One of the strangest — and perhaps most dangerous — nuclear tests ever conducted was Operation ARGUS, in late 1958.
The basic idea behind them was proposed by the Greek physicist Nicholas Christofilos, then at Livermore. If you shot a nuclear warhead off in the upper atmosphere, Christofilos argued, it would create an artificial radiation field similar to the Van Allen radiation belts that surround the planet. In essence, it would create a “shell” of electrons around the planet.
The tactical advantage to such a test is that hypothetically you could use this knowledge to knock out enemy missiles and satellites that were coming in. So they gave it a test, and indeed, it worked! (With some difficulty; it involved shooting nuclear weapons very high into the atmosphere on high-altitude rockets off of a boat in the middle of the rough South Atlantic Ocean. One wonders what happened to the warheads on them. They also had some difficulty positioning the rockets. The video linked to discusses this around the 33 minute point. Also, around the 19 minute mark is footage of various Navy equator-crossing hazing rituals, with pirate garb!)
It created artificial belts of electrons that surrounded the planet for weeks. Sound nutty yet? No? Well, just hold on — we’ll get there.
(Aside: Christofilos is an interesting guy; he had worked as an elevator repairman during World War II, studying particle physics in his spare time. He independently came up with the idea for the synchrotron and eventually was noticed by physicists in the United States. He later came up with a very clever way to allow communication with submerged submarines deep under water which was implement in the late 20th century.)
In early 1959 — not long after the test itself — none other than James Van Allen (of the aforementioned Van Allen radiation belts) argued that the United States should rapidly declassify and release information on the Argus experiment.1
Van Allen wanted it declassified because he was a big fan of the test, and thought the US would benefit from the world knowing about it:
As you will note, my views are (a) that continued security classification of the Argus-Hardtack tests is of little practical avail, (b) that a prompt and full public report of the tests and observations will contribute greatly to the international prestige of the United States as a leader in the application of atomic devices to scientific purposes, and (c) that if we fail to do (b) the U.S. will be quite likely be again ‘Sputniked’ in the eyes of the world by the Soviets.
Basically, Van Allen argued, the idea of doing an Argust-type experiment was widely known, even amongst uncleared scientists, and that the Soviets could pull off the same test themselves and get all the glory.
But here’s the line that makes me cringe: “The U.S. tests, already carried out successfully, undoubtedly constitute the greatest geophysical experiment ever conducted by man.”
This was an experiment that affected the entire planet — “the greatest geophysical experiment ever conducted by man” — that were approved, vetted, and conducted under a heavy, heavy veil of secrecy. What if the predictions had been wrong? It’s not an impossibility that such a thing could have been the case: the physics of nuclear weapons are in a different energy regime than most other terrestrial science, and as a result there have been some colossal miscalculations that were only revealed after the bombs had gone off and, oh, contaminated huge swathes of the planet, or, say, accidentally knocked out satellite and radio communications. (The latter incident linked to, Starfish-Prime, was a very similar test that did cause a lot of accidental damage.)
There’s some irony in that the greatest praise, in this case, is a sign of how spooky the test was. At least to me, anyway.
This is the same sort of creepy feeling I get when I read about geoengineering, those attempts to purposefully use technology to affect things at the global scale, now in vogue again as a last-ditch attempt to ameliorate the effects of climate change. It’s not just the hubris — though, as an historian, that’s something that’s easy to see as an issue, given that unintended consequences are ripe even with technologies that don’t purposefully try to remake the entire planet. It’s also the matter of scale. Something happens when you go from small-scale knowledge (produced in the necessarily artificial conditions that laboratory science requires) to large-scale applications. Unpredicted effects and consequences show up with a vengeance, and you get a rapid education in how many collective and chaotic effects you do not really understand. It gives me the willies to ramp things up into new scales and new energy regimes without the possibility of doing intermediate stages.
(Interestingly, my connection between Argus and geoengineering has been the subject of at least one talk by James R. Fleming, a space historian at Colby College, who apparently argued that Van Allen later regretted disrupting the Earth’s natural magnetosphere. Fleming has a paper on this in the Annals of Iowa, but I haven’t yet tracked down a copy.)
As for Argus’s declassification: while the Department of Defense was in the process of declassifying Argus, per Van Allen’s recommendations, they got a call from the New York Times saying that they were about to publish on it. (The Times claimed to have known about Argus well before the tests took place.) It’s not clear who leaked it, but leaked it did. The DOD decided that they should declassify as much as they could and send it out to coincide with this, and the news of Argus hit the front pages in March 1959.
- Citation: James Van Allen to James R. Killian (21 February 1959), copy in the Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, NV, document NV0309054. [↩]