Self-Healing Transistors for Chip-Scale Starships

Self-Healing Transistors for Chip-Scale Starships

A new design could survive the radiation of a 20-year trip to Alpha Centauri
Photo: Yang-Kyu Choi
Cosmic-Ray-Proof: A test chip includes DRAM and logic circuits made from self-healing gate-all-around transistors.

Working with the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST), NASA is pioneering the development of tiny spacecraft, each made from a single silicon chip, that could slash interstellar exploration times.

Speaking at the IEEE International Electron Devices Meeting in San Francisco last December, NASA’s Dong-Il Moon detailed this new technology, which is aimed at ensuring such spacecraft survive the potentially powerful radiation they’ll encounter on their journey.

Calculations suggest that if silicon chips were used to form the heart of a spacecraft powered by a tiny, featherweight solar sail and accelerated by a gigawatt-scale laser system, the craft could accelerate to one-fifth the speed of light. At such high speeds, it would reach the nearest stars in just 20 years, compared with the tens of thousands of years it would take a conventional spacecraft.

Moon and coworkers argue that 20 years in space is still too long for an ordinary silicon chip, because on its journey it will be bombarded by more high-energy radiation than chips encounter on Earth. “You are above most of the magnetic fields that block a lot of radiation, and above most of the atmosphere, which also does a good job of blocking radiation,” says Brett Streetman, who leads efforts in chip-scale spacecraft at the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, in Cambridge, Mass.

Radiation leads to the accumulation of positively charged defects in the chip’s silicon dioxide layer, where they degrade device performance. The most serious of the impairments is an increase in the current that leaks through a transistor when it is supposed to be turned off, according to Yang-Kyu Choi, leader of the team at KAIST, where the work was done.

Two options for addressing chip damage are to select a path through space that minimizes radiation exposure and to add shielding. But the former leads to longer missions and constrains exploration, and the latter adds weight and nullifies the advantage of using a miniaturized craft. A far better approach, argues Moon, is to let the devices suffer damage but to design them so that they can heal themselves with heat.

“On-chip healing has been around for many, many years,” says Jin-Woo Han, a member of the NASA team. The critical addition made now, Han says, is the most comprehensive analysis of radiation damage so far.

This study uses KAIST’s experimental “gate-all-around” nanowire transistor. These devices use nanoscale wires as the transistor channel instead of today’s fin-shaped channels. The gate-all-around device may not be well known today, but production is expected to rocket in the early 2020s. [See “Transistors Could Stop Shrinking in 2021,” IEEE Spectrum, August 2016.]

The gate—the electrode that turns the flow of charge through the channel on or off—completely surrounds the nanowire. Adding an extra contact to the gate allows you to pass current through it. That current heats the gate and the channel it surrounds, fixing any radiation-induced defects.

Nanowire transistors are ideal for space, according to KAIST, because they naturally have a relatively high degree of immunity to cosmic rays and because they are small, with dimensions in the tens of nanometers. “The typical size for [transistor dimensions on] chips devoted to spacecraft applications is about 500 nanometers,” says Choi. “If you can replace 500-nm feature sizes with 20-nm feature sizes, the chip size and weight can be reduced.” Costs fall too.

KAIST’s design has been used to form three key building blocks for a single-chip spacecraft: a microprocessor, DRAM memory for supporting this, and flash memory that can serve as a hard drive.

Repairs to radiation-induced damage can be made many times, with experiments showing that flash memory can be recovered up to around 10,000 times and DRAM returned to its pristine state 1012 times. With logic devices, an even higher figure is expected. These results indicate that a lengthy interstellar space mission could take place, with the chip powered down every few years, heated internally to recover its performance, and then brought back to life.

Philip Lubin, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, believes that this annealing-based approach is “creative and clever” but wonders how much danger from cosmic rays there really will be to these chips. He would like to see a thorough evaluation of existing technologies for chip-scale spacecraft, pointing out that there are already radiation hardened electronics developed in the military.

Today, efforts at NASA and KAIST are focusing on the elimination of the second gate contact for heating. This contact is not ideal because it modifies chip design and demands the creation of a new transistor library, which escalates production costs. Those at KAIST are investigating the capability of a different design, called a junctionless nanowire transistor, which heats the channel during normal operation. Separately, at NASA, researchers are developing on-chip embedded microheaters that are compatible with standard circuits.

Cutting the costs of self-healing tech will play a key role in determining its future in chip-scale spacecraft, which will require many more years of investment before they can get off the ground.

February 09, 2017 at 11:24AM
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Posted: Inuits Inherited Cold Adaptation Genes from Denisovan-Related Species | Genetics, Paleoanthropology |

Posted: Inuits Inherited Cold Adaptation Genes from Denisovan-Related Species | Genetics, Paleoanthropology |

In the Arctic, the Inuits have adapted to cold and a seafood diet. After the first genomic analysis of Greenlandic Inuits, a region in the genome containing two genes (TBX15 and WARS2) has now been scrutinized by researchers.

Denisovans were probably dark-skinned, unlike the pale Neandertals. Image credit: Mauro Cutrona.

Dr. Fernando Racimo of the New York Genome Center and his colleagues have now followed up on that study to trace back the origins of these adaptations.

“To identify genes responsible for biological adaptations to life in the Arctic, Fumagalli et al. scanned the genomes of Greenlandic Inuit using the population branch statistic, which detects loci that are highly differentiated from other populations,” the researchers explained.

“Using this method, they found two regions with a strong signal of selection: (i) one region contains the cluster of FADS genes, involved in the metabolism of unsaturated fatty acids; (ii) the other region contains WARS2 and TBX15, located on chromosome 1.”

“WARS2 encodes the mitochondrial tryptophanyl-tRNA synthetase. TBX15 is a transcription factor from the T-box family and is a highly pleotropic gene expressed in multiple tissues at different stages of development.”

“TBX15 plays a role in the differentiation of brown and brite adipocytes. Brown and brite adipocytes produce heat via lipid oxidation when stimulated by cold temperatures, making TBX15 a strong candidate gene for adaptation to life in the Arctic.”

In their own study, Dr. Racimo and co-authors used the genomic data from nearly 200 Greenlandic Inuits and compared this to the 1000 Genomes Project and ancient DNA from Neanderthals and Denisovans.

The results provide convincing evidence that the Inuit variant of the TBX15/WARS2 region first came into modern humans from an archaic hominid population, likely related to the Denisovans.

“The Inuit DNA sequence in this region matches very well with the Denisovan genome, and it is highly differentiated from other present-day human sequences, though we can’t discard the possibility that the variant was introduced from another archaic group whose genomes we haven’t sampled yet,” Dr. Racimo said.

The scientists found that the variant is present at low-to-intermediate frequencies throughout Eurasia, and at especially high frequencies in the Inuits and Native American populations, but almost absent in Africa.

They speculate that the archaic variant may have been beneficial to modern humans during their expansion throughout Siberia and across Beringia, into the Americas.

The team also worked to understand the physiological role of the TBX15/WARS2 region.

They found an association between the archaic region and the gene expression of TBX15 and WARS2 in various tissues, like fibroblasts and adipose tissue.

They also observed that the methylation patterns in this region in the Denisovan genome are very different from those of Neanderthals and present-day humans.

“All this suggests that the introduced variant may have altered the regulation of these genes, thought the exact mechanism by which this occurred remains elusive,” Dr. Racimo said.

The team’s results were published online this week in the journal Molecular Biology and Evolution.


Fernando Racimo et al. Archaic adaptive introgression in TBX15/WARS2. Mol Biol Evol, published online December 21, 2016; doi: 10.1093/molbev/msw283

February 09, 2017 at 11:23AM
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Do not buy the House Science Committee���s claim that scientists faked data

Do not buy the House Science Committee���s claim that scientists faked data

No credible evidence supports that NOAA fabricated data; evidence still points to climate change
By Kendra Pierre-Louis 7 hours ago

Donald LeRoi, NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center

Climate scientists have worked hard for decades to prove climate change. Why is the US House Committee on Science, Space and Technology working so hard not to believe them?

On Sunday February 5th, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology published a press release alleging, based on questionable evidence, that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) “manipulated climate records.”

The source of their evidence, according to Committee spokesperson Thea McDonalds, was a Daily Mail article. The Daily Mail is a British tabloid most famous for outlandish headlines such as “Is the Bum the New Side Boob” and “ISIS Chief executioner winning hearts with his rugged looks.” This is not the first time that the House Science Committee has used spurious evidence to dispute the existence of human-driven climate change.

The piece, which quotes John Bates—a scientist who NOAA once employed—challenges the data used in the famous 2015 Karl study. The study, named after Thomas R. Karl—the director of the NOAA’s Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) and the paper’s lead author—was published in Science and debunked the notion of a climate “hiatus” or “cooling.”

The White House Press release, which includes quotes from committee Chairman Lamar Smith as well as Darin Lahood (R-Ill) and Andy Biggs (R-Ariz), misrepresents a procedural disagreement as proof that human caused climate change is not occurring. It’s akin to pointing to a family argument as proof that they aren’t actually related.

“What the House Committee is trying to do, like they did in the past, is debunk the whole issue of global warming,” said Yochanan Kushnir, a Senior Scientist at the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory.

At the center of the argument is contention over how NOAA maintains climate data records. Climate researchers receive grants to process and develop climate-related data sets. Once those data sets are fully developed, it becomes the responsibility of NOAA’s National Climactic Data Center (NCDC) to preserve, monitor, and update that data—which can sometimes be what data scientists refer to as messy.

“The problem,” said Kevin Trenberth a Distinguished Senior Scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, “is that this is quite an arduous process, and can take a long time. And, of course NOAA doesn’t necessarily get an increase of funds to do this.”

Maintaining this data fell under the purview of Bates’ group, and it’s this data that he has taken issue with publicly.

“Bates was complaining that not all of the data sets were being done as thoroughly as he wanted to,” said Ternberth. “But there’s a compromise you have to make as to whether you can do more data sets or whether you can do more really thoroughly. And the decision was made that you try and do more.”

Ice core samples are used as proxy indicators for past global climate temperatures and atmospheric CO2 concentrations.

Bates takes particular issue with the way Karl handled land temperature data in the Science study which addressed the so-called “climate hiatus.” Early analyses of global temperature trends during the first ten years of this century seemed to suggest that warming had slowed down. Climate change doubters used this analysis to support their belief that—despite climatological data which includes 800,000 year ice-core records of atmospheric carbon dioxide—humans have not affected the atmosphere by releasing billions of tons of carbon dioxide per year.

“His primary complaint seems to be that when researchers at NOAA published this paper in Science, while they used a fully developed and vetted ocean temperature product, they used an experimental land temperature product,” said Zeke Hausfather, an energy systems analyst and environmental economist with Berkeley Earth. Because climate data comes from a number of different sources, methods of handling that data go through a vetting process that ultimately dictates the use of one for the official government temperature product. That can mean controlling for known defects in the devices that gather climate data or figuring out the best way to put them together. The product that Karl used for land temperature data hadn’t finished that process.

“That said,” said Hausfather, “the land temperature data they used in the paper is certainly up to the standards of an experimental or research product.”

So what does that mean for those of us on the outside?

Not much.

The record data that Bates takes umbrage with showed roughly the same amount of warming as the old record. And the evidence that the Karl paper cites as to why there’s no hiatus is based on ocean temperatures—not land. A government source who does not wish to be named emphasized that there is no evidence or even a credible suggestion that NOAA falsified data in the Karl et al (K15) study. And even if Bates’ critiques were valid—and given that this methodology, after much peer review, is now the default way that NOAA calculates land temperatures, his complaints seem problematic—it doesn’t upend the study’s conclusion. And —the evidence still supportsAs for the differences in water temperatures, that can be easily be accounted for by differences in the tools used to measure water temperatures. In the past, as PopSci previously reported, most ocean temperature data was taken by ships which pulled water into their engine rooms—rooms warmer than the ocean outside, making ocean temperature recordings slightly higher. When ocean temperature tracking switched to buoys, which stay in the water all of the time and don’t heat up, NOAA failed to control for the cooler (and arguably more accurate) water temperatures due to the lack of hot ship engines. The Karl study corrects for that temperature difference and Bates’ complaints do nothing to discredit it.

“People should be aware of the fact that there are different groups that analyze the data,” said Kushnir. “if you look at all of the sources together you get a bigger, more reliable picture of what’s happening. There’s the Hadley Center from the UK meteorology office that puts together a data set of global mean temperatures, there’s NASA, NOAA, then there’s the Berkeley group and the Japanese who have their own way of putting information together.”NOAA

Zeke Hausfather at Berkeley Earth independently developed an updated version of Figure 2 in Karl et al 2015. The black line shows the new NOAA record, while the thinner blue line shows the results from raw land stations, ships, and buoys with no corrections for station moves or instrument changes. The two are quite similar over the last 50 years; over the last 100 years the corrected data [the one Karl uses] actually shows less global warming.

The Karl paper is also not the only one to tackle the hiatus. Studies in Nature by Stephan Lewandowsky of the Cabot Institute University of Bristol, and this one in the journal Climate Change by Bala Rajaratnam of Stanford University, all say the same thing.

The Karl study’s high profile, however, has made it a frequent target for criticism.

“The whole issue of this hiatus issue was discussed quite heavily in science,” said Kushnir. “And as scientists we understand what happened in this long period.”

Basically, there’s the natural climate variability, and then there’s the variability caused by climate change. The natural variability during this period was cooler, but the climate change impact on top of it was not.

But that isn’t even Bates’ complaint, as the House Committee would imply—his complaint is that the data wasn’t vetted heavily enough.

“I interpret a key part of the issue,” said Trenberth, “as, how deep do you go and how far into the research do you go for one particular data set, as opposed to moving onto the next data set and getting that into a much better state than it would have been otherwise.”

Trenberth points to a backlog of data that hasn’t yet been released or updated, pressuring NOAA to focus on volume over perfection. If this sounds to you like an argument for more funding for climate change research instead of less, you’re not alone.

“Recommendations about doing these things have been made, but they’ve never been adequately funded. So we muddle along,” said Trenberth. “And Lamar smith under the house has been responsible for some of this, because they actually cut the funding to enable NOAA to properly deal with and process the data by 30 percent in 2012. So the ability to do this properly has actually been compromised by the House Science Committee and by Lamar Smith in particular.” 

The current administration has talked a lot about the “politicization of science.” Meanwhile on the House Committee’s website, Representative Smith states that Bates has exposed the “previous administration’s efforts to push their costly climate agenda at the expense of scientific integrity.” With the House Committee misrepresenting both Bates’ complaint and the overarching scientific consensus, it does indeed seem that the politicization of science is a problem the administration needs to deal with.

February 09, 2017 at 11:22AM
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Why a Tax Break for Security Cameras Is a Terrible Idea

Why a Tax Break for Security Cameras Is a Terrible Idea

Why a Tax Break for Security Cameras Is a Terrible Idea

Law enforcement agencies around the country have been expanding their surveillance capabilities by recruiting private citizens and businesses to share their security camera footage and live feeds. The trend is alarming, since it allows government to spy on communities without the oversight, approval, or legal processes that are typically required for police. 

EFF is opposing new legislation introduced in California by Assemblymember Marc Steinorth that would create a tax credit worth up to $500 for residents who purchase home security systems, including fences, alarms and cameras. In a letter, EFF has asked the lawmaker to strike the tax break for surveillance cameras, citing privacy concerns as well as the potential threat created by consumer cameras that can be exploited by botnets. As we write in the letter: 

Personal privacy is an inalienable right under Section 1 of the California Constitution. Yet, in 2017, privacy is under threat on multiple fronts, including through the increase in use of privately operated surveillance cameras. Law enforcement agencies throughout the state have been encouraging private individuals and businesses to install cameras and share access to expand government’s surveillance reach through private cooperation. The ability for facial recognition technology to be applied routinely and automatically to CCTV footage will present even more dangers for personal privacy. EFF has significant concerns that, by using tax credits to encourage residents of California to buy and install security cameras, A.B. 54 will not only increase the probability that Californians will use cameras to spy on one another but will also build the infrastructure to allow for the growth of a “Big Brother” state.

In addition, this tax credit for surveillance cameras may create a new weakness for security. In October, a massive cyberattack that exploited personal cameras disabled Internet traffic across the country. EFF and independent security researchers have also discovered surveillance cameras that were openly accessible over the Internet, allowing anyone with a browser to watch live footage and manipulate the cameras. The potential for breaches will grow commensurately with the increase in the number of cameras in communities promoted by the tax incentive.

EFF urges Steinorth to amend A.B. 54 and, failing that, we ask his colleagues in the California legislature to vote against the bill. 

January 09, 2017 at 03:13PM
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NASA���s Cassini Spacecraft Prepares for Ring-Grazing Phase | Space Exploration |

NASA���s Cassini Spacecraft Prepares for Ring-Grazing Phase | Space Exploration |

NASA’s Cassini Spacecraft Prepares for Ring-Grazing Phase

In the final year of its epic voyage, on Nov. 30, NASA’s Cassini orbiter will begin a daring set of ‘ring-grazing orbits,’ skimming past the outside edge of Saturn’s main rings.

Artist’s concept of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft at Saturn. Image credit: NASA.

Artist’s concept of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft at Saturn. Image credit: NASA.

Launched in 1997, Cassini has been touring the Saturn system since arriving there in 2004 for an up-close study of the gas giant, its rings and moons.

During its journey, the probe has made numerous discoveries, including a global ocean within Enceladus and liquid methane seas on Titan.

On Nov. 30, following a gravitational nudge from Titan, Cassini will enter the first phase of the mission’s dramatic endgame.

Cassini will fly closer to Saturn’s rings than it has since its 2004 arrival. It will begin the closest study of the rings and offer unprecedented views of moons that orbit near them.

These orbits, a series of 20, are called ring-grazing orbits, or F-ring orbits.

During these weekly orbits, Cassini will approach to within 4,850 miles (7,800 km) of the center of the narrow F ring, with its peculiar kinked and braided structure.

Cassini’s instruments will attempt to directly sample ring particles and molecules of faint gases.

“Even though we’re flying closer to the F ring than we ever have, we’ll still be more than 4,850 miles distant. There’s very little concern over dust hazard at that range,” said Cassini project manager Dr. Earl Maize, from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

The F ring marks the outer boundary of the main ring system. This ring is complex and constantly changing. Cassini images have shown structures like bright streamers, wispy filaments and dark channels that appear and develop over mere hours.

The ring is also quite narrow — only about 500 miles (800 km) wide. At its core is a denser region about 30 miles (50 km) wide.

Cassini’s ring-grazing orbits also offer unprecedented opportunities to observe the menagerie of small moons that orbit in or near the edges of Saturn’s rings, including best-ever looks at the moons Pandora, Atlas, Pan and Daphnis.

“During the F-ring orbits we expect to see the rings, along with the small moons and other structures embedded in them, as never before,” said Cassini project scientist Dr. Linda Spilker, also from JPL.

“The last time we got this close to the rings was during arrival at Saturn in 2004, and we saw only their backlit side.”

“Now we have dozens of opportunities to examine their structure at extremely high resolution on both sides.”

During ring-grazing orbits, the spacecraft will pass as close as about 56,000 miles (90,000 km) above Saturn’s cloud tops. But even with all their exciting science, these orbits are merely a prelude to the planet-grazing passes that lie ahead.

In April 2017, Cassini will begin its Grand Finale phase. After nearly 20 years in space, the mission is drawing near its end because the spacecraft is running low on fuel.

The Cassini team carefully designed the finale to conduct an extraordinary science investigation before sending the spacecraft into Saturn to protect its potentially habitable moons.

During this phase, the probe will pass as close as 1,012 miles (1,628 km) above the clouds as it dives repeatedly through the narrow gap between Saturn and its rings, before making its mission-ending plunge into the planet’s atmosphere on Sept. 15, 2017.

November 28, 2016 at 01:50PM
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APOD: 2014 December 14 – Molecular Cloud Barnard 68

APOD: 2014 December 14 – Molecular Cloud Barnard 68

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2014 December 14

See Explanation. Clicking on the picture will download the highest resolution version available.

Molecular Cloud Barnard 68
Image Credit: FORS Team, 8.2-meter VLT Antu, ESO

Explanation: Where did all the stars go? What used to be considered a hole in the sky is now known to astronomers as a dark molecular cloud. Here, a high concentration of dust and molecular gas absorb practically all the visible light emitted from background stars. The eerily dark surroundings help make the interiors of molecular clouds some of the coldest and most isolated places in the universe. One of the most notable of these dark absorption nebulae is a cloud toward the constellation Ophiuchus known as Barnard 68, pictured above. That no stars are visible in the center indicates that Barnard 68 is relatively nearby, with measurements placing it about 500 light-years away and half a light-year across. It is not known exactly how molecular clouds like Barnard 68 form, but it is known that these clouds are themselves likely places for new stars to form. In fact, Barnard 68 itself has been found likely to collapse and form a new star system. It is possible to look right through the cloud in infrared light.

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Authors & editors: Robert Nemiroff (MTU) & Jerry Bonnell (UMCP)
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& Michigan Tech. U.

June 10, 2016 at 09:55AM
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Egyptology can help us future-proof our culture ��� Grayson Clary ��� Aeon

Egyptology can help us future-proof our culture ��� Grayson Clary ��� Aeon

Talk like an Egyptian

If we want to safeguard our languages, stories and ideas against extinction, we had better study Egyptology

Grayson Clary 2,900 words
Egypt 1958. At the tomb of Ramses II. Photo by Elliott Erwitt/Magnum

Egypt 1958. At the tomb of Ramses II. Photo by Elliott Erwitt/Magnum

Consider the New Kingdom Egyptian. He can be forgiven for thinking his state sits at creation’s centre, a kernel of order anchoring the known world. If he lives during the reign of Ramses II, his Egypt has already governed Northeast Africa for the better part of 2,000 years. Trouncing Hittites at Kadesh, Ramses will confirm Egypt as the preeminent military power in the region and, for any Egyptian then living, the entire human fraction of the cosmos. That, at least, is what official accounts will show. Bombastic descriptions of the battle will decorate monuments across the empire.

A millennium and a bit later, not a living soul will be able to read them.

The scientific community has recently begun to think hard about natural and technological existential risks to human beings: a wandering asteroid, an unfortunately timed gamma-ray burst, a warming planet. But we should also begin to think about the possibility of cultural apocalypse. The Egyptian case is instructive: an epoch of stunning continuity, followed by abrupt extinction. This is a decline and fall worth keeping in mind. We should be prepared for the possibility that humankind will one day have no memory of Milton, or for that matter Motown. Futurism could do with a dose of Egyptology.

estern obsession with Ancient Egypt – Egyptomania – has always drawn on the split personality of its legacy: its suggestively modern face and its alien distance. Its zeitgeist is very nearly intelligible, but not quite. Here was a culture obsessed with writing. One Egyptian cosmogony gives credit to Ptah for creation through the Word, though other traditions put the cause down as Atum’s spit or semen.

Still, for all its carven glyphs, Egypt cannot claim to have passed down its dreams, memories and hopes for the future. Some of its civilisation has been recovered, but some was lost irretrievably. This is sobering enough on its own terms. When you examine our beloved present day from an Egyptological distance, you see that we are vulnerable to a similar fate.

The predicament is neatly captured in one of the best-known works of Egyptian literature, The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor. This Middle Kingdom story is exactly what it says on the tin, straightforward enough that its translation was assigned in my first year of Hieroglyphic Middle Egyptian at Yale University. The sailor of the title meets a ferocious storm, washes ashore on a phantom island, and enjoys several conversations with an impressively ornate serpent. The copyist scribbles: ‘His beard, it was more than two cubits long. His body was overlaid with gold. His eyebrows were lapis lazuli, truly.’ Enlightened, the sailor is duly rescued.

for the modern reader, the story’s ultimate meaning amounts to: huh?

Thanks to the survival of this particular papyrus, we have in hand the ancient bones of an adventure tale, one that’s washed ashore in virtually every cultural tradition (whether contrived independently or not). World literature is littered with shipwrecked sailors, cast overboard on this, that or the other mystical journey. Indeed, the story’s skeleton is recognisable enough that an illustrated children’s book edition is available.

And yet, the crucial ending of the story remains inaccessible. The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor is couched in a frame story; the account of wreck and recovery is meant to reassure a courtier, newly returned from a naval expedition to Nubia, as he readies to address the pharaoh. The tale’s sense – its moral – hinges on his response to this fantastic account.

That answer is a rhetorical question:

(‘Who,’ he asks, ‘gives water to a goose as the land brightens for the morning of its slaughter?’) (‘Who,’ he asks, ‘gives water to a goose as the land brightens for the morning of its slaughter?’)

Who indeed? Well, scholars don’t exactly agree. Some see a glib dismissal of the sailor’s happy ending, others a reference to a very real ritual function. In any case, for the modern reader, the story’s ultimate meaning amounts to: huh?

hat we have here is a failure to communicate. It’s as though an alien race has found Voyager’s Golden Record, the greatest hits of Earth-kind from Jimmy Carter to whale song. They manage to puzzle out its contents, and yet they find that it carries nothing but puns.

Without language, a people is left with very little. Think of Lee Harvey Oswald learning Russian in Don DeLillo’s novel Libra (1988): ‘Working with her, making the new sounds, watching her lips, repeating words and syllables, hearing his own flat voice take on texture and dimension, he could almost believe that he was being remade on the spot, given an opening to some larger and deeper version of himself.’ As Martin Heidegger put it in 1947: ‘Language is the house of Being. In its home man dwells.’

Imagine the pharaohs’ frustration at all the bits of language lost, the prayers and tributes especially. This was a civilisation that had its eyes fixed on eternity. Its civil calendar was apparently keyed to the heliacal rising of Sothis, whose astronomical cycle has a period of some 1,400 years. By dint of longevity, the first Egyptologists were Egyptian, and ditto the first tomb robbers. Is it a bridge too far to say the first futurists were Egyptian too?

And yet, its hieroglyphic script suffered through centuries of illegibility. The last hieroglyphic inscription – the last one with a convenient date attached – is at Philae, a small Nile island that hosted a temple to the goddess Isis (the island was recently submerged, and the temple complex relocated). That clutch of glyphs dates to 394 AD, but not until the 19th century would they be comprehensible again.

The trilingual stone saved what could be saved from an entire civilisation’s cultural memory

That the language was recovered at all is a minor miracle. In the years after its extinction, Egyptian refused to yield up its secrets to an onslaught of wrong-headed decipherments. Pseudo-scholars would read outlandish allegorical meanings into an ibis, the forelegs of a lion, a windpipe and heart. The language’s trick, of course, is that it isn’t fully phonographic or ideographic.

The Pharaohs and their scribes would be unheard until the French scholar Jean-François Champollion reached back through more than a millennium to rescue them. The tale of this miracle is shopworn. In 1798 Napoleon’s armies swept into Egypt with teams of scientists in tow, and stumbled onto the Rosetta Stone. They would later surrender the stone to the British, but casts of it circulated among European museums and scholars, including Champollion. The stone has become romantic shorthand for the cracking of a code, but it is, all things considered, an unexciting, bureaucratic text. And yet, it owes its air of romance to bureaucratic necessity, for the stone records the same message three times, in three scripts, one of which was well understood in Napoleon’s day. The trilingual stone saved what could be saved from an entire civilisation’s cultural memory. It was the time machine by which ancient Egypt travelled into the future.

Egypt’s story isn’t the only example of decline, fall and resurrection. The decipherment of hieroglyphs is a particular case of a more general problem: retrieving information across vast cultural divides and immense stretches of time is difficult. Cretan hieroglyphs remain impenetrable, Olmec – the language of the first major civilization in Mexico – is largely a mystery, and only within the past half-century or so has meaning been teased from the Mayan script. For every civilisation retrieved, another remains substantially beyond our comprehension. And for all the millennia it spent plotting immortality, Egypt’s resurrection was a happy accident.

But what if we could systematise that luck, to make sure that our own achievements never vanish? What if we could design a Rosetta Stone to be a Rosetta stone, on purpose – one that might someday rescue us from the dustbin of history?

hen it comes to creating exceptionally durable records, the physical challenges aren’t half as intractable as they might seem. I put the issue to Anders Sandberg, a research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, who quickly listed a whole slew of plausible methods for very long-term information storage: write it into DNA, engrave it on glass or sapphire at the nano-scale, store it in a ‘million-year’ tungsten and silicon nitride hard-drive. The Moon, he volunteered, would be a better place to station an archive than Earth.

Of course, retrieving those records would be quite the feat. The institute’s director, Nick Bostrom, framed it to me this way: ‘It is one kind of challenge to preserve information that a technologically mature civilisation could eventually discover and retrieve, and another kind of challenge to preserve information in a form that would be helpful to a primitive civilisation that needs simple clues to help it back up to our current level.’ The first amounts to vanity publishing on an epochal scale, but the second just might keep the flame of our current civilisation alive.

‘We humans have figured out both honeybee dances and ant pheromone trails.’

When constructing an archive for a stranger, it’s imperative to keep in mind the terms of discovery. How much information does the recipient need in hand to make sense of the archive, or to know that it is an archive in the first place? Bostrom told me it would be easy to communicate with a sufficiently developed species. ‘I think practically any record that we could create that we could also read,’ he said, ‘would be intelligible to an advanced future civilisation, provided only that we preserve a sufficient amount of text.’ Sandberg sounded a similar positive note: ‘We humans have figured out both honeybee dances and ant pheromone trails.’

If the arc of human history bends towards super-intelligence, our memories will be in good hands, but that doesn’t mean we’re in the clear. As Laura Welcher, a linguist with an interest in endangered languages, and the director of operations for the Long Now Foundation, put it: ‘In the very long term, I think we have to expect possible discontinuities.’ In that scenario, the challenge is trickier – how to create a library labelled, as simply as possible: ‘In case of apocalypse, read me.’

he Long Now Foundation in San Francisco has been puzzling over this problem. The foundation was set up 18 years ago to build a culture of extremely long-term thinking. Its house style is to write our current year as 02014 – to solve the Y10K problem, and to leave room for millennia 11 through 100. The Long Now is trying to do the opposite of archaeology. They are building ‘intentional artifacts’ in order to seed the world with secrets for the finding.

Last year, the foundation caught a flurry of attention for its 10,000-Year Clock: a timepiece sheltered in a Texas mountain, meant to run for millennia. The hook for most media outlets was the involvement of’s founder Jeff Bezos, whose maverick millions gave credibility to a project wrapped in fantastically romantic language. ‘[As] long as the Clock ticks,’ the foundation’s board member Kevin Kelly wrote for the project’s website, ‘it keeps asking us, in whispers of buried bells, “Are we being good ancestors?”’

Kelly always capitalises the Clock, and he likes to attach active verbs to it, as if the thing has a mind of its own. Steven Inskeep, the radio presenter of NPR’s Morning Edition,put the natural question to the Clock’s designer Danny Hillis: ‘Human nature being what it is, you still have to wonder if those future people discovering your clock might just go to wildly wrong conclusions – oh, this was their God that they worshipped in the mountain. Or who knows what else?’

That impression is, substantially, the point. The foundation wants its projects to have a ‘mythic’ feel, Welcher told me, the better to create a lasting community. The 10,000-Year Clock fits the bill, sitting right on the glinting knife’s edge between technology and magic. But this is just one way of being ‘good ancestors’. The Long Now has a smaller, and more plainly useful project that draws on the decipherment of Egyptian. An archive of human language, it could fairly be described as a whole world in your hand. The Foundation calls it the Rosetta Disk.

Digital formats decay at extraordinary speed. Egyptian papyri have endured. On millennial scales, go analogue

The Rosetta Disk takes the principle of the Rosetta Stone to its practical extreme: massive parallelism for maximum intelligibility. A nickel puck just 2.8in across, the Disk is etched all over, microscopically, with more than 13,000 pages in more than 1,500 languages. Champollion, eat your heart out. A glass globe shelters the Disk against wear, tear and elemental abuse. This isn’t the library itself, emphasises Welcher, who heads the Rosetta Project. Instead, she calls the Disk a ‘decoder ring’ or a ‘card catalogue’. It’s the map, not the territory – a means of (re)discovery, in case all else is lost.

In designing a ‘library of civilisation’, the Long Now didn’t look to Voyager-style probes or cutting-edge hard drives. Instead, Welcher says, the challenge was: ‘Can we do better than paper?’ Digital formats decay at extraordinary speed – blink and you miss them. Indeed, some NASA data was temporarily lost due to software and hardware change. Egyptian papyri have endured. On millennial scales, Welcher advises, go analogue.

The other design challenge was to signal the Disk’s content. Reading it requires an optical microscope, which means that a reader must have reason to think that the Disk should be examined under a microscope.

This design problem becomes tricky over very large timescales, especially if the archivist assumes nothing of her audience’s language skills and technical development. It’s a question that comes up when nuclear waste sites are discussed: how do you communicate ‘do not dig here’ across time, to people for whom most of your signposts are unintelligible? Some have suggested that grotesque sculptures could do the trick, but those sculptures could be interpreted as hiding treasure. In 1984, a pair of linguists proposed creating ‘ray cats’ that would glow in response to radiation. They would then compose a folklore of songs and tales that would preserve the notion that glowing cats signal danger. Carl Sagan, clearly phoning it in, recommended a skull and crossbones.

The foundation’s solution to this problem is elegant, a shrinking, in-spiraling inscription that reads ‘Languages of the World’ in English, Spanish, Russian, Swahili, Arabic, Hindi, Mandarin and Indonesian. So long as one of those languages lives, the Disk’s pitch – ‘Read me!’ – is legible. But where to put it? If mass distribution can’t be managed (the Disks are fairly expensive), the setting ought to communicate the artifact’s importance. Take the Phaistos Disk, a resolutely mysterious object recovered from beneath a Minoan palace on the Greek island of Crete. Its glyphs remain un-deciphered, but its preciousness is announced loud and clear by its burial underneath a palace. So long as we treat our intentional artifacts with a certain degree of reverence, future re-discoverers will plausibly do the same.

The Long Now Foundation has found at least one symbolically resonant home for its Disk. A copy is ensconced on Rosetta, the European Space Agency’s comet probe, whose plucky lander was named for Philae. As long as the Rosetta Orbiter circles the Sun, it guards the memories of the whole human race.

he canonical allusion for ephemerality is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet ‘Ozymandias’ (1818), Ozymandias being another name for Egypt’s Ramses II. As the line goes: ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings/Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ ‘Nothing besides remains,’ writes Shelley. ‘Round the decay/of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,/the lone and level sands stretch far away.’

Shelley’s poem is the best known, but Horace Smith’s on the same subject, which was published a month after his friend Shelley’s, better suits the futurist lens. Smith wrote:
We wonder, – and some Hunter may express
Wonder like ours, when thro’ the wilderness
Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,
He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess
What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

Consider Smith the father of Egyptological futurism. But whatever precautions we take against cultural annihilation, one intractable problem remains. There is a gorgeously convoluted name for those words that, in a given corpus, appear only once: hapax legomena. Any beginning student of hieroglyphs is bound to come across these in Raymond O Faulkner’s Concise Dictionary of Middle Egyptian, and they tend to spark equal parts despair and delight. Delight because you can be sure you’ve gotten the transliteration right, and your work is done. Despair because, if thin context clues don’t suffice, there is no puzzling out what it means. The word is quite simply dead.

When a word goes, a bit of the culture goes with it. The losses snowball, referents fade, and allusions die with them. ‘Who,’ after all, ‘gives water to a goose as the land brightens for the morning of its slaughter?’ Bostrom’s caveat strikes back. Everything is recoverable, ‘provided only that we preserve a sufficient amount of text.’

The solution is only partly technical. Even paper is technology enough for the next few millennia. The challenge is to maximise the surviving corpus. Egypt’s literate classes fell foul of that calculus, guarding jealously the hieroglyphic script. The first commandment of Egyptological futurism, then, would be to ward off at all costs the dead words, those blasted hapax legomena. In other words, for humanity’s sake – write.

12 December 2014

June 10, 2016 at 09:55AM
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