To Whom It May Concern
[This article was written by Sam Ross. He blogs at towerofbuckets.wordpress.com]
When it comes to designing a time capsule for all of humanity, it helps to have a good writing team. So Wikipedia, an organisation of almost uniformly altruistic people willing to give up their time for the good of humanity, seems like a pretty ideal candidate. And, like all the best time capsules, we should put this one in a nice iconic place, where it won’t get damaged. The Moon, maybe?
The PTScientists are honoured to be part of this project – taking a curated subset of Wikipedia, packing it onto a super high-density silicon disc and flying it to the surface of the Moon. To stay.
So, if you were designing a time capsule for us to take to the Moon – a time capsule that could be read in a thousand or ten thousand years, what do you pack? In my opinion, deciding what to put in this package depends who the package is for.
Scenario 1 – “Nothing beside remains…”
In Percy Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, the narrator discovers the remains of a stone statue in the desert – all that’s left of a mighty civilisation now fallen to dust.
This scenario assumes that whoever finds the disc will be human, and that they will be more advanced than us. Unless we manage to wipe ourselves out with war or climate change, it’s a fair bet that we will still be kicking around in a thousand years, and that our technology will be pretty damn awesome – look where we are now compared to the early 11th century, after all. While we have some records from back then (in the Western world at least), they are far from comprehensive. If we were considering the Holy Grail of a time capsule from that age, it should give us some idea of what we should give to the future. Putting ourselves in the shoes of the future discoverer of this information is, I think, an excellent way to begin curation.
So this plan is as follows - we take Wikipedia articles on cutting edge science and technology, across all fields. Computer science, cosmology, neuroscience, rocketry – the whole lot. Then add in some information on current and recent geopolitical events, but on a much larger scale than we usually consider. I’m talking the rise of electricity and nuclear technology, the fall of the Soviet empire and the explosive growth of computers. Then throw in some information about the global economy, modern religion, the progress of space exploration and some data about the Earth’s ecological state.
Because what we find interesting about time capsules is the world that existed when the capsule was buried. We look at quotes from inventors like Alexander Graham Bell, who once said “I truly believe that one day, there will be a telephone in every town in America” and we marvel at how far our society has come. So, if that is what we look for in records from days gone by, surely it would make sense to pack some.
And as for the rest – in 1000 years, we may well have forgotten the Arab Spring, or that China was ever not a global superpower. Or, we may have forgotten that any of these things existed at all. Which leads nicely to option 2.
Scenario 2 – So long, and thanks for all the fish
In 1000 years, society as we know it may well have been destroyed. It could be that we destroyed each other through some kind of nuclear or biological warfare, or that climate change finally destroyed our food supply system. The Earth could be inhabited by Neolithic humans, or humanity could have been wiped out completely, or we might have even gone and eradicated life on Earth completely. Either way, the Moon is probably going to be left alone for a long time – tens of thousands, or millions of years maybe. And hopefully, the little PTScientists rover will be sitting on the lunar surface, electrical systems slowly corroding and the temperature variations damaging the structural components. But the little quartz disc will be sitting in a box, just fine with it all. Unless the rover is struck with debris, the disc would quite easily last for thousands of years and the data would still be readable.
So in, let’s say, 50 thousand years, society has rebuilt. We’ve adapted to the hotter temperatures, higher radiation levels and total lack of any fossil fuels (you’re welcome, future humans) and we’ve got close to where we are today. On that sort of timescale there will very little left of modern civilisation – maybe a few very resilient bunkers like the Global Seed Vault, and a layer of plastic coating the Earth (again, you’re welcome). But probably very few records of humanity. Apart from…
The disc will be sitting, more or less intact, on the surface of the Moon. So if these hypothetical future humans arrive on the Moon’s surface, we have the chance to give them the mother of all Rosetta Stones – 100GB of data about humanity and everything we achieved.
So, what do we pack? A good amount of data on human biology for sure, and as much as we can get of current technology. Probably some information on human religion, how we interact with the world around us and things about that world. But individual humans, and geopolitics? Probably not, I think. We aren’t interested in dinosaur politics (although a dinosaur UN is a great mental image), but dinosaur sociology and biology. Sure, we might want to have a few great minds (Euclid, Copernicus, Einstein) but I don’t think that we should pack any politicians. Our geopolitics exists on such a short timescale that there is almost no real value in taking any of it, even if we assume that future humans still have any interest in our politics.
Now, I don’t claim that either of these are the ‘right’ or the ‘more informed’ solutions to the WikiMoon question. There is no right answer – that’s why they call it democracy. The community will talk it out and eventually reach a consensus that (hopefully) most people agree on. And for a few weeks, those people will have been a part of a larger project. Not just the WikiMoon project, or Wikipedia itself, or the PTScientists mission. Those people will have helped stamp our generation’s mark in a positive way, in a form that will hopefully last for millennia.
And maybe, some day, that little quartz disc will be recovered by some future humans. And they will know so much about us that they wouldn’t otherwise. Which, if you ask me, is a goal worth working for.
Image 1: By Elisabeth Mandl (WMDE) - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48298261
Image 2: Audi Lunar Quattro, PTScientists, http://lunar.xprize.org/teams/part-time-scientists
Image 3: Apollo 17 - Returning to the Rover, NASA