What if the only thing standing between us and a radioactive nightmare was a catchy tune? That’s the premise of a song that was commissioned by a podcast to explore the idea of creating a warning message for future generations about the dangers of nuclear waste.
The song, called “10,000-Year Earworm to Discourage Settlement Near Nuclear Waste Repositories (Don’t Change Color, Kitty)”, was composed by Jim Keller and Darby Slick and performed by Emperor X, an indie rock musician. The song was inspired by a speculative project called the Ray Cat Solution, which proposes using genetically modified cats that would glow in the presence of radiation as a way of signaling danger to humans.
The Ray Cat Solution was first proposed by Françoise Bastide and Paolo Fabbri in 1984, as a response to the challenge of communicating across deep time. How do you warn future civilizations, who may not speak any of our languages or share any of our symbols, about the locations and hazards of nuclear waste sites that will remain toxic for thousands of years?
This is not a hypothetical question. There are already several nuclear waste repositories around the world, such as the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) in New Mexico, that are designed to last for 10,000 years and to convey a warning message to anyone who might stumble upon them. The message should be clear, simple, and universal: “This place is not a place of honor… nothing valued is here. What is here was dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.”
But how do you ensure that such a message will be understood and respected by future generations? Nuclear semiotics is an interdisciplinary field of research that studies this problem. It involves nuclear physicists, engineers, anthropologists, sci-fi writers, artists and others who have come up with various proposals for creating long-term nuclear waste warning messages that can be understood by any possible future human or non-human recipients.
One of these proposals is the Ray Cat Solution, which suggests creating a legend or a folk song about cats that change color when exposed to radiation. The idea is that such a story would be so catchy and annoying that it would be passed down through generations as a cultural meme. The song by Keller and Slick tries to achieve this effect by using simple lyrics, repetitive melodies, and unusual intervals. The chorus goes like this:
“Don’t change color kitty / You’re so pretty pretty / Don’t change color kitty / Stay that pretty green / Don’t change color kitty / You’re so pretty pretty / Don’t change color kitty / Stay away from me”.
The song may not be a masterpiece of musical artistry, but it may serve a noble purpose: to save us from our own radioactive legacy. As Emperor X sings in the song: “We made this mess / We made this tune / We made these ray cats for you.”
– How to build a nuclear warning for 10,000 years’ time, BBC, 3rd August 2020
– Emperor X, Wikipedia, accessed on 31 May 2023
– Can Glowing ‘Ray Cats’ Save Humanity?, Atlas Obscura, 25 October 2022
– TIL there is a song titled “10,000-Year Earworm to Discourage Settlement Near Nuclear Waste Repositories” meant to “convey the concept of radiological warning” so “no one will forget it for a significant portion of the lifespan of dangerous radiation at repository sites”, Reddit