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Demosthenes
post May 15 2006, 08:20 PM
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An Alert Unlike Any Other
A nuclear waste vault in New Mexico will long outlive our society. Experts are working on elaborate ways to warn future civilizations.
By Charles Piller - Times Staff Writer
CARLSBAD, N.M. — Roger Nelson has a simple and unequivocal message for the people of the year 12006: Don't dig here.
As chief scientist of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, Nelson oversees a cavernous salt mine that is the first geological lockbox for the "fiendishly toxic" detritus of nuclear weapons production: chemical sludge, lab gear and filters laced with tons of radioactive plutonium.
Nearly half a mile underground, workers push waste drums into crystalline labyrinths that seem as remote as the moon. A faint salty haze glows in powdery beams from miners' headlamps and settles on the lips like a desert kiss. Computer projections predict that within 1,000 years the ceilings and walls will collapse in a crushing embrace that seals the plutonium in place.
But plutonium remains deadly for 250 times that long — an unsettling reminder that some of today's hazards will outlast the civilizations that created them. The "forever problem," unique to the modern technological age, has made crafting the user manual for this toxic tomb the final daunting task in an already monumental project. The result is a gargantuan system that borrows elements equally from Stonehenge and "Star Trek."
Communicating danger may seem relatively straightforward, but countless human efforts to bridge the ages have failed as societies fall, languages die and words once poetic or portentous become the indecipherable marks of a long-forgotten scribbler.
To future generations, warnings about Nelson's dump may seem as impenetrable as the 600-year-old "Canterbury Tales" are for all but a few scholars today.
"No culture has ever tried, self-consciously and scientifically, to design a symbol that would last 10,000 years and still be intelligible," said David B. Givens, an anthropologist who helped plan the nuclear-site warnings. "And even if we succeed, would the message be believed?"
The Energy Department predicted such a problem when it began planning for the $9-billion waste dump, dubbed WIPP, in 1974 and for a similar repository in Nevada at Yucca Mountain, near Las Vegas. That site has not yet been opened. Eventually it will store highly radioactive spent fuel from nuclear power plants as well as high-level waste from the weapons program.
Trying to communicate across 500 generations posed an unprecedented challenge of linguistics, semiotics and materials science, so the government first asked scientists, futurists and historians to envision what the far-distant future might be like.
Their report combines dry analysis and projections worthy of sci-fi disaster films, including massive climate change and feminist corporations that disbelieve WIPP warnings because they were written by men. Civilization is so interdependent and fragile, one panelist grimly noted, "that any massive global catastrophe might lead to reversion to at least a preindustrial era." Greed or desperation could give rise to legends that WIPP holds buried treasure — apparently confirmed by surface warnings to keep out.
In a sense, they're right. Oil and gas deposits lie thousands of feet below the plant. In 100 or 5,000 years, an energy-poor government, company or gasoline-addicted tribe in a ruined society, like those depicted in the film "The Road Warrior," could adopt a "drill first, ask questions later" policy — piercing the repository and pulling death to the surface.
Others predicted the invention of self-guided robotic "mole miners" that would penetrate the site from the side or below. In a scenario set in the year 11991, robotic slaves are infected with a computer virus that compels them to override their safety programming as they compulsively drill and construct mine shafts.
Opportunities for WIPP to fail, the experts agreed, are limited only by the imagination.
The government formed a separate panel of scientists, linguists and artists to create a warning scheme to counter the pessimistic projections. That group immediately rejected digital or paper records — only a solution cast in stone could hope to solve a problem for the ages.
If Egyptian pyramids have lasted more than 5,000 years, today's monuments should fare better — if built from prosaic materials, such as ultra-hard concrete. Scavengers stripped the pyramids bare for their once-shimmering marble skins.
The trefoil symbol for radioactive material might seem a natural alternative to text, but experts doubt that it will be understood by future societies any better than today's English. Consider the swastika, first used on pottery by European tribes in 4000 BC. It was adopted by ancient Troy and later became a holy icon of Hinduism. When the Nazis claimed it, the symbol became widely reviled.
The panelists also considered the plaque on the 1972 Pioneer space probe, now headed for deep space. It pictures a nude man and woman, a schematic drawing of the craft escaping our solar system and a basic interstellar map. They soon rejected it as a model, said Jon Lomberg, an artist who designed the plaque with the late astronomer Carl Sagan.
"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."
There are at least two universally understood pictographic forms. The human stick figure has survived nearly unchanged from Stone Age cave drawings to the doors of modern public restrooms. And the sequential panel, or comic strip, was developed independently by ancient Egyptians, American Indians and medieval Japanese.
They also are far from foolproof. The South Africa Chamber of Mines learned this when it used a simple picture sequence to train illiterate miners to clear rocks from mine tracks. Instead of improving, the rock problem worsened.
"Miners were indeed reading the message, but from right to left," said Lomberg, a former WIPP advisor. "They obligingly dumped their rocks on the tracks."
Nelson considers such concerns far-fetched, citing 30,000-year-old cave drawings.
"I understand those cave drawings and I don't speak Neanderthal…. He's killing a bison, 'bison — food!' I can do pictographs just as well," he said. "I can convey an absolute sense of danger."
Yet the same Stone Age caves contain markings and handprints whose meaning remains obscure.
"The scribbles, we have no idea what they are…. The handprints — is that the artist's signature?" Lomberg said. "We don't know. Of course the big difference is that these were not intended as messages to the future — so far as we can tell."
With so many ways to fail, WIPP's planners opted for the classic American approach: Think big and leave no stone unturned. The plan will take more than a century to implement.
To grasp the scale of the warnings, start with the Great Pyramid in Egypt, built from more than 6.5 million tons of stone covering 13 acres. Multiply that mass by five, and you have the first warning layer: a 98-foot-wide, 33-foot-tall, 2-mile-long berm surrounding the site. That's just to get the attention of anyone who happens by.
"Size equates with importance. The bigger the animal the more that animal is to be reckoned with," Givens said.
Powerful magnets and radar reflectors would be buried inside the berm so that remote sensors could recognize the site as purposefully and elaborately designed.
It would be surrounded by 48 granite or concrete markers, 32 outside the berm and 16 inside, each 25 feet high and weighing 105 tons, engraved with warnings in English, Spanish, Russian, French, Chinese, Arabic and Navajo, with room for future discoverers to add warnings in contemporary languages. Pictures would denote buried hazards and human faces of horror and revulsion.
The same symbols would be printed on metal, plastic and ceramic disks with abrasion-resistant coatings, 9 inches in diameter, that would be buried just below the surface.
Three information rooms would archive detailed drawings of WIPP's chambers and the physics of its hazards on stone tablets. They would also provide a world map showing all other known waste repositories and a star chart to calculate the year the site was sealed.
One such room would stand in the center of the site. Another would be buried inside the berm, its only entrance a 2-foot hole to inhibit theft of the tablets, sealed with a 1,600-pound stone plug. The third room would be off site — perhaps inside the nearby Carlsbad Caverns.
The final thing WIPP needs is a kind of Rosetta stone, a pictorial dictionary to aid in translation.
The markers will take decades to build and test, to help ensure they stand the test of time. But there's no hurry. WIPP won't be full until 2033. It would then be guarded by the Energy Department for 100 years until it is abandoned; no one who designed the markers would be alive to see them succeed for even a single day.
Inspired by so long a view, one of the site's expert panels, in an epigraph to its report, quoted Rabbi Tarfon, a Jewish sage who lived 1,900 years ago:
"You are not obliged to finish the task, nor are you released from undertaking it."
Once the vault is locked, some of WIPP's advisors want the site left unmarked because any warnings would draw only more attention, they say. Warnings, they argue, would be misunderstood or dismissed, the same way ancient grave robbers ignored curses inscribed on the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs to seize the riches inside.
Leave it bare, they contend, and the site will melt unseen into the harsh New Mexico desert.
"Any monument would become a tourist attraction," said Gregory Benford, a UC Irvine physicist and former WIPP advisor. "People come; they need hotels. Hotels need water. They drill for water and break into the vault. No marker is a strategy, but people regard it as immoral."
Such views reflect WIPP's one certainty: No one knows what will happen far in the future.
"I have to assume that the divine creator is going to take care of most of this stuff," said Steve Casey, the WIPP engineer charged with overseeing construction of the warning system. "No matter what confounded thing we come up with, all it takes is one catastrophic event and it's gone."
That so much time and effort are spent even thinking about how to warn future generations reflects a significant shift in nuclear attitudes. The past still can be glimpsed a short drive from WIPP at a site where an atomic warhead was detonated 1,151 feet underground in 1961.
Two corroded plaques glued to a 4-foot concrete slab commemorate the test, dubbed Project Gnome. The monument has been nudged several yards over the decades by cattle that use it as a rubbing post. Spent rifle shells crunch underfoot; the pockmarked shrine is favored by locals for target practice.
A third plaque was pried off, perhaps as a souvenir. According to earlier visitors, it read, in plain English, "This site will remain dangerous for 24,000 years."


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This is a very interesting topic. Personally, I believe that legible warnings should be there obviously, but if we put human skeletons over it, or false skeletons (to be PC :)), future generations who do not know the dangers of nuclear decay would not defoul the site, and would be safe. A respect for the dead is present in every culture that I know about, and I doubt that would change within 10,000 years.
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libvertaruan
post May 15 2006, 09:03 PM
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Carve images of people with massive tumors on it?
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Ferran
post May 16 2006, 12:44 AM
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Rosetta stone + pictograms + robots

Simple as that.
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acow
post May 16 2006, 01:50 AM
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QUOTE
A respect for the dead is present in every culture that I know about


At least one culture I know of routinely digs up the corpses of previous generations in order to inform them of family news and to give them new dressings :P
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Demosthenes
post May 16 2006, 03:38 AM
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QUOTE(acow @ May 15 2006, 07:50 PM)
At least one culture I know of routinely digs up the corpses of previous generations in order to inform them of family news and to give them new dressings :P
*


i'd take my chances :)

1 in a few thousand is alright :)
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zkajan
post May 16 2006, 03:43 AM
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just draw picture of people with masive tumors coming out of everywhere
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necrolyte
post May 16 2006, 04:23 AM
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Draw a big skull. I think thats a symbol which universally shows "Death" :P

Its an interesting problem, but I'm almost certain that records of this will remain well-known unless society as we know it breaks down.
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xcr
post May 16 2006, 04:37 AM
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For 10000 years? that is an awfully long time- It seems rather likley that society as we know it will, if not break down, than at least change in ways we cannot hope to predict with any accuracy.
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necrolyte
post May 16 2006, 04:56 AM
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QUOTE(xcr @ May 16 2006, 04:37 AM)
For 10000 years? that is an awfully long time- It seems rather likley that society as we know it will, if not break down, than at least change in ways we cannot hope to predict with any accuracy.
*



It should be noted that we can read the exact length of rule of every Egyptian Pharaoh, and more importantly several important legends and facts were passed on through other sources about Egypt which could last from generation. We know most of the aspects of Roman history, and their languange is very different.
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xcr
post May 16 2006, 06:20 AM
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First of, Latin is not very different, esp. compared to Romance languages.
Moreover, much of our knowledge of Egyptian language is owed to a single source. And we are speaking of a rather longer stretch of time. It is possible that the people to worry about will compare to us more as, for example, the people of 9th cent. England compare to the Romans than how we do.
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Demosthenes
post May 16 2006, 08:13 PM
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QUOTE(xcr @ May 16 2006, 12:20 AM)
First of, Latin is not very different, esp. compared to Romance languages.
Moreover, much of our knowledge of Egyptian language is owed to a single source. And we are speaking of a rather longer stretch of time. It is possible that the people to worry about will compare to us more as, for example, the people of 9th cent. England compare to the Romans than how we do.
*



If they are covering it up with superhard concrete, amongst other things, I doubt medieval societies could break through the concrete, not to mention it is in the desert, where nomadic peoples would live. If we made enough Rosetta stones, and continued to modify the stones every hundred years or so, it would help them immensely.
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libvertaruan
post May 16 2006, 08:25 PM
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QUOTE(necrolyte @ May 16 2006, 12:56 AM)
It should be noted that we can read the exact length of rule of every Egyptian Pharaoh, and more importantly several important legends and facts were passed on through other sources about Egypt which could last from generation. We know most of the aspects of Roman history, and their languange is very different.
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Tell me about European civilization ten thousand years ago. Make sure to give me details.
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necrolyte
post May 16 2006, 08:54 PM
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QUOTE(libvertaruan @ May 16 2006, 08:25 PM)
Tell me about European civilization ten thousand years ago.  Make sure to give me details.
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They had no writing, and there was not a continuous translation running over those 10,000 years. But its interesting that we do have some information about life in Europe, the Middle East and America 10,000 years ago despite the time difference.
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bigboy
post May 17 2006, 12:02 AM
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Stupid project. Either we'll all be dead by then, or we'll still understand an English sign saying "RADIOACTIVE WASTE, STAY AWAY!" -- if only because it's stored on folks' harddrives and translated by really smart computers.
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libvertaruan
post May 17 2006, 02:58 AM
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Or, alternatively, we will have destroyed our civilization, but there will still be people alive. You can't really guess about what such a world would be like. There is no telling that such a world would necessarily have writing (though it most likely would) and even then imagine what the English language was like ten thousand years ago (hell, latin ten thousand years ago, still doesn't work...only possibly egyptian ten thousand years ago, but modern egyptologists scoff at the idea that the ptramids are older than Khufu).

Okay then, necro, from 5000 years ago: tell me about the indus river valley civilization. They have writing.
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necrolyte
post May 17 2006, 03:08 AM
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QUOTE(libvertaruan @ May 17 2006, 02:58 AM)
Or, alternatively, we will have destroyed our civilization, but there will still be people alive.  You can't really guess about what such a world would be like.  There is no telling that such a world would necessarily have writing (though it most likely would) and even then imagine what the English language was like ten thousand years ago (hell, latin ten thousand years ago, still doesn't work...only possibly egyptian ten thousand years ago, but modern egyptologists scoff at the idea that the ptramids are older than Khufu).

Okay then, necro, from 5000 years ago: tell me about the indus river valley civilization.  They have writing.
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Why not use Egypt or Sumer? I dont know much about the Indus valley, but I do know some stuff about Egypt and Sumer at around 3k BC.
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Nalvaros
post May 17 2006, 05:37 PM
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IIRC the Indus river valley civilisation simply disappeared one fine day. Its not like they made specific attempts to leave behind a message to future generations.

Edit: Upon some investigation, It appears I may be mistaking it with another indian civilisation/city. Hmmmm. Time to sleep.

This post has been edited by Nalvaros: May 17 2006, 05:40 PM
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necrolyte
post May 18 2006, 01:37 PM
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It is interesting though that we know much about Khufu's reign, who ruled 4,500 years ago. Then again, he left a 500 foot high pile of stones full of heiroglyphics :D perhaps if we leave a 500 foot high skull everyone will know not to go there :D
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zaragosa
post May 18 2006, 11:04 PM
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Problem is, at some point people will break it just to see if the warnings are true...
Shoot it into the Sun, I say.

Incidentally, this cracked me up:
QUOTE
The past still can be glimpsed a short drive from WIPP at a site where an atomic warhead was detonated 1,151 feet underground in 1961.
Two corroded plaques glued to a 4-foot concrete slab commemorate the test, dubbed Project Gnome. The monument has been nudged several yards over the decades by cattle that use it as a rubbing post. Spent rifle shells crunch underfoot; the pockmarked shrine is favored by locals for target practice.
A third plaque was pried off, perhaps as a souvenir. According to earlier visitors, it read, in plain English, "This site will remain dangerous for 24,000 years."
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libvertaruan
post May 19 2006, 12:20 AM
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QUOTE(necrolyte @ May 18 2006, 09:37 AM)
It is interesting though that we know much about Khufu's reign, who ruled 4,500 years ago. Then again, he left a 500 foot high pile of stones full of heiroglyphics :D perhaps if we leave a 500 foot high skull everyone will know not to go there :D
*


Oh, but it is NOT full of hieroglyphics. The walls are mostly bare, and the evidence pointing it to Khufu is misspelled, and possibly carved in there by an archaeologist. Its in no place to commemorate it to him either, midway down a tunnel at some random point where no one was ever really expected to be.

(perhaps I should warn you that what little I know about this comes from no other than Graham Hancock, one of the craziest men alive. But I take his word as truth on this because I am anti-establishment because I want to be.)

This post has been edited by libvertaruan: May 19 2006, 12:23 AM
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Gengari
post May 25 2006, 03:38 PM
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If we found ancient tombs or whatever with warnings on them, what would we do?

Of course.

We'd break in and investigate.

So there isn't much you can do, if people forget about it.
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Deus Ex Machina
post May 31 2006, 01:18 PM
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I don't understand. If a civilization is advanced enough to dig 1/2 a mile straight down (through a solid sheet of basalt too, iirc), then surely it will be able to detect radioactive radiation and know that OH SHIT, THIS STUFF COULD BE DANGEROUS.

Tagline for the article should be "Experts are working on elaborate ways to get grant money without actually doing work".

This post has been edited by Deus Ex Machina: May 31 2006, 01:20 PM
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gnuneo
post Jun 1 2006, 10:59 PM
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more worryingly, what will future generations make of the decaying remains of wind generators, solar panels and hydropower?

these are *far* more dangerous than mere nuclear waste, after all nuclear power is entirely safe. <_<
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xcr
post Jun 2 2006, 07:27 PM
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Well, decaying hydro damns could cause massive problems.
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gnuneo
post Jun 3 2006, 12:27 AM
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thats true - perhaps we should get the chinese to encase their new dam in 100m thick hardened concrete to ensure that future generations don't accidentally drill a hole through it and drown themselves. ;)
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Stimulant
post Jun 3 2006, 01:06 AM
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seriously, a few dead savages will be highly educational for that future civilization
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Deus Ex Machina
post Jun 5 2006, 05:43 PM
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QUOTE(gnuneo @ Jun 1 2006, 03:59 PM)
these are *far* more dangerous than mere nuclear waste, after all nuclear power is entirely safe.  <_<
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Wind and hydro power are also FAR more reliable and can produce FAR more power in FAR more varied regions than nuclear power :rolleyes:
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