In the early 1960s, shortly after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Stanley Kubrick began to write the screenplay for a Cold War thriller about an accidental nuclear war. He intended the work to be straightforward, deadly serious, as befitting the subject matter. After a while, he found the ideas and people so surreal that he chose to make it a dark comedy. And so was born Dr. Strangelove.
Sharon Weinberger, a writer on national security and military technology, must have had the same temptation as she investigated the world of Pentagon-funded research. Her story centers on hafnium isomers, surely as mysterious as the doomsday device and the Big Board. Some of the characters she met must have recalled the good doctor and Buck Turgidson. Wryness surfaces now and again, though it is not always easily differentiated from exposition of peculiar events. For her restraint as well as for this fine book, she is to be commended.
Hafnium is a naturally occurring element (Hf), which resides at 72 on the periodic table, in a middling neighborhood between the Lutetiums and the Tantalums, a good way from the heavy elements used in fission and the light hydrogen isotopes upon which fusion relies. The process under study here is quite different from nuclear ones, though its result was hoped to be similarly lethal.
Charging up, or exciting, hafnium nuclei yields hafnium isomers, a material with a tremendous amount of potential energy. If a means of releasing, or triggering, that energy were found, several interesting applications might follow. A slow release might give us a new battery or radiology device; a quick release a fearsome new weapon, the detonation of which a less gifted writer would describe in tired terms of boxcars of TNT or Hiroshima bombs. Suffice to say, the latter potential drew the interest of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the Pentagon office that funds promising new technologies, few of which, needless to say, seek to aid school lunch programs.
Thusfar, the scientific footing is solid. The tremendous energy in hafnium isomers is universally accepted. The question is how to release the energy in hafnium isomers. Here, the scientific community no longer spoke unanimously. In time, they would no longer speak civilly. Some searched for the triggering mechanism; others held it was simply impossible.
Interest in the potential of hafnium isomers began in the early seventies. Scientists wrote papers, exchanged ideas, and held conferences on the esoteric substance and its potentials. Their ideas were out there, way out there, but perhaps only somewhat more out there than other ideas that had led to important breakthroughs. The appalling cost of creating hafnium isomers ($1 million per milligram), let alone years of experimenting with the stuff, rendered the idea a lonely hypothesis in desperate search of a mate with a lot of money, without whom it could never find fulfillment.
Over the years, well-heeled suitors from venture capital outfits and private research institutions have saved many a lonely hypothesis from spinsterhood. But for the last sixty years or so, the big bucks have come from elsewhere, especially when there is a large bang involved. Ever since the joyous union of academe and the quest to kill Japs and Krauts at the wholesale level gave us The Bomb, a forlorn hypothesis with sensuousness calculated in kilotons and beauty that could launch a thousand missiles, would eventually attract the attention of an ardent suitor. He wore a handsomely-accoutered uniform and often had the heedless imprudence and untamed hopes of a boy with a generous allowance.
DARPA got wind of the hafnium isomer ideas at the outset of Strategic Defense Initiative research and amid insistent complaints that the agency hadn’t scored lately. In the mid 1980s, it bestowed $10 million on mavens at the University of Texas at Dallas. Not a lordly sum, but enough to confer a few kilograms of legitimacy (much cheaper than hafnium isomers) to the notion and also enough to garner interest from various parts of the Pentagon and several parties that either shared the interest or sought to share the wealth. When it was learned that a rival country, then called the Evil Empire, had its own hafnium isomer research project . . . well, the Force was with them.
Again, no one doubts the great energy in hafnium isomers. The dicey question is can it be released. A 1998 experiment by the Dallas mavens, using what can charitably be called crude equipment, found that X-ray bombardment of a minuscule sample provided by the ever-accommodating boys at Los Alamos triggered gamma ray emissions. Joy erupted among the mavens in Texas and interested parties. Their ideas were still out there, but no longer way out there. Their suitor’s imagination ran wild.
If eyes lit up in Dallas and Washington, they rolled nearly everywhere else. Most physicists with knowledge of the research had looked upon it as dubious at best, almost certainly headed nowhere. But once the mavens claimed their experiment had triggered hafnium isomers, the larger community took note and put the experiment under considerable scrutiny. Bad science in its early stages can be pooh-poohed , but bad science with concrete claims based on repeatable experiments can be slaughtered. Indeed, it pleads for it. Many parties honed their knives.
The criticism in scholarly papers was well grounded and widespread. X-ray radiation, by every relevant principle, simply could not trigger the reported gamma rays. There must have been an error in instrumentation or materials. More ominously and damning, perhaps blame fell on the mavens’ observations or inferences. In 1999, the vaunted JASONs, a group of outside scientists that advises DARPA, pilloried the rigor and findings of its protÃ©gÃ©’s experiment.
The mavens countered that critics were stodgy apparatchiks opposed to revolutionary ideas that threatened their prestigious positions. Claims and counterclaims flew about as though in a hollow of Hatfields and McCoys who knew calculus. Consensus was clearly against the mavens, and a consensus, as readers of Thomas Kuhn will attest (or at least a majority of them), goes a long way in settling the matter. Nonetheless, DARPA funding went on.
In other times, within a different elite, acrimonious disputes were settled with pistols or swords ”“ if Thackeray is any guide on the matter, in the early morn on a dew-laden glade. The venerable institution certainly had panache, and its disappearance from politics is sorely missed. In our dreary modern world, scientific disputes are settled (to the extent they ever are) through the less violent, though no less amicable convention of repeating the experiment and determining if the same results are produced ”“ or not.
The field of scientific honor was Argonne National Laboratory, near gladeless Chicago. Pistols and swords were presumably checked at the gate; Argonne’s sophisticated equipment stood in for them serviceably, if blandly. Three AM was selected over a more evocative sunrise or high noon, though someone had the Ã©lan to play his bagpipes. X-rays bombarded the hafnium isomer sample, just as the earlier experiment at the University of Texas at Dallas had, and after careful study of the sensors and the data churned out from the instruments, the results were in.
A second experiment reduced the density of the X-ray bombardment on the stalwart hafnium isomer particles, as requested by the mavens of Dallas. Still nothing. In 2001, Argonne promulgated the results of its experiments, and the bulk of the scientific community returned to its various projects, their white jackets barely sullied by the effortless slaughter that had taken place. Many felt they had done taxpayers a service.
But what effect did the JASONs criticism, Argonne experiments, and the consensus of the scientific community have on DARPA’s extravagant assignations with the increasingly desperate hypothesis?
Funding continued apace, at least for a few more years. DARPA still hadn’t scored, but at least the principles of inertia and momentum had been reaffirmed. The mavens became almost paranoid, now claiming that a sinister conspiracy was trying to crush ideas it deemed dangerous. DARPA, for its part, became ever more strident in warning of Russian (the Evil Empire was gone) research on the subject and, in the post-9/11 world that changed everything (including sound reasoning, it seems), the dangers of terrorists getting their hands on hafnium isomer weapons.
Gentlemen, the dewy glade awaits you on the morn. Pistols or swords?
Ultimately, even the mavens’ attempts to repeat their earlier favorable experiment were disappointing. In time ”“ perhaps too much time, it was only last year ”“ annoyed scientists and aghast politicians delivered a coup de grace. Bang! The lifeless body of Pentagon-funded hafnium isomer research slumped to the laboratory floor, its white coat sullied by Texas dust and lattÃ© spills. It had breathed its last.
The author notes some parts of military research are as transparent as the walls of the Pentagon, as undetectable as . . . well, as undetectable as gamma rays from hafnium isomers manufactured at great expense by the boys at Lost Almost and bombarded by various dosages of X-rays at Argonne Labs in at least two different experiments. Tom Lehrer, are you out there?
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Imaginary Weapons is an intriguing look at the Byzantine world of military-driven science, pseudo-science, and pathological science. Since World War Two, the union of science and war has yielded countless discoveries and innovations, but has also squandered billions of our dollars along the way ”“ a theft according to one old general. Weinberger has neatly apprised us of what almost assuredly was one such blunder. Her object is not to give an overall assessment of DARPA, identify frauds and villains, or echo Ike’s earnest warning. She does, however, point out to us that nonscientific demands and epistemological miasmas in the high councils of DARPA unduly influence the awarding of research grants and ably contribute to the momentum that sustains them. There’s little reason to think things will change.
Brian M. Downing is the author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam.
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Sharon Weinberger, Imaginary Weapons: A Journey through the Pentagon’s Scientific Underworld. New York: Nation Books, 2006. xxviii + 276; $26.00 (cloth).