Radioactive Cats: Science Fiction or The Solution to Nuclear Dangers?

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The Ray-Cat Solution…what sound like the title of an absurd science fiction novel could actually be the answer to a serious scientific dilemma – and a testament to the enduring Radioactive Cats Science Fiction or The Solution to Nuclear Dangerspower of cats in human culture. Here’s the story:

The Problem

Nuclear waste. One of the few solutions that scientists have found for disposing of it is burying it in landfills, but even buried nuclear waste still remains radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years, so scientists need to devise a way of warning future humans of the danger of these sites. But how to do this when language, signs and symbols can change so much over the centuries?

To tackle this time-traveling message problem, the US Department of Energy and the civil engineering company Bechtel Corp decided in 1981 to put together a team of scientists, writers, semiologists (people who study signs and communication) and others to come up with a creative solution.

The Ray Cat Solution

By far the strangest idea that the team came up with was the ray-cat solution, suggested by the French author Françoise Bastide and the Italian semiologist Paolo Fabbri. Their idea was to create “ray-cats” who were genetically modified to change color when exposed to radiation, and thus would serve as warnings to people that an area was dangerous.

Next, people today would have to create a mythology around ray-cats, celebrating them in music, art, religion, etc. so that years in the future, the idea that they are important and signal that a certain area is dangerous will have been passed down through generations.

Why Cats?

This solution is a testament to the enduring love and reverence humans have had for cats throughout the ages. Françoise Bastide pointed out that all the way back in Egyptian times cats were considered holy creatures and have a clear mythology built around them; we in the 21st century are able to clearly see the significance of cats in ancient Egypt’s cultural art and artifacts even today.

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The Reception

Not surprisingly, this idea didn’t gain a lot of traction in the scientific world at first, and was mostly forgotten about until journalist Matthew Kielty did a radio story on it. Shortly after, he started to see a lot of buzz about ray-cats on the internet – people were making colored cat icons, glow in the dark t-shirts, writing a catchy ray-cat song, and generally creating that mythology that the scientists had talked about!

The ray-cat idea spread way more in popular culture and finally the scientific community than the originators had ever imagined, and now a Canadian scientist is investigating it as a real possibility. Go cat lovers!

While ray-cats might not be the ultimate solution to warning people about nuclear waste, it has been fun and fascinating to see that cats still have a strong place in the popular imagination. And as the journalist Matthew Kielty pointed out, a world where people want to write poems and create art about cats “just sounds like a lovely place to be!”

Do you have any interesting stories about Ragdoll cats or any cats in science or popular culture to share?

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Comments (5)

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  1. Thanks for sharing Jenny, another crazy idea by scientists, and I say this having degrees in Environmental Science, and Conservation. I think genetic engineering of animals is immoral. Typically these animals are born with deformities, and die shortly after birth. This does not sound like a “lovely place to be”. And wouldn’t these cats exposed to radiation die? I prefer a world without nuke power and nuke waste, and to focus on renewable energy, rather than using cats in a cruel experiment. I am not thinking this is what the Egyptians had in mind as a way to worship our amazing feline friends.

  2. A really interesting story! The idea of trying to communicate with a distant future in such a way is pretty fascinating. I do find the idea of using cats as radioactivity canaries revolting, but I think they mean to just have all cats have the trait, so if they happen to come to a radioactive spot, people would know, rather than purposely bringing them to the spot to check. Maybe if they tried it on an insect instead I’d be a bit less disturbed by the idea.

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