Library Rambler: Preserving our cultural heritage in the stars
Thinking about the future of our written records, I realized that acid-free paper, the only format with an established record of lasting for 500 years or better, is not very long-lived when compared to the march of time, which is expected to continue marching. “What happens after 10,000 years?” I asked myself and to someone standing near me who was being polite.
“What will happen eons hence to our cultural gems created by Shakespeare and Chubby Checker?” I continued, trying to sound learned.
Because I already had concocted a scheme to answer that question (or perhaps stolen it from the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem), I launched into it, heedless of taxing my listener’s patience for jabberwocky.
What we need to do, I said, is find a dense hydrogen cloud in the shape of a concave mirror. Ideally, the cloud would be millions of miles in diameter, situated at about 100,000 light years away, and more or less pointed back toward us. I believe there is one on the other side of the galaxy. This we would use to bounce radio signals off of.
With NASA’s help, a transmitting satellite would be placed in obit with a large solar array sufficient to generate a significant signal to the concave hydrogen cloud. Once in place, the satellite would begin broadcasting all of our most important cultural achievements to the hydrogen cloud, including not just the Bard and His Chubbiness, but other lesser lights like British comedian Benny Hill.
Given that there are already about 1,600 books in the Western Canon, about 1,000 good movies, and 98 episodes of Gilligan’s Isle, I expect this first broadcast to take about 10 years. After these recognized cultural icons have been transmitted, we could start into the lesser giants of literature like Danielle Steel and finish with the bottom dwellers like The National Enquirer.
Those radio signals will chug along toward the concave hydrogen cloud at the speed of light, arriving at the cloud 100,000 years from now. There they will bounce off the cloud and, because the cloud is concave, refocus the signal back to Earth. Just 200,000 years after they were broadcast, they will be arriving back here, perfectly preserving our cultural heritage.
It is altogether too easy to imagine, during those 200,000 years, someone asking, perhaps at the 110,000 year mark, “Yeah, where’s that last copy of Shakespeare’s plays?”
Just as easy to imagine is the response, “I thought you had it.”
One party will undoubtedly resort to calling the other a numbskull but, after the name calling and fisticuffs have subsided, one of them will remember the large, concave hydrogen cloud.
“So, all we have to do,” says the one who remembered the cloud, “is wait another 90,000 years and we will get a digital copy of Shakespeare.”
“While we’re waiting,” says the one who remembered, “Why don’t you figure out how to read things in Mickey-Soft Word. Shakespeare was stored in Mickey-Soft, but we lost the book Mickey-Soft for Dummies 6,000 years ago.”
“We? There’s no ‘we’ about it. It was your stupid ancestors who botched things up and lost it.”
“Come, come. We’re all working together now. Don’t forget, it was your ancestors who unleashed the paper-eating virus.”
“Well, it was you people who invented it.”
So, they return to duking it out once again, but we need not fear. They still might figure out how to get along. Even if they do not, that very interesting signal from the large, concave hydrogen cloud will continue on past the Earth perhaps encountering a race of intelligent, peace-loving, mantis shrimp whose eyes are, even now, capable of seeing everything there is to see.
Rhinelander District Library director Ed Hughes is available at 715-365-1070.