back to article 'BILLION-YEAR DISK' to help FUTURE LIFEFORMS study us

Boffins have devised a storage medium that could hold data for up to one billion years and claim recent accelerated ageing tests have shown "million-year" survivability. The study's authors are Jeroen de Vries of the University of Twente MESA and Institute for Nanotechnology, and colleagues Dimitri Schellenberg, Leon Abelmann1 …

COMMENTS

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  1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
    Paris Hilton

    Not bad, but didn't Simon Sharwood talk about that in this ElReg-ism?

  2. jake Silver badge

    I think that ...

    ... the geological record already provides this option. See mid-Atlantic rift.

    Humans (and our technology) will not last forever, but geology will last for the duration of the planet.

    1. rh587 Silver badge

      Re: I think that ...

      @jake "Humans (and our technology) will not last forever, but geology will last for the duration of the planet."

      No it won't. Subduction and recycling of geology means we actually have no "original" rocks from the point where the Earth cooled from a blob of molten rock and started to form a crusty surface.

      The oldest samples we have are dated at around 4-4.4Ga. Odds are all (or all bar a vanishingly small handful) of the rocks on Earth today will not exist in their current form when the sun goes red giant (estd. 5Bn years), on average they'll have been subducted and recycled by the time we're all swallowed up by the sun.

      1. Nigel 11

        Re: I think that ...

        The Earth will become uninhabitable a lot sooner than 5 Gigayears hence. We're actually rather close to the inwards edge of the habitable zone around the Sun, and the Sun is getting hotter as it ages. Unless "we" initiate major planetary protection operations within the next Gigayear (orbital sunshades, or orbit expansion), life will be over by then. Some estimate as soon as 300My, before Earth suffers thermal runaway the same as Venus. (OMG multicellular life is having its midlife crisis! )

        If we want to leave a *really* long-term record, Earth isn't really the right place. Too much corrosive oxygen and water and those awkward plate tectonics, and a boiling sulphuric acid nightmare after the end of life on Earth.The Moon is better (dig in deep to protect against all but huge meteor strikes, and position-mark with long-life radioactives near the surface). An outer moon of Saturn would be better still, might even survive Sol going red giant and nova. (Ring any bells? ....)

        1. Lapun Mankimasta

          Re: I think that ...

          to take a page out of Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Man ...

  3. Paul Leigh

    Eh?

    Since when does digital data need a permanent medium in the ranges of millions of years? Just copy the stuff to the new media of the day. For it to ever be viable, the controller, computer and software would also have to last millions of years too.

    Salesman: We got this multi-million year archiving solution.

    Buyer: Cool, what does it cost?

    Salesman: £Loads....

    Buyer: Hmm... We got budget for a 10 year storage solution. Next!

    1. Crisp Silver badge

      Re: Since when does digital data need a permanent medium in the ranges of millions of years?

      Since about a million years from now when the first settlers on 55 Cancri e wake up from their long sleep and need to start building their civilisation with the tools that they bought with them.

      1. Ragarath Silver badge

        Re: Since when does digital data need a permanent medium in the ranges of millions of years?

        Or when we annihilate ourselves and the alien Time Team come a looking on planet Wastikia 12c (Known as Earth to us) and make the exciting find, right at the end of the program. A disc of data able to store data for several million years, Tune in next week after we have decoded it.

        Regrettably an addition to the next program stated that the media was 1 year out of date and no identifiable information could be retrieved. There used to be a civilisation on this planet but we don't know who or what they were, oh well. Next week we investigate Wastikia 12d where more alien life may have lived as it is in the fretimba zone (Goldilocks Zone to us).

        1. Great Bu

          Re: Since when does digital data need a permanent medium in the ranges of millions of years?

          No, the next program shows how they decoded all the data and found what can only be described as 'mostly porn'.......

          1. Frumious Bandersnatch Silver badge

            Re: Since when does digital data need a permanent medium in the ranges of millions of years?

            what can only be described as 'mostly porn'.......

            With the remainder being Rick Astley videos. Or cats.

          2. Lapun Mankimasta

            Re: Since when does digital data need a permanent medium in the ranges of millions of years?

            That's "instructive audio-visual material concerning mating habits" to you, sirrah!

        2. Graham Marsden
          Coat

          @Ragarath " the alien Time Team come a looking on planet Wastikia 12c"

          But will one of them say "'Ere, Xplyxtic, come and 'ave a look at this...!"

        3. DropBear Silver badge
          Devil

          Re: Since when does digital data need a permanent medium in the ranges of millions of years?

          ...except the alien Time Team will never find the disc, since the GalacTV budget for digging around on Earth will cover only a day and a half or so...

    2. Primus Secundus Tertius Silver badge

      Re: Eh?

      Sometimes new technology can read old data. I remember reading, probably in El Reg, about a laser beam tracking the groove in vinyl records, delivering a signal with much less noise, so to speak.

      1. Alan Brown Silver badge

        Re: Eh?

        I remember the laser groove reader. AFAIK it's never gone past laboratory stage.

        Supposedly, LPs can be read using a high resolution scanner. I'd like to see it (seriously. I have some old vinyl which has been damaged by abuse in the 1960s...)

        1. Dave 126 Silver badge

          Re: Eh?

          >I remember the laser groove reader. AFAIK it's never gone past laboratory stage.

          It made it to market. Yours for around $15,000.

          http://www.elpj.com/experience/video.php

    3. David Cantrell

      Re: Eh?

      The idea here is presumably for the information to survive periods when it isn't possible to copy it to new media, or when it isn't thought necessary to copy it to new media.

  4. Muckminded

    Which Justin Bieber video were they wanting

    to view in 2,117,004 AD? We have quite a few, and none of them are informative.

  5. Pen-y-gors Silver badge

    All scenarios...

    You can handle most of their other scenarios by making multiple copies and storing them at different locations - and if one of the locations is Pluto then it should even cope with the sun becoming a red giant. Simples.

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: All scenarios...

      How do you advertise the location of your data store? You could build some structure, obviously artificial, with the data at its heart, or you could have the old 'magnetic anomaly on the moon', a la 2001.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So in a few millenia..

    The current dominant species will be able to glean from the internet that Cats were the most prolific thing the internet was used for to share and store their escapades, ergo, Cats were worshiped.

    Deja vu...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: So in a few millenia..

      ...and in a few million years, it will probably be Cats who are the dominant species.

      (And Lo, the course of the feline race was set when Mr Kittles freed us from slavery by working out how to open the TUNA)

      1. LeeS

        Re: So in a few millenia..

        I, for one, bow to our new feline overlords

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: So in a few millenia..

          This we currently do anyway. We have to 'bow down' to stroke them. There is a pattern emerging here.

          Adams was wrong.

          1. This post has been deleted by its author

      2. VinceH Silver badge

        Re: So in a few millenia..

        I don't think so. I've seen a documentary (sent back from the future) about how cats evolve over the course of a few million years, called "Red Dwarf", and the evolved cat shown therein is a little lacking in the sort of skills needed to become a dominant species.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: So in a few millenia..

          I, too, saw that documentary. But to be fair, it is a little like basing the entire Human race on Lister.

          Or Rimmer.

  7. bill 36

    Fred Flinstone

    did pretty well with a hammer and chisel.

  8. Jamie Jones Silver badge
    Windows

    "Microsoft Office 1002014 cannot read this file"

    I'm sorry, but that document seems to have been produced in an earlier version of Office.

    Please ask the originator to upgrade to the latest version of Office, and resend.

    Microsoft Office 1002014 offers all the must have features critical for productive work in todays environment. Anything else is sooooooo 1002013.

    1. Moonshine

      Re: "Microsoft Office 1002014 cannot read this file"

      Then why oh why don't future civilisations use LibraOffice 9538485.3 on Ubuntu 58486324.1 instead, thereby "sticking it to the M$ man"? It's free, stable and and they've finally got the Desktop UI and printer drivers nailed, (remaining printer, UI and network issues TBA in release 58486324.2 and later).

      1. Darryl

        Re: "Microsoft Office 1002014 cannot read this file"

        The year 2,362,127 - the year of Linux on the desktop?

  9. Rich 2

    Legacy

    Bearing in mind what a complete fuck-up we humans are making of the planet, of being demonstrably unable to live with each other (never mind with any other species) in peace and harmony, and our general lack of responsibility for ...well ...anything, I can't help thinking that the best legacy we could leave any following civilisations would be to disappear quietly and take our rather unhealthy culture with us.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Legacy

      methinks you expect WAY too much from us (tidy up and leave quietly). Fortunately, good old mother (...) nature should be able to mop up our shit once we've blown our heads off, once and for good.

      1. Dave 126 Silver badge

        Re: Legacy

        Maybe future races could learn from our mistakes?

        1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

          If they ever get here I doubt we'll have much to teach them.

          Oh, sorry - I was thinking extraterrestrials.

        2. Julz Bronze badge

          Re: Legacy

          Crazy Eddie...

    2. John Sanders

      Re: Legacy

      """"being demonstrably unable to live with each other (never mind with any other species) in peace and harmony""""

      It could be because of what different cultures perceive as "peace and harmony" is not the same as the others.

  10. willi0000000

    what to write

    so, suggestions for what to write on these million year disks?

    what would someone/something reading these disks want to know about us?

    more importantly, what don't we want them to know about us?

    "Hi. If you are reading this we must be gone. We were a warlike race, totally disinterested in preserving a viable environment or settling our differences peacefully. Try to do better."

    [i look forward to the war that starts over the content of the "forever library" when somebody's religion or political party is "obviously" mistreated by the committee]

    1. lawndart

      Re: what to write

      "If you are reading this, don't forget to sanitize your phone".

    2. YetAnotherLocksmith

      Re: what to write

      Might I suggest "Ozymandias"?

      First, the sonnet by Shelley.

      -----

      I met a traveller from an antique land

      Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

      Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,

      Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

      And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

      Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

      Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

      The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:

      And on the pedestal these words appear:

      "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

      Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

      Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

      Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

      The lone and level sands stretch far away.

      ------

      And on the 'B' side? The companion work.

      Smith's Ozymandias.

      ------

      IN Egypt's sandy silence, all alone,

      Stands a gigantic Leg, which far off throws

      The only shadow that the Desert knows:—

      "I am great OZYMANDIAS," saith the stone,

      "The King of Kings; this mighty City shows

      "The wonders of my hand."— The City's gone,—

      Nought but the Leg remaining to disclose

      The site of this forgotten Babylon.

      We wonder,—and some Hunter may express

      Wonder like ours, when thro' the wilderness

      Where London stood, holding the Wolf in chace,

      He meets some fragment huge, and stops to guess

      What powerful but unrecorded race

      Once dwelt in that annihilated place.

    3. Mage Silver badge

      Re: what to write

      Everything.

      As we can't know what might be interesting later.

      1. Jamie Jones Silver badge
        Black Helicopters

        Re: what to write

        "Everything"

        Then just copy everything the NSA has.

        Problem solved!

    4. VinceH Silver badge

      Re: what to write

      "so, suggestions for what to write on these million year disks?"

      Lies, and random nonsense.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Lies, and random nonsense

        So these billion-year disks are large enough to archive both facebook and twitter?

    5. DropBear Silver badge

      Re: what to write

      There can be only one answer to that question. I say WE RICKROLL THEM!

    6. Vic

      Re: what to write

      > suggestions for what to write on these million year disks?

      "Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space, listen..."

      Vic.

  11. Baron Ebaneezer Wanktrollop III

    Excellent

    So we put all the technology gleaned from thousands of years on the planet and leave it to the next race, who will probably need the same amount of time to gain the technology to be able to decipher it.

    It's like writing down the instructions for making a key and putting it in a locked box.

    1. Dave 126 Silver badge

      Re: Excellent

      >who will probably need the same amount of time to gain the technology to be able to decipher it.

      The article discusses markings that are visible to the naked eye, and to microscopes - on the same material as stores data magnetically. You could leave lots (thousands) of sapphire lenses lying around the vicinity of the data store - not only would they facilitate the building of a microscope, but they would be found and traded as gems are today. Later, curiosity and greed would make sure that future beings would explore the area more carefully, leading them to discover the data store.

      However, it is desirable to require a certain level of technology to read the data- we want future archaeologists to decipher these disks. We don't want them being used as fetish objects or clubs by the cave-dwelling man apes that will wander the post-apocalyptic wastelands.

      Arthur C Clarke's solution to separate the apes from the men was to place the data store on the moon.

      1. DropBear Silver badge

        Re: Excellent

        "Arthur C Clarke's solution to separate the apes from the men was to place the data store on the moon." - that won't work too well if they finally manage to get there only to look around, say "achievement unlocked" then leave never to return, as a certain other sentient species seem to be doing. Unless that is specifically part of the definition of apes vs. men, of course.

      2. Nigel 11

        Re: Excellent

        We don't want them being used as fetish objects or clubs by the cave-dwelling man apes that will wander the post-apocalyptic wastelands.

        Or maybe we do, provided they're suitably resilient. Something that's periodically rediscovered and regarded as treasure from the great ones of yesteryear may stand a better chance of finally being decoded, than something lost in a hole in the ground getting buried deeper and deeper with every passing milennium. Tableware made of a high-tech ceramic much tougher than mere porcelain might be a good choice. If some barbarian manages to smash it and dumps it in a midden, the information loss probably isn't very great.

        Anyway you'd run both strategies in parallel, with very many identical plates for redundancy.

    2. Ben Bonsall

      Re: Excellent

      Make big visible diagrams showing how to build a microscope

      Markings visible with the microscope show how to build tech to read next level

      etc.

      Assumes a certain level of technology with each layer of course...

      Obviously, if the data requires more than one disc, there is a problem... eventually the future people receive an error message saying 'This is disc 3 of 10. Please insert disc 1 to read file list' or probably 'Thix si drrc # fi !). Plix inrest drrc ! 2 rrrd dictionary'

  12. Wize

    The disk may survive, but can anyone read it?

    Remember the Original Domesday book. From 1086 and still readable

    The update to it was created in 1986 and there is limited hardware that can read the disks any more.

    The data may survive on the drive, but will future civilisations have the equipment to interface to an old SATA drive?

  13. localgeek

    Cave Drawings?

    So far, our oldest written surviving communication seems to be cave drawings, followed by the written word chiseled on rock tablets. At least it lasts longer than archival paper. Maybe the aliens will head for the caves when they arrive on post-apocalyptic earth?

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Cave Drawings?

      True, but their storage capacity is limited. Not to mention we're not certain we're reading these stone media correctly; language gets very inconsistent when it's measured in geologic time. Meanwhile, the sum total of human knowledge appears to be beyond that capacity, so we need a cleverer way. This seems to be an attempt at this: using varying levels of "density" to allow for both compact and human-readable levels of data preservation.

      1. Nigel 11

        Re: Cave Drawings?

        A lot of thought would need to go into providing a dictionary. Carefully chosen well-labelled pictures ought to allow a long-lost language to be reborn. If only (say) the Minoans or Etruscans had produced children's picture books on stone tablets.

        In an SF story I once read, the (accidental) Rosetta stone was an annotated periodic table, although obviously only a fairly advanced civilisation could decode that one.

  14. cray74

    Additional test results

    Interesting to see silicon nitride described as having "high fracture resistance." I suppose if you're comparing it to other ceramics and glasses, it is fairly tough, but silicon nitride is a brittle material compared to most metallic alloys.

    I'd like to see accelerated corrosion test results for this material (humid atmosphere, not salt fog). Tungsten isn't in the same category as platinum or most stainless steels for corrosion resistance. Silicon nitride is fairly inert but when you're aiming for a billion years in an oxidizing environment, nitrides will yield to oxygen. You might be better off starting with an oxide matrix (though they're admittedly more brittle than even silicon nitride.)

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Additional test results

      Please note one other important qualification: it has to be TRANSPARENT. So it has to be geologically stable and at least translucent throughout the billion-year timeframe.

      1. cray74

        Re: Additional test results

        Sure, but transparency is a relatively easy quality to provide once you get beyond problems of corrosion (which tends to impair transparency) and long-term data stability. There are plenty of transparent oxides. Like, window glass, and many other glasses. Fused quartz. Sapphire. SiAlON. Most oxide minerals have transparent forms when they're pure and single crystal.

        I guess diamond is a pretty stable transparent, durable material, too, though you'll want to avoid excessive heat or fire. The oxide forms of carbon are rather less useful than diamond for long term data storage. ;)

        1. Charles 9 Silver badge

          Re: Additional test results

          How stable are oxide crystals? Might they also have properties that would make them unsuitable for a protective layer (for example, you wouldn't want to use quartz since it's piezoelectric--a chance current or lightning bolt could make it crush anything it contained)? Plus, what about their hardness? At 8.5 on the Mohs scale, Silicon Nitride is no slouch (To compare, Quartz is a 7).

  15. Nigel 11

    Try pottery?

    Perhaps this method is right, for billion-year timescales.

    If we're aiming only at the next civilisation after this one fails, or perhaps the next intelligent species after this one goes extinct, then a Babylonian solution beckons. Fired clay tablets (with a modern twist). Perhaps a somewhat more advanced ceramic, such as the all but indestructible "Corelle" that Dow Corning once made plates from. (Same problem as un-ladderable stockings. The plates last forever. No repeat sales. No profits. Discontinued. Sigh. )

    You could put some low-tech diagrammatic writing on the plates, in an attempt to draw attention to the high-definition data embossed in the ceramic, or ink-jet printed at ~100dpi. Make them both beautiful and startingly hard to break, and stone-age or barbarian peoples might preserve them rather than destroy them. Anyway, it's really hard work to destroy the information on a ceramic surface and a subsequent civilisation will reassemble the fragments from your rubbish tip. Make lots and lots of them, distribute them as superior mass-market tableware, and survival of some of them is virtually guaranteed. All we need is a billionaire with a long-term view of things to underwrite the project. (Thinks ... an Indian one ... must be good for a lot of positive Karma. The largest Hindu unit of time is a large multiple of My, and they believe in re-incarnation and in cycles of creation and destruction. It all fits. )

    (Apparently we know more about the everyday minutae of Babylonian life, than about any civilisation since! )

  16. Inventor of the Marmite Laser Silver badge

    Surely there's only one acronym fo rthis?

    Silicon

    Nitride

    On

    Tungsten

    I'll get my long lived coat.

  17. Vociferous

    Quibbles, quibbles...

    Archival paper is acid free, so in the right environment, meaning bone dry and cool + no insects, it should last indefinitely. I'm guessing the 500 years figure is empirical and should be prefaced with "at least": there are 500 year old books printed on paper still surviving, and the paper those books use is similar to present archival paper. The real problem is avoiding adverse conditions (fire, water, insects, idiots) for such a long time: only 31 of the Gutenberg bibles still survive.

    Also, if all you want to do is leave a message for the far future, why not just etch it in quartz glass? That will last you the age of the universe, unless it encounters temperatures significantly in excess of 500 celsius.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Quibbles, quibbles...

      There's also the matter of lightning, since quartz is piezoelectric. Also, it's softer than Si3N4 on the Mohs scale (Quartz rates around 7, Si3N4 rates around 8.5).

  18. Nunyabiznes

    Styrofoam

    See Title.

    Use a Sharpie on a cup and throw it in the ditch. That'll be there when Beeblebrox shows up at the Restaurant.

  19. Mark 85 Silver badge
    Meh

    And on the disk that survives... will be a power point and 500G worth of cute cat jpgs.

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