Göbekli Tepe and the Worst Day in History

Posted on May 24th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
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Technological advances are revolutionizing the field of archaeology, resulting in new discoveries that are upending our previous understanding of the birth of civilization. Many scholars believe that few will be as consequential as Göbekli Tepe.

The ruins of Göbekli Tepe. Photograph by Vincent J. Musi.


IN 01963, anthropologists from the University of Chicago and the University of Istanbul surveyed ruins atop of a hill in Southern Turkey that the locals called Göbekli Tepe (“potbelly hill” in Turkish). Examining the broken limestone slabs dotting the site, the anthropologists concluded that the mound was nothing more than a Byzantine cemetery—a dime a dozen in the ruin-rich Levant region.

Three decades later, German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt made a startling claim: Göbekli Tepe was the site of the world’s oldest temple. Geomagnetic surveys of the site revealed circles of  limestone megaliths dating back 11,600 years—seven millennia before the construction of Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza, six millennia before the invention of writing, and five centuries before the development of agriculture.

Photograph by Vincent J. Musi.


The implications of Schmidt’s discoveries were profound, and called into question previous archaeological and scientific understandings about the Neolithic Revolution, the key event in human development pointed to as the birth of human civilization. “We used to think agriculture gave rise to cities and later, to civilization,” journalist Charles Mann wrote in a 02011 National Geographic cover story on the site. “[Göbekli Tepe] suggests the urge to worship sparked civilization.” As Andrew Curry of The Smithsonian put it after a visit to Göbekli Tepe with Schmidt:

Scholars have long believed that only after people learned to farm and live in settled communities did they have the time, organization and resources to construct temples and support complicated social structures. But Schmidt argues it was the other way around: the extensive, coordinated effort to build the monoliths literally laid the groundwork for the development of complex societies.

Einkorn wheat was first domesticated near Göbekli Tepe—perhaps, posits Charles Mann, to feed those who came to worship. Photo by Vincent J. Musi.


Schmidt believed that humans made pilgrimages to Göbekli Tepe from as far away as 90 miles. But then there’s the question of what, exactly, these pilgrims were worshipping. As Curry mused after his visit to Göbekli Tepe:

What was so important to these early people that they gathered to build (and bury) the stone rings? The gulf that separates us from Gobekli Tepe’s builders is almost unimaginable. Indeed, though I stood among the looming megaliths eager to take in their meaning, they didn’t speak to me. They were utterly foreign, placed there by people who saw the world in a way I will never comprehend. There are no sources to explain what the symbols might mean

In a March 02017 article in the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry, Martin B. Sweatman and Dimitrios Tsikritsis proposed a bold theory: the pillars are telling the story of a comet hitting the earth and triggering an ice age some 13,000 years ago. The comet strike, known as the Younger Dryas Impact Event, is hypothesized to have set off a global cooling period that depleted hunter-gatherer resources and forced humans to settle into areas where they could cultivate crops.

On the left, an artistic rendering of the Younger Dryas Impact Event. On the right, the night sky around 10,950 BC when the impact hypothetically occurred. Image: Martin B. Sweatman and Dimitrios Tsikritsis


Combining the approaches of astronomy and archaeology, Sweatman and Tsikritsis claim that the animals carved on the pillars depict constellations, with the famous vulture stone indicating a time stamp of the night sky at the time of the catastrophe. Using computer software, Sweatman and Tsikritsis matched the animal carving to patterns of the stars, yielding three possibilities that synced up to their astronomical interpretations, plus or minus 250 years: 02000, 4350 BCE, 10,950 BCE, and 18,000 BCE.

The date of 10,950 BCE aligns with the latest hypotheses as to when the Younger Dryas Impact Event occurred, lending credence to Sweatman and Tsikritsis’ interpretation that the Vulture Stone depicts what Sweatman calls “probably the worst day in history since the end of the Ice Age.”

The famous vulture stone, which Sweatman and Tsikritsis claim depicts the constellations of the night sky. Photo by Vincent J. Musi.


But, as Becky Ferreira of Motherboard reports, there’s reason to regard Sweatman and Tsikritsis’ claims with skepticism. For one, many scholars do not accept the Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis that a comet strike served as the catalyst for the Ice Age that followed. Some have also criticized Sweatman and Tsikritsis’ study for omitting crucial information to make their case. Archaeologist Jens Notroff, a researcher at the Göbekli Tepe site, takes Sweatman and Tsikritsis to task for failing to mention that the headless man on the vulture stone, which they claim symbolizes the devastating loss of human life after the comet, also possesses an erect phallus—hardly a robust indicator of loss of life.

“There’s more time between Gobekli Tepe and the Sumerian clay tablets [etched in 3300 B.C.] than from Sumer to today,” says Gary Rollefson, an archaeologist at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. “Trying to pick out symbolism from prehistoric context is an exercise in futility.”

Perhaps. But if the recent archaeological discoveries are any indication, we are often mistaken in our assumptions about the complexity and historic trajectory of ancient civilizations. Time will tell. And technology will help.

FURTHER READING

As of this writing, Sweatman and Tsikritsis are working on a rebuttal to critiques of their paper.

Read Sweatman and Tsikritsis’ article in full.

Göbekli Tepe was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative List five years ago and is expected to become a protected UNESCO Heritage site next year.

Read our February 02017 feature on how one historian is combining the approaches of comparative mythology of evolutionary biology with new computational modeling technologies to reconstruct some of humanity’s oldest myths.

Read Charles Mann’s National Geographic story in full. Mann also gave a Seminar for Long Now in April 02012.

Is Anything Original? The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Remediation

Posted on May 19th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
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As PBS Newshour reports, modern-day renaissance workshop Factum Arte preserves art and historical works threatened by war, looting and the passage of time by creating high tech, full-scale reproductions of them. In so doing, the organization is challenging notions of what constitutes an original work of art.

Factum Arte is recreating works of art recently destroyed by ISIS and damaged in the Syrian Civil War. Via Factum Arte.

 

A Monument to Outlast Humanity

Posted on May 17th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
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“City” is made almost entirely from rocks, sand, and concrete that is mined and mixed on site. Via Jamie Hawkesworth / The New Yorker

Michael Heizer, an eccentric pioneer of the Earthworks movement, is almost done with the mile-and-a-half sculpture he’s been working on for upwards of half a century in a remote Nevada desert. And almost nobody has seen it. “City,” inspired by the ancient ritual sites of past civilizations and set to open to the public in 02020, is one of the most ambitious artworks ever attempted. The New Yorker recently profiled Heizer’s life and work, providing the first in-depth look at his efforts to build a monument to outlast humanity.

Read the feature in full here. To see more photos of “City,” head here.

SEE ALSO: Long Now’s 02012 profile of Heizer’s Levitating Mass, a 340-ton mass of granite and one of the only sculptures in the world meant to be walked under, now on permanent display at LACMA.

The Orrery at The Interval: An Invitation to Long-Term Thinking

Posted on April 24th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
link   Categories: Clock of the Long Now, Long Term Science, Long Term Thinking, The Big Here, The Interval   chat 0 Comments

As visitors to Fort Mason amble past The Interval, the Long Now Foundation’s cafe-bar-museum-venue space, some are drawn, as if by gravitational pull, to an unusual eight foot-tall stainless steel technological curiosity they glimpse through the glass doors. Metal gears sit stacked one on top of the other to form a tower, with geneva wheels jutting out like staircase steps. Halfway up, the structure blooms into a globe of crisscrossing rings of metal, with seven orbs of differing color and size strung along them.

It is the Long Now Orrery, a twenty-first century interpretation of an ancient device that tracks the relative position of the six planets visible to the naked eye (Mercury through Saturn) as they make their way around the sun.



Orreries came in vogue in Europe during the Age of Enlightenment, where they were deployed as aids to teach a largely non-scientific public about the new heliocentric universe being revealed by the Scientific Revolution. After centuries of believing the Earth was the static, privileged center of the universe, orreries helped the European imagination re-calibrate to a bigger here and a longer now.

The Orrery at the Interval has much the same role. It is both a mechanism and an icon. As a mechanism, it functions as the first working prototype of an orrery that will help the 10,000 Year Clock tell time through the millennia. The one in the clock will be four times as large. As an icon, the Orrery draws people into the orbit of long-term thinking and opens up a space for conversations about our place in the universe.

Here’s how it works.

 

I. The Center of the Universe (01543)

The Ptolemaic understanding of the universe, with the Earth stationary at the center. By Cellarius, Harmonia Macrocosmical, (01660).

It is clear, then, that the earth must be at center and immovable.

—ARISTOTLE, De Caelo

It was something of an open secret in seventeenth century European astronomy circles: the Earth revolved around the sun.

The notion was not without historical precedent. In 01514, when Nicolaus Copernicus began privately circulating his theory on planetary motion, he cited the Greek astronomer Aristarchus of Samos, who proposed a heliocentric model of the universe in the third century BCE.

An armillary sphere in a painting by Florentine Italian artist Sandro Botticelli, (c. 01480). Via Wikipedia.


But in the context of early modern Europe, the implications were profound, and appeared to contradict both common sense and the Bible. Since the time of Ptolemy (ca. 150 AD), the West conceived of the cosmos in anthropocentric and geocentric terms. This cosmographic understanding was reflected in calendars, maps and the armillary sphere, an ornate physical model of the cosmos consisting of a spherical framework of rings that mapped celestial longitude and latitude from the Earth’s perspective.

A drawing by Nicolaus Copernicus of the heliocentric model of the Solar System with the Earth revolving around the Sun. From his On The Revolutions of The Heavenly Spheres (01543).

 

Now, in the model put forth by Copernicus, the Earth was reduced to a mere point in a sun-centered universe, no more special than its celestial neighbors. Anticipating the upheavals his ideas would bring about, Copernicus delayed publishing On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres until 01543, the year after his death and the year most historians point to as the start of the Scientific Revolution.

Galileo’s discovery of the four moons of Jupiter using the newly invented telescope in January 01610 proved that the solar system contained celestial bodies that did not orbit Earth. And Newton’s theories of universal gravity and gravitational attraction, first proposed in 01687, explained why planets orbit along elliptical trajectories—something first inferred by the German astronomer Johannes Kepler in 01609.

But it would take more than observation and theory for Europeans at large to shake the notion that the Earth was not the center of the universe.

It would take the orrery.

 

II. Round the Gilded Sun (01704)

An orrery of John Rowley. Detail of an engraving from The Universal Magazine (01749).

 

O! pray! move on, Sir, said she, this is amazingly fine: I fancy myself travelling along with that little Earth in its course round the gilded Sun, as I know I am in reality with that on which I stand, round the real one.

—JOHN HARRIS, Astronomical Dialogues, (01725)

Astronomers and scientists began constructing orreries to get celestial bearings in this new Copernican universe. The orrery built on the armillary sphere, but with a Copernican twist: viewers would not only be able to see this new universe in miniature; they’d be able to track the movements of its planets over time.

The deeper, theological implications of heliocentrism were baked into the design. As Denis Cosgrove, in his cartographic genealogy of the Earth in the Western imagination (02001), writes:

The Creator’s disengagement from an active presence was implicit in the new cosmology, and had profound implications for global images and meanings. Unlike the armillary, the orrery’s meaning lies in motion: inert matter is driven by forces that once set in motion continue to operate independently as the variously sized spheres revolve at divergent speeds.

George Graham’s orrery and its mechanism, constructed sometime between 01704-01709. Via Museum of the History of Science, Oxford.


The credit for inventing the first modern orrery is disputed. The device would not answer to the name until famed inventor John Rowley presented one to Charles Boyle, the Fourth Earl of Orrery, in 01713. Rowley — and, more rarely, Orrery himself — is sometimes credited as the orrery’s inventor, but Rowley based his model’s design on a proto-orrery created in 01704 by English clockmakers George Graham and Thomas Tompion. Graham and Tompion’s model was simple, displaying only the Earth and its orbiting moon as it made its way across the sun.

 Stukeley’s drawing of Hales’ orrery. It bears the inscription: ‘This was a drawing I made at CCCC from a machine invented and executed by Mr. Stephen Hales, about 1705.’ Via Geared to the Stars (01978).


Then there’s the matter of William Stukeley, a physician and friend of Isaac Newton who, as Henry C. King (01978) puts it, “had the unfortunate habit of adding retrospective notes and passages to his early diaries.” Stukeley believed that it was Stephen Hales, a classmate from his days at Cambridge, and not Rowley, who was the orrery’s true inventor. In a 12 December 01752 diary entry, he writes:

about the year whilst I resided in Bennet Coll. [Chorpus Christi] where Dr. Hale [sic] was then fellow, at his request I made a drawing, which I had still by me, of a planetarium made by Dr. Hale. It was a machine to shew the motion of the earth moon & planets, in the nre [nature] of what they have since made in London, by the name of Orrerys. Dr. Hales proposed to me that we shd make another, upon an improv’d design, but my father dying, whilst I was undergraduate, wh making my stay at college somewhat uncertain, the design was dropped.

An animation of the 21 plates of Edward Quin’s 01830 atlas, which mapped the “Known World” from 2348 BCE to 01828. Via Slate.


These competing claims for provenance in the early eighteenth century occurred against the backdrop of a rapidly changing world. Philosophers and scientists vaunted reason and empirical observation as the sources of authority, contradicting the church. Seafarers and traders navigated across unmapped waters, bringing back with them astronomical knowledge that fueled global competition among European states. This competition, in turn, drove many clockmakers to produce devices of ever greater precision, not just for navigators for the lay public as well. “Knowledge of the terrestrial globe, its place in the solar system, and its geographical patterns,” writes Cosgrove, became “a prerequisite for educated men and women.”

“The Compleat Orrery described by Mr. S. Dunn” (01780). Via Geared to the Stars (01978).


As Henry C. King writes in his history of orreries, planetaria, and astronomical clocks (01978):

Some of the best work went into machines made for kings, princes, and wealthy patrons, but towards the end of the eighteenth century in England public interest in Newtonian natural philosophy encouraged instrument-makers to consider a wider market for their products. Like Blaeu and Moxon of an earlier age, they found it worthwhile to make machines that sacrificed ornamentation, but not necessarily craftsmanship, for scientific excellence and educational merit. The study of astronomy no longer became the prerogative of a chosen few but was laid open to the understanding of any literate person, regardless of social and educational background.

Orreries grew more popular and advanced as the Enlightenment swept Europe over the eighteenth century. They came to be seen as more than just a visual instruction in the new science; they were desirable possessions and icons of the scientific method. Most importantly, they succeeded in reorienting a largely non-scientific public to a perspective that could see the implications of Copernicanism as obvious, instead of radical.

A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery (01766), by Joseph Wright. Via Wikipedia.


Joseph Wright of Derby’s A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery (01766) underscores the Enlightenment Age shift from traditional religious models towards ones based on reason and empirical observation. A domestic group of eight gathers round an orrery, its sun represented by a candle so illuminating that a man sitting to its right must shield his eyes. A scholar leans over the orrery, explaining its mechanics and underlying Newtonian principles. Breaking from artistic tradition, the faces of the two boys sitting at the orrery’s edge express the kind awe and wonder normally reserved for religious events and icons.

As art historian Abram Fox puts it:

According to the French academies of art, the highest genre of painting was history painting, which depicted Biblical or classical subjects to demonstrate a moral lesson. This high regard for history painting was adopted by the British. Wright took this noble, aggrandizing method of portraying events and applied it to a composition showing a contemporary subject in A Philosopher Lecturing at the Orrery.

Rather than a moral of leadership or heroism, this painting’s “moral” is the pursuit of scientific knowledge. With its collection of non-idealized men, women, boys, and girls informally arranged in a small physical space around a central organizing point, Wright’s painting mimics the compositional structure of a conversation piece (an informal group portrait), but with the dramatic lighting and scale expected from a major religious scene.

In effect, A Philosopher Lecturing at the Orrery does depict a moment of religious epiphany. The figures listening to the philosopher’s lecture in Wright’s painting are experiencing conversion…to science.

The Orrery in Aughra’s observatory in The Dark Crystal (01982).


Orreries eventually fell out of favor as the modern world developed and the Copernican perspective became the default way of understanding the world. Mechanical orreries are still being built, but they are more works of art than instruction aid. Today, few outside horology and cosmography would be familiar with the term “orrery,” though orreries have occasionally made pop culture cameos, notably in climactic, high stakes scenes in The Dark Crystal (01982) and Tomb Raider (02001).

A fragment of the Antikythera mechanism. The scales on Fragment C divide the year by days and signs of the zodiac. Via Smithsonian.


But orreries still have lessons to teach. The discovery of the Antikythera mechanism, a proto-orrery and analogue computer dating back to 200 BCE that displayed the diurnal motions of the Sun, Moon and the five known planets, has challenged our assumptions about antiquarian astronomy and technology. Found in a 01901 shipwreck off the Greek coast by sponge divers, the Antikythera mechanism mystified scholars until 02006, when advances in x-ray technology revealed a hidden differential gear — thought to be an eighteenth century invention.

Despite their obscurity, orreries remain a useful tool to educate students about foundational ideas in astronomy. Human orreries have launched at a number of universities, where students play the role of the “planets,” and use their positions as modeled by the orrery to predict what they’ll see in the sky that night. Increased computing power has led to the advent of digital orreries for students to easily track planetary motion.

Photo by Bassam Khabieh / Reuters, March 2, 02017


In March 02017, war photographer Bassam Khabieh visited a school damaged by airstrikes in the rebel-held city of Douma in Syria. After six years of civil war, the country’s education system has been decimated. Teachers in ISIS territory risk their lives if they teach lessons that do not cohere to ISIS ideology.

In one of Khabieh’s photographs, a damaged orrery stands amidst the dusty rubble, the plastic sphere of Earth dislodged from its mount.

 

III. A Prototype for the Queen (01999)

The First Prototype of the 10,000 Year Clock on display at the Science Museum in London

 

At Long Now Foundation we’ve always resisted the idea of turning the institution into a religion — even though religions may have the best track record for long-term endurance. But the comparison to monks devoting their lives to maintain a remote and long-lived clock is hard to avoid, especially if you show up at a momentous clock event in a hooded robe.

—KEVIN KELLY

As the seconds ticked towards a new millennium, Long Now co-founder Stewart Brand stood contemplatively before the first prototype of the Clock of the Long Now in a hooded robe, waiting.

On the left is Brand during his 01966 Whole Earth campaign. On the right, Brand stands before the first Clock prototype on New Year’s Eve, 01999.


Thirty four years earlier, Brand mounted a successful campaign to have NASA release the first photographs of the whole earth from space. Now, on the eve of the millennium, Brand, Danny Hillis, Brian Eno and the Long Now Foundation were attempting to build something that would do for thinking about time what the photographs of the Earth did for thinking about the environment.

“Such icons reframe the way people think,” Brand wrote in 01999.

Cosgrove writes that like the the Copernican orrery, the image of a vital planet floating in the cosmic void helped catalyze a revolution in the global imagination, prefiguring the modern environmental movement and rise of globalization:

The Copernican revolution was secured through the circulation of cosmographic images that challenged ways of imagining and experiencing not only planetary arrangement and movement but the entire arrangement in which human existence was created and performed.

Twentieth-century photographic images of the earth have stimulated equally profound changes in perceptions of society, self, and the world. Both sets of images demarcate key moments in the evolution of the ‘globalized’ earth.

Earthrise, seen for the first time by human eyes, 24 December 01968. Via NASA.


The first step to making an iconic clock is making a clock that works. The clock prototype was completed in a frenzied rush only hours before midnight, after three years of research and design. Brand, Hillis and some dozen others gathered in the offices of the Internet Archive in San Francisco’s Presidio district to see if it would tick.

“It was a very strange scene,” Kevin Kelly recalled.

“Because of hysteria about Y2K, the Presidio was blockaded with a police checkpoint. No one else was around the usually busy park. It was a like a secret society meeting. Stewart had just returned from a vacation in Morocco a day before so he was wearing a djellaba. He looked like a monk overseeing the clock’s big moment.”

A hush swept the room as the final seconds counted down. 3…2…1. Clicking gears whirred into place. And then: GONG! A chime rang in the new century. And: GONG! Another chime signaled the start of a new millennium.

Like clockwork.

In the months that followed, Long Now presented the prototype at TED before installing it at the Science Museum in London. It was the culminating piece of the museum’s “Making of the Modern World” exhibit, which was opened by the Queen of England. The prototype remains there today on permanent loan.

“We realized it was kind of sad to have built the Prototype but not have one of our own,” Long Now Executive Director Alexander Rose recalled. “Don’t get me wrong: it’s in a fantastic museum in a fantastic location, but it would’ve been nice to have a prototype for ourselves.”

A wood-engraved frontispiece illustrating “a small portion of Mr Babbage’s Difference Engine,” (01872). Via Hordern House.


Enter Nathan Myhrvold, then-CTO of Microsoft. He was using a unique funding model to finance the Science Museum’s efforts to construct the difference engine that Charles Babbage designed in 01849 but, because of the limits of machine technology at the time, was not able to build. Myhrvold and the Science Museum agreed that if he were to fund the construction of two iterations of Babbage’s machine, he’d get to keep one.

The Babbage Difference Engine, built by the Science Museum of London in 02002, 153 years after it was first designed. Via Computer History.


Myhrvold reached out and made the same deal with Long Now, financing its efforts towards building a second Clock prototype. At the time, Rose and Danny Hillis had only a notional idea as to what that prototype would be.

Hillis decided that, rather than build a full clock, he’d design a part of the clock that would be the planetary display. Like the first prototype, such a device would require tackling unprecedented design problems raised by keeping track of, and lasting through, deep time. Unlike the first prototype, Long Now would get to keep a copy this time.

 

IV. A Robust and Durable Computer (02005)

“I love that thing,” says Francis Pedraza, an Interval regular, when I ask him about the Orrery over his afternoon tea. He’s never heard the term “orrery,” which he jots down in his notebook as soon as I mention it. But he has a good guess as to what it does.

“Check it out,” Pedraza says, raising his left wrist to show me his Apple Watch. Its face displays a digital orrery of the solar system. A simple twist of the crown by Pedraza sends the planets scurrying forward or backward in time across their celestial trajectories, displaying effortlessly what took Early Modern European scientists painstaking precision to engineer.

“It’s great,” Pedraza says. “People see that I’m wearing a watch, and they ask me the time. And I say: ‘It’s half past Mars!’”

If Pedraza were so inclined, he could twist the crown to 10,000 years into the future (it would likely take a few hours). But with planned obsolescence baked in, Pedraza’s watch would be lucky to last another two years. The Long Now Orrery, on the other hand, must be a precise and durable computer for 10,000 years.

A fragment of a Roman nundinae for the month of April (Aprilis), showing its nundinal letters on the left side. Via Wikipedia.


On its face, an orrery may seem an unlikely technology to depend on for the long term. But it makes sense when one considers how the way we’ve measured time has changed throughout history. It’s likely that our current use of hours, minutes, weeks and months may be as obscure and forgotten as the nundina, the akhet, or the gesh several millennia from now.

The day, the year, and the movements of the other planets in our solar system, on the other hand, aren’t subject to the whims of those in power or passing cultural trends. The 10,000 Year Clock keeps track of these robust units of time. The Clock’s main dial keeps track of the Sun, Moon and stars while The Orrery models our solar system.

 
Danny Hillis, Long Now Co-Founder and designer of the Clock and Orrery. Via Discover Magazine.


“If you came up to the clock thousands of years from now,” said Danny Hillis, “You could still read the time, even if you did not have the same time system we have now.”

The prototype is designed to update each planet’s position twice a day, providing something of a kinetic sculpture of the Long Now as a time scale: Mercury completes one revolution in about 88 days; the Earth takes exactly one solar year; Saturn makes it around the Sun in just under thirty years.

Each of the Orrery’s planets is ground from a stone that resembles the celestial body it represents. The Sun is made of yellow calcite; Mercury of meteorite; Venus of lemon yellow Mexican calcite; Earth of Chilean lapis; Mars of red Namibian Jasper; Jupiter of banded sandstone; and Saturn, of banded Utah onyx.

It took over a year of searching for Alexander Rose to find the perfect stones. “You get the right idea of what stone you want, but then you have to get the right one,” he recalled. “They can come in all shapes and patterns, and by the time it gets ground down to the right size you don’t know if it’s going to look like the planet. With the Earth, we knew wanted Chilean lapis, which has those cloudy inclusions not seen in regular blue lapis, but then it was a question of finding one that had the right cloud patterns and continents.”

The Orrery was conceptualized by Danny Hillis, with project management and additional design by Alexander Rose. The lead engineer was Paolo Salvagione, and the lead machinist and fabricator was Christopher Rand. Other machinists included Erio Brown, Brian Roe, Mark Ribaud, Reason Bradley, General Precision, Oakland Machine Works, Jim Johnson, Brian Ford, Ebin Stromquist. The base was fabricated by Seattle Solstice.


Most traditional clocks perform their mathematics in the orientation of gears around an axis. A gear measured this way can be in an infinite number and continuous number of states (an analog representation).

The problem with building a 10,000 year clock using gears is that the gears can slowly wear down and slip, allowing inaccuracy to build up within the system over long periods of time. Even the best made clocks in the world will experience this after a few hundred years. To address this, Danny Hillis invented the Serial Bit Adder. The Serial Bit Adder is a simple mechanical binary computer that converts continuous motion from the gear (analog energy), into a digital output.

The crucial mathematical logic for the bit adders is represented in the positions of the pins, which can only ever be in one of two states (digital), even if they become significantly worn. The bit adders calculate how much to move the planets in the display based on the known input of two rotations per day by the Orrery’s central shaft. As that shaft rotates it also turns the 6 bit adder disks: one for each planet.

A bit adder consists of a rotating disk and two sets of 27 mechanical pins. Each individual pin can be in one of two states, and each set of pins taken altogether represents a 27 bit number. One set of pins is immovable — these are set based on the calculation that particular bit adder must perform; they are, in other words, the program. The other set of pins can move between the two possible states; they represent an accumulator.

The Orrery’s base, featuring the serial bit adder.


As the bit adder’s disk rotates, a portion of the disk reads the program from the unmoving bits and is moved by them. Its movements cause the other set of bits to be flipped as necessary. Each time the adder rotates, it adds the number encoded in the static pins into the number encoded by the moveable ones. That number is a fraction between zero and one. As the outer pins accumulate the value represented by the inner pins, their value grows towards one. When they surpass a value of one, the adder produces an output that adjusts its corresponding planet by way of engaging a 6-sided Geneva wheel. In this way, a precise ratio can be calculated based on the two daily rotations of the central shaft and applied to the planets in the display.

Author Neal Stephenson, who based his book Anathem (02008) partly on the 10,000 Year Clock, at the unveiling of the Orrery.


The Orrery was completed in 02005, and displayed at Long Now’s Fort Mason headquarters back when the space was a museum. In the lead up to designing and building the Interval, Alexander Rose knew the Orrery would be crucial component from an experience design perspective.

“It was obviously this shiny metal object,” said Rose. “By centering it by the front doors, it becomes the focal point when you walk in.”

“We had two goals with the walk-in experience: to suck you in from outside with the Orrery, and to force you to look up. That’s what the big wall of books for the Manual for Civilization is about.”

“Studies in psychology have shown that when you look up, you’re primed for an awe experience,” Rose says. “The Orrery was meant as the eye candy visible from outside to get you inside. The books behind it are what change your perspective and inspire you to move around the space.”

 

V. Human Orreries (02017–10,000)

Back at The Interval, Pedraza brings up what, for some, is an uncomfortable truth: despite our post-Copernican knowledge that the Earth revolves around the Sun, many of us still maneuver through the world with the assumption that we are the center of the universe.

The author David Foster Wallace addressed this tendency towards self-centeredness in a commencement address to the graduates of Kenyon College in 02005:

Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence.

We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.

Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor.

“If we consider that thing for a second,” Pedraza says, pointing to the Orrery and starting to scribble in his pad. “It’s this expanded long-term view of where we fit into the universe. It’s not where most people are hanging out.”

“If we imagine instead an orrery with a human as the globe at the center,” he continues, “the orbits of their concerns are very immediate in a time sense. Very short-term instant gratification. Very ‘this week’ and ‘what now?’ focused.”

Sketch by illustrator Dan Bransfield.


He shows me a drawing of a human orrery orbited by different spheres of obligations, roles, and time considerations.

“You guys are trying to get them from thinking like this,” he says, pointing to his drawing, “to that,” pointing to the Orrery. “That’s a hell of a challenge.”

Perhaps Pedraza is right. But that does not make the effort any less necessary. And the Orrery at the Interval — mechanism, icon, “shiny metal object” — is an essential component of that effort. It draws passers-by to the threshold of long-term thinking, inviting them to expand the orrery of their concerns to include not just the spheres of their immediate orbit, but the Earth as well; and not just for the present interval, but the next ten thousand years, too.

 

How Hard Would It Be To Restart Civilization From Scratch?

Posted on April 24th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
link   Categories: Manual for Civilization   chat 0 Comments

Via TED.

It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes an entire civilization to build a toaster.

That’s what Designer Thomas Thwaites learned when he set himself the challenge of building his own, from start to Pop Tarts. He smelted ore, coaxed plastic out of oil, and toiled towards a prototype that worked for a total of thirty seconds.

Long Now board member Kevin Kelly, in a 02014 SALT Talk on the technium, said that Thwaites’ project reveals the deeply interconnected and dependent nature of the technologies that make up our modern world:

A technology such as the mouse is made up of hundreds of technologies, and they themselves are requiring hundreds of other technologies to support it. These technologies form networks in the sense that they are all self-supporting. To make a saw, you need a hammer to hammer the saw blade. To have a hammer, you need a saw to cut the wood. The more complex the technology, the more self-supporting and self-dependent it is. You might think of any complex invention as a network of dependent and self-sustaining different technologies.

British astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell, who spoke at The Interval in 02015  and provided his expertise for the Manual for Civilization, uses thought experiments grounded in global catastrophe to explore the depth of our dependence on these technologies—and their dependence on one another. If the world as we know it were to end tomorrow, he asks, what would be necessary to rebuild key features of civilization like agriculture, communication, transportation, and medicine? How far could such a post-apocalyptic society get?

Dartnell’s technological thought experiments tackle such questions as: how do you get into a can without a can opener? Via YouTube.

A recent Darnell thought experiment, published in Aeon, broaches one of the technologies modern civilization depends on most, but whose resources are fast depleting: fossil fuels.

It’s easy to underestimate our current dependence on fossil fuels. In everyday life, their most visible use is the petrol or diesel pumped into the vehicles that fill our roads, and the coal and natural gas which fire the power stations that electrify our modern lives. But we also rely on a range of different industrial materials, and in most cases, high temperatures are required to transform the stuff we dig out of the ground or harvest from the landscape into something useful. You can’t smelt metal, make glass, roast the ingredients of concrete, or synthesise artificial fertiliser without a lot of heat. It is fossil fuels – coal, gas and oil – that provide most of this thermal energy.

So, Dartnell asks:

Is the emergence of a technologically advanced civilisation necessarily contingent on the easy availability of ancient energy? Is it possible to build an industrialised civilisation without fossil fuels?

Charcoal production in Brazil. Photo by Franz Lanting/Getty. Via Aeon.

Dartnell’s answer is: “maybe – but it would be extremely difficult.” Our best bet, he concludes, may be a combination of burning wood for fuel and using renewable energy for electricity, which would only work if the population were sufficiently small in size. But, Dartnell says, there’s a catch:

These options all presuppose that our survivors are able to construct efficient steam turbines, CHP stations and internal combustion engines. We know how to do all that, of course – but in the event of a civilisational collapse, who is to say that the knowledge won’t be lost? And if it is, what are the chances that our descendants could reconstruct it?

The question of what knowledge is essential to sustain or rebuild civilization inspired the Long Now to start the Manual For Civilization. Alexander Rose, Executive Director of Long Now, believes there’s more to the problem than just knowing how to remake a technology like steam turbines.

The Roman Aqueduct of Segovia, located in Segovia, Spain and built in 112 AD. Via Wikipedia.

“After the fall of the great Egyptian, Mayan, and Roman empires we had evidence and examples of their engineering achievements all around us,” he said. “But aqueducts or senate buildings are worthless without a society around them to maintain, contextualize, and protect them.”

You can read Lewis Dartnell’s Aeon article on rebooting civilization without fossil fuels in full here. Dartnell’s latest book, The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm, is available here.  For more information on his thought experiment on the behind-the-scenes fundamentals of how our world works and how you could reboot civilization from scratch visit www.the-knowledge.org

 

Tiffany Shlain Presents 50/50 Day

Posted on April 14th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
link   Categories: Events   chat 0 Comments

“Women have always been an equal part of the past,” the American feminist Gloria Steinem once said. “We just haven’t been a part of history.” On May 10th, thousands of people will gather at events across the globe to discuss what it will take to get to a more gender-balanced world.

Historical female leaders from 50/50.

It’s part of the 50/50 global initiative launched by Tiffany Shlain, the Emmy-nominated filmmaker and founder of the Webby Awards. The centerpiece film for the global conversation will be 50/50, a 26-minute documentary by Shlain that explores the 10,000 year history of women and power.

Long Now is partnering with Tiffany Shlain for the San Francisco events on 50/50 Day. If you’re inspired to get involved or host a screening, sign up here. You can watch the full 50/50 documentary here.

Back in 02010, Shlain participated in our “Long Conversation” event in dialogue with environmentalist Paul Hawken and also with game designer Jane McGonigal.

These 1,000-Year-Old Windmills Work Perfectly, But Their Future is in Doubt

Posted on April 10th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
link   Categories: Clock of the Long Now, Millennial Precedent   chat 0 Comments

From National Geographic comes a video profiling the durable windmills of Nashtifan, Iran. These windmills constructed over a thousand years ago out of clay, straw and wood are not only still standing; they work just as well as they did when they were first built.

In designing and building the Clock of the Long Now, we have investigated many technologies built for the long-term. Some, like Iran’s windmills and Japan’s Ise Shrine, are ancient. Others, like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, and the Mormon Genealogical Vault, are more recent efforts. All offer important lessons in why some technologies last and others do not.

Muhammad Etebari is the last custodian of the Northeast Iran’s ancient windmills.

Long Now Executive Director Alexander Rose, discussing his excursions to these remote sites in a 02011 Seminar, noted that one of the main reasons a technology lasts is because there are people and institutions built to maintain it. In the case of the Nashtifan windmills, Muhammad Etebari is the last remaining custodian of the mills, and he cannot find an apprentice. After centuries of keeping the windmills running by passing the responsibility of maintenance from generation to another, the future of the ancient durable windmills of Nashtifan is now in doubt.

 

Watch National Geographic’s “See the 1,000-Year-Old Windmills Still in Use Today”

Watch Alexander Rose’s 02011 Long Now Seminar “Millennial Precedent” in full.

Could Reviving the Woolly Mammoth Help Solve Climate Change?

Posted on March 28th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
link   Categories: Revive & Restore   chat 0 Comments

Kevin Tong, The Atlantic

For over 100,000 years, wide swaths of the northern part of the globe were covered in grasslands where millions of bison, horses, and woolly mammoths grazed. Known as the Mammoth Steppe, it was the world’s most extensive biome, stretching from Spain to Canada, with more animal biomass than the African Savannah. With the arrival of human hunters 10,000 years ago, the Mammoth Steppe all but disappeared, its dwindling number of grazing mammals (who played an essential role in the ecosystem by trampling mosses and shrubs) no longer sufficient to maintain the grasslands. In its place rose the Arctic.

Ukok Plateau, home to the Snow Leopard and one of the last remnants of the Mammoth Steppe

A father and son team in Eastern Siberia is working to bring the Mammoth Steppe back, Woolly Mammoths and all. Doing so, they believe, could help solve climate change. Their multi-decade project to reconstruct the Ice Age ecosystem, a 50 square-mile nature reserve known as Pleistocene Park, is the subject of an in-depth feature by senior editor Ross Andersen for The Atlantic.

The legacy of the Mammoth Steppe lives on within the Arctic permafrost in the form of soils that comprise the largest organic carbon reservoir on the planet. Much of that permafrost is expected to melt over the next century. Sergey and Nikita Zimov believe that resurrecting the Mammoth Steppe and helping it spread across Arctic Siberia and North America could slow the melting and mitigate some of worst effects of climate change.

The woolly mammoth would play an essential role in a revived Mammoth Steppe ecosystem, just as it did millennia ago. Through grazing and trampling trees, the Zimovs believe herds of woolly mammoths would make grasslands flourish across Arctic Siberia, thereby helping slow the melting of Arctic permafrost:

Research suggests these grasslands will reflect more sunlight than the forests and scrub they replace, causing the Arctic to absorb less heat. In winter, the short grass and animal-trampled snow will offer scant insulation, enabling the season’s freeze to reach deeper into the Earth’s crust, cooling the frozen soil beneath and locking one of the world’s most dangerous carbon-dioxide lodes in a thermodynamic vault.

Efforts are underway by geneticists like George Church at Harvard and Revive & Restore to bring back the woolly mammoth through modifying the genome of its relative, the Asian elephant. Andersen writes that Church believes he can deliver a mammoth to Pleistocene Park within a decade.

Kevin Tong, The Atlantic

A recent article in the New York Times pondered whether bringing back extinct species was worth the potential biodiversity and financial costs in light of a paper published in Nature Ecology & Evolution this month by researchers who framed the revival of extinct species as a luxury we could not currently afford.

But for the researchers behind de-extinction efforts, reviving extinct species is less short-term luxury than long-term necessity.

“Any de-extinction effort must have long-term benefits that outweigh the costs,” Ben Novak, the lead researcher and science consultant at Revive & Restore, said. For Nikita and Sergey Zimov at Pleistocene Park, the long-term benefits are clear:

“It will be cute to have mammoths running around here,” [Nikita Zimov] told me. “But I’m not doing this for them, or for any other animals. I’m not one of these crazy scientists that just wants to make the world green. I am trying to solve the larger problem of climate change. I’m doing this for humans. I’ve got three daughters. I’m doing it for them.”

Read Andersen’s essay, “Welcome to Pleistocene Park” in full. If you’re interested in supporting the work at Pleistocene Park, head to Nikita Zimov’s Kickstarter.

Frank Ostaseski Seminar Tickets

Posted on March 17th, 02017 by Andrew Warner
link   Categories: Announcements, Seminars   chat 0 Comments

 

The Long Now Foundation’s monthly

Seminars About Long-term Thinking

Frank Ostaseski on What the Dying Teach the Living

Frank Ostaseski on “What the Dying Teach the Living”

TICKETS

Monday April 10, 02017 at 7:30pm SFJAZZ Center

Long Now Members can reserve 2 seats, join today! General Tickets $15

 

About this Seminar:

Frank Ostaseski is a Buddhist teacher, lecturer and author, whose focus is on contemplative end-of-life care. His new book, The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Living Fully, will be released in March 02017.

 

The Other 10,000 Year Project: Long-Term Thinking and Nuclear Waste

Posted on March 16th, 02017 by Ahmed Kabil
link   Categories: Futures, Long Term Science, Long Term Thinking, Technology   chat 9 Comments

With half-lives ranging from 30 to 24,000, or even 16 million years , the radioactive elements in nuclear waste defy our typical operating time frames. The questions around nuclear waste storage — how to keep it safe from those who might wish to weaponize it, where to store it, by what methods, for how long, and with what markings, if any, to warn humans who might stumble upon it thousands of years in the future—require long-term thinking.

The Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository was set to open on March 21, 02017, but has been indefinitely delayed / via High Country News

I. “A Clear and Present Danger.”

“For anyone living in SOCAL, San Onofre nuclear waste is slated to be buried right underneath the sands,” tweeted @JoseTCastaneda3 in February 02017. “Can we say ‘Fukushima #2’ yet?”

The “San Onofre” the user was referring to is the San Onofre nuclear plant in San Diego County, California, which sits on scenic bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean and sands dotted with surfers and beach umbrellas. Once a provider of eighteen percent of Southern California’s energy demands, San Onofre is in the midst of a 20-year, $4.4 billion demolition project following the failure of replacement steam generators in 02013. At the time, Senator Barbara Boxer said San Ofore was “unsafe and posed a danger to the eight million people living within fifty miles of the plant,” and opened a criminal investigation.

A part of the demolition involved figuring out what to do with the plant’s millions of pounds of high-level waste (the “spent fuel” leftover after uranium is processed) that simmered on-site in nuclear pools.  It was decided that the nuclear waste would be transported a few hundred yards to the beach, where it would be buried underground in what local residents have taken to calling the “concrete monolith” – a state of the art dry cask storage container that will house 75 concrete-sealed tubes of San Onofre’s nuclear waste until 2049.

This has left a lot of San Diego County residents unhappy.

The San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station seen from San Onofre State Beach in San Clemente / via Jeff Gritchen, OC Register

“We held a sacred water ceremony today @ San Onofre where 3.6mm lbs of nuclear waste are being buried on the beach near the San Andreas faultline,” tweeted Gloria Garrett, hinting at a nuclear calamity to come.

Congressman Darrell Issa, who represents the district of the decommissioned plant and introduced a bill in February 02017 to relocate the waste from San Onofre, was concerned about the bottom line.

“It’s just located on the edge of an ocean and one of the busiest highways in America,” Issa said in an interview with the San Diego Tribune. “We’ll be paying for storage for decades and decades if we don’t find a solution. And that will be added to your electricity bill.”

“The issue of what to do with nuclear waste is a clear and present danger to every human life within 100 miles of San Onofre,” said Charles Langley of the activist group Public Watchdogs.

“Everyone is whistling past the graveyard, including our regulators,” Langley continued. “They are storing nuclear waste that is deadly to humans for 10,000 generations in containers that are only guaranteed to last 25 years.”

II. The Nuclear Waste Stalemate

Nobody wants a nuclear waste storage dump in their backyards.

That is, in essence, the story of America’s pursuit of nuclear energy as a source of electricity for the last sixty years.

In 01957, the first American commercial nuclear reactor opened in the United States.  That same year, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recommended that spent fuel should be transported from reactors and buried deep underground. Those recommendations went largely unheeded until the Three Mile Island meltdown of March 01979, when 40,000 gallons of radioactive wastewater from the reactor poured into Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River.

The political challenge of convincing any jurisdiction to store nuclear waste for thousands of years has vexed lawmakers ever since. As Marcus Stroud put it in his in-depth 02012 investigative feature into the history of nuclear waste storage in the United States:

Though every presidential administration since Eisenhower’s has touted nuclear power as integral to energy policy (and decreased reliance on foreign oil), none has resolved the nuclear waste problem. The impasse has not only allowed tens of thousands of tons of radioactive waste to languish in blocks of concrete behind chain link fences near major cities. It has contributed to a declining nuclear industry, as California, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Oregon, and other states have imposed moratoriums against new power plants until a waste repository exists. Disasters at Fukushima, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island have made it very difficult, expensive, and time-consuming to build a nuclear reactor because of insurance premiums and strict regulations, and the nuclear waste stalemate has added significantly to the difficulties and expenses. Only two new nuclear power plants have received licenses to operate in the last 30 years.

Yucca Mountain was designated as the site for a national repository of nuclear waste in the Nuclear Waste Act of 01987. It was to be a deep geological repository for permanently sealing off and storing all of the nation’s nuclear waste, one that would require feats of engineering and billions of dollars to build. Construction began in the 01990s.  The repository was scheduled to open and begin accepting waste on March 21, 02017.

But pushback from Nevadans, who worried about long-term radiation risks and felt that it was unfair to store nuclear waste in a state that has no nuclear reactors, left the project defunded and on indefinite hiatus since 02011.

Today, nuclear power provides twenty percent of America’s electricity, producing almost 70,000 tons of waste a year. Most of the 121 nuclear sites in the United States opt for the San Onofre route, storing waste on-site in dry casks made of steel and concrete as they wait for the Department of Energy to choose a new repository.

III. Opening Ourselves to Deep Time

“We must have the backbone to look these enormous spans of time in the eye. We must have the courage to accept our responsibility as our planet’s – and our descendants’ – caretakers, millennium in and millennium out, without cowering before the magnitude of our challenge.” —Vincent Ialenti

An aerial view of Posiva Oy’s prospective nuclear waste repository site in Olkiluoto, Finland / via Posiva Oy

Anthropologist Vincent Ialenti  recently spent two years doing field work with a Finnish team of experts who were in the process of researching the Onkalo long term geological repository in Western Finland that, like Yucca Mountain, would store all of the Finland’s nuclear waste. The Safety Case project, as it was called, required experts to think in deep time about the myriad of factors (geological, ecological, and climatological) that might affect the site as it stored waste for thousands of years.

Ialenti’s goal was to examine how these experts conceived of the future:

What sort of scientific ethos, I wondered, do Safety Case experts adopt in their daily dealings with seemingly unimaginable spans of time? Has their work affected how they understand the world and humanity’s place within it? If so, how? If not, why not?

In the process, Ialenti found that his engagement with problems of deep time (“At what pace will Finland’s shoreline continue expanding outward into the Baltic Sea? How will human and animal populations’ habits change? What happens if forest fires, soil erosion or floods occur? How and where will lakes, rivers and forests sprout up, shrink and grow? What role will climate change play in all this?”) changed the way he conceived of the world around him, the stillness and serenity of  the landscapes transforming into a “Finland in flux”:

I imagined the enormous Ice Age ice sheet that, 20,000 years ago, covered the land below. I imagined Finland decompressing when this enormous ice sheet later receded — its shorelines extending outward as Finland’s elevation rose ever higher above sea level. I imagined coastal areas of Finland emerging from the ice around 10,000 BC. I imagined lakes, rivers, forests and human settlements sprouting up, disappearing and changing shape and size over the millennia.

Ialenti’s field work convinced him of the necessity of long-term thinking in the Anthropocene, and that engaging with the problem of nuclear waste storage, unlikely though it may seem, is a useful way of inspiring it:

Many suggest we have entered the Anthropocene — a new geologic epoch ushered in by humanity’s own transformations of Earth’s climate, erosion patterns, extinctions, atmosphere and rock record. In such circumstances, we are challenged to adopt new ways of living, thinking and understanding our relationships with our planetary environment. To do so, anthropologist Richard Irvine has argued, we must first “be open to deep time.” We must, as Stewart Brand has urged, inhabit a longer “now.”

So, I wonder: Could it be that nuclear waste repository projects — long approached by environmentalists and critical intellectuals with skepticism — are developing among the best tools for re-thinking humanity’s place within the deeper history of our environment? Could opening ourselves to deep, geologic, planetary timescales inspire positive change in our ways of living on a damaged planet?

IV. How Long is Too Long?

Finland’s Onkalo repository for nuclear waste / via Remon

Finland’s Onkalo Repository  is designed to last for 100,000 years. In the 01990s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency decided that a 10,000 year-time span was how long a U.S. nuclear waste storage facility must remain sealed off, basing their decision in part on the predicted frequencies of ice ages.

But as Stroud reports, it was basically guesswork:

Later, [the 10,000-year EPA standard] was increased to a million years by the U.S. Court of Appeals in part due to the long half lives of certain radioactive isotopes and in part due to a significantly less conservative guess.

The increase in time from 10,000 years to 1 million years made the volcanic cones at Yucca look less stable and million-year-old salt deposits — like those found in New Mexico — more applicable to the nuclear waste problem.

[The Department of Energy] hired anthropologists to study the history of language—both at Yucca and at the WIPP site in New Mexico—to conceive of a way to communicate far into the future that waste buried underground was not to be disturbed.

But the Blue Ribbon Commission’s report [of 02012] calls these abstract time periods a little impractical.

“Many individuals have told [BRC] that it is unrealistic to have a very long (e.g., million-year) requirement,” it reads. “[BRC] agrees.”
It then points out that other countries “have opted for shorter timeframes (a few thousand to 100,000 years), some have developed different kinds of criteria for different timeframes, and some have avoided the use of a hard ‘cut-off’ altogether.” The conclusion? “In doing so, [these countries] acknowledge the fact that uncertainties in predicting geologic processes, and therefore the behavior of the waste in the repository, increase with time.”

Public Law 102-579, 106, Statute 4777 calls for nuclear waste to be stored for at least 10,000 years / via EPA

In a spirited 02006 Long Now debate between Global Business Network co-founder and Long Now board member Peter Schwartz and Ralph Cavanagh of the Nuclear Resources Defense Council, Cavanagh pressed Schwartz on the problem of nuclear waste storage.

Schwartz contended that we’ve defined the nuclear waste problem incorrectly, and that reframing the time scale associated with storage, coupled with new technologies, would ease concerns among those who take it on:

The problem of nuclear waste isn’t a problem of storage for a thousand years or a million years. The issue is storing it long enough so we can put it in a form where we can reprocess it and recycle it, and that form is probably surface storage in very strong caskets in relatively few sites, i.e., not at every reactor, and also not at one single national repository, but at several sites throughout the world with it in mind that you are not putting waste in the ground forever where it could migrate and leak and raise all the concerns that people rightly have about nuclear waste storage. By redesigning the way in which you manage the waste, you’d change the nature of the challenge fundamentally.

Schwartz and other advocates of recycling spent fuel have discussed new pyrometallurgical technologies for reprocessing that could make nuclear power “truly sustainable and essentially inexhaustible.” These emerging pyro-processes, coupled with faster nuclear reactors, can capture upwards of 100 times more of the energy and produce little to no plutonium, thereby easing concerns that the waste could be weaponized.  Recycling spent fuel would  vastly reduce the amount of high-level waste, as well as the length of time that the waste must be isolated. (The Argonne National Laboratory believes its pyrochemical processing methods can drop the time needed to isolate waste from 300,000 years to 300 years).

There’s just one problem: the U.S. currently does not reprocess or recycle its spent fuel. President Jimmy Carter banned the commercial reprocessing of nuclear waste in 01977 over concerns that the plutonium in spent fuel could be extracted to produce nuclear weapons. Though President Reagan lifted the ban in 01981, the federal government has for the most part declined to provide subsidies for commercial reprocessing, and subsequent administrations have spoken out against it. Today, the “ban” effectively remains in place.

Inside Onkalo / via Posiva Oy

When the ban was first issued, the U.S. expected other nuclear nations like Great Britain and France to follow suit. They did not. Today, France generates eighty percent of its electricity from nuclear power, with much of that energy coming from reprocessing and recycling spent fuel. Japan and the U.K reprocess their fuel, and China and India are modeling their reactors on France’s reprocessing program. The United States, on the other hand, uses less than five percent of its nuclear fuel, storing the rest as waste.

In a 02015 op-ed for Forbes, William F. Shughart, research director for the Independent Institute in Oakland, California, argued that we must lift the nuclear recycling “ban” and take full advantage our nuclear capacity if we wish to adequately address the threats posed by climate change:

Disposing of “used” fuel in a deep-geologic repository as if it were worthless waste – and not a valuable resource for clean-energy production – is folly.

Twelve states have banned the construction of nuclear plants until the waste problem is resolved. But there is no enthusiasm for building the proposed waste depository. In fact, the Obama administration pulled the plug on the one high-level waste depository that was under construction at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain.

The outlook might be different if Congress were to lift the ban on nuclear-fuel recycling, which would cut the amount of waste requiring disposal by more than half. Instead of requiring a political consensus on multiple repository sites to store nuclear plant waste, one facility would be sufficient, reducing disposal costs by billions of dollars.

By lifting the ban on spent fuel recycling we could make use of a valuable resource, provide an answer to the nuclear waste problem, open the way for a new generation of nuclear plants to meet America’s growing electricity needs, and put the United States in a leadership position on climate-change action.

According to Stroud, critics of nuclear processing cite its cost (a Japanese government report from 02004 found reprocessing to be four times as costly as non-reprocessed nuclear power); the current abundance of uranium (Stroud says most experts agree that “if the world’s needs quadrupled today, uranium wouldn’t run out for another eighty years”); the fact that while reprocessing produces less waste, it still wouldn’t eliminate the need for a site to store it; and finally, the risk of spent fuel being used to make nuclear weapons.

Shughart, along with Schwartz and many others in the nuclear industry, feels the fears of nuclear proliferation from reprocessing are overblown:

The reality is that no nuclear materials ever have been obtained from the spent fuel of a nuclear power plant, owing both to the substantial cost and technical difficulty of doing so and because of effective oversight by the national governments and the International Atomic Energy Agency.

V. Curiosity Kills the Ray Cat

Whether we ultimately decide to store spent fuel for 10,000 years in a sealed off repository deep underground or for 300 years in above-ground casks, there’s still the question of how to effectively mark nuclear waste to warn future generations who might stumble upon it. The languages we speak now might not be spoken in the future, so the written word must be cast aside in favor of “nuclear semiotics” whose symbols stand the test of time.

After the U.S. Department of Energy assembled a task force of anthropologists and linguists to tackle the problem in 01981, French author Françoise Bastide and Italian semiologist Paolo Fabbri proposed an intriguing solution: ray cats.

Artist rendering of ray cats / via Aeon

Imagine a cat bred to turn green when near radioactive material. That is, in essence, the ray cat solution.

“[Their] role as a detector of radiation should be anchored in cultural tradition by introducing a suitable name (eg, ‘ray cat’)” Bastide and Fabbri wrote at the time.

The idea has recently been revived. The Ray Cat Movement was established in 02015 to “insert ray cats into the cultural vocabulary.”

Alexander Rose, Executive Director at Long Now who has visited several of the proposed nuclear waste sites, suggests however that solutions like the ray cats only address part of the problem.

“Ray cats are cute, but the solution doesn’t promote a myth that can be passed down for generations,” he said. “The problem isn’t detection technology. The problem is how you create a myth.”

Rose said the best solution might be to not mark the waste sites at all.

“Imagine the seals on King Tut’s tomb,” Rose said. “Every single thing that was marked on the tomb are the same warnings we’re talking about with nuclear waste storage: markings that say you will get sick and that there will be a curse upon your family for generations. Those warnings virtually guaranteed that the tomb would be opened if found.”

The unbroken seal on King Tutankhamun’s tomb

“What if you didn’t mark the waste, and instead put it in a well engineered, hard to get to place that no one would go to unless they thought there was something there. The only reason they’d know something was there was if the storage was marked.”

Considering the relatively low number of casualties that could come from encountering nuclear waste in the far future, Rose suggests that likely the best way to reduce risk is avoid attention.

VI. A Perceived Abundance of Energy

San Onofre’s nuclear waste will sit in a newly-developed Umax dry-cask storage container system made of the most corrosion-resistant grade of stainless steel. It is, according to regulators, earthquake-ready.

At San Onofre, wood squares mark the spots where containers of spent fuel will be encased in concrete / via Jeff Gritchen, OC Register

Environmentalists are nonetheless concerned that the storage containers could crack, given the salty and moist environment of the beach. Others fear that an earthquake coupled with a tsunami cause a Fukushima-like meltdown on the West Coast.

“Dry cask storage is a proven technology that has been used for more than three decades in the United States, subject to review and licensing by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” said a spokeswoman for Edison, the company that runs San Onofre, in an interview with the San Diego Union Tribune.

A lawsuit is pending in the San Diego Supreme Court that challenges the California Coastal Commission’s 02015 permit for the site. A hearing is scheduled for March 02017. If the lawsuit is successful, the nuclear waste in San Onofre might have to move elsewhere sooner than anybody thought.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy in January 02017 started efforts to move nuclear waste to temporary storage sites in New Mexico and West Texas that could store the waste until a more long-term solution is devised. Donald Trump’s new Secretary of Energy, former Texas governor Rick Perry, is keen to see waste move to West Texas. Residents of the town of Andrews are split. Some see it as a boon for jobs. Others, as a surefire way to die on the job.

Regardless of how Andrews’ residents feel, San Onofre’s waste could soon be on the way.

Tom Palmisano, Chief Nuclear Officer for Edison, the company that runs San Onofre, expressed doubts and frustration in an interview with the Orange County Register:

There could be a plan, and a place, for this waste within the next 10 years, Palmisano said – but that would require congressional action, which in turn would likely require much prodding from the public.

“We are frustrated and, frankly, outraged by the federal government’s failure to perform,” he said. “I have fuel I can ship today, and throughout the next 15 years. Give me a ZIP code and I’ll get it there.”

A prodding public might be in short supply. According to the latest Gallup poll, support for nuclear power in the United States has dipped to a fifteen-year low.  For the first time since Gallup began asking the question in 01994, a majority of Americans (54%) oppose nuclear as an alternative energy source.

Support for nuclear energy in the United States / via Gallup

Gallup suggests the decline in support is prompted less by fears about safety after incidents like the 02011 Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown, and more by  “energy prices and the perceived abundance of energy sources.” Gallup found that Americans historically only perceive a looming energy shortage when gas prices are high. Lower gas prices at the pump over the last few years have Americans feeling less worried about the nation’s energy situation than ever before.

Taking a longer view, the oil reserves fueling low gas prices will continue to dwindle. With the risks of climate change imminent, many in the nuclear industry argue that nuclear power would radically reduce CO2 levels and provide a cleaner, more efficient form of energy.

But if a widespread embrace of nuclear technology comes to pass, it will require more than a change in sentiment in the U.S. public about its energy future. It will require people embracing the long-term nature of dealing with nuclear waste, and ultimately, to trust future generations to continue to solve these issues.

 


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