from the Oakland Tribune, June 12, 2000: LANGUAGE EXPERTS SPEAK TO THE FUTURE: Researchers must invent universal communication By Glenn Roberts, Jr., staff writer Thousands of years from now, granite obelisks will stand above the desert landscape of southeast New Mexico to warn visitors of radioactive toxins buried nearly one-half mile deep. An earthen berm, implanted with magnets, will mark the boundaries of the toxic dump. Chambers with granite-slab walls, buried near the surface to survive the millenia, will be engraved with warnings. The messages will be written in seven languages, including English, Chinese, Russian and Navajo. Pictographs will relate universal messages on the dangers of radioactive and toxic wastes. Pictographs, such as the symbols that represent pedestrian crossings and no-smoking areas, transcend written language with simple visual cues. Since the dawn of humankind, people have used pictures to relate information and ideas. Cave paintings and spiral motifs carved on Stonehenge monoliths are among the earlier examples. The pictographs at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico will include drawings that warn of the harm caused by digging and drilling at the site. A panel of experts, including scientists, futurists and science-fiction writers, developed the plan to make WIPP an unwelcome place when it is retired in about 30 years. Their task was to communicate to strangers - to convey clear messages to all visitors who stumble upon the site within the next 10,000 years. Researchers at the Search for Extraterrestial Intelligence Institute in Mountainview[, CA] face a similar challenge in speaking to an unknown audience using a universal language. Doug Vakoch, a social scientist at the SETI Institute, is studying the use of pictographs and other forms of universal communication to send messages to others beings in the universe. "To me, the question is not 'Would another civilization be smart enough to talk with us?' but, 'Can they be dumb enough?' " Vakoch said. Radio technology, which has been used to broadcast messages to space, is only about 60 years old on Earth, he said, though it is possible that radio is rather primitive to other civilizations in the universe. One of the challenges in sending messges to space is to send messages that show our sophistication rather than our ignorance, he said. "If we're going to communicate with another civilization, we have to show that we're an advanced civilization. The first impression could make a big difference." Perhaps the creation of a new language, based upon mathematics and pictures, will help us to formulate messages, he said. Frank Drake, president of the SETI Institute, in 1974 used a radio telescope to send a binary message to the stars. The message was a pictograph with a human figure, the planets in the solar system, and the double-helix structure of DNA, the key to life on Earth. In the 1800's, researchers theorized that people on Earth could communicate their knowledge to beings on the moon and other planets by carving a Pythagorean triangle in the forests of Siberia or igniting a circle of flames in the Sahara desert. These early concepts for communicating beyond our planet convey some of the mathematical and scientific achievements of our day.