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Breaking World Records

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There weren't many people writing things down back in the days of Ancient Greece (most people were illiterate), which is why it was such a tragedy when the Library of Alexandria, one of the most expansive collections of texts in classical civilization, was burned to the ground. How it burned down is still a mystery.

The city Alexandria was built by Alexander the Great and his successor Pharaoh, Ptolemy I Soter, founded the Royal Library of Alexandria. Modeled after the Lyceum of Aristotle in Athens. Like a modern university, it had gardens, lecture areas, even a zoo and contained over half a million documents spanning Assyria, Greece, Persia, Egypt, India and many other nations, with over 100 scholars translating, editing, and researching. 

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Suspect 1: Julius Caesar. He chased Pompey's army to Egypt and set fire to the harbor, accidentally burning down the library. Of course, Caesar did not mention it himself (bias!) but if he did, there should be some documents to prove it.

 

Suspect 2: Religious conflict. This was noted in Edward Gibbon's "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" (a famous book on this subject). Alexandria was a place where Jews, Christians and Greek religious followers gathered and had many violent conflicts. It all happened with Temple of Serapis (a small sister library) was converted into a Christian Church. Riots broke out and religious leaders were killed, including the bloody murder of Hypatia, the last Head Librarian. Christians retaliated and finally burned down the library.

Suspect 3: Muslim Caliph Omar. In 640 AD, Muslims took over the city and when asked about the great library, Omar said, ""they will either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous." The scrolls were used as tinder for the bathhouses and it took 6 months to burn everything. These were according to Christian Bishop Gregory Bar Hebræus (bias alert!). 

All three accounts show significant bias politically and religiously. More likely it slowly dwindled and it was destroyed, which is really tragic!

Khizanat-al-Hikma or the ‘Storehouse of Wisdom’ was a great private library in Bagdad of Abbasid Caliphs (Muslim leaders) in the late 8th century and later it became a public library to encourage education. Ancient works in many languages (Pahlavi, Syriac, Greek, and Sanskrit) were translated into Arabic. This was the most well-respected education hub of that era - also known as the Islamic Golden Age, when education, culture, and economy flourished. Sadly, Mongols invaded in1200s, looting the palaces and threw the library into the Tigris River, which ran black for 6 months. 

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"The level of pillage, destruction, and atrocities that Baghdad had to go through is unimaginable. The Caliph was immediately executed, while the locals were massacred on a large scale." The books were torn, with their leather covers turned into sandals. Historian Michael H. Harris wrote that so many books were thrown in the river that it made a bridge that could support a man riding on horseback.  

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Mongols, a fierce nomadic tribe of warriors, were the terror of the ancient Europeans and the most famous Mongol leader is the revered Genghis Khan, who began taking over European territories in 1206. However, their wave of military conquest in Europe suddenly ended, when Mongols set their sights set on Austria. Why?

The answer lies in dendrochronology - the study of tree rings.  A study sampled wood from five regions of Eurasia to track what the weather was like during the period of the Mongols' most extensive reach. Evidence showed that the climate changed and became colder and wetter, decreasing pastureland. Frozen land became wet marshes, and this seriously affected the Mongol calvary's mobility. The damp temperature also caused crops to spoil, leading to a famine. 

Climate change was integral and significant factor that shaped history. "Unusual climates probably allowed Polynesians to spread out across the South Pacific, led to the fall of an ancient metropolis in pre-colonial Mexico, and encouraged Attila the Hun's campaign of terror against the Roman Empire 800 years before Genghis Khan." How will climate change shape our future?

WSC asks an interesting question. How does erasing a society's knowledge or history impact its future? In today's world, it would be like erasing your digital and social presence, in that case do you still exist? In our world, so many things are based on credit and credentials, it our history (financial, academic, social, professional, government) are destroyed, most of us would face serious challenges in gaining new opportunities and resources for ourselves. On a society level, advancement in all areas would have to start at ground zero again. So, the moral is: Don't forget to back up all your data!!

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Hand engraved on 80,000 wood blocks, Tripitaka Koreana is the most complete collection of Buddhist texts, laws and treaties in existence today. Haeinsa Temple  located in Gaya Mountain is home to the Tripitaka Koreana. The original Tripitaka was completed in 1087 and took more than 70 years. The process is very tedious: cutting wood from special trees, soaking the wood in water and dried to prevent warping, and carved delicately to look like it was done by one person.  

 

Sadly, following the theme of the early treasures, it was destroyed in 1232 during a Mongol invasion. A fervent Buddhist, King Gojong ordered the collection to be remade - AGAIN! They are now housed in a temple built in the 15th century that 

was specifically designed to keep the wood blocks from deteriorating, with a higher altitude with ample ventilation. 

In 1995, the temple has become a UNESCO Heritage Site. in 2000, after painstaking work, the Tripitaka went digital! And, the monks are making a copper version as back-up. Lesson learned from history!  We have heard of several cases where AI is used to help preserve and analyze ancient religious documents, which previously required monks an entire lifetime and could be lost if the specialists died.

This interesting article by History.com introduces 8 famous time capsules:

1) 1876 Century Safe

It is the world’s first planned time capsule and was organized by New York magazine publisher Anna Deihm for the U.S. Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. It was filled with 1800 relics, including a gold pen and inkstand, a book on temperance, a collection of Americans’ signatures, and snapshots of President Ulysses S. Grant.  After 100 years, it was nearly forgotten, it was later rediscovered, restored and unlocked on the July 1976 bicentennial celebration. 

2) The Massachusetts State House Time Capsule

In late 2014, repairmen fixing a water leak at the Massachusetts State House uncovered an mysterious brass box placed by Sam Adams and Paul Revere as a cornerstone to mark the building’s construction back in 1795. It was first unsealed in 1855 and some new artifacts were added. Unsealed most recently in 2015, it revealed many interesting colonial goods including a letter from George Washington and plaque by Revere. 

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3) The Crypt of Civilization

Oglethorpe University’s “Crypt of Civilization” is a huge time capsule and the work of the university’s president, Thornwell Jacobs. It began in 1937 and is an underground 20-by-10 chamber filled with everything, everything that someone in the future needs to know to interpret our world, including a language integrator to teach that 'alien' English. It has been sealed since May 1940 and will remain sealed until the year 8113 AD.

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4) The Westinghouse Time Capsules

In the 1939 New York World’s Fair about future technology, the Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company built a torpedo-shaped cylinder inside a 50-foot-deep “Immortal Well” on the site in Flushing Meadows. Originally nicknamed “time bomb,” a Westinghouse publicist coined the now-famous term “time capsule.” It is scheduled to be opened in 6939 A.D.— 5,000 years after it is buried. It includes everyday items: records, a bikini, Camel cigarettes, a plastic Mickey Mouse cup, and a letter by Albert Einstein, who wrote, “People living in different countries kill each other at irregular time intervals, so that also for this reason any one who thinks about the future must live in fear and terror.”

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5) The Detroit Century Box

January 1, 1901, Detroit Mayor William C. Maybury sealed a copper time capsule at Old City Hall. 100 years later new Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer finally opened the “Century Box” in December 2000. It contained dozens of letters written to the future. Some of the questions in the letters include: “How much faster are you traveling?”  “We talk by long distance telephone to the remotest cities in our own country…Are you talking with foreign lands and to the islands of the sea by the same method?” Other questions are a bit wacky.

6) The Expo ’70 Time Capsule

Time capsules are quite popular with World Fairs! In the1970 Expo in Osaka, Japan, electronics giant Panasonic constructed a kettle-shaped capsule designed to remain unopened for 5,000 years. It features argon gas to preserve the artifacts and a control chamber which opens the capsule for cleaning. The first cleaning was in 2000, and it will open every 100 years. All the stuff was proposed by citizens, including ceremonial kimono, a Slinky and even the blackened fingernail of a survivor of the 1945 Hiroshima atomic bomb. 

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7) The Juneau Time Capsule

Juneau is the state capital of Alaska, and the building includes an observation room for visitors for its own time capsule. First closed off in 1994, the 9-by-6 foot chamber is packed with thousands of pieces of memorabilia (interesting and personal) contributed by citizens. The capsule is scheduled to be open in 100 years. 

8) The Future Library

Scottish artist Katie Paterson’s Future Library is a literary time capsule meant to last a century. It began in 2014, and each year a new author will be invited to submit a novel, poem or other written text.  In 2114, the entire collection will be published all at once—no doubt posthumously for many of its contributors. A forest of 1,000 trees has already been planted outside Oslo, Norway to supply the paper for the printing. The interesting thing about this is that all the authors are forbidden to share their work until the unveiling 100 years from now - literally writing for an audience in the future. 

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It doesn't look like much, but this metal bottle contains buried in an Arctic island is stuffed with artifacts that sum up science and technology in 2017. It can remain underground, undisturbed for half a million years! Placed five meters deep in an out-of-use borehole near the Polish Polar Station in Hornsund, Svalbard, the 60-centimetre-long tube has artifacts from the fields of geology, biology and technology. When will it be opened? When the bottle is revealed through erosion, or geographical change? So, we won't know who or when it will be opened. It is like The Voyager Golden Record — phonograph records (together with a cartridge and a needle) on board the two Voyager spacecrafts launched in 1977. 

The International Time Capsule Society is dedicated to tracking the world's time capsule to ensure that those that are created are not lost. Paul Hudson, founder of ITCS and alumni of Oglethorpe University, estimates that more than 80% of all time capsules are lost and will not be opened on their intended date. Currently the database is held at Oglethorpe University and also the Not Forgotten Library Depository, a digital library where people can document and keep their most precious memories and mementos. 

This Washington Post article describes the popularity of time capsules. Adrienne Waterman, President of the International Society of Time Capsules said there has been a huge surge in time capsule in the last 2 years, mostly driven by the Pandemic and also fear of the destruction of digital content. People's interests are also due to the fear of the phenomenon of a memory hole, collective amnesia, a political or technological erasure of history. 

Amazon sells multiple do-it-yourself time capsule kits, including a stainless-steel tube large enough to hold CDs, DVDs and written material. Sometimes as a therapeutic 

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experience to reflect on one's life, the desire to create a time capsule also means that we have lost hope that traditional methods of transmitting history will be successful. For most people, deciding, planning, and creating a time capsule is a rewarding experience that lets them examine their life through carefully chosen personal objects.

To sum it up: This section is about preservation of knowledge, public and personal, as historical documents. Libraries of knowledge can be destroyed, wiping away the experiences of many generations, old knowledge needs to be preserved through the help of technology. Time capsules provide an interesting take on how and what we want the future audience to know about us. Just as we study history looking for bias through incomplete fragments, future civilizations and scholars (or aliens) will wonder and interpret based on the collections of 'stuff' that we leave behind, through their modern lens that distorts our present full experiences.   

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