The Sciences

Weapons In The Mind

Cosmic VarianceBy cjohnsonJun 13, 2006 3:09 AM

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Imagine: A devastatingly powerful two kiloton yield bomb the size of a hand grenade.... a device to allow you to zap your enemies with lightning bolts (as though you're Storm of the X-Men)...... an incendiary bomb so powerful that it burns everything in its range and sucks up all the oxygen in a wide range, killing all remaining hidden occupants....

(Image from this site.) These are the things that the US Department of Defence pours a huge amount of development money into trying to make into viable weapons. A lot of the science these things are based on is sometimes flawed (at best), ridiculous at times. (The last one, the "hyperbaric bomb" is real, by the way, and was deployed for the first time in Afghanistan in recent years.) Nevertheless, there can still be a lot of support for several of these dubious projects, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes the reasons are political - that same story we've been hearing a lot under the current administration - resulting from an alarmingly common willingness to disregard scientific opinion of considerable weight in favour of a pet project that just sounds so good... or just fits nicely with a political agenda (remember Star Wars? Or more recently, bunker-busting nuclear bombs?). It's somewhat frightening, to be honest. On the way home from the conference a short while ago I listened to a fantastic interview with Sharon Weinberger on NPR's Fresh Air. I recommend it. She has recently written a book about this subject, and Terry Gross takes her into refreshingly unblinking (for US primetime radio) detail about some of the science, the "Imaginary Weapons" (title of her book) and the current and past politics of the issue. The super hand grenade, for example, is an attempt to make an explosive from an isomer of Hafnium (the nucleus is in an excited state), Hf-178. There was a rumoured successful experiment which supposedly managed to get some Hf-178 to release its energy after being irradiated with X-rays from a dental X-ray machine. Various groups have tried to reproduce this experiment, and various panels of scientists have spoken of the unfeasibility of this avenue of investigation as a viable weapons program.... but still the research gets support, the goal being a so called "isomeric bomb". And then there's the Voice of God weapon, or the Lightning device (basically a Tesla coil)..... you can read about them in a Washington Post article by the same author here. Have a listen to the interview as well. Let us know what you think. -cvj

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