Will we ever build "generational" projects for scientific instead of religious reasons?

I was in Barcelona last year, and one of the places I visited was this enormous Basilica called the Sangrada Familia. It’s basically a massive church with some fairly impressive architecture that’s still under construction. They should be done by the 2030s, but they started the project in the 1880s.

This same thought occurred to me at the time, but I’ve recently started thinking about it again… Will we ever embark on this sort of massive multi-generation project for something OTHER than religious reasons?

We’ve been building massive structures that take lifetimes if not multiple generations since we first settled in cities. The pyramids, massive churches across Europe, even early Stonehenge style structures around the world. These are all major projects that were undertaken despite the fact that those who made the decision to commit to these projects likely wouldn’t be alive to see their completion.

It bothered me, in some way, that as a species we could band together and start a 200 year church building project. At the end of the day, all that the Sangrada Familia is, is a pretty building built in the honor of a dead guy. And yet, we can’t seem to embark on a 200 year project to reach Alpha Centauri, for example. If we sent out a sub-light probe heading to Alpha Centauri as soon as we had the technology to reasonably do it, we could already be halfway there.

So, what do you think? Will we ever undertake massive multi-generation projects in the name of science and inquiry? Or will that kind of feat remain in the realm of religion?

The trick with scientific projects is progress. The Human Genome Project took 15 years and billions of dollars. Today, 15 years after it was completed, we (according to this article ) could replicate the work in a couple of days at a cost of a few thousand dollars.

The question becomes, do you launch a generational project that may take 200 years to complete, when you might be able to cut 150 years off the time and tens of billions of dollars off the cost by waiting for 20 years of technological advancement?

Some aspects of science are already generational - the University of Queensland pitch drop experiment has been going on for 90 years https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pitch_drop_experiment

Likewise the development of the Gravity B satellite took over 50 years from original proposal and design to completion, and Voyager is expected to reach 50 years in flight still sending data.

I would say that the answer is “yes”. Look, let’s say we send a sub-light probe to Alpha Centauri knowing it would take 60 years to get there, have limited equipment to survey what it does find, and will pass through that extra-solar system rapidly, getting relatively little information.

If we send that probe, and 30 years later figure out how to send a cheaper probe there in only 20 years with more equipment and the ability to slow down and orbit Alpha Centauri… We still should have sent the first probe, in my mind. Because if we didn’t, how would we learn enough about interstellar travel to build that 20 year probe? In other words, we can genetically sequence a full genome in weeks and for thousands of dollars in 2018, but would our gene sequencing tech be so advanced if we never sequenced that first genome over 15 years using all that money?

You’re right, and Voyager is close to what I am suggesting, but 50 years isn’t all that long, and the pitch experiment is very small scale compared to building a massive Basilica. But what about true megaprojects? Something like a space elevator or orbital launch ring is theoretically possible with just a couple big hurdles left to clear, and either project would bring space much closer to human reach. Would humanity ever spend 100 years building a space elevator to expand our kind’s reach to the stars? Or can we only work together for that long when motivated by religion?

The great wall of China was built over thousands of years. It was built in stages a few hundred years at a time over several dynasties

What you need is a long lived institution that is committed to the project.

SETI might be thought of as such a project.

Ever is a long time, but not in the near term. Science is still largely state or corporately subsidized. Both states and corporations prioritize short term over long term investments. There’s only so long that politicians are in power and corporations need profits now, not 500 years from now. The idea of starting a project which will only come to fruition 252 years from now (a la York Minster Cathedral) is something that no one is going to invest in. The US isn’t even that old yet, so imagine George Washington starting the ‘Dig to the Center of the Earth’ project waiting for 2024 to roll around when it would be complete. Religious projects are different because there is no hurry to finish them and the gain is eternal. Religious projects you aren’t doing for yourself, or even your son or grandson or great-grandson, or even for humanity as a whole. You’re doing them for God (or gods) which are eternal and presumably able to appreciate your sacrifice at the time and in the future.

Also, I don’t believe that cathedral was purposely made into a > 100 year project. It turned out to be, but largely because of external events.

We could call cities “multi-generational projects” since many of them are constantly being enlarged and improved. Same with roads or even something like NASA.

Who knows where the road may lead us? Only a fool would say.

Think of it this way, if we were in the middle of a 200 year generational science project, that project would have been launched when bi-planes were still state of the art.

If we were still actively building this science project, I believe that nothing of the original design would remain, there’s been far too much advancement in technology, we’d be remaking the project in its entirety, if we need to do it at all.

Would something like the classification of finite simple groups count as the kind of thing you’re looking for?

The quest to build AGI, to cure cancer, to travel to Mars, to understand the brain, etc are multi generational agendas. They just aren’t done under a single umbrella agency. They involve various institutions all over the world but the end goal is the same.

Plus some universities are hundreds of years old and have always done research.

True. One could argue that ever since the Middle Ages, science itself is a multi-generational project with no end in sight. It just has so many facets that you can’t directly compare it to a tangible project like a church.

I think a lot of our space exploration programs, both ongoing and proposed will be generational. Look how long it took to get a probe out to Pluto, or at the Voyager missions. There is talk about sending a very small probe accelerated to a fraction of the speed of light to the nearest star in the not to distant future, and that will certainly be generational. I also think our manned exploration and exploitation expansion into our solar system will be generational, once it gets going.

The Clock of the Long Now would definitely fit the OP’s requirements.

Pay attention to how they write dates on that website.

Wiki has a good background and general information.

We already have; the study has been ongoing for 70 years.


I think with many of the religious projects, a large part of the whole point of the thing is undertaking the project itself. Sagrada Familia, mentioned in the OP, is a votive church, erected as an act of thanksgiving. The point is not to have a church; it’s to build a church. And, therefore, if the building is prolonged this isn’t in itself a problem. From some points of view it’s a positive benefit. Whereas for most scientific undertakings, the main point is the information which the undertaking will yield, when complete. So long-deferred completion is to be avoided if possible.

Having said that, in the past people undertook very long-tailed project for non-religious reasons. A wealthy man might embark on building or planting project that he himself would not live to see completed, and in many cases that his children would not live to see completed either. Those who commissed gardens from the likes of Capability Brown mostly never lived to see the final result. Jean-Baptist Colbert, Secretary of the Navy to Louis XIV, planted the Troncais forest of oak trees in 1670 with a view to supplying the French navy with timber suitable for ships masts two hundred years later. By the time the trees were mature, the age of sail had largely passed.

I think the Sagrada Familia has a lot more to do with tourist dollars and Gaudi’s architecture than religion at this point.

Certainly SETI will be a good example, if we do actually keep it going. But SETI seems like exactly the kind of issue I have. When you read the original papers regarding the establishment of a program to search for extraterrestrial life, the original scope of SETI was going to be much larger. But of course, we as a species seem to have a hard time committing so many resources to a project that could take so long to pay off…

Even if this particular cathedral wasn’t intended to be built over such a long period, other projects certainly were intended to take a lifetime. As for cities – cities don’t really seem like a project to me, more like a self organizing, emergent outcome of people living together. With a few exceptions, we generally don’t plan out an entire city – at most, we plan out one district, but usually not even that. The city emerges as people build whatever they need at that particular moment in that particular place.

You’re definitely not wrong about that, and – since many of the projects that would take this long involve space – it’s important to realize that we’re still pretty early into the space age. But at the same time – we could have started these sorts of projects in the 60s. We could have started them in the 80s. We could be starting them right now. We aren’t really doing that… Not on any major scale.

I suppose, in a way, but that’s very abstract. I mean, I get that it probably has some practical uses, but there’s a difference between building a church over 300 years, or sending a probe to Alpha Centauri over 100 years, while a bunch of mathematicians sitting in separate places all around the world and working on a theorem mostly independently seems… different.

That’s the thing – there’s no big “Artificial General Intelligence Project” that is a massive effort to build a true AI. There’s a bunch of different programs looking at a bunch of different cancers – with disproportionate funding going to cancers that “play well” in the media like childhood cancers or breast cancer, rather than actually aiming at the deadliest/most common forms of cancer. Nobody is really trying to travel to Mars, except maybe Elon Musk. A massive umbrella agency that can actually focus on AND SOLVE one of these issues simply doesn’t actually exist.

That’s exactly what I’m talking about. These projects HAVE to be generational. My question is, will we ever actually undertake them? Will we ever send people to explore and exploit the solar system?

That definitely sounds like it could be part of the psychology of WHY we can dedicate massive amounts of time and resources to building a church that won’t be done for 300 years. But I do think that science sees benefits from the journey, too. For example, take the earlier Human Genome case. It took 15 years and billions of dollars to sequence the first human genome, but through the process we were able to learn how to refine that procedure and sequence a genome in a few weeks for a few thousand dollars. Even if we never successfully sequenced that first genome, what we learned would have had value. It’s not like the time it takes to sequence a genome magically dropped as soon as we completed the first one. Rather, as we practiced sequencing genomes, we got better at doing so.

When you put it like that, this isn’t so different from many of Elon Musk’s projects. Maybe he’ll never see them finished, maybe they won’t even work out, but hopefully we can learn something from them.