Sunday, October 6, 2013

Saving civilization for posterity

Today visions of the far distant future are on our mind in a sci-fi scenario. While it increasingly looks like we're headed into a Dark Age for mankind, some have speculated that things may get even worse than that, and that human extinction is on the table.

The modern fear of existential risks probably started with the nuclear bomb and the concept of mutually assured destruction (MAD) during the Cold War. For the first time, we had enough firepower to literally blow up the world. Scientists and astronomers did research to show that the resulting fallout would create a “nuclear winter” making the planet all but inhabitable, and scientists like Carl Sagan did their part in raising public awareness of this. Cowering under desks in fear of a nuclear bomb made a powerful and lasting psychological impression on the Baby Boom generation

The next major red flag was probably the widespread acceptance of the idea that an asteroid collision wiped out the dinosaurs. People realized that over geologic time, the earth has been struck multiple times in the giant shooting-range that is the solar system. People realized that such a collision was game over, and that our dominance of the planet may be as temporary as that of the dinosaurs.

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, people began worrying about overpopulation and resource shortages. Books like The Population Bomb and The Limits to Growth made people increasingly aware that population might not be able to run ahead of resources forever, and that a Malthusian catastrophe was imminent. The subsequent decades saw a concerted campaign by politicians and the media to bury these concerns among the general public (which is still ongoing).

The Y2K threat ushered in another round of worry that planes would fall out of the sky, traffic lights would stop working, and that ATM machines would cease to function. It didn’t happen of course, but there is continuing unease about our utter dependence upon our frail modern technologies, whether it’s the electric grid, the refrigerated supply chains that ship our food around the world, or the digital computers which keep track of all our banking transactions. People also feel increasingly worried about our dependence on impersonal economic systems that seem to periodically break down. Our Rube-Goldberg economics system seem to be just playing roulette with all of the lives and livelihoods of people all over the planet. Nobody’s quite sure how food ends up on our shelves or how billions of dollars get transferred around the world every single day, and that’s causing a lot of angst. Flooding in Thailand means computer parts stores in California run out of inventory, a tsunami in Japan means car factories are shut down in Ohio, a drought in the Midwest means food prices in Egypt skyrocket, and nobody seems to be in control. Like the proverbial mountain climbers all roped together, if one too many people lose their grip, we are all pulled into the abyss. Since 2007, we’ve witnessed rolling financial crises around the world leading to mass unemployment, increased social dysfunction, the rise of far-right authoritarian movements, political paralysis, state failure, and societal collapse, among other things. And resource shortages and climate change are just getting warmed up (no pun intended).

And there’s so much more. Global pandemics like the 1918 flu outbreak could cause mass death, and new diseases like AIDS, Lyme disease, MRSA-resistant bacteria, and avian flu have health officials worrying about outbreaks of disease in a hyperglobalized society. The best-seller The Hot Zone, made people aware of deadly diseases like Ebola, and, there’s even worry about the construction of “synthetic” viruses through biotechnology that could be even more virulent than what nature could unleash. A solar Carrington event – essentially a massive solar flare--could destroy much of the electronic infrastructure that the world relies on. Some have speculated that the “methane gun” could lead to runaway climate change, changing the earth’s atmosphere into one similar to Venus, where it’s hot enough on the surface of the planet to melt lead. And some more imaginative scenarios have human creations like self- replicating nanobots or artificial intelligence running amok and wiping out the human race or turning us all into “gray goo.”

Today, the elimination of all of humanity seems to be all the rage. Whether it’s a nuclear winter, an asteroid strike, a global disease pandemic, a solar Carrington event, a financial collapse, a Malthusian catastrophe, runaway climate change, or self-replicating nanobots, it seems that Armageddon is on everyone’s’ minds lately. Here's Wikipedia's helpful rundown on existential threats to civilization.

But let’s say some existential threat to civilization really did take place, and some remnant of humanity survived after being wiped back to the Stone Age, or at least some sort of pre-industrial level of development. How would we preserve human knowledge accumulated during the modern era? Could we? Would it be possible to “rebuild” civilization at some future date? How would we pass a message along to our distant ancestors? And what would we say? That’s the subject of this meditation.

Believe it or not, people are actually thinking about this, and it’s leading to some interesting ideas. One proposal put forward by James Lovelock in the pages of Science magazine a few years back was to create a "Book of Science", similar to the Tyndale or King James Bible, that would store all our hard-won scientific knowledge in case of some sort of civilizational collapse.
We have confidence in our science-based civilization and think it has tenure. In so doing, I think we fail to distinguish between the life-span of civilizations and that of our species. In fact, civilizations are ephemeral compared with species. Humans have lasted at least a million years, but there have been 30 civilizations in the past 5000 years. Humans are tough and will survive; civilizations are fragile. It seems clear to me that we are not evolving in intelligence, not becoming true Homo sapiens. Indeed there is little evidence that our individual intelligence has improved through the 5000 years of recorded history. I prefer sociobiologist E. O. Wilson's view of us as unfortunate tribal carnivores that have acquired intelligence. Our evolution is more like that of social insects; the advances in knowledge and understanding that we prize are more a property of the human nests we call civilization than of its individual members.

As individuals, we are amazingly ignorant and incapable. How many of us, alone in a wilderness, could make a flint knife? Is there anyone now alive who knows even a tenth of everything there is to know in science? How many of those employed in the electricity industry could make any of its components, such as wires or switches? The important difference that separates us from the social insects is that they carry the instructions for nest building in their genes. We have no permanent ubiquitous record of our civilization from which to restore it should it fail. We would have to start again at the beginning.

Creating a permanent record of our civilization may not be as difficult as we imagine. What we need is a primer on science, clearly written and unambiguous in its meaning—a primer for anyone interested in the state of the Earth and how to survive and live well on it. One that would serve also as a primary school science text. It would be the scientific equivalent of the Bible. It would contain practical information such as how to light a fire, and things to wonder about when it was lit. It would explain the natural selection of living things and what we know about the universe. Among its contents would be the principles of medicine and surgery with an account of how the blood circulates and the role of the organs. We take for granted the facts of pharmacology and the existence of bacteria and viruses, but this knowledge could easily be lost and take centuries to recover. Equally vulnerable are the facts of engineering and thermodynamics—even basic instructions on how to measure temperature and pressure. A glance at the history of chemistry shows how long it took to discover the periodic table of the elements and to provide an account of the air, the rocks, and the oceans. The book would present science to schoolchildren and to adults in a relevant and interesting way. It would be more than a survival manual; it would help restore science as part of our culture and be passed down as an inheritance to future generations.

It is no use even thinking of presenting such a book on magnetic or optical media, or indeed any kind of medium that needs a computer and electricity to read it. Words stored in such a form are transient and have no tenure. Not only is the storage medium itself short-lived, but reading documents stored in these media depends on specialized hardware and software. In this technology, rapid obsolescence is usual. Modern media are more fallible instruments for long-term storage than was the spoken word. They require the support of a sophisticated technology that we cannot take for granted. What we need is a book written on durable paper with long-lasting print. It must be clear, unbiased, accurate, and up to date. Most of all we need to accept and to believe in it at least as much as we in the United Kingdom believed in, and perhaps still do believe in, the World Service of the BBC.
A Book For All Seasons (Science Magazine) In a similar vein, Open Source Ecology has proposed something called a “civilization startup kit,” which allows all of basic machines to construct a basic industrial civilization.

But even the most durable paper is subject to decay, and every book can be lost or destroyed, even if multiple copies exist. Here's one idea for information preservation:
DUBLIN—It seems these days that no data storage medium lasts long before becoming obsolete—does anyone remember Sony's Memory Stick? So have pity for the builders of nuclear waste repositories, who are trying to preserve records of what they've buried and where, not for a few years but for tens of thousands of years.

Today, Patrick Charton of the French nuclear waste management agency ANDRA presented one possible solution to the problem: a sapphire disk inside which information is engraved using platinum. The prototype shown costs €25,000 to make, but Charton says it will survive for a million years. The aim, Charton told the Euroscience Open Forum here, is to provide "information for future archaeologists." But, he concedes: "We have no idea what language to write it in."

It's made from two thin disks, about 20 centimeters across, of industrial sapphire. On one side, text or images are etched in platinum—Charton says a single disk can store 40,000 miniaturized pages—and then the two disks are molecularly fused together. All a future archaeologist would need to read them is a microscope. The disks have been immersed in acid to test their durability and to simulate ageing. Charton says they hope to demonstrate a lifetime of 10 million years.
A Million-Year Hard Disk (Science Magazine). One danger with this approach is that the valuable materials are likely to be stolen, much as the gold in ancient Egyptian tombs were.

Most things written in ancient times have been lost to us. Earlier in the essay Lovelock says:
Organisms that face desiccation often encapsulate their genes in spores so that the information for their renewal is carried through the drought. Could we encapsulate the essential information that is the basis of our civilization to preserve it through a dark age?

Well, according to the research of some scientists, we may be able to do much the same thing. A fascinating article on BBC describes the efforts of scientists to encode information into DNA. DNA stores information on how to create a living organism, but not all of it is used, many organisms contain extra "junk" DNA that could be used for storage. It is an extremely dense way of storing information, is easily transferable, and is quite stable, as the article excerpted below describes:
Living things have been storing information in DNA since the dawn of life, including the instructions for building every human, animal, bacterium and plant. The molecule itself looks like a twisting ladder, whose rungs are made of four molecules called bases that pair up in specific ways—adenine (A) with thymine (T), and cytosine (C) with guanine (G). If you can create your own strands of DNA, with the ones and zeroes of binary data converted into these As, Gs, Cs, and Ts, you have a storage medium that will never go obsolete. Sequencing machines will continue to improve and will need to be replaced, but once information is stored in DNA, that’s that.

In terms of information density, DNA outclasses anything we’ve been able to invent. A single gram can contain as much data as 3 million CDs. All of the world’s data would fit in the back of a minivan.

And once encoded into DNA, information is a doddle to copy. To transfer the contents of one hard disk into another, you need to hook both of them up to a computer and wait for minutes or hours. To transfer the contents of a tube of DNA, you dissolve it in water, suck up some of the liquid into a pipette, and squeeze it into another tube. It takes seconds. “I could copy a petabyte like this,” says Birney, who mimes depressing his thumb.

...Besides being universal, dense and easily copied, DNA is also incredibly stable. A recent study showed that DNA has a half-life of 521 years – that’s how long it takes for half the chemical bonds in its double helix to break. This estimate was based on DNA recovered from the 8,000-year-old leg bones of giant extinct birds called moas. But that’s nothing – these bones were preserved at 13C in New Zealand. Under gentler conditions, DNA’s shelf life last can stretch to tens of thousands of years. “For perspective, that’s all of modern human evolution,” says Birney.

At some point during their project, Goldman and Birney realised that such long-lasting information stored in DNA won’t just outlast new pieces of technology, but entire civilisations. They started thinking about a fanciful application: using DNA to apocalypse-proof human culture.

Imagine a future cataclysm that sends humanity back to the dark ages. Our population dwindles from billions to thousands. Electronic devices malfunction and digital information gets wiped. Languages die out, scientific knowledge is lost, and works of art are destroyed. But humanity bounces back. It takes 10,000 years but a new civilisation rises from the ashes and starts the process of re-discovery. The letters D, N and A would mean nothing to these descendants, but at some point, they would discover that a common molecule, shaped like a double helix, unites all living things. Using that molecule, we could provide them with an archive of all our scientific discoveries, our literature, and our immense treasure trove of cat videos.

Goldman and Birney have run through this thought experiment in surprising detail. For a start, they would build the archive somewhere cold, dry, dark and with “no immediate geological plans to relocate”. Think of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen. Built 130 metres (425 feet) above sea level and 120 metres (390 feet) into a mountainside, this unstaffed vault houses thousands of seeds to preserve the genetic diversity of food crops in case of a global crisis. It runs on coal power, but a DNA archive would not even need that. The elements would suffice.

Nature has already proved that this can work. Scientists have sequenced most of the woolly mammoth’s genome in this way, after extracting DNA from specimens that had spent up to 60,000 years in Siberian permafrost. The genome of the Denisovans – a group of extinct humans who lived in Asia – was sequenced using only the DNA from a 41,000-year-old finger bone found in a Siberian mountain cave.

Goldman and Birney’s hypothetical vault would have three rooms. First up: an introductory chamber, with explanatory illustrations etched on a durable metal like nickel or gold. We cannot assume that any modern languages or visual conventions will survive, but thankfully, the chemistry of DNA will remain unchanged. We could draw out the entire double helix, atom by atom, using concentric circles to represent the individual elements. To emphasise the point, add pictures of humans and other living things on the side. If the people who find the vault have already re-discovered DNA, this would all make sense. If they have not, then future-Watson and future-Crick just got a massive clue.

The chamber would contain a few test vials containing simple DNA messages for future cryptographers to decipher. Every step of the way, from DNA sequence to binary code would be etched in full on the walls – a Dummies’ Guide to DNA code-breaking. “You’d step them through all of those things visually and symbolically,” says Birney.

Maybe we would write the first hundred numbers in binary and circle the primes. Maybe we would present a full periodic table, with arrows pointing to the right elements.

By now, the explorers of 12,013 have worked out how to read our DNA code, but aside from some images, they are mostly faced with gobbledygook written in dead languages. “You’ve reconstructed the bytes of the sonnets but you have no idea what English is,” says Goldman. This is where the second room comes in – it is a massive Rosetta Stone. The same piece of text – perhaps the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights – would be translated into the most common languages and etched next to vials containing the same message in DNA. “The hope is that future civilisations can recognise one of these things, just like the Rosetta Stone,” says Birney. “We knew Greek, and from there we could go to hieroglyphics.”

Our intrepid descendants will need to get this far to decrypt the instructions for entering the third and final room, all of which are written in modern languages. It might take years or centuries. Birney imagines them “stepping through these dusty rooms and being confronted with all this ancient symbolism on some painstakingly engraved metal”. Eventually they gain access to the mother lode – the chamber that stores the complete knowledge from humanity’s first age, waiting to be decoded.
DNA storage: The code that could save civilisation (BBC)

Here is more: Engineers Invent Programming Language to Build Synthetic DNA (Science Daily), Computer files stored accurately on DNA in new breakthrough (Telegraph), Synthetic double-helix faithfully stores Shakespeare's sonnets (Nature)

As for that location where you could store such a thing, there are a couple of circumstances where people have thought about creating buildings that will last for millennia keeping their contents intact. One is mentioned in the text - the Svalbard Global Seed Vault:

The seedbank is constructed 120 metres (390 ft) inside a sandstone mountain at Svalbard on Spitsbergen Island. The bank employs a number of robust security systems. Seeds are packaged in special four-ply packets and heat sealed to exclude moisture. The facility is managed by the Nordic Genetic Resource Center, though there are no permanent staff on-site.

Spitsbergen was considered ideal due to its lack of tectonic activity and its permafrost, which will aid preservation. The location 130 metres (430 ft) above sea level will ensure that the site remains dry even if the icecaps melt. Locally mined coal provides power for refrigeration units that further cool the seeds to the internationally recommended standard −18 °C (0 °F). Even if the equipment fails, at least several weeks will elapse before the temperature rises to the −3 °C (27 °F) of the surrounding sandstone bedrock.
Prior to construction, a feasibility study determined that the vault could preserve seeds from most major food crops for hundreds of years. Some seeds, including those of important grains, could survive far longer, possibly thousands of years.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened officially on 26 February 2008. Approximately 1.5 million distinct seed samples of agricultural crops are thought to exist. The variety and volume of seeds stored will depend on the number of countries participating – the facility has a capacity to conserve 4.5 million. The first seeds arrived in January 2008. Five percent of the seeds in the vault, about 18,000 samples with 500 seeds each, come from the Centre for Genetic Resources of the Netherlands (CGN), part of Wageningen University, Netherlands.

Running the length of the building's flat roof and down the front face to the doors of the building's concrete entry is a work of art that marks the location of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault from a great distance. In Norway, government-funded construction projects exceeding a certain cost are required to include some kind of art work. KORO, the Norwegian State's agency overseeing art in public spaces, engaged the Norwegian artist Dyveke Sanne to make a lighting installation. The piece highlights the importance of light, and the qualities of light, in the Arctic. The roof and vault entrance are filled with highly reflective stainless steel, mirrors, and prisms. The installation acts as a beacon, reflecting polar light in the summer months, while in the winter, a network of 200 fibre-optic cables gives the piece a muted greenish-turquoise and white light.

An angular shard jutting out of the frozen ground in an arctic wasteland, the vault looks exactly as you would expect it - like something out of the imagination of Hollywood designer working on storyboards for a post-apocalyptic movie. The interior is much the same.

A more colorful proposal was put forward by the Long Now Foundation for a 10,000 year library (the Long Now Foundation, dedicated to making thinking on thousand-year time scales commonplace among scholars and world leaders, is already at work on a 10,000 year clock):
"You exit your vehicle at the base of a mountain in the high desert of the southwest United States. Looking up, you see a flight of shallow steps, each step carved from a layer of rock representing approximately 10,000 years of geologic time. After climbing 100 of these, or one million years into the future, you are awed and belittled by the greatness of geologic time.

"You arrive at a flat knoll where you see a cave ahead. Through the opening of the cave you see some large but slow movement. You proceed and gradually make out a giant pendulum swinging deep within. Once you reach the centre you realise you are within the clock mechanism and you are aware of the pendulum beating out its ten-second period.

"You proceed up a spiral staircase that will take you through the relatively low ceiling and up into the first layer of clock mechanics. On this layer you see the fastest of the mechanical calculation devices, which ticks once a day.

"As you go up flight after flight you see each progressive mechanism with its relatively slower tick, the last being the precession of the equinoxes, a 25,784-year cycle. The next few layers are the abstraction layers that adjust solar time to actual time and the delay for the pendulum-impulsing mechanism.

"When you reach the top of the stairs you are in a huge room several storeys tall. It is dimly lit from a slot cut through the living rock of the mountain on the southern face. You make out two giant helices, one descending either wall, each rotated by a falling weight that must weigh several tons.

"Then you are surprised by an immediate brightness in the room. It is coming from the sun that has just become directly in line with the slit on the wall. It is reflecting off a hemispherical mirror lighting up the whole room and heating up a sphere in the centre of a great dial. The heating of this sphere actuates a synchronisation mechanism that automatically adjusts the time of the clock to local noon. You can make out the dial around this sphere, now showing you the year in the cryptic method of keeping time when this clock was built. It reads: 11,567.

"At this point you wander through the rest of the facility to find a library and people accessing and preserving the data there. Akin to the truly ancient library of Alexandria, there is a constant forward migration of the data to better and denser methods of storage. In the main vault you find the original 1,000 books stored at the impossibly large scale of 100 nanometre pixels. These were the first 1,000 books stored in the clock/library chosen by its founders. Although not necessarily relevant to your time, what they began helped to teach people the value of knowledge over long periods of time. Without it humanity might have obsolesced itself out of existence without being able to look over the ancient records and find trends that are only apparent over centuries or millennia."
The Library (Long Now Foundation)

Doug Bosley
The other human construction that is animated by similar thinking is the nuclear storage facilty inside Yucca Mountain. This presents a unique challenge. Because nuclear waste is dangerous for tens of thousands of years, you need to find a way to tell people to stay away. But the lengths of time under consideration are longer than human civilization has existed. This presents unique challenges. ten thousand years ago, humans were bands of hunter-gatherers without writing or permanent shelter. What will be be in another ten-thousand?
Designing a "Keep Out" sign that lasts for 10,000 years and still holds meaning is not an easy task. After all, about 10,000 years ago, the Sahara was a fertile savanna, and humans were just beginning to put down their spears and figure out how to grow food. Ten thousand years from now, Earth could conceivably be populated by extraterrestrials.

In a clever bit of reverse archaeology, the U.S. Department of Energy has consulted futurists, archaeologists, materials scientists, astronomers, and others for the past decade to develop a long-term warning plan for the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico. The DOE began by forming two teams of experts in the early 1990s. They were given the task of coming up with a conceptual design for the warning system.

"The biggest obstacle the teams faced was the fact that you never know what the future will bring," said Kathleen Trauth, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Missouri–Columbia and lead author of the teams' final report submitted to the DOE in 1996. The teams got some clues to the difficulties they faced in creating warning systems as they studied ancient monuments such as Stonehenge, the obelisks of the Aztecs, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Native American pictographs, and a wealth of other artifacts from ancient cultures.

Just to begin with, the occupants of Earth 10,000 years from now might not speak or even know of any of the languages spoken today.

"Inevitably, someone will investigate the site in a non-intrusive manner. Nothing will happen to the person, and the rest of the message will therefore be ignored," the teams of consultants concluded. The same is true of efforts to try to scare people away; museums and private collections are full of the guardian figures ancient cultures designed—unsuccessfully—to keep thieves at bay.

Factors like these had to be weighed against a very practical consideration: any warning system structure would have to be built of materials that are extremely durable, even in highly fluctuating climate cycles, but not susceptible to recycling or valuable enough to draw the attention of thieves.

"We used the two-team approach to get some diversity of ideas," said Trauth. "What was interesting were the commonalities between the two teams. Both agreed on the need to use multiple levels of language, a diversity of communication methods, and multiple materials to convey the warning."

 Some of the conceptual designs the two teams considered—but did not recommend to DOE—were definitely designed to terrify potential intruders. The current DOE design is considerably less dramatic. The nuclear waste burial site will be surrounded by an earth-and-boulder berm 33 feet (10 meters) high and close to 100 feet wide (30 meters).

Inside the berm will be granite monuments, markers, and an information center with messages ranging in complexity from, say, pictographs showing a screaming face to highly technical information. The technical information will be written in seven languages—Navajo and the six official languages used by the United Nations: English, Spanish, Russian, French, Chinese, and Arabic. Navajo was included because it is the language of the largest indigenous group living in the region today. The warning information will be duplicated in two rooms that will be buried beneath the ground—one inside the berm and the other outside of it—in case something happens to the above-ground structure.

Of course, no warning system will work against people determined to ignore the message. "The warning system is designed to prevent someone from accidentally digging or drilling at the site," said Nelson. "The signs are for honest people. We cannot predict the cultural or societal setting 10,000 years from now, but we can predict human behavior.
Nuclear Waste Site Managers Seek "Keep Out" Tactics Good for 10,000 Years (National Geographic)

It's not totally academic; in 2004 excavators accidentally uncovered "abandoned" weapons-grade plutonium from World War 2 in a trench:
A jug found in a battered safe at a disused waste burial ground in the US held the world's oldest sample of weapons-grade plutonium, produced during the Manhattan Project.

The safe containing the one-gallon vessel was unearthed in 2004 during a clean-up operation of a waste trench at the Hanford nuclear site in Washington state. The clean-up team noticed the jug was partially filled with a mysterious white slurry and sent it for testing.

Scientists at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland have now revealed that the jug contained several hundred milligrams of bomb-grade plutonium, which they have dated to 1944 when the US nuclear programme was still in its infancy.
The task was entrusted to the so-called Human Interference Task Force, a collection of anthropologists, artists, historians and scientists whose job it is to figure out how to mark repositories for future generations. Wikipedia has a good summary of their conclusions. They include designing cats that glow in the presence of radioactivity, and designing "atomic flowers" that grow only near nuclear repositories as a warning sign. (Here is much more, form the book 'Deep Time')

Other proposals are to create stone monoliths in the mode of Stonehenge, which has been standing for thousands of years, to warn off future civilizations. Interestingly, Göbekli Tepe, an even older monolith than Stonehenge (predating Neolithic civilization) has been rediscovered recently (although it was presumably lost in the meantime). And in the wake of the Japanese tsunami of 2011 (which damaged the Fukushima reactor and cased a radiation leak), stone markers were discovered warning future generations of the dangers of tsunamis (which were apparently ignored):
Modern sea walls failed to protect coastal towns from Japan's destructive tsunami last month. But in the hamlet of Aneyoshi, a single centuries-old tablet saved the day.

"High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants," the stone slab reads. "Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point."

It was advice the dozen or so households of Aneyoshi heeded, and their homes emerged unscathed from a disaster that flattened low-lying communities elsewhere and killed thousands along Japan's northeastern shore.

Hundreds of such markers dot the coastline, some more than 600 years old. Collectively they form a crude warning system for Japan, whose long coasts along major fault lines have made it a repeated target of earthquakes and tsunamis over the centuries.
Ancient stone markers warned of tsunamis (CBS News)

One of the simpler ideas is to simply encase it in a facility so technically complex that future "fallen" civilizations would simply not possess the technological means to get inside (although they might try). But if we actually want future generations to retrieve the stored contents, this is not an option. Presumably we would want future humans to discover the genetic diversity of extinct seeds or the accumulated scientific knowledge of mankind; that's why we're storing it, after all.

One intriguing proposal was to use human social institutions; to create an "atomic priesthood" to pass down information through the generations. Some institutions like the Catholic Church have been around for thousands of years (c.f. A Canticle for Leibowitz), and organizations like Freemasonry are supposed to pass secret knowledge down over time among their members:
The crux of the stewardship problem is that it is hard to believe that any human institution can last the 10,000 years or more. Indeed, history is replete with failed governments. From ancient times to today’s world, the typical story is one of rise and fall, of kingdoms, sheikdoms, monarchies, dictatorships, and even democracies. Leaders come and go, bringing with them new ideas, religions, policies, and programs and leaving legacies easily changed by succeeding leaders and generations. In addition to governments, history has seen similar cycles for human settlements and cities, rise and fall, establishment and abandonment, and rediscovery. Modern-day institutions, such as the private corporation, are no morestable. Only a handful of American companies, out of millions, have managed to stay in business over 100 years and few of the survivors remain in the same business. The life expectancy of the average European or Japanese company is less than 13 years. Thus, at first glance, it appears that, institutionally speaking, active human stewardship of nuclear and hazardous waste sites even for hundreds of years into the future is an insurmountable challenge (although not always information–especially when in writing-is lost)

However, a closer look at history reveals numerous human institutions that have indeed survived for hundreds of years and even thousands of years. Many of these institutions are religious, but also universities. Human institutions associated with indigenous cultures can sometimes be traced by very long periods of time. For example, the N/um chai is a curing ceremony trace dance practiced by the Bushman of the Kalahari that can be traced back approximately 40,000 years

The linguist Thomas Sebeok was member of the Bechtel working group. Building on earlier suggestions he proposed the creation of an atomic priesthood, a panel of experts where members would be replaced through nominations by a council. The atomic priesthood would have to preserve the knowledge about locations and dangers of radioactive waste by creating rituals and myths. The priesthood would indicate off-limits areas and the consequences of disobedience.

The ‘atomic priesthood’ would be charged with the added responsibility of seeing to it that our behest [concerning the folkloric relay system] is to be heeded–if not for legal reasons, then for moral reasons, with perhaps the veiled threat that to ignore the mandate would be tantamount to inviting some sort of supernatural retribution."
Marking Nuclear Waste Disposal Facilities (PDF) In his essay, Lovelock speculates on some of the same problems:
In the Dark Ages, the religious orders of monasteries were the bearers of our culture. Much of this knowledge was contained in books, and the monks took care of them and read them as part of their discipline. Sadly, science is no longer a calling where scientists are the guardians of knowledge, but rather has become a narrowly specialized employment. Apart from a few isolated institutions, like the National Center for Atmospheric Research, science has no equivalent of the monasteries. So, who would guard the book? A book of science written with authority and as splendid a read as Tyndale's bible might need no guardians. It would earn the respect needed to ensure it a place in every home, school, library, and place of worship. It would then be on hand whatever happened. 
This approach has some problems, however:
This approach has a number of critical problems: the reliance on secrecy, manipulation and deceit--and the accompanying perceived need to create an elite–the atomic priesthood-that holds the secrets and does the manipulating.And just because the information about waste sites would grant power to a privileged class, people from outside this group might attempt to seize this information by force. 
All this speculation leads to a fascinating science-fiction scenario. Imagine a world where humanity has regressed to the Stone Age, or at least a fairly primitive state devoid of science or technology. The Enlightenment has disappeared, science is forgotten, and superstition rules the day (not so far-fetched; polls consistently show that almost half of Americans are young-earth creationists and believe in the existence of demons, and this number is going up, not down, over time. Even the heliocentric universe is doubted by a quarter of the population).

Ancient legends tell of an ancient all-wise people who encoded all the knowledge necessary to rebuild civilization to its earlier heights in a mystical book (maybe the oil has replenished itself by then). The book is stored inside a remote and inaccessible vault. Or, maybe it's stored inside the DNA of certain "chosen" individuals, and these individuals must be found because they unknowingly contain the secrets of humanity inside them. Maybe an underground secret society has kept this knowledge alive for millennia against all odds, with rituals that even they do not understand. Talk about your ultimate post-apocalyptic "quest" story! The possibilities are almost endless.


  1. Lovelock's idea is terrible, as are most of the other ideas.
    They amount to transmitting dogma.
    Even if humans or some intelligent life survives or arises, the data transmitted will be useless to anybody or any species until that species attains the knowledge that was "saved" anyway.

    Another way of looking at it: only a scientifically literate species would understand the information transmitted. They would know much of it anyway.

    The only thing worth transmitting is the way of thinking that is called "science" or natural philosophy. This way of thinking must be taught to children and young adults the hard way. The old fashioned way. By doing simple experiments, bringing out the microscope and petri dishes, and encouraging exploration and critical thinking.

    Modern thinkers and scientism believers always think there is a short-cut. There isn't.

    The only knowledge that survives is living knowledge. The Dark Ages monks kept some of this knowledge alive, though they didn't understand much of it. But they could read and write Latin. The Arabs did the same thing: they kept the traditions of ancient Greek thought alive. The mechanical reproduction of books was necessary but hardly sufficient.

    A one-million-year hard drive will be absolutely useless. Most people can't even read a 20 year old floppy disk.

    Living traditions survive.

  2. I can't recall the details, but I seem to recall that The Mote in God's Eye had at least some sketchy speculation along these lines involving the systems the Moties had set up to preserve their knowledge through periodic societal collapses.


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