This week we’re serializing yet another episode from the After On Podcast here on Ars. The broader series is built around deep-dive interviews with world-class thinkers, founders, and scientists, and it tends to be very tech- and science-heavy. You can access the installments on Ars via an embedded audio player or by reading accompanying transcripts, both of which are below.
This week my guest is Sarah Parcak, a co-founder of the emerging field of . We’ll be running the interview in three installments, starting today.
Astroarchaeology doesn’t involve digging up ancient artifacts on Mars (yet!). Instead, it enlists satellite imagery to identify ancient, undiscovered sites on our home planet. Parcak’s work in this field won her the 2016 TED prize—which came with a million-dollar check to advance her work.
At the start of the interview, I ambush Parcak with a bit of Egyptian Arabic, as we’ve both spent enough time in Cairo to be slightly dangerous with it. We then discuss the tractor beam that first drew Parcak to Egyptology. It started tugging around age five—which turns out to be common for ancient Egypt specialists (my own Egypt infatuation began at 17, but for me, it’s a modern-era thing).
Parcak tells me about her early career, which essentially began during her freshman year at Yale—and also about an intriguing false-start space archaeology experience in the mid-’80s, long before her time. Some highly influential thinking originated back then. But the high cost of satellite imagery and the limitations of analog media precluded the field’s true emergence. By the mid 2000s, imagery had become far more abundant and affordable. So the time was right for Parcak and a handful of other young PhD students to pick up on the echoes of that nascent work and truly launch the field.
Analysis from orbit
Parcak leads me through a couple of typical discovery scenarios, and she describes how spectrography and other tools can reveal ancient settlements that have lain undetected for centuries. The resolution she and her colleagues can access is impressive. To get a ballpark sense for it, they could almost surely spot a stone tablet from space—but there’s no way they could read it from that distance.
If you enjoy this installment and can’t wait for part two, you can find the whole shebang in my podcast feed, where it first appeared on October 17 of last year. A full archive of my episodes can be found on my site or via your favorite podcast app by searching for the words “After On” (the podcast’s title).
Finally, I’d like to briefly mention a series of four articles that I’m posting to Medium this month on the uplifting topic of existential risks. Which is to say, the grim yet perversely fascinating possibility that our technological creations might just annihilate us. I believe I present some arguments and analytic lenses that are new to this important topic, and the first piece in the series is right here. I should note that Medium is running this in their editorially curated, paid, members-only section. The goods news is that Medium gives everyone access to a few articles per month with essentially zero friction.
This special edition of the Ars Technicast podcast can be accessed in the following places:
https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/the-ars-technicast/id522504024?mt=2 (Might take several hours after publication to appear.)