Secrets and Surprises

hiroshimaheadlineI once asked my grandfather what he had thought about the atomic bomb when the news of Hiroshima broke. I expected him to say he was surprised, and while he was, it wasn’t the surprise I had been expecting.

You see, he knew the atomic bomb was under development. In fact, most of the people in his office knew, too.

No, he was not working at Los Alamos, nor was he at Oak Ridge or any other Manhattan Project facility. He was an electrical engineer at Bell Labs in New Jersey. His main military effort during the war was for sonar.

So, given how secret the Manhattan Project was, how did he know about it?

It was the sudden silence in the various scientific publications. In the late 1930’s, there had been a steady stream of advances in the study of radioactive materials and how they transformed from one element to another. There were also theoretical hints around nuclear fission and what it could mean. He remembered expecting to read very soon that they had confirmed the splitting of the atom with details about energy output, particle emissions, and so forth.

Instead, there was nothing.

Mind you, my grandfather was not a nuclear scientist. In the day, that was more a sub-specialty of chemistry, but he wasn’t a chemist either. He worked on signal amplifiers and repeaters. In fact, he considered his greatest achievement to be a key development in the repeaters for the transatlantic telegraph lines.

But he read the scientific journals, just like all of his fellow engineers at Bell Labs, and when a lot of big names suddenly went silent, they began to wonder. Calls to various colleagues at universities came back with reports of certain professors and promising grad students going on extended sabbatical to parts unknown.

From an unrelated source, John Campbell of Astounding Stories also knew something was up, and he knew it was in New Mexico. According to the story, he knew this by how many subscriptions had suddenly moved there, and when he started noting the names on those subscriptions, he also put two and two together.

So what had my grandfather been surprised at? He said he was surprised by the reality of how powerful the atomic bomb was. Little Boy exploded as 16 kilotons. Fat Man was all the way up at 21 kilotons. While they had not talked in detail around the office — it was wartime, after all — the general feeling was that fission explosions might be one hundred times as powerful as chemical ones. Some argued for closer to a thousand times as powerful.

They knew high explosive bombs were getting up to one thousand and two thousand pounds, essentially a ton. They knew some of the limits of what the bombing aircraft could carry, and from that they estimated that the fission bombs might reach 500 to 1000 tons, i.e. one kiloton. “Of course,” he said,”we didn’t really know what a kiloton explosion would look like.

portofchicagoaftermathBut they got some idea in July of 1944 when the Port of Chicago (northeast of Oakland, CA) suffered a giant munitions explosion of about 1800 tons of TNT, i.e. 1.8 kilotons. A cousin of my grandfather’s had been one of the few surviving officers of the ship that exploded (the SS E. A. Bryan), and he had only survived by the luck of being on shore leave, visiting his girlfriend in nearby Oakland. Apparently he had felt the explosion through the ground, many miles away and could see the fireball rising over the horizon. But still, the much closer towns of Concord Pittsburg had not been particularly damaged.

Armed with what knowledge they had, my grandfather had expected fission bombs to be used as super “blockbusters”, and that bombers would blanket an industrial section of a city with five or six of them, possibly expanding to the larger city with another ten or twenty. He said one of his coworkers argued for fewer since the concentrated explosion would generate a more lethal shockwave than the larger pile of TNT had done in the Port Chicago explosion. Even then, it was assumed that a bombing raid would need at least four to ten to be equivalent to a larger TNT-based bombing.

hiroshimadamageIt never occurred to him that it might be so powerful both in magnitude and in lethality that a single bomb could effectively destroy a mid-sized city. “It made me glad we were out of New York,” he said.

The other surprise he confessed was that we had not used it on the Germans. It did not come out until later just how late in the war the bomb was ready, and he had spent much of the war wondering when he was going to see it being used in the European theater. Of course, none of them knew the logistics of gathering the fissionable material nor the design problems of making it work as an explosive, and it was that delay that caused a few of the detractors to suggest that no such effort was being made.

So, looking back on that, I wonder about our own future. If certain key researchers in quantum computing or nanotechnology suddenly went silent, would I know about it? If dark matter and dark energy theorists started disappearing into an Alaskan research institute would you realize it? I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but I have to wonder how many of us would notice if a relatively obscure research field suddenly went dark. Did they simply lose funding, or are we about to be surprised?

Ray Guns vs. Slug Throwers

What’s a galactic hero without his ray gun? Ewok fodder, that’s what. But what about those ancient but trusty “slug throwers”, a.k.a. 44-Magnums and Saturday Night Specials? I’ve been running into all manner of pistols and rifles ever since that first storm trooper blasted his way through the airlock door, but if I want to fire back at him, what are my options?

Slug throwers go back to time when they were little more than a rock tosser. Think about prehistoric slings, hurling a small rock at your target at high speed. The laser-sighting night-vision sniper rifle works on the same basic concept: throw something hard fast enough and it will ruin your target’s day. We’ve certainly made them more efficient and effective over thousands of years, but at some level we’re still throwing rocks.

Slug throwers get a bit of a bad rap in SF settings because of the perception that our heroes are all sitting in a tin can surrounded by vacuum. That’s not the best place for creating your own internal micro-meteors. On the other hand, if I really am flying around in a spacecraft that’s little more than a tin can, I don’t know how comfortable I would be with any of the ray gun options either. I would think, though, that over time, starship and space station hulls would be getting much sturdier. Eventually, ricochet is going to replace hull breach as your main concern.

But science and science-fiction have also been kind to slug throwers, spicing them up with new and interesting flavors. Starting in the real world, we have already seen explosive bullets, armor piercing bullets, rubber bullets intended to limit damage, and hollow points designed to cause even more internal damage. SF takes them beyond that to include such things as chemical rounds. Some of these are intended to break the skin and dissolve a toxin or nerve agent into the blood, while others are meant to break on the surface and release gas. They cannot carry much of a given chemical, but some chemicals don’t need much to be quite nasty.

One of my favorite SF twists on the slug thrower is the needle gun. It usually replaces the nasty chemical explosion with electromagnetic or air-pneumatic acceleration and fires a steady stream of tiny needles towards your target where they can tumble and shred on impact. Chemical coatings are also a possibility, but again the volume is quite low. Mostly I think the quiet steady stream of needles – NEEDLES let me remind you are those nasty things you hate at the doctors – yes, needles flying through the air at us is enough to invoke the fear we usually reserve for the bang of a gunshot. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to step away from the window now before I become a human pin-cushion.

But then there are the ray guns, and they come in quite a few flavors as well. I’ll lead off with the venerable blaster, simply because there’s not a lot to be said about it. It looks great on film, shooting a visible streak of light and making a smoking ruinous hole on impact. They never explain its inner workings. It’s simply a space gun, and in film, that’s enough. With a little hand-waving, it might be enough in text as well.

Star Trek’s phasers aren’t much more specific, and they have the added bonus of easy cleanup, though as seasons went by, disintegration by phaser became less common. More and more there would be talk of “phaser burns” and “phaser wounds”. Also, phasers come with a convenient stun setting, and that made them very convenient for taking prisoners alive, because short of the Vulcan neck pinch, there’s not a lot of sleep-it-off attacks out there.

Lasers are a lot closer to reality, but so far the reality is that they’re not terribly deadly, at least not with the kind of power sources you can carry around. However, they can still be quite dangerous. Already there are some hand-held lasers that can blind you, sometimes for just a few minutes and sometimes permanently. A number of the modern green lasers also put out an even more intense infrared beam, and that can fry your retina quite well. Heed the warning sign, “Do not look at laser with remaining eye.”

But do lasers made for good ray guns? At current power levels, not really, but the blindness threat is a good one, especially when you bring computers into mix. Computer facial recognition is still working on identifying specific faces, but recognizing a face as being a face is fairly reliable – your latest digital camera may be using it to help focus your snapshots. If you then give the computer the final control over aiming via mirrors, you could aim your laser at an opponent or group of opponents at great distance and then let the computer do the actual work of sweeping the laser repetitively over all the eyes it finds. You would not have killed your targets, but they are far less likely to be shooting back with any effectiveness. Unless, of course, you’re marching into a defended stronghold with automatic computer controlled laser guns… then you’re pretty well screwed.

Then, as Ahhhnold would say, there’s the “phased plasma rifle in the 40-watt range”. Plasma guns seem to be halfway between hand-waving and actual science. At least we know what plasma is. You can wiki the details, but in short plasma is matter heated to the point where the electrons have broken free of the nuclei, leaving you with a soup of very energetic charged particles. If you direct that via an electromagnet field, you have yourself a plasma gun.

I think the real trick with an effective plasma gun has to be accelerating the plasma fast enough that it actually reaches your target before flying apart into a mass of superhot air. At its worst, it would produce a muzzle flash hot enough to kill the poor sap holding the gun. Because of this, I tend to find plasma rifles much more believable than plasma pistols. The longer barrel makes it easier to create a coherent stream of particles moving at high velocity, and it also puts any remaining muzzle flash problems at least a foot or two away from our beloved space hero.

Similar to a plasma gun would be some kind of radiation gun. Certainly high speed plasma can be seen as a form of radiation (particularly of the alpha and beta particle variety), but I’m thinking more about more exotic radiation such as neutron or meson radiation. Neutron radiation is simpler to produce. There are several elements that create neutron radiation. There are also some that can to some degree create it on demand by first hitting them with alpha particles (i.e. helium nuclei), but the real challenge comes with directing the neutrons away from our space hero and towards his soon to be irradiated foe. Neutrons have no electrical charge, so there’s no easy way to direct them. It would seem your best bet would be to create a huge amount of them and then have some particularly good neutron shielding in all directions except down the barrel towards the target. Alas, this strikes me as very bulky and very ineffective, particularly at any range other than close quarters, but with a little hand-waving in the narrative, I might be willing to suspend my disbelief.

Another radiation gun I’ve seen in the meson gun. Mesons are odd little subatomic particles that we rarely see outside of atomic nuclei and particle accelerators, largely because they are very unstable and short-lived. However, many of them are charged, so they can be directed towards a target just like plasma could be. The advantage to meson guns – at least the advantage I have seen presented – is that they decay after a short period, and that decay can cause other nasty radiation, so the idea is to time your shot so that the mesons decay inside your target, past any armor or other defenses. Alas, meson decay is not nearly so predictable, and the tricks required to get a reliable meson generator down to the size of something a man could carry would take some truly epic hand-waving.

A cousin of the ray gun is the force gun, though I don’t see it nearly as often. The idea is that you fire it at your target, and they are hit with a kinetic force – in layman terms, a shove. Maybe it’s a smack to the forehead, or maybe it’s a shove against the wall. Or for the truly bad-ass, maybe it’s a 16-ton crush against the wall. This one usually requires a lot of hand-waving with very little connection to actual science, because these force guns rarely have any notion of recoil shoving you back against the wall, 16-tons or not. However, they do make for nice non-lethal weapons at close quarters.

And coming back around to something closer to reality, there is the stun gun. We already have these in the real world, shooting small darts into your target and then zapping him with a high frequency shock via the trailing wires back to your pistol. Taking it a bit further into the realm of hand-waving SF, I have seen these done without darts and wires, simply shooting the electrical arc through the air at the target or hitting him with some kind of directed electromagnet pulse (EMP). The key limits on these kinds of weapons seem to be energy storage and range, but it’s nice to have another addition to the non-lethal kit.

So, if I’m fighting off those storm troopers, which one do I want to have? Well, if I’m stuck in the vacuum-enclosed tin can, I’m not sure I want any of them, though I suppose I’d opt for the blinding laser or a lower powered force gun. If I’m a well-hulled ship or down on the exotic planet, I think I’d be all about the long-ranged slug throwers and possibly some kind of stun weapon, electric or phased would be the flavor of the day. I’m all about keeping the truly dangerous target as far away as possible, but I’d also like a non-lethal weapon in close quarters.

What’s your choice?