In 1990, the federal government invited a group of geologists, linguists, astrophysicists, architects, artists, and writers to the New Mexico desert, to visit the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. They were there on a mission. The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) … Continue reading →
This is an unofficial transcript meant for reference. Accuracy is not guaranteed.
This is ninety nine percent, invisible, I'm roman Mars. I want to start with a letter and this is Rapporteur Mathieu Guilty is let it get sent out do a couple hundred people back in nineteen. Ninety, so Roman. If you have a letter yesterday, dear zone. So they say: disposal of nuclear waste is one of the most pressing issues facing the United States today. It totally is, but if you actually, if you skip down past, that is I mean that's just about how there's these people were planning on bare a bunch of nuclear waste out in the New Mexico Desert at this place called the waste isolation pilot plant. But if you gotta make another pair You have been nominated to participate in a study sponsored by Sandia National laboratories that will identify what kinds of markers should be placed at the W Ip. Is it just jump down a little bit further too?
Philip, a marker system that will remain operational during the performance period of the site. Ten, thousand years there it is. That is the part that I love. I had a moment of wondering if it was a joke. This is Jean Lambert. He received one of these letters, which makes sense, given this line of work I'm an artist, and I work on projects involving unusual communication problems. The deeds time in the seventies working with Carl Sagan in ensuring on the Voyager Golden method. One of NASA's attempts at communicating with aliens see think this sort of thing would be right in his wheel, no usually don't get asked design something. That's gonna. Last ten thousand years that's twice span, recorded human history, the federal government, He was calling on him to help protect people ten thousand years in the future
the waste isolation pilot plant, W, I p, p or whip. For short, was ordered into existence by Congress in nineteen. Seventy, nine. Thinking was the Euro I to have a safe place to put radioactive byproducts from nuclear weapons, manufacturing and nuclear power plants and quicker, I sure, even though you don't see radiation and you might not feel it that's right away exposed. Or to radioactive materials can do Troy your body at a molecular level. It can leave burns. It can cause cancer it can even mutate. Your dna and the thing about radio activity is that it is very spreading, say you ve got a tool that touched a peaceable, Tonia EM. Now that tool is radioactive. And say a worker was wearing protective gloves while using that tool chances are those gloves, a radio to the waste isolation. Pilot plant was designed to store all the stuff in Keep us all safe from it. The website is in New Mexico, deep in the desert about twenty six miles. East of Carl's ban
It's it's a really cool place. It reminded me of kind of the headquarters Spectre or doctor no and James Bond novel as it is big underground facility filled with no technicians and in cover all and color coded, depending on what they did. Other the website in person when he accepted the invitation from Sandia Labs go be a part of the big group. Think under Ten thousand: your warning for the place Can you turn it down? This was in nineteen ninety one, so the workers John into an elevator shaft. You go down about half a mile beneath the surface and that's where John saw these enormous caverns they ve carved out this repository, basically assault deposit. Salt deposit, two hundred million years old and new?
think of saw as white, but this sort for reasons I dont understand- was kind of a Sammy pink color Oh the walls of this place, we're all crystalline with sort of. Through with these hues of salmon and pink and orange, so it actually quite beautiful. All this radioactive stuff will all be loaded in the thousands of oil drums and packed into these caverns, and then this underground chamber will be sealed up and left alone years will pass in those years. What
come decades in those decades will become centuries centuries will roll in the millennia people above ground will come and go cultures will rise and fall in all the while below the surface. The salt will do what salt does with the right temperature and pressure will slowly creep, making a cave full of waste smaller and smaller and smaller until the salt swallows up all those oil drums crushing them to meet them, and so then slid fighting the earth's crust will be these clubs in these tools in these little bits from bombs that we may also still radioactive poisonous for more than two hundred thousand years, basically forever Storing something dangerous safely forever is a huge design problem. Invite the jury is still out on whether they saw the basics of the storage problem at all.
February of twenty fourteen. A leak was detected that exposed several workers too low levels of radiation and whip has been closed sense. Department of Energy now predicts that it could be up to three years before whip 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 Jean Lambert was brought out to New Mexico to solve was not about negating the danger of whip. Two people today he went to figure out how to tell people millennia from now that this place is dangerous. When John Mamma arrived in New Mexico, he met the teammates. He be collaborating with there, geologists linguists astrophysicist. There was signed fiction. Writer, Gregory, Bedford and you would be the archaeologists- this Marine Loring Kaplan. In archaeologists without consulting firm e orgy. Do you remember what you thought of the people they get together
like me for some years like, oh, my goodness, she was kind starstruck. I wouldn't turn lumber wait a moment arch, the one who did picture that went off into space in terms of trying to communicate with whoever might find voyage I was impressed after him Those in one not the sandy folk split, all these monies into two different groups, so they have a kind of two separate thinking. Profit John was in European Marine Group A and then, and then they lay down the ground rules. They told us to assume that were designing a warning marker for humans? Not aliens, not cyborgs, but a human being biologically identical to us, but whose alive five hundred or five thousand or ten thousand years from now. How can you make a message that that human will understand in Y Y ten thousand years
As far as I can determine the logic seem to be well if we told them to design a marker to last two hundred and fifty thousand. That clearly ridiculous and absurd proposition, ten thousand here's doesn't sound quite so crazy job. It was just pulled out of the air- in other words, even though this site is going to be radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years. This panel, is only responsible for keeping this place sufficiently labelled for humans for the next, ten thousand years. Let's get some perspective, think about for humanity was ten thousand 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 biologic. We are the same people we were ten thousand years ago. I should that's true going back over forty thousand years, but culturally, we
share almost nothing with these people. Definitely not language. Well, no cause. The linguists tell us that language changes. Language has a half life just like radioactive materials. Have a half life in this half life isn't very long. Think about Shakespeare, my cousin, Westmoreland, nay, my fair cousin, a lack, what poverty my muse brings, but this dotage generals or flames the measure, some of the words, are fully rook vested, naturally flashpoint drink want that easy, but you know preschoolers can get through it. Although Shakespeare was only four hundred years ago, four per cent of ten thousand years, what go back, the Beowulf way gum
written in old English, sailed coonan gas rim through non basically incomprehensible Alan Friendly Don offshoot shaving share than a threat yeah. It's like a different language, and I know you can't see this, because this is radio, but trust me. It's just is 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 those letters today and that's from your one thousand ten percent of ten thousand years. There are some languages that are very resistant to change. That is languages, enshrined in biblical taxed in religious texts, latin the hebrew Arabic, but those aren't shore bats either. The oldest written text go back to ancient Sumeria about four thousand six hundred years ago in those languages, long sense dead and that's not even the halfway mark of our timeframe, so both teammates
at every language on the planet today could be gone well before ten thousand years. And how can you start a conversation with somebody that you have no common language with both can you start a conversation with somebody that you had no common language with both groups went share about this? Then they thought there's gotta, be something better than language symbols, symbols, pictures, There are some facial expressions which are pre universal, like Smiley, face to doubts, rise, half circle for a mouth, happy you and take another one for like young symbol, Mister Young, if he were alive in the eighties, you know that yeah, yeah,
it's a logo of a green phase with twenty eyes and stuck out tongue. The face looks it's about to sick 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, vacancy another logo which they thought might be universal, actually Carl Sagan proposed Sagan. Make the panel, but you sent a letter saying this poor marker Prob was easy. You just need the right symbol and he knew just the one. The skull across both the jolly rod, death, incarnate, well,
we're. The skull and crossbones came from now. No doubt the earliest uses of it are in religious paintings and sculptures from the middle ages, where at the foot of the cross, where Jesus crucify There's a skull with two bones in the shape of a cross, not an x, the shape of a cross at its Adams, Skull and the bones, or the symbol of the resurrection So, instead of being a symbol of death, it was a symbol of red, correction in rebirth, but fast forward, a couple of centuries there's a lot of trade going on merchant ships travelling to and fro and in the ship's log. If we say died the captain. Would put a little skull and crossbones next to his name and alive but the sailors came to associate that symbol.
With death, the rebirth part of it was kind of lost fast forward and other century. 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. A branding campaign to terrify their targets into compliance. Yeah can make clear where pirates and if you don't surrender, we're gonna, kill it's your death, but there are actually several different icons that pirates used, for example, a heart with blood dripping out of it, that was a popular pirate flag at an even more popular symbol. Wasn't hourglass hourglass an hour glass met. If you, surrender and a certain amount of time. We're gonna, kill you all, so the hourglass for awhile was that was the most feared pirate symbol.
But then one of the logos- God famous it- seventeen twenty apparently Kaliko Jack RACK M, was captured and put on trial in the legal proceedings. It came out that two of the pirates and Kaliko Jack's crew where women, and that one of them was pregnant with Kaliko Jack's child. This was the tabloids Kamal of a day and everyone in England, was reading about this trial anyway. It just so happens that Kaliko Jack symbol was the Jolly Roger, though in his case the bones were replaced with a pair of cross swords. Quick aside, the name Jolly Roger is probably in English, corruption of the french Jolie Rouge or pretty red. Because the original pirate flags were read not black. After that trial, the scowling crossbones started, showing up on
others pressurize unkind of novels. The skull and crossbones was permeating culture as a symbol of danger, jump ahead to delete eighteen. Hundreds guy factories in Germany started using the scowling crossbones as a symbol for poison half. Century later. The Nazis adopted it as these simple further s s death had divisions, so discoloured crossbones came to be associated with danger and death around the world, but it didn't become a universal, not really think about. What's happened with the skull and crossbones unless twenty thirty years it's gone, mainstream now you'll see it on kids book bags on one's ease for infants, you can even by
water bottles, with the skull and crossbones so much for the whole poisoning in the original, meaning as it pertain to Adam and the resurrection is long gone. The lesson that, with that we took from this is that symbols can change. I can graphical drift happens in. We haven't even touched on cultural interpretation like there's a canny company, Mexico called like Katrina and their logo, the logo that goes on the pact. Jeanne further. Sweets is a skull and serve to bring us back to the website. In New Mexico. The two teams- smart people at- will realise that symbols couldn't be trusted to mean the same things over time. So next idea we could tell a little story using sticks, miserable storytelling. Stick figure that, like any five euro, could draw yeah circle on top a trunk to arms into legs. Why? Well? There are two things that seem to be universal, inhuman or
One is a stick figure and you find them all drawn on the walls of the caves in the cave paintings that are twenty five thousand years old by the way may be the only piece of graphic are surviving from more than tat. Thousand years? That is from which we can draw meaning and John says, there's another convention that is universe, A sequence of events first happened, then this happen, and then this happened so, like a narrative, a story, a narrative story board a comic strip. You just find it everywhere and in fact you can even define a symbol using stick figures check it out. Let's do a simple comic strip. So first frame. You put. The small child in the child is in front of a small plant, a sapling second frame that child is a little bit bigger now and the sapling behind him is grown. A little bit then next to the child is a bear
and on that barrel is the symbol for radiation. The trefoil symbol and the child is touching that barrel, gotta third frame 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 axes 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 early. Not a barrel. Of course he 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's reborn. Okay, all is not lost. Maybe you could use arrows arrows are universal or maybe you can situate the various comic strips in a sequence, that you can only see sequentially based on how they arranged in space. So I don't know, maybe it's possible to create a year.
Firstly, recognisable warning sign that way, but really regardless whatever symbol were trying to come up with or whatever story that we're trying to tell you, can we actually build something, make something like a physical, tangible thing that can last ten thousand years, the rainstorms at whip thought about building something from solid gold while what's gonna happen, you're gonna get Stoa Marine Kaplan. The archaeologists who group realised this, thing, the metals, we're gonna, get recycled, soap, no brow, on snow aluminum. That basically leaves you with rocks and rocks, can a road and who knows a giant monolith could be useful to some future desert person. You, could you don't just tippit around side? And then you have a foundation for your house story boards, the critical moment where all the obvious choices have been exhausted. Language symbols in one weren't going to got it. And here's where plans for the website start in really whack
this one guy Marines group. They might bring like brow, was a landscape architect and in artist. Brill is since passed the way, but Marine remembers in their group. The pearl. Have this revelation you dont actually, to transmit information into the future. All you need to do is make somebody scared of being in that place He was
trying to sculpt the landscape such that it in itself gave of warning to people who work there, and he was thinking on a massive scale scale greater than I ever imagined like one dry, which might called the landscape of thorns. Drawing of these huge needles, sharp pointed angular shutting up from the ground. The earth itself became this. Make the land itself ominous impassable by laughing. You wanna do is draw people to see this incredible work of art. It's you, gotta see the thing. It's odd fits a half mile of these giant spikes. What the hell is it so as to build a hotel, for them to stay in and they decided to go well for water and there you are you just caused exactly what you're trying to avoid
When all is said and done, both group submitted their proposals, but Sandy Elapse found most of the ideas a little too pie in the sky, here's Roger Nelson, the chief scientists at the Department of Energies, Carlsbad Field Office, which owns and operates whip? If we build any markers, they need to be constructed a reasonable cost, because it's just not right who ask real current generations of real people today, I'm tired to sacrifice through their tax dollars or whatever, to invest in protecting a hypothetical intruder into some very far future from a risk for which there is likely no harm, In fact, the panel that met to figure out the whip 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 and one thousand nine hundred and eighty one for the Yucca Mountain Project, which was eventually scrapped and the in house favorite method of
people ten thousand years in the future, by the probably reason why we're doing a story at all. Come the ninety nine p, I in house favorite met of communicating with people ten thousand years in the future, by the probably reason why we're doing a story at all call it the re cat solution. My hands down, favoured approach came from these two european philosophers, Francois by steed and Palo for Bree. 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 the steed and for Pre said here's we're gonna do we're gonna genetically engineer, a species of tat that changes color in the presence of radiation, then we'd release them out into the wild to become EU line. 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 is more that when you see the cats turn color run
are far away. We keep these data by James Radiation, whatever that is, some want withered Robson once this recap, folklore becomes embedded into our culture. The knowledge it contains can evolve with us, even as language shifts ten thousand years from now. These songs and 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 re cats keep us safe. The plan that Sandia Labs decided to move forward with does not involve rake at sadly or a landscape of them.
It doesn't even involve the skull and crossbones when other, Design includes a big bird thirty feet: high earthen construction around the footprint other repository. Roger Nelson again, the chief scientists overseen whip at the end of the day, the powers that be decided to go with solutions that the palace had pretty much cast aside, their marking the area with large granite monuments, large granite monument, civic corner in the middle and several buried library There will be information in seven languages: the six languages of the EU in Arabic, Chinese, English, french, russian, spanish and so never her, because three most prevalent indigenous language of the area. The plan is still being finalized. You keep in mind we're talking about protecting people that our great great great, great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandkids, we'll never now we have it
duty. To warn that we have a responsibility to mark area after a certain point started wondering like. Isn't this just a bit ridiculous while his researching the story? I read about this town called Taliban small family african american community about our hour and a half south attain performer nineteen sixty said beryllium processing plant was set up in the middle of town. The plant manufactured opponents buried nuclear bombs and also bill pieces of the Hubble space telescope. Anyway, it turned out that this point was never very good about dealing with. Its waste, brilliant dust and other toxins made their way into the towns. Groundwater and televised had always got its water from shallow wells resident started knows but a lot of people were getting diagnosed with cancer and other diseases, including Berlioz US, which you get from exposure to beryllium
television file, the lawsuit against the company that owns the plant Lockheed Martin and Lockheed spent years, dragging out the lawsuit now. The reason I bring the sun is because Lockheed Martin happens to be the parent company of Cynthia National Land, the cooperation that runs the website opening in Mexico. In this case, a television is hardly unique. There are literally thousands of towns across the United States, many of them low income or communities, a color they have become contaminated in similar ways, and so the ten thousand year whip marker system feels really noble, but maybe a little misguided. I am. Offer taken care of people ten thousand years in the future blamed. Best way to do that is to start taking care of people that are alive today,
that way there might be humans in ten thousand years and get down to stay down change, gotta, keep away! Don't change, keep All I have Ninety nine percent invisible was produced this week by Matthew, cruelty and SAM Greenspan with gaiety, mingle, Avery Travelin and me roman Mars, spurs thanks to a bunch of people for helping us with this story. Filmmaker Rob Mosque, Matt Stroud in Jordan, Ollinger over at the verge, a van look at the deal we Carlsbad Field Office Steve, author of sacrifice, zones and emperor exe a Chad within four composing.
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Transcript generated on 2020-02-15.