[Paleopsych] Discover: Time Machine

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Time Machine
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    Will a clock that works flawlessly for 10,000 years become the
    greatest wonder of the world?
    By Brad Lemley
    DISCOVER Vol. 26 No. 11 | November 2005 | Technology

    longer works, so i'll be blunt:  The gleaming device I am staring at
    in the corner of

                                                             LONG CLOCK

        Prototype number two of the Clock of the Long Now is, at nine feet
    tall, a diminutive model of the final version, which is expected to be
     at least 60 feet tall and will have multiple displays. This prototype
       records the changes in the relative positions of Earth and the five
        other planets that humans can eyeball without a telescope. "If you
    came up to the clock thousands of years from now, you could still read
      the time, even if you did not have the same time system we use now,"
                                               says designer Danny Hillis.

    a machine shop in San Rafael, California, is the most audacious
    machine ever built. It is a clock, but it is designed to do something
    no clock has ever been conceived to do--run with perfect accuracy for
    10,000 years.

    Everything about this clock is deeply unusual. For example, while
    nearly every mechanical clock made in the last millennium consists of
    a series of propelled gears, this one uses a stack of mechanical
    binary computers capable of singling out one moment in 3.65 million
    days. Like other clocks, this one can track seconds, hours, days, and
    years. Unlike any other clock, this one is being constructed to keep
    track of leap centuries, the orbits of the six innermost planets in
    our solar system, even the ultraslow wobbles of Earth's axis.

    Made of stone and steel, it is more sculpture than machine. And, like
    all fine timepieces, it is outrageously expensive. No one will reveal
    even an approximate price tag, but a multibillionaire financed its
    construction, and it seems likely that shallower pockets would not
    have sufficed.

    Still, 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

    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.


    Or more to the point, why?

    Most humans are preoccupied with the here and now. Albert Einstein,
    echoing the sentiments of other deep thinkers of the modern era,
    argued that one of the biggest challenges facing humanity is to "widen
    our circle of compassion" across both space and time. Everything from
    ethnic discrimination to wars, such reasoning goes, would become
    impossible if our compassionate circles were wide enough.

    That is exactly why W. Daniel Hillis, the man whose insights underlie
    the world's most powerful supercomputers, has spent two decades
    designing and building


    Clock designer Danny Hillis, standing next to an early plywood and
    aluminum prototype, knows that looters and vandals pose a significant
    threat to his engineering marvel, no matter how well it works. "The
    most dangerous period will be the couple of hundred years after I'm
    dead, before the clock is really old and assumes historical
    importance," he says. "So there will have to be a caretaker. That's
    part of the plan."
    prototypes of what he has dubbed the Clock of the Long Now. The clock
    in the corner of the machine shop, you should understand, is a
    prototype, the second prototype. Nonetheless, even the prototype can
    tick away for 10,000 years. Hillis and his team just finished it a few
    weeks ago. There will be more prototypes over the next few decades
    before the final, much larger version is embedded in a mountain in

    The clock idea originally sprang from Hillis's observation that in the
    1980s, all long-range planning seemed to smack into a wall called the
    year 2000--the nice, round number seemed to be the omega point for
    everyone from software programmers to international policymakers:
    "Nobody could even think about the year 2030. It bugged me." Because
    technology began 10,000 years ago--there are pot fragments at least
    that old--Hillis decided to build a clock that would tick that long
    into the future, conceptually fixing humanity in the center of 20
    millennia. Musician Brian Eno, Hillis's friend and a clock project
    collaborator, dubbed that vast span "the long now." The clock of his
    dreams, said Hillis in 1993, "ticks once a year, bongs once a century,
    and the cuckoo comes out every millennium."

    The final version, which will be at least 60 feet tall, frankly
    strikes more than a few people as pointless. "Many people are
    completely uninterested. They think it's nonsense, a waste of time,"
    Hillis says. And he concedes that "in the world of ideas, it's an odd

    Still, project insiders have found that the idea, like the clock
    itself, ticks away patiently, incrementally engaging skeptical minds.
    "People will make some flippant comment, then come back months later
    with an idea about how to make it work," says Alexander Rose, a
    codesigner and executive director of the Long Now Foundation, which
    finances the clock.

    Hillis, at first motivated by a vague desire to promote long-term
    thinking, has been transformed by his idea: "Now I think about people
    who will live 10,000 years from now as real people." His eyes take on
    a distant focus as he says this, as if he sees them massed on the
    horizon. "I had never thought that way before."

    But Hillis, who has been known to drive a fire engine to work, also
    cautions against regarding the Clock of the Long Now too gravely:
    "This project has a lovely kind of lightness to it."

    Genius is a shabby, abused, and degraded noun, but Hillis reminds one
    of what it should mean. He is cochairman and chief technology officer
    of Applied Minds in Glendale, California, a 21st-century analogue of
    Thomas Edison's Menlo Park laboratories. There, an elite engineer
    corps patents a river of inventions ranging from voice encryptors to
    cancer detectors. Universally called Danny, Hillis is affable and
    witty but tends to veer abruptly into subjects like lattice theory,
    which "describes a piece of graph paper in n dimensions," and from
    there the conversation becomes a labyrinth impossible to negotiate.

    "Danny's intelligence is the rarest of kinds," says Rose. "The sheer
    practicality of his knowledge makes him a true genius."

    As an MIT undergrad in 1975, Hillis and his friends built a binary
    computer out of 10,000 Tinkertoy pieces. It could beat all comers at
    tic-tac-toe. About a decade

                                                                LONG COUNT

      A top-down view of a serial-bit adder reveals a cam slider, the long
      silvery piece with channels carved in its end, which triggers binary
         calculations as it rotates in a carriage over bit pins on a fixed
    disk. A 360-degree rotation constitutes one tick of the mechanism. The
                    clock ticks just twice a day, at noon and at midnight.

    later he invented an electronic mainframe computer called the
    Connection Machine that worked somewhat like a human brain; instead of
    one processor, it had 65,536, all firing at once like buzzing neurons,
    a model that supercomputers have used ever since. The irony is
    inescapable: The architect of the world's fastest machine now designs
    the world's slowest.

    The trip to Hillis's office is a cross between a Disney ride and the
    multidoor opening sequence of the 1960s television show Get Smart. I
    enter a low-slung industrial building, meet Hillis in the lobby,
    follow him into a red, British-style phone booth, pick up the
    receiver, wait for him to say the password, and follow him through the
    false back when it opens into a cavernous workroom. I then pass under
    a 13-foot-tall, five-ton, four-legged robot he designed, marvel at his
    new invention that instantly makes three-dimensional maps of any place
    in the world, then settle into his gadget-strewn office complete with
    a New Yorker cartoon of a gypsy behind a crystal ball who says: "Why
    ask me about the future? Ask Danny Hillis."

    So that's what I do: "How do you build a clock that will keep perfect
    time for 10,000 years?"

    Hillis, who loves gadgets and was once Walt Disney Imagineering's vice
    president for research and development, smiles and begins to explain

                                                HOW STARS TELL US THE TIME

           One universal way to visualize the passage of time is to make a
      dynamic model of the heavens. The changing relationship of Earth and
       the five inner planets can be calculated based on how long it takes
      each planet to revolve around the sun, which ranges from 87.97 Earth
     days for Mercury to 10759.50 Earth days for Saturn. Here, the diagram
                shows the conjunction of the planets on November 15, 2005.

                                                 HOW THE CLOCK CAN BE READ

      The Clock of the Long Now prototype features an orrery, a simplified
          planetary display.  The shperical cage of the orrery, called the
    firmament, is tilted at 23.27 degrees, the angle of he Earth's axis in
    relation to the flat plane of the planets as they radiate out form the
      sun.  The cage includes a celestial equator with degree markings for
                 measuring the alignment of the planets at any given time.

    challenges involved. The clock must remain accurate for 100 centuries
    while sitting on an atmospherically, geologically, and worst of all,
    culturally violent planet. To forestall looting (the bane of many
    built-for-the-ages projects, such as the Egyptian pyramids), 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. It must be easily improved over time, and it must be scalable
    so that the design can be shown via smaller prototypes.

    "The ultimate design criterion is that people have to care about it,"
    says Hillis. "If they don't, it won't last."

    All straightforward, but ludicrously daunting. Time can mean many
    things, but Hillis's machine needs to track a particularly messy
    version: Earth-surface clock/calendar time, which is based on a
    byzantine agglomeration of astronomical rotations, orbits, and
    perturbations of hugely varying lengths, overlaid with arbitrary
    cultural whims about how to divide it up. 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. A calculation that extends to 28 bits is
    accurate to one in 3.65 million--or in clock terms, one day in 10,000
    years. Bits and bytes are typically rendered electronically, but
    Hillis says he "rejected electronics from the start. It would not be
    technologically transparent and probably not durable. I could quickly
    see that the clock had to be mechanical."

    So Hillis invented--and patented--a serial-bit adder, or a mechanical
    binary computer. Instead of using "voltage on" or "voltage off" to
    define zeros and ones like a typical electronic computer, the
    disk-shaped adder uses levers that can rest in either the "0" or "1"
    position. An individual adder can be programmed with 28 pins--what a
    programmer would call 28 bits--to represent in binary code any number
    displayed by the clock, such as the lunar cycle of 29.5305882 days. A
    cam slider with special grooves carved into it spins over the adder's
    pins, reading the pins and levers and ticking the levers back and
    forth with each revolution until it reaches the desired number and
    "overflows." At that point, the slider pops out of the clock's
    side--rather like a cuckoo popping out on the hour--and engages a
    small wheel, which in turn moves some part of the clock's display. The
    clock's guts are a stack of serial-bit adders, each controlling a
    different part of the display.

    As if that were not complicated enough, the final clock will require a
    helical column called the "equation of time" cam. Its purpose will be
    to make the


    The clock is driven by binary mechanical computers called serial-bit
    adders with one adder per planet. An adder consists of a disk with an
    outer set of bit-pin levers, each of which can take on a value of "1"
    or "0," as well as an inner ring of fixed bit pins programmed with a
    mathematical constant that represents the duration of the planet's
    orbit. (A) The levers and pins are read by a series of channels in a
    cam slider that rotates in a carriage. (B) The slider also adds sums
    by tripping levers as it goes. (C) During each rotation, the slider
    jitters back and forth as it accumulates sums. (D) When the
    accumulated sums reach an overflow value, the slider pops out of the
    carriage and catches a Geneva wheel. (E) The movement of the Geneva
    wheel updates the planetary display.
    conversion from absolute time to local solar time. Using a stylus that
    traces the cam's rather feminine shape, the clock will be able to
    compensate for elliptical eccentricities in Earth's orbit around the
    sun and the tilt of Earth's axis. These two celestial phenomena
    "beating against each other," as Hillis puts it, produce variations in
    the the sun's apparent rate of travel through the sky that would add
    up to about 15 minutes per year over the clock's lifetime. (That a
    short section of the cam vaguely resembles a nude female's hips and
    thighs isn't accidental: Hillis twiddled and tweaked to make the cam
    look like that. "Other configurations could have worked, but it would
    not have looked nearly as wonderful," he says.)

    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.

    And what about power? By harnessing natural processes like temperature
    or pressure changes, "there are lots of ways to make it totally
    self-winding," says Hillis. "But I want people to engage the clock,
    not forget it." So the perfect power system could handle neglect but
    would respond to love. The final clock, untended, will wind itself
    enough to keep its pendulum swinging and track time, but human
    visitors--perhaps by merely stepping on a platform--could also wind
    the display. "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."

    The last question, what to display, gives Hillis the most pause. All
    cultures recognize days, months, and years because they spring from
    simple "once around" astronomical cycles, but hours, weeks, centuries,
    and other divisions are arbitrary, varying wildly across times and
    places.  Hillis is still mulling how to handle that, but he knows for
    sure that the final clock will somehow mirror the positions of the
    planets relative to the stars and to one another. "That will be one of
    many displays it has," he says.

    Hillis is in the process of rolling out these and more ideas in a
    series of increasingly complex prototypes. The first one, now on
    permanent display at the Science Museum in London, was financed by an
    anonymous donor who lent it to

                               SLOWER THINKING

      Aside from its eponymous clock, the Long Now Foundation, formed in
     1996, pursues projects aimed at promoting "slower, better" thinking:

    o The Rosetta Project attempts to preserve all human languages. The
    project concentrates on languages that are likely to go extinct by
    2100, including hundreds whose native speakers number in the thousands
    or fewer. Its document database, representing some 2,300 languages as
    of June 2005, is(www.rosettaproject.org) and will be periodically
    published in a book and on a micro-etched disk for widespread

    o Seminars About Long-Term Thinking, a series of monthly lectures in
    various locations around San Francisco, have included such speakers as
    geographer Jared Diamond, astronaut Rusty Schweikart, and musician
    Brian Eno.

    o The Long Bets Web site (www.longbets.org) lets all comers wager on
    long-range predictions (a minimum of two years; there is no maximum),
    with proceeds going to a charity named by the victor. For example,
    $2,000 is riding on the prediction "By 2030, commercial passengers
    will routinely fly in pilotless planes."
    the museum. "The deal we offer is, if you fund the next stage of the
    development of the clock, we will give you a prototype," says Hillis.
    "We have spent millions of dollars so far--I don't know the exact

    The nine-foot-tall London clock uses a slowly rotating torsional
    pendulum, ticks once every 30 seconds, and tracks hours, sidereal and
    solar years, centuries, phases of the moon, and the zodiac--and
    happens to be hauntingly beautiful. Incredibly, its three-year-long
    construction was completed in a mad rush scarcely one hour before
    midnight on December 31, 1999. That meant there was no time to test it
    before the switch to the year 2000, the most complex date change in
    the Gregorian system since the year 1600 because it involved a
    once-in-400-years leap year exemption.

    Yet at midnight, "it bonged twice. It was perfect. That was a great
    moment," says Hillis softly. "Some people say their millennium
    experience was anticlimactic. Mine wasn't."

    In his biodiesel-powered Toyota Land Cruiser, Alexander Rose drives me
    from the Long Now Foundation's office in the historic Presidio
    district in San Francisco across the Golden Gate Bridge to Rand
    Machine Works, a metal shop in San Rafael that's about the size of a
    three-car garage. In a dark back corner the second prototype is
    rising, adder ring by adder ring. It is funded by billionaire Nathan
    Myhrvold, former chief technology officer of Microsoft and a longtime
    Hillis pal. The clock's builder is Chris Rand, a nonpareil
    build-anything machinist who has helped craft everything from the Star
    Wars land cruisers to America's Cup yachts. This project, he says, is
    working on him.

    "I think about everything more long term now," he says.

    Someday this clock may become a holy object, but for now it's a
    half-finished project in a gritty shop that infidels can touch and
    tinker with. I scoot the adder arm around with my index finger. A
    complex series of channels cut into its end makes it jitter back and
    forth as it slides over pins. The whole thing is so brilliant it makes
    me laugh. Gears constitute the heart of the calculation engines of
    most other mechanical clocks, but as friction grinds them down, they
    get smaller, which means they move faster, which means they lose
    accuracy. But an adder's pin--even a worn one--is either there or not
    there, at either "1" or "0" until the thing shears clean through,
    which in a big clock with massive pins should take more than 10,000
    years. Genius.

    Still, materials remain a tricky question. The prototypes so far have
    been made largely of stainless steel, but the metals that will compose
    the final clock remain in doubt. "Just about nobody is doing research
    on materials that will last for thousands of years," says Rose.

    Hillis, Rose, and Rand will make at least one more prototype after
    this one, but before Hillis dies, they will build the big one. The
    Long Now Foundation made a  serious commitment to the final clock
    when, in 1999--or, as foundation literature renders this and all other
    years, "01999"--it bought 180 acres of desert mountain land adjoining
    Great Basin National Park in eastern Nevada. Dry, remote, and
    geologically stable, the site has one other serendipitous
    attribute--it is studded with bristlecone pines, the world's oldest
    living things. At the Long Now Foundation's office, Rose hands me a
    core section of a bristlecone on the property. "This is just the outer
    trunk, just 1,000 years, from 944 to 2003," he says. Some bristlecones
    in the area are nearly 5,000 years old. The clock site may be the only
    spot on Earth where commencing a 10,000-year process seems like a
    halfway sensible thing to do.

    Hillis's plan for the final clock, which he reserves the right to
    change, has it built inside a series of rooms carved into white
    limestone cliffs, 10,000 feet up the Snake


    The Long Now prototype's calculation engine consists of six serial-bit
          adders, stacked like pancakes. The long shaft, topped with small
     gears, is part of a Geneva wheel mechanism. The clock features six of
         these devices. Each one links an individual serial-bit adder to a
                            large gear that moves a planet in the display.

    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.

    Some people will no doubt make a pilgrimage to the cavern, but for the
    next century at least, that will probably require some commitment, as
    the site is "as far as you can get from civilization within the
    continental United States," Hillis says. "That will help people forget
    about it and avoid the contempt of familiarity."

    Most people, however, will never visit the clock, just as most people
    never visit the Eiffel Tower. They will only know that it exists. That
    knowledge alone will acquaint them with the Long Now, and that is part
    of the plan. "When Danny first proposed the clock and I told people
    about it, they would say, 'What?' " says Stewart Brand, cochairman of
    the Long Now Foundation's board of directors. "Now as I go around,
    people come up and say, 'Hey, Stewart, how's the clock coming?' People
    are already engaged by it, and it is working on them. It exists before
    it exists." Even after it exists, the idea of the clock will no doubt
    change more minds than the clock itself.

    How much power resides in that deceptively simple idea? Ask yourself
    in a  month.

    Discover More

    For information on the Long Now Foundation and its various projects,
    visit www.longnow.org.

     For an image of the prototype on display at the Science Museum in
    London as well as more details about the clock's workings, go to

    The Clock of the Long Now: Time and Responsibility: The Ideas Behind
    the World's Slowest Computer. Stewart Brand. Basic Books, 2000.




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