Rapid Response to Terrorist Nuclear Attack

I wish I were seeing a lot more articles like this one (hat tip Instapundit) that appeared in New Scientist, concerning preparedness for a terrorist attack with homemade nuclear weapons. I also wish the political powers that be would take them seriously. The nuclear attacks on Japan were not an historical anomaly. Nuclear weapons will be used again. The only question is when. “When” may well be when terrorists with the will to launch a nuclear attack acquire enough of the special nuclear material, in the form of plutonium or uranium, necessary to make a bomb. Once they have it, it is certain they will be able to make an effective nuclear device. The only question is how effective. On the low end of the spectrum, they could make a super dirty bomb by simply assembling a critical mass. On the high end, they could build a device with an explosive yield equal to or greater than that of the weapon dropped on Hiroshima. Regardless, when an attack occurs, we should be prepared to act swiftly and effectively, because thousands or tens of thousands of lives may be hanging in the balance.

Many of those whose lives could be saved by an effective rapid response will be those suffering from radiation poisoning. The effects of radiation poisoning are described here, and additional information on effects, symptoms, treatment, etc., may be found here, here and here. Note that death from radiation poisoning usually occurs because radiation damage renders our cells incapable of reproducing. This is especially critical in the case of cells that normally reproduce rapidly, such as white blood cells, or the cells lining our gut. If they are unable to reproduce, the number of these cells in our body may become depleted, typically in a matter of a few weeks, to the point that we succumb to infection and other secondary effects of their loss. As noted here, without treatment, “Total body exposure of 400 roentgens (or 4 Gy) causes radiation sickness and death in half the individuals.” However, the effectiveness of the techniques we have developed to treat radiation poisoning has increased very substantially in the last few decades. Using these techniques, victims might be stabilized and kept alive during the few critical weeks needed for their cells to recover the ability to reproduce. A great many of those who would have died could be saved. Related information may be found in the links noted above, as well as here, and much additional information may be found on the web. In short, if we respond effectively, we will be able to save a great many lives of those who would have been written off as hopeless cases 20 years ago. We must be prepared.

Good people are working on these problems in government agencies, universities, technical societies, etc. We need to listen to them, recognize the urgency of the problem, take action, and be ready.

Physics Flavored with Politics

Here’s a good blog for those of you who like to keep track of what’s going on in the world of physics. The author throws in some interesting and thought-provoking comments on politics and other topics outside the realm of science, from the point of view of someone who is obviously very smart, but not a policy wonk. For example, here’s one of his latest about Obama’s visit to Russia. It includes the following remark about why we may have elected Obama:

“Where does the difference between the reactions come from? Well, I think that the Soviet Union and other socialist countries have done pretty sophisticated things to improve their propaganda methods and to make the citizens join the official bandwagon and to respect the official cults. They had to be increasingly sophisticated because the citizens were increasingly more able to see through the tricks. Today, the citizens themselves are pretty realistic and many of them can see if someone tries to manipulate with them, especially if the methods are too obvious.

“The Americans and many other nations seem completely naive in these respects, like little kids from a kindergarten who see a magician for the first time. Naive child-like people may be cuter and happier but they may also do many more silly things.”

I rather suspect he overestimates the effectiveness of Communist propaganda and the naiveté of my countrymen here. I lived in Germany in the 70’s for over three years, and occasionally listened to East German radio. It wasn’t grossly inept, but seemed rather crude to me. As for us, we may have elected Obama, but his opponent wasn’t exactly charismatic, and, if the election had taken place in most west European countries, they would have elected him by a much greater margin than we did.

As for our “simplicity,” I suspect it’s not quite as extreme as most Europeans think. We’re used to listening to sophisticated spin, and have much better access to alternative viewpoints than the citizens of any European country I’m aware of. Most of them have nothing like our talk radio, or influential blogs with massive audiences on both the left and the right that are a rapid and effective check on the accuracy of stories that appear in the mainstream media.

Be that as it may, Mr. Motl obviously has no anti-American ax to grind, and his comments are a refreshing departure from the vanilla stuff one usually reads on the European left and right.

The Big NIF Dis

NIF Beam Lines
NIF Beam Lines
It appears the dedication ceremony for the National Ignition Facility (NIF) has come and gone, but a rather important guest who had promised to be there turned up missing. I refer to Secretary Chu, avatar of alternative energy (er, politically correct alternative energy that is). At the last moment he discovered that he was “too busy” to attend, (or did he get a headache, I forget?).

True, the NIF was built as a weapons facility, and that’s a big strike against it in the warm, fuzzy world of today. That’s not the whole story, though. The “ignition” in National Ignition Facility means inertial fusion ignition, and a great number of dedicated scientists have devoted their careers to the proposition that fusion ignition will usher in an era of clean energy with a virtually limitless fuel supply. I, personally, find that proposition dubious, at least with the hot spot ignition approach currently envisioned for the NIF. However, a lot of outstanding scientists who probably know more of the relevant physics than I are not similarly dubious, and believe the daunting technical, economic, and engineering hurdles on the path to inertial fusion energy can be overcome.

Now, 35 long, difficult years after the first confirmation of fusion neutrons produced by laser implosion, we finally have an operational facility capable, according to the theorists, of achieving significant energy gain, and we stand on the threshold of the decisive series of ignition experiments that are likely to determine whether they’re right or wrong once and for all. It seems to me that those who have dedicated their lives to a goal they believe will be of incalculable value to all mankind should now, at least, be given a fair shot at achieving that goal. The tool they need is in their hands. Given what’s at stake, not to mention the massive amounts we’ve recently been spending on far less worthy goals, does it not seem logical to give them a chance?

Perhaps Secretary Chu does not agree. It would certainly seem so. NNSA, a part of DOE, manages the NIF, and its budget has been cut to the bare bones. This budget slashing cannot help but affect the coming campaign of ignition experiments at the facility. Well, then, if Secretary Chu does not agree, perhaps it would better befit the leader that he is supposed to be to stand up and explain why, instead of playing hide and seek at dedication ceremonies. Those who have worked long and faithfully to make this project a reality deserve no less.

The SPAWAR Experiments and the Recurring Resurrections of “Cold Fusion”

Tabletop Cold Fusion Experiment (hat tip Indymedia)
Tabletop Cold Fusion Experiment (hat tip Indymedia)
Cold fusion is the scientific heresy that just won’t go away.  In fact, it made quite a splash recently on CBS’ “60 Minutes.”  The experiments in question were carried out by Frank Gordon and his colleagues at SPAWAR.  I have heard both Frank and his colleague, Larry Forsley describe their experiments.  Neither fits my mental picture of, say, a UFO conspiracy theorist or a raving phrenologist.  They both seem to be very down to earth guys who are convinced they are seeing something unusual in their experiments.  Neither of them claims to know for sure what is causing it, and neither seems to have any obvious reason for deliberately trying to deceive the scientific community.  I tend to be taken aback by the visceral response of some scientists at the mention of cold fusion.  To listen to them, one would think the infidels were at the gates, ready to defile some scientific Holy of Holies, and plunge us back into the Dark Ages.  I must confess, I really don’t understand why these people feel so threatened. 

There are many government agencies, including the Military that would seem to have at least some interest in promoting research in this area, with DOE in the forefront.  Unfortunately, the appointment of Steve Koonin as the new Under Secretary for Science does not bode well for the new technology.  Steve is a brilliant, conscientious scientist, and would seem to be the ideal man for the job.  However, he was also a prime mover in the scientific community’s initial rejection of cold fusion following its ill-conceived debut back in 1989.  He is unlikely to be enthusiastic about eating crow, as it were, 20 years later.  Be that as it may, DOE just stood up ARPA-E, and handed them $400M to fund just such high risk, high payoff work as this.  It seems eminently reasonable to me that, given the organization’s stated mission, some fraction of this largesse should be devoted to cold fusion research.  In terms of the nation’s overall research budget, we’re talking chump change here.  What do we have to lose?  Is it really worth unleashing a scientific Jihad to stop it? 

For anyone interested in learning more, here are some links to recent publications in the Low Energy Nuclear Reactions (LENR) community, some graphics and descriptions of experiments, and a paper disputing the SPAWAR results.

Let reason prevail and the research go forward.

Dynamic Detroit: The Decline and Fall of the US Automotive Industry

Diego Rivera Detroit Mural
Diego Rivera Detroit Mural

Detroit hasn’t always been on the ropes. Back in 1935, when we still hadn’t completely recovered from the Great Depression, an article appeared in “The American Mercury” entitled “Detroit the Dynamic.” In those days, morale in Motown was high. The workers were the best in the country and knew it. America was leaving the hard times behind, and Detroit was leading the way. Optimism prevailed, and “Detroit the Dynamic” reflected it. Some excerpts:

“This life, to be known and appreciated, must be experienced as Detroit commoners live it, and witnessed with their vision. Then it appears as the best that America has to offer.”

“Detroit calls up the most intelligent and energetic laborers of the land, even as California lures the bums. Candidates for jobs are rigorously culled in the great shops. The survivors are, beyond question, the pick of plain Americans.”

“…Detroit was agitated by the Dionne quintuplets to a degree reached by the folk of no other region. The appeal was simply to Detroit’s ruling spirit – mass production.”

“This is the Detroit of the Detroiters: first, of course, the automobile capital of the world; then, the city of champions – Joe Louis, the Tigers, the Redwings; …the patriotic community that put on the most monstrous of American Legion parades; the music capital that presents Gargantuan outdoor festivals of song; the financial center that produced the most prodigious banking crash of the Depression;… the scene of the colossal spectacle and the nations’s hugest crowds; the city that calls itself Detroit the Dynamic.”

You can read the whole article here. It makes you think. Times change. The changes aren’t always in the direction of “progress.” If what’s happened to Detroit is what Greenspan refers to as “creative destruction,” then the destruction part has spun out of control. The last time I was driving through the area, I heard a radio announcer scornfully proclaim there was no one left in Detroit now but the mice. May the day never come when a radio announcer can say that about America.

Iran, Twitter, and Revolution

In looking through the first five blogs on my list of usual suspects for this evening, I noticed that all five of them had “Facebook Revolution” posts on Iran. Here’s tonight’s line-up, not necessarily in the order of their current favor at Court: Sullivan, Kos, Huffpo, Instapundit, and Little Miss Attila. The whole Twitter, Flickr, Facebook revolution of the future thing seems compelling, but I have my doubts. All of the above can be monitored and controlled, and despotic states will become increasingly likely to do just that every time another Ahmadinejad is caught flat footed. Back in 1789, 1830, 1848, and 1917, there was no Internet, but the word still got around, and, occasionally, revolutions succeeded even without Tweets. Of course, they often succeeded because guys like Louis XVI and Nicholas II lacked the will and ruthlessness to resist. They also succeeded because the state in those days lacked anything like the means of controlling its citizens that are easily at the command of any ruler who wants to use them today. In the end, technology will favor the oppressors, and not the oppressed. Just as the proponents of torture on the right will have second thoughts as soon as they become the victims, the proponents of the unrestricted growth of state power on the left should be careful what they wish for. They assume they will always be the state, and that it will never turn on them, but only on their enemies. So did Kamenev, Zinoviev, Bukharin and Trotsky.
If state power cannot be limited and controlled, all the tweeting in the world won’t raise Liberty from the dead. Mankind’s brush with Naziism and, especially, Communism in the 20th century were near things. We may not be so lucky in the years to come.
Update: Publius on the limits of Twitter.