Tales of civilization coming to a sudden end are as old as human civilization itself, from the Biblical tale of Noah through to Plato’s story of Atlantis. And so, based on those fears, are stories of knowledge being passed on to those few remaining individuals who survived and had to rebuild, via artefacts or monuments built of the most durable material available at the time.
Some ancient historians recounted folklore that told of ancient stone monuments being constructed for this purpose: to send a ‘message in a bottle’ to those living in a post-apocalyptic world. For example, in his Antiquities of the Jews (Book I, Chap. II, vs. 3) Flavius Josephus mentions that Seth, the son of Adam…
…made two pillars; the one of brick, the other of stone: they inscribed their discoveries on them both, that in case the pillar of brick should be destroyed by the flood, the pillar of stone might remain, and exhibit those discoveries to mankind; and also to inform them that there was another pillar of brick erected by them.
In the modern day, similar attempts continue to be made. In my essay “Beyond the Apocalypse: The true meaning of the Georgia Guidestones“, I pointed out that the enigmatic monument near Elberton, Georgia (or should I say, near Dewy Rose, Georgia?) appears to have been built as a durable (and obvious) ‘guidebook’ on how to rebuild civilization for survivors of a coming worldwide disaster, serving as a Rosetta Stone, astronomical marker, and Ten Commandments all in one.
In our recent anthology Darklore X, Kelvin Long tells of his Apkallu Initiative, which aims to create “a minilithic artefact, which has the goal of accelerating civilization socially, culturally and technologically in the event of a global demise.” Long’s inspiration were ancient texts inscribed onto stone, such as the Code of Hammurabi, a 2.25 m tall stone wall consisting of 282 laws.
Certain religious groups have also created ‘vaults’ of specific knowledge in anticipation of a coming apocalypse: Scientology’s Trementina Base stores (among other things) founder L. Ron Hubbard’s writings, engraved on stainless steel tablets and encased in underground titanium capsules. The Mormon Church’s Granite Mountain Records Vault has genealogical records stored in a long-term storage vault excavated deep into the side of a canyon.
And now we have an archive on the Moon. Well, hopefully. Last week, when the Beresheet lander – a private Israeli space mission – sadly crashed on the Moon, it took with it the ‘Lunar Library’: a stack of 25 nanotechnology ‘discs’ made out of pure nickel which, altogether, are about the thickness of a standard DVD. On those discs are about 30 million printed pages of information to tell anyone that discovers it in the future all about human civilization.
The discs were created by the Arch Mission Foundation, a non-profit organization that aims to be “humanity’s back-up plan”. And, despite the lander’s unfortunate crash, the foundation believes that those discs could still be in working order. Which means they’ll be around for quite a while: nickel isn’t affected by space radiation or the moon’s temperature extremes, so – barring a direct meteor impact – it will likely last billions of years.
Nova Spivack, co-founder and chairman of the Arch Mission Foundation, spoke at length about the project recently in a podcast interview (recorded while the lander was still orbiting, before it crashed). When asked about why the project aimed for the Moon (literally), he replied “It’s best practice in the IT space to have an off-site back-up…[but] we have plans to put these on Earth as well.”
The project began back in 2015, with the first challenge being to find suitable storage media, which needed to fulfill two major requirements: “to be able to store a large amount of data, and it has to be extremely durable”, able to survive for tens of thousands of years. Problem: there is no existing storage media on Earth that is widely used that is durable for longer than 1000 years.
So on our first mission…we actually used a technology out of the UK, from the University of Southampton’s Opto-Electronics Laboratory…and that was quartz crystal. We wrote into this quartz crystal using a femtosecond laser, very very advanced technology. We wrote Asimov’s Foundation trilogy…not a lot of data, about 3 megabytes, and that was stored in the quartz crystal and is now orbiting the Sun for 30 million years.
How is it “orbiting the Sun for 30 million years”, you might ask? The Arch Mission Foundation hitched a ride in Elon Musk’s roadster that was launched into space in early 2018. The ‘Foundation crystal’ is in the roadster’s glove compartment!
However, the Arch Mission Foundation wanted to archive more than just a few megabytes, so they turned to the nickel disc solution. It provided copious amounts of storage, was durable, and allowed them to transmit information in two different ways: both analogue and digital. Which has a major advantage when it comes to sending knowledge to a civilization that might be rebuilding without the resources we currently have:
[T]here’s two major sections. There’s a section in analogue: the first 4 layers (about 60,000 pages) are analogue, which means we’ve etched the information as literal printed images on the nickel, you can see them with a microscope, you don’t need a computer, they’re not binary…you need a microscope that’s about 150-250x magnification, which is something we had in the 1700s.
…For that analogue section, we have to assume you might not have a computer, and so might not ever get the [rest] of the layers…and so we wanted to do two things: teach you lots of stuff, make it useful, and also teach you how to get the visual stuff…[it] teaches something like a million concepts with pictures and diagrams, so that you can understand a lot of our knowledge and thinking and history and timelines, geography, science and languages with pictures and diagrams. And then there’s a bunch of other things – one is a whole set of technical and engineering documents that teach you everything you need to know to access the digital layers.
It seems like a lot of effort and expense for something that we all take for granted in the internet age: access to knowledge. But all of these ‘archive’ efforts have the same thing in common: a concern that human civilization might soon come to an end, whether via an external source like an asteroid, or through something we created ourselves.
As Nova Spivack notes: “People ask me why I made the Lunar Library. Simple. Winter is coming.”