A 500 Year Experiment


In 2014, a 500 year science experiment began that involves testing the longevity of bacteria. It’s scheduled to conclude in 2514, well after everyone involved (the scientists, the journalist writing the article, me blogging this article, and you reading this post) has been long dead.

Prompted by the discovery of a petri dish of bacteria, forgotten for 10 years, Charles Cockell is the scientist who came up with the plan:

Physically, the 500-year experiment consists of 800 simple glass vials containing either Chroococcidiopsis or another bacterium, Bacillus subtilis. The glass vials have been hermetically sealed with a flame. […] Every other year for the first 24 years, and then every quarter century for the next 475, scientists are supposed to come test the dried bacteria for viability and DNA damage.

I love the idea that there a science “custodians” for projects like this, that span more than an individual’s lifetime. In a lot of ways, I guess that’s the hope behind many things (like science, art, poetry, teaching, parenting)… that the work you do now will outlast your one little life.

I also love the long-term thinking involved, and can only hope that Cockell and The Long Now are already well-aquainted. For as much as the body craves the present and immediate, this type of project and the aspirations behind it, make me feel good about our chances as a species.

There’s a lot to kick around in Sarah Zhang’s article, from the technical details (will scientists recognize USB drives in 50 years) to the financial ones (not long ago, scientists were funded by patrons and not academic instutitions). Fun stuff to consider.

Also, check out some of the other articles by Zhang. A lot of fascinating reading.

Related:
Long Bet: Warren Buffet’s 10 Year Long, Multi-Million Dollar Wager Comes to a Close
Clock of the Long Now: Installation Begins
Long Bets: An Arena for Competitive, Accountable Predictions
The Clock in the Mountains

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