Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Taking the Long View

There's a saying that goes, “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”  I've always taken that to mean when we do things that are for the good of people who come long after us. 

Maybe it's a reach to apply that story here, but Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and MIT Professor Danny Hillis have embarked on project that has an even farther off payoff than planting a tree today.  They've begun construction of a clock that Hillis first conceived of in 1986; it's a clock that will tick just once a year and chime once ever thousand years.  Called The Clock of the Long Now, it's designed to keep time for 10,000 years.  Purely mechanical.  It will be powered by day/night thermal cycles and optomechanically reset daily at solar noon to phase lock the clock to solar time.  Talk about trees whose shade he'll never sit in, Jeff will never even hear this clock chime unless it's in a special qualifications test.

It's safe to say that someone who would fund this has to have money to spare, and while Professor Hillis is a millionaire, the project is being funded by Bezos.  At $42 million, the equivalent of change found between the sofa cushions to the World's Richest Man, the clock is being built on land that Bezos owns in the Sierra Diablo Mountains of west Texas.
How does the clock work? Well, the longness of the time involved is the big engineering challenge. The clock is designed to tick just once a year and chime once per millennium. Experts are blasting rooms out of the interior of the mountain in order to install steampunky piles of gears and flywheels. 

The tweet and video can be viewed here on Twitter.  Jeff has put up a website dedicated to the clock and is soliciting ideas for things it could also do.

If you're puzzled about what could motivate a couple of guys to create a clock intended to keep time for 10,000 years, well, join the club.  The original source I ran across at Popular Mechanics said, “Bezos explained the clock as a way to remind people that the far future not only exists, but will happen to their descendants.”  Wikipedia's article includes this note.
In the words of Stewart Brand, a founding board member of the foundation, "Such a clock, if sufficiently impressive and well-engineered, would embody deep time for people. It should be charismatic to visit, interesting to think about, and famous enough to become iconic in the public discourse. Ideally, it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment. Such icons reframe the way people think."[2]
They're talking up the clock as if it will be some sort of attraction, but it's also remote and hard to get to.  That implies most people will never be able to ever see the clock in person.
The clock itself, though, seems a lot more like a Howard Hughes-esque whim or a Crazy Horse Memorial kind of distant vision. “Visiting the Clock will take a commitment," the website reads. "The nearest airport is several hours away by car, and the foot trail to the Clock is rugged, rising almost 2,000 feet above the valley floor.” 
The self-righteous, environmentalist-sounding aspect of why they're building the clock makes me want to hate them, but I don't.  As far as I can tell, they're doing it all on their own property with their own money and people can do whatever they want with their own money as long as they don't hurt other people.  It looks to me like another situation where a billionaire creates a bunch of jobs.  He wants something and hires a team to do it. 


  1. One must wonder what possible benefit to society, science or any other entity but ego this expenditure of resources effort and wealth serves.
    The simple truth is just because we can do a thing does not mean there is a valid reason to do that thing. This is one of those things.

  2. People with vision and the means to bring that vision to reality. We need them.

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  4. Hmmm! I agree with Dan and this somehow reminds me somewhat of that other long-term project that started in Germany back in 1923 (van den Bruck).

  5. One tick per year seem like it will be boring to watch. I have a skeleton pendulum clock. It's pleasing to watch and listen to.

    But, "just because we can do a thing does not mean there is a valid reason to do that thing"? I don't go with this reasoning. Think of ostentatious society weddings. They're a frivolous "waste" of money. But are they? The venues, the caterers, the florists, the rental agencies all get a big piece of that. It lubes the wheels of industry. The money doesn't go away. Sure the materials are locked up, but how much of that same material is in a junk yard or land fill right now? It's their money.

    And, maybe some new application will come out of this thing.

    I think it's cool, even if they're preening egomaniacs.

  6. I'm going to go against the current of most of these comments and say this is a great thing they are doing. It's an art object. The human soul needs art and philosophy right alongside science and technology.

    And anything that stretches somebody's attention span past the third emoji in a line is a good thing.

  7. As someone who used to work for Danny, I can tell you that he's the most humble guy you'll ever meet. The dot product of him and Bezos is zero on the ego graph. Many of my friends work on the mechanics of the Clock and the engineering is impressive. For those of you on the negative side of things in the comments, the easy solution is not to go visit it in Texas. Also don't go to the Louvre.

    1. On the clock website, that I linked to above, Bezos lists some of the most involved workers:

      Applied Minds, Inc.
      The Long Now Foundation
      Penguin Automated Systems, Inc.
      Swaggart Brothers, Inc.
      Seattle Solstice
      Machinists, Inc.

      I never cease to be amazed when someone with firsthand knowledge of something I wrote about comments here.

  8. I remember this from Neal Stephenson discussing his inspiration for his book Anathem.

    1. That's rather interesting. I read a little more on the project last night and read something where Hillis had said that, for an earlier version in the 90s, he might get to hear it tick and chime for the only time in the life of anyone living.

      It does sound like Sci Fi plot; a post-apocalyptic, primitive civilization lives around this clock left from another era and everyone just kind of knows it will tick at one certain time in the year. Then, maybe they hear it chime for the only time anyone living can ever recall and they try to find out why.

  9. I haven't thought of 'The Whole Earth Catalog' in decades.
    Secondly I don't think this clock will work.
    Any device that only moves a tiny bit once a year will soon lock up. Lubrication will dry out and turn crusty, seals and gaskets dry out and leak. Bearings will gall. Just sitting invites corrosion.
    I'm bewildered that electronics kept in a warm, dry place will not work If they are not used once in a while. -Tex- .

  10. When it chimes, will that mean that a Seldon Crisis is upon us?

    1. That just makes me want to be around to see it.