A time capsule of computer code is buried deep in the Arctic

We're safeguarding the world's seeds in the Arctic, why not our most precious data?

Image source: Hans-Jurgen Mager/Everyday basics/Unsplash/Big Think
  • Buried underground near the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is the Arctic World Archive safeguarding humanity's books, documents, and data.
  • The Archive includes the massive GitHub library of software code behind the world's open-source applications.
  • Information in the vault is stored on special media said to be durable for 1,000 years.

For a place that's so cold, Norway's Svalbard archipelago is downright hot when it comes to safeguarding some of humanity's most precious stuff. We've written before about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault that holds the world's backup supply of seeds capable of replanting our planet's flora should some horrible catastrophe occur. Since 2017, there's been another critical repository embedded about 91 meters down in that Svalbardian mountain: It's called the Arctic World Archive (AWA) and it holds the world's books, documents, and data from across the globe.

The Arctic World Archive

The AWA describes itself as "home to manuscripts from the Vatican Library, political histories, masterpieces from different eras (including Rembrandt and Munch), scientific breakthroughs and contemporary cultural treasures." Government and research facilities can store their data at AWA, as can private companies and individuals, for a price.

"Our ambition is to be a secure world archive to help preserve the world's digital memory and ensure that the world's most irreplaceable digital memories of art, culture and literature are secured and made available to future generations." — Arctic World Archive

AWA's first deposits were made by the National Archives of Mexico and Brazil, and have been joined by a growing number of entities from over 15 countries. These include the National Museum of Norway, the European Space Agency, the Museum of the Person, and major global corporations.

The AWA is a collaboration between SNSK, a 100-year-old local coal mining company, and piql, which has developed a unique means of storage employed in the vault we'll explain below.

GitHub’s vault with a vault

Within the AWA is the GitHub Arctic Code Vault, located roughly 76 meters below the Svalbard surface. GitHub is the preeminent library of programming code for those who develop open-source software applications. Each directory — think: folder — of code is a GitHub repository. Together, it's a massive resource used continually by countless programmers storing and sharing their source code. GitHub says it has 37 million users and holds over 100 million repositories.

21 terabytes of GitHub data have already been moved to the code vault — or copied, presumably, since GitHub remains an active day-to-day resource — beginning with the 2019 deposit of 6,000 of the most important repositories GitHub held at the time. The latest transfer contains a snapshot of all of GitHub's active libraries as of February 2, 2020.

Says GitHUb's director of strategic programs, Julia Metcalf, "Our mission is to preserve open-source software for future generations by storing your code in an archive built to last a thousand years." It's hoped that the source code in the vault will provide insight into today's programming and provide a trail of bread-crumbs that reveals the workings of apps from our era, apps that may become foundational for future applications.

How to store data for the future

The lifespan of any given storage medium is brief. Gone the way of the dinosaurs are floppy disks, cassettes, and so on — a 10-year-old may even wonder what a CD was. "It is easy to envision a future in which today's software is seen as a quaint and long-forgotten irrelevancy, until an unexpected need for it arises," says the GitHub Archive Program website. So, AWA data is stored on a specially developed, digital archival film called piqlFilm — GitHub alone has filled up 186 reels of it so far. This may at first seem sort of a retro approach, but it's not.

piql, one of the two partners behind the AWA, developed the film. The company claims it can "keep data alive" for over 1,000 years, so long as one has an app that can read it, such as the open-source app GitHub has created. piql asserts that their film has undergone "extensive longevity testing," and can withstand electromagnetic exposure.

piqlFilm is made up of layers of silver halide on a polyester backing. The data, when written, looks similar to a QR code, although it can hold far more information: Each frame in piqlFilm can pack about 8.8 million microscopic pixels. A reel of piqlFilm loaded with these frames is almost a kilometer long and can thus store a truly massive amount of data.

Of course, it remains impossible to guess the capabilities of future humans (presumably) trying to decode all this data, so GitHub has a backup plan, a human-readable document called the "Tech Tree," which they describe as "a roadmap and Rosetta Stone for future curious minds inheriting the archive's data."

Warming up to Svalbard

Svalbard has a number of attributes that have made it attractive as a permanent storage site. It's a demilitarized zone by agreement between 42 nations. It's also quite remote. Plus, it's very cold and dry, for now.

When the seed vault was first contemplated, Svalbard seemed a place that could be counted on to remain frigid, with the underground vaults dug deep into the area's permafrost safe from moisture damage. However, conditions are changing more rapidly than anticipated thanks to climate change. The Arctic, says NOAA, is warming at "twice the rate relative to the rest of the globe."

Between 1971 and 2017, the temperature in the Svalbard area has risen by 3-5° Celsius. Svalbard's current average temperature is -8.7° C, but models suggests that with moderate global emission levels going forward it will go up by 7° C, and with heavy emissions up by 10° C.

Already, there has been at least one incident of ice melting and then freezing in the entrance to a seed vault tunnel. Also, less snow and ice means more rain, which can cause landslides in the previously stable local environment, and glaciers nearby are breaking up more frequently.

The seed vault's managers say, for now, that it looks like their vaults will be okay, and the people running the AWA and the GitHub Arctic Code Vault are also optimistic.

Every calculator you'll ever need, for free

The Omni Calculator site is a stunning treasure trove of free calculators.

Image source: Dusit/Shutterstock/Big Think
  • 1,175 calculators attempt to solve every everyday math problem for you.
  • All free to use, it's amazing how many aspects of life get a calculator.
  • Bookmark this collection — it's hard to imagine you won't someday need it.

It's true that high-school calculus teachers torture their students with them, but it's also true that once some degree of mastery is in hand. Mathematicians love a good — efficient, clever, and useful — formula.

These things aren't just for classrooms or advanced scientific applications, either. While it's amazing that formulas predict what will happen if we slingshot a spacecraft around some distant celestial body, they can also be part of our earthly lives calculating all sorts of everyday things.

In any event, for many math heads (carefully typed), slinging formulas together and inventing new calculators is just plain fun. Last week, for example, UK physicist Steven Wooding sent us the link to a calculator he and a friend constructed that predicts contactable alien civilizations. That was fun, but the site to which he directed us is nothing short of dazzling: It's called Omni Calculator, and it's a mind boggling repository of 1,175 calculators whose purpose is to help everyone get to the right answers in their personal and professional lives.

A mathematical treasure chest

floating math equations

Image source: Alexey Godzenko/Shutterstock

Want to know exactly how many balloons it would take to send your house airborne, as in the Pixar's "Up"? No problem. Hate running unexpectedly out of toothpaste en route to bed? Live your best life. Ditto toilet paper.

Some of the calculators are pretty profound, too, such as the Every Second calculator that shows just how much happens in the world every 60th of a minute — it's an enthralling set of numbers.

Fun stuff aside, Omni Calculator is an absolutely staggering collection, an incredible resource for normal people and professionals—from doctors, to chemists, to financial advisers, to construction teams, and more.

Who is behind Omni Calculator?

color blocks with the four basic math symbols

Image source: rawf8/Shutterstock

Omni Calculator is the project of a Polish startup of 24 people dedicated to helping others solve all of the small math problems in their daily lives. The company manifesto:

"In a surprisingly large part, our reality consists of calculable problems. Should I buy or rent? What's my ideal calorie intake? Can I afford to take this loan? How many lemonades do I need to sell in order to break even? Often times we don't solve these problems, because we lack knowledge, skills, time or willingness to calculate. And then we make bad, uninformed decisions?"

Omni Calculator is here to change all that — we are working on a technology that will turn every* calculation-based problem trivial to solve for anyone.

The asterisk says, "within reason."

It all started when founder Mateusz Mucha built a unique web calculator. It could calculate in any direction without a fixed input or output. He invested $80 in translating his Percentage Calculator into 15 languages and stood back as the app was downloaded 4 million times, and counting.

At some point Mucha changed his goal: "Instead of calculating one thing, we'll calculate all of them — for everybody." To serve this aim, all of Omni Calculator's calculators are free to use, developed by the company in collaboration with all sorts of experts.

Go spend some time looking around and bookmarking tools for your own use. You're pretty much guaranteed to find something that solves a problem with which you're struggling. At the very least you'll come across some amazing calculators that will get you thinking about unexpected things.

COVID calculators

Omni Calculator also provides a special set of calculators that allow you to crunch COVID-19 numbers for yourself, from a social distancing calculator to one that can predict when your next stimulus check should be due.

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