Saturday, September 01, 2007

Don't Dig Here!

For hundreds of years, the image of the skull and crossbones has been a universal symbol of danger - leave this alone, don't touch this, keep away, bad juju, etc.:

Then, a few decades back, a study showed that the image of the grinning skull and crossbones might actually attract the attention of young children to things they shouldn't touch, and so was born the image of "Mr. Yuck," a new, supposedly more child-scary symbol for poisonous substances:

There's an art and a science to designing and delivering effective warnings, and one of the most important warnings we may ever post is also one of the most daunting to design.

I'm now reading a very interesting book titled The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman. Mr Weisman's book examines what might happen to man's works if all of us suddenly disappeared - through plague, assimilation by the Borg, or whatever. How long would our skyscrapers, dams, canals, agriculture fields, and cloverleaf intersections last? What would replace them? What sort of animals would replace us? And, most important for the present discussion, what might happen to the most deadly places on earth - untended nuclear power plants and nuclear waste storage sites?

This isn't just an academic question. While the nuclear power industry touts the safety and security of nuclear power, the unadvertised truth is a bit more the disaster at Chernobyl and the near-disaster at Three Mile Island illustrate. The nuclear industry generates many tons of contaminated waste each year...some of it so intensely radioactive that it will be deadly to humans for tens, if not hundreds of thousands of years. This waste cannot be destroyed or rendered safe by any technology we now possess. It has to be stored in a place remote, safe, and secure enough that it's threat will be minimized (as much as something so deadly can be) into the distant future.

But here's the issue: if these sites will be deadly for ten or fifteen or a hundred thousand years or more, how do we warn the people in that unimaginably distant era of the danger? Ten thousand years ago, our ancestors were living in caves or in very basic hunting and gathering societies, without written language beyond simple cave paintings. They couldn't conceive of things like nuclear weapons, space shuttles, maglev trains, or single-cup coffee brewers. How might they have tried to pass a complex - or even a simple - message to a society whose shape they couldn't even imagine? We don't even have to look back that far: the English of Shakespeare's plays is opaque to many modern Americans, and the Old English of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales even more so. Chaucer wrote in the late 14th century - about 700 years ago - and Shakespeare in the late 16th century - about 500 years ago. If we have trouble understanding them today, how will language and society have changed in another 500...much less ten thousand...years?

Many interesting studies have been done and articles written about how we might warn far distant generations of deadly threats. One very good article can be found here, at the website, and it contains links to other, related documentation. You can also look at a gallery of proposed warning signs and symbology here. As a person with a background in linguistics, I find this absolutely fascinating; as a human being, I find it frightening beyond any silver screen images of alien invasions or giant bugs run amok. We need to be able to warn the great-great-great grandchildren of our great-great-great grandchildren's great-great-grandchildren of buried threats we don't fully understand ourselves.

Much of the challenge lies in making the message unambiguously threatening. How do we convince future archaeologists or hobby diggers that a particular place is not just uninteresting, but terribly dangerous? The high priests who buried ancient Egyptian kings plastered their tomb entrances with hieroglyphics threatening terrible curses on those who would violate the sites...and we all know how well that worked.

In one way, none of us living today has a personal interest in the safety of generations so far in the future that even our dust will be long forgotten. But our grandchildren will be a few steps down the road to that dangerous future, and I care very much about the world they'll live in.

And so should you.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



Amanda said...

Interesting post. I liked that link to the DamnInteresing too. This isn't something that I've thought to think about before but I'm glad I'm aware of it now.

Jean-Luc Picard said...

I can't see people in the future realising what Mr Yuck is all about.

Mariette said...

I think Mr. Yuck carries the message.

Mike said...

The latest pellet nuclear plants can supposedly use the spent nuclear waste for fuel.

From the article... "There is a project in progress to develop pebbles and reactors that use MOX fuel, that mixes uranium with plutonium from either reprocessed fuel rods or decommissioned nuclear weapons."

What could go wrong?!!!