Celebrating a moment now safe from time thanks to radical new technology.
Celebrating a moment now safe from time thanks to radical new technology.

The 49 seconds which will now last thousands of years

Cathy Freeman lit up the Olympic stadium crowd when she won gold in 2000, and tonight film of that magical 49.77 seconds will light up the Opera House sails, celebrating a moment now safe from time thanks to radical new technology.

The invaluable footage of the race has been encoded into DNA to preserve it for thousands of years so future generations can experience the once-in-a-lifetime win.

Cathy Freeman wins a gold medal in the Womens 400m at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Picture: Phil Hillyard
Cathy Freeman wins a gold medal in the Womens 400m at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Picture: Phil Hillyard

The microscopic strand of synthetic DNA is part of a National Film and Sound Archive pilot program.

It is the first time a "heritage film" has been encoded on DNA, according to NFSA CEO Jan Muller. Up to now, only documents, photographs and audio files have been encoded.

"We want to show that this is possible and that it is a viable solution for the future," Mr Muller said.

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Mr Muller hopes to store the NFSA's entire collection on DNA.

DNA storage is stable and sustainable. Once encoded on DNA, a collection can be accessed at any time and will last for millennia without having to be maintained in any way.

Most archives now store their collections on magnetic tape, which needs to be renewed every 10 years, Mr Muller said.

Aerial view of the famous win.
Aerial view of the famous win.

The master copy of the Freeman race footage, owned by the Olympic Foundation for Culture and Heritage, is stored in Switzerland on magnetic tape.

Mr Muller said the NFSA is "an international leader in audiovisual preservation". But DNA encoding cannot be introduced yet because it is still too expensive to be viable.

Encoding the Freeman film would have cost $20,000 if all parties had not contributed to the pilot program free of charge. (NFSA is collaborating with the IOC, Queensland University of Technology and a Californian biotech developer.)

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Like most technology, archival DNA encoding will rapidly become cheaper, Mr Muller said.

He said there was an urgent need to investigate new ways to preserve the exponentially growing mountains of data being generated in a digital world.

"Data and storage management are the biggest challenges for the archives of the future," he said.

"The world's ability to store digital data is not keeping pace with its exponential growth."

The vial is the synthetic DNA with Cathy Freeman's race encoded on it.
The vial is the synthetic DNA with Cathy Freeman's race encoded on it.

Next year's Tokyo Olympics will generate an estimated 7000 hours of audiovisual data, according to OFCH head of heritage Yasmin Meichtry.

"Data storage will soon become an issue for the IOC," Ms Meichtry said.

It's the same for the NFSA, whose collection includes films, television and radio programs, videos, audiotapes, records, CDs, phonograph cylinders and wire recordings, photographs, scripts, costumes, props and oral histories.

Mr Muller said the device containing Freeman's race film in DNA resembles a "bullet".

It arrived in Australia last week - by mail.

Originally published as The 49 seconds which will now last thousands of years


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