Spheres are special shapes for nuclear weapons designers. Most nuclear weapons have, somewhere in them, that spheres-within-spheres arrangement of the implosion nuclear weapon design. You don’t have to use spheres — cylinders can be made to work, and there are lots of rumblings and rumors about non-spherical implosion designs around these here Internets — but spheres are pretty common.
Spheres also happen to be fairly common sights in the non-nuclear weapons design as well. What interests me is what happens when you take a perfectly non-nuclear sphere, like, say, a soccer ball, and move it into a nuclear context. To the trained eye, it takes on a rather interesting new meaning:
Presumably Dr. Khan was not using the ball above to express his love of sport, but instead was using it to convey in broad terms what the truncated icosahedron shape has to do with implosion weapons — it is the geometry of the explosive lenses used in the Trinity “gadget” and “Fat Man” bomb designs, similar to the one sketched on the upper-right side of the chalkboard above.
(I will just also note that somebody — presumably not Dr. Khan himself, but who knows — has rendered in chalk a truly excellent reproduction of figure 2.07a from Glasstone and Dolan’s Effects of Nuclear Weapons, 1977 edition.)
All of which is to say that spheres are important from a nuclear point of view, and the context of spheres can change their meaning dramatically. Nothing too surprising or controversial there, I hope.
Such is the background I want you to be thinking of when you read the below line item from the notes of a Technical Board Meeting at Los Alamos, from May 1947.1
8. The Director [Norris Bradbury] asked for an expression of opinion as to what might be the difficulties that would arise if he asked that all possibly revealing shapes in the various Tech offices be removed. For example, spherical ash trays and such things that are not actually bomb parts or models, but cause security people concern because they feel that the presence of such items makes security policing difficult. It was agreed that the Director would bring this up at the next colloquium.
Imagine the scenario: you’re a security officer working at Los Alamos. You know that spheres are weapon parts. You walk into a technical area, and you see spheres all around! Is that an ashtray, or it is a model of a plutonium pit? Anxiety mounts — does the ashtray go into a safe at the end of the day, or does it stay out on the desk? (Has someone been tapping their cigarettes out into the pit model?)
All of this anxiety can be gone — gone! — by simply banning all non-nuclear spheres! That way you can effectively treat all spheres as sensitive shapes.
What I love about this little policy proposal is that it illuminates something deep about how secrecy works. Once you decide that something is so dangerous that the entire world hinges on keeping it under control, this sense of fear and dread starts to creep outwards. The worry about what must be controlled becomes insatiable — and pretty soon the mundane is included with the existential.
I’ve posted this quote before, from Mordechai Vanunu’s lawyer, but it never gets old. Secrecy is contagious:
If something is secret, and something else touches it, it too becomes secret. Secrecy becomes a disease. Everything around the secret issue becomes secret, so the trial became a secret, so I became a secret.
So, did Los Alamos actually end up adopting the policy of No Spheres in the War Room? It may very well have! Below is an excerpt from Joseph Masco‘s highly-recommended book, The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico:
One weapons scientist explained to me how he breached security at Los Alamos simply by bringing a sack lunch into the plutonium facility. He left his lunch on his office desk and stepped out for a minute. He came back to find a commotion. A security officer informed him that the orange he left on his desk was, in fact, a classified object.
He learned that any spherical object became a nuclear secret once it passes over the line demarcating the secure from the open areas of the laboratory, as it could be taken as a model for the plutonium pit that drives a nuclear weapon.
The weapons scientist was told that in the future he could eat the fruit or store it inside his office safe with the rest of his classified documents, but if he left the orange out on his desk unsupervised it was a security infraction that could be referred to the FBI for investigation.
Truth, rumor, exaggeration? A distinction that’s not mine to know. But it’s still pretty amusing. One wonders how many “inappropriate lunch” cases the FBI has to investigate.
I’ve asked some contacts I have at Livermore if they had such a policy out there, and they said they hadn’t heard of one. But maybe they’ve just never made the mistake of bringing a sphere to lunch.
- Citation: Los Alamos Technical Board Notes (2 May 1947), copy in Chuck Hansen papers, National Security Archive, George Washington University, Washington, D.C., Box 51, “U.S. Nuclear Testing Program, 1944-1947, 1959.” [↩]