Roman Mars: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.
Matthew Kielty: I want to start with a letter.
Roman: And this is reporter Matthew Kielty.
Matthew: This is a letter that got sent out to a couple of hundred people back in 1990. So Roman, if you have the letter and–
Roman: Yes. Sure. Sure.
Matthew: — you don’t mind.
Roman: Yes. Dear so and so, the safe disposal of nuclear waste is one of the most pressing issues facing the United States today.
Matthew: It totally is. But if you actually– if you skip down past that, there is– I mean that’s just about how there’s these people were planning on burying a bunch of nuclear waste out in the New Mexico desert at this place called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. But if you go down another paragraph–
Roman: Okay. You have been nominated to participate in the study sponsored by Sandia National Laboratories that will identify what kinds of markers should be placed at the WIPP site–
Matthew: WIPP site. Just jump down a little bit further.
Roman: –to develop a marker system that will remain operational during the performance period of the site, 10,000 years. [laughter]
Matthew: There it is. There it is. That is the part that I love.
Jon Lomberg: I had a moment of wondering if it was a joke.
Matthew: This is Jon Lomberg. He received one of these letters which makes sense given his line of work.
Jon: I’m an artist. And I work on projects involving unusual communication problems.
Matthew: The dude spent time in the 70’s working with Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan on the Voyager Golden Record.
Roman: One of NASA’s attempts at communicating with aliens.
Matthew: So you’d think this sort of thing would be right in his wheelhouse.
Jon: No. Usually, you don’t get asked to design something that’s going to last 10,000 years. That’s twice the span of recorded human history.
Matthew: The federal government really was calling on him to help protect people 10,000 years in the future.
Roman: The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, W-I-P-P or WIPP for short, was ordered into existence by Congress in 1979. The thinking was the US ought to have a safe place to put radioactive by-products from nuclear weapons manufacturing and nuclear power plants. And a quick refresher, even though you don’t see radiation and you might not feel its effects right away, exposure to radioactive materials can destroy your body at a molecular level. It can leave burns, it can cause cancer, it can even mutate your DNA.
Matthew: And the thing about radioactivity is that it is very spreadable. Say you’ve got a tool that touched a piece of plutonium. Now, that tool is radioactive. And say a worker was wearing protective gloves while using that tool, chances are those gloves are radioactive, too.
Roman: The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant was designed to store all of this stuff and keep us all safe from it.
Matthew: The WIPP site is in New Mexico, deep in the desert, about 26 miles east of Carlsbad.
Jon: It’s a really cool place. It reminded me of kind of the headquarters of Spectre or Dr. No in the James Bond novel, ’cause it’s this big underground facility filled with technicians in coveralls. And it’s all color coded depending on what they did.
Matthew: Jon saw the WIPP site in person when he accepted the invitation from Sandia Labs to go be a part of the big group think on designing a 10,000-year warning for the place.
Jon: How could you turn it down?
Roman: This was in 1991.
Matthew: So the workers took Jon into an elevator shaft. And they go down about a half a mile beneath the surface. And that’s where Jon saw these enormous caverns.
Jon: They’ve carved out this repository in basically a salt deposit– salt deposit 200 million years old. And we think of salt as white. But this salt, for reasons that I don’t understand, was kind of a salmony pink color. So the walls of this place were all crystalline with this sort of shot through with these hues of salmon and pink and orange. So it was actually quite beautiful.
Matthew: All this radioactive stuff will all be loaded into thousands of oil drums and packed into these caverns. And then this underground chamber will be sealed up and left alone. Years will pass. And those years will become decades. And those decades will become centuries. And centuries will roll into millennia. Then people above ground will come and go. Cultures will rise and fall. And all the while, below the surface, the salt will do what salt does with the right temperature and pressure. It will slowly creep making that cave full of waste smaller and smaller and smaller until the salt swallows up all those oil drums crushing them, entombing them. And so there, solidified in the Earth’s crust, will be these gloves and these tools and these little bits from bombs that we made, all still radioactive, poisonous, for more than 200,000 years. Basically, forever.
Roman: Storing something dangerous safely, forever is a huge design problem. In fact, the jury’s still out on whether they solved the basics of the storage problem at all. In February of 2014, a leak was detected that exposed several workers to low levels of radiation. And WIPP has been closed since. The Department of Energy now predicts that it could be up to three years before WIPP is fully operational again.
We know these facts because we can look it up and read the news in a shared language. But the problem that Jon Lomberg was brought out to New Mexico to solve was not about communicating the danger of WIPP to people today. He wanted to figure out how to tell people millennia from now that this place is dangerous.
When Jon Lomberg arrived in New Mexico, he met the teammates he’d be collaborating with. There were geologists, linguists, astrophysicists.
Matthew: There was science fiction writer Gregory Benford.
Maureen Kaplan: And you would be the archaeologist.
Matthew: This is Maureen.
Maureen: Maureen Kaplan.
Roman: An archaeologist with the consulting firm ERG.
Matthew: Do you remember what you thought of the people they’d gotten together when you first saw them?
Maureen: I was like, “Oh, my goodness.”
Matthew: She was kind of star-struck.
Maureen: I went, “Jon Lomberg. Wait a moment. Aren’t you the one who did the picture that went off into space in terms of trying to communicate with whoever might find Voyager?” So I was impressed.
Matthew: After hellos and what not, the Sandia folks split. All these smarties in to two different groups.
Jon: So they’d have kind of two separate thinking processes.
Matthew: Jon was in Group B, Maureen, Group A.
Jon: And then–
Matthew: And then they laid down the ground rules.
Jon: They told us to assume that we’re designing a warning marker for humans.
Matthew: Not aliens. Not cyborgs.
Jon: But for a human being biologically identical to us but who’s alive 500 or 5,000 or 10,000 years from now. How can you make a message that that human will understand?
Matthew: And why 10,000 years?
Jon: As far as I can determine, the logic seemed to be, “Well, if we told them to design a marker to last 250,000 years, that’s clearly a ridiculous and absurd proposition. 10,000 years doesn’t sound quite so crazy.” [laughter] So it was just pulled out of the air.
Roman: In other words, even though this site is going to be radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years, this panel was only responsible for keeping this place sufficiently labeled for humans for the next 10,000 years.
Matthew: Let’s get some perspective. Think about where humanity was 10,000 years ago. Back then, there was a hot, new technology taking the world by storm. It was called farming. Before the agricultural revolution, human subsisted as gatherer-hunters.
Roman: Biologically, we are the same people we were 10,000 years ago. Actually, that’s true going back over 40,000 years. But culturally, we share almost nothing with these people.
Matthew: Definitely not language.
Jon: Well, no, ’cause the linguists tell us that language changes. Language has a half-life just like radioactive materials have a half-life.
Matthew: And this half-life isn’t very long. Think about Shakespeare.
Male: My cousin Westmoreland? Nay, my fair cousin.
Female: Alack! What poverty my Muse brings forth.
Male: But this dotage of our general’s O’er-flows the measure.
Jon: Some of the words are tough.
Matthew: How do you say that? But, high schoolers can get through it.
Roman: Although Shakespeare was only 400 years ago, 4% of 10,000 years.
Matthew: Go back to Beowulf?
Male: [foreign word]
Matthew: Written in Old English?
Male: [foreign word]
Matthew: Basically incomprehensible.
Male: [foreign word]
Jon: Yes. It’s like a different language.
Matthew: And I know you can’t see this, because this is radio. But trust me; it’s just as confusing on the written page. You can recognize most of the letters as being part of the English alphabet. But they barely correspond with how we use these letters today.
Roman: And that’s from your 1,000, 10% of 10,000 years.
Jon: There are some languages that are very resistant to change. That is languages that get enshrined in Biblical texts, in religious texts.
Roman: Latin, Hebrew, Arabic.
Matthew: But those aren’t sure bets either. The oldest written text go back to ancient Sumeria about 4,600 years ago. And those languages are long since dead.
Roman: And that’s not even the halfway mark of our time frame.
Matthew: So, both Team A and Team B at the WIPP brainstorming session realized pretty quickly that every language on the planet today could be gone well before 10,000 years.
Jon: And how can you start a conversation with somebody that you have no common language with?
Matthew: Both groups weren’t sure about this. But then they thought there’s got to be something better than language.
Maureen: Pictures. There are some facial expressions which are pretty universal.
Matthew: Like the smiley face: two dots for eyes, half-circle for a mouth. It’s happy.
Matthew: And take another one.
Maureen: For like yuk.
Jon: A symbol called Mr. Yuk.
Roman: If you were alive in the 80’s, you know this one.
Mr. Yuk is me.
Mr. Yuk is green.
Roman: It’s a logo of a green face with squinty eyes and a stuck-out tongue. The face looks like it’s about to be sick.
Sick, sick, sick.
Roman: It was designed to be put on cleaning products and other household poisons to let kids know that whatever is inside is going to be horrible for you. And so thinking along those lines, they considered another logo which they thought might be universal.
Jon: Actually, Carl Sagan proposed it.
Matthew: Sagan couldn’t make the panel. But he sent in a letter saying, “This whole marker problem was easy. You just need the right symbol.” And he knew just the one.
Jon: The skull and crossbones. The jolly roger.
Roman: Death incarnate.
Jon: Well, do you know where the skull and crossbones came from?
Matthew: No. No, I don’t.
Jon: The earliest uses of it are in religious paintings and sculptures from the middle ages where at the foot of the cross where Jesus is crucified, there’s a skull with two bones in the shape of a cross, not an X, the shape of a cross.
Jon: And it’s Adam’s skull. And the bones were the symbol of the resurrection.
Jon: So instead of it being a symbol of death, it was a symbol of resurrection and rebirth. But fast forward a couple of centuries–
Matthew: There’s a lot of trade going on, merchant ships traveling to and fro.
Jon: And in the ship’s log, if a sailor died, the captain would put a little skull and crossbones next to his name. And a lot of the sailors came to associate that symbol with death. The rebirth part of it was kind of lost. Fast forward another century–
Matthew: You’ve got pirates out marauding on the high seas. They’ve plundered other boats and stole their cargo. And along the way, some pirates realized they could use a symbol to let their targets know who they were.
Roman: A branding campaign to terrify their targets into compliance.
Jon: Yes. To make clear, “We’re pirates. And if you don’t surrender, we’re going to kill you. It’s your death.”
Matthew: But there are actually several different icons that pirates used.
Jon: For example, a heart with blood dripping out of it.
Matthew: That was a popular pirate flag?
Jon: And an even more popular symbol was an hourglass.
Matthew: An hourglass?
Jon: An hourglass meant, “If you don’t surrender in a certain amount of time, we’re going to kill you all.”
Jon: So the hour glass for a while was the most feared pirate symbol.
Roman: But then one of the logos got famous.
Matthew: In 1720, a pirate named Calico Jack Rackham was captured and put on trial. In the legal proceedings, it came out that two of the pirates in Calico Jack’s crew were women. And that one of them was pregnant with Calico Jack’s child. This was the tabloid scandal of the day. And everyone in England was reading about this trial. Anyway, it just so happened that Calico Jack’s symbol was the jolly roger, ‘though in his case, the bones were replaced with a pair of crossed swords.
Roman: Quick aside, the name Jolly Roger is probably an English corruption of the French, “jolie rouge” or “pretty red”, because the original pirate flags were red, not black.
Matthew: After that trial, the skull and crossbones started showing up on book covers.
Jon: Treasure Island kind of novels.
Roman: The skull and crossbones was permeating culture as a symbol of danger.
Matthew: Jump ahead to the late 1800’s, dye factories in Germany started using the skull and crossbones as a symbol for poison. Half a century later–
Jon: The Nazis adopted it as the symbol for their SS Death’s Head Divisions.
Matthew: So the skull and crossbones came to be associated with danger and death around the world. But it didn’t become universal. Not really. Think about what’s happened with the skulls and crossbones in the last 20, 30 years? It’s gone mainstream. Now, you’ll see it on kids’ book bags, on onesies for infants. You can even buy water bottles with the skull and crossbones. So much for the whole poison thing.
Roman: And the original meaning as it pertain to Adam and the resurrection is long gone.
Jon: The lesson that we took from this is that symbols can change.
Roman: Iconographical drift happens.
Matthew: And we haven’t even touched on cultural interpretation. Like there’s a candy company in Mexico called La Catrina. And their logo, the logo that goes on the packaging for their sweets, is a skull.
Roman: And so to bring us back to the WIPP site in New Mexico–
Matthew: The two teams of smart people at WIPP realized that symbols couldn’t be trusted to mean the same things over time. So next idea?
Jon: We could tell a little story using stick figures.
Roman: Visual storytelling.
Matthew: A stick figure that any five-year-old could draw.
Jon: Yes. A circle on top, a trunk, two arms, and two legs.
Jon: Well, there are two things that seem to be universal in human art. One is a stick figure. And you find them all drawn on the walls of the caves and in the cave paintings that are 25,000 years old, which by the way maybe the only piece of graphical art surviving for more than 10,000 years.
Matthew: That is art from which we can draw a meaning. And Jon says there’s another convention that is universal.
Roman: A sequence of events.
Jon: First, this happened. Then, this happened. And then, this happened.
Matthew: So like a narrative, a story.
Jon: A narrative, a storyboard, a comic strip. You just find it everywhere. And in fact, you could even define a symbol using stick figures.
Matthew: Check it out. Let’s do a simple comic strip. So first frame, you put a small child.
Roman: And the child is in front of a small plant, a sapling.
Matthew: Second frame, that child is a little bit bigger now. And the sapling behind him has grown a little bit. Then, next to the child is a barrel. And on that barrel is the symbol for radiation, the trefoil symbol. And the child is touching that barrel. Go to the third frame. You got a full-grown, big, old tree. You got a child that is now an adult, a human being, except the person is lying on the ground presumably dead, X’s over their eyes, frowny mouth. And the barrel now with the trefoil symbol is open. And so clearly, the idea is don’t touch anything with the trefoil symbol or at least not a barrel.
Ramon: Of course, you read it from right to left. And it’s a totally different story. The old guy who is sick discovers the fountain of youth. And he is reborn.
Matthew: Okay. All is not lost. Maybe you could use arrows. Arrows are universal. Or maybe you could situate the various comic strips in a sequence that you can only see sequentially based on how they’re arranged in the space. So I don’t know, maybe it’s possible to create a universally recognizable warning sign that way. But really, regardless of whatever symbol we’re trying to come up with or whatever story that we’re trying to tell, can we actually build something, make something like a physical, tangible thing that can last 10,000 years?
Roman: The brainstormers at WIPP thought about building something from solid gold.
Jon: Well, what’s going to happen? They’re going to get stolen.
Matthew: Maureen Kaplan, the archaeologist, her group realized the same thing.
Maureen: Metals were going to get recycled.
Matthew: So no bronze, no aluminium. That basically leaves you with rocks. And rocks can erode. And who knows? A giant monolith could be useful to some future desert person. You could just tip it over on its side. And then you have a foundation for your house.
Roman: Here is the critical moment where all the obvious choices have been exhausted. Language, symbols, and story boards weren’t going to cut it.
Matthew: And here’s where plans for the WIPP site start getting really wacky. There was this one guy in Maureen’s group named Mike Brill.
Maureen: Mike Brill was a landscape architect.
Matthew: And an artist. Brill has since passed away. But Maureen remembers in their group, Brill had this revelation. You don’t actually need to transmit information into the future. All you need to do is make somebody scared of being in that place.
Maureen: He was trying to see sculpt the landscape such that it in itself gave a warning to people who were coming there. And he was thinking a massive scale, on a scale greater than I’d never imagined.
Matthew: Like one drawing which Mike called the Landscape of Thorns. A drawing of these huge needles–
Maureen: Sharp, pointed, angular.
Matthew: — jutting up from the ground.
Maureen: You know, the earth itself became a cactus.
Roman: Make the land itself ominous and impassable.
Jon: The last thing you want to do is draw people to see this incredible work of art. It’s, “You got to see this thing. It’s odd. It’s a half-mile of these giant spikes. What the hell is it?” So somebody builds a hotel for them to stay in. And they decide to dig a well for water. And there you are. You’ve just caused exactly what you’re trying to avoid.
Roman: When all was said and done, both groups submitted their proposals. But Sandia Labs found most of the ideas a little too pie in the sky. Here is Roger Nelson, the Chief Scientist at the Department of Energy’s Carlsbad Field Office which owns and operates WIPP.
Roger Nelson: If we build any markers, they need to be constructed at a reasonable cost. Because it’s just not right to ask real– current generations of real people today to sacrifice– due their tax dollars or whatever– to invest in protecting a hypothetical intruder into some very far future from a risk for which there’s likely no harm to resolve.
Roman: In fact, the panel that met to figure out the WIPP marker system was actually not the first instance of thinkers being brought together to consider how to communicate the dangers of nuclear waste over time. There was one such meeting in 1981 for the Yucca Mountain Project which was eventually scrapped.
And the Yucca Mountain Project had probably the craziest idea proposed. And even though it was never suggested for WIPP, it’s become the 99pi in-house favorite method of communicating with people 10,000 years in the future. In fact, that’s probably the reason why we’re doing this story at all. Call it the “ray cat solution”.
Matthew: My hands down favorite approach came from these two European philosophers, Francois Bastide and Paolo Fabbri. It goes like this. The two of them got thinking that the most durable thing that humanity has ever made is culture, religion, folklore, belief systems. Sure they morph over time, but an essential message can get pulled through. And so Bastide and Fabbri said, “Here is what we’re going to do. We’re going to genetically engineer a species of cat that changes color in the presence of radiation. Then we’d release them out into the wild to become feline Geiger counters.” And that’s just step number one. Step number two, “We will create entire system of folklore about these cats. So we will sing songs about them. We will draw pictures of them. We will tell stories about them. And like any good story, there’s more, that when you see the cats turn color, run far far away.”
So don’t change color, kitty.
Keep your color, kitty.
Stay that midnight black.
The radiation that the change implies
Can kill, and that’s a fact.
The radiation, whatever that is,
Is something we don’t want.
‘Cause it withers our crops
And it burns our skin
And it turns our livestock gaunt.
So don’t change color, kitty.
Don’t flash your eyes.
So don’t change color
Matthew: Once this ray cat folklore becomes embedded into our culture, the knowledge it contains can evolve with us even as our language shifts. 10,000 years from now, these songs or these stories may sound incomprehensible to us, but as long as they communicate this idea that it’s not safe to be where the cats change colors, we will have done our job. May the ray cats keep us safe.
Roman: The plan that Sandia Labs decided to move forward with does not involve ray cats, sadly, or a landscape of thorns. It doesn’t even involve the skull and crossbones.
Roger: Another conceptual design includes a big dorm, 30′-high, or some construction around the [inaudible] repository.
Roman: That’s Roger Nelson again, the Chief Scientist overseeing WIPP. At the end of the day, the powers that be decided to go with solutions that the panelists have pretty much cast aside. They’re marking the area with large granite monuments–
Roger: Large granite monuments at each corner and in the middle and some several buried libraries.
Roman: There will be information in seven languages, the six languages of the UN – Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, Spanish – and also Navajo.
Roger: Because it’s the most prevalent indigenous language of the area.
Roman: The plan is still being finalized. But keep in mind, we’re talking about protecting people that our great great great great great great great great great great grandkids will never know.
Jon: We have a duty to warn them.
Maureen: We have a responsibility to mark the area.
Matthew: After a certain point, yes, I started wondering like, “Isn’t this just a bit ridiculous?” While I was researching the story, I read about this town called Tallevast, a small predominantly African-American community about hour, hour and a half south of Tampa, Florida. In the 1960’s, a beryllium processing plant was setup in the middle of town. The plant manufactured components for nuclear bombs and also built pieces of the Hubble space telescope. Anyway, it turned out that this plant was never very good about dealing with its waste. The beryllium dust and other toxins made their way into the town’s ground water. And Tallevast had always gotten its water from shallow wells. Residents started noticing that a lot of people were getting diagnosed with cancer and other diseases including berylliosis which you get from exposure to beryllium.
Tallevast filed a lawsuit against the company that owns the plant, Lockheed-Martin. And Lockheed spent years dragging out the lawsuit. Now, the reason I bring this up is because Lockheed-Martin happens to be the parent company of Sandia National Labs, the corporation that runs the WIPP site over in New Mexico. And this case at Tallevast is hardly unique. There are literally thousands of towns across United States, many of them low-income or communities of color, that have become contaminated in similar ways.
Roman: And so the 10,000-year WIPP marker system feels really noble. But maybe a little misguided. I am all for taking care of people 10,000 years in the future. But I think the best way to do that is to start taking care of people that are alive today. That way, there might be humans in 10,000 years, and cats.
Don’t change color, kitty.
Keep your color, kitty.
Stay that pretty ray.
Don’t change color, kitty.
Keep your color, kitty.
Keep sickness away.
Don’t change color, kitty.
Keep your color, kitty.
Please, ’cause if you do,
Or glow your luminescent eyes,
We’re all gonna have to move.
Roman: 99% Invisible was produced this week by Matthew Kielty and Sam Greenspan with Katie Mingle, Avery Trufelman, and Lee Roman Mars. Special thanks to a bunch of people for helping us with this story: filmmaker Robb Moss, Matt Stroud, and Jordan Oplinger over at TheVerge, Evan Luwick at the DOE Carlsbad Field Office, Steve Lerner, author of Sacrifice Zones, and Emperor X aka Chad Matheny for composing the original song Don’t Change Color, Kitty which will be in your head for 10,000 years.
Or flash your eyes,
‘Cause Lord knows if you do,
I hope you think it’s cozy in your travel case,
Because it’s time to move.
Roman: We are a product of 91.7 local public radio KALW in San Francisco and produced at the offices of Arcsine, an architecture firm in beautiful downtown Oakland, California.