AN UNCOMMON THOUGHT

"The real trick to life is not to be in the know, but to be in the mystery."
-Fred Alan Wolf

11 November 2011

Wonder.


It sounds like science fiction, but this is the real vision for the 10 000-Year Clock, a monument-size mechanical clock designed to measure time for 10 millennia. Danny Hillis, an electrical engineer with three degrees from MIT who pioneered parallel supercomputers at Thinking Machines Corp., worked for Walt Disney Imagineering, and then cofounded the consultancy Applied Minds, dreamed up the project in 1995 to get people thinking more about the distant future. But the clock is no longer just a thought experiment. In a cluttered machine shop near a Starbucks in San Rafael, Calif., it's finally ticking to life.

This clock, the flagship project of Hillis's Long Now Foundation, is a wonder of mechanical engineering. Over the course of its 10 000-year life span, it will be able to power itself enough to keep time, synchronize that timekeeping with the sun, and randomly generate unique melodies on its chimes so that visitors will never hear the same tune twice. And it will do so entirely without electricity. Think of it as "the slowest computer in the world," says project manager Alexander Rose.


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