Posts Tagged ‘Public Health’

This is a bit of a monster post, but it’s pretty interesting, I promise!

How do you leave a message to ancestors more than 24,000 years in the future?

That’s the challenge of nuclear semiotics – human communication across nuclear time – the attempt to create long-term warnings on nuclear waste facilities that will tell far-future generations the radioactive danger that lies ahead.

And 24,000 years is actually an underestimate, that’s only the half-life of plutonium-239. One work group in Germany concluded that nuclear waste must be separated from the biosphere for up to one million years – about 30,000 human generations.

It’s a surprisingly difficult problem. Written languages are probably a no-go, when only a few scholars today can understand the untranslated Beowulf, which was written a mere 1,000 years ago.

The classic trefoil symbol for radioactive material might seem a natural alternative to text, but without previous knowledge about what it’s meant to stand for, it’s unlikely you’d realise the threat it denoted. And symbols’ meaning isn’t fixed – the swastika was a holy icon of Hinduism before the Nazis claimed it, the skull and crossbones has only become a symbol of death since pirates flew it in the 1700s.

The culture of earlier centuries becomes incomprehensible when it is not translated into new languages every few generations and national institutions do not exist longer than a few hundred years – there are currently few, if any, continuous lines of communication across the spans of time required.

So in 1981, a team including engineers, anthropologists, nuclear physicists and behavioural scientists called the Human Interference Task Force was convened by the U.S. Dept. of Energy and the Bechtel Corp (the largest civil engineering company in the U.S.) to reduce the likelihood of future humans unintentionally intruding on radioactive waste isolation systems.

Unsurprisingly, given the enormity of the undertaking and the diverse specialities of the team members, some dramatically different proposals emerged:

The Atomic Priesthood

Linguist Thomas Sobel’s approach was to create an Atomic Priesthood; a council of experts whose members would be replaced by nominations, and who would preserve the knowledge about the locations and danger of radioactive waste by creating and sustaining rituals and myths.

Based on the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church, an institution which is already two millennia old, the priesthood would reinforce the idea of off-limits areas and the consequences of disobedience, (i.e. sin and damnation).

As anyone who’s played a Fallout game (or read a history of the Catholic church) will tell you though, there are some rather large potential pitfalls:

  1. An atomic priesthood would gain political influence based on the contingencies that it would oversee.
  2. This system of information favours the creation of hierarchies.
  3. The message could splinter, or be split into independent parts.
  4. Information about waste sites would grant power to a privileged class. People from outside this group might attempt to seize this information by force.

Despite these pitfalls, the Atomic Priesthood has  a lot of strengths – it doesn’t rely solely on written communication, oral traditions and ceremonies can last huge spans of time, and it’s based on a model with a proven track record (the Catholic Church).

Ray Cats

Philosophers Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri also came to the conclusion that the most durable thing that humanity has ever made is culture: religion, folklore, belief systems. They may morph over time, but an essential message can last across millennia.

However, rather create a priesthood to remind people of the severity and location of the radioactive danger, Bastide and Fabbri took a slightly different approach:


As cats have had a long history of co-habitation with humans, (they were domesticated about 12,000 years ago), it is a reasonable assumption that their domestication will continue indefinitely.

Bastide and Fabbri proposed that we genetically engineer a species of cat that changes colour in the presence of radiation, and release them into the wild to serve as living Geiger counters.We would create folklore and write songs and tell stories about these Ray Cats, with the moral being that if ever you see these cats change colour, run far, far away.

I’ve no idea how practical this idea is – the cat in the picture is a real cat with bioluminescent jellyfish genes inserted, but could you link those genes to radiation exposure, and would interbreeding with non-ray cats dilute the effect? – but it’s easily the most fun proposal. I also really like the way it intertwines the strengths of science and mythology.

Hostile architecture

Hostile architecture is a controversial aspect of urban design that focuses on constructing public spaces to discourage certain types of behaviour, such as anti-homeless spikes or angular benches designed to prevent rough sleeping.

Landscape artist and architect named Mike Brill applied these principles to keep people away from the radioactive sites, by making people scared of being in this dangerous place. He envisioned huge needles jutting up from the ground – a “landscape of thorns.”


But there’s no way of knowing that this ominous landscape won’t become an attraction in itself and actually invite people to explore it. It reminds me a little of the Holocaust Memorial, which has been designed to evoke an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, yet is still a tourist attraction.

The technology barrier

As with much in life, the approach that seems most likely to work is also the most boring. Unsurprisingly, it was suggested by a Swiss physicist.

Emil Kowalski proposed that waste storage locations be constructed in such a way that future generations could reach them only with a high technical ability. The probability of an unwanted breach would then become extremely small. Furthermore, cultures able to perform such excavations and drillings would most certainly be able to detect radioactive material and be aware of its dangers.

It’s pretty unexciting, but burying waste so deep and sealing it in with so much concrete and steel that no one could reach it is both the best approach and the one that best fits with current technology and approaches.


The need for solutions to this problem isn’t too long way off. In Yucca Mountain, New Mexico, is the U.S’s Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. Almost 2 million cubic feet of radioactive waste is buried half a mile deep in the 250-million year old salt deposit. The plant will continue to receive nuclear sludge from around the country until 2070, when it will be sealed up for good.

In light of some of the other potential solutions, the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to reduce the dangers to future humans does feel a bit half-hearted. They plan on surrounding the plant with obelisks containing messages in Spanish, Navajo, Chinese, Latin, Hebrew, and English, presumably hoping that these messages will be added to in the languages of the time, as the millennia pass.

Realistically though, given people and their government’s reluctance to spend money on infrastructure projects with lifespans of mere decades, it’s highly unlikely that you would ever get the funding for the more out-there approaches.

But that leaves us in a world without mythologically-laden, radioactive, bioluminescent cats, and we’re all the poorer for it.

(via and via and via and via and via)


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As part of a design project for The University of the Arts, Bremen, Joris Wenger has developed his own proposal for Nuclear Semiotics – (how we communicate the dangers of nuclear waste sites to future generations, which I covered in the last post.

I think the laser-etched skull is incredibly striking, and does a good job of conveying ‘death’. Though the trefoil nuclear sign and exclamation marks aren’t self-evidently about death, danger or nuclear radiation, so their meaning would quite easily be lost to time.

Having said that, when a subject is communicating across tens of thousands of years, it’s always going to be a difficult proposal, and easy to pick holes in. Joris’ work is beautifully finished and an interesting approach to a fascinating challenge:



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Cover up

Ward + Robes is a fantastic campaign from the Canadian charity, the Starlight Children’s Foundation, to help teenagers feel less dehumanised in hospital.

The charity paired up creatives, including fashion designers, tattoo artists and an embroiderer, to design hospital gowns that allow for more personal expression.

Ward + Robes (great name) started at Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa, Canada, and the aim is to bring the program to other hospitals throughout Canada next. If you want to help Starlight Children’s Foundation’s efforts, you can donate here:


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Benjamin Lloyd is a Kiwi tattoo artist who gives hospitalised children fake body ink on using non-toxic ink stencils.

He recently tatted-up all the newly admissions at Auckland’s Starship Children Hospital. It’s a fantastic act of charity and you can see from the smiles how much it means to the kids:

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This video is a great example of modern advertising – create a stunt that highlights your message, then film it. The judges at the Cannes Health Awards thought so too.

It’s a lovely idea, creating a choir made up of people who struggle to breathe.

The only bum note for me is how polished and professional they sound at the end. I just don’t believe that normal people (and especially cystic fibrosis and COPD sufferers) could sound that good with the amount of training they were given. Either they were already professional singers, or the sound was punched up afterwards.

It’s a pity, as it pulled me out of what was otherwise a really cleverly conceived, nicely executed and genuinely moving ad:

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Common Pence is a donation platform that allows people to wave 10p to charity with their smart phones, contactless credit cards and Oyster cards. Those who donate are emailed a receipt of their donation with a link to each charities spending patterns.

It’s a nice way of bringing the effortlessness of contactless payment to charity:

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Gustav Klimt’s ‘The Kiss‘ is one of my wife’s favourite paintings, so this should be right up your street, love.

For the Style Bible (the brochure, I think) for the 2015 Life Ball (an annual AIDS charity event) in Vienna, the photographer Inge Prader recreated the paintings of the famous Vienna resident’s ‘Golden Phase’.

The set and costume design have beautifully captured Klimt’s richness, ornamentation and highly decorative aesthetic. This can’t have been cheap to put together, but they’ve got some gorgeous photos out of it:

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