Clock of the Long Now

Green. Sustainable. Eco-friendly.

Aaaand I’ve already lost you. Bored to tears and I haven’t even started. Before you even read the words your brain recognized them and thought, “Oh look! Another fellow who will claim his silly idea can save the world.”  Well that’s not a very nice thing to think, but I can understand why your brain went there. These buzzwords are tossed around with such frivolity and abundance that we’ve begun to gloss over them. We’ve heard them so many times, we’ve forgotten what they originally meant. I think we’ve lost sight of the big picture. Like, the BIG picture. Or maybe, the LONG picture.

Usually when the dreaded buzzwords pop up, they seem to be stamped on a material that someone is trying to justify. “Look! I’ve used this material that grows-back/can-be-recycled/uses-less-energy, which means I can still build this thing without feeling guilty!” Alright, this isn’t 100% of the time, but too many “sustainable” claims seem to offer only incremental improvements. Rarely does one of these improvements address an issue more than a generation from its use. Who am I too blame them? People gotta look out for numero uno, make a buck, put food on the table. They have to address the “right now” for their own sake. I get that. We just have to be careful about hero-worshipping that. Too many short term solutions.

So where should we look for ideas of solving problems on a truly long-term term scale? Like, 10,000 years long?

Why, to Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, Of course.

I know it sounds ridiculous, but hang in there. It’s not Amazon I’m talking about, it’s one of Bezos’ pet projects. And by thatI mean  he throws some of his money-pile at these people doing some fantastic work. Here’s their idea: Dig a hole; put a clock in it.

Right, a bit oversimplified. But even this premise becomes incredible when they tell you the clock will run for 10,000 years.

Tennnnnn thouuuuuuusannndddd yeaaarrrrrrrrrsssss.

bezos gear

That Amazon fellow sitting on a large hunk of clock.

It’s awesome. It’s a giant mechanical clock, buried in the side of a mountain, built out of many tons of unique precisely-machined parts (many of precious metal) making hundred of mechanical computations keeping track of time and space. And once it starts, it just runs for the next, oh, 10,000 years. But it can’t be that simple, I mean, the flipping pyramids have only been around 2,500 years, and they’re just piles of rock, and they’re still falling apart. Sooo…

How could you possibly get a clock to run that long?

How do you keep the mechanism from corroding?

How can you power it? (don’t even think about saying PV panels, they barely last 20 years)

Where can you put it that will reliably be intact 10,000 years from now?

What if a part needs maintenance?

How will it stay accurate?

How will it calculate the date/position of planets/lunar cycle without a computer?

And literally, thousands of other really tough questions to answer on a 10,000 year scale.

They don’t have “answers” to many of these questions yet, because some of them can’t be answered without 10,000 years of testing. But they’ve dedicated more than 15 years and considerable resources to developing solutions, and created some incredible equipment in response to overwhelming problems.

I have no idea what this part of the clock is doing. But I'm going to assume it solved something complicated.

I have no idea what this part of the clock is doing. But I’m going to assume it solved something complicated.

You might think, “what the heck does any of this have to do with architecture, or the built environment in general?” Well what does going to the moon have to do with saving money on your electric bill? Maybe it has something to do with the fact that NASA invented LED’s while developing technology for space travel? There’s something about piling a huge number of intellectuals into a room to solve once-unsolvable problems that seems to result in ideas that are useful far beyond the scope of the initial problem. Just look at all think where we’d be without all this neat stuff : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/NASA_spin-off_technologies

Although the Long Now project has yet to yield any technologies that provide significant influence in our everyday life, they have overcome numerous technical issues with innovative new solutions, and have been able to do so with multi-millennia mindset. This initial project to develop a clock that could run for 10,000 years has turned into an organization with multiple loooong-term goals, and has generated serious discussion amongst a group of intellectuals that is advancing truly long-term solutions.

Seeing as this is a material blog, I’ll give a few quick examples of materials used in the Clock of the Long Now to make a point that I love making.

Here’s a pendulum that helps keep time. Made from a 300lb chunk of titanium.

titanium pendulum

Here’s one of three spheres on the escapement mechanism. Made from 22lb ball of solid tungsten.

_MG_9953_540x386

How could giant hunks of precious metal be used in a solution that’s considered sustainable? Well, if the clock sustains for 10,000 years…

Ultimately, my point is that when we think about green/sustainable/eco-friendly we need to look beyond which material can be most easily recycled, or will grow back the quickest. We need to be really considerate about how materials are being used, and let the longevity be a consideration when we make decisions.

The Clock of the Long Now may be consuming considerable resources and brain-power, but I’ll bet you it outlasts anything else that is built for the next hundred years. (Actually, the Long Now project has a place to make long bets too: http://longbets.org/) More than any architectural project I’ve stumbled upon, the Long Now is addressing issues of long term sustainability, and I think there is much to learn from this venture.

Finally, there’s no way a post this brief could begin to communicate the complexity of this project, let alone begin to explain how amazing and inspiring their achievements are. Learning about this project can’t make you anything but optimistic about where we’re headed, which is a tough sell these days. If you’ve got a few more minutes (hours) to waste before you get back to being productive, you should definitely dig deeper. Here’s a good starting point:

http://longnow.org/

and a great article from some of the best “explainers of interesting things”:

http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2011/06/10000-year-clock/all/

Oh yeah, these are the chimes that Brian Eno designed for the clock. Chiming once a day over 10,000 years, they will never play the same pattern twice.

Oh yeah, these are the chimes that Brian Eno designed for the clock. Chiming once a day over 10,000 years, they will never play the same pattern twice.

Good luck getting anything else done today.

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