Superman’s Memory Crystals


SupermanSeems to me that at the end of the last column about Octopuses, I threatened to devote this column to Interesting Facts about Border Collies. So let’s take that off the table right now: this column is not about border collie facts, although I might segue to some border collie facts at some point. I haven’t decided yet.

But before I go any farther I want to say for the record that the only reason I watched all 220 episodes of Smallville was to humor a small boy who I’ll call Andrew (not his real name). Remember, when you’re talking about distance, use farther; when you not talking about distance, use further. Remember also that you use whom when there’s a preposition involved, such as in this sentence: ”Whom shall I give this last piece of piecaken to?” And when there’s no preposition involved, use who.

Anyway, “Andrew” and I watched Smallville, which everyone knows is the story of Clark Kent (not his real name) growing up in Smallville, after he plummeted to Earth in an escape pod. His parents Jor-El and Lara put the baby Kal-El in the escape pod because the star around which their home planet Krypton orbited was about to go nova. When Kal-El got to Earth he did a lot of stuff including getting a new name, getting an “A” in welding shop, lifting tractors, rescuing Lana Lang and Lois Lane and making it to school on time even when his alarm clock was set for 8:59 AM. (School started at 9:00 AM in Smallville.)

When he wasn’t busy rescuing Lana Lang and Lois Lane, navigating his troubled relationship with his friend Lex Luthor (What’s with the LL’s anyway?), meeting his cousin Kara Zor-El aka Supergirl, and battling people from other dimensions, he would often retreat to his Fortress of Solitude and Teen Angst. (FOSATA for short.)

Now we normal teens had to make do with the bathroom, but Clark was fortunate enough to be able to retreat to his nifty hangout located somewhere above the Arctic Circle, when things got too intense between him and his adoptive parents Martha and Jonathan Kent. (Oddly enough, Jonathan Kent looked eerily like a guy I know named Darr-Ell Jones, but that’s another story.)

We never did find out whether FOSATA had a bathroom, but what it did have was a veritable forest of these Memory Crystals, which contained all the accumulated wisdom of Krypton, plus holograms of Jor-el and Lara, plus a complete list of all 93 weird forms of Kryptonite Clark would eventually encounter, plus his Kryptonian Social Security number.

So these crystals, no doubt, were the inspiration for researchers at the University of Southampton Optical Research Centre (USORC for short), conveniently located in Southampton, England, to develop an Earth version of these crystals. They devised a way to encode huge amounts of information in ultrapure, glassy silicon wafers, which have been touted to last “until the Sun burns out”. Remember that if I was talking about suns in particular no capitalization is required, but since I am talking about our sun, I use Sun. Just like if I were talking about the upcoming election for President of the United States (POTUS for short) I would say the Presidential Election, not presidential election. But I digress.

Now as we all know, data storage here on Earth, is an ongoing problem. Magnetized tape (cassettes, videotape, etc) only lasts about 50 years. Data stored on chips fares better but is still prone to corruption by radiation, alien electromagnetic pulses (EMPs for short) and high temperatures.

“Honey, where’s our terabyte drive?”

“Dang, I accidentally left it in the oven to keep it safe from alien EMPs. Bye-bye all six seasons of Downton Abbey.”

But glass lasts a long time, even longer than Styrofoam.By the way, one cool thing about Styrofoam is that teenagers quickly learn that you can make napalm out of Styrofoam and gasoline. (Another boy, also named “Andrew” (not his real name) independently discovered this back in 1999.) But even Styrofoam isn’t going to last billions of years, which is why the USORC scientists focused on etching trillions of bits in the depths of ultrapure, glassy silicon wafers, using a femtosecond laser.

In the words of ORC professor (not an orc) Peter Kalansky: “It is thrilling to think that we have created the technology to preserve documents and information (editor’s note: aren’t documents information?) and store it in space for future generations. This technology can secure the last evidence of our civilization, including the 2016 Presidential debates, and all we’ve learnt will not be forgotten. Plus, we’re really into femtosecond lasers.”

(A femtosecond laser emits really short pulses, a lot shorter than the time it takes “Andrew” to pick up his socks after he’s been asked 200 times. I’m speaking here about the first “Andrew” not the second “Andrew”, who also goes by “Drew”.)

Holy Bible

The technology hasn’t been commercialized yet, but so far the researchers have preserved noble documents including the King James Bible, the Magna Carta, Isaac Newton’s “Opticks” treatise (about optics, oddly enough) and all six seasons of Downton Abbey.

So all this immediately got me putting together a list of things I want to see preserved in these wafers:

  1. How to make perfect hard-boiled eggs which you can peel without the annoying “Membrane Problem”: This is a non-trivial problem, by the way. So far my favorite method is The Cold Start, where you carefully place cold eggs into boiling water, then turn the heat down to “the barest simmer” and cook for 13 minutes. Not 12 minutes or 14 minutes: 13 minutes. If you have a better way, let me know.
  2. How to get the stains out of your carpet after you feed your Border Collie a wide variety of foods including shrimp, bacon, steak and chicken:
    Also not a trivial problem. Use some kind of oxidizing agent plus Dawn dish detergent.
  3. How to make Dyson vacuum cleaners:
    For those of you with overt or latent OCD tendencies, Dyson vacuum cleaners are the greatest invention since fire, or maybe Lululemon yoga wear.
  4. The Octopus Garden Cocktail:3 parts gin
    • 3 parts gin
    • 1 part dry vermouth
    • Shake with ice
    • Strain
    • Garnish with a baby octopus and a black olive
    • Apologize to PETOBO (short for People for the Ethical Treatment of Baby Octopuses)
      Drink up!
  5. How to plumb your in-floor heating so that you don’t burn out two hot water tanks in five years, not that I’m bitter.
  6. How to sort the laundry so your wife doesn’t get on your case:  “NEXT TIME, that needs to washed on delicate, in the tears of a virgin gathered under a full moon, honey.”
    So noted.
  7. How to make perfect hard-boiled eggs which you can peel without the annoying “Membrane Problem”:
    This is a non-trivial problem, by the way. So far my favorite method is The Cold Start, where you carefully place cold eggs into boiling water, then turn the heat down to “the barest simmer” and cook for 13 minutes. Not 12 minutes or 14 minutes: 13 minutes. If you have a better way, let me know.
  8. The old adage: Never turn your back on the ocean.
  9. Extreme German Unicycling (How to ride a unicycle down something you wouldn’t even walk down.):
    I can ride a unicycle, but this guy is basically insane, plus I’m dying to know what he’s saying (See Video below)
  10. This joke:
    Question: What do you call a part-time band leader?
    Answer: A semiconductor

Clearly, I need more, and better, material for my list. If you have suggestions, send them to me and I’ll eventually send them to USORC, who will eventually send them to Elon Musk, who will eventually send them into space along with a kick-ass recipe for potato salad, Martian-style. (This gives me a great idea for a movie, by the way.) Meanwhile, I’m going to drink a cocktail, spark up my Dyson, vacuum up some fluff and then I might re-watch Smallville: Episode 220.

You know, it’s the one where Clark finally gets his pilot’s license…plus a hefty fine from the Federal Aviation Administration. (FAA for short)

Next column: When to spell out a number, and when to just use the number itself.


About Author

George Gillson MD PhD.

Dr. Gillson obtained a PhD in Chemistry (Analytical Atomic Spectroscopy) in 1985 and worked in Research and Development for Perkin-Elmer/SCIEX before switching to a career in Medicine in 1988. He obtained an MD from the University of Calgary in 1991, and spent six years as a Family Practitioner. From July 1999 to July 2001, he was a staff physician with Jonathan Wright, MD at the Tahoma Clinic in Kent, WA, and maintained special interests in areas including steroid hormone testing and Multiple Sclerosis.

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