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On Arks

May 24, 2009

The idea of an ark as a sanctuary for all that is important in the face of great disaster is an old one, and you’d struggle to find a single person in the Western world who doesn’t know the story of Noah, who supposedly saved two of every creature from the flood.

The idea of more modern arks is something that has surfaced from time to time in both fact and fiction. The concept is to me a very evocative one, and I’d like to explore a few of the more prominent examples here.

Firstly, fact. One of the most amazing feats of this decade has been the construction of the great Seed Vault on Svalbard. A colossal deep-freeze storage unit containing seeds and genetic information for every key crop and plant that our race has come to rely on. Behind huge blast doors, 120 metres beneath a mountain in the frozen wastes of a remote, polar bear haunted island in the arctic circle, no matter what floods, droughts, plagues or infestations strike the crops of the world, there will be a frozen ‘backup’ on Svalbard.

Entrance to the Svalbard Seed Vault

Entrance to the Svalbard Seed Vault

The construction of the Vault was entirely funded by the Norwegian government, which claims sovereignity over the island. Recognizing the potential importance of the project, however, the cost of upkeep is paid for by a vast consortium of nations, including both leading economies and developing ones, as well as at least one legendarily wealthy philanthropist.

This is an entirely pragmatic and self interested project, though no less noble for it. It does put it rather at odds though, with the purely optimistic nature of the one Ark project that is even more incredible.

The Voyager satellite recently left the very outer edges of our star system, travelling at a speed of 3.6 AU per year, one AU being the distance between the Earth and the Sun, or approximately 8.3 light-minutes. Although it is not the satellite’s only function, Voyager carries on it a message from Earth, consisting of over a hundred images, the sounds of the natural world and of human civilisation and industry, greetings in a great many languages, and a selection of musical movements, from Bach to Chuck Berry, going via traditional music from dozens of cultures.

This information is encoded on a golden disk, coated with an incredibly pure isotope of Uranium, chosen for its half-life of  4,510,000,000 years. Numbers that large are hard to properly assimilate without something to compare it to, so imagine it this way – our planet was formed from the swirling dust and gasses of the newly formed star-system only 4,540,000,000 years ago.

If some disaster were to befall humanity, wiping us out entirely at this very moment, the Voyager satellite would be the very last thing to survive of humanity. When the winds and storms of Earth had scoured the greatest monuments of mankind into dust, Johnny B. Goode and the Brandenburg Concerto will still drift through the interstellar void, untouched even by the most distant solar winds.

As a comical side-note, the major record label EMI was approached with regards to including ‘Here Comes The Sun’ by the Beatles on the Voyager disk, but they refused.

The Golden Record

The Golden Record

There have been innumerable references to the ark as a store of biological information in fiction – usually science fiction. Almost every notable science fiction TV series has had something approximating it at some point, whether it’s an automated system set to wipe out the protagonists in an attempt to restore an extinct race (as in Stargate SG-1) or a more peaceful remnant, seeking only somewhere to set down and rebuild (as in Star Trek : TNG). Rarer but no less intriguing is the fictional equivalent of the Voyager disk – not an attempt to save a species, but to preserve something of it, so that it is not lost entirely to the ravages of time. In reality, this is a good deal easier to achieve than saving the species itself – a lot of work went into the Voyager disk, certainly, but not nearly as much as it would have taken to outfit the satellite to carry a sufficiently large colony of humans to replicate with a safely sized gene-pool, along with habitats, food, water, air, and enough energy to sustain them indefinitely. You only need to look at how difficult it has been to sustain the international space station (ISS) with only a handful of astronauts, even with regular supply missions, a near Earth orbit and no pressure on those astronauts to reproduce to see that such a thing would be completely outside human capabilities at the moment.

In science fiction, of course, colossal hindrances in engineering limits and even the laws of physics are easily overcome. That is rather the difference between ‘science fiction’, and ‘science’. So it’s little wonder really that science fiction authors and scriptwriters tend to go the whole hog with the fully blown species preservation, rather than settle for the achievable but innately tragic idea of a small capsule containing the great masterworks of art, preserving something of a doomed species’ endeavours.

This said, there are still one or two examples, usually drawn either from settings which aren’t technologically that far ahead of our own, or in at least one case a civilisation LESS advanced than our own. In the recent film ‘Children of Men’, adapted quite heavily from a book by P D James, humanity is doomed to a slow death, the result of sudden global infertility. There are no new children, and the remaining adults are slowly dying as a result of panicked anarchy, a countermovement of totalitarianism, or simple old age. Not with a bang, but with a whimper, as T.S Eliot put it.

The protagonist of the film at one point goes to call in a favour from his cousin, a government minister tasked with overseeing a huge repository of precious works of art, referred to as the ‘Ark of the Arts’, inside Battersea Power Station. Interestingly, in an early draft of the script, the repository was referred to as the ‘Noah Project’. We see works by Michelangelo, Picasso and even the graffiti artist Banksy, and hear strains of King Crimson playing inside the building. In a nice little reference, a huge inflatable pig has been suspended over the power station, in tribute to the ‘Animals’ album, by Pink Floyd.

Another poignant example of this comes in the 1870 novel ‘20,000 Leagues under the Sea‘ by Jules Verne. In this, the infamous Captain Nemo has assembled a fully self-sufficient submarine, and taken to shunning the land and all its Empires. He explains that to him, the human race is already extinct; or at least devolved to such a point as to no longer be worthy of notice. He has gathered on the Nautilus all of the finest examples of art and pure endeavour – tomes of poetry, history, scientific knowledge and philosophy, totalling 12,000 tomes in all. They are accompanied by countless paintings and sculptures of an incalculable value, and the sheet music to a great deal of composers, both long dead and contemporary. He explains that to him, there is no difference, and all of the creators of these art-works are long dead and equal in their timelessness.

“These composers,” Captain Nemo answered me, “are the contemporaries of Orpheus, because in the annals of the dead, all chronological differences fade.”

In a strange way, Nemo was the self-styled curator of a post-apocalyptic sanctuary of all that had been worth saving from humanity, with the strange twist that he was living in a decidedly pre-apocalytic world, in which humanity still thrived, in complete ignorance of his existence. And if that doesn’t spark some shiver of wonder in you, you just aren’t imagining it hard enough.

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