Do Not Dig Here

Writing that last entry reminded me of the incredibly evocative phrases that a team of experts came up with to describe the semantic content of the “Keep away!” messages needed for long-term nuclear waste disposal sites. When you think about the fact that whatever markers we construct will need to last 10,000 years and still be intelligible to whoever comes across them in year 9,999, the difficulty of the task comes into focus. They summarized the overall message in these terms:

  • 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 is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.
  • The danger is in a particular location…it increases toward 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 is frightening, apocalyptic poetry. I have run across few pieces of writing more powerful; the first three lines are particularly striking. (I thought I had posted it here before, but I can’t now find it, so I may not have.)

The expert report itself is online, but be warned, the link goes to a 43 megabyte PDF; you can read much of it elsewhere. It’s compelling reading; these people thought very carefully about what is both a disturbing subject and also a fascinating design problem. (It’s also something of a testament to the Internet that I was able to track down the original report in about five minutes; I’d never before seen it in its entirety.)

UPDATE: My memory sucks. Here’s my 24 April 2004 post on the report. Tt looks as though I found the entire report the last time around, too.

Wow. Thanks for posting — I just downloaded it and it looks incredibly interesting.

The pictures are also pretty striking. (“Forbidding blocks”!)

I think nuclear power is great and all, but has it really, really, really sunk in that we’re putting stuff into the ground that’ll be toxic for ten thousand years? Ten thousand years!

(Granted, nuclear waste probably loses most of its toxicity well before ten thousand years elapse, but still.)

I wrote the report up about three years ago with a note saying I got it from the Lab, so I think you did post it. It’s pretty fantastic.

Question: Will there be some attempt to communicate that the site is safe after 10,000 years? Isn’t there some risk that these messages of peril will resonate for hundreds of years after they are no longer accurate? I’m reminded of Dying Earth-type novels where newly primitive humans are cowed by some ancient piece of technology whose message still terrorizes even though it no longer obtains.

I was reading bits of it (skimming) and was in awe of the whole premise. Here we’ve got a team of people in an advanced 20th century civilization apparently presuming that technology is going to regress so that future generations of human-like beings will (I guess) be “primitive” and not have access to means to monitor radioactivity or understand our historical records — and yet these future generations will be able to read some type of sign system and in some sense be our descendants. (Not much concern, I note, about keeping mere wildlife away!)

Especially poignant are the proposals that make reference to the markers of ancient and indigenous civilizations, which (I guess) are relevant because their age makes them somehow temporally distant and perhaps “timeless” / more indicative of the likely understandings of the imagined future generations.

It wonderful and weird and poignant. In a way it speaks of hubris (The LA Times story notes how no civilization ever thought to worry about the failure of language and the regression of civilization) but also its touching in how it suggests we bear such guilt for changing the nature of the Earth in this way.

In the quest for a sign system, the closest thing I can think of is Pioneer, and I see from the LA Times story that they thought of it:

“You’d think it would be easier to communicate with humans” than extraterrestrials, he said. “But the [Pioneer] spacecraft will never land, so it’s only going to be found by some highly developed technological culture. All we can guess about the future inhabitants of the area near WIPP is that they are human — unless they are cyborgs…. Once you have people with augmented brains or genetically engineered minds with enhanced perceptions, you can’t be sure how human they will be.”

No, you certainly can’t.