Semiotics, words & half-life


Remember your school-time nuclear physics?

A quick refresher here and here.

Point being:
Radioactive materials take practically forever to lose their radioactivity.

Now think of tonnes and tonnes of nuclear weapons stockpiled by all countries of the world. Even if tomorrow they decide to 'dump' these nuclear weapons, imagine how much time it will take for these tonnes and tonnes to become 'safe'.

Here is a simple challenge:

Think of a way to communicate this "Danger: This site is radioactive" in such a manner that a.) it stands for 24,000 years* and b.) people, 24,000 years later, can still understand it.

Don't waste your time thinking of phrases / icons / signboards for this. None of what you could think of is good enough!

Remember, that we have not been able to understand hieroglyphics even after 5000-8000years. The most popular language in the world, Mandarin, is understood by only around 800-900 million people out of the 6 billion people. English is understood by some 600-700 million people. (These figures may not be accurate, but well within range to make a point!)

I faced this question for the first time, in one of the workshops by my good friend Niyam Bhushan two years back. Niyam sent an email recently:

…here is my pet-puzzle that I've wondered about since more than eight years. It remains unsolved. For those of you who have ever attended my typography workshops, it may be familiar.


Please take a look at it, discuss and share among yourselves and your friends.

"The arrow of education points towards illiteracy." – osho

* You may need to register at the LA Times website for this, but it's a quick, one-time registration, that's worth it.

An excerpt from the LA Times article:

As chief scientist of the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, Nelson oversees a cavernous salt mine that is the first geological lockbox for the "fiendishly toxic" detritus of nuclear weapons production: chemical sludge, lab gear and filters laced with tons of radioactive plutonium.

Nearly half a mile underground, workers push waste drums into crystalline labyrinths that seem as remote as the moon. A faint salty haze glows in powdery beams from miners' headlamps and settles on the lips like a desert kiss. Computer projections predict that within 1,000 years the ceilings and walls will collapse in a crushing embrace that seals the plutonium in place.

But plutonium remains deadly for 250 times that long — an unsettling reminder that some of today's hazards will outlast the civilizations that created them. The "forever problem," unique to the modern technological age, has made crafting the user manual for this toxic tomb the final daunting task in an already monumental project. The result is a gargantuan system that borrows elements equally from Stonehenge and "Star Trek." [Read more]

A thoroughly humbling thought, that not only puts in perspective the madness of nuclear weaponry, but also the helplessness and inadequacy of all means of communication known to us…

And come to think of it, people argue that humans are a more evolved species because of language. Animals, by the way, may sense the danger 24,000 years later too.


* Why this figure of 24,000 years?
That's apparently the time it will take for the current dump to decay. And this is just a decimal (and dismal!) percentage of the total existing nuclear stockpile worldwide.

3 thoughts on “Semiotics, words & half-life

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