Where to Bury Nuclear Waste

“About twenty years ago, NASA or some other American government agency was trying to decide where exactly to bury the nuclear waste that, as we know, remains radioactive for 10,000 years or something astronomical. Their problem was that even if they did find suitable land, how could they warn the people of the future not to enter it? Because after all, over the last 2,000 or 3,000 years we’ve lost the ability to decipher several languages. If in 5,000 years’ time, human beings have disappeared and new beings have arrived from outer space, how will we be able to signal to them that they mustn’t use or even walk on the land in question? The government agency gave linguist and anthropologist Tom Sebeok the job of creating a form of communication that could overcome these difficulties. Having examined all possible solutions, Sebeok concluded that there was no language, even pictorial, that was likely to be comprehensible outside the context that had given rise to it. We are unable to interpret the prehistoric figures we find in caves with any certainty. Even ideographic language may not be properly understood. According to him, the only possible solution would be to create religious brotherhoods and have them circulate a taboo like ‘Don’t touch such-and-such’ or ‘Don’t eat so-and-so.’ A taboo can be maintained over generations. I had another idea, but NASA weren’t paying me so I kept it to myself. It was to bury the nuclear waste in such a way that the first layer was very dilute and therefore not too radioactive, the second a little more radioactive, and so on. If this being accidentally stuck his hand – or whatever he used for a hand – into the waste, he would only lose a finger. But then, we can’t be sure that he would not have persisted.” (Umberto Eco, This is Not the End of the Book)