Wednesday July 6th 2011


Apocryphal Tales and Long-Term Results

Since starting this site in 2004, I’ve periodically emphasized the value of long-term thinking as we consider interstellar flight. This is not to suggest that travel to other stars will not undergo some kind of breakthrough that lets us manage it within a single human lifetime — we can hope and work for such technological advances. Rather, the idea is that interstellar flight is unlikely to be achieved in the near future, and that being the case, we have to recover an older way of thinking, one that looks beyond immediate reward to achieving benefits for our descendants.

That notion of carrying things forward motivated me when I wrote Centauri Dreams (the book), and naturally led to comparisons with long-term projects from the past, such as the great cathedrals of Europe. It also brought me to the well traveled story of the Oxford beams. It’s a fascinating tale, one that gets across exactly the point I wanted to make in the book, but the more I researched it, the more I realized there was no proof. The story involves New College, Oxford, which was founded in 1379 and has, among its other glories, a dining hall with massive oak beams, each forty-five feet long and reaching two-feet square, across the ceiling.

Image: New College dining hall, whose oak beams are designed for the long haul. Credit: Holly Hayes/

Having discovered that the ancient beams had become infested with beetles, the College Council realized the beams needed to be replaced, and inevitably the question became, where do we find beams of that size? The story is admirably continued in the wonderful Atlas Obscura site, which bills itself as “A Compendium of the World’s Wonders, Curiosities and Esoterica,” and which lives up to that promise on a daily basis. From Atlas Obscura:

One of the Junior Fellows stuck his neck out and suggested that there might be some worthy oaks on the College lands. These colleges are endowed with pieces of land scattered across the country which are run by a college Forester. They called in the College Forester, who of course had not been near the college itself for some years, and asked him if there were any oaks for possible use.

He pulled his forelock and said, “Well sirs, we was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.”

Upon further inquiry it was discovered that when the College was founded, a grove of oaks had been planted to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became beetly, because oak beams always become beetly in the end. This plan had been passed down from one Forester to the next for over five hundred years saying “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.”

A great tale, no? The problem is, there seems to have been no patch of trees specifically assigned and maintained over the centuries to replenish these beams. College foresters routinely planted oaks, hazel and ash, letting the oaks grow large for use in construction. Moreover, the trees used to rebuild the hall came from land that the college did not acquire until sixty years after the hall was originally built. The tale is, then, apocryphal, but somewhat rescued by the fact that foresters have indeed managed lands whose trees were intended, over the course of time, to replace wood in various college buildings. Long-term planning is still the point, and you can learn more about the process in this video clip with Stewart Brand.

In any case, here is a tale about long-term thinking that does check out across the board: Vice-admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, who died almost exactly 200 years ago, was Nelson’s second in command at the battle of Trafalgar, and it was he who took command of the fleet when Nelson received his mortal wound. The British oak used in the ships that fought the Napoleonic wars was planted during the reign of the Stuarts some 200 years earlier and allocated for future use in the Royal Navy. Knowing this, Collingwood went on to encourage the planting of oaks that would be made ready for future Royal Navy ships, oaks that matured long after the heyday of sailing ships.

In one sense, long-term thinking is about shepherding our resources to allow for their replacement in the future. In another, though, it is about being aware of our position in a long sequence of scientific inquiry, one that has built upon each previous generation to achieve new perspectives. Breakthroughs happen because people in the past did the necessary legwork. It will take that sense of patience and resolve to push toward a goal that has long seemed unattainable if we are ever to reach the stars, and if we cannot achieve it within our own lifetimes, doing strong, foundational research that can build new possibilities for our grandchildren is no small endeavor.

This article was originally posted on Centauri Dreams