How To Communicate Danger to Future Civilisations
The world has a problem: barrels of nuclear waste and nuclear byproducts. For the most part, this radioactive waste cannot be transmuted (transformed from one radionuclide into another via neutron bombardment in a nuclear reactor) into other useable, harmless substances.
Our current best solution is to classify nuclear waste according to how nasty it is — low-level waste (LLW), intermediate-level waste (ILW), and high-level waste (HLW) — and then stash the high-level trash in geological disposal facilities (GDFs).
GDFs are the human equivalent of a cat burying its business. We essentially dig holes and create vast, reinforced repositories to store barrels of HLW, out of sight and out of mind. Unlike a cat’s waste though, HLW radiation is dangerous for thousands of years into the future. The exact length of time is unknown as we’re still on relatively new ground here, but some estimates state we need to keep HLW safe for up to a million years. Yes, you read that right.
And here the real rub: once we’ve stashed the HLW in our GDFs, how do we communicate danger to any future humans or civilisations who happen to stumble upon our buried radioactive materials?
Enter the fun, interdisciplinary field of Nuclear Semiotics.
Because there’s no guarantee the people of the future will be able to decipher our current communication systems, nuclear semiotics has a behemoth task: to ensure messaging in GDF facilities adequately communicates danger.
Of course, they can erect signs in English and other languages, but languages die with civilisations. Given the nuclear timeframe the nuclear semioticians are dealing with, there is a very real chance these signs will not be understood. Likewise, the trefoil, three black blades on a yellow background, that we all recognise as indicating radiation, will probably be indecipherable to future peoples.
In 1981 the Human Interference Task Force, a team of linguists, semioticians, engineers, anthropologists, nuclear physicists, behavioural scientists and more joined forces on behalf of the US Department of Energy and the Bechtel Corp to come up with a solution.
Several novel (and sci-fi novel worthy) ideas were posited as a result of the task force’s work. Two of the most intriguing were cats that change colour when near radioactive materials, aka ray cats, and the creation of an Atomic Priesthood.
While these ideas seem divergent at first, the key premise is similar: create cultural knowledge that is then passed down through generations.
In 1984, Françoise Bastide, a writer, and Paolo Fabbri, a semiotician, proposed that the key to nuclear time communication could be genetically engineered animals that “react with discolouration of the skin when exposed” to radioactive materials. They further stated that the animals’ “role as a detector of radiation should be anchored in cultural tradition by introducing a suitable name (eg, ‘ray cat’).”
The general idea is that all people would learn about cats who turn yellow, or blue, for example, and know that this meant immediate danger.
While the idea of feline Geiger counters is yet to be acted on, ray cats as a concept reentered the public consciousness when the Ray Cat Solution, a group that describes itself as a “movement,” formed in 2015.
The Atomic Priesthood
The idea behind the Atomic Priesthood, which was proposed by the linguist Thomas Sebok, is relatively simple: establish a self-perpetuating religious caste and order that will convey messaging systems far into the future.
There are some obvious benefits to this approach, namely that oral traditions can last millennia, and there’s no need to rely on written communications. Additionally, Sebok’s idea was based on the structure of the Roman Catholic church, an institution that is still going strong long after its inception.
It’s not a foolproof plan though, as psychotherapist Susan Garfield points out, there are inherent problems involved in artificially making an elite caste. Plus, there is no guarantee that the priests in charge will abdicate from their duties or, perhaps worse, commence a mad grab for power that extends far beyond the priesthood’s intended function.
Not a Place of Honour
In the end, far more practical ideas won out, the creation of pictographs and signs that display humans in visceral pain, for example. But nuclear semiotics is still ongoing. In 1993, for instance, Sandia National Laboratories released a report concerning non-linguistic messaging at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico. The report noted that any messaging should convey the following information:
“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.”
Among the images being touted as potential vectors of the above is the face in Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream. Other ideas include creating Stonehenge like structures around the site to convey a sense of danger and threat — there is, of course, every chance that future civilisations will visit these in tour groups, just as we visit Stonehenge today, and wonder what they were trying to tell us...