Archive for September, 2012


Martian perspectives

Friday, September 28th, 2012

Of the four Hungarian “Martians” who worked the Manhattan Project — so known for their incomprehensible language, their European proclivities, and their exceptional intelligence — Leo Szilard and Edward Teller are tied, in my mind, as the most fascinating and intense personalities. (John von Neumann, the hawkish human computer, comes in a close second. Eugene Wigner, important as he was in the history of nuclear developments, just doesn’t compare to either of the other three when it comes to eccentricity.)

A rare photo of Szilard and Teller together. From a 1960 televised debate they participated in. Source.

Neither need much by means of an introduction on this blog, I don’t think. Leo Szilard was the guy who got the bomb project rolling, but quickly soured on military management. Edward Teller was the future father of the hydrogen bomb, among many other things.

Szilard was one of the strongest advocates of the idea that the atomic bomb should not first be used against an actual civilian target, but should be “demonstrated” in some way, such as on an island or a remote location. He had begun activity on this front as early as the summer of 1942, before the bomb project was truly under way.

His last attempt was a petition he circulated for scientists to sign, with the idea was that it would be presented to the President of the United States. It said, in part:1

We, the undersigned scientists, have been working in the field of atomic power. Until recently we have had to fear that the United States might be attacked by atomic bombs during this war and that her only defense might lie in a counterattack by the same means. Today, with the defeat of Germany, this danger is averted and we feel impelled to say what follows.

The war has to be brought speedily to a successful conclusions and attacks by atomic bombs may very well be an effective method of warfare. We feel, however, that such attacks on Japan could not be justified, at least not unless the terms which will be imposed after the war on Japan were made public in detail and Japan were given an opportunity to surrender.

If such public announcement gave assurance to the Japanese that they could look forward to a life devoted to peaceful pursuits in their homeland and if Japan still refused to surrender our nation might then, in certain circumstances, find itself forced to resort to use of atomic bombs. Such a step, however, ought not to be made at any time without seriously considering the moral responsibilities which are involved. The atomic bombs at our disposal represent only the first step in this direction, and there is almost no limit to the destructive power which will become available in the course of their future development. Thus a nation which sets the precedent of using these newly liberated forces of nature for purposes of destruction may have to bear the responsibility of opening the door to an era of devastation on an unimaginable scale.

The petition continued; you can read the full version here. It was apparently signed by “approximately sixty other scientists” at Chicago.

But Edward Teller was not one of those scientists who signed it.

Edward Teller and Gregory Breit, 1976. (Aside: Breit had been the head of bomb design physics on the Manhattan Project, and was the person who Oppenheimer replaced when he was brought in on the project.) Via the AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

To many, the idea that Teller would not oppose using the bombs would not be surprising. After all, he was the maker of megatons, right? But this is a misconception, in a sense. Teller was a sensitive soul. He spent a good part of the Cold War trying to argue that he would never have chosen to use the bombs if he had been given a chance. He insisted that his work on the bombs was solely to avoid nuclear war, not encourage it. He was not, I don’t feel, truly bloodthirsty.

Over the later course of his life, Teller occasionally argued that he had opposed the bombing of Hiroshima. This was, as the historian Robert Crease has pointed out, a “truthy” approach — a revisionism based on the history that Teller may have wanted to exist.2

But this is what Teller wrote to Szilard, in early July 1945, a few weeks before the Trinity test:3

Dear Szilard:

Since our discussion I have spent some time thinking about your objections to an immediate military use of the weapon we may produce. I decided to do nothing. I should like to tell you my reasons.

First of all let me say that I have no hope of clearing my conscience. The things we are working on are so terrible that no amount of protesting or fiddling with politics will save our souls.

This much is true: I have not worked on the project for a very selfish reason and I have gotten much more trouble than pleasure out of it. I worked because the problems interested me and I should have felt it a great restraint not to go ahead. I can not claim that I simply worked to do my duty. A sense of duty could keep me out of such work. It could not get me into the present kind of activity against my inclinations. If you should succeed in convincing me that your moral objections are valid, I should keep working. I hardly think that I should start protesting.

This is a strikingly honest way to discuss one’s motivations for working on weapons of mass destruction. Not because of duty — but because of curiosity. Teller worked on the bomb because he thought the bomb was interesting. He wanted to use the bomb because it was the ultimate fruition of that interest. That he could admit such a thing is actually pretty stunning. He did think, though, that morality could stop him from such a project — if he could be convinced.

Teller continued:

But I am not really convinced of your objections. I do not feel that there is any chance to outlaw any one weapon. If we have a slim chance of survival, it lies in the possibility to get rid of wars. The more decisive a weapon is the more surely it will be used in any real conflict and no agreements will help.

Our only hope is in getting the facts of our results before the people. This might help to convince everybody that the next war would be fatal. For this purpose actual combat-use might even be the best thing.

This is an interesting and perhaps not wholly predictable turn, if one subscribes only to a Strangelovian caricature of Teller. Szilard wanted Teller to agree that the bomb should not be used without warning. Teller in turn says that as a scientist who worked on the bomb, he had no responsibility for how it would be used — he was the maker of tools, not the user of them.

A picture of Edward Teller as he probably looked in the early 1940s. Date unknown. From the AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, photo by Francis Simon.

What he felt a responsibility for was in informing people about the bomb, about its consequences, about the reason that it should be a weapon that ends all wars. And, as he argues, “for this purpose actual combat-use might even be the best thing.”

If his responsibility is to show the world what dangers lie ahead, what would be a better way for doing so that utterly destroying at least one city?

Teller concluded:

And this brings me to the main point. The accident that we worked out this dreadful thing should not give use the responsibility of having a voice in how it is to be used. This responsibility must in the end be shifted to the people as a whole and that can be done only by making the facts known. This is the only cause for which I feel entitled in doing something: the necessity of lifting the secrecy at least as far as the broad issues of our work are concerned. My understanding is that this will be done as soon as the military situation permits it.

All this may seem to you quite wrong. I should be glad if you showed this letter to Eugene [Wigner] and to [James] Franck who seem to agree with you rather than with me. I should like to have the advice of all of you whether you think it is a crime to continue this work. But I feel that I should do the wrong thing if I tried to say how to tie the little toe of the ghost to the bottle from which we just helped it to escape.

Teller’s “main point” was that the moral work of the scientists should begin just after the bomb was used. It should be to remove the secrecy and make the facts known, because their special knowledge of how bad things could get — and this is Edward Teller speaking, so we know he was pretty imaginative on this front — gave them the moral imperative to warn the world.4

Teller attempting to make himself understood, in 1963. Via the AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

In writing his memoirs, some five decades later, Teller noted that,

Rereading the letter, I cannot really agree with the person, my earlier incarnation, who wrote it. I stand fully behind my strong statement against secrecy, but I would no longer say that helping the “ghost” escape was terrible at all. That was our job as scientists, a point that became clearer when I became aware of the great progress that the Soviet Union had made on a nuclear explosive. The responsibility of scientists is to describe and demonstrate what is possible, to disseminate that knowledge as fully as possible, and, with everyone else in our democracy, to share the decisions that are necessarily connected with knowledge.5

Teller’s anti-secrecy stance may seem incongruous given his reputation for nuclear hawkishness. But for Teller, secrecy was something that slowed bomb innovation down — and bomb innovation was the ultimate goal. In such a light, an anti-secrecy hawk makes perfect sense, even if it goes against the conventional political mapping.

Returning to Szilard’s petition five decades later, Teller concluded three things:

First, Szilard was right. As scientists who worked on producing the bomb, we bore a special responsibility. Second, Oppenheimer was right. We did not know enough about the political situation to have a valid opinion. Third, what we should have done but failed to do was to work out the technical changes required for demonstrating the bomb over Tokyo and submit that information to President Truman.6

The first two are fairly straightforward positions, but the last is interesting and provocative. The Manhattan Project scientists spent a huge amount of time thinking up ways to make the bombs more deadly. Whether it was in racing towards a megaton age (Teller’s approach), or calculating the best way to kill Japanese firefighters (Penney’s approach), or — the subject of a future post — a proposal for generating radioactive thunderclouds (seriously), an enormous effort was put into making deadly weapons. Absolutely no technical effort was put into figuring out how one might use the bombs to end the war without bloodshed. The idea was proposed — even urged — but exactly zero effort was put into making it look like a realistic possibility.

The issues raised in this “Martian dialogue” didn’t go away after Hiroshima. If anything, they got more intense, more immediate. What is the responsibility of the tool-maker for his or her tools? What is the responsibility of the scientist to the public? Szilard chose his path and never strayed from it — he never made another weapon again. Teller, if anything, became more extreme on his own path, becoming synonymous with the scientist co-opted by the military-industrial complex, and not just a touch of self-delusion.

  1. Leo Szilard, “Petition to the President of the United States,” (17 July 1945), copy in Harrison-Bundy Files Relating to the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1108 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 6, Target 5, Folder 76, “Interim Comittee — Scientific Panel.” []
  2. Robert P. Crease, “Biography: Envy and Power,” Nature 468 (2 December 2010), 629-630. []
  3. Edward Teller to Leo Szilard (2 July 1945), copy in the J. Robert Oppenheimer papers (MS35188), Library of Congress, Washington, DC, Box 71, Folder, “Teller, Edward, 1942-1963.” []
  4. Teller forwarded a copy of this letter to J. Robert Oppenheimer, of all people. He prefaced it with a hand-written note, scrawled in an elegant, old-world calligraphy. “What I say is, I believe, in agreement with your views,” he wrote. “At least in the main points.” []
  5. Edward Teller with Judith Schoolery, Memoirs: A Twentieth Century Journey in Science and Politics (Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Books, 2001), 208. []
  6. Teller, Memoirs, 206. []

The Heart of Deterrence

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

Deterrence theory is one of those ideas that seems pretty easy at first glance but gets more deeply muddled on closer inspection. I have a bomb, you have a bomb, thus we won’t bomb each other, right? If only it were so easy.

Panels from How to Live with Atom, a cartoon printed by the Washington Post in 1947, trying to illustrate “what the atomic scientists have been telling us.”

The historian Spencer Weart has a great passage on what he calls the “insoluble paradox in deterrence theory” in his book, Nuclear Fear, which doesn’t seem to have been included in its recent reissue, The Rise of Nuclear FearIt’s one of my favorite little bits of the book, though:

From the 1950s on the sharpest analysts left ambiguities, internal contradictions, and blind leaps of logic in their writings. Most writers changed their position from one year to the next and sometimes, it seemed, from one page to the next.

An example of the muddle was the failure of most writers to define clearly even the key term “deterrence.” Sometimes it meant, as the French translated the term, “dissuasion.” That meant arranging things so that enemies would deduce, like chess players, that they should not launch an attack because it was clear they would not win the game. Other times deterrence meant what the Russian translation frankly called “terrorization,” which did not address the intellect at all. Of course, military logic on the one hand or an appeal to raw fear on the other might well require different strategies and even different hardware. But most thinkers mixed the two approaches, evading refutation in one mode of thought by shifting indiscriminately to the other.

Ever since I read that, I was taken with the idea that the French and the Russians translated this supposedly simple English word — “deterrence” — quite differently. For the French, it is dissuasion nucléaire, a high-minded, philosophe-style expression of modern rationality. For the Russians, they often used ustrasheniye (устрашение), a word which invokes terror and horror and dread.1

Where Weart sees a muddle of expression, though, I see an ambivalence of concept. Deterrence fully understood requires both of these meanings. Is about rational actors, game theory, and logical persuasion — but the method of persuasion is threatening to burn everybody alive. It’s about nations being rationally terrified of each other’s capabilities.

This fundamental ambivalence of concept shoots through all of our cultural depictions of deterrence, as well. It’s not a surprise that most of the defense intellectuals depicted in books and films are simultaneously both of these things. Dr. Strangelove is of course the canonical, genre-defining case: coldly rational, but also completely psychotic.

There are lots of idealized representations of deterrence. Often it is talked about it as if it were a “standoff” situation, with two pistoleros holding guns to one another’s heads. Visually these make sense: we’re talking about two superpowers, each ideally with a second-strike capability, so that if one attacks the other, the other has time to counter-attack. Ergo, nobody will attack — out of self-interest.

But when we transpose the metaphor to reality, things get complicated. There’s not just two people with guns. Each “person” is really an entire nation. The decision-making capabilities are not located in one brain or one set of sensory organs, but distributed over thousands of miles and thousands of human beings, each looking at the situation through quite different lenses (literally and figuratively). The guns may not themselves be evenly matched — one side may have the ability to strike faster, or deadlier, than the other. One side may be convinced they can “ride out” an attack better than the other. One side may have higher or lower confidence in their own capabilities, or the capabilities of the opposite. And so on.

Self-interest itself may not be evenly distributed. Was the U.S. President, or the Soviet Premier, personally threatened by nuclear war at all times in the Cold War? Do the people with their hands on the button have a personal stake in it? Do they have a bunker under a mountain to hide in, with their families? What is really being threatened in such a situation is an entire nation, but not necessarily the individual who has their hand on “the button.” In financial terms this potentially runs the risk of being a “moral hazard” — the equivalent gambling with someone else’s money. Of course, these people have loved ones, too, and not everyone can fit under that mountain.

“Gently…” — still of the ICBM launch switch from the 1983 ficitional film, The Day After. Via this site.

The physicist and Nobel Prize winner Owen Chamberlain once proposed an improvement to deterrence based largely on reducing the possibility of a moral hazard, though he didn’t put it in these terms. He wrote to the president of the Federation of American Scientists in the mid-1980s with the following suggestion:2

The idea I want to have looked over is this:

The 200 most important political and military persons in each superpower should be required to provide one family member who could act as a hostage by living inside the other superpower. Thus, every powerful politician or general would have one family member.

I claim this might be arranged easily, is really quite inexpensive, and I believe it has the potential of putting the world in a different frame of mind. It might make nuclear war seem out-of-the-question to all.

The hostages—maybe one can find better word—could be children or grandchildren or perhaps nephews and nieces. We could afford to have excellent schooling for the hostages, for the number involved would be very moderate.

I admit is a gimmick. However, it seems to me to be a gimmick with more than the usual protection for the dollar.

In essence, moral hazard is avoided if everyone has some skin in the game — especially the people who have their fingers on the metaphorical buttons.

It’s a gimmick, as Chamberlain admitted. But it’s a fairly profound one: the idea of “hostages” sounds abhorrent (even he dislikes the word) until you realize that in the “normal” deterrence situation, we — members of the non-button-pusher classes — are already hostagesThat’s the real beauty of Chamberlain’s idea: he’s taking the existing situation, where all of the children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews are already threatened by nuclear war, and proposing to make it explicit and unignorable for those in positions of influence.

On a similar vein, Stephen Schwartz passed on this amazing suggestion that the late Roger Fisher made in the March 1981 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, again attempting to bring the personal back into the often coldly “rational” logic of nuclear warfare:

 There is a young man, probably a Navy officer, who accompanies the President. This young man has a black attaché case which contains the codes that are needed to fire nuclear weapons. I could see the President at a staff meeting considering nuclear war as an abstract question. He might conclude: “On SIOP Plan One, the decision is affirmative, Communicate the Alpha line XYZ.” Such jargon holds what is involved at a distance.

My suggestion was quite simple: Put that needed code number in a little capsule, and then implant that capsule right next to the heart of a volunteer. The volunteer would carry with him a big, heavy butcher knife as he accompanied the President. If ever the President wanted to fire nuclear weapons, the only way he could do so would be for him first, with his own hands, to kill one human being. The President says, “George, I’m sorry but tens of millions must die.” He has to look at someone and realize what death is—what an innocent death is. Blood on the White House carpet. It’s reality brought home.

When I suggested this to friends in the Pentagon they said, “My God, that’s terrible. Having to kill someone would distort the President’s judgment. He might never push the button.

And that’s truly the heart of the deterrence, isn’t it? That mixture of the the coldly logical and the deeply emotional — the fact that in some essentially way, both of these valences are essential for the concept to work, and yet, they are also both deeply incompatible in some way. For how many people can remain coldly logical if they have to engage the truly personal head-on, as human beings? 

One parting anecdote: J. Robert Oppenheimer, in 1953, famously compared the nuclear situation to “two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life.” Sometime later, a newsman attempted to replicate the visual metaphor on television, and got himself stung by one of the scorpions in the process. I.I. Rabi wrote to Oppenheimer that the physicist’s many enemies would probably blame that on him, too.

December 2014 update: the Fisher story was featured in a Radiolab episode, “Buttons without Buttons,” that I participated in.

  1. If Wikipedia is any indication, the concepts of “deterrence” and “containment” are much more closely linked in Russian discussions than they are in American discussions. My sense is that in the US, “containment” means a specific policy that included but extends beyond nuclear threats — the nuclear threat is taken as a given, and containment means all of the other stuff you do beyond that. In Russian “containment theory” appears to be used more or less synonymously with “deterrence theory,” which I am somewhat surprised to see. Perhaps someone more versed in the Russian strategic literature can elaborate on whether this is true or not. []
  2. For what it’s worth, I’m the one who dug this letter up from his archives a long time back and selected it to be part of an exhibit at the Bancroft Library related to the celebrations of Oppenheimer’s 2004 Centennial conference. I cannot recall if I or someone else labeled this as “somewhat tongue in cheek” — there were a number of people involved in writing the captions, and also there was a separate person who later transferred all of this to the web. []

In Search of a Bigger Boom

Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

The scientist Edward Teller, according to one account, kept a blackboard in his office at Los Alamos during World War II with a list of hypothetical nuclear weapons on it. The last item on his list was the largest one he could imagine. The method of “delivery” — weapon-designer jargon for how you get your bomb from here to there, the target — was listed as “Backyard.” As the scientist who related this anecdote explained, “since that particular design would probably kill everyone on Earth, there was no use carting it anywhere.”1

Edward Teller looking particularly Strangelovian. Via the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, John Wheeler collection.

Teller was an inventive, creative person when it came to imagining new and previously unheard-of weapons. Not all of his ideas panned out, of course, but he rarely let that stop his enthusiasms for them. He was seemingly always in search of a bigger boom. During the Manhattan Project, he quickly tired of working on the “regular” atomic bomb — it just seemed too easy, a problem of engineering, not physics. From as early as 1942 he became obsessed with the idea of a Super bomb — the hydrogen bomb — a weapon of theoretically endless power.

(One side-effect of this at Los Alamos is that Teller passed much of his assigned work on the atomic bomb off to a subordinate: Klaus Fuchs.)

It took over a decade for the hydrogen bomb to come into existence. The reasons for the delay were technical as well as interpersonal. In short, though, Teller’s initial plan — a bomb where you could just ignite an arbitrarily long candle of fusion fuel — wouldn’t work, but it was hard to show that it wouldn’t work. Shortly after abandoning that idea more or less completely, Teller, with the spur from Stan Ulam, came up with a new design.

The Teller-Ulam design allows you to link bombs to bombs to bomb. John Wheeler apparently dubbed this a “sausage” model, because of all of the links. Ted Taylor recounted that from very early on, it was clear you could have theoretically “an infinite number” of sub-bombs connected to make one giant bomb.

A few selected frames from Chuck Hansen’s diagram about multi-stage hydrogen bombs, from his U.S. Nuclear Weapons: A Secret History. Drawing by Mike Wagnon.

The largest nuclear bomb ever detonated as the so-called “Tsar Bomba” of the Soviet Union. On 1961, it was exploded off the island of Novaya Zemlya, well within the Arctic Circle. It had an explosive equivalent to 50 million tons of TNT (megatons). It was only detonated at half-power — the full-sized version would have been 100 megatons. It is thought to have been a three-stage bomb. By contrast, the the largest US bomb ever detonated was at the Castle BRAVO test in 1954, with 15 megatons yield. It was apparently “only” a two-stage bomb.

The dropping of the Tsar Bomba, 1961: an H-bomb the size of a school bus.

We usually talk about the Tsar Bomba as if it represented the absolute biggest boom ever contemplated, and a product of unique Soviet circumstances. We also talk about as if its giant size was completely impractical. Both of these notions are somewhat misleading:

1. The initial estimate for the explosive force of the Super bomb being contemplated during World War II was one equivalent to 100 million tons of TNT. As James Conant wrote to Vannevar Bush in 1944:

It seems that the possibility of inciting a thermonuclear reaction involving heavy hydrogen is somewhat less now than appeared at first sight two years ago. I had an hour’s talk on this subject by the leading theoretical man at [Los Alamos]. The most hopeful procedure is to use tritium (the radioactive isotope of hydrogen made in a pile) as a sort of booster in the reaction, the fission bomb being used as the detonator and the reaction involving the atoms of liquid deuterium being the prime explosive. Such a gadget should produce an explosion equivalent to 100,000,000 tons of TNT.2

Teller was aiming for a Tsar Bomba from the very beginning. Whether they would have supported dropping such a weapon on Hiroshima, were it available, is something worth contemplating.

2. Both the US and the USSR looked into designing 100 megaton warheads that would fit onto ICBMs. The fact that the Tsar Bomba was so large doesn’t mean that such a design had to be so large. (Or that being large necessarily would keep it from being put on the tip of a giant missile.) Neither went forward with these.

A US MK 41 hydrogen bomb.

But remember that the original Tsar Bomba was actually tested at 50 megatons, which was bad enough, right? Both the US and the Soviet Union fielded warheads with maximum yields of 25 megatons. The US Mk-41, of which some 500 were produced, and the Soviet  SS-18 Mod 2 missiles were pretty big booms for everyday use. (The qualitative differences between a 50 megaton weapon and a 25 megaton weapon aren’t that large, because the effects are volumetric.)

3. Far larger weapons were contemplated. By who else? Our friend Edward Teller.

In the summer of 1954, representatives from Los Alamos and the new Livermore lab met with the General Advisory Committee to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Operation Castle had just been conducted and had proven two things: 1. very large (10-15 megaton or so), deliverable hydrogen bombs could be produced with dry fusion fuel; 2. Livermore still couldn’t design successful nuclear weapons.

Norris Bradbury, director of Los Alamos, gave the GAC a little rant on the US’s current “philosophy of weapon design.” The problem, Bradbury argued, was that the US had an attitude of “we don’t know what we want to do but want to be able to do anything.” This was, he felt, “no longer relevant or appropriate.” The answer would be to get very definite specifications as to exactly what kinds of weapons would be most useful for military purposes and to just mass produce a lot of them. He figured that the strategic end of the nuclear scale had been pretty much fleshed out — if you can routinely make easily deliverable warheads with a 3 megaton yield, what else do you need? All diversification, he argued, should be on the lower end of the spectrum: tactical nuclear weapons.

Edward Teller and Enrico Fermi, 1951. Courtesy of the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

When Teller met with the GAC, he also pushed for smaller bombs, but he thought there was still plenty of room on the high end of the scale. To be fair, Teller was probably feeling somewhat wounded: Livermore’s one H-bomb design at Castle had been a dud, and the AEC had cancelled another one of his designs that was based on the same principle. So he did what only Edward Teller could do: he tried to raise the ante, to be the bold idea man. Cancel my H-bomb? How about this: he proposed a 10,000 megaton design.

Which is to say, a 10 gigaton design. Which is to say, a bomb that would detonate with an explosive power some 670,000 times the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima.3

If he was trying to shock the GAC, it worked. From the minutes of the meeting:

Dr. Fisk said he felt the Committee could endorse [Livermore’s] small weapon program. He was concerned, however, about Dr. Teller’s 10,000 MT gadget and wondered what fraction of the Laboratory’s effort was being expended on the [deleted]. Mr. Whitman had been shocked by the thought of a 10,000 MT; it would contaminate the earth.4

The “deleted” portion above is probably the names of two of the devices proposed — according to Chuck Hansen, these were GNOMON and SUNDIAL. Things that cast shadows.

The Chairman of the GAC at this time, I.I. Rabi, was no Teller fan (he is reported to have said that “it would have been a better world without Teller”), and no fan of big bombs just for the sake of them. His reaction to Teller’s 10 gigaton proposal?

Dr. Rabi’s reaction was that the talk about this device was an advertising stunt, and not to be taken too seriously.

Don’t listen to Teller, he’s just trying to rile you. Edward Teller: trolling the GAC. A 10,000 megaton weapon, by my estimation, would be powerful enough to set all of New England on fire. Or most of California. Or all of the UK and Ireland. Or all of France. Or all of Germany. Or both North and South Korea. And so on.

“Don’t Fence My Baby In.” Cartoon by Bill Mauldin, Chicago Sun-Times, 1963.

In 1949, Rabi had, along with Enrico Fermi, written up a Minority Annex to the GAC’s report recommending against the creation of the hydrogen bomb. The crux of their argument was thus:

Let it be clearly realized that this is a super weapon; it is in a totally different category from an atomic bomb. The reason for developing such super bombs would be to have the capacity to devastate a vast area with a single bomb. Its use would involve a decision to slaughter a vast number of civilians. We are alarmed as to the possible global effects of the radioactivity generated by the explosion of a few super bombs of conceivable magnitude. If super bombs will work at all, there is no inherent limit in the destructive power that may be attained with them. Therefore, a super bomb might become a weapon of genocide.

If that doesn’t apply to a 10,000 megaton bomb, what does it apply to?

Was Teller serious about the 10 gigaton design? I asked a scientist who worked with Teller back in the day and knew him well. His take: “I don’t doubt that Teller was serious about the 10,000 MT bomb. Until the next enthusiasm took over.” In this sense, perhaps Rabi was right: if we don’t encourage him, he’ll move on to something else. Like hydrogen bombs small enough to fit onto submarine-launched missiles, for example.

It’s hard not to wonder what motivates a man to make bigger and bigger and bigger bombs. Was it a genuine feeling that it would increase American or world security? Or was it just ambition? I’m inclined to see it as the latter, personally: a desire to push the envelope, to push for the bigger impact, the biggest boom — even into the territory of the dangerously absurd, the realm of self-parody.

  1. Robert Serber, The Los Alamos primer: The first lectures on how to build an atomic bomb (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), page 4, fn. 2. []
  2. Letter dated October 20, 1944 from James B. Conant to Vannevar Bush, Subject: Possibilities of a Super Bomb. Vannevar Bush-James B. Conant Files, Records of the Office of Scientific Research & Development, S-1, NARA, Record Group 227, folder 3. Quoted from Chuck Hansen, The swords of Armageddon: U.S. nuclear weapons development since 1945 (Sunnyvale, Calif.: Chukelea Publications, 1995), III-17. []
  3. Actually, if you take the Hiroshima yield to be 15 kilotons, it comes out to a nice round 666,666 times the strength of the Hiroshima bomb. But the precision there seemed arbitrary and the symbolism seemed distracting, so I’m relegating this to just a footnote. []
  4. Minutes of the Forty-First Meeting of the General Advisory Committee to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, July 12-15, 1954, on p. 55. []

Beer and the Apocalypse

Wednesday, September 5th, 2012

Planning for The End is hard. Nuclear apocalypse is big and scary and complicated. Average people don’t want to plan at all — just assume the worst and you’ll never be disappointed. Governments, on the other hand, like to plan. Some people see this as an effort to legitimately save lives; others see it as an attempt to convince the public (or themselves) that they are in control of the uncontrollable. There are merits to both points of view. 

All sorts of things have been studied in the name of Civil Defense — of what to do after the Worst Happens. Two questions along these lines I’ve already discussed in the past: What do you do with all of the dead people? and What will happen to all of our paper-based records? Both of which have “interesting” answers.

Operation Teapot was a series of fourteen nuclear weapons tests conducted in 1955 at the Nevada Test Site, and a number of them were specifically for getting information on nuclear effects for use in Civil Defense. One of these tests, dubbed Operation Cue, was “open” in the sense that the press was allowed to observe it, and it involved nuking a “Survival Town” full of mannequins, the pictures of which were featured prominently in The Atomic Café and were the inspiration for that improbable opening scene to the most recent Indiana Jones movie.

Click for PDF.

One of the many lines of investigation during these Civil Defense tests, Project 32.2a, sought to answer a simple question: What will the survivors drink in the post-apocalyptic world? If the water supply is contaminated or otherwise dodgy, what about all of those cans and bottles that capitalist society churns out by the billions of gallons? The introduction to the final report explains that while lots of attention had been given towards the effects of nukes on food, beverages had been largely ignored:1

Consideration of the problems of food supply show the needs of humans for water, especially under disaster conditions, could be immediate and urgent. At various times some consideration has been given to special packaging of potable water, but since packaged beverages, both beer and soft drinks, are so ubiquitous and already uniformly available in urban areas, it is obvious that they could serve as important sources of fluids.

When the only tool you have is a hammer, all your problems look like nails. The Atomic Energy Commission did what they did best and dropped a nuke on bottles of beer and soda cans. (They were “exposed,” in the euphemism of the report. I also love the phrasing above, “the needs of humans for water” — it’s like the report was written by extraterrestrials.)

The brave test subjects.

They took a number of different types of bottles and cans, filled with different liquids, and put them in various positions relative to Ground Zero for two nuclear tests (“Shot I” and “Shot II” in the report, probably “Apple I” and “Apple II” of Teapot). The closest ones were less than a quarter mile away from the first test — a mere 1056 feet. The furthest ones out were about 2 miles away.

The results were somewhat interesting. Even the bottles pretty near the test had a fairly high survival rate — if they didn’t fall off the shelves, or have something else smash into them (a “missile” problem), or get totally crushed by whatever they were being housed in, they had a good chance of not breaking. Not super surprising, in a way: bottles are small, and there’s a lot of stuff in between them and the shockwave to dissipate it. (Bottles seem more fragile than human beings, but in certain respects they are probably easier to keep safe. Also, human beings are rarely in refrigerators, Indiana Jones notwithstanding.)

Fallen soldiers.

As for radiation, only the bottles closest to Ground Zero had much radioactivity, and even that was “well within the permissible limits for emergency use,” which is to say, it won’t hurt you in the short term. The liquid itself was somewhat shielded by the bottles of the containers which picked up some of the radioactivity.

But there were, of course, still pressing questions to be resolved… how did it taste?

Examination made immediately upon recovery showed no observable gross changes in the appearance of the beverages. Immediate taste tests indicated that the beverages, both beer and soft drinks, were still of commercial quality, although there was evidence of a slight flavor change in some of the products exposed at 1270 ft from GZ [Ground Zero]. Those farther away showed no change.

Immediate taste tests… So immediately after they nuked some beer and soda, someone — it doesn’t say who — took a swig of them. In the name of Science. But of course, they didn’t stop just there:

Representative samples of the various exposed packaged beers, as well as un-exposed control samples in both cans and bottles, were submitted to five qualified laboratories for carefully controlled taste-testing. The cumulative opinions on the various beers indicated a range from “commercial quality” on through “aged” and “definitely off.” All agreed, however, that the beer could unquestionably be used as an emergency source of potable beverages. Obviously, if a large storage of such packaged beers was to be trapped in a zone of such intense radiation following a nuclear explosion, ultimate usage of the beverages beyond the emergency utility would likely be subject to review of the taste before return to commercial distribution.

Not satisfied with their spot taste testing, they sent the radioactive beer on to careful laboratory study. And lo, it tasted acceptable, but not very good! Your tax dollars at work.

But check out that last line again: radioactive beer might not be good to “return to commercial distribution” after the nukes had fallen, because of the taste. At this point I’m not sure what to think about the thoughts of the authors — did they really envision a world where a warehouse of beer was in a zone of “intense radiation” following a nuclear attack, and then, a few weeks later, it would be sent back around to the liquor stores? 

Who would buy once-radioactive beer? I mean, besides me.

For me, the takeaway here is that the next time you find yourself stocking up on beer, remember, it’s not just for the long weekend — it might be for the end of days.

  1. E. Roland McConnell, George O. Sampson, and John R. Shari, “Report to the Test Director – Operation Teapot – Project 32.2a – The Effect of Nuclear Explosions on Commercially Packaged Beverages, February-May 1955,” WT-1213 (24 January 1957), copy in the Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, NV, document NV0011597. []