Memory, Space Archaeology, and a $1 Million Prize

We know in order to remember something, humans need to turn short term memories into long term memories. We do this most effectively by connecting new information with knowledge already stored in our long term memories, or by otherwise working and processing the information until it is recreated inside the neural synapses of our long term memories. This week at announcements, we asked: “Is there a similar mechanism for whole societies, not just one person?” And “what is a space archaeologist, anyway?”

We wondered this with our memories still new and fresh from our recent class trips, where the 7th and 8th grades toured some of our nation’s most important memorials, from Gettysburg to Arlington National Cemetery and from Independence Hall to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Each one represents ideas that are so fundamental to our society that we have erected physical means to ensure we don’t forget them. Is this analogous to a person working to store ideas in long term memory?

To think about this, we looked to the TED Prize, which was announced this week. Each year, the TED Foundation gives a prize to a single person for extraordinary vision and outstanding communication in the fields of technology, education, and design (T.E.D.). As a prize, these individuals are asked to make a wish to change the world. The TED Foundation, and its vast network, then invest $1 million to turn the visionary’s wish into a reality.

This year’s winner is Sarah Parcak. As a “space archaeologist” who is mapping the history of human civilization with satellite imagery, she takes a singular view on the globe and what is preserved in our collective memory. TED sent this out on Twitter:


CNN covered the story with this video segment announcing the prize (or click the picture below to view).


Sarah is showing us how even the longest standing memorials of human history can fade from existence and from collective memory. This does not stop her from trying to preserve that history in another format that she hopes will stand the test of time: a digital collection that is owned by all and is free (at least for now) from the all too real fighting and unrest we continue to see around the globe.

Sarah has several months to come up with her wish.  I wonder what it will be?