Time Beyond The Clock


Photo illustration by Mark Riechers

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Original Air Date: 
January 04, 2020

Clocks and calendars chop time into increments – minutes, hours, days, years. It’s efficient, and it helps us get to meetings on time. But when we invented artificial time, we gave up natural time, and a deep sense of connection to the larger universe. What does time feel like when you stop counting it?

Clock of the Long Now

Alexander Rose tells Anne Strainchamps about the Clock of the Long Now — an all mechanical clock being constructed in the high desert of Western Texas designed to run for ten thousand years.

Dangerous Ideas

He’s one of the most frenetically productive, wired guys on the planet, but digital media theorist Douglas Rushkoff is backing away from the clock.


Wade Davis has been called the Indiana Jones of anthropology. He says the aboriginal people of Australia have a fundamentally different way of seeing the world than we do in modern society.

Clocks and clocks and clocks

Mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme talks to Steve Paulson about the nature of time and the human obsession with clock time.

Aluna rendering

British artist Laura Williams talks with Anne Strainchamps about Aluna — her design for the world's first tidal-powered moon clock.

Spruce Grain Picea #0909-11A07 (9,550; Sweden) Rachel Sussman

Photographer Rachel Sussman has documented 30 of the oldest living things in the world. Beautiful and romantic, her photos document both the adaptation and fragility inherent to surviving for tens of thousands of years. 

Show Details 📻
January 04, 2020
January 02, 2021
January 01, 2022
December 31, 2022
Douglas Rushkoff
Media Theorist, Writer, Documentarian
Mathematical Cosmologist
Artist and Photographer
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:00):

It's To the Best of our Knowledge. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's a new year, so let's talk about time. Long time.

Alexander Rose (00:22):

When New College was built, it wasn't the New College, but it was 1380s that it was built. It had these huge oak beams over the main dining hall.

Anne Strainchamps (00:31):

This is Alexander Rose.

Alexander Rose (00:35):

500 years later in the 1800s when they had to renovate this hall, these beams had become rotten and they needed to replace them. They couldn't actually just go buy them anymore in England. Most of these trees were gone from all of Europe in fact. It wasn't until they spoke to school forester who said, "Oh, we have the trees that you planted." It turns out that 500 years prior when they built the hall, they also planted a grove of oak trees to be harvested 500 years later to replace those. It was this type of thinking that very clearly was not going on in our society where something even as simple as planting some acorns that could be leveraged over centuries is not even considered anymore.

Anne Strainchamps (01:33):

How do we go back to planting those acorns? How do we make decisions, tangible decisions, for something 10,000 years from now? Can we even think that far? You could try this. Dig a hole deep inside a mountain in West Texas, and inside it, build a clock. A clock designed to tick for ten millennia. It's 200 feet tall. Its gears are eight feet in diameter and each weighs a thousand pounds. To reach the clock, you have to hike for a full day, find a jade door hidden on a rock face, open it, and climb a 500-foot circular staircase. No, I'm not making this up. Welcome to the Clock of the Long Now, currently under construction. Alexander Rose is its first employee. He says the clock works on two levels. The first is mechanical. The second is mythical.

Alexander Rose (02:36):

That's right. The idea of myth building in our modern age is a bit of an odd one. Very few people are consciously going about it. In order to build a myth I think it's required that we do build a mechanism. One of those mechanisms is this 10,000-year mechanical clock that'll be monument size, architectural in scale, moving parts. The idea is that it's a monument, or in a sense the Grand Canyon when you're on the edge of the Grand Canyon, or if you're looking through a telescope, you get a sense of this cripplingly large sense of time. What we're after is something that extends that sense of time but doesn't make it feel overwhelming like geologic or astronomic time does. This 10,000-year time frame was chosen as the amount of time that modern culture has been around and cities have started about 8,000 years ago and agriculture right before that. This is our modern now. This is how far we should be looking forward if this is how far we can look back in our technology and society.

Anne Strainchamps (03:41):

Is this a clock that ticks off the seconds, the minutes, and the hours, but is simply going to run for 10,000 years?

Alexander Rose (03:48):

No. The 10,000-year clock, the fastest moving parts in it move at about 10 seconds a tick. It ticks much slower than your average clock. The types of things that it shows are natural cycles of various planets and the years in different calendar systems as well as the stars, and so a bunch of natural cycles that are relevant over these periods, and the longest cycle being the 26,000-year processional cycle of the earth on its axes, called the Procession of the Equinoxes.

Anne Strainchamps (04:20):

Does it ring? Does a bell chime at any point?

Alexander Rose (04:24):

Yeah. In fact the bells chime. In the current design they chime every single day. Danny Hillis and Brian Eno and I and the technical team all worked on a device that we recently finished that's a prototype for how the chimes would ring. Danny came up with an algorithm that can ring a series of 10 bells in a different sequence each day for 10,000 years. We recently built a physical instantiation of that so that the bells can ring every single day that a visitor comes by, but would be different every day.

Anne Strainchamps (04:55):

For 10,000 years.

Alexander Rose (04:56):

For 10,000 years, so over three and a half million combinations.

Anne Strainchamps (05:00):

What does the clock look like? I guess it's not built yet, right, so you're still designing it.

Alexander Rose (05:05):

We've built several prototypes. Our first prototype is at the Science Museum in London. We have several more here in our offices and museum in San Francisco. The full-size version of the clock, which we're still designing, will basically be a walkthrough experience that will have a large vertical tunnel that you go up a spiral staircase around parts of the clock and then arrive at the top and see the chamber that has the dials of all the various astronomic cycles, as well as the calendric cycles. This would be the architectural version that we're now working on. The smaller versions of the clock that we built each have components of that, but we have yet to build all of that into one clock yet.

Anne Strainchamps (05:46):

This is not so much clock as monument, or both, like Stonehenge maybe?

Alexander Rose (05:52):

Yeah, in a sense Stonehenge was a large clock, at least by many people's take on what Stonehenge was built for. This will have moving parts. It's very much an engineering solution to a problem. Yet some of those problems are very different than most engineering solutions and that we also have to solve them to a high aesthetic because the main purpose of the project is to entrance people about the idea, to have them leave feeling changed in some way and more thoughtful about time coming out the other side.

Anne Strainchamps (06:25):

It must be quite a challenge just mechanically. How do you build a clock that you know will keep running for 10,000 years?

Alexander Rose (06:34):

The clock design is meant to keep running for 10,000 years, but it does assume a certain amount of periodic maintenance. It's not assuming total neglect from people. For instance, the power system for the clock is twofold. One is it uses the temperature difference of day to night of expanding and contracting metal to power just the ticking aspect of the clock, the part that keeps time. If you want to see what time it is, the visitors themselves have to feed power into the clock so that the dials will show you the time of the last visitor. The chimes won't ring until you wind up the clock and the dials will update to your now, the day that you're there. The chimes will ring for the day that you have arrived. It needs some energy from people, as well as using the energy of natural cycles like the sun.

Anne Strainchamps (07:24):

It's the energy from the natural cycles from the sun that keep it measuring the time?

Alexander Rose (07:29):

That's right. The very basics of it is just the ticking aspect that's measuring the time. The pendulum is powered by the temperature difference of day to night. It's also synchronized to the sun in that we have a slot that allows sunlight in facing south so that right at solar noon sunlight comes in and hits a piece of metal that expands and gives us a mechanical trigger that synchronizes the clock so we know it won't drift over the long haul.

Anne Strainchamps (07:58):

You imagine people in the future, a hundred years from now say, coming to visit this clock. Where will it be?

Alexander Rose (08:06):

We have a site in eastern Nevada. It's a keyhole property in the Great Basin National Park. It's an 11,000-foot mountain called Mount Washington. It's a limestone escarpment that's about a thousand feet of solid limestone on top of the amazing desert landscape out there and it's covered in bristle cone pine, some of the oldest living organisms on the planet. Some of those trees are dated to almost 5,000 years old.

Anne Strainchamps (08:31):

Wow. The kind of sense of time that you're talking about, you call it deep time, made me wonder, does the experience of time change do you think when you think about it in such huge increments? Does time actually feel different when you're thinking about it in great big huge chunks?

Alexander Rose (08:55):

I think a natural way to think about time, especially as you push out this far, is to think about it much more generationally. If you take that 20, 25-year generation model, it's about 400 generations that we're talking about. You'd have to tell the story 400 times and pass it on to keep the myth alive basically. Then it starts feeling a lot more tractable, and especially given that people live far longer than 25 years at this point. In terms of my personal life I certainly look at things slightly differently than I would in a lot of other jobs where the projects that I'm working on are pushing out much further, and all of a sudden my materials choices of everything I do in my life, even when I was working on projects in my house, how long do I really want this to last? I think it's changed the way I look at the world in that way.

Anne Strainchamps (09:55):

Alexander Rose is the first employee of the Clock of the Long Now. That clock is currently under construction in an underground facility in West Texas. It has chimes co-designed by Brian Eno. This is the one for New Years Day 5,000 years from now. What do you think? Do we control time or does time control us? Here's media theorist Douglas Rushkoff.

Douglas Rushkoff (11:02):

My dangerous idea is that people restore the natural, biological, and social rhythms by which we live. In other words, I'm suggesting that people reclaim time. There's really two kinds of time. The Greeks had two words for it. One is chronos, the time that we know. Chronos is time of the clock. What time did I crash the car? You crashed the car at 4:01. Kairos is a much subtler understanding of time. Kairos is their word for timing or readiness, human time. You crashed the car at 4:01 but what's the best time to tell dad you crashed the car? 4:11? 4:13? No, the best time to tell dad you crashed the car is after he's had his drink, but before he's opened the bills. Over the last centuries we've really surrendered our human time to time of the clock. Instead of using our digital devices to create more time in our lives, we're strapping these devices to ourselves and trying to live by their time.

Douglas Rushkoff (12:25):

My dangerous idea is to disconnect from the timing or the lack of timing, the chronos of our digital devices, the never-ending pulses of tweets, and instead attempt to rediscover the natural rhythms all around us, the day and the night, the phases of the moon, the social rhythms that actually dictate who we are and how we feel as people. If you begin to explore these rhythms you find out things like every week of a lunar cycle tends to promote neurotransmitters in our own brains. The first week of a new moon, we tend to be dominated by acetylcholine, which makes us more open to new ideas. The second week of a lunar cycle, just when it's moving towards fullness, our brain tends to get dominated by serotonin, which makes us really good at working and getting stuff done. The third week is dopamine. That's when you have to party. That's when you're not going to get anything done. The fourth week is norepinephrine. That's a week when you tend to be thinking very structurally, when it's very good for organizing your schedule and making cold, calculated decisions.

Douglas Rushkoff (13:47):

As soon as we begin to open to the rhythms that have been really dictating human behavior and social behavior for hundreds of thousands of years, we end up much more grounded in human time and human culture and much less dictated by our machines and the systems those machines are meant to convey to us.

Anne Strainchamps (14:17):

Douglas Rushkoff is a media theorist. He's the author of Team Human. Coming up, a tidal moon clock, the clock of the universe, and living among people with no clock at all. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To the Best of our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. In the modern world time is a straight line and it moves in one direction only, forward, but what if it didn't have to be that way. Ethnobotanist and anthropologist Wade Davis is National Geographic's explorer in residence. He spent years living and working with Australia's Aboriginal people. He told Steve Paulson that their concept of time, the Dreaming, is one of the greatest experiments in human thought.

Wade Davis (15:08):

There was something about the Aboriginal people that deeply offended the British. Of course their conclusion was that after all we are once again dealing with savages, and in this case the lowest of the low. What the British completely failed was to understand the subtlety of the Aboriginal mind. Therefore they were debating as recently as 1902 in Parliament in Australia whether or not Aboriginal people were in fact human beings. In the 1930s and '40s you could virtually shoot and kill an Aboriginal person quote unquote trespassing on your land with impunity. As recently as in 1960s a colleague of mine, an anthropologist, said that growing up in South Australia, he had a book in school called A Treasury of Fauna of Australia, which included Aboriginal people in the 1960s-

Steve Paulson (15:58):


Wade Davis (15:58):

... as part of the fauna. What was really going on, what was going on was that the British were encountering a whole nother possibility of life itself. The Aboriginal mind embraces reality on two different levels. On the one hand there's a realm, the phenomenological realm, and there's also the realm of the Dreaming. The world both exists as you see it before your feet, but it is always waiting to be born in the realm of the Dreaming.

Steve Paulson (16:24):

Just so I understand this, so there's one sense of time, it would probably be like our sense of time, if they're going out to-

Wade Davis (16:30):

No, actually the amazing thing is in not one of the 300 and more languages spoken in Australia is there a word for time.

Steve Paulson (16:38):

Really? Wow.

Wade Davis (16:38):

There is no word for past, present, or future. This isn't incidentally hippie ethnography. This is just the way they thought.

Steve Paulson (16:45):

I would think that just in terms of let's say if they're going to go out and track and hunt an animal, clearly there's a sense of linear time there, what you have to do-

Wade Davis (16:53):

Of course.

Steve Paulson (16:53):

... in order to bring down the animal.

Wade Davis (16:53):

Of course. That's a very good point, Steve, because obviously there's also great capacity for deductive logic. For example, if you do as we did, go out with the Aboriginal people on a kangaroo fire drive to hunt animals, they track the animals with perspicacity and a clear and deductive process of logic that would put Sherlock Holmes to shame. We're not talking as if these individuals are incapable of thinking. Quite to the contrary. Obviously the fundamental rhythms of a day, the sun rising in the morning and setting in the afternoon, the moon coming up, gives you a diurnal sense of the passage of time. That's not really the point. The real thrust of what was going on is this idea of the Dreaming, which is very difficult to define in clear terms, is that if everything in the West was about progress, Dreaming is the opposite. The Dreaming was all about stasis, constancy, the perfection of the world as it existed in the eternal moment.

Steve Paulson (17:52):

There's something about Dreaming that connects you to that origin, to that first moment. Somehow you're-

Wade Davis (17:59):


Steve Paulson (18:00):

... immediately connected with that past many eons ago.

Wade Davis (18:03):

That's exactly the point is that there is no sense of separation between the moment in time when the ancestors brought the world into being and all of human activity, the entire thrust of human intellectual and spiritual effort is not to change the world or to change yourself, but to do the complete opposite, to engage your ritual and ceremonial gestures that are deemed to be essential to keep the world exactly as it was at the time of the first dawning. It's as if every single intellectual impulse in the Western philosophical and technological tradition had gone into maintaining the garden of Eden exactly as it was, each shrub pruned perfectly to replicate the world just as it was when Adam and Eve had that fateful conversation.

Steve Paulson (18:50):

How did people get access to this Dreamtime?

Wade Davis (18:57):

The Dreamtime existed in multidimensions at all times. They were part of the Dreaming. It wasn't like they had access to the Dreaming. It wasn't like it was a hallucinogenic state or a state of altered consciousness. The Dreaming is the definition of the unity of the now. The Dreaming is everything that ever existed, everything that exists today, and everything that will ever exist. You are encased by definition in the realm of the Dreaming. This was not a civilization without a history. In a way it was a civilization through their idea system that had in fact defeated the very notion of history.

Steve Paulson (19:31):

You have called the Dreamtime one of the great experiments in human thought. I'd love to speculate on what you mean by that. This was a whole different conception of time, nonlinear time. I guess it does make you wonder if all of humanity had this nonlinear sense of time, where would we be today?

Wade Davis (19:51):

It's a good question. We'd be somewhere very different. We wouldn't be where the people who first reach Australia began. In our society, certainly since the revelation and then liberation of the Enlightenment and then the triumph of our scientific model and paradigm whereby phenomena couldn't exist if they couldn't measured, and therefore all issues of myth, metaphor, and mysticism were washed away, that brought us great precision of thought, but it also brought us a certain isolation in the universe because for most of human cultures, for most of history, myth and mysticism and some religiosity have defined a blanket of comfort that we insulate ourselves with as conscious individuals. I always find it interesting to pay attention to the metaphors of a culture.

Wade Davis (20:35):

For example, in the Andes of Peru, everybody is raised in those villages to believe that there's a dominant mountain deity, an active spirit that will direct his or her destiny. Now this is kind of a natural conclusion if you're raised in the Andes in an agricultural civilization where you see the clouds coalesce around the mountains, you see the rain fall to the fields, you know what can happen if frost or hail strikes your harvest and can wipe it out in 15 minutes. There is a natural tendency to view the mountains as a source of both fertility and life and potential danger, so the idea of having this dialog with a mountain is not as esoteric or obscure as it may sound, but the bottom line is that makes those children of the High Andes very different than a kid growing up in Wyoming who is being taught implicitly and explicitly that a mountain is simply a pile of rock or coal ready to be mined. There are real consequences to these different belief systems.

Wade Davis (21:35):

Now I'm not saying that I would personally want to live the life of Aboriginal people in Australia before contact. I'm not saying that what they achieved is better or worse than what we achieve. It is certainly interesting in the sense that again, had we all followed that track of maintaining the world as it was at the time of the first dawning, yes, we would not have made the scientific, technological inroads that we've made and the great successes that we've accomplished. We also wouldn't have torn down the ancient forests. We wouldn't have depopulated the fish in the seas. We wouldn't be talking about global climate change affecting life support systems of the planet and all the other, not hysterical but demonstrable consequences of a particular set of choices that our technologically oriented civilization chose to do.

Anne Strainchamps (22:36):

Ethnobotanist and anthropologist Wade Davis. He's a National Geographic explorer in residence and author of The Serpent and the Rainbow. That was Steve Paulson talking with him. Hey, what time is it? Do you have a watch or a phone nearby? Of course you do. Our world runs on clocks. What would we do without them?

Brian Swimme (22:57):

When we first began to invent these mechanical clocks and then we formed church towers, the town tower with the clocks telling us what time it is, this is in Europe in the Middle Ages. Humans actually no longer looked at the sun to see what time it was. They would look at the clock. That has proceeded and over the last couple centuries we have invented a form of life that's encase in artificial time.

Anne Strainchamps (23:58):

Brian Swimme is a mathematical cosmologist. He tells Steve Paulson that the invention of mechanical clocks gave us efficiency, organization, productivity, but in exchange we gave something up.

Brian Swimme (24:16):

The universe begins, like we say, 13.7 billion years ago. Then this amazing thing happens. At a certain point the first atoms begin to form out of the elementary particles. Before this moment, there were no atoms. The first atoms that formed were hydrogen and helium. This moment was the moment when hydrogen atoms would be created. The entire universe changed form. It went from what we call plasma into a form of atoms. That is a measure of time in terms of creativity. Then a later development took place when the atoms began to form stars and galaxies. A galaxy consists of something like a hundred billion stars. Once again we have the same point is that before this moment the universe had no galaxies. The amazing discovery is that there has not been a new galaxy constructed since that moment. You see, it's like the time to create galaxies. Now we talk about that as being a billion years after the birth of the universe. The point I'm trying to make is that in a way we're only just beginning to explore. The universe knows what time it is in some deep mysterious way.

Steve Paulson (25:40):

You've been talking about this very long view of time, really going back to the Big Bang of nearly 14 billion years ago. I guess it raises the question of where we are in this great cycle of time. Are we still near the beginning or are we in the middle somewhere? Any thoughts about that?

Brian Swimme (26:03):

I have a thought. It's slightly complicated, but if you just give me 30 seconds maybe I can ... One of the amazing things is called the Law of Large Numbers. If you look at the ratio of the fundamental powers of the universe like electromagnetism and gravity, what scientists have found, it's a puzzling discovery, but they found there's something special about this time we are in. One scientist in particular came up with this interpretation which I offer as speculation about our moment, and according to his thinking, what is special about our moment is that this was the moment not when life would come forth or not when the galaxies would be created or not when life would complexify into complex organisms, but rather this is the moment when the universe would begin to reflect upon itself in conscious self-awareness. It's speculation, but it does match the mathematics of this. For some of us it's a thrilling idea that the universe has a sense of time and knows what it is about.

Steve Paulson (27:15):

What does it mean then for the universe to somehow be conscious of itself?

Brian Swimme (27:21):

If the universe knew in some strange way how to expand so that life could come forth, maybe, this is a speculation, but the universe was driving towards not just life but a reflection upon itself. How is this playing itself out on our planet? It's within the human beings. We have begun to reflect upon the nature of life. It could be, you see, this is a suggestion, it could be that all of our technology, all of this science, all this power is for some greater purpose. It's for the universe to enter into its evolutionary unfolding, now with conscious self-awareness, whereas before that was absent.

Steve Paulson (28:07):

You haven't used the word God, but it sounds like that maybe that's what you're referring to in some way, if you're talking about the universe as consciously reflecting back on itself.

Brian Swimme (28:20):

Of course to bring up God then there would be all sorts of theological reflections from different cultures upon that. That I think is very, very important, but I have no special knowledge about that.

Steve Paulson (28:32):

Really you're just talking about this in scientific terms.

Brian Swimme (28:35):

Yeah. It's so fascinating that you see we're beginning to see the universe as an organic entity or reality that has its own intrinsic timing. I think that the challenge for the human right now is to enter into this deeper cosmological rhythm. The most obvious way is to invent the form of humanity that actually is an enhancement to the planet.

Steve Paulson (29:03):

You're talking about actually humans evolving to some new stage. There's this general sense that we're at the end of the line here. This is who we're going to be, but you're saying humans might become something rather different.

Brian Swimme (29:19):

See, that I think is exactly the point, as you've said it, Steve, exactly. I would say that part of the way in which we still live on a flat earth and we think that the sun goes around the earth, we still think that on some level unconsciously. Another way of saying that is that we also think that humans are fixed so that what we're discovering is that everything in the universe is changing and evolving, everything. We certainly are part of that.

Steve Paulson (29:47):

Do we have some responsibility in this? I don't know, we probably can't control this, but to evolve in some particular direction?

Brian Swimme (29:55):

That I think is the crushing tragedy of our time in that, see, we've developed so much science and technology and we've developed a civilization all for the human. In fact, it's only been for a subset of the human. What I'm trying to suggest is what if the human has a larger significance? What if really our significance includes the planet and the cosmos. That's the suggestion. At the very least, what if we need to take seriously our responsibility for these powers as they affect other members of the earth community.

Steve Paulson (30:32):

You're saying at the very least we should be better ecological citizens to take care of this earth.

Brian Swimme (30:38):

To see this as a vast gift, a privilege handed to us by the universe itself,

Anne Strainchamps (30:56):

Brian Swimme is a mathematical cosmologist. He's the director of the Center for the Story of the Universe. He was talking with Steve Paulson. Listening to Brian Swimme makes me wonder why couldn't we just invent a new way of keeping time, a way that would let us get to meetings on time, but still keep us anchored to that larger universe. In England, Laura Williams is building a gigantic tidal moon clock on the banks of the Thames. It's called Aluna. It's designed to be bigger than Stonehenge. William says that like Stonehenge, it's intended to be a link between us and the cosmos.

Laura Williams (31:42):

The way we represent time in modern culture is clock time. It's a second or a fraction of a second. What we've been doing is chopping these seconds up more and more until they're instants. We can't keep up anymore. Our feelings can't keep up anymore. Time isn't related to human emotion anymore or to time for celebrations, time for winding down, time for dark, time for light.

Anne Strainchamps (32:09):

We've created a kind of machine time or technological time.

Laura Williams (32:13):

Very much so.

Anne Strainchamps (32:15):

It's too much for our bodies and our psyches.

Laura Williams (32:18):

Yeah. I see time as very much the same thing as culture. Now if time is shallow and flat and fragmented and linear and completely disconnected from past and future, the ticktock of the clock is a now now now, very arbitrary.

Anne Strainchamps (32:38):

At what point did you get the idea that one possible corrective to this modern time sickness might be a gigantic tidal-powered moon clock?

Laura Williams (32:46):

In terms of getting from there to the moon, at the same time that I was looking at this notion of time and also at how I was feeling in the city, I was feeling very disconnected and really like often I wasn't in the right rhythm with clock time. A very dear friend of mine called Earl Davidson Daniel, he has since passed away, and he said, "Laura, whenever you feel lost or disconnected, pay attention to the moon. It will teach you everything you need to know." Then what happened at the same time was the run up to the solar eclipse here in Cornwall. Everyone went nuts about it. We have very pagan roots and Celtic roots. We were always very connected to the moon and sun. We went down to Cornwall, and despite it being cloudy, it was really profound, the effect the eclipse had on us. There was a few families, and no one really knew each other, but after the eclipse happened, everyone very quietly went up to each other and introduced themselves. We ended up having a big barbecue. The most profound thing was that you had this feeling of belonging and this sense of where you were in the universe.

Anne Strainchamps (34:03):

This other clock time is just a thin veneer we've kind of laid on top of something much older and deeper that we all kind of intuitively know.

Laura Williams (34:11):

Yes. Very much like the sort of thin veneer we put on our faces, I think.

Anne Strainchamps (34:16):

Will you tell me about Aluna itself? What will it look like? It's not constructed yet, but there's some beautiful plans you've designed.

Laura Williams (34:24):

What it looks like, it's actually three rings that come from the same original dish. When I designed it, I designed a kind of dish and then I separated it into these three concentric rings. What I first started doing when I started to research the moon, I realized there was an awful lot of different time cycles within moon time. In the sun's time there's only really the one, but the moon meanders round our planet over a 19-year cycle. I had to decide what cycles I was going to represent. I knew the Luna phase was one of them.

Laura Williams (35:03):

Then when I was trying to understand the moon and where it is in relation to us, I was looking at the rise and set of the moon, and I was also looking at the ebb and flow of the tides. I drew out the rise and set and the ebb and the flow. I realized that that was the fundamental rhythm of our planet was the Luna day, the rise set of the moon, and the tide. There are actually two tides per Luna day. This goes on continuously. That maybe this was the very rhythm that we need to reconnect with seeing as we're water-based beings and also that we live on a water planet. That was three time cycles. First of all, I made an animation of light that came before the three-dimensional form. I then translated this animation of light into the form, which are these three rings. The biggest ring is the Luna phase ring. The structure is actually steel, clad in translucent curved glass. Underneath the glass hidden is a matrix of LEDs, and the animation of moon time called Aluna time, gradually waxes around the biggest ring and then wanes back off again. At new moon, it's completely dark and at full moon, it's a full circle. When you're in this space, you are standing within a full circle of light.

Anne Strainchamps (36:31):

It's huge, right? I see why people have called it a modern Stonehenge because it's so large, you stand inside it with these huge sweeping curves going up above you.

Laura Williams (36:42):

It's very, very big, but it starts at human level on one side and then it rises up to the sky. The idea that you can really relate to it, that it's not overpowering, and that it connects our planet and our ground level and the sky as well. Those are powered also, to bring it full circle that this connection between the heavens and the earth, the light is completely powered by the tides. By drawing energy from the tides, we're actually drawing the kinetic energy directly from the moon.

Anne Strainchamps (37:18):

The whole clock is powered by the tide?

Laura Williams (37:20):


Anne Strainchamps (37:22):


Laura Williams (37:23):

Energy consumption is another aspect that reflects the moon cycle as well, because I mentioned the phase of the moon. When the moon is new, it's completely off the biggest ring. The whole sculpture is practically dark.

Anne Strainchamps (37:38):

It's partly about orienting yourself more in terms of the universe rather than our own just manmade environment and reminding ourselves that we are that hackneyed phrase children of the universe, but what is the paying attention? You could do the same thing with the sun, I suppose. Just pay attention to where the sun is, but for you, there's something very special about moon time.

Laura Williams (38:00):

I bought a book with me just so I could read this quotation. It's from the Ladder of Lights by William Gray. It's actually about the Cabala, but this is a very interesting thing about the moon. I think one of the reasons why we seem to relate to the moon, everyone seems to love the moon, whether you're a staunch scientist or a raving hippie or whoever. Astrologers and astronomers love the moon. I think it's because the moon allows us to look at it without burning our eyes. This is from this book. "No one can look directly at the sun without risking blindness, but the moon can be seen clearly enough. Thus it symbolizes a quality of divine mercy in adapting the overpowering light of truth into more diffuse and softer rays which our human natures can comfortably bear."

Laura Williams (38:56):

There's something about the moon being up there in the sky during nighttime as well and time when we tend to be a bit more contemplative, and then on the cultural side as well, looking at all the different cultures that the moon brings together. After all, going back to time and culture being the same thing, I was very concerned about the barriers coming up between people. The moon is something that is common to all of us. Islam is completely lunar-based in terms of all their festivals, in terms of the start of the month, the start of the year. When it's time to start Ramadan and to end Ramadan people look for the first sighting of the crescent moon, so the first moon of the month in order to start this. Also Judaism has the moon in its timekeeping, as does Buddhism, and it goes on and on and on really.

Anne Strainchamps (40:04):

That's Laura Williams. Aluna is under construction at London's Docklands. When completed it will be the world's first tidal-powered moon clock. Coming up, telling time with the oldest things in the world. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To the Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. This hour we're talking about how we measure time, but look, time is relative, right? Take people. Jeanne Calment of France lived to be 122 years and 164 days old, which seems pretty darn old, but there's a shrub in Tasmania that's 43,000 years old. There's a patch of sea grass in Spain that's more than 100,000 years old. Age is relative. Rachel Sussman is a photographer who decided to document the most ancient living beings on the planet so we could all see them. Her photos are in a mesmerizing coffee table book called The Oldest Living Things in the World. We started with Antarctica.

Rachel Sussman (41:18):

I was there to photograph this 5,500-year-old moss. It was wonderful even just to learn that there was something that old living on Antarctica. The other thing that was so wonderful for me was I just had finished reading Endurance, the Shackleton expedition story. It turned out that we ended up following in Shackleton's footsteps of it because this moss that I was after lives on Elephant Island. That happens to be the same spot where Shackleton and his crew were marooned, I believe for almost a year.

Anne Strainchamps (41:54):

You went there to look for this 5,500-year-old moss. What was it like to actually find it?

Rachel Sussman (42:02):

Certainly that was incredibly satisfying after ... I did about two years of research before making this trip. I had heard about the moss, just through a rumor really. I immediately started looking for published research, but it took me a while to track that down. I certainly will never forget the moment when I was standing on the bridge of the ship with binoculars, looking out at this point on Elephant Island and actually saw it. It was incredibly just ... It was humbling.

Anne Strainchamps (42:37):

What does it look like?

Rachel Sussman (42:39):

Everything in Antarctica does look white, but as you get closer, you realize that it's far more nuanced. You could see the green of the moss against some of certainly the Rocky outcroppings and those geologic structures as well as the snow and glaciers behind it.

Anne Strainchamps (43:00):

One of the things that's so striking about this is so you're talking about 5,500-year-old moss, and it exists, it's survived on one of the most inhospitable places on the planet. It's one thing to have survived that long. It's another thing to have survived that long in such conditions.

Rachel Sussman (43:18):

It's absolutely fascinating and also something that I feel like connects a lot of my subjects in that they tend to live in very inhospitable climates and living in extremes of temperature, extreme elevations. We have things that are underwater. We have organisms that live with very low nutrient availability.

Anne Strainchamps (43:41):

Things in deserts.

Rachel Sussman (43:42):

Yes. That was an exciting thing to find as well, that a number of the connecting factors have to do with living in difficult circumstances and yet being uniquely adapted to thrive in them.

Anne Strainchamps (43:58):

It's fascinating. I'm thinking right off the bat, there's a photograph you have. It's not even very impressive to look at. It looks like a little bit of green sort of scrub. It's not a big patch of green, in the middle of what looks like just this desert. Then you say it's an underground forest.

Rachel Sussman (44:18):

That was a very interesting one to learn about as well. The underground forest, this was a phenomena that I learned about from a botanist in South Africa at the Pretoria Botanical Garden. I'd actually gone to South Africa looking for baobab trees. He said, "Oh, have you heard of this phenomena of these different plants that actually migrated underground as an evolutionary tactic to protect themselves from frequent fires that occur in the region?" Collectively they're known as the underground forests. They're growing clonally, which means they're self propagating. The one that I've photographed was thought to be around 13,000 years old.

Anne Strainchamps (45:02):


Rachel Sussman (45:02):

Unfortunately it is no longer with us. This was some very sad news that I learned. They changed the traffic pattern. This was outside of the gates of the botanical garden there. They just bulldozed right over the poor thing.

Anne Strainchamps (45:19):

Oh my gosh. The sense of loss at losing something 13,000 years old.

Rachel Sussman (45:26):

This isn't the only one of my subjects that we've lost in the past five years alone. Considering that I only photographed 30 organisms, losing two is not a very good statistic.

Anne Strainchamps (45:39):

This really gets at one of the other reasons you wanted to do the project in the first place. It's to document and hopefully kind of call attention to these amazing plants, some of the oldest living things on the planet, and hopefully to help people try to preserve them.

Rachel Sussman (45:56):

Absolutely. I think that collectively, these organisms really symbolize something that transcends us all and can connect us all, and hopefully forge some understanding that we all are part of this global ecosystem. As climate change becomes more and more of a clear and present danger, I'm hoping that by looking at these organisms that have survived through millennia, that that might help us remember that these individuals have persevered, but they are danger at our hands. They are in danger and it's up to us to step in and protect them.

Anne Strainchamps (46:41):

How old are the oldest living things on earth?

Rachel Sussman (46:46):

The oldest known living organism is the Siberian actino bacteria, which is between 400,000 and 600,000 years old.

Anne Strainchamps (46:59):

I can't even think of time in those scales. Put it in some perspective, can you?

Rachel Sussman (47:05):

Yeah, that's a tricky one. The Siberian actino bacteria was discovered by a team of planetary biologists who were looking for clues to life on other planets. They took some core samples into the permafrost in Siberia and ended up finding what is now thought to be the oldest living thing on the planet. It's really a fantastic discovery, but also goes to show how little we know about life on earth and that there's so much more to discover.

Anne Strainchamps (47:36):

What's the oldest living thing in this country?

Rachel Sussman (47:39):

The oldest living thing in the United States is known as Pando. It's a clonal colony of quaking aspen trees that lives in Utah. It happens to be 80,000 years old.

Anne Strainchamps (47:51):

Oh my God. 80,000. You have to explain what a clonal colony is. This means that it's not a single thing that's been living continuously for 80,000 years, right?

Rachel Sussman (48:03):

It actually is. If you bear with me here for a moment. If you think about a single tree, that's a unitary organism. We get that, a big giant Sequoia. If you can imagine a forest that is technically a single tree, and what I mean by that, it is one giant interconnected root system. Each trunk is actually a stem coming out from that system. What you have is one giant genetically identical individual. A single stem might not live more than 200 or 300 years, but the entire organism has been alive for around 80,000.

Anne Strainchamps (48:44):

Wow. What's it like to walk amongst those trees?

Rachel Sussman (48:49):

Aspen trees are incredibly beautiful, even the ones that aren't that old. To have that extra layer of knowledge that this organism has been around for that long is really breathtaking. It's a way to connect and step back into this deeper time, right now in the present.

Anne Strainchamps (49:12):

It's a lovely phrase, deep time. What does it mean to you?

Rachel Sussman (49:16):

Deep time is something that I'd been thinking about for a while, even before I'd started this work. To me it's something that it's certainly still has a level of abstraction to it, but it's something that is almost our beyond our physiological ability to process time into something that becomes abstract, but also connects us to things like geologic time, cosmic time, and the story that we are are part of, but that we're part of a continuum, and we're a very small part of that continuum.

Anne Strainchamps (49:57):

Photographer Rachel Sussman. Her book is called The Oldest Living Things in the World. Hey, before we go, a word about the music we used today. At the beginning of the hour, we talked to about the 10,000-year-old Clock of the Long Now. Musician Brian Eno helped design the chimes for that clock, and he made a whole album inspired by them. It's called January 07003: Bell Studies for the Clock of the Long Now. You've been listening to it throughout this whole hour

Anne Strainchamps (50:33):

To the Best of Our Knowledge comes to you from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. Charles Monroe-Kane produced this hour, with help from Angela Bautista, Shannon Henry Kleiber, and Mark Riechers. Joe Hardtke is our sound designer and technical director. Steve Paulson is our executive producer. I'm Anne Strainchamps, and I'm sorry to say, we're out of time.

Speaker 9 (50:55):


Last modified: 
December 30, 2022