The 500-Year-Long Science Experiment

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The 500-Year-Long Science Experiment (The Atlantic)
In 2014, microbiologists began a study that they hope will continue long after they’re dead.

In the year 2514, some future scientist will arrive at the University of Edinburgh (assuming the university still exists), open a wooden box (assuming the box has not been lost), and break apart a set of glass vials in order to grow the 500-year-old dried bacteria inside. This all assumes the entire experiment has not been forgotten, the instructions have not been garbled, and science—or some version of it—still exists in 2514.

This is a biology experiment that’s planned to run for half a millenium. How does one even make such a thing possible?

Thinking about the difficulties in constructing a message that may be understood for generations into the future reminds me of the work done on a possible marking system for nuclear waste disposal (which would need to continue to carry the message that a place is dangerous for ten thousand years).

This kind of philosophical thinking may require further work, though, if we’re ever to send spacecraft on interstellar journeys: another kind of “long” experiment. How might we preserve the records of what we’ve done, so that our descendants have the opportunity to continue our work, in a way that promotes the iterative translation and preservation of the messages that are required to support it? For example: if an experiment is to be understandable if rediscovered after a hypothetical future dark age, what precautions do we need to take today?


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The time capsule was buried in a secluded square in Murmansk in 1967 on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Inside was a message dedicated to the citizens of the Communist future. At short notice, the authorities brought forward the capsule’s exhumation by ten days, to coincide with the city’s 101st birthday. With the stroke of an official’s pen, a mid-century Soviet relic was enlisted to honour one of the last acts of Tsar (now Saint) Nicholas II, who founded my hometown in October 1916. From socialism to monarchism in ten days. Some of the city’s pensioners accused the local government of trying to suppress the sacred memory of the revolution. ‘Our forefathers would be turning in their graves,’ one woman wrote in a letter to the local paper. The time capsule ‘is not some kind of birthday present to the city; it’s a reminder of the centenary of the great October Revolution and its human cost.’

My father had watched the time capsule being buried. He came to Murmansk aged 17. From his remote village, he had dreamed of the sea but he failed the navy’s eye test. In October 1967, he was a second-year student at the Higher Marine Engineering Academy, an elite training school for the Soviet Union’s massive fishing fleet. As a year-round warm water port, Murmansk – the largest human settlement above the Arctic Circle – is a major fishing and shipping hub, home to the world’s only fleet of nuclear-powered ice-breakers…