Given than the Millenarian math of Saunt Edhar stores a large amount of nuclear waste, one would expect all Millenarians to have died out long ago from radiation poisoning or radiation-induced cancer, but they haven't. Anathem explains this away as a case of quantum immortality: there are narratives in Hemn Space where Millenarians miraculously do not get radiation poisoning or cancer despite essentially sitting on top of a nuclear dumpster, and as Incanters they can simply access these particular narratives.

But then, if the radiation leakage is so severe, it should also affect the Centenarian math next door. But so far as we know, Centenarians do not die of cancer. So, we have various possibilities.

  1. Centenarians are also Incanters, and can survive adverse radiation effects in the same way as Millenarians. This would be consistent with the fact that Logodhir, while only a Centenarian, is a Rhetor, which is an ability implied to be on a par with Incantation.
  2. Centenarians are not Incanters. Millenarians choose the cancer-avoiding narratives not only for themselves, but for everybody in the concent and surrounding area that could potentially be affected by radiation. This is consistent with the fact that Millenarians are able to drag others along into the narratives they favor (as Jad did with Erasmas).
  3. Nobody has to avoid radiation poisoning because the waste containers are perfectly secure and leak no radiation at all. Millenarians using Incantations to reach prodigious ages is something they do because they can, not a side effect of having to use Incantations to avoid dying of cancer.

Which one do you think is the most likely possibility?

  • 2
    4. The Millenarians are so efficiently isolated that no information, including radiation, is allowed to escape. Although at one point I thought that Erasmus thought he heard a chuckle.
    – TGnat
    Commented Jul 31, 2014 at 21:13
  • 1
    Bah -- I misread the title and thought you were asking about Anthem by Ayn Rand -- doh!
    – K-H-W
    Commented Aug 1, 2014 at 2:17

4 Answers 4


or, 4. The waste containers are stored within a cavern, and the radiation leakage from containers is largely contained within (in addition to the vertical distance between the Millenarians and the Centenarians). Millenarians are exposed because they work within the cavern, in close proximity to the waste:

"Have you seen the stuff?" Lio asked.

"Oh yes. It is in cylinders, in a cavern in the rock. We see it every day."

and, at the risk of suggesting there's any science involved here:

Yucca Mountain is a ridge made up of layers of volcanic rock known as tuff. Scientists believe that tuff has special chemical, physical, and thermal characteristics that make it extremely suitable for burying radioactive waste. As long as the waste stays solid and remains deep underground, it should not pose a threat to the environment or to human health as the layers of tuff shield the radiation.

(From Environmental Literacy Council)

  • Knowing Neil Stephenson's work, I'm certain he would have thought about radiation and made sure that the location of the stored waste was not near enough to any others to cause exposure.
    – user31178
    Commented Mar 4, 2016 at 5:52

The centenarian math is not "next door" to the millenarians. The millenarians are up on a crag and isolated from everyone else. The millenarians are next to the centenarians at auts in the clock tower, but I don't expect that they bring any nuclear waste with them.


I think the centenarians survive by repairing their DNA. Lio and Erasmas have a conversation where they talk about how long Fra Jad seems to have been alive. They say, "you can't live that long without repairing the sequences in the nuclei of your cells": repairing your DNA, in other words.

To live a truly long time, you would have to be able to repair damage to your DNA that results from environmental factors (radiation from the sun, radiation from radioactive materials, carcinogens, free radicals) and copying errors that creep in during cell division. Since cancer is caused by mutations that result in uncontrolled cell growth, you could prevent or stop it by repairing those mutations.


The waste is stored in a cavern in the Millenarian's part of the mountain. The mass of rock protects everyone from radiation - the Millenarians living on top of it, and all the other maths below/beside it. All except for the specific Millenarians who need to go in the waste caverns to maintain the repository: the "thatchers" (like Fraa Jad) and others.

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