How Sci-Fi Invented the Superman Memory Crystal

5D data storage.jpgA 5D data storage disc, aka a ‘Superman memory crystal’. Photo courtesy of The University of Southampton

Here’s the dilemma: you want to store something big, like, entire King James Bible big, for, say, a billion years. What do you do? Researchers at the University of Southampton’s Optoelectronics Research Center have an answer. They’ve created a new form of data storage so impressive that they’re naming it the “superman memory crystal.”

Though the science behind the new memory crystal is some seriously heavy reading, the ramifications of this breakthrough are easy enough to understand. By creating what they call 5D data storage kept on crystal discs, researchers believe they’ll be able to store 360 terabytes of data (per disc) for over 13 billion years at 130 degrees celsius. In stable temperatures researchers say there’s no upper limit to how long data can be stored. 

“Fabrication process for 5D optical storage” presented by the Southampton Optoelectronics Research Center. Video via the SORC YouTube page.

While this name is a callback to the classic memory crystals Superman kept in his fortress of solitude, they’re not the only time science fiction’s predicted this phenomenon. Chris Noessel, creator of Sci-Fi Interfaces and author of Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction, specializes in interface design in science fiction. When it comes to identifying a trope like a memory crystal in sci-fi, he explains “You have to break it up between its form and its function. What looks and behaves like the memory crystals versus what has sci-fi promised us about storage. Our principals of what constitutes massive storage keeps going up, and up, and up.” Noessel reminds of another early presence of the memory crystal from 1951 with the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still. In the opening scene, an alien lands holding a small crystal and metallic cylinder and is immediately shot, dropping and breaking the device, “that device was meant to hold universal knowledge as a gift to earthlings, and of course we ruined it.”

Superman II.pngSuperman among his memory crystals. From Superman II. Distributed by Warner Bros., directed by Richard Donner. Screencap via the author

Memory crystals turn up as a normal part of everyday life in television shows like Star Trek: The Next Generation, Stargate, and Farscape. It’s interesting to note that, aside from Superman’s memory crystals, science fiction didn’t really start dipping into the memory crystal game until objects like floppy disks entered the public consciousness. Add to that non-canon Star Wars works (like books and video games) where the “holocron” is a crystal cube containing holograms of secret Jedi information, HAL 9000’s beautiful glass memory panes in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and the storage of artificial intelligence in crystals in the Halo videogame series, and it’s clear that science fiction’s been nailing this prediction for well over 50 years.

Hal Memory.pngHAL 9000’s glass memory storage system. From 2001: A Space Odyssey distributed by MGM, directed by Stanley Kubrick. Screencap by the author

But Noessel’s favorite storage device in science fiction comes from the 1956 film Forbidden Planet, where earthlings visit the alien Morbius. “He’s got this little device on his desk and it has all these little pebbles around the outside," Noessel explains. "He picks one of them up and drops it in the device, and it begins to play music. That, at the time, was an absolutely massive prediction. That a grain of metal could hold music? Even though it seems quaint to us now, back then it was massive.” When asked what device from science fiction he’d most like to see become a reality, Noessel doesn’t hesitate, “the tricorder from Star Trek. This notion that you have this portable instant diagnosis and healing device is so potent that there is a prize for the first person who can make a functioning tricorder.”

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