DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Right now, inside a remote mountain in the desert near the Texas-New Mexico border, a group called the Long Now Foundation is constructing a huge mechanical clock designed to last 10,000 years. That length of time, 10,000 years, is roughly the age of civilization. The aim is to make people think differently about time, to think of centuries instead of minutes or weeks.
Our colleague Steve Inskeep has been having conversations about the future as 2013 comes to a close. He spoke to Danny Hillis, a scientist and engineer who's designed some of the world's fastest computers. And he's also the mastermind of the 10,000 year clock. It will have gears and chimes and a pendulum, but Hillis says it will be very different from a standard clock.
DANNY HILLIS: One of the big differences is that it runs very, very slowly. It ticks very slowly. Another big difference is that it actually doesn't show you the time when you go up to it. It doesn't show you the time until you wind it. The clock face shows the positions of the planets and the moon and the stars so it's hopefully kind of a universal clock face that would make sense for somebody who doesn't use exactly the same timekeeping systems that we do.
GREENE: The clock he's talking about is made of stainless steel, titanium, and high tech ceramics. It will eventually be open to visitors but it's designed to withstand neglect, keeping time with a system of weights and heat from the sun. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos is funding the clock. It's already cost millions of dollars.
But the project began simply when Danny Hillis heard a story about New College, one of the oldest colleges at the University of Oxford, founded in the 1300s.
HILLIS: Sometime this century, they were renovating the common room and they needed some 40-foot oak beams to replace the originals. And of course, by then you couldn't just go down to the lumber yard and buy a 40 foot oak beam. But they knew that Oxford had some forests that it owned and so they asked the forester if there were any oak trees that they could harvest. and the forester said, oh, yes. We have the ones that were planted to replace the beams in New College.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
HILLIS: Yeah. When I heard that story, I thought, wow, that's a completely different way of thinking than we have today. We would never imagine doing something like that when we built a building today.
HILLIS: I realized we were kind of missing something by not thinking that way. And that a lot of problems that we're working on, which seem sort of impossible if you look at in the two-year or five-year timeframe, are certainly going to get solved over the century timeframe. So I looked for something that I could personally do that was in that timeframe.
INSKEEP: Something that was dealing with centuries rather than days, weeks, months, years.
HILLIS: That's right, something that would matter long after I was gone. Of course, being an engineer, I wanted to build a machine, and a clock is kind of an obvious thing of representing continuity, and that's a continuous activity for when you started to when you read it. I was taken by the engineering problems: How do you build a machine that could last for 10,000 years.
INSKEEP: What are some of the issues that people worry about a lot today and begin to look different, if you think about them over 10,000-year span?
HILLIS: Well, even things that for me were very abstract became very concrete in building a clock. For instance, the melting of the Polar ice caps. For me, it was very hard to relate to until it actually started influencing the design of the clock, because the clock, of course, has to keep time in days. But when the polar ice caps melt, the Earth actually starts spinning at a slightly different rate. And it turns out, over 10,000 years that really matters.
And so, the mechanism of the clock actually had to take that into account and adjust it. So, for me, that made this kind of abstract concept of global warming much more real and serious.
INSKEEP: Do you worry more or less about global warming when you take the 10,000-year view?
HILLIS: Well, actually I worry less in general because I think humans are amazingly adaptable. That's not to say that I don't think it's a real problem. And I'm sure it's going to be very difficult for us to solve. But I have a lot of faith that 10,000 years from now will be worried about other things.
INSKEEP: So I'm thinking about the encounters that people might have with this clock. Assuming you get it up, it's fully operational, your end theory is correct and it's still working in 6,500 years. You envision that someone may happen upon it who has no idea what it is, who has no historical connection to it, no history that might tell them what it is, and it would be rather like those mysterious Mayan ruins where we know that there was a spectacular civilization, but it's very hard work to figure out who they were and what they did.
HILLIS: That's right. But we can kind of figure some of those things out. For instance, Stonehenge, we have kind of figured out. And so, one of the things what we've done is looked at how we figured out old things like that, and what clues were useful in figuring them out. And we've put those kinds of clues deliberately into the clock.
So, for example, connection to astronomy - all cultures have days, months, years - so the clock counts those things and displays them.
INSKEEP: Human nature being what it is, you still have to wonder if those future people discovering your clock might just go to wildly wrong conclusions - oh, this was their God that they worshiped in the mountain. Or who knows what else?
HILLIS: Well, of course, they probably will go to wrong conclusions. And they may also - it may mean different things to different people at different times. But I hope they'll have in common that long view of the human story, that realization that our human continuity goes back more generations than we can count. And that there's likely to be that kind of continuity in the future, and that will give them some sense of being part of something larger.
INSKEEP: Well, Danny Hillis, thanks very much for taking the time.
HILLIS: Oh, it was a real pleasure.
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GREENE: Steve was speaking to Danny Hillis. He's an engineer who invented a clock that's designed to keep time for 10,000 years.
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GREENE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.