Recreating Clarke’s “The Sentinel” in real life

Plexiglass monolithLunar Mission One, a private nonprofit organization, is trying to recreate Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Sentinel” (the inspiration for the movie 2001) in real life. They hope to send a digital archive to the moon in 2024 and bury it there. As long as whatever is stored there can withstand intense cold, it should last a very long time.

The plan calls for two archives. One would contain items privately provided by people paying to have their data stored on the moon; the other would be a history of humanity. CEO David Iron (no relation to Tony Stark) raises the question of how living beings of the future will find it and says, “We need a permanent sign that will last for a billion years. … We need to invert the normal logic of searching for extra-terrestrial intelligence by transmitting; they can come to us.”

The plan seems to lack any specifics on the construction of the proposed datalith. It would have to be extremely durable; even things that seem indestructible on normal time scales can decay over millions of years. It also has to be something that’s readable with no understanding of human languages or culture. The idea of digital storage might naturally turn up for any advanced civilization, but it would be a challenge to convey the bits’ meaning to space-traveling ants.

The digital archive would need to come with a “user manual” with visual, not digital, information. It would present an explanation of how the data is stored, and of where to look on the storage device for more detailed information. The storage method needs to be as simple as possible, with an easily understood encoding scheme for pictures. The archive could include a picture dictionary that would introduce the discoverers to a language; for this purpose, something like Loglan might be better than English.

Are they thinking about these considerations? I don’t know, but I hope so. If they use a DVD for the archive, space travelers might find it a curious artifact, but that’s as far as they’d ever get.

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