DVD.” However, he warned, such molecules could also be affected by light
in the environment; he calls for further
research into molecules whose chirality is easy to induce, but which are stable in the natural environment.
Petr’s group also explored the possibilities of storing information in mixtures of chemicals that are essentially
dormant until a certain event occurs,
such as exposure to oxygen; then, its
messages would become apparent
through the resulting reaction, possibly by forming 3-D structures. According to Petr, “It is a lot like cooking; you
open the fridge, grab something, and
cook it. You have taken information
from the fridge, where it was in stasis.”
Nature Always Wins
In an episode of the animated comedy series “Futurama,” a time traveller
finds himself separated from a friend by
nearly a billion years. The one in 3050
A.D. strategically damages the ceiling
of a cave; the pattern of her laser blasts
causes dripping water to spell out a
message in slowly growing stalagmites,
which her friend in 1,000,000,000 A.D.
reads. This fanciful scenario underscores a real-world truth: successful
long-term storage solutions must take
nature into account, and work with it.
The field continues to explore materials both human-crafted and biological, while also examining how nature has passed messages through the
ages thus far. For every piece of data
a geologist, geneticist, or archaeologist deciphers, there is a potential revelation of how that message was written, how it survived, and whether we
might use a similar method.
The media and storage methods
we choose could make an enormous
difference in the legacy we leave behind. As Human Document Project
co-creator Andreas Manz said, “We
believe that our ancestors were cave-men, particularly in Europe, because
we found fossil bones and paintings in
caves. Now, humans at the time would
probably rather live in a nice, cozy valley with wine grapes and the lakeside
and whatnot than in a cave, but if they
die in those locations that are nice and
sunny, then those bones will not survive; you do not find fossilized bones
along the road or in the forest, only
under very special conditions. So the
information we have is biased by how
the information is stored.”
de Vries, J.
(2013). Energy barriers in patterned media.
Doctoral thesis, University of Twente.
Elwenspoek, M. C.
(2011). Long-time data storage: relevant
time scales. Challenges, 2( 1), 19-36.
Petr, J., Ranc, V., Maier, V., Ginterová, P.,
Znaleziona, J., Knob, R., & Ševčík, J.
(2011). How to Preserve Documents:
A Short Meditation on Three Themes.
Challenges, 2( 1), 37-42.
Church, G.M., Gao, Y., and Kosuri, S.
(2012). Next-generation digital information
storage in DNA. Science 337.6102: 1628-1628.
(1998). Ensuring the longevity of digital
information. International. Journal of Legal
Information, 26, 1.
Tom Geller is an Oberlin, Ohio-based science, technology,
and business writer.
© 2014 ACM 0001-0782/14/05 $15.00
and be passed on to offspring through
natural reproduction. According to
Church, “We have already put our synthetic DNA into a living organism. Every
time the message-carrying cell replicates, it does not know where the synthetic part begins and the natural part
ends. You could essentially design selfish DNA with your message, in which
case almost all the progeny get it.”
Even so, Church believes “dead” DNA
from archaeological sites might be a
better data-storage bet than such “
living” DNA. “Some DNA information has
survived for three billion years,” he said,
“but that DNA had information of great
importance to the survival of the species. Your message, if it is an arbitrary
message, will not be of great importance
to the cell, and so will not last as long.”
On Chemicals: Active,
Sleeping, and Awakened
DNA is of the chemistry of life, and as
such participates in the cycles of birth,
reproduction, and death. Other chemicals are comparatively stable in nature, leading a group of researchers at
Palacký University in the Czech Republic to consider two other ways we might
encode information in molecules.
The first involves chirality, or “
handedness,” wherein certain molecules
can be expressed in left-hand (S) or
right-hand (R) forms known as “
enan-tiomers;” these could take the place of
ones and zeros in digital documents.
According to lead researcher Jan Petr,
“We have examples of chiral molecules
in our bodies, and they are stable for
millions of years. The synthesis of chiral molecules can be induced by light,
so it would be much like writing a
ACM has announced the names
of this year’s recipients of two of
its most prestigious awards.
The A. M. Turing Award,
ACM’s most prestigious
technical award, is given for
major contributions of lasting
importance to computing.
This year’s ACM A. M. Turing
Award is being presented to
Leslie Lamport, a principal
researcher at Microsoft Research
Silicon Valley, “for fundamental
contributions to the theory
and practice of distributed and
concurrent systems, notably
the invention of concepts such
as causality and logical clocks,
safety and liveness, replicated
state machines, and sequential
The ACM-Infosys Foundation
Award in the Computing
Sciences recognizes personal
contributions by young
scientists and system developers
to a contemporary innovation
that, through its depth,
fundamental impact and broad
implications, exemplifies the
greatest achievements in the
This year’s ACM-Infosys
Foundation Award is being
presented to David M. Blei of the
computer science department of
“for fundamental contributions
to artificial intelligence,
in particular the development
of topic models and
Communications will provide
in-depth coverage of both award
recipients in upcoming issues,
beginning with interviews with
Lamport in the June issue.
— Lawrence Fisher
ACM Bestows A.M. Turing, Infosys Awards