"Omega Man" by David Adey
Author: Nikki Oder
Blinking lights, flashing displays, complex circuitry—sounds like the stuff of a vintage sci-fi movie. Although utilizing retro parts like Russian-surplus Nixie tubes, Dave Adey’s Omega Man anticipates the distant future, a trillion seconds from now and ticking down.
Omega Man began its countdown on July 1, 2012, and at its inception has over 31,000 years to reach its completion. Adey drew inspiration for the work’s title from the post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie The Omega Man, starring Charlton Heston. The film is set just a few years in the future from its 1971 release, and presents a bleak vision of humanity being wiped out in a plague caused by biological warfare and leaving few survivors, mostly mutated victims. Adey’s work, however, references a much more distant future and avoids direct allusions to the fate of humanity, although the existential implications of his work are impossible to ignore.
Omega Man is a work constructed of 12 identical units, each featuring 15 Nixie Tubes mounted on a printed circuit board, along with custom electronics. Each unit is intended to function individually, with the artistic intent that they be spread around the world. The devices utilize internal GPS receivers to acquire the current time, assuring precise accuracy and synchronicity among units. Like doomsday devices in movies, the units have backup systems to ensure that the countdown is undeterred by unexpected power losses.
Nixie tubes became available in the 1950s, and were commonly used in desktop calculators, telephone switchboards, arrival and departure signs and stock tickers before they were replaced by LCD and LED in the 1970s. The small glass tubes are filled with a gas, neon at low pressure, and contain a wire-mesh anode and multiple digit-shaped cathodes through which electric current flows, creating orange, glowing plasma. The numerically formed cathodes are tightly stacked behind the wire-mesh at slightly varying depths, meaning that the shadow of non-illuminated integers can be seen if they are located in front of the illuminating cathode.
While some digits move at a barely perceptible pace, others won’t change for hundreds or thousands of years. The digits to the left form an imposing barricade of 9s that our generation has no hope of ever seeing shift, while in the tube furthest to the right the neon-like glowing numbers reduce so quickly that they become a blur as they count down hundredths of seconds, a reminder that time is rapidly ticking away every moment. In the Nixie Tube marking tenths of a second, the digits count down at a frantic pace, appearing like pulsating light, oscillating through the intricate nest of numerically shaped cathodes.
The countdown only runs backward as we move forward in time until it reaches its theoretical moment of completion. However, the parts have limited life spans (Nixie tube life varies from about 5,000 to 200,000 hours—a mere fraction of the length of time the countdown spans), giving this piece a sense of futility that forces us to consider the existential implications of the work rather than the practical functionality. Although there is little chance that this piece will still exist 31,688 years from now in any form, even non-functioning or reduced, there seems to be a hope in the creation of the work that it will survive far into the future, a fossil from our age.
Contemplating a trillion seconds from now is mind-boggling at first. Although a familiar and finite number, it proves challenging to comprehend. One trillion is seldom a number encountered in daily life, unless referencing national debt or exaggerating for effect. When attempting to comprehend a trillion seconds, it seems logical to examine the duration in more relatable durational amounts, such as years. In this case, that brings us to trying to imagine a future time, 31,688 years from now. As speculating to the distant future is fraught with uncertainty and predictions based on sci-fi movies and doomsday prophesies, to really have any sense of how to comprehend a trillion seconds, we must look back. We are one trillion seconds removed from a major transition from Neanderthal to Homo Sapiens. Could another transition be on the horizon within the next trillion seconds? Or will a trillion seconds from now find Earth obliterated or destroyed through biological warfare, alien invasions, meteor collisions or some other stock sci-fi movie catastrophe, and humanity decimated? How can we find meaning for our lives when we consider the vastness of this existential exercise?
Full Title: Omega Man (Trillion-Second-Countdown)
Materials: Russian-surplus nixie tubes, GPS receiver, custom electronics
Dimensions: 3 1/2” x 15 3/4” x 2 1/2”
Start Date: 7/1/2012, 12:00 am, Pacific Standard Time
Duration: 31,688 Years, 269 Days, 1 Hour, 46 Minutes, 40 Seconds
(One trillion seconds ago, the last known Neanderthals walked the plains of Europe, and were in sharp decline in favor of homo-sapiens.)
Description: 12 identical, synchronized timers count down from 1 trillion seconds to zero. All 12 units are programmed with the same start time; 7/1/2012, 12:00am Pacific Standard time. Each device is equipped with an internal RTC clock and GPS receiver. Upon boot-up, each unit receives a GPS signal to acquire the current time via satellite. The red LED decimal flashes while it searches for a signal. Once the current time is received the countdown will appear on the nixie-tube display. When the unit is turned off or unplugged, the RTC clock will keep time independent of the GPS module via the battery backup. If power is lost and the battery is removed or dies, it will self update via satellite and the countdown will continue uninterrupted.