predicting the future

In constructing a time capsule or attempting to communicate with potential extraterrestrial intelligence, there is a fundamental tension between providing the recipients with particular information that they will find interesting, and doing so in a sufficiently general format so that the information can be deciphered and understood in context.

When I teach Meaning Across the Millennia, we listen to audio excerpts from the 1967 Meadow Elementary School (Baldwin, NY) time capsule to discover what children and adults of that time thought might be interesting to the year 2000. One fourth-grader reads news highlights. Because detailed historical records from 1967 remain available to us, what my students actually find interesting is not what the senders thought we in their future would find interesting: the boy’s choices of news items (e.g., the death of Cardinal Spellman, the Six-Day War, a teacher strike), his thick accent, and his vocabulary (e.g., “…Negro boys are soldiers in Vietnam…”).

When we compare the two Westinghouse Time Capsules of the 1939 and 1964 New York World’s Fairs, we also see there how the selection of items reflects entirely different cultures and expectations of the future. What is interesting is not the explicit messages, but rather the contextual detritus that permeates these time capsules, separated as they are by only a quarter century, and both intended to be opened in the year 6939.

We just can’t tell what the future will find interesting, or what the future will bring. In the first chapter of Old Man’s War, John Scalzi describes issues of Newsweek magazine in a military recruiter’s office of the far future. He published this novel in 2005. Here we are only eight years later, and Newsweek has ceased publishing in print.

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encapsulating memories

At the end of last month, resting home from some typically indeterminate winter illness (which of course occurred during vacation), I read John Scalzi’s Redshirts for pleasure. While I was an enormous fan of science fiction in my youth, I rarely read the genre these days. But some review named this among the top SF books of 2012, and the self-referentiality and playfulness appealed to me. I found the novel so enjoyable and insightful that I wrote Scalzi a fan letter (which I haven’t done in decades) and decided to read Old Man’s War, the book which established his reputation.

The first three pages of Old Man’s War address the problem of encapsulating personal memory.

Kathy’s marker has her name (Katherine Rebecca Perry), her dates, and the words: BELOVED WIFE AND MOTHER. I read those words over and over every time I visit. I can’t help it; they are four words that so inadequately and so perfectly sum up a life. The phrase tells you nothing about her, about how she met each day or how she worked, about what her interests were or where she liked to travel. You’d never know what her favorite color was, or how she liked to wear her hair, or how she voted, or what her sense of humor was. You’d know nothing about her except that she was loved. And she was. She’d think that was enough.

In this paragraph, Scalzi captures a key problem that a headstone shares with time capsules and with attempted communication with extraterrestrial intelligence: how to capture the essence of a person, or culture, or planet.

Orson Scott Card also addresses similar memorialization issues in his Ender books, most notably in Speaker for the Dead. Card synecdochically explores the problem of comprehending and conveying the nested existences of individuals, species, and civilizations. He lays bare the paradox that we may know least those to whom we are closest, and outlines how opinions can shift over time (as Andrew Wiggin, initially celebrated as hero, becomes reviled as xenocide).

conveying time: epoch

We measure years with the Gregorian calendar, which in turn is a modification of the Julian calendar. The Julian calendar, more even-keeled than previous Roman calendars, standardized the solar year to 365 days with one leap day every four years. The 16th-century Gregorian calendar fine-tuned the frequency of leap days, recognizing that the length of a year is slightly shorter than 365-1/4 days (a fact already well-known to astronomers during the realm of Julius Caesar), and also realigned the calendar to the vernal equinox.

When we say it is 2013, we are counting from AD 1. The initial Julian calendar naturally did not measure with respect to Jesus, who would not be born for several decades. Instead, the Romans anchored years on the start of the rule of their consuls and emperors. The concept of Anno Domini, invented by Dionysius Exiguus in the 6th cenury, simply shifted the origin of the Julian calendar to a supposed birth year for Jesus.

The origin point of a calendar is called its epoch. Many other calendars also pin their epochs to religious events: the Jewish calendar, on a presumed beginning of the world; the Muslim calendar, on an event in the life of Muhammed; the Buddhist calendar, on the enlightenment of Siddhartha.

The origin point of a calendar is called its epoch.

Epoch wasn’t always defined in terms of religious events. Cultures more ancient than the Roman Empire, such as the Chinese and Egyptian, tied their calendar epochs to the starts of their dynasties. Whenever a civilization maintains records for centuries and is important enough for neighboring cultures to note the passage of its rulers, this dynastic method marks time with great accuracy. Early astronomers and historians marked events in the context of political leadership. The astronomer Ptolemy, writing his Almagest during the 2nd century, pinpointed all his calculations to a single hour during the first year of the realm of the Babylonian king Nabonassar [747 BC].

Given that political leadership continues to be significant today, why do religious events now dominate the definitions of epoch for our mainstream calendars? After all, the English monarchy has endured for over a millennia, and the British Empire/Commonwealth spans the globe. Perhaps it’s as simple as noting with Stewart Brand that religions tend to be the most enduring human institutions. Nations and empires rise and fall, while religions continue.

When creating a time capsule for future humans or developing a method to communicate with a potential extraterrestrial intelligence, the problem of defining epoch becomes more difficult. The epochs for UNIX (January 1, 1970) and other operating systems are arbitrary and may not endure. In contrast, the first Westinghouse Time Capsule, intended to be opened in the year 6939, attempts to define its own epoch with both religious-based calendars and by astronomical methods. The date of its burial is provided not only in various calendars, but also by providing the positions of the planets in the sky, of the north star Polaris, and information about solar and lunar eclipses. Another example: the LAGEOS satellite, in geosynchronous orbit, contains a plaque of the Earth, to help people in the distant future backdate the launch of the satellite with continental drift.

Are there other good methods to establish epoch across vast time — in addition to religious-based calendars, astronomical data, and geological information?