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Rosetta and the Language of Hope

There are several reasons to keep an eye on Rosetta, the European Space Agency’s mission to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. In 2014, the spacecraft will go into orbit around the comet before deploying a lander to the nucleus. Watching changes as the comet heads toward the Sun should prove interesting indeed, but these short term effects take place within a provocative longer-term context. For aboard Rosetta is a 2.8-inch diameter disc inside a small glass sphere containing some 6000 pages of information. The subject: The languages of planet Earth, many of which will disappear before century’s end.

The synergy here is fascinating. The Rosetta Stone, one of the most impressive objects in the British Museum when you realize what you’re looking at, contains inscriptions that include Egyptian hieroglyphics, Demotic and classical Greek. The Greek, readily understood by linguists, helped researchers unravel the meaning of the hieroglyphics, a pioneering task performed 200 years ago at the hands of Jean François Champollion and Thomas Young, the latter (in the spirit of his time) both physicist and physician. Since those days, the term ‘Rosetta Stone’ has always referred to a key that unlocks a previously undecipherable mystery. Placing a disc from the Rosetta Project, which is building an archive of all documented human languages, aboard a spacecraft headed for a comet dovetails nicely with this theme.

Image: The Rosetta Stone on display at the British Museum in a somewhat less frenetic era. We can hope (but not assume) that future generations need no comparable find to decipher languages that are dying in our own century. Credit: Getty Images.

Now Rosetta (the spacecraft) appears to be doing quite well. A trajectory correction maneuver was carried out on the 14th of August using optical tracking data of asteroid 2867 Steins. The vehicle will conduct a flyby past the asteroid next month at a distance now estimated to be 800 kilometers, although we’re learning as we go, according to Trevor Morley, who leads the Rosetta Flight Dynamics Orbit team at ESOC, Darmstadt, Germany:

“The closer we get to Steins, the more accurate our knowledge of the asteroid’s position relative to Rosetta will be. Thanks to Rosetta’s cameras, we will obtain increasingly precise measurements that will allow us to adjust again, if necessary, Rosetta’s orbit for an optimal asteroid encounter.”

Thus more trajectory maneuvers are possible in late August and early September. Closest approach to Steins is expected to be on September 5. As to the linguistic aspects of Rosetta, I see that the first version of the complete Rosetta Disk (the one aboard the spacecraft being an earlier iteration) has now been shown to the public. It contains on a 3-inch diameter nickel disk information on over 1500 human languages in 14,000 pages of text and images, all of which can be read at an optical magnification of 750x. More in this San Francisco Chronicle story.

The Rosetta Project involves not only the Long Now Foundation but also the National Science Foundation, Stanford University Libraries and the National Science Digital Library. And as you would expect, the spheres created by Rosetta are designed to last for a long time, at least 2000 years. As languages, particularly tribal dialects, are increasingly lost in the modern era of advanced telecommunications, we also lose ways of looking at the world that are expressed in particular idioms and metaphors, not to mention the linguistic structures that help us make sense out of how a culture views the world.

Why, in an era when we are landing on comets, do we need to be concerned about securing information for 2000 years and more? The assumptions behind the question are their own answer: We have grown so accustomed to believing that the arrow of progress points ever upward that we forget how tenuous a thing civilization can be. Yet in the larger scheme of things, the 1600 years that have passed since Alaric’s Visigoths entered Rome is but the blink of an eye. What wouldn’t we give for a preserved Library of Alexandria, or survivals of some of the abundant literature of medieval Europe that did not make it down to us in manuscript form?

We have to wish that our own civilization falls victim to no future dark age, but the danger signs, particularly in terms of nuclear proliferation, are all around us. The view from here is that civilizations walk a very narrow path in making their way up to Kardashev Type 1 status, a dangerous trek that can witness the death of all our aspirations or see us emerge on the other side with a power and mastery of Solar System resources we can hardly imagine today. Projects like Rosetta — both spacecraft and disk — remind us that we live within a historical context that shows us both outcomes, and contains both warning and hope.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • andy August 24, 2008, 8:05

    Nuclear proliferation is an obvious threat, but perhaps a greater threat is the growth of anti-Enlightenment views, where science is regarded with suspicion at best and ignored or suppressed at worst, and new technological developments are opposed. Plus it seems that movements are growing where the desired outcome is to replace democracy with theocracy. While organised religion certainly must take some of the blame for this, it is by no means the only factor here. We tend to assume that a science+progress driven culture is the norm for humanity. However looking at the historical record, that would not seem to be the case.

    If humanity does enter a new dark age, what would be the chances of a new high-tech civilisation emerging on a planet where many of the resources (e.g. coal, oil) have been depleted?

  • Benjamin August 25, 2008, 2:11

    I think andy has a point, and what we’re looking at is the possibility of using up all our resources, and then collapsing beyond a point of no return. There is nothing any of us can do individually to prevent this collapse, it must be a communal thing; but a small amount of work by a small number of individuals is still enough, I suspect, to prevent there being a permanent collapse of intelligent civilisation.

    Regardless of what materials are at hand, people with enough detailed knowledge of them, thinking innovatively enough, will be able to find some way to make use of them. What we need to ensure is that scientific and cultural knowledge such as we possess now, and any such knowledge we attain in the future, is transcribed into extremely durable forms which are easy to decode. This of course means preserving texts on science, from the elementary to the advanced, in multiple languages, as well as seed banks, warnings about nuclear hazards, et cetera. This also importantly means taking care that these are understandable to a future civilisation – and I think the best way to do this is with a Rosetta project, on a scale like this but much larger, where enormous parallel translations are collated of major works of fiction, and of course non fiction and in particular in this category, not only science but linguistics. These are then scattered widely across the globe in the most durable format possible. Even if the West, China, India, the whole developed world is destroyed in a nuclear war, even if the vast majority of the planet’s population is annihilated, the survivors have to speak some variety of languages spoken today. Ensuring that a very large corpus of text in parallel translation survives will mean that the literature and non-fiction of these languages is accessible to future linguists. How it would help if the writers of Linear A had translations in Luwian, or Egyptian – then we might know what their texts were about.

    So if worst comes to worst, preserving a detailed knowledge of human communications is vital to the existence of science and technology into the distant future.

  • david lewis August 25, 2008, 22:00

    Plus it seems that movements are growing where the desired outcome is to replace democracy with theocracy.

    It’s not theocracy that is the threat. It’s fundamentalism. I am reminded of the words:

    “You cannot reason a man out of a position he has not reasoned himself into.”
    by Ben Franklin (I think)

    Fundamentalism seems to be a basic feature of humanity. A person can seem perfectly reasonable on most issues but bring up something that they have made central to their world view and reason is tossed out the door. It might be religion, but it might also be something like nationalism, socialism or democracy or capitalism or even something as basic as what foods we should eat.

    Can you imagine anything more basic to a living creature than eating. Yet debate over just what sort of foods we humans are evolved to eat can actually cause conflict. We have vegans who will argue that we are not designed to eat meat even though without things like b12, which we cannot get from plants, we are dead – or at least brain damaged. Yet their views are set in stone and can not be reasoned with. We have people who will argue that humans are basically meat eaters, …. Their views are equally set in stone.

    Fundamentalism does serve a purpose. A species with the ability to create such strong unreasoned support for a group, such as a tribe, that allows individuals to deny their sense of self-preservation would have an advantage over a tribe where no such unifying force exists. Unfortunately it’s an aspect of human nature that people have learned to take advantage of. It’s so easy for leaders to use it to create conflict, whether it be wars or hatred of a specific group.

    I know I am affected by such fundamentalism. Even though I can not know for sure that space colonization and interstellar travel are possible I believe it is something our species should put a large amount of effort into. Even thought for me personally there is no reward, and even for the species there might be a disadvantage to expending such a large effort on something should it prove impossible.

    If humanity does enter a new dark age, what would be the chances of a new high-tech civilisation emerging on a planet where many of the resources (e.g. coal, oil) have been depleted?

    A civilization could probably emerge without the use of coal and oil. They could not be as wasteful as we in the western world, but it is probably doable.

    It would depend on utilizing some method external to ourselves to enhance our ability to do work. Such as rivers and the wind. A way to improve the odds of humans rebuilding civilization should a disaster occur might be diagrams of how to build water and wind turbines using mostly wood (or all wood if possible) drawn on some hard to destroy material and scattered over a large area.

    The use of animals would also be important so also illustrations of how to raise certain types of animals. If groups of humans still possess the ability to gain nourishment from then milk from animals could spell success or disaster for rebuilding. A drought or flood that wipes out crops would be less devastating for a group that uses goats. Goats that can forage on almost anything and convert it to food that can provide nourishment for the children so that lack of nourishment does not lead to brain damage. Also such animals can enhance the amount of work they can do.

    Medical knowledge also does not entirely depend on coal or oil and would make a large impact. Something as simple as washing hands in hot water ….

    Of course the best bet is to try and ensure that our current civilization does not fall. But on that I am not too optimistic. On the national stage I see very few good actors, and a lot of bad ones. Actually I see no good actors on the national stage, though one or two minor countries that no one ever hears of might be such actors.

  • Luke August 25, 2008, 22:23

    There’s an even better article about the Rosetta project by Kevin Kelly on the Long Now blog:

  • Ron S August 26, 2008, 13:52

    Cultural mores may stifle scientific progress in some societies, but not in all. It simply means that, as in the past, the locality where that progress occurs moves around. The recent and serious risk is that one society can now damage or destroy all human societies through unrestrained and careless or willful use of technology.

    The best protection is to slow the rate of significant scientific and technological progress (ha ha) so that change is modest during an average human life time, since as individuals we so often don’t change our personalities beyond a quite young age and so don’t easily assimilate change. New people (children) adapt to new technologies more easily and, becoming accustomed to them, may be less likely to abuse it. Obviously I’m speculating quite a bit here, and perhaps incorrectly.

    A corollary is that if there exists a hostile ETI the most economical and rapid way to dispense with humanity would be to aim a high-powered radio system at us and flood us with advanced scientific and technological knowledge. We would then find many ways to eliminate ourselves. Hopefully this is a temporary state that we will soon grow out of, and so be inoculated against this sort of threat, whether the source is external or internal.

  • James M. Essig August 28, 2008, 1:02

    Hi Folks;

    Rosetta stone like projects within the solar system I think are a great idea. I can imagine placing Rosetta stones on several comets as well as on the moon, Mars, and the various other moons in our solar system.

    A rather interesting take on the design and placement of Rosetta Stones would entail building the Rosetta Stones in the shape of the Monoliths in the Movie; 2001, A Space Odyssey.

    I certainly hope that mankind does not reduce his/her civilization to rubble and ashes, not to mention out right extinction, but the chance of the proverbial unthinkable exists. If we do not do it to ourselves directly, we can hope that some unexpected large dark asteroid does not have Earth’s name on it. Other risks are obviously some unforeseen runaway green house effect that could turn Earth into another Venus, a manmade pathogenic outbreak whether deliberate or accidental, or an outbreak of a natural mutated pathogen.

    Now all of us here at Tau Zero really hope that we can survive to travel interstellar space to other stars, and I remain optimistic that we can and will, but the distribution of vast data depositories throughout the solar system and even in locations within the Kuiper Belt and Oort cloud I think are a good idea just incase the unthinkable should happen. It would be a shame if the vast accumulation of history, scientific and technological knowledge, developments in mathematics, philosophy, theology, and faith based systems and resulting wisdom that were unique to humanity were lost forever. A great act of charity would entail providing such information or at least giving any future species, or a repopulated if not mutated human race, the benefits of our Wisdom and knowledge.



  • ljk September 8, 2008, 0:08

    They may be a lot slower than a radio or laser transmission,
    but we do have five robot probes currently heading out in
    various directions into the galaxy. Two of them, which are
    no longer active (Pioneer 10 and 11) carry engraved plaques
    that give basic information about humanity, our Sol system,
    and our location in the galaxy with a pulsar map.

    The plaques came about because a few individuals felt our
    first “ambassadors” into the galaxy should at least have
    some kind of message for any ETI who might find them.

    Two more, Voyager 1 and 2, have a more detailed golden
    record bolted to their sides. The record has images, sounds,
    and greetings, along with the Pioneer Plaque pulsar map
    on their covers. These probes should continue to operate
    until 2025.

    The latest Earth probe heading out into the stars is New
    Horizons, which will flyby Pluto in 2015. Unlike the other
    members of this currently small club, NH has mostly
    trinkets onboard: A quarter and a piece of fabric from the
    first suborbital manned spacecraft designed for tourists
    are just two of the items.

    Not so minor are the ash remains of Clyde Tombaugh,
    the man who discovered Pluto in 1930.

    None of the items were approved by any committee.
    The NH team itself said they were not interested in
    doing a Pioneer or Voyager type message. It was this
    very act and attitude that inspired me to start a movement
    to get all probes leaving the Sol system to have some kind
    of meaningful information on them. Not only for any ETI,
    but also to preserve knowledge about ourselves. Some
    day if these probes are found by our descendants, they
    may contain some items that are no longer available on
    Earth. The Rosetta Disc is a prime example of this.

    Just as with electromagnetic transmissions, the probes
    that are leaving the Sol system now will hardly be the
    last ones – and don’t forget, their final rocket stages also
    went with them into the galaxy, and they have even less
    deliberate information aboard.

    I think it is important that they be included in any
    discussions of METI and I ask folks to consider forming a
    committee to not only ask all future institutions planning
    interstellar probes to carry messages of import on them,
    but that we also help to provide that information so it can
    be read and understood both for ETI and our distant children.

    There will be more ventures into the galaxy with star vessels
    and what they contain could spell the difference between either
    finding friends or something else in the Milky Way.

  • ljk September 19, 2008, 12:09

    Two other spacecraft preserving elements of humanity are
    LAGEOS 1 and KEO.

    LAGEOS 1 was launched from Earth in 1976 to passively
    monitor continental drift. This spherical satellite covered
    with lenses was placed into a 5,900 kilometer (4,000 mile)
    high orbit that will keep the craft in space for over 8 million
    years before coming back home.

    The longevity and solid design of LAGEOS 1 is why Carl Sagan
    designed a specially made plaque depicting how the planet’s
    continents will drift over time so that future finders will know
    the purpose of LAGEOS 1 and when it was made and sent into

    You can see the LAGEOS plaque here:


    One of the images on the Voyager Interstellar Record was a
    modified version of the LAGEOS plaque. The two Voyager
    probes should last at least 1 billion years in interstellar space.


    Some details are here:


    The LAGEOS 1 plaque is also shown and discussed in the
    1978 book on the Voyager Record, Murmurs of Earth.

    Another satellite preserving human culture, to be launched
    in 2009 or 2010, is KEO.

    This satellite will remain in Earth orbit for 50,000 years and
    then return, carrying lots of information and messages for who
    or whatever is on our planet in 500 centuries times:


    The storage capacity of KEO allows every person on Earth to
    send the equivalent of a 4-page letter to the future. The deadline
    is December 31, 2008, so hurry!


  • ljk February 20, 2009, 23:34

    SD 2/17/09: “Virtual Library Of Medieval Manuscripts Created”

    Excerpt: “Searching [with Google] for medieval manuscripts gets you millions of hits, most of which have nothing to do with manuscripts, and when they do, they usually feature only images of a single page rather than the entire book,’ said Matthew Fisher, an assistant professor of English at UCLA. ‘Since finding these great projects is so tough, they’re functionally invisible.’

    Fisher set out two years ago to remedy the situation. With the assistance of two graduate students in English, a computer developer from UCLA’s Centerfor Digital Humanities and Christopher Baswell, a former UCLA professor of English, Fisher decided to collect links to every manuscript from the eighthto the 15th century that had been fully digitized by any library, archive, institute or private owner anywhere in the world. In December 2008, the group launched the initial results.

    The UCLA-based Catalogue of Digitized Medieval Manuscripts now links to nearly 1,000 manuscripts by 193 authors in 20 languages from 59 libraries around the world, allowing users to flit from England to France to Switzerland to the United States to name the locations of just a few of the featured repositories with the click of a mouse.”



    The site itself:


  • ljk April 5, 2009, 13:05

    Digital Restoration of Ancient Papyri

    Authors: Amelia Sparavigna

    (Submitted on 30 Mar 2009)

    Abstract: Image processing can be used for digital restoration of ancient papyri, that is, for a restoration performed on their digital images. The digital manipulation allows reducing the background signals and enhancing the readability of texts. In the case of very old and damaged documents, this is fundamental for identification of the patterns of letters.

    Some examples of restoration, obtained with an image processing which uses edges detection and Fourier filtering, are shown. One of them concerns 7Q5 fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

    Subjects: Computer Vision and Pattern Recognition (cs.CV)

    Cite as: arXiv:0903.5045v1 [cs.CV]

    Submission history

    From: Amelia Sparavigna [view email]

    [v1] Mon, 30 Mar 2009 06:00:15 GMT (583kb)


  • ljk June 24, 2009, 14:41

    At Libraries, Taking the (Really) Long View

    July 23, 2008

    One of the benefits of digitally encoded content is that it can’t deteriorate. With files that consist of 1’s and 0’s, there are no pages to turn yellow or brittle, tape to demagnetize or bindings to snap. In theory, that would be a boon to libraries that devote boundless resources to preserving old documents, ancient texts and even videos recorded in Betamax.

    But as libraries shift more of their resources to holdings that either originate as digital or become digital through scanning, it’s become clear that just because something lives in the virtual stacks doesn’t mean it will be around forever. Anyone who’s ever suffered through a hard drive crash (or tried futilely to save a scratched DVD) has faced the inherent physical limitations of digital storage. Now librarians are having to do the same as they determine how digital holdings fit into their central mission: preserving works so that they can be accessed not just today, not just tomorrow, but indefinitely.

    And for anyone who’s also worked through a mere “upgrade” in file formats or e-mail clients, it’s probably not a stretch to assert that in computer time, 10 years might as well be infinity. What does that make 100?

    Full article here:


    To further quote:

    “If worries about digital preservation seem premature or overly pessimistic about an eventual solution, it’s worth comparing the success of restoring traditional holdings with comparable digital records. In 1975, NASA’s Viking landers sent back reams of data from Mars, where they were scouring for possible evidence of extraterrestrial life. Unfortunately for scientists, the magnetic tapes used for storage became brittle and nearly unusable even after the space agency made considerable efforts to keep them in a properly controlled environment. Beyond the physical obstacles, moreover, scientists in the late 1990s found that they couldn’t read the data format anyway — and they had to crack open the original (analog) printouts to retype them.”

  • ljk August 20, 2009, 10:55

    Tombs in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings ‘could vanish in 150 years’

    By Travelmail Reporter

    Last updated at 11:26 AM on 20 August 2009

    The tombs built for the pharaohs in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings could vanish within 150 to 500 years due to tourism, it has been revealed.

    The country’s head of antiquities Zahi Hawass said that the walls of the royal tombs are being erased by humidity and fungus.

    The royal burial ground, located on the west bank of the Nile, attracts thousands of tourists each day whose breath, coupled with poor ventilation, is damaging carvings and painted decorations inside the chambers.

    Full article here:


  • ljk September 11, 2009, 15:18

    The Cradle of Civilization is under threat and worse:


    I hope humanity is a very uncommon and minute example of how long
    a typical civilization can last in the Cosmos.

  • ljk November 2, 2009, 23:59

    Cataloging endangered and dying languages

    Mon, 11/02/2009 – 15:16 – NLN

    Elder Tommy George has not spoken his aboriginal language of Kuku Thaypan for three years, since his brother died. “It might die in the throat, but it stays alive in the heart,” he said to the Queensland Courier-Mail in June, 2009. What happens when you no longer have anyone to talk to in your own language?

    “A language is not just words and grammar; it is a web of history that binds all the people who once spoke the language, all the things they did together, all the knowledge they imparted to their descendants,” says Anthony Aristar, professor of linguistics at Eastern Michigan University.

    “When a language dies, it’s just the same as when a species dies. You lose a part of the network of life, and you lose everything it could impart.”

    Aristar is one of fifty international experts in endangered languages who will convene at the University of Utah November 12 to 14 to take the first step in a massive undertaking to catalogue endangered and dying languages and to make the information accessible through a comprehensive online database.

    Full article here:


  • ljk April 7, 2011, 4:52

    April 6, 2011

    Ancient stone markers warned of tsunamis

    Tablets served as a reminder for many of the danger that can follow earthquakes

    In this March 31, 2011 photo, a tsunami survivor walks past a centuries-old tablet that warns of danger of tsunamis in the hamlet of Aneyoshi, Iwate Prefecture, northern Japan. (AP)

    (AP) MIYAKO, Japan – Modern sea walls failed to protect coastal towns from Japan’s destructive tsunami last month. But in the hamlet of Aneyoshi, a single centuries-old tablet saved the day.

    “High dwellings are the peace and harmony of our descendants,” the stone slab reads. “Remember the calamity of the great tsunamis. Do not build any homes below this point.”

    It was advice the dozen or so households of Aneyoshi heeded, and their homes emerged unscathed from a disaster that flattened low-lying communities elsewhere and killed thousands along Japan’s northeastern shore.

    Hundreds of such markers dot the coastline, some more than 600 years old. Collectively they form a crude warning system for Japan, whose long coasts along major fault lines have made it a repeated target of earthquakes and tsunamis over the centuries.

    Full article here: