Science

Time, Through The Ages

The "Infinity" issue of Opium magazine.
The “Infinity” issue of Opium magazine.

Red Fez, May 13, 2016.

I

“100 Years” is a movie written by John Malkovich that no one will see—till a century has passed. Set for release sometime in 2115 A.D., it’ll remain in a vault in southern France, which would open magically, when that time is up.

This project, a twist on the old time capsule, is a product of generational thinking. But it’s not the only one of its kind.

II

In June 2009, the “Infinity” issue of Opium magazine featured a piece of fiction on its cover that would take 1,000 years to tell, even though it’s a mere nine words long. It’s printed in double layers of standard black ink, overlaid with chemical coatings. As ultraviolet light peels them away, very gently, the text would emerge, at the pace of one in every 100 years. The work of Jonathan Keats, a thought experimenter, the prose is meant to be an antidote against the present-day culture of consuming media in a rush.

III

In 1986, Daniel Hillis, a polymath inventor and founder of the Long Now Foundation, thought of developing a clock that would tick once a year, move its hand once every 100 years and let the cuckoo out once every 1,000 years. The 10,000 Year Clock (a.k.a. Clock of the Long Now) would be capable of keeping time for 10,000 years. A symbol of the past, present and future, it’d be a monumental mechanical timepiece reminiscent of the Stonehenge.

The 10,000 Year Clock.
The 10,000 Year Clock.

Presently, it’s being built inside a mountain near Van Horn, a small town in western Texas, in a chamber hollowed out of a limestone cliff. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has pitched in $42 million into the horological endeavor.

To read the time on this clock, Kevin Kelly of WIRED, explains, travelers would need to head out at daybreak. They’d trek through a rugged trail in the desert scrubland to arrive—possibly, panting and nicked by thorns—at its hidden entrance in a rock face, nearly 2,000 feet above the valley floor. There, they’d meet a jade door; beyond it, another one, made of steel.

These serve as a kind of crude airlock, keeping out dust and beasts. They’d rotate their handles to let themselves in and seal the portal after they’re in. Pitch darkness would await them. They’d head into the blackness of a tunnel that goes on and on. But as with most such structures, this one too, would have light at the end of it.

Only, it’d be the reflection of a tiny dot of a beacon, coming down from the top of a shaft, 500 feet high and 12 feet in diameter. They’d then embark on another round of climbing, up a continuous spiral staircase, carved out of rock. They’d climb and climb till they came to the domed clock face, which looks like a gigantic planisphere (the sidereal equivalent of an atlas that shows the star patterns in the night sky.)

The clock keeps perfect time, but displays the hour only when someone wants to know it. They must, therefore, “ask” it, for when they come upon it, it’ll show them the time of arrival of the pilgrims who came before them. To conserve energy, it doesn’t move its dials unless turned—by a hiker. Once awakened from hibernation, though, it’ll show them the correct time and date.

By itself, it keeps running. It channels thermal energy—the difference in the temperatures between day and night—to power itself. A small-scale version of the clock is exhibited at the London Science Museum. Even this small model clocks in (pun, please) at about six feet.

IV

In Isaac Asimov’s “Prelude to Foundation”—a prequel to the “Foundation” series, a science-fiction epic in seven volumes—Dors Venabili, the future wife of the protagonist Hari Seldon, ruminates on where human beings originated.

“They must have originated somewhere,” she wonders.

Hari Seldon replies, “Earth? Is that what they call the supposed world of origin?”

The novel is set more than 10,000 years from now. In this far-future, humans have colonized vast tracks of our home galaxy and created a complex civilization that presides over a jaw-dropping 25 million planet-provinces.

Perhaps that vision will come to pass. In which event, the 21st century will have been forgotten as a blip on the geological calendar. Or, perhaps humankind will have perished by then. But under a hill on old Terra, a mammoth machine of our era could still be slowly ticking away, recording the passing of time.

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