Wednesday, July 21, 2010

To each her stone

I think of the Egyptians whenever someone says that "nuclear has to be part of the mix" of energy sources we use. Not the Egyptians who are currently going to college or walking the crowded streets of Cairo, but the ancient Egyptians in their generations going back 5,000 years or so.

This is about the oldest continuous civilization any of us knows about. And I think, if they had dumped a bunch of nuclear waste in a deep grave around the time that Thebes was founded, and had posted (carved) big red signs around its entrances (saying, in the argot of the day, "Cursed! Keep away!"), at some point in the 5000 years since, people would have forgotten about the dump, and forgotten how to read the signs. And there would have been a period of decades until archaeologists found the Rosetta Stone during which people fumbled around trying to translate the signs, losing their hair to age and radiation poisoning both. The radioactive waste continues to be dangerous to humans, according to one estimate, for from 10,000 to 1 million years. It's a weird, wide-ranging estimate, partly because how dangerous the waste is depends on what it is, and how much of it there is.

Still, I conclude, don't use nuclear. The chances that people 10,000 years from now are going to be able to read our signs are very slim.

For one thing, we print our warning signs on steel, which rusts. You can see signs 30 years old that are rusting out and starting to hint at their future illegibility. If we really wanted people far into the future to be able to read our thoughts and warnings, and know how smart we really were, we should be carving those thoughts in stone. Or at least writing them on vitrified pottery. Acid-free papyrus, at the very least. Those are the writing materials that have stood the test of time.

What if the Greeks and Egyptians hadn’t chiseled their finest thoughts and observations in stone? Hadn’t worshipped in stone? Hadn’t commemorated each other’s victories and defeats in stone, carving penises in marble when times were fat and lopping them off the statues of enemies on occasions of victory? What would we know of Plato or Homer, Caesar or Ptah if our predecessors hadn't taken the time to chisel down the important facts? How many people would know Thing One about their own family histories if some old relative with a stoop and coat with elbows worn thin hadn't stood around in cemeteries and copied down names and dates from the stones there?

But our use of chisel on stone has become more and more rare. Where in the last century or two, businesses proudly declared the Plumm Building theirs, or at least designated the little brick construction on the corner "Bank," the pace of business is now so rapid that only the biggest of the big carve Hancock or Trump into the stone. On the far end of the scale, we mostly don't even write on cheap paper any more. We write in letters that come and go with the electric current, the currency of your software, or sometimes, on a whim.

No comments: