Wednesday, October 19, 2005

The 10,000 year clock

The Clock of the long now.

To forestall looting ... it cannot contain parts made of jewels and expensive metals. In case of societal collapse, it must be maintainable with Bronze Age technology. It must be understandable while intact, so that no one will want to take it apart.

What kind of machine can, for 10 millennia, accurately reconcile hours, days, weeks, months, leap years, leap centuries, the precession (wobbling around an axis) of planetary orbits, and, grandest cycle of all, the 25,784-year precession of the equinox? Answer: a digital one... Bits and bytes are typically rendered electronically, but Hillis says he "rejected electronics from the start. It would not be technologically transparent..." So Hillis invented ... a mechanical binary computer... Still, no mechanical clock, however cleverly crafted, can keep perfect time for 10,000 years. So Hillis added solar synchronization: A sunbeam striking a precisely angled lens at noon triggers a reset by heating, expanding, and buckling a captive band of metal...

"So when you visit the clock, it shows the last time someone was there," says Hillis. "When you wind it, it catches up to now and stops, set for the next person. It rewards attention."

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