Twin children of the nuclear age

“But a larger question concerns our scientific knowledge: is our representation of the natural world universal? Throughout the half-century of SETI, Cocconi, Morrison, Drake and their followers have argued over which regions of the electromagnetic spectrum it would be most ‘rational’ to target for a search. They have based their arguments on naturally occurring processes like the 21-centimetre hydrogen line or similar emissions from other constituents of water molecules. But who is to say that other advanced civilisations – even if they pursue something like scientific investigation – would carve up the confusion of nature in the same way as we do? We now think in terms of atoms, electrons, quantum transitions and electromagnetic waves, but are those the only ways of making sense of physical phenomena? Can the intellectual history of Western science really be a universal phenomenon, with the current state of our science being a fixed point in the evolution of intelligence everywhere in the cosmos?

“And SETI might indeed make its greatest contribution in the nuclear arena. Some of the most hazardous by-products of the nuclear age, including isotopes of plutonium, have half-lives of hundreds of thousands of years. One challenge is to find places on Earth that are likely to remain geologically stable over such a time-scale, where such waste can be buried. A second challenge is to design symbols to warn our descendants, 300,000 years from now, not to go digging in these areas. As the historian Peter Galison has been documenting, the US nuclear agencies have sought the wisdom of diverse experts – linguists, anthropologists, sculptors – to imagine how we might plausibly communicate with terrestrial beings in the impossibly distant future. After all, the Latin alphabet dates back a mere 2600 years; only hubris could lead us to imagine that familiar modes of communication will be recognisable in the year 300,000 AD…”

“Alongside linguists and artists, nuclear bureaucrats have also enlisted experts in SETI. Struggling to communicate with our future selves calls for the same kind of radical imagination that SETI requires. Both efforts criss-cross the boundaries between disciplines; both require experts to project from what we know about our own civilisation to facilitate communication with some distant other. They are mirror images, twin children of the nuclear age…”

Read More: David Kaiser: Diary – London Review of Books

Image: Proposal for Yucca Mountain ‘warning’ sculpture by Michael Brill, via

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