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Notes on The Green Cats of Desolation City (Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant)

It was a couple of years ago that I came across a haunting post:

This place is not a place of honor.
No highly esteemed deed is commemorated here.
Nothing valued is here.
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.

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.


It was a quote from the Sandia Labs report, "Expert Judgment on Markers to Deter Inadvertent Human Intrusion into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant". A few decades ago, a group of experts in various fields were gathered together to come up with solutions to a problem: how to warn people in the future against disturbing a burial site for radioactive materials. They had to consider a timeframe extending ten thousand years into the future - ie how long these radioactive materials will be dangerous - when culture, language, institutions, and civilisation itself might not exist in a form recognisable to us today.

It blew my mind. Ten thousand years! How do we communicate a message to people living then? How do we make sure the message even survives that long? And most importantly, how do we make sure the message is heeded? Human nature being what it is, history is full of tombs being ransacked, buildings being explored, and monuments being taken apart for materials.

The quote above is the gist of the message the Sandia Labs experts wanted to convey. How to convey it is explored in detail, with consideration of human psychology, linguistics, architectural design, and material properties. The full report is fascinating if lengthy reading. These excerpts provide a good summary.

My recipient also linked to a podcast episode that discusses the report, and mentions one of the most off-the-wall ideas proposed by a different report - colour-changing cats. The idea is to genetically engineer cats to change colour in the presence of dangerous radiation, and then to create an oral tradition of songs and stories to warn that this signals danger.

It was great fun to write this story: to think about the cats, the burial site, the future society, and what might happen to make the cats change colour.

I remember reading somewhere that in a post-apocalyptic future, it will be harder to mine metals, because we've already exhausted the easily available sources, and we won't be able to reach the deep underground sources without advanced technology.

The Sandia Labs report ends with some sobering thoughts:

The very exercise of designing, building, and viewing markers creates powerful testimony addressed to today's society about the full environmental, social, and economic costs of using nuclear materials. We can never know if we indeed have successfully communicated with our descendants 400 generations removed, but we can, in any case, perhaps convey an important message to ourselves.

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