In 1859, the sun blasted Earth with a giant cloud of solar plasma, blowing out telegraph systems around the world and wreaking havoc with electrical pylons. It became known as the Carrington Event. Coronal mass ejections hit our planet about once every 100 years, making us due for another one.
Only this time, it would be catastrophic to our digital world. Resulting electromagnetic surges from a solar storm “could render our electronic devices useless and wipe data stored in memory drives.”
This is one scenario motivating the Memory of Mankind project. Academics, universities, newspapers and libraries are collaborating to preserve the accumulated knowledge of our time onto 8-inch ceramic plates and store them in an Australian salt mine.
“Each of these tablets can hold up to five million characters – about the same as a four-hundred-page book. They are acid- and alkali-resistant and can withstand temperatures of 1300C. A second type of tablet can carry colour pictures and diagrams along with 50,000 characters before being sealed with a transparent glaze.”
The technology draws inspiration from Sumerian clay tablets that lasted 5,000 years in the Iraqi desert, which proved invaluable to our understanding of that ancient civilization. Memory of Mankind intends for their “ceramic microfilm” to last millennia or even through an Ice Age, allowing future peoples to study our time.
“We are trying to create something that will not only be a collection of information for a distant future, but it will also be a gift for our grandchildren,” said Martin Kunze, developer of the project. “Memory of Mankind can serve as a backup of knowledge in case of an event like war, a pandemic or a meteorite that throws us back centuries within two or three generations. A society can lose skills and knowledge very quickly – in the 6th Century, Europe largely lost the ability to read and write within three generations.”
Nuclear holocaust, malicious hackers, careless government officials or simply losing the ability to read our digital records are among the scenarios that could render entire sections of humanity unknown to history. So much of our knowledge record is only in digital format now – including scientific papers and video footage – as well as records of personal stories and life events.
“In some distant future after our own civilisation has vanished, they could prove invaluable to any who find them. They could help resurrect forgotten knowledge for cultures less advanced than our own, or provide a wealth of historical information for more advanced civilisations to ensure our own achievements, and our mistakes, can be learned from.”
It could even be other forms of intelligent life form that benefit from the treasure trove of knowledge. But how will the ceramic plates, buried under a mountain, be found and translated?
Everyone taking part in the project is being given a small engraved token with a map of the location, which they can bury at strategic locations or pass down to the next generation. The team has also been creating their own Rosetta Stone, with names and meanings attached to images.
A conference of scientists, historians, archaeologists, linguists and philosophers is taking place this month to create a blueprint for should be included in this repository of knowledge.
In addition to the world’s most significant books, revolutionary scientific papers, and images of precious objects from museums, stories and objects from everyday life will be captured onto the ceramic disks. They will also warn future civilization about nuclear waste dumps.
To immortalize the importance of true freedom fighters exposing the corruption of government, “a plate detailing the story of Edward Snowden and his leak of classified material from the US National Security Agency.”
If the Memory of Mankind project seems rather uninspiring now, imagine how archaeologists felt when they discovered those ancient Sumerian tablets. What would our understanding of human history be without them?