Blog Archive for the ‘The Big Here’ Category

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Mount Tambora Eruption in 01815 Reverberated Across the Planet

Posted on Friday, September 18th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
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In April of 01815, Mount Tambora - an active volcano in what is now Indonesia - erupted after a few hundred years of dormancy. For several days, it spewed hot lava and ash into the air, casting its environment in pitch black darkness. The largest observed eruption in recorded history, it was heard and felt as far as 1,600 miles away, and produced tsunami waves of up to 4 meters across the Indonesian archipelago. The explosion caused part of the volcano itself to cave in, and killed tens of thousands of people.

A year later, England noted the coldest winter of its recorded history, and the Eastern United States reported an uncharacteristically short summer. In 01817, Germany suffered a famine, and India a cholera epidemic. Though never linked back to the Tambora eruption at the time, a new book by Gillen D’Arcy Wood shows how the explosion in Indonesia reverberated across the planet, producing colder weather and dark storm clouds – followed by crop failure – for several years following the event.

Tambora’s impact can be traced through European cultural history: it is memorialized in J.M.W. Turner’s fiery sunsets – caused by particles of ash that spread across the planetary atmosphere – and even in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was inspired by a gloomy summer that forced England’s gentry to keep itself entertained with indoor activities.

There is a lesson in this retrospective connection of the dots, Wood argues:

… the revelation of global volcanic ruin – a portrait 200 years in the making – offers a kind of meditation on the difficulty of uncovering the subtle effects of climate change, whether its origins lie in nature’s fury or the invisible byproducts of human civilization.

Moreover, Wood’s analysis reminds us that even the most subtle (and temporary) climatic changes can have a profound impact on global civilization.


2,000-Year Old Termite Mounds Found in Central Africa

Posted on Friday, August 28th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
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Much like ants, termites are a testament to the adage that a whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A single termite is an almost translucent creature, no more than a few millimeters long. But put several thousand of them together, and they become capable of building expansive structures, some reaching up as high as 17 feet.

Moreover, a recent discovery suggests that some termite mounds are not only very tall, but also very old. A joint Belgian-Congolese team of geologists carbon-dated a set of four mounds in the Congo’s Miombo Woods, and found them to be between 680 and 2200 years old. Though the oldest of these had been abandoned centuries ago, the researchers infer from their findings that some species of termites can inhabit one and the same structure for several hundreds of years. This far exceeds the lifespan of any one colony (which matches that of its queen), suggesting that a kind of intergenerational inheritance passes the mound from one queen to the next.

Swarm intelligence, it seems, leads not only to highly organized labor and solid engineering, but also to long-term thinking.

The World’s Languages, Visualized

Posted on Tuesday, August 11th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
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The South China Morning Post recently published an infographic that colorfully illustrates the distribution of the world’s most commonly spoken languages.

With data taken from Ethnologue and UNESCO, among other sources, the graphic offers a variety of ways to understand global language patterns – from visualizing which languages have the largest number of native speakers, to which country boasts the greatest amount of linguistic diversity.

You can explore the full graphic in all its detail on the South China Morning Post’s website.

Himawari-8 Satellite Offers A New Look at Our Planet – 144 Times Per Day

Posted on Wednesday, August 5th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
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A sense of perspective is unavoidable from 22,000 miles out. Looking down at Earth from that distance — almost three times farther than the diameter of the planet itself — allows a view of the globe as a massive organic system, pulsing with continuous movement. (NY Times)

Last month, Japan’s new Himawari-8 weather satellite began sending data back to Earth. Launched in late 02014 to help track storm systems and other weather patterns in the Pacific Rim, it looks down on Earth from a geostationary orbit, at about 36,000 kilometers (or 22,000 miles) from the surface.

Its considerable distance from Earth isn’t necessarily surprising; most weather satellites do their work in high earth orbit. But what makes Himawari-8 unique among its colleagues is the fact that it is capable of taking full-color photos of the entire planet. Every day, it sends 144 of these “living portraits” back down to Earth – or one photograph every ten minutes.


With an unprecedentedly high resolution that can visualize features as small as 500 square meters, these images will help scientists better understand the genesis, evolution, and outcome of large-scale weather patterns. But on a broader level, the pictures Himawari-8 sends back can’t help but awaken in us what the Planetary Collective has called the Overview Effect: the combined sense of awe and oneness that seems to come over us all when we see images of the whole Earth, framed by the blackness of space.

The data Himawari-8 produces is meant to help us better grasp the ever-changing, fleeting, and highly localized behavior of the Pacific atmosphere. But it also offers us a reminder to step outside of ourselves and consider the fact that we ultimately inhabit a very small corner of a much larger unit of space and time.

New Horizons Probe to Send Message to Interstellar Space

Posted on Tuesday, April 28th, 02015 by Charlotte Hajer
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If you could tell the universe about planet Earth, what would you say?

The One Earth Message Initiative is sending a missive to the stars, and they want your input.

The initiative’s goal is to create a message that will be digitally uploaded to a spacecraft currently making its way to the outer reaches of our solar system. Launched in 02006, the New Horizons probe will fly by Pluto, its primary target, later this summer. Once it completes this mission and sends its data back to Earth, the One Earth Message team hopes to use the space thus freed up on the probe’s on-board computer for a message that intelligent extraterrestrial life may one day intercept. They’ve petitioned NASA with more than 10,000 signatures of support from people all over the world, and received the agency’s encouragement to move forward with the project.

The effort is headed by Jon Lomberg, a long-time collaborator of the late astronomer Carl Sagan, who has decades of experience in the aesthetic design of communications both to and about the distant reaches of our universe. He was design director for the Golden Records that have been traveling aboard the Voyager crafts since the late 01970s, and has collaborated on numerous documentaries, films, and blogs about space exploration.

This new project unites his interest in outreach to the earthbound public with his passion for communicating with the universe. The One Earth Message team hopes to crowd-source their message to the furthest extent possible. They intend to create an internet platform where people from all over the globe can submit images for inclusion in the message and review submissions sent in by others. An advisory board of 86 specialists in a variety of fields – among them Long Now’s own Laura Welcher – will help curate submissions to help put together a message that represents the diversity of our global community.

People from every country will have the opportunity to submit photos and other content. Everyone will have the chance to view and vote online for the ones they think should be sent. It will be a global project that brings the people of the world together to speak as one. Who will speak for Earth? YOU WILL! So we are asking for your support to make it so. (Fiat Physica Campaign page)

The team is currently in the midst of a fundraising campaign to build the message website and spread word of the project around the globe. If the campaign is successful, stretch goals include the development of educational material to encourage creative engagement with One Earth Message, and expeditions to the remotest corners of Earth to make sure even the voices living there are included in the New Horizons message.

While there is a possibility that the message could one day reach alien recipients, The One Earth Message organization sees its project primarily as a way to inspire a sense of global unity, much like the Golden Records did – and like Stewart Brand once thought a picture of Earth from space might do.

For almost 40 years, people have been inspired by the Voyager record, a portrait of the Earth in 1977 … The world is very different now, and this new message will reflect the hopes and dreams of the second decade in the 21st century. It will inspire young people’s interest in science and ignite the imagination of all ages. We hope it will be an example of global creativity and cooperation, something that the entire planet can share as a cooperative venture … (

Artist's impression of the Rosetta spacecraft flying past an asteroid

In other words, the New Horizons message is a way to start a conversation – with alien life, but also with ourselves. Aside from a form of communication, we might also think of it as a self-portrait. Like the Rosetta Disk aboard the European Space Agency’s Rosetta probe, the New Horizons message will be a record of who we are as a global community. As Laura Welcher said of the Rosetta mission,

It’s interesting to think why people do this, why we send messages into space. I think partly we’re trying to commemorate special events … partly we’re also trying to communicate with ourselves; our current selves, and perhaps our future selves. … These messages that we’re sending into space are proxies for us. They are our ambassadors, and they go where we physically cannot go.

The creation of a self-portrait requires reflection on who we are, and who we want to be. It holds us accountable to the image we present to the world. Like any self-portrait, the One Earth Message is at least partly aspirational – it’s meant to compel continual engagement with ourselves and our own betterment; to inspire us always to strive to be our best selves.

To learn more about One Earth Message and ways to contribute, please visit the project’s fundraising page, or follow the project on Twitter.

From the City to the Great Basin: a Trip to Long Now’s Mountain in Nevada

Posted on Thursday, January 8th, 02015 by Mikl Em
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The Big Here video documenting a drive from San Francisco to Mount Washington in eastern Nevada was made in 02009 and shown as a Long Short before Stewart Brand’s Rethinking Green SALT talk. We showed it again this week at The Great Basin in the Anthropocene talk by Scotty Strachan at The Interval. That event focused on the larger region that includes Mount Washington.

The mount Washington site was originally purchased as a potential site for a monument scale 10,000 Year Clock to act as an icon to long-term thinking. The first of these Clocks is now underway in Texas (see for more details), and Long Now remains involved in this fascinating, important region of eastern Nevada.

Our Mount Washington property is home to the largest population of bristlecone pines on private land. Bristlecones, amongst the oldest living things on Earth, are a symbol of The Long Now. And Long Now is working with scientists, like Scotty Strachan, at University of Nevada, Reno to study these bristlecones for insights into the last 10,000 years of climate amongst other research efforts.

Mt Washington bristlecone -- Scotty Strachan at The IntervalPhoto of Mount Washington by Scotty Strachan

The Future Declassified at The Interval: Tuesday September 23, 02014

Posted on Friday, September 5th, 02014 by Mikl Em
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Mathew Burrows at The Interval: The Future Declassified

Our next talk at The Interval takes as its subject the complexities of our collective global future:

Mathew Burrows: The Future Declassified
hosted by Paul Saffo
Tuesday September 23, 02014 at 7:30pm
at The Interval (doors at 6:30)
Advanced Tickets are encouraged
as space is limited

The volatility of today’s world is apparent just by reviewing the day’s headlines. Across the globe, the pressures of population growth, environmental change, and constant technological disruption are just a few of the factors that promise to influence how governments, economies, and individual lives will change in the coming years.

So how to make sense of it all? It takes access to information, methodical analysis, and the application of wisdom gained from observing past change to see tectonic patterns in cultural shifts and plot their trajectories. On September 23rd The Interval at Long Now welcomes one of the most seasoned experts in reading the epic trends of the global stage.

Dr. Mathew Burrows has been an advisor to the US Government in various positions for the better part of 30 years. Typically his reports have been available exclusively to top US administration officials, ambassadors, intelligence services, and allied governments. But his new book, appropriately titled The Future Declassified, offers his insight and forecasting talents to the general public. Its foreboding subtitle “Megatrends That Will Undo the World Unless We Take Action” confirms the importance of the stakes at hand.

Looking forward to the year 02030, Burrows underlines the interconnectedness of the decisions made today with the medium and long-term future of our society and the planet.

Long Now Board of Directors member Paul Saffo will be hosting this event. A well-respected forecaster in his own right, Paul teaches forecasting at Stanford University, and he chairs the Future Studies and Forecasting track at Singularity University.

We hope you can join us for this important talk, there are still tickets available.

Long Now’s salon talk events happen on Tuesday nights at The Interval, our bar / cafe / museum at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. The lineup of upcoming talks is growing. Check the full list here.

Interval donors hear about our events first: there is still time to become a charter donor.

We are Walking Rocks: Friends of the Pleistocene Explore the Geologic Now

Posted on Saturday, August 30th, 02014 by Charlotte Hajer
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Geopoetry Smudge Studio

In The Life and Death of Buildings: On Photography and Time Joel Smith writes:

Imagine making a picture using film so insensitive to light – so slow, in photographic parlance – that to burn an image onto it required an exposure of twenty-five centuries. Geologically speaking, the blink of an eye. The picture from that negative would reveal a world made of stone, and stone only. It would be a world where plants and people, seasons and civilizations, had come and gone, quite untouched, and unbothered, by mankind. And yet, here it is, a world, unmistakably shaped by human hands.

Perhaps one of humanity’s greatest weaknesses is that our power of imagination tends to be dwarfed by our power of transformation. Twenty-five centuries ago, Rome was little more than a small town; Confucius had just resigned from his government post; Olmec society had slid into decline; and none of the languages we speak today had yet evolved. Entire civilizations rise and fall within the blink of a geologic eye – and whether as cause or consequence, we have a collective attention span to match.

We might be able to stretch our sense of “our time” a century or two into the past and future, but anything beyond that feels so far away that it dissolves into (seeming) irrelevance. As a result, we often don’t realize that our contemporary world is significantly shaped by the geological worlds that came before it; and that the fruits of our short-term pursuits can far outlast our own physical existence on Earth.

The Friends of the Pleistocene try to encourage this realization by spurring our temporal capacity for imagination. An interactive and creative research collaboration by Elizabeth Ellsworth and Jamie Kruse, the duo behind Smudge Studios, FOP’s mission is, essentially, to create the kinds of pictures Smith imagined. Through a variety of projects, they direct our focus to the Pleistocene traces that continue to reverberate through our contemporary world, and to the impact our culture makes on the ancient landscapes around us.

The geologic epoch of the Pleistocene is commonly dated from 2.58 million to 10,000 years BP (before the present). We know it as the time of glacial periods, mammoths, saber-toothed cats, and Neanderthals. It is also the period of humanity’s childhood: it’s during the Pleistocene that the genus Homo first learned to walk upright and manipulate its environment with stone tools. This epoch predates agriculture, or any notion of ‘civilization’ – yet its landscapes are still as much a part of our present world as they were to our early ancestors. As Kruse and Ellsworth explain,

The Pleistocene landscape literally shapes how we live today and affords the placement and design of many infrastructures in our contemporary lives, such as building highways along the spines of glacial moraines, as in the case of the Long Island Expressway, or the great views afforded by the now extinct Pleistocene Lake Bonneville’s shoreline “benches” where suburban houses perch in Draper, Utah. We also use Pleistocene lakebeds as testing grounds for weapons (such as for the Trinity test in 1945) or for recreation, like the Bonneville Salt Flats or Cape Cod’s beloved swimming holes – the kettle ponds.

And just as the Pleistocene continues to shape our world, so do we continue to make an impact on it. Kruse and Ellsworth recall making this realization during a residency at the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) in Utah:

… we came across their (CLUI’s) book on the Nevada Test Site. At that point, we had no idea that over 1000 nuclear bombs had been detonated in the United States. We began to realize that the tourist experience of the American West often overlooked the fact that just behind or underneath the stunning backdrops of iconic scenery were invisible vibrant human-made materials, and they were actively reshaping the landscapes we were moving through, at the very moment we were moving through them. The forceful actions of many of those materials were potent enough to continue this reshaping into deep geological futures. This led to future trips where we actually toured the NTS and ended up designing a project to visit the sites where underground testing had occurred outside the NTS. It was literally standing at these sites, in the present, that geologic time and the contemporary moment came vividly together for us.

Exploring such ancient sites across the United States and beyond, the Smudge duo harness art and design as useful tools to spur our imagination into time scales that dwarf a human lifetime. They produce photographic essays, narrative field guides, educational events, and speculative tools to help others explore the convergence of human and geologic processes – and they add not one, but two zeroes to their date notations!

Smudge’s projects include an examination of how the Pleistocene geology of the Great Lakes continues to influence processes of urbanization in the region; visualizing the ancient geological materials that constitute the man-made buildings of New York City; mapping the intersection of human and geologic processes in the American West; and representing the material origins of the energy that sustains our civilization.

Much of their work has examined the handling of nuclear waste – an issue that indelibly reminds us of how tied we are to the deep material processes of our world:

In realizing that the contamination can’t be moved from where it is, and will stay contaminated for tens of thousands of years in the future, it seems important to start developing capacities to think and design for larger timescales. … We humans have catalyzed a geologic impact around the globe, materially. These effects are much more than the nuclear, but nuclear materials are such a clear and potent example, they still exist at the root of our work and are why we veered in this direction so many years ago.

Their projects tend to incorporate an interactive approach: Ellsworth and Kruse try not only to visualize, but to encourage others to join in their imaginative processes:

Interactivity seems key to the ideas we’re working with – which focus on the importance of being able to experience the material reality and force of processes and movements that are either hard for humans to sense physically, or hard for humans to admit politically or emotionally.

In 02012, Kruse and Ellsworth published Making the Geologic Now, an edited collection of photographs and essays by more than forty contributors that include Rachel Sussman, (photographer/author of the Oldest Living Things in the World and Long Now SALT speaker) and Elizabeth Kolbert (The Sixth Extinction and Field Notes from a Catastrophe).

Making the Geologic Now documents and encourages what they have identified as a “turn toward the geologic,” a collection of “early sightings” of emergent social and cultural awareness of the deep geological parameters of our world. The book is meant to be generative rather than analytical or critical; in their introduction Kruse and Ellsworth describe the contributions as

places to think experimentally about what might become thinkable and possible if humans were to collectively take up the geologic as an instructive partner in designing thoughts, objects, systems, and experiences. The book provides an armature for framing responses to that idea.

Earlier this year Kruse and Ellsworth went to Norway for a work they called “Inhabiting Change” – it’s part of a larger collaboration that investigates the socio-geographic changes ahead for the Arctic Circle. Once seen as a remote forbidding place, it is now being transformed by the forces of capitalism, the pinch of dwindling resources, and a growing global population. As they expressed their goal for this project:

We intend to create dynamic tracings of the arrival of new futures of the North into widespread human + nonhuman cognizance. Works that result from Inhabiting Change may take the form of a series of linked multi-media dispatches. We also intend to compose a collaborative, human + nonhuman voice with multiple, moving points of view—while we live and make in the midst of the forces of change that currently are composing emerging futures north.

Ultimately, what Ellsworth and Kruse hope people take away from their work is new curiosities about and appreciations of their bare physical materiality – the chemical and physical fact that we are “walking rocks,” and that we live within the geologic, as a condition of our daily lives.

Making The Geologic Now can be purchased or downloaded from Smudge Studios. They also offer a place to contribute your own sightings of the geologic.

Images by FOP/Smudge Studios

The Future of Language at The Interval: Tuesday July 22, 02014

Posted on Friday, July 18th, 02014 by Mikl Em
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Laura Welcher of Long Now and Rosetta ProjectDavid Evan Harris Executive Director of Global LivesMandana Seyfeddinipur
Laura Welcher, David Evan Harris, and Mandana Seyfeddinipur speak on Tuesday, July 22 at The Interval

This Tuesday at The Interval “The Future of Language” featuring Dr. Laura Welcher of Long Now’s Rosetta Project and Global Lives Project‘s David Evan Harris, and special guest Dr Mandana Seyfeddinipur of the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme who is visiting from London.

Tuesday July 22, 02014 at 7:30pm
at The Interval (doors at 6:30)
Advanced Tickets are strongly encouraged as space is limited

Long Now’s Rosetta Project is dedicated to documenting and preserving human languages. In 02014 preservation is crucial because the languages of the world are dying at an unprecedented rate. And that’s only part of a larger problem.

The link between language diversity and biodiversity is well established. A quarter of all languages on Earth will not survive this century. When we lose a language we also lose the culture of its speakers, their specialized knowledge of the natural world and their care for it.

On Tuesday, July 22, at The Interval you’ll hear more about the situation and a new initiative between Long Now and the Global Lives Project to document the lives and culture of endangered language speakers and raise awareness of the problem in collaboration with The Hans Rausing Endangered Languages Project and a team from the Smithsonian Institution.

Mandana Seyfeddinipur directs the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme at SOAS, University of London. She is enabling hundreds of groups around the world to document dying languages around the world, some of the most important work going in this field.

The Global Lives Project is a Bay Area non-profit developing a video library of everyday life in cultures around the planet. Global Lives’ unique long-form videos tell a “Big Here” story about people around the world.

Long Now’s salon talk events happen on Tuesday nights at The Interval our bar/cafe/museum at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco. The lineup of upcoming talks is growing. Check out the full list here.

Interval donors hear about our events first: there is still time to become a charter donor.

Craig Childs: Apocalyptic Planet, Field Guide to the Everending Earth — A Seminar Flashback

Posted on Wednesday, July 2nd, 02014 by Mikl Em
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In July 02013 author Craig Childs spoke to Long Now about his travels around the world. One of the world’s great intrepid travelers and story-tellers, Childs finds the places on Earth that are most geologically or climatically dangerous and hangs out, observing closely, then documents them from a personal as well as scientific perspective. Twice a month we highlight a Seminar About Long-term Thinking (SALT) from our archives.

Video of the 12 most recent Seminars is free for all to view. Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Everending Earth is a recent SALT talk, free for public viewing until August 02014. SALT audio is free for everyone 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):

This Earth is a story teller, Childs began. And it is not a stable place to live. It is always ending. We think of endings as sudden, but it is always a process. [...]

I would like to backpack on Mars, said Childs. For the local equivalent he hiked across the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, where it never rains. It’s been a desert for 150 million years. You walk across nothing but salt so hard it pings like steel. The sun blasts you all day and at night the water in your pack freezes solid. You walk for days and you don’t see a single living thing, you’re on a dead planet, and then it gets really strange because pink flamingoes come flying in over your head. They’re there to strain brine shrimp out of water sources. You’re at the end of the world and there are flamingoes! You think, ‘Yeah, that’s what this planet is about.’

Craig Childs’ books include House of Rain, Finders Keepers, and Apocalyptic Planet. He is a commentator for NPR’s Morning Edition and contributing editor at High Country News.

Craig Childs and Cactus

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.