the 10,000 year clock

The cover story of this month's Discover is about one of my favorite gizmos ever, the Clock of the Long Now. It goes into some technical details that I hadn't heard before.

Any description of the clock must begin and end with that ridiculous projected working life, that insane, heroic, incomprehensible span of time during which it is expected to serenely tick.

Ten thousand years.

The span of time from the invention of agriculture to the present. Twice as long as the Great Pyramid of Giza has stood. Four hundred human generations.

Hillis's plan for the final clock 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.

Incidentally, I see that there is finally an iCal feed for the usually-awesome Long Now lecture series.

Tags: ,

19 Responses:

  1. kraquehaus says:

    I think that the issue of vandals is going to be the downfall of this. You can't rely on a caretaker or humanity deciding that it has to be preserved.

    This reminds me of the discussions for how to make big warning "signs" at Yucca Mountain that last (and are universally understandable) as long as the nuclear waste.

    • jwz says:

      Well, you just have to make it indestructible, then... The pyramids did pretty good.

      (And also a secret Second Foundation to keep an eye on the caretaker.)

      "This place is not a place of honor."

      • strspn says:

        I love that PDF, especally starting around p. 150. The best forboding landcsaping that tax dollars can buy.

      • usufructer says:

        The pyramids did pretty good, but all they have to do to remain a pyramid is to be a pile of rocks with vaguely flat sides. But they were once much more pyramidal, with smooth, attractive stone covering the faces, stone that has been mostly stolen now.

        That clock, on the other hand, will stop working if any of a large number of parts are stolen or damaged.

        • jwz says:

          This is true, but we've gotten a lot smarter since then. It's not an easy problem, but I believe it's solvable.

      • rodgerd says:

        You might want to check out how many pyramids and other Egyptian antiquities were destroyed over the years. They survived because there were lots of them, not because they're indestructible.

  2. cavorite says:

    Wonderful idea, until a bear finds that natural opening. Goodbye 10,000 year plan.

  3. gfish says:

    When I first saw the project described I dismissed as implausible mental wankery, but the practical details are making it a lot more interesting. If they ever build it, I'll definitely have to make a pilgrimige.

  4. beschizza says:

    I'm awfully disappointed in those who pooh-pooh this as impractical on grounds of unwanted human or animal interference.

    Everyone knows that deep time mechanics are always protected by battalions of single-minded robots, hibernating until activated by their long-dead masters or by interlopers, who will be terminated.

  5. lars_larsen says:

    Mechanical binary computers? Thats so cool.

    I think the main problem is power and security. You cant trust that people will continue to visit the thing. Something producing energy from temp differences would be a good choice.

    Security is tricky. The only egyptian tombs we found not-destroyed were the ones that were totally sealed and hidden underground. That defeats the entire point of his machine.

    In a few thousand years there will be some psycho anti-really-old-clock religious cult who will destroy the machine.

  6. yenchek says:

    Perhaps they do have another secretly hidden and sealed clock underground and this is just a front.

  7. przxqgl says:

    here is a similar idea that is oriented more towards music than computing...

  8. mysterc says:

    Its almost as crazy as taking a nightclub and making it a cool place for musicians and artists that would otherwise have no place in the city to showcase their work. regardless of the legal, technical, administrative, and financial ahem challenges. not to mention the graffiti and other vandalism.

    posted via wmlj
  9. yesthattom says:

    Sadly, the building that the clock was stored in was just hit by a meteor.

    (Just kidding)

  10. buz says:

    There is another project like this that was some permanent way to mark a nuclear disposal site as being toxic. The thinking being that the skull and cross bones might no be enough to scare people away (as any trip to Hot Topic will prove true).

    I'll try to find some info on it.

  11. dzm6 says:

    Jem Finer (London artist and musician) created long running piece of art called Longplayer ( It's a musical compotisition designed to play for 1000 years without repeating itself.