Establishing a reliable inventory of long-term scientific experiments that are designed to observe phenomena over centuries, or even longer timescales – an archive established to facilitate durational research, investigations, and scientific study, as part of a ‘multi-century laboratory’ and memory-retention schemes.
ABOUT 'LONG-TERM EXPERIMENTS'
In the autumn of 1879, William James Beal – the then-professor of botany and forestry at Michigan Agricultural College in East Lansing – initiated an unusual experiment, with far reaching results. Wishing to learn more about the long-term viability of common seed specimens, Beal selected fifty freshly grown seeds from 23 different species, arranging this collection into twenty separated lots, before mixing them with moist sand inside twenty uncorked glass bottles. Each of these specially prepared bottles were then inverted, before being buried in a “sandy knoll”; a secret plot, located ‘somewhere’ on the campus grounds. The premise for this experiment was simple; how does the passage of time affect the viability of these seeds; specimens which are now isolated for timeframes far longer than the observational periods of prior scientific studies. Every five years, one lot would be exhumed by authorised parties and germination attempted, with enough bottle ‘modules’ enabling future botanists to conduct studies a century after the initial launch of this experimental time-capsule-like study.
The premier 40 years proceeded apace under this five-year interval rule, allowing Beal, and his successor Henry Darlington, to continue to study the effects of time on seed viability. Thereafter, five year intervals were extended to ten years, before Gustaaf de Zoeten and faculty at the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology decided to stretch this timeframe to twenty years in 1990 – already, over a century after the experiment was launched through time. Today, and despite some minor documentation errors, the experiment remains as one of the longest, recurrently monitored scientific studies – presently operating for over 140 years and counting. Professor Frank Telewski is the seventh keeper of this cache, secreted beneath ‘the dirt’ for future recovery, but it will still take several more generations of dedicated custodians to see this experiment through to the end in 2100.
Beal’s experiment was certainly unique in design for the time, but it also presents us with a distinctive anachronism in the ideological undercurrents and philosophies of science as a cultural and socio-historical practice, subject to gradual or radical shifts over intervals of time. According to Beal’s own notes, at the time of the experiment's conception in 1879, the purported focus was to test the long-term viability of seed species, isolated from germination over intervals of time, but this original inquiry evolved from much more practical questions concerning the resiliency of defined ‘weed’ species. Farmers and other agricultural professions, in an era pre-dating the proliferate use of synthetic pesticide agents, often generally pondered the questions of; “how many years will need to be frivolously spent on weeding, before there are no more weeds left to pull?”. If the physical weed plants are removed, then the viability of their deposited seeds is only so long, but roughly how long? Clearly, answers to this complexity had many then real-world commercial and economic applications, including the quantities of human-hours associated with treating crop land for undesirable plant life. As such, all but one of the plant species included in Beal’s study were from common weed specimens ranging from the Malva rotundifolia, Verbascum blattaria, and a Verbascum hybrid species (examples listed are the only seeds to still germinate). Despite the particular value judgments in devising this experiment, the overall theory continues to shed a great deal of light on questions of seed dormancy, and long-term seed viability. As such, plant species that became extinct in the last century, may have viable progeny buried beneath our feet, silently waiting for the crucial moment to re-enter the world.
Authorities who oversee this experiment, now hail from a diverse series of conservation-orientated botanic fields; academic professions which have remarkably shifted from nineteenth-century disciplinary perspectives of the departments of Michigan Agricultural College. The crucial era of environmental movements over the last century (since this experiment began), and evolving ecological awareness arising from recognising the varying nefarious anthropogenic activities and observed impacts on the biome, have catalyse a growing admiration for the forces of nature, and the unique roles it's integrated bio-geo-chemical cycles play on the human societies (alongside other life we share this planet with). Without going into detail about this fundamental paradigm shift in worldviews, or the sweeping influences that inspired a deeper appreciation for our natural world, the roles of many ecological researchers now centralise on the conservational elements of their studies – to ensure the degraded ecosystems of Earth continue to function, despite increasing encroachment by human populations, and finding viable solutions (among other answers) to the farmer’s original question. Despite the aging agricultural significance for Beal’s experiment, the modern overseers continue the custodial traditions of his study, due to the significant modern lessons for contemporary biota – lessons, that now have crucial stewardship undertones, as well as practical importance for broader ‘backup’ biota sample conservation systems, like the renowned Svalbard Global Seed Vault. The ethos of science has changed, but the adapted experiment remains highly relevant for the modern ‘age of the now’. This time-tested appeal is, arguably, one of the defining features of modern scientific inquiry, as ‘what can be known’ continually evolves, often when newer information supplants older theories – studies that need enough time to fully germinate.
Time – or rather, using enough time that is necessary, and as little as possible – is, perhaps, the most unknown variable within the defined practices of scientific investigation, and associated arenas of experimentation. We often observe mentions of time, as a restrictive analytical window, across a broad theatre of scientific practices, academic traditions, observational periods for experiments and, perhaps more broadly, the encompassing social structures and paradigms that support [or constrict] modern inquiry. More often than not, scientific investigations conform well with the definable criteria we situate these testing phases within, with some identifiable examples of this delimiting, chronological vernacular including; publishing deadlines (especially in light of current ‘racing culture’ and mindsets of competing research teams in modern practices), financial grant periods, academic scholarships and coursework durations, experiment monitoring phases, instrument access time, laboratory schedules, patent expiration periods, apparatus lifespans, and even the professional careers and, perhaps, entire lifespans of the investigating agents. Beal, already aged 46 years old at the time, initiated an experiment that he would not see to fruition, despite reaching a reasonably old age of 92; the informational benefit for his exercise was knowingly deferred for the benefit of an unknowable posterity. Certainly, most phases of scientific investigation fit within the narrow confines of timescales summarised above, but studies should not be constrained by these measures, especially in cases of slow-rate science, i.e., observing phenomena that are extremely slow to manifest or change. Instead, the culture of experimentation should be encouraged to adopt much longer horizons when necessary, and without an expectation for immediate results, in order to elucidate many answers to the many question marks dotted throughout our knowledge of phenomenology.
Beal’s seed study, while certainly recognised as one of the firsts within this line of multi-decadal – or century – scientific practice is, however, not alone in expanding this philosophy of conducting experiments across time. Perhaps, the most recognisable example of long-term experiments may be seen in the iconic pitch drop experiments – studies that simply observe the gradual flow of highly viscous liquids, such as tar or bitumen, as it creates single droplets from a funnel at room temperature over decades. There are two notable editions of this experiment residing in the University of Queensland (which has observed 9 drops since the study began in 1930), and a version now monitored in Trinity College, Dublin (which has apparently dropped “a number of times” since 1944, with the first recorded droplet falling on 11th July 2013). Both experiments have, however, experienced several unmonitored periods over the years, naturally drawing into sharp relief the need for active custodianship, and adequate checks to ensure investigations produce reliable scientific information. Treating these particular experiments as simple curiosities however, may have impacted their research value as they were moved to obscure shelving or storage sites for later re-discovery.
The old adage, good science takes time, poignantly raises this question of whether researchers, and the generations who will inherit their experiments, would be willing to put in this time, but it is acknowledged these impressive looking pitch drop studies are mainly educational resources, without control sets, or other rigorous analytical measures. Other diverse examples of long-term experiments may be observed in the Clock of the Long Now (loosely classified as a durational, arts-engineering experiment to maintain cultural time keeping), the E. coli long-term evolution experiment (a study of bacterial evolution and mutation across successive generations), the Framingham Heart Study (a generational study on the causes for heart disease), and the Long Term Ecological Research Network (a network of scientists, studying ecological processes over protracted temporal and spatial scales). Similar experiments are recorded across the agroecological, hydrological, social, medical, geochemical, and eco-conservational sectors, alongside more indirect astronomical observation campaigns. Interplanetary space migration may someday also serve as long-term experiments for human physiology and psychology, as bodies and minds are reshaped in transit to new environments.
In 2014, a consortium led by the astrobiologist Charles Cockell began a contemporary experiment to document how long desiccated microbes may survive; furnishing future generations with a 500-year microbiology experiment to discover these answers – a project which is initiated as part of an envisioned ‘Laboratory for Multi-Century Science’. Recent investigations of microbes inadvertently discovered beneath Siberian permafrost and other regions, have yielded remarkable answers for the viability and tenacity of dormant microorganisms, such as bacterial spores, to survive. The abilities of some microbes to produce endospores, comprised of dozens of glycoproteins that can cocoon their DNA, certainly ensure some bacteria survive through environmental hardships like; lack of nutrients, ionizing radiation, lack of water, and variations in acidity, heat, pressure and other physical stresses. But, the longevity of specimens that employ spores or other desiccation ‘vegetative’ states, and rate of viability loss over time, present us with an identifiable incomplete entry within our knowledgebase, with certain relevance for several active fields of investigation. For example, how long can resilient extremophiles survive over elongated periods of time, as they ride out exposure to inhospitable environments like outer space (and the implications this may have for scholarly interests, ranging from cleanroom design, and planetary protection protocols, to theories of panspermia, and assessments of ‘planetary parks’). This survivability has enabled life to continue to not only persevere, but flourish across Earth’s dynamic climates, despite the many detrimental shifts which manifested throughout the deep-time history of our planet’s habitats. However, as highlighted by investigations of the returned Surveyor-3 instrumentation, there are certainly precedents now being set by microbial life on other astronomical bodies too; i.e. our ‘bio-footprints’ on other worlds.
Certainly, asking these questions is of modern practical interest. However, furnishing posterity with potential empirical resources to discover tentative answers will enable future generations to move beyond our passing interest to experimental verification, with practical outcomes for this knowledge. Some of the simpler outstanding questions, keenly raised by Cockell and his collaborators, which this experiment will hopefully address for posterity, include; Do some [microbes] die quickly, leaving a core resistant population able to survive much longer periods? Do many survive, but then suddenly start to die after a period of time when accumulated damage to DNA and other biomolecules makes it impossible for them to be revived? What are the pathways and rates of degradation of the key biomolecules, DNA, lipids and proteins in desiccated cells, and which molecular failures lead to cell death over half a millennia? Moreover, the experiment also raises valuable questions as to whether radiation, from our planet’s crust, can also play a role in cell viability over periods of accumulative time (to test this, the control is in a lead-lined box, the test one is stored in wood) – with significance for comparisons to other environmental settings, with different thresholds of ‘background radiation’.
In addition to these outcomes, a growing number of advocates from the information-preservation community have proposed the desiccated DNA of microbes may be an ideal place to store content for millions of years. However, without any verifiable evidence for either outcome, such proposals will continue to remain scientifically contentious, due to the very lack of knowledge long-term experiments are uniquely poised to address. As Cockell and his associates suggest, biomolecules of DNA may fail over protracted intervals of time, creating degradative ‘noise’ throughout the delicately structured information. This extensive heritage of purposeful time capsules projects, information-preservation media, and cultural history of time capsule-like experiences, in addition to the caches of messages we send into space as an extension of these material practices, certainly possesses relevance for avenues of many long-term experimentations. Many formal, multi-century time capsules created in the past few decades alone, have been pioneered under the pretence of anthropological or social science projects; archaeological constructs, intending to provide formal documentation from an era of antiquity in the fashion of the iconic Crypt of Civilization (1940), or the more renowned Westinghouse Time Capsules (1939 and 1965). Such initiatives are established with a single defined ‘zeta point’ for prospective retrieval by targeted posterity, but some also actively incorporate features of relevance for long-term experiments, such as establishing periodic intervals of recovery, to assess the material preservation of contents, as is the situation with the scientifically-orientated collections of two Expo ‘70 Time Capsules; the deeper one is buried for 5,000 years, with the shallower copy subject to retrieval at the beginning of each century for review.
While not devised as a time capsule-esque project (given the experiments rigorous retrieval dates for testing, alongside the inclusion of suitable amounts of control samples, in addition to the need for an experiment to possess a defined start and end point), Cockell’s experiment requires instructions to be relayed across centuries for checks, as well as to simply maintain knowledge of the experiment and its methodologies, while enabling re-transcription of instructions if necessary. But, this project also includes a number of mementos from the cultural backgrounds of scientists who authored the project – contents intent on informing posterity of our times, technical capabilities and, hopefully, how to finish this long-term experiment. To achieve the desired outcome years after the lifespan of the chief experimenter, Beal’s study initiated a social and intellectual tradition of custodianship, ensuring that the proper checks and tests are carried out responsibly as per the methodological framework outlined in his planning. An experiment is only as useful as the implementation of it’s stated methods (and adaptation, if necessary), and commitments by parties who ensure these checks and balances are met accordingly – modified or otherwise. Beal’s experiment, as an intergenerational department endeavour over two centuries, demonstrates this commitment, but a more salient example of these durational traditions may, perhaps, be seen in the Ise Jingu grand shrine (A Shinto shrine that may be 2,000 years old, but the building has been torn down and rebuilt every 20 years for over 1,300 years as part of Shikinen Sengo – a ritual ceremony of transferring skills and architectural knowledge across successive generations). Clearly, custodianship, and sufficient memory-retention schemes that document the scientific objectives, as cultural practices of tradition and routine inspection, are the greatest challenges facing the creation of any long-term experiment.
There is already an impressive array of fascinating questions and legacies that should be the subject of, not only long-term remediation work, but also long-term experiments. As documented throughout ‘After the Horizon’, humanity is now inadvertently authoring a series of widespread geophysical experiments, through our proliferate use of hazardous material compounds in industrial and technological sectors, but also in the related fields of generated information with a stewardship function. Some of the more simple, obvious questions to arise from this emergent historical record of ‘alternative heritage’, may include:
What are the prescribed long-term environmental impacts, resulting from our widespread use of pesticide substances with bio-accumulative and ecological persistence? Has the ‘sprayed’ ecosystem recovered, and how far have the ‘local’ impacts spread globally?
How stable are human-made fissile waste depositories, secreted beneath the ground we walk across, created in a range of geological media, including granite, clay etc.? Will natural geo-chemical processes in these sediments cause ‘leak’ conditions into the groundwater?
What is the projected lifespan of hazardous, weapons-grade Sulphur Mustard in ocean sediments, and how long until these reserves, dumped beneath the waves, become inert?
How was the perilously close trajectory of a concerning NEO substantially changed by the accumulative gravitational tugs of the Earth, Moon, and Sun over several decades or longer?
How widespread has a genetically modified staple crop species become, in comparison to ‘natural’ variants? What are the knock-on effects for biota webs, and their populations?
Should an extraterrestrial message be one day intercepted, have any elements of human ‘message’ material culture profoundly influenced this ‘first contact’ event for Earth?
These questions are difficult, if not impossible to answer to any measure of satisfaction, given the comparatively nascent fields of investigation that only now study these legacies under a long-term lens. However, in the absence of much-needed remediation works, or robust archival stratagems to ensure that these legacies (and potential impacts) are simply remembered, long-term monitoring may enable generations to glean some answers as a variant of long-term experimentation in our biosphere. Good science takes time, clearly necessitating intervals much longer than the lifespans of these principal authoring generations. Perhaps, investigations, and a retrospective understanding of these inadvertent legacies, will now require far more time. The establishment of these observation programmes is essential, but criteria and durational methodologies must be implemented should gathered data be useful for studying processes of long-term change as protracted experiments. The Laboratory of Multi-Century Science identifies six key attributes that such experiments should adhere to, in the interest of creating useful empirical data, but it is difficult to imagine whether parties involved within monitoring these legacies will be encouraged to informally align their monitoring campaigns with such a long-term outlook over these problems, in lieu of limited resources to do so.
The foundation’s particular focus within this branch of research is on the long-term custodianship of these experiment methodologies, while conserving adequate documentation for enshrined theories, planned monitoring phases, and tentative results – essentially, preserving knowledge of these studies, as part of living memory-retention schemes; perhaps, also a long-term experiment in itself. While these experiments are interred within their host institutions (considering laboratory settings are not ideal locations for slow, heritage-experiment assets), our catalogue of long-term experiments will hopefully aid in the facilitation of monitoring intervals, scientific caching of intermediate results as part of a sustained custodianship programme, and also serve as a possible reminder for descendants to recover these experiments – in the event of local custodianship failures (as a precedent, see the re-discovery of a pitch drop experiment in Aberystwyth University, or the original 1840 manufacturing records for the Clarendon Dry Pile experiment – where are they now?) . After all, experiments are only as practically useful as our recollection to carry out essential monitoring phases necessary to ‘complete’ them, with any other outcome adversely spoiling the scientific value of tests.
Notes to catalogue: This broad index chronologically lists long-term experiments with intended multi-decadal (in certain cases multi-century and millennial) observational periods, alongside supporting documentation, methodology outlines, and anticipated/ theorised results – where possible, contributed by the actual study authors. The methodologies are transcribed directly from the author’s accounts, ensuring that the accuracy of their instructions remains unaltered, but some supplementary information is provided for additional context about the experiment, tracking provenance, custodian institutes etc. Apart from the scientific value of these interred studies, this catalogue will hopefully provide a crucial resource for educators in the prospects of long-term experimentation, and provide a fruitful avenue for inspiring the development of additional deep time studies, that may only prove insightful for the generations which may learn from these investigations.
Page last updated: 14 Jul 2021