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How will future archeologists study us?

English Classes
Teacher Gabriele
Our civilization is recorded largely on compact discs and hard drives, but these things
decay surprisingly quickly. Is there a better way to leave a legacy for future historians?
By Chris Baraniuk
30 November 2015

Its easy to assume that the digital world is just pixels and code lacking the physical
form of books or stone tablets. But Brewster Kahle knows otherwise. Digital is not as
immaterial as most people think, he says. And hes in a good position to comment.
Kahle is the founder of the Internet Archive, an online repository of digital information.
From scanned magazine articles to books, video, audio and websites the data amassed
is now over 20 petabytes 20 million gigabytes.
Its all stored on physical media like hard drives or magnetic tape reels, and the Internet
Archive has warehouses full of them in a number of locations worldwide. But the space
they take up is not the only problem. Hard drives dont last that long. The materials and,
in some cases, electronic components in these formats eventually decay or stop working.
And discs are sometimes blighted by CD rot. The most conservative estimates suggest
such media might only be reliable for 2-5 years before they risk losing data.
Given that so much of our culture is now predominantly digital, then, how will it last
through the centuries? How will all the information about our institutions, societies,
culture and scientific discoveries be preserved for the long term? Were producing so
much data these days that we cant possibly print it all out. What will future
archaeologists actually turn to, if they want to study how we lived?
As BBC Future discovered recently in our series The Genius Behind, one possibility is that
archaeologists will read our data like the text of a book from DNA, deliberately
encapsulated it in synthetic fossils. In the future, it will likely only get cheaper and
easier to read the code that defines all known organisms. Robert Grass, at ETH Zurich in
Switzerland, and his collaborator Reinhard Heckel have developed one method of
encoding the data as DNA, as the video we are going to watch.
So how does it work? After all, DNA itself doesnt keep very well. If youre going to go
into the environment, dump it underground or have it lying around somewhere for some
time, DNA is not very stable. It decays in half a year or so or even less just in ambient
conditions, explains Grass. And so we were looking for a way to stabilise DNA.
The solution? Synthetic fossils. Grass and his colleagues knew that they needed to find a
suitably inert material something which wasnt reactive and wasnt easily damaged. In
the natural world, DNA is best preserved in bone at very low temperatures. Thats why
researchers were recently able to read DNA found in bones from a 700,000-year-old
horse, for example. But while calcium phosphate in bones has a good chemical structure
for encapsulating DNA, it has one major disadvantage it dissolves in water. Eventually,
the ETH team settled on an everyday material we would all recognise: glass (silica).
One downside is that writing DNA, unlike reading it, is currently quite expensive. You
have to choose what you store and you have to choose [why it is] important, comments
Grass. Its a very, very difficult choice.
Theres also the fact that, often, what mankind chooses to preserve is not always what is
most revealing or interesting about us. Our rubbish has, throughout history, been a
goldmine for archaeologists trying to understand how people in bygone eras really lived.
But whether waste survives millennia or not is essentially a matter of chance.
Civilizations always turn to dust eventually. Maybe our dust will tell a story. A fine powder
containing DNA and the most treasured information of our time.