Hard drives on a planetary scale


BLDGBLOG does some fascinating navel gazing on the subject of hard drive storage on the planetary scale: if ferromagnetically charged minerals can be arranged to make hard drives, what's stopping us from turning Earth into one giant binary storage capsule, short of the technology?

[W]hat if we could manipulate the earth's own magnetic field and thus program data into the natural energy curtains of the planet?

The earth would become a kind of spherical harddrive, with information stored in those moving webs of magnetic energy that both surround and penetrate its surface.
This extends yet further into an idea that perhaps whole planets out there, turning in space, are actually the harddrives of an intelligent species we otherwise have yet to encounter – like mnemonic Death Stars, they are spherical data-storage facilities made of content-rich bedrock – or, perhaps more interestingly, we might even yet discover, in some weird version of the future directed by James Cameron from a screenplay by Jules Verne, that the earth itself is already encoded with someone else's data, and that, down there in crustal formations of rock, crystalline archives shimmer.

Surely, a science-fiction novel about that very concept has already been written, but all that comes to mind are planet-sized computers, like the Jupiter Brains of Isaac Asimov and Douglas Adams, or IAM from I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream. But as just data capsules for lost civilizations and the like? That sounds like an intriguing weekend read. Can anyone push me in the right direction?

Planet Harddrive [BLDGBLOG]

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20 Responses to Hard drives on a planetary scale

  1. bmjames says:

    The opening question of the block quote gives the answer. We probably can’t change the Earth’s magnetic field. We almost certainly couldn’t change it in a useful, controlled manner. How on earth (literally) would you separate a huge orb of swirling molten rock into separate areas of which you could independently control the magnetic alignment?

    Besides, the Earth has a habit of flipping its own magnetic field every few thousand years. Imagine if occasionally your hard drive just decided to flip all its bits without telling you? It’d really piss you off. You’d need some redundancy to counter this; a whole solar system in a RAID array perhaps.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Read David Brin’s Earth not exactly what you are talking about, but to say much more would give away the plot.

  3. jesnow says:

    Most of the Earth is above the Curie temperature ~500degC, so permanent magnetization is not possible. The Earth’s main magnetic field is created by a self-exciting dynamo in the earth’s liquid outer core.

    We might possiblly be able to influence the core dynamo by building large vehicles of Unobtainium to drill with lasers down to the core-mantle boundary and set off nuclear devices, but the write latency might be a problem. Watch out for the diamonds the size of Cape Cod though.

  4. zume says:

    In the short story “Prayers on the Wind” by Watler Jon Willians an entire world has been converted into a large crystal memory/computer. “and you can store information in this? … all the information in the universe, eventually… the library is a hologram of the universe”. The story is available in google book search in “Year’s Best Science Fiction: Ninth Annual Collection, ” by Gardner Dozois.

  5. Anonymous says:

    David Brin in Earth, Diane Duane in High Wizardry and Terry Pratchett in Dark Side of the Sun all explored this concept.

  6. Anonymous says:

    But wait… what if this has already been done? We just need to figure out how to read the information that is on there right now.

    We could totally find the aliens’ porn stash.

  7. ryuthrowsstuff says:

    Mogo The Green Lantern Planet?

  8. edgore says:

    What’s stopping us from turning Earth into one giant jawbreaker, short of the technology?

  9. coop says:

    The earth as a hardrive? Hello, it’s not a hardrive, people, it’s a computer!


    Built by the white mice?



  10. diluded000 says:

    The very newest drives are putting 500G on a 3 1/2″ disk.
    That is a radius of 1.75″
    The total area is pi * 1.75 sq = 9.62 sq-in
    The area of the 1″ disk hub is pi * .5 sq = 0.79 sq-in
    The writeable magnetic area is 9.62 – 0.79 = 8.83 sq-in

    from: htp://pages.prodigy.net/jhonig/bignum/qearth3.html
    The area of the Earth in square miles is 197 million.
    There are (12 x 5280)**2 square inches in one square mile.
    This equals 12 x 12 x 5280 x 5280 or 4.01 billion square inches.
    Multipy the two – 1.97 x 108 x 4.01 x 109 = 7.9 x 1017 square inches on the entire surface of the Earth.

    The surface of area of habitable land is significantly less. There are clearly no more than 49 million square miles of such land.
    This amounts to 4.9 x 10^7 x 4.01 x 10^9 = 1.96 x 10^17 square inches.

    So figure a bit on a disk drive (assuming a 1:1 aspect ratio, and no error correction, which is wrong)
    8.83 sq-in / 500 x 10^9 bits = 1.766 x 10^-11 in-sq/bit

    The ratio of the area of a disk to the ratio of the earth is:
    1.96 x 10^17 sq-in : 8.83 sq-in = 2.2×10^16

    So a bit mapped to the surface of the earth would be:
    1.766 x 10^-11 sq-in * 2.2×10^16 = 388520 sq-in
    – or – 2698 square feet

    So the trick would be to magnetize domains, roughly the size of a my house, in the iron rich upper mantle.
    Doing this through the several miles of crust would take a huge field.
    It would take some sort of rolling barge sized power plant to work as read/write heads, and would be really slow data access.
    Be much easier with the crust and lithosphere removed.

  11. Nerdberockin says:

    Charlie Stross’ Accelerando gets at this concept a bit, as the human race mines the inner planets of the solar system to set up vast arrays of networked drives.

  12. bat21 says:

    Six by nine is forty-two.

  13. jesnow says:

    The magnetic source layer is in the crust, not the upper mantle.

  14. Oren Beck says:

    The music spheres from World Enterprises. See- The Man who fell to earth was a documentary. So the tech scales from small ball to planet?

  15. Daemon says:

    Giant planet-sized computers? The Well of Souls series by Jack L Chalker. Well World is the god of all planetary computers… more or less literally.

  16. Patrick Dodds says:

    @6: Genuine snort of laughter at that. Thanks.

  17. Alpinwolf says:

    Don’t we have a spinning para-solid iron core? If that was encoded with some pattern I bet it would act like a weak magnetar with a patterned strobe… Perhaps the advanced aliens use- or make! -magnetars for huge data storage…

    *brain wanders off alone, to small to know the dangers*

  18. Anonymous says:

    Another for the “kind of related but not really what you’re talking about” column, “Sirens of Titan”, my favorite Kurt Vonnegut book. There’s an alien species that communicates to it’s agent on earth by instantly deforming the terrain, I guess by manipulating the people? I forget. But for example, stone henge is actually an alien message.

  19. andrewkane says:

    Maybe if we did this we could give everyone free online backup. I’m down with that (mass extinction due to altering the earth’s magnetic field be damned).

  20. Hagrid says:

    @7 ryuthrowsstuff:

    Mogo doesn’t socialize.

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