In order to preserve our stories, we used to carve and paint rudimentary images and basic text into stone tablets and onto the walls of caves. Nowadays, any of us can store hundreds of thousands of documents onto a cheap, thumb-sized USB, preserving them for decades. Scientists at the University of Southampton have taken this one extraordinary step further, announcing that they have developed a method to record data that could outlast the human race itself.
Back in 2013, a new type of data storing technology was debuted by the team at the university’s Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC). An abstract presented at a conference revealed that a 300 kilobyte copy of a text file was recorded into a specialized form of glass, a small “chip” that had been manipulated by a laser.
Extremely fast and intense pulses of light altered the nanostructure of the silica glass chip, creating incredibly small “dots” that could store up to three individual bits of information. Strings of these dots were aligned in three layers that, when aligned on top of each other, were no thicker than the width of a human hair.
This data was said to have been preserved in five dimensions (5D): the three-dimensional position of the data dot within the glass was recorded, along with two additional dimensions provided by the intensity and the wave pattern (polarity) of the laser used to form the dot. Scientists were then able to read the encoded text file, which in this case was the 2013 conference abstract itself.
Promoting their device ahead of the International Society for Optical Engineering Conference in San Francisco this week, the ORC team has now recorded several large documents onto their chips, including the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Isaac Newton’s Opticks, and the Magna Carta, all in 5D. However, this 5D aspect is not actually the revolutionary part of the technology – the incredible capacity and resilience of each chip is.
The King James Bible stored on one of the chips. ORC/University of Southampton
The researchers claim that each chip, several of which can fit into the palm of your hand, can store up to 360 terabytes of data. Assuming one e-book is two megabytes in size, one 5D chip would be able to store 180 million of them. Considering that around 130 million books have been written, a record of humanity’s history could actually be preserved on one single chip.
These chips would also be likely to outlast our own species: They remain stable for up to 1,000°C (1,832°F), and at temperatures of even 190°C (374°F), they would survive for 13.8 billion years. This number was probably chosen by the researchers as it also happens to be the current age of the universe.
Professor Peter Kazansky of ORC said in a statement that “It is thrilling to think that we have created the technology to preserve documents and information and store it in space for future generations. This technology can secure the last evidence of our civilization: all we’ve learnt will not be forgotten.”
Image in text: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights recorded onto a single glassy chip. ORC/University of Southampton