The Secrets of Containment: Making the Invisible Visible

Image of woman in mask on street

Peter Galison, the Joseph Pellegrino University Professor at Harvard University, is fascinated by the “concrete visuals behind what might appear to be pure abstraction.” His new film Containment is about nuclear waste and its safekeeping for now and the next 10,000 years.

The film is co-directed with Robb Moss, Harvard College Professor and chair of the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies, a friend with whom Galison also produced the documentary Secrecy, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008.

A historian of science and a physicist, Galison, the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant,” is known for his keen investigations into the outer edge of physics and scientific experimentation.

He spoke with the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, where he is a Faculty Associate, about the recurring concepts that drive his curiosity and the thought process that led to Containment.

Q: You've been thinking about metaphorical ideas—time, waste, and secrecy—for many years. Did Containment provide you with an opportunity to delve into those subjects in unexpected ways?

A: I'm often interested in questions where we're used to speaking in what we think of as metaphorical language. Yet when you push on the ideas behind those metaphors, you find something really quite literal.

For example, I wrote a book called Einstein's Clocks and Poincaré Maps because I was thinking about time in relation to Einstein’s theory of relativity, which every physicist knows begins with Einstein’s thought: what does it mean for a train to arrive at a station at a particular time, say seven o’clock? He answered: when the train arrives in front of my watch when my watch points to 7 p.m.

Then he wondered, what does it mean when we say that a train arrives at a distant train station at 7 p.m.? He theorized that we must coordinate time between individual clocks. I asked myself if the concreteness and specificity of his thinking related to his work in a patent office. It turns out he was responsible for patents where electromagnetism was crucial. And people were literally trying to coordinate clocks by signaling between stations to prevent train wrecks. That's an example of the kind of re-literalization that interests me.

With secrecy, I’m interested in how people actually go about deciding that something should be secret. What kind of knowledge is secret? How does that change over time? It turns out you can learn a lot about the nature of knowledge by understanding what is forbidden. With Robb Moss, my colleague and friend, I made Secrecy, a film that was both an exploration of the topic and an inquiry into its meanings.

With Containment, I've been working with secrecy in another context. In the case of nuclear waste and contamination, it’s often invisible. You can't see it, you can't smell it, you can't hear it. It’s hidden. It's buried or it's in the ground or it's in the air. When you bury nuclear waste, by law, you have to mark this stuff for a period not less than 10,000 years. How do you imagine what society will be like 10,000 years from now? What kind of monuments do you create to warn people? Should we use pictures? Or language? Or scary forms? It’s again this question of trying to make invisible things visible so we can get at them. Make the abstract concrete.

So I'm interested in things like secrecy and the abstractions of theoretical physics—and time coordination and relativity.

Containment movie posterQ: Questions about the nature of time seem to be at the heart of Containment. Is that right?

A: Yes. Time has been a theme that's very interesting to me. In many ways, Einstein's greatest contribution to the special theory of relativity was his rethinking of what time was. His conclusion was that the idea of absolute time doesn't exist. Time is different to each moving observer.

This was really shocking. It had a huge effect on the cultural and scientific world. Artists got engaged by it. Philosophers began to debate it. It's played a role in painting and music. It continues to fascinate us. What at first was only a piece of physics became part of our cultural world. And it is now part of our technology—it’s part of your GPS, watch, phone. You wouldn't be able to reliably use the map application on your cell phone for more than a couple seconds if it stopped using relativity. It’s built into our daily lives.

But time is one of those things like secrecy, like containment, that is never just what it is literally or even pragmatically. Something about time and clocks is always referring to something else as well as its literal existence. If you go back to a late medieval Renaissance painting and you see a sundial—or a sand clock in the later Renaissance—or any reference to time, it's always calling out to our mortality, to our humanness, to death, to something that has to do with the great concerns of our finiteness. I’m interested in concepts that are both very concrete, specific, and consequential—but also something more.

Q: Waste is unavoidable and devastating in Containment. It signifies many things. What kind of questions are you asking or hoping that we will ask?

A: With Containment, you have nuclear waste in the form of these million-gallon tanks filled with sludge. They're kind of hidden away from us and they're partly buried underground. We're spending tens, even hundreds, of billions of dollars to try to deal with this stuff so it doesn't get into the groundwater and leak out. But it's also something else. It’s the sense of—what if we bury something, would it come back? And this idea of a kind of return of the repressed. It haunts people. What are our responsibilities to our children or to 450 generations into the future? This radioactive waste provokes thoughts far beyond the pragmatic. It provokes us to think about our responsibilities to the far future and to far-distant sites. But what can we understand about the future and what are out obligations to it? I think that's fascinating.

Meg Murphy, Communications Specialist, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs

Containment will show at Harvard Law School’s Langdell Hall 225, Vorenberg Classroom, on Tuesday, March 1 at 5 p.m. A panel discussion exploring the disposal of nuclear waste, environmental equality, and related issues will follow.

Photo Credits: Press kit for Containment film by Peter Galison and Robb Moss, 2015,