Monday, 11 June 2012

Taking a Longer View

A problem with most companies and many governments is that they usually need results from their investments within one or two fiscal years or before the next election. There are exceptions, such as the government-funded fusion research, which has gone on since 1955. Nevertheless, short- to medium-range thinking is the rule, and long-range thinking is the exception.

This is a problem that Robert A. Heinlein addressed in his "young adult" novel Time for the Stars. In it, a non-profit organization called "The Long Range Foundation" (LRF) generously funded projects that would take decades to produce results or, quite likely, would produce no results at all. As the book says,
Its coat of arms reads: "Bread Cast Upon the Waters," and its charter is headed: "Dedicated to the Welfare of Our Descendants." The charter goes on with a lot of lawyers' fog but the way the directors have interpreted it has been to spend money only on things that no government and no other corporation would touch. It wasn't enough for a proposed project to be interesting to science or socially desirable; it also had to be so horribly expensive that no one else would touch it and the prospective results had to lie so far in the future that it could not be justified to taxpayers or shareholders. To make the LRF directors light up with enthusiasm you had to suggest something that cost a billion or more and probably wouldn't show results for ten generations, if ever … something like how to control the weather (they're working on that) or where does your lap go when you stand up.
The LRF could afford to do this because a long-shot bet on the future pays off handsomely, if it pays off at all.

The LRF has inspired some long-range projects, such as the 100 Year Starship Project.

The LRF also shares a long perspective on the future with another organization, the Long Now Foundation, but I don't know that the first inspired the second. The Long Now Foundation is trying to promote "longer term thinking" by designing and building a unique clock:
There is a Clock ringing deep inside a mountain. It is a huge Clock, hundreds of feet tall, designed to tick for 10,000 years. Every once in a while the bells of this buried Clock play a melody. Each time the chimes ring, it’s a melody the Clock has never played before. The Clock’s chimes have been programmed to not repeat themselves for 10,000 years. Most times the Clock rings when a visitor has wound it, but the Clock hoards energy from a different source and occasionally it will ring itself when no one is around to hear it. It’s anyone’s guess how many beautiful songs will never be heard over the Clock’s 10 millennial lifespan.
The Long Now Foundation also has started a project to record 1,500 languages on a single nickel disk (The Rosetta Project), a server, a timeline program, and (simplest of all) it promotes writing a year with an extra zero in the front, to remind us of the thousands of years ahead of us. So, now, in the year 02012, I would think of 12,012 AD, 22,012 AD and so on.

However, as someone with a degree in archaeology, I have to wonder why we should focus on the depth of time in the future and ignore the depth of time in the past. For this reason, I prefer Cesare Emiliani's suggestion in Nature that we add ten thousand to our calendar year (if the year is A.D.) and subtract the date from 10,000 (if it is B.C). This suggestion is called the "Human Era Calendar" or the "Holocene Calendar," so the year number is followed by an H.E. instead of a B.C. or A.D. That would make this year 12,012 H.E.

These dates give a good perspective on the pace of human progress. For example, the current interglacial period (the Holocene Interglacial), the earliest agricultural crops, and the earliest human-made place of worship, the amazing site of Göbekli Tepe,  are within a few hundred years of the calendar's starting point, 10,000 B.C. Proto-writing, such as the Vinča symbols,  dates from a convenient half-way point: 5,000 H.E. The oldest true writings are from Mesopotamia, about 7,000 H.E. The traditional year of Jesus' birth is 10,000 H.E., and Faraday's electric engine is from not long after, in 11,821 H.E. (1821 A.D.).  I appreciate how this calendar shows how events relate to the whole sequence of human cultural development from the Neolithic to the present.

It occurs to me that we could have two calendar systems--B.C./A.D. and H.E.--in the same way that we have two temperature scales, Celsius and Kelvin. The length of a year is the same in both calendars; the degree measures the same difference in temperature in Celsius and Kelvin scales; what differs is the starting point. H.E. and Kelvin measure from a more logical and more distant point, so we need not specify if a measure is before or after a date, above or below a temperature. Also, as Kelvin is used and appreciated by scientists, while everyone else uses Celsius, I imagine that historians and other scholars might adopt the Holocene Calendar, at least for their own use, while everyone else continues to use the traditional dates.

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