My Photo

Salut!

  • Jen-Luc Piquant sez: "They like us! They really like us!"

    "Explains physics to the layperson and specialist alike with abundant historical and cultural references."
    -- Exploratorium ("10 Cool Sites")

    "... polished and humorous..."
    -- Physics World

    "Takes 1 part pop culture, 1 part science, and mixes vigorously with a shakerful of passion."
    -- Typepad (Featured Blog)

    "In this elegantly written blog, stories about science and technology come to life as effortlessly as everyday chatter about politics, celebrities, and vacations."
    -- Fast Company ("The Top 10 Websites You've Never Heard Of")
Blog powered by Typepad
Bookmark and Share

« the little sea squid that could | Main | happy hour »

Comments

MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) seems to have worked for the Cold War, when you had two roughly equivalent adversaries.

With the collapse of the USSR, there's no telling how much bomb-ready fissionable material or expertise may have escaped to the most resourceful and/or the highest bidder.

Some are asking that we abridge certain rights and freedoms to fight asymmetrical threats (including those that could be armed with such weapons); I don't know whether duck and cover is a better strategy.

bc

One day, so the legend goes, Stanley Kubrick was sitting in his office, moping. Arthur C. Clarke walked into the room (for this was in those heady days when **2001: A Space Odyssey** was coming into being) and asked Kubrick what was wrong. Kubrick replied that he was thinking about world affairs: he felt that the leaders of the major nuclear powers would probably always be sane enough -- or too terrified of the consequences -- to start a nuclear war, but who was thinking about a rogue fanatic getting a nuclear weapon?

"But Stanley," said Clarke, "you've done as much as anyone else in the world to warn about that danger. You made **Dr. Strangelove.**"

"Oh," said Kubrick. "I forgot about that."

I think I read this in the book **HAL's Legacy,** but I'm not sure.

**Duck and Cover** is available from the Prelinger Archives: http://www.archive.org/details/DuckandC1951

(While you're there, check out **Perversion for Profit** at http://www.archive.org/details/Perversi1965 and its companion film **Come Join the Fun** at http://www.archive.org/details/come_join_the_fun2004 .)

I have read that the Jornada del Muerto was already called that, before Trinity (see, e.g., http://www.around.com/genius.html ).

One day in tenth-grade chemistry class, our teacher brought in a mysterious bag. She put on a lead apron and a pair of heavy gloves and then said, "Today we're going to look at radioactive Fiestaware." Apparently, after hearing about how contaminated sand had been made into orange glazed household utensils, she started going to antique stores armed with a Geiger counter. She bought a set of "hot plates" and now keeps them in a lead-lined bag for, ahem, very special occasions.

http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/nuclear/nucbuy.html

http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a4_099.html

Oh yeah, and I think the "scientists have now known sin" remark belongs to J. Robert Oppenheimer, not Hans Bethe. ;-)

Great post! Just a few questions:

1. You say, "there's been more buzz than usual about tapping nuclear fusion as a clean energy source," but then go on to talk about "the problem of storing huge amounts of radioactive waste for [...] tens of thousands of years." Isn't this a problem associated with nuclear *fission*? (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nuclear_power_plant#Fusion_reactors .) In my experience, the only current controversy over nuclear *fusion* as a power source is whether it's possible, or economical, to get more power out of a fusion reactor than you put into it. Some are more pessimistic than others (for example, http://www.newscientist.com/channel/fundamentals/dn8827.html).

2. I've never heard the term "gamma-level" before... what does it mean? I always thought that gamma radation was qualitatively different than alpha and beta radiation -- not just a different "level" of radioactivity.

p.s. I love your blog! :)

RE: Aaron's questions, I can't answer the first one, except to say that storing hazardous waste and/or recycling nuclear materials is a major issue with GNEP and the planned Yucca Mountain storage facility. So clearly it's still a policy issue, however the science plays out. Ans for "gamma level" -- that's what happens when you type a very long post late at night... the odd bit of poor phrasing creeps in. :) Yes, gamma is qualitatively different than alpha and beta.

And Blake is back on the comments section, with his usual collection of useful tidbits. Welcome back! :) The "sin" quote has been attributed to both Bethe and Oppenheimer, in various places. Anyone else want to weigh in? We can clear this matter up right here...

Yeah, I've been away, but now I'm back. Some stuff I was doing in my spare time turned into a project of its own and thence into a paper I'll be presenting at the sixth International Conference on Complex Systems, in a couple weeks. For the terminally curious, my so-called work can be found here:

http://necsi.org/community/wiki/index.php/ICCS06/150

I checked the couple popular-science books I could remember which cited the "now known sin" quotation. Gleick's **Genius** and Sagan's **Demon-Haunted World** both attribute it to Oppenheimer; the latter states (p. 283) that Oppenheimer said as much to Harry S Truman. "Afterwards, Truman instructed his aides that he never wished to see Oppenheimer again." Endnotes in the former point me to the following bibliographic entry:

Oppenheimer, J. Robert. 1945. Speech to the Association of Los Alamos Scientists, 2 November. In Smith and Weiner 1980, 315.

Following the chain of pointers one step more:

Smith, Alice Kimball, and Wiener, Charles. 1980. Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and Reflections. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Whoever is closest to a library can probably get the answer first. Oh, yes, and according to Wikiquote: "In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose." This comes, purportedly, from a lecture entitled "Physics in the Contemporary World" which Oppenheimer gave at MIT on 25 November 1947.

http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Robert_Oppenheimer

Now, nobody should trust anything coming from the Wikimedia projects to be the last word. Trust me, after two and a half years and five thousand edits on the Wikipedia, I know how the system can fail. . . but at least it's a good place to start looking.

One other place this meme shows up is Kurt Vonnegut's 1963 novel **Cat's Cradle,** in which Dr. Felix Hoenikker (who in Vonnegut's story was a major contributor to the Manhattan Project) was told that "science had now known sin." Hoenikker, who would later invent the apocalyptic allotrope of water called ice-nine, replied with a question: "What is sin?"

As it happens, Vonnegut based Hoenikker upon Irving Langmuir, who worked for General Electric in Schenectady, New York, where Vonnegut was briefly employed. During his time there, Vonnegut heard a story floating around that H. G. Wells had once visited the GE laboratories, and that Langmuir -- a Nobel laureate working for private industry, if you can imagine that -- was assigned to entertain Wells. The reluctant Langmuir decided to give Wells an idea which the writer could turn into a science-fiction story, and so he dreamt up this notion of a new crystal structure of water which was solid at room temperature. Wells never did anything with the idea, and neither did Langmuir. They were both dead, when along came Vonnegut.

"I have already called the fictitious inventor of the fictitious Ice-9 an old-fashioned sort of scientist. There used to be a lot of morally innocent scientists like him. No more. Younger scientists are extremely sensitive to the moral implications of all they do. My fictitious old-time scientist asked, among other things, this question: 'What is sin?' He asked that question mockingly as though the concept of sin were as obsolete as plate armor. Young scientists, it seems to me, are fascinated by the idea of sin. They perceive it as anything human that seriously threatens the planet and the life thereon."

This comes from a 1969 address Vonnegut gave to the American Physical Society -- yes, my very own professional organization -- reprinted in **Wampeters, Foma & Granfalloons**.

For more atomic era pop culture goodness, check out http://conelrad.com/index.php.
Also, have you seen 100 Suns? (http://www.michaellight.net/100suns/index.html ) It's a compilation of photos of fireballs from nuclear tests -- strangely beautiful.

Jennifer, I've been enjoying your writing in APS News. Now I find you write beautifully even in your blogs. How amazing. Thanks for covering such important issues here.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Twitter Updates

    follow me on Twitter

    Physics Cocktails

    • Heavy G
      The perfect pick-me-up when gravity gets you down.
      2 oz Tequila
      2 oz Triple sec
      2 oz Rose's sweetened lime juice
      7-Up or Sprite
      Mix tequila, triple sec and lime juice in a shaker and pour into a margarita glass. (Salted rim and ice are optional.) Top off with 7-Up/Sprite and let the weight of the world lift off your shoulders.
    • Listening to the Drums of Feynman
      The perfect nightcap after a long day struggling with QED equations.
      1 oz dark rum
      1/2 oz light rum
      1 oz Tia Maria
      2 oz light cream
      Crushed ice
      1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
      In a shaker half-filled with ice, combine the dark and light rum, Tia Maria, and cream. Shake well. Strain into an old fashioned glass almost filled with crushed ice. Dust with the nutmeg, and serve. Bongos optional.
    • Combustible Edison
      Electrify your friends with amazing pyrotechnics!
      2 oz brandy
      1 oz Campari
      1 oz fresh lemon juice
      Combine Campari and lemon juice in shaker filled with cracked ice. Shake and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Heat brandy in chafing dish, then ignite and pour into glass. Cocktail Go BOOM! Plus, Fire = Pretty!
    • Hiroshima Bomber
      Dr. Strangelove's drink of choice.
      3/4 Triple sec
      1/4 oz Bailey's Irish Cream
      2-3 drops Grenadine
      Fill shot glass 3/4 with Triple Sec. Layer Bailey's on top. Drop Grenadine in center of shot; it should billow up like a mushroom cloud. Remember to "duck and cover."
    • Mad Scientist
      Any mad scientist will tell you that flames make drinking more fun. What good is science if no one gets hurt?
      1 oz Midori melon liqueur
      1-1/2 oz sour mix
      1 splash soda water
      151 proof rum
      Mix melon liqueur, sour mix and soda water with ice in shaker. Shake and strain into martini glass. Top with rum and ignite. Try to take over the world.
    • Laser Beam
      Warning: may result in amplified stimulated emission.
      1 oz Southern Comfort
      1/2 oz Amaretto
      1/2 oz sloe gin
      1/2 oz vodka
      1/2 oz Triple sec
      7 oz orange juice
      Combine all liquor in a full glass of ice. Shake well. Garnish with orange and cherry. Serve to attractive target of choice.
    • Quantum Theory
      Guaranteed to collapse your wave function:
      3/4 oz Rum
      1/2 oz Strega
      1/4 oz Grand Marnier
      2 oz Pineapple juice
      Fill with Sweet and sour
      Pour rum, strega and Grand Marnier into a collins glass. Add pineapple and fill with sweet and sour. Sip until all the day's super-positioned states disappear.
    • The Black Hole
      So called because after one of these, you have already passed the event horizon of inebriation.
      1 oz. Kahlua
      1 oz. vodka
      .5 oz. Cointreau or Triple Sec
      .5 oz. dark rum
      .5 oz. Amaretto
      Pour into an old-fashioned glass over (scant) ice. Stir gently. Watch time slow.