Kurt Bollacker's article, Avoiding a Digital Dark Age, presents a somewhat disconcerting argument that all human knowledge can become extinct due to deterioration of the media on which it is stored or the mechanism of decoding the media. If one thinks about it, the lifespan of most human knowledge, without constant input of energy to maintain it in a good storage environment, is at most a few hundred years given the typical formats on which it is stored. I once saw a National Geographic special that showed that if humans suddenly disappeared, all of their city buildings would collapse within 200 years due to wear and tear or oxidation of the concrete, steel and glass supporting the buildings. Imagine what would happen to records stored on paper or fragile computerized records. Examination of data longevity shows few examples of data that survived without maintenance for over two thousand years. Some stone tablets, or some papayrii such as the Oxyrhyncus papayrii that were mummified in Egypt's dry desert sand, away from the flooding of the Nile River, are examples.
The author points out that the Rosetta project preserves information by etching it onto nickel wafers. This is a good idea given that only a microscope is needed to view the information. It took several thousand years of civilization to pass before scientists invented the microscope, but at least this technology (which is the data reading device for the nickel slabs) can be systematically created by hand-griding glass lenses. However, we might also take note of how nature has at times preserved information not just for thousands but millions of years. Specifically, rocks can survive for millions of years without environmental maintenance, particularly if protected from erosion by being buried. Amber can protect living biomass for millions of years. There are ways of fusing amber pieces together. Why not take a rock, hollow it out, encase the micro-etched nickel plate within it, pour some molten glass over it to seal the nickel within the stone, and encase the entire thing in Amber? This could last millions of years. One can also micro-etch a picture atlas of the language on which the data is encoded on the nickel slab. So both the data and a visual atlas of pictures and the vocabulary associated with the picture, can be enclosed on the slab.
These amber/nickel/stone data clusters could last millions of years just being buried in the ground or even tossed around, just like fossilized dinosaur eggs.
posted by John Mamoun
February 19, 2010
About once a month at Sigma Xi headquarters, we liven up the lunch hour with an American Scientist Pizza Lunch talk. In these informal lectures, scientists describe new research to nonscientists. The series is light on jargon but heavy on solid science. Each Pizza Lunch offers an in-depth look at its subject, whether it's bedbugs or the smart grid. Click below to read about and download these talks -- and to subscribe!
JSTOR, the online academic archive, now contains complete back issues of American Scientist from its inception in 1913 (as Sigma Xi Quarterly) through 2005.
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