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A message of warning to civilizations of the future

Mia Wroe inspects how messages of doom can be communicated to those beyond our time

Over 10 years of printing, SATNAV has a significant backlog of brilliant science communication from our members through the years. As diverse in topic and form as our backlog may be though, it is difficult to believe that any of it will be understandable to the human societies that may find them 10,000 years from now. So how do you produce science communication that will withstand time? How can you communicate science without knowing anything about your audience? This is the exact problem faced by nuclear waste disposal scientists and officials today.

As we move towards a clean, green future, many are looking increasing towards nuclear power as the solution to the energy transition crisis. In exchange for it’s zero emission energy supply, nuclear power produces nuclear waste – highly radioactive, highly dangerous by-products that remain highly radioactive and highly dangerous for 10,000 to 100,000 years. Even short periods of exposure to high-level nuclear waste can be fatal. Currently, the favoured method of disposal for high-level waste is burial in deep geological depositories. But what would happen if we were to lose the knowledge of what these depositories hold? And if we were to lose the languages that the warning signs are written in? It is the task of nuclear semiotics to answer these questions, and to come up with ways of communicating a message of warning through time.

The Sandia National Laboratories recommended in 1993 that any such message used to convey the presence of such deadly material should be categorised into four levels of increasing complexity and information density. Level one indicates that something man-made is present in a specific location, while level two communicates that it is dangerous. What, why, and when are included in level three information, while level four is reserved for detailed records, diagrams and numerical data.

There are then three dominant proposed methods for communicating this message – written message, physical marker, and cultural legacy. The form that SATNAV members are likely the most comfortable with, written message, is the least likely to be successful. Writing is the most likely to decay, alongside the languages that are spoken today. While written message is perhaps the only way to convey level four knowledge, and a number of proposed messages have been translated into a series of modern languages, the limitations of this format mean that it cannot be relied on to protect those to come from the dangers below.

A number of physical markers have been suggested, many of which bring to mind stories of science fiction and horror. Various suggestions relating to covering the land above deep geological depositories with ‘fields of spikes’ have been made with the intention to create a landscape that would use fear as a deterrent to future explorers. Some have also suggested using concrete to create an area of uninhabitable, unfarmable land around the depository, so as to prevent settlement and development that could disturb the waste. Proposals for physical markers to deter future populations are numerous and diverse, but ultimately all run the risk of actually acting as an attraction to explorers of the future.

Finally, purpose-tailored cultural legacies could be integrated into modern culture and may stand as a lasting deterrent. This option has had possibly the most ‘creative’ suggestions, including the ‘Ray Cat Solution,’ where cats would be genetically engineered to change colour in response to high radiation levels and then be introduced into society to act as domestic Geiger counters! Linguist Thomas Sebok suggested an ‘atomic priesthood’ who would exist as standing guardians to depositories and use rite and ritual to communicate danger to civilizations to come. As inventive and memorable as these proposals are, there is no way to prevent the evolution or erasure of any aspect of culture, including those purposefully manufactured to protect the future.

So, what is the best way to communicate this message of danger? The Preservation of Records, Knowledge and Memory Across Generations Initiative was set up by the Nuclear Energy Agency to explore this exact issue. Over the eight years of the Agency’s activity, it took into consideration all of the above proposals and more, and concluded in its 2019 final report that a combination of techniques would be the best way to safeguard such a vital message. However, it also stated that it would be better to integrate depositories into future societies, rather than attempt to deter the inevitable curious explorers of the future.

Unconventional science communication is becoming more and more important as science progresses on Earth and expands into space. Already society is beginning to think about communicating with civilizations that aren’t even human and how to convey messages without writing, without images, without the senses that humans so deeply rely on. Hopefully, the messages we send to space will not be about imminent doom and danger, and we will not be calling out to the universe that ‘the danger is still present, in your time, as it was in ours.’

From Issue 22: the Dark Side of Science

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