It's always good to take a good book on a long road trip and it seems that SpaceX considered this when it recently shot a Tesla Roadster into interplanetary space. Along with the spacesuited Starman dummy driver and a miniature version of the Roadster, the company included a copy of Isaac Asimov's sci fi epic, The Foundation Trilogy. Instead of a dog-eared paperback stuffed into the glovebox, the trilogy is actually laser etched on a quartz disc called an "Arch library," which is designed to survive intact for billions of years.

We live a world of impermanence. And while that may be sad when we contemplate the fate of spring flowers and mayflies, it's disastrous when it comes to information. Civilization is built on words – the accumulation of centuries of information that forms our collective memory and provides us with the tools to sustain our way of life, and if we lose that collective memory, civilization suffers.

Every year, the amount of data and the rate at which we produce it rises by leaps and bounds, but we store that information on paper or in digital formats that only last about 20 years unless they are regularly copied. To prevent neglect, war, or catastrophe from erasing all this knowledge the way the great libraries of ancient times have vanished, the Arch Mission Foundation is developing a number of new data storage techniques that are both high density and have a longevity that can be measured in geological epochs.

The idea is to store a large amount of vital information about our world in a miniature form, mass produce the copies and spread these not only all over the world, but all over the Solar System. When the Tesla Roadster was shot into space on the maiden flight of the SpaceX Falcon Heavy on February 6, it was carrying one of two of the first Arch Libraries (pronounced "Arks") – though, in this case, they consisted only of a single work of fiction to serve as a demonstration. The other of the two copies is in SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk's personal library.

The Foundation Trilogy was chosen because it was the inspiration for the Arch Mission Foundation. The three-volume series was originally published as a series of connected short stories in Astounding Science Fiction magazine in the 1940s. Based on Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, it chronicled the attempt 30,000 years from now to shorten the dark age predicted to come after the collapse of the Galactic Empire by establishing a foundation to gather all of civilization's knowledge into an Encyclopedia Galactica.

The novel was printed on the Arch library disc using "5D optical storage" technology developed by a team led by Peter Kazansky at the University of Southampton's Optoelectronics Research Centre. The text was written on the quartz silica glass using pulses from a femtosecond laser to etch code in three nanostructure layers separated from one other by just one millionth of a meter.

According to the team, the code can be read using an optical microscope and a polarizer and when fully developed the technology will be able to store 360 terabytes of data on a 3.75-in (9.53-cm) wide quartz disc that will remain stable under extreme conditions for 14 billion years. Whether it will outlive the Roadster is another matter.

The video below introduces the concept of the Arch library.

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