A message for the next century

by Joel Sawyer

When the time capsule encased behind the cornerstone of the Basic Sciences and Biomedical Engineering Building is opened in 2096, the secrets it reveals will provide future Minnesotans with a glimpse of the way we live today.
But just what will those people think about today’s culture, science and technology?
“They’ll chuckle and ask what sort of kooky people lived in those days,” said David Hamilton, a professor of cell biology and neuroanatomy.
Hamilton and other faculty members who will move into the $62.7 million building in December have collected cultural artifacts and scientific instruments that will be sealed in a wall of the new building in February.
The capsule, a 6-inch wide, 2-and-a-half-foot deep stainless steel box, will contain a bioartificial artery made from collagen and human cells, a computer model of the HIV virus on CD-ROM, a kit for drawing blood from a baby’s umbilical cord, a microscopic laboratory on a computer chip and a compact disc of DNA sequences converted into music.
William Hoffman, a special assistant in the department of biomedical engineering, helped select many of the scientific items for the capsule. Even though these artifacts represent potentially revolutionary technologies, Hoffman said he was not sure how they would be received by scientists of the future.
“Given the pace of change in progress and the change in biomedical research, science and technology, it wouldn’t surprise me if people in 100 years came to consider these items as primitive and downright silly,” he said.
Maybe, but without the kinds of basic science advancements made 100 years ago, our knowledge of science and medicine would be severely hampered.
For example, technologies including X-rays, the diptheria antitoxin, and the use of surgical gloves and masks to prevent infection had just been discovered or were just beginning to be used widely a century ago.
The items included in the time capsule may also have the potential for making a significant impact on science and medicine.
The blood kit, for example, will allow scientists to preserve stem cells from a baby’s umbilical cord. Stem cells can be manipulated to produce every type of cell found in the body. The use of these stem cells may be the key to combating blood diseases such as leukemia and in performing bone marrow transplants.
Hamilton said he did not want another boring time capsule like the one discovered when the botany building was torn down in 1994. That capsule, which was buried in 1926, contained items such as botany department records and test tubes filled with Minnesota-grown cherries and was “deadly dull,” Hamilton said.
“The time capsule really should represent what is happening today in a way that is meaningful to people 100 years from now,” Hamilton said.
To better reflect today’s concerns, the time capsule will also contain a wide variety of cultural artifacts.
Items to be included are a video of the film “Babe,” which Hamilton said “not only shows the ingenuity of humans, but of pigs,” and a compact disc of the popular dance hit “The Macarena.”
Current Twin Cities newspapers, a KSTP-TV news broadcast, the book “The Dilbert Principle,” a molecular biology text book and a complete collection of articles, codes and documents on the tenure debate at the University will also be included.
Hamilton said he would like to be around when future generations discover the tenure documents. He joked that the scientific research that will take place in the new building might make that possible.
Gov. Arne Carlson, who joined Congressman Martin Sabo, D-Minn., University President Nils Hasselmo and other top school officials for the dedication, praised the building and the time capsule.
“In that time capsule, I hope is also included the expectation that a hundred years from now we will have defined excellence and made significant contributions to improve the quality of life for all of our citizens,” Carlson said.
Time capsule items will be displayed in the Basic Science Biomedical Engineering Building lobby until February, when they will be sealed in the building.
One hundred years can be a long time, Hamilton said, and so the capsule will be registered with a national company that tracks time capsules.
To put the time capsule in perspective, here is a look at some of the significant events that took place in 1896.
The U.S. Supreme Court decided Plessy v. Ferguson and established the groundwork for the “separate but equal” doctrine. William McKinleyry was elected the 25th president of the United States and Utah became a state. Puccini’s opera “La Boheme” opened in Europe, and H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” was a best seller.
In other events, the Klondike gold rush in Canada began, the first modern Olympics was held in Athens, and the Nobel Prize awards were established.
More than 70 faculty from various science departments will perform research, exchange ideas and collaborate on projects in the new building.