Something Good #31: A Warning to the Future
How would you send a message to the future? How would you send a warning? This was the job assigned to Albuquerque’s Sandia National Laboratories by the United States Department of Energy. Their task was to assist in the design of a nuclear waste storage facility that would both last the tens of thousands of years required for the radioactive material to safely decay and while keeping out any future intruders.
As the long history of Egypt’s Valley of the Kings tells us, there will always be tomb raiders—people who see ancient, important-looking structures and intuit, correctly or not, that there are treasures. The proposed nuclear storage facility might well outlive our civilization, or even our species. How to communicate to future generations that its contents are poisonous and evil, when the more threatening the structure’s appearance the more valuable its contents might appear to be? (The reasoning is understandable—why would you spend so much effort defending garbage?)
“Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant,” authored by Kathleen M. Trauth, Stephen C. Hora and Robert V. Guzowski, also known as the Sandia Report, is a fascinating 349-page document from 1993 detailing possible solutions to this problem. It is rare to read a design document that considers a time horizon of this scale. As the introduction states, “The Markers Panel was charged with developing design guidelines for markers to be placed at the WIPP and with developing preliminary forms of messages and formats to communicate the location and dangers of the wastes buried there, for the regulatory period of 10,000 years.”
Where else can you read an attempt to communicate an urgent message to civilizations thousands of years in the future?
The architectural and design principles outlined are clever and fascinating. Pictographs; use of local, low-value building materials; star maps and celestial markers to indicate the age of the structure. One suggestion calls for “aeolian structures”—meaning, built in such a way that the natural winds around the site would blow through them and create sounds that are “consonant with the overall site design, namely a place of great foreboding.”
The ethos of the project—what the authors call its “moral imperative”—is also fascinating. The aim was to “be truthful in the messages rather than frighten or mislead future societies.”
In an appendix, there’s even a short piece of speculative fiction as an example of how the message might be understood by future humans.
But the most well-known element of the report is probably the sample message written by one of the sub-teams.
This place is a message... and part of a system of messages... pay attention to it!
Sending this message was important to us.
We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.
This place is not a place of honor... no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here ...nothing valued is here.
What is here was dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.
The danger is in a particular location... it increases towards a center… the center of danger is here… of a particular size and shape, and below us.
The danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.
The danger is to the body, and it can kill.
The form of the danger is an emanation of energy.
The danger is unleashed only if you substantially disturb this place physically. This place is best shunned and left uninhabited.
This has stayed with me ever since I first read it, years ago. It has the cadence, and melancholy, of poetry (it’s no surprise that Percy Shelley’s “Ozymandias” is quoted as an epigram to this part of the report). It is, simultaneously, science fiction, science fact, and future history—a message from what will, one day, be an antique land.
In an appendix I was pleasantly surprised to find a letter from Carl Sagan, dated August 17, 1990, who expresses his regrets at not having the time to participate in the project. But he does weigh in on the question of symbolism:
Several half-lives of the longest-lived radioisotopes in question constitute a time period longer than recorded human history. No one knows what changes that span of time will bring. Social institutions, artistic conventions, written and spoken language, scientific knowledge and even the dedication to reason and truth might, for all we know, change drastically. What we need is a symbol invariant to all those possible changes. Moreover, we want a symbol that will be understandable not just to the most educated and scientifically literate members of the population, but to anyone who might come upon this repository. There is one such symbol. It is tried and true. It has been used transculturally for thousands of years, with unmistakable meaning. It is the symbol used on the lintels of cannibal dwellings, the flags of pirates, the insignia of SS divisions and motorcycle gangs, the labels of bottles of poisons the skull and crossbones. Human skeletal anatomy, we can be reasonably sure, will not unrecognizably change in the next few tens of thousands of years.
You might very well wish also to include warnings in major human languages (being careful not to exclude Chinese and Arabic), and to attach a specification of the radioisotopes in question perhaps by circling entries in a periodic table with the appropriate isotopic atomic numbers emphasized. It might be useful to include on the signs their own radioactive markers so that the epoch of radioactive waste burial can be calculated (or maybe a sequence of drawings of the Big Dipper moving around the Pole Star each year so that, through the precession of the equinoxes, the epoch of burial, modulo 26,000 years, could be specified). But all this presumes much about future generations. The key is the skull and crossbones.
Unless a more powerful and more direct symbol can be devised, I think the only reason for not using the skull and crossbones is that we believe the current political cost of speaking plainly about deadly radioactive waste is worth more than the well-being of future generations.
Chaser: Tadoussac, Quebec, where I just spent two days on a location scout.
This week’s #nojacketsrequired was submitted by Robyn Fadden. We’ve had a few food ones but I think this is the first cookbook? (I may be wrong.) As always—submit your unjackets to my email at email@example.com.
Sending this message was important to us. We considered ourselves to be a powerful culture.
Every Wednesday I will send you Something Good. This was originally going to be a post about non-literary texts I admire (in this case, the “This is not a place of honor…” sample message). Probably in the future I will write that post, which involves a flying insect sting pain scale and Japanese gummy candy packaging.
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