Thursday, October 20, 2005

Time for Inspiration

MelbournePhilosopher points to a fascinating article about what could be the next great 'wonder of the world' -- a massive, stable, self-sufficient clock designed to survive and continue functioning perfectly for ten thousand years:
Hillis's plan for the final clock, which he reserves the right to change, has it built inside a series of rooms carved into white limestone cliffs, 10,000 feet up the Snake Range's west side. A full day's walk from anything resembling a road will be required to reach what looks like a natural opening in the rock. Continuing inside, the cavern will become more and more obviously human made. Closest to vast natural time cycles, the clock's slowest parts, such as the zodiacal precession wheel that turns once every 260 centuries, will come into view first. Such parts will appear stock-still, and it will require a heroic mental exertion to imagine their movement. Each succeeding room will reveal a faster moving and more intricate part of the mechanism and/or display, until, at the end, the visitor comprehends, or is nudged a bit closer to comprehending, the whole vast, complex, slow/fast, cosmic/human, inexorable, mysterious, terrible, joyous sweep of time and feels kinship with all who live, or will live, in its embrace.

Or so Hillis hopes.

Some people will no doubt make a pilgrimage to the cavern, but for the next century at least, that will probably require some commitment, as the site is "as far as you can get from civilization within the continental United States," Hillis says. "That will help people forget about it and avoid the contempt of familiarity."

Most people, however, will never visit the clock, just as most people never visit the Eiffel Tower. They will only know that it exists. That knowledge alone will acquaint them with the Long Now, and that is part of the plan.

There seems something incredibly noble about the whole project. I love it. And it can't hurt to put things in perspective for us too, as the author notes:
Most humans are preoccupied with the here and now. Albert Einstein, echoing the sentiments of other deep thinkers of the modern era, argued that one of the biggest challenges facing humanity is to "widen our circle of compassion" across both space and time. Everything from ethnic discrimination to wars, such reasoning goes, would become impossible if our compassionate circles were wide enough...

Hillis, at first motivated by a vague desire to promote long-term thinking, has been transformed by his idea: "Now I think about people who will live 10,000 years from now as real people." His eyes take on a distant focus as he says this, as if he sees them massed on the horizon. "I had never thought that way before."


  1. "Widen our circle of compassion": I presume this means the same thing as "stengthining our moral torches", or "expand our spheres of moral light."

    "Now I think about people who will live 10,000 years from now as real people." - hopefully we can think of people who lived 100 years *ago* as real people as well.

  2. Having read the article, I see how irresistable the concept is, and how easy it is to share the guy's zest and foresight and god-like perversity, and to salivate over his contraption, with all its precision and massed metallic detail. Nevertheless, I can't help thinking, firstly, of how expensive the whole thing must be, and how much more noble it might be for Hillis's sponsors to express their compassion in donations to a worthwhile charity, rather than in the realisation of a bizarre technological fantasy; and secondly, of how odd it is that people need such a colossal enterprise to remind them of their place in eternity, when anyone with an imagination can appreciate this, at no cost at all, by watching a present-day spider do its fleeting silk-work in the brief quiet of a Friday morning, as it and other spiders have done on every brief morning since brief mornings began, and in the same sun that shone on all the spiders that were breifly alive before them, and in the same very old sun that looks a bit newer every day, and which makes each new web flash briefly in a new place, every time it comes down and hits it with a new light; or by reading a book written by a dead author; or by doing any other such thing with thought and sensitivity. It is a shame if people need a piece of engineering to tell them these things.

    PS: Apologies for my grammar in the first comment.

  3. It is an inspiring idea, one I first read about on (here and here). If you're not reading Edge then you should be - it's where lots of top people from all fields of science talk about what they do and discuss things that are relevant outside of pure science. If you are reading Edge then that's great, because that's what you should be doing.

    Like Mike B., sometimes it strikes me as disheartening that people need these kinds of grand gestures to think beyond their narrow little place and time. At other times, though, it strikes me as wonderful that people are ever able to extend their imaginings to such distances, so that even people who will not be born for ten thousand years seem real to them. No other creature, as far as I know, is capable of approaching such a feat.

  4. Well perhaps the Egyptians could have paid some slaves instead of building Grand pyramids, but that would have left natural history somewhere different to where it is today. Thank goodness they didn't.

    Its a great project. Perhaps sad people need reminding, but that is not the fault of the project.


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