Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Methuselahs I

"<a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Twelthdoctor.png#/media/File:Twelthdoctor.png">Twelthdoctor</a>" by <span title="must have been published or publicly displayed outside Wikipedia">Source</span> (<a href="//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:NFCC#4" title="Wikipedia:NFCC" class="mw-redirect">WP:NFCC#4</a>). Licensed under <a href="//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Twelthdoctor.png" title="<a href=&quot;//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Non-free_use_rationale_guideline&quot; title=&quot;Wikipedia:Non-free use rationale guideline&quot;>Fair use</a> of copyrighted material in the context of <a href=&quot;//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Twelfth_Doctor&quot; title=&quot;Twelfth Doctor&quot;>Twelfth Doctor</a>">Fair use</a> via <a href="//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/">Wikipedia</a>.
The Twelfth Doctor
I am a longstanding fan of the BBC science fiction television series Doctor Who. The show documents the adventures of the Doctor, a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. Time Lords, extremely long-lived individuals who are also the masters of time, and are able to travel through it by way of machines called TARDIS–Time And Relative Dimensions In Space. The Doctor is the moniker of a rebel of this vaunted group, a maverick who once stole an old and outdated model of a TARDIS and went on a series of adventures that has impacted the fictional universe of Doctor Who in extreme and original ways.

Time Lords such as the Doctor are able to live so long thanks to a unique biological trait which allows them to regenerate their bodies whenever death approaches, much like the proverbial phoenix. There is a catch though---Time Lords are only allowed to do this twelve times, meaning that the thirteenth incarnation of a Time Lord is the final one. However, there is no particular time limit set to how long a particular incarnation can last. The Doctor’s thirteenth incarnation, numbered Eleven due to some pretty convoluted reasons, lived for hundreds of years, ageing slowly but surely. He ended up an old man, and funny things happened afterwards.

Fictional long-lived individuals are of course not restricted to BBC science fiction television shows. The Hebrew Bible speaks of Methuselah, the grandfather of Noah, who lived till the really ripe old age of nine hundred and sixty nine. It is said that he died a week before the biblical flood came and washed everything away except his grandson’s ark and all the arkizens1. His name, which means “his death shall bring judgment”, seems about right.

"<a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jurojin_with_deer.jpg#/media/File:Jurojin_with_deer.jpg">Jurojin with deer</a>" by native japanese - Mythological Japan&nbsp;: the symbolisms of mythology in relation to Japanese art, with illustrations drawn in Japan, by native artists (1902). Licensed under Public Domain via <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/">Commons</a>.
Jurojin with deer
I am pretty sure a lot of people lived to be centuries old in Indian mythology---Hanumaan, for example, was one of the few mortal beings to have featured in both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Sadhus and heroes in Indian mythology used to carry out tapasya (meditation) for thousands of years to gain favour from the gods. Valmiki was ensconced in a termite mound for so long that he metamorphosed from caterpillar into a butterf…I mean, from a robber to a poet extraordinaire. Someone told me recently that Moy, (ময়দানব in Bangla) the giant who built for the Pandavas the incomparable city-state Indraprastha, was actually Ravana’s Father-in-Law! In Taoism, Jurōjin (寿老人) is one of the Seven Gods of Fortune (Shinjifukuchin) and is the god of longevity. He himself is, however, immortal, being a god and all.

The first I had ever heard of the name Methuselah was sometime in the early nineties. I had a pair of extraordinarily well-written illustrated encyclopedias from Dorling-Kindersley, and one article concerning how champagne is prepared had a beautiful photograph about different champagne bottle sizes, with the 2L Magnum somewhere in the middle and the 6L behemoth Methuselah topping them off (yes, they name bottles after old Hebrew mythological characters and kings). I had but a hazy conception of what champagne was, mostly thanks to Tintin in Tibet and my father’s unique way of getting me to pronounce the word correctly2. That illustration was beautiful, and the closest I could find to it on the net is this one.

Turritopsis dohrnii, the immortal jellyfish.
Longevity and by extension, immortality, has been a goal humans have sought since the day our brains developed enough to have been able to think about such things. Life expectancy has certainly increased over the centuries. According to this site, the average life expectancy of Indian females in 1960 was 41.3 years, with a global rank of 145. Fifty odd years later, in 2013, that has jumped to an incredible 68.2 years, an increase of 65%! Surprisingly enough, Indian females still rank 140th worldwide in this department. Despite this marked increase in lifespan, humans are still nowhere close to a certain species of jellyfish, which is as close to being actively immortal3 as any species in the animal kingdom can hope to be.

Since biological immortality is probably still a long way off, humans attempt to achieve immortality through other means; artistic, scientific, architectural, socio-political or even militaristic contributions (think Sun Tzu) can offer immortality to their long-deceased contributors. At the turn of the century, on the first day of the new millennium, a twenty minute piece of recorded music started playing, and is designed to keep playing for the next thousand years without repetition. A computer algorithm ensures that the music is never repeated…well, not in a millennium at least. The piece is called Longplayer, and it can played on your music player by downloading this m3u file which is also available on their website. I have been listening to it for the past three minutes and thirty three seconds and my impression is that it is both eerie and soothing at the same time. The music was composed using Tibetan instruments. Longplayer was conceptualised and executed by English musician Jem Finer.

Clock of the Long Now
Original prototype
There is no guarantee if Longplayer will indeed last that long. It is entirely possible that nuclear war or similar catastrophes, whether man-made or otherwise, might wipe out most of human civilisation so that future generations will have no conception of algorithms and computers, and might not be able to figure out how to make the piece work. To counteract such a scenario4, Danny Hillis conceived of the Clock of the Long Now, a mechanical clock that is designed to run accurately for ten thousand years. The guiding principles of building such a clock were longevity, maintainability, transparency, scalability, and evolvability. The clock should run for ten millennia, be maintainable with bronze age technology, be simple enough so that construction principles can be divined from a simple inspection, its design should be such that small tabletop versions as well as giant versions that are installed on mountaintops can be constructed from the same design, and it should be possible to improve the clock over time. In order to see the time of the clock in the mountains, one would need to climb up the mountain and then turn a display wheel. The clock is interesting enough (as I research it) to warrant its own full post in the near future.

Wouldn’t it be rather grand if by some quirky law of entanglement of fictional and real universes, the Doctor might set his TARDIS down near the Clock of the Long Now sometime in the distant future, taking a short break from his never-ending adventures across space and time, and hike up the mountainside to see the last time anyone was there to see the clock tell its tale?

  1. That’s what I call the denizens of the ark. I know, I’m lazy. But who isn’t nowadays, brandishing their smslingo everywhere like it is the M1 Garand.
  2. I used to pronounce it exactly as printed, with the first part rhyming with ham, the second with rag, and the third with hay. My old man assured me that it was the right pronunciation, but I would get even more bragging rights among my friends at school if I managed to say sham-payne. Bragging rights? My eyes lit up. Of course it took quite a few more years to learn that shahn-pan-yuh works even better in the bragging rights department.
  3. As opposed to viruses or certain seeds or tardigrades that can exist a long time by simply being dormant.
  4. Hillis conceived of his 10,000 year clock in 1986, more than a decade before Longplayer, in case you were wondering.


  1. I have started to hate your blogs as much as I love them! Each one adds to my list of topics to read, research or watch! How I wish I had the time turner!

  2. I have started to hate your blogs as much as I love them! Each one adds to my list of topics to read, research or watch! How I wish I had the time turner!