Columnists > Voices

Radioactive temple

Would a modern Stonehenge provoke caution or curiosity in the far-off future?

Issue: "Soldiering on," May 27, 2006

Imagine finding in a remote desert a wall 33 feet tall and 98 feet wide. The wall goes on for two miles, encircling a vast compound. At the center of the site is a building. Inside the chamber are stone tablets inscribed with what appear to be maps, stylized designs, and inscrutable symbols. Thirty-two stone monoliths stand outside the wall, and 16 stand inside, each 25 feet high and inscribed with mysterious hieroglyphics and pictures of human faces with expressions of horror and revulsion.

Scientists flock to the site. Their instruments detect nine-inch ceramic disks just under the surface, upon which are more primitive writing and scary pictures. And although the compound is clearly ancient, the scientists discover strong magnetic fields and some radar-reflecting material buried deep beneath the surface.

What might such an archeological site indicate? Would this be evidence of an extraterrestrial visitation? Or an ancient people with primitive customs but advanced technology? The Stonehenge-like structure is clearly a temple of some sort. But what demonic deities did these people worship? What is the meaning of those horrified human faces?

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This high-tech Stonehenge does not come from a sci-fi movie script (though dibs on the movie rights!). It is going to be built by the U.S. government.

The Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, N.M., takes lethally radioactive plutonium waste and buries it in an abandoned salt mine nearly a half-mile below the surface. The rock formations effectively shield the public from the deadly radiation.

But engineers have to face what they call "the forever problem." This waste will remain hazardous for over 25,000 years. How can the public be protected from this stuff in a hundred, a thousand, and 10 thousand years? How can we prevent someone in the year 21,000 from digging around in what was once New Mexico, stumbling upon this unwelcome gift from the 21st century, and getting killed?

If the government were really so concerned about future generations, it might do something about the deficit and fix Social Security. But we are talking about the far, far future. What will human life be like 20,000 years from now?

Christians might assume that Christ will surely have returned by then. Others that the human race will have perished in a nuclear or environmental holocaust, or perhaps evolved into a higher life form or left Earth to colonize outer space. Few believe that the United States of America or our current civilization will last that long. Nevertheless, on the off-chance our descendants will still be around, how can we protect them? And how can we communicate with them?

The government assembled a panel of experts-including linguists, artists, and futurists-to tackle the problem. Language changes rapidly, as is evident in what has happened to English from the time of Chaucer (600 years ago) to King James (400 years ago) to today. Surely denizens of the 210th century would not be able to read warning signs in our English. What could we do to warn people of the future of the danger and convince them to stay away?

After much study, the Stonehenge-like complex won out. The monoliths will be inscribed with warnings in English, Spanish, French, and Navajo. Also, in case our current adversaries win, Chinese and Arabic. There will also be room for later languages. Pictograms will show people getting zapped by radiation.

Ironically, the sophisticated scientific solution takes a primitive-looking form, as if we or our descendants were stone-age mound builders. And wouldn't the safer course be to hide the dangerous material, rather than call attention to it?

If we were to come across such a mysterious temple, wouldn't we assume that it marks some sacred object? Or a vast treasure? Wouldn't our archeologists want to excavate the site? Wouldn't we be curious about what the monoliths are referring to and what lies underneath? Wouldn't we have the irresistible urge to start digging?

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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