in the mind of Scottish artist Katie Paterson when she made the connection between tree rings and chapters of books. Now several years in the making, Paterson’s vision will unfold over the next century in her artwork Future Library–an ambitious and evolving piece that will outlive Paterson and most of us living today.
Photo by Giorgia Polizzi
In the summer of 02014, Paterson and her team planted 1,000 Norwegian Spruce saplings in the forest Normarka, situated just outside of Oslo. The site is about a 25-minute walk from a metro station, yet according to Paterson, feels deep within the forest and has no city sounds.
Photo by Giorgia Polizzi
These trees will supply the paper for an anthology of books to be printed in a hundred years’ time, when the saplings are fully grown. In the meantime, one writer every year will be invited to add a new text to the collection of unpublished, unread manuscripts held in trust at the New Public Deichmanske Library in Bjørvika until their publication date in 02114. The text can take on any length, form, and genre. The only request is to have the work submitted by manuscript within one year of invitation. As the trees grow, so does the collection. Katie Paterson explained:
The idea to grow trees to print books arose for me through making a connection with tree rings to chapters – the material nature of paper, pulp and books, and imagining the writer’s thoughts infusing themselves, ‘becoming’ the trees. Almost as if the trees absorb the writer’s words like air or water, and the tree rings become chapters, spaced out over the years to come…This artwork will bring together the work of preeminent writers, thinkers and philosophers of this and future generations. It is an artwork that belongs not only to us and the City of Oslo now, but to these who are not yet born.
With the forest planted, the next key part of the Future Library is designing the Silent Room to house the unpublished texts in the New Deichmanske Library, which will open in 02018. In collaboration with the library’s architects Lund Hagem and Atelier Oslo, Paterson is specially constructing this room from the cut-down trees recently cleared for the Future Library saplings.
Photo by Giorgia Polizzi
The Silent Room will be located on the top floor of the library – the floor that houses the library’s special collection of books and archives. The small, intimate room will be geared for one or two people; it will face the forest, awaiting the growth of the trees and providing a view of where, in essence, the books are developing. The other aspect of the texts–the unpublished manuscripts–will be contained here with only the authors’ names, the title of their work and the year visible to visiting patrons. Katie Paterson explained:
The atmosphere is key in our design, aiming to create a sense of quietude, peacefulness, a contemplative space which can allow the imagination to journey to the forest, the trees, the writing, the deep time, the invisible connections, the mystery.
As is the case with any long-term project, questions of trust dominate the design of Paterson’s Future Library. Planning a project with a timescale of 100 years provides many challenges, such as the consideration of tree types, native Norwegian pests, climate, or potential fires; communicating across time; ensuring access to a printing press (one will be stored in Oslo and workshops will be held for the next generations in printing and binding books); and crafting 100-year contracts with lawyers. How will the library room be looked at and experienced in a century? How will the materials react over the decades to come? What languages will people be speaking in 02114? What kind of technologies will exist? What will be the status of the printed book, the written word? Paterson asked herself 100-year-timespan questions such as these with every decision made for Future Library. It involves thinking and developing on a timespan that transcends most conventional artwork. Paterson explained:
The works like Future Library really slow the pace down, to over a century. There is still constant movement within the artwork; inviting authors, the library room design, trust meetings, forest tending, yearly events, the writing, even the tree rings forming. Future Library will evolve and live over ‘long time’ and over ‘now’ simultaneously…I like the idea that time is substance, that can be manipulated and invented. I certainly see time as non-linear – reaches of time, webs, loops, networks, holes – and visualize time growing and existing like a cell or a wave, expanding and contracting. Future Library is marked out by yearly demarcations and these ‘chapters’ keep it fluid.
Future Library was conceived by Paterson, is commissioned and supported by the Bjørvika Utvikling urban development project, and produced by the Bristol-based arts producer Situations. A Future Library Trust has been established to help sustain Future Library for its 100-year duration. It consists of seven members, including the literary director of the Man Booker Prize. Its members will change decade by decade, and they are the ones to invite the 100 authors, whose names will be announced year by year. The authors are being selected for their “outstanding contributions to literature or poetry and for their work’s ability to capture the imagination of this and future generation.”
Photo by Giorgia Polizzi
This month, award-winning author Margaret Atwood was named as the first contributor to the Future Library. The author of novels such as Daughters of the North and Oryx and Crake (both of which will be included in Long Now’s own Manual for Civilization) is in many ways ideally suited for a collection like Future Library: much of Atwood’s work explores human lives and lived experience in a variety of possible futures. As Paterson explains,
[Atwood] is incredibly perceptive, continually writing about prescient subjects and her work speaks across generations, across time. She writes about time and catapults her readers to a future time and place, projecting unsettling, strange, dystopian worlds. Her work has so much to say about us alive now and futures we are building as a species.
Atwood has already started writing the tale that only she will read during her lifetime.
When asked about the content of her story in an interview with the Louisiana Channel, Atwood stated that wild horses could not drag it out of her:
I think it takes us to that period of childhood when we used to bury things in secret locations and hope that somebody would come and dig them up. Or that other period when we put messages in bottles and put them into the ocean. But essentially that’s what writing is anyway, so publishing a book is like a message in the bottle and throwing it in the ocean because you never know who will read it. And writing and publishing a book is also like time travel because the book is a vehicle for the voice, and it doesn’t turn into a voice again until somebody at the other end reads it. So in this case, the filament between the launching of the book and the turning of the book back into voice just happens to be longer than usual.
On a cosmic timescale, a span of 100 years is fleeting and insignificant. “However, in many ways the human timescale of 100 years is more confronting,” Paterson explains. “It is beyond many of our current life spans, but close enough to come face to face with it, to comprehend and relativize.”
What can help us confront and comprehend this short-yet-long timespan is, perhaps, a sense of hope and optimism. The Future Library project, for its part, tries to encourage these perspectives. In her reply letter to her Future Library invitation, Atwood wrote, “This project, at least, believes the human race will still be around in a hundred years!” Paterson expands upon Atwood’s statement in her own words:
In its essence, Future Library is hopeful – it believes there will be a forest, a book, and a reader in 100 years. The choices of this generation will shape the centuries to come, perhaps in an unprecedented way. Inside the forest time stands still. This place could have existed for one hundred, one thousand, one million, or even one hundred million years. I take comfort in the natural processes that have unfolded over such enormous expanses of time. Imagining the plethora of living beings that have evolved in its ecosystem. The earth itself has a predicted lifespan of another few billion years, and there are millions of other planets and galaxies. Life in this universe will continue to exist.
Tonight, October 15th 02014, former SALT Speaker Steven Johnson’s new TV series premieres on PBS. The show, “How We Got To Now”, is co-produced by PBS and BBC, and focuses on different themes showing how long cumulative efforts can result in massive systemic change. The first of the six episodes, “Clean”, focuses on how sanitary conditions evolved from concept to reality, and how this reality affects public health and entire industries.
Steven Johnson has worked on many different topics throughout his career, and he draws on all of these topics in this series. However, it is his study of the history of technology that anchors the show. One of Steven’s major contributions to this field is popularizing network-based approaches to understanding history and new technologies. For example, to understand the lightbulb, one needs to look beyond Thomas Edison and understand the environmental conditions, contemporaneous technologies, and networks of scientists corresponding across the globe. Once these factors are taken into account, innovation stops looking like “eureka moments” and instead becomes anchored in effective networks, collaborations, and the slow incubation of ideas. In the following animation, Steven Johnson explains this process and how it can help us think about technology and innovation now:
Check your local listings to watch “How We Got To Now”, and keep a look out for some Long Now references throughout the series.
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.
Civilizations always think they’re immortal, Eagleman noted, but they nearly always perish, leaving “nothing but ruins and scattered genetics.” It takes luck and new technology to survive. We may be particularly lucky to have Internet technology to help manage the six requirements of a durable civilization
Speaking from 02082, Hon described 5 (of 100) objects and events from this century’s history he felt most strongly evoked the astonishing trends that have transformed humanity in the past 8 decades.
Not all developments proved to be positive. One such was Locked Simulation Interrogation. In 02019 in Washington DC, frustrated by a series of 5 unsolved bombings, the FBI combined an unremovable top quality virtual reality (VR) rig with detailed real-time brain scanning to run a suspect through a cascade of 572 intense simulations designed to draw out everything the suspect knew about the bombings. As a result the 6th bombing was averted, and the technique of adaptive VR became a standard law enforcement tool. But over time it was found to be unreliable and often harmful, and in 02033 the Supreme Court declared it to be unconstitutional.
By the 02040s people’s comfort with mood drugs and discomfort with lives that felt meaningless (mass automation had replaced many forms of work) led to the Fourth Great Awakening. In 02044 a religious entrepreneur found a way to transform human nature and acquire converts to the “Christian Consummation Movement” with a combination of one eyedropper, 18 pills, and an “induction course of targeted viruses and magstim.” Inductees were made more empathic, generous, trusting, and disciplined. The movement grew to 20 million Americans by the 02070s before it leveled off. The world learned what could be done with desire modification.
A lasting monument to humanity’s progress off planet was Alto Firenze, the first space station designed for elegance. Constructed in 02036, it progressed through a series of beautifications and uses from hotel to conference center and art museum to eventually being declared a World Heritage Site. In 2052 it was moved to L5 and thus escaped the cascade of debris collisions that completely emptied the over-crowded low-Earth orbit later that year.
Perhaps it was the steady increase of older people, along with continuing trends in self-quantification and “gamification,” that led to the Micromort Detector in 02032. “What if you could have a number that told you exactly how risky an action, any action, was going to be?“ The Lifeline bracelet measured the wearer’s exact health condition along with the environment and the action being contemplated and displayed how risky it would be in “micromorts”—a unit representing one chance in a million of death. Go canoeing—10 micromorts. Two glasses of wine—1 micromort. The bracelets became tremendously popular, though they were found to increase anxiety badly in some users. Later spinoffs included the Microfun Detector and Micromorals Detector.
Signs of ancient life were found on Mars in 2028, on Europa in 2048. “By the time extrasolar alien life was first imaged in 2055, celebrations were considerably smaller, the wonder and excitement having been eroded by the slow drip of discoveries. By then, everyone had simply assumed that life was out there, everywhere.“ One planet now discovered to have signs of intelligent life is 328 light years away. Thus the Armstrong Expedition, using an antimatter-fueled lighthugger craft bearing only artificial intelligences set out to make contact in 02079.
“This century,” Hon summarized, “we learned what it means to be human.”
It seems clear that computers are becoming more intelligent, but in the face of this fact, our definition of intelligence itself seems increasingly blurry. The University of Reading recently made an announcement exemplifying this trend:
The 65 year-old iconic Turing Test was passed for the very first time by computer program Eugene Goostman during Turing Test 2014 held at the renowned Royal Society in London.
At its face, this is huge and historic news. Alan Turing’s proposal of the eponymous test threw down the field of Artificial Intelligence’s original gauntlet. For a computer program to pass for human is no small feat and the creators have done something no one has achieved until now.
Within the world of Long Now’s Long Bets, as well, $20,000 is on the line – Mitch Kapor predicted in 02002 that “By 2029 no computer – or “machine intelligence” – will have passed the Turing Test.” He argued that when it comes to human knowledge and culture,
It is such a broad canvas, in my view, that it is impossible to foresee when, or even if, a machine intelligence will be able to paint a picture which can fool a human judge.
Ray Kurzweil, who helped popularize the Turing Test in his books The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity is Near took him up on the bet, countering that sufficient reverse-engineering of the human brain will allow for computer programs that can think like a human and that trends within the relevant research are accelerating much like the power of computers themselves.
Eugene Goostman would appear to have beat Kapor’s deadline by 15 years!
As with any wager, though, the devil is in the details, and here is where we come back to fuzzy definitions of intelligence. Eugene Goostman the computer program poses as a 13 year-old who is communicating in a language that isn’t his first. Interrogators had only had 5 minutes with which to get to know “him.” And in the end, a “passing” grade for this test was 30% – the program managed to convince 33% of judges it was human.
In a way, we have to talk about Turing tests. The Turing test passed by Eugene Goostman in not the same Turing test proposed by Kapor and Kurzweil. Indeed, Kurzweil found Eugene Goostman to be rather lacking, posting a transcript of a conversation he had with the program and pointing out some of its clearly non-human characteristics:
I chatted with the chatbot Eugene Goostman, and was not impressed. Eugene does not keep track of the conversation, repeats himself word for word, and often responds with typical chatbot non sequiturs.
His bet with Mitch Kapor stipulates that interviews will last 2 hours, which would allow for significantly more in-depth conversation and, one assumes, a much easier time in determining computer or human. Kurzweil has not conceded the bet and even explains that he expects a long period of dubious and debated claims that computers have passed Turing’s test.
Turing’s test was explicitly meant to ignore the mechanisms of thought and to focus on the experience of it, but in tweaking the rules of the test we implicitly set a bar and work towards a definition for human intelligence. The bar cleared by Eugene Goostman may not be high enough to indicate human-level intelligence to Kurzweil or many others, but there can be little doubt that higher bars will yet be cleared and each one’s demonstration of intelligence debated.
Evolution is a diligent innovator and the diversity it has achieved offers the curious seemingly unending marvels. In some cases, though, a particular innovation might not make much sense on initial consideration. In those cases, zooming out in time can be instructive.
An ecological anachronism is an adaptation that is chronologically out of place, making its purpose more or less obsolete.
The concept was developed by ecologist Daniel Janzen (a former SALT speaker) and Bronaugh calls on the Osage-orange to bring it into focus.
The Osage-orange is a North American tree that produces large, lumpy fruit. Those fruit fall to the ground and rot, ignored rather than ingested and spread (along with their seeds), every fall. Other parts of the tree feature long thorns that do little to discourage deer from eating their foliage. These adaptations, it would seem, aren’t adaptive at all, but rather strange, pointless wastes of energy. The tree’s range across North America is known to have contracted over the last few millennia, so this view isn’t entirely unfounded.
The fruit and the thorns, however, were adaptive when megafauna such as mammoths and gound sloths roamed the continent. The large fruit were a common part of the mammoth diet and the thorns were just the right size to discourage creatures much larger than deer from chewing up the leaves and branches. As Bronaugh explains,
It’s true that such adaptations are now anachronistic; they have lost their relevance. But the trees have been slow to catch on; a natural consequence of the pace of evolution. For a tree that lives, say, 250 years, 13,000 years represents only 52 generations. In an evolutionary sense, the trees don’t yet realize that the megafauna are gone.
Though in our lifetime, mammoths and ground sloths may seem long gone, the evolutionary moment in which we live still resonates with their presence. Perhaps a reprise is possible?
In January 02013, we introduced you to slow journalist Paul Salopek, who is retracing the steps of our earliest human ancestors in a seven-year journey Out of Eden. Since then, Salopek has covered more than 4,000 kilometers (nearly 2,500 miles), from in Eastern Ethiopia to East Jerusalem. His route was, intentionally, sketched in broad strokes, but each of his Milestones and Dispatches have been pinned to a digital map that captures the sights, sounds, and stories of his long road from Africa to Patagonia.
The first map pin, at Herto Bouri, marks a dense archaeological site, where Australopithecus garhi, Homo erectus, and Homo sapiens idaltu made their homes 2.5 million to 160,000 years ago. Several of the Homo sapiens idaltu fossils bear the marks of (possibly cannibalistic) mortuary practices that included scraping the flesh from the skulls of the dead.
A map-within-the map in Djibouti, on the edge of the Red Sea, illustrates the ancient land bridges that carried our ancestors across the Red Sea into the Levant, and eventually into Southeast Asia and the Americas.
At Petra, the ancient stone city that is now Jordan’s most popular tourist attraction, Salopek recorded a timeless dirge about the the ingratitude of children and the pain of old age. The singer, Qasim Ali, accompanied himself on the rababa, a 1200-year-old ancestor of the violin.
Four thousand kilometers from the ambiguously marked remains at Herto Bouri, Salopek reached Qafzeh Cave, on the slopes of Mount Carmel. This is the site of the first ceremonial human burial in the archaeological record—a teenaged boy with a red deer’s antlers held fast against his chest.
As of June 02014, Salopek is in Jerusalem, the subject of another thematic map—one which covers a two-day, 23-mile trek around the ancient city. His most recent Dispatch, from the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Hanina, tells the story of a traditional judge who negotiates settlements between families when a wrong has been done.
Anything as vast and mysterious as the Sahara Desert is bound to invite myth and legend – it’s how we make sense of things too large, elusive or forbidding to know firsthand. Stefan Kroepelin, however, has dedicated his life to firsthand knowledge of the Sahara, and has dispelled some myths along the way. He’s come to know, better than almost any outsider, the desert’s eastern portion, made up of Libya, Egypt, Chad and Sudan.
Kroepelin is a geologist and archaeologist who has studied the interplay of human settlement and the Sahara’s changing climatic characteristics over the last 10,000 years. He’s encountered a fair share of difficult conditions and frightening surprises in the desolate, harsh and sometimes lawless expanses of the Sahara. But as Nature put it,
those decades of difficult field work have paid off for Kroepelin, who has made seminal discoveries about the climatic history of the Sahara that are challenging assumptions about the tipping points the world may face in a warmer future. – Nature
The story that Kroepelin has helped piece together opens on a Saharan region vastly different from the one we know today.
10,000 years ago, the Sahara was significantly wetter than it is now, a lush savannah that supported life and hints of early civilization where sand and little else can now be found.
That little else has been the key to Kroepelin’s success, though. He and his team took core samples from the bottom of a lake in Chad and, by analysing the layers of sediment that had built up over the last few millennia – and the pollen contained therein – were able to draw the clearst picture yet of the region’s dessication and dessertification.
Previous attempts to describe this transition were similarly based on core samples, but these were taken from the Atlantic Ocean rather than the Eastern Sahara itself. Where the story told by these samples described a precipitous change, Kroepelin had already established that human settlements in the region didn’t appear to have been abandoned quite so quickly, or as he put it on Science Friday in 02008,
We were using man as a very sensitive climate indicator.
His new core sample squared with the picture of a more gradual shift and upended the previous research. The people displaced by the region’s drying out made their way east and found the water they needed at the banks of the Nile. There they developed one of the longest-lasting civilizations known to history.
Dr. Stefan Kroepelin shares tales of desert adventures – some likely his own – at the SFJAZZ Center on Tuesday June 10th, 02014.