There is no inherent limit in the destructive power that may be attained
August 18, 2018 7:34 PM   Subscribe

Edward Teller and the 10 gigaton bomb.
posted by Chrysostom (54 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Teller was a crazed lunatic. Brilliant, but a lunatic nevertheless.
posted by Sphinx at 8:13 PM on August 18, 2018 [5 favorites]

if you're an ordinary lunatic, you end up in an institution - or a streetcorner somewhere - it's a terrible thing

if you're a stark raving lunatic they give you a fucking job at a nuclear research project and call you a national hero
posted by pyramid termite at 8:15 PM on August 18, 2018 [8 favorites]

This article was distressing in a way I haven't experienced recently, even with the current state of everything.

I didn't know this sort of thing was within the realm of possibility. Good lord.
posted by figurant at 8:21 PM on August 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

Interesting article, thanks for posting it.

Not mentioned in the article is that one of the of the big concerns the US military had (and still has really) was what sort of weapons they needed to worry about being dropped on they themselves. Knowing exactly how to build a 10 gigaton nuke gives you a huge leg up in figuring out if someone else is constructing one.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:37 PM on August 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

Shortly after abandoning that idea more or less completely, Teller, with the spur from Stan Ulam, came up with a new design.

Ulam is given a lot more credit for the H-bomb in everything else I've read -- but I've also read articles saying Ulam sought to disclaim the paternity revisionists have foisted upon him for the "horrible thing."
posted by jamjam at 9:34 PM on August 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

Come on, people. Will no one else admit that, somewhere deep inside, if you're the kind of person who has set off the biggest fireworks that you could afford personally and wished that it were even bigger, you're wondering what that explosion would be like? Maybe not on this planet. Hey, we didn't have any plans for Venus, right?
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:57 PM on August 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

For comparison purposes, the Chicxulub impactor was a ~100,000 gigaton event.
posted by jamjam at 10:41 PM on August 18, 2018 [9 favorites]

a crazed lunatic.

Strangelove indeed.
posted by Twang at 10:44 PM on August 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

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”)

Teller made it a matter of good fortune that you and your loved ones are still alive. It's difficult to adequately condemn his legacy.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:51 PM on August 18, 2018 [6 favorites]

I’m still amazed we made it through the Cold War. Scary times.
posted by persona au gratin at 11:12 PM on August 18, 2018 [3 favorites]

If you ever played the adventure game Trinity (1986) by Brian Moriarty then you may recognize the codenames GNOMON and SUNDIAL.
posted by cyanistes at 12:07 AM on August 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

"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."

Yeah, sure, i just wanted to weed the garden.
posted by thegirlwiththehat at 1:43 AM on August 19, 2018

Oh, they were working on that, too: Project Plowshare.
posted by The Tensor at 1:50 AM on August 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

Hey, we didn't have any plans for Venus, right?

But that's not a job for a hydrogen bomb. That's a job for an Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator.
posted by flabdablet at 2:43 AM on August 19, 2018 [19 favorites]

Honestly kind of disappointed that Nukemap can't handle modeling the Backyard Bomb. It's one thing to take Teller's grandiose statements at face value - I want to know what the actual effects of a 10 GT device would be by the physics.
posted by Punkey at 3:50 AM on August 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

Hey, we didn't have any plans for Venus, right

No, but: Elon Musk Says We Could Terraform Mars By Dropping Thermonuclear Bombs On It
posted by octothorpe at 3:59 AM on August 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

Naturally, we'd need to engage the services of endless Tesla employees to prepare the impact sites properly first. And if we're going to ship them to Mars and then blow them up with nuclear bombs, we won't have to pay them once they leave Earth, because what are they gonna do - unionize? It's win-win!
posted by flabdablet at 4:43 AM on August 19, 2018 [4 favorites]

It was pretty sobering reading Eric Schlosser's Command and Control which basically says it's pure luck we've not had a nuke go off by accident by now. An 'ordinary' sized h-bomb going off accidentally would be horrific... but mankind would continue, unlike with Teller's apocalyptic wet dream one.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 5:48 AM on August 19, 2018 [4 favorites]

It may have been a self-defense protective measure from my own Cold-War-scarred brain that made me think of the ending to Monty Python's "How Not to Be Seen" sketch when I was reading this....
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:00 AM on August 19, 2018

The realization that "tactical nuclear weapons" were uncontroversial is frightening. Contaminating the entire planet in a single shot gave them pause, but contaminating vast areas of it little by little was no big deal.
posted by tommasz at 6:12 AM on August 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

I wrote three paragraphs on Teller last night and then didn't post because it didn't feel right. Then this morning I realized it's because justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow nailed it - it's probably impossible to adequately condemn him.

I would however like to plug The Making of the Atomic Bomb yet again for anybody who hasn't checked it out. It's probably the most gripping 900-page nonfiction book you'll ever read. The "history of science" aspect is fascinating but seeing the stories of these physicists and engineers coming to grips with the consequences of what they're building is very compelling reading. It would seem that seeing the borderline-psychopathy of Teller is what pushed a lot of them over into strident anti-nuke activism after the war. Not that anybody listened, unfortunately.

One part with particular relevance here is Rhodes making the case that Heisenberg (of uncertainty principle fame) may have intentionally led the parallel German effort down a blind alley because he was terrified of the prospect of the Nazis getting the bomb.
posted by range at 6:23 AM on August 19, 2018 [13 favorites]

In one of Rhodes's books he says that above a certain a size a bomb's destructive radius would stop growing and any increases would simply move a chunk of the Earth's crust into orbit at ever greater velocities.
Apparently this result disappointed Teller.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 6:53 AM on August 19, 2018 [5 favorites]

posted by I-Write-Essays at 6:57 AM on August 19, 2018

I prefer the thing we actually did.
posted by sonascope at 6:57 AM on August 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

fearfulsymmetry: Command and Control AIUI is mostly about American nuclear weapon whoopsies. There were worse things out there. Consider the British Violet Club weapon, the largest atom bomb anyone fielded during the cold war (before the UK worked out how to build an H-bomb: the core it was based on tested out to 720Kt, close to megaton range).

Violet Club's Green Grass core was a dog: a hollow spherical implosion device containing 70-86Kg of highly enriched uranium. A plane crash by a bomber loaded with a VC device could easily crush the hollow sphere, leading to a fizzle with a yield of up to 20kt, and AIUI the approach path to one of the main V-bomber bases passed over the centre of Northampton, a medium-sized city. Plane catches fire with bomb on board? BOOM. Plane crashes at some point? BOOM. Someone pulls a face at the gadget? BOOM. You get the picture ...

For the icing on the cake, the airfield in question had a gate guardian situated beside the main road running past the base. The gate guardian was a 1940s Grand Slam (a 10 ton free fall conventional bomb). Which, during the 1950s, was found to be a live bomb full of high explosives rather than an inert bomb casing, when a low-loader came to take it away for repainting and the crane they tried to lift it with toppled over.

And don't get me started about what the RAF used in place of Permissive Action Locks on their WE 177 free-fall hydrogen bombs (decommissioned in the early 1990s). (Hint: bicycle lock that could be picked with a Bic biro cap.)
posted by cstross at 7:37 AM on August 19, 2018 [21 favorites]

For those interested in the weirdness of atomic weapon design and organisational failure I highly recommend David Langford's The Leaky Establishment wherein the protagonist has to deal with that most tricky of problems - what do you do when you have accidentally taken a live nuclear warhead home with you?

It's a novel I hasten to add but one based firmly on time spent at AWRE Aldermaston.
posted by fallingbadgers at 7:53 AM on August 19, 2018 [5 favorites]

Oh man, Violet Club. It was insane. My favourite detail is that it was filled with ball bearings, and rendered 'live' by... pourinf the ball bearings out of the hole. This happened by accident many many times, especially during loading/unloading for training with the 'inert' (bearing filled) bomb. Fun fact: if a plane had ever taken off with the live bomb, it would have been impossible to call off. It was not possible to safely land with the live bomb, and nor was it possible to fill with bearings in flight. Any live scramble would have committed Britain to a nuclear strike somewhere within the range of the aircraft carrying it.

I also love that it was meant to be a megaton weapon. When it was clear that it would have a much lower yield, it was announced that half a megaton was indeed a megaton class weapon. It didn't manage half a megaton of yield.

It was the final British designed nuclear bomb. However mad some of the Americans like Teller were, you can see why the British decided to defer to their expertise.

For some reason the wiki article has a link to a song about the bomb a band I'm in recorded.
posted by Dysk at 8:27 AM on August 19, 2018 [7 favorites]

Multi-gigaton bombs seem perfect for use in a dead hand type system.

“As you know, the premier loves surprises.”
posted by TedW at 8:30 AM on August 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

We have had stabby things for perhaps 2,000,000 years.

We have had shooty things for about 1,200 years.

We have had fissiony things for only 70 years.

Maybe Blockchain and Cat videos are some shiny bauble dropped by aliens to distract us from killing ourselves.
posted by nickggully at 8:42 AM on August 19, 2018 [5 favorites]

TIL there was an actual maniac who wanted to blow it all up.
posted by SonInLawOfSam at 8:43 AM on August 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

Wow, fuck that guy.
posted by stinkfoot at 8:45 AM on August 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

For many years I wrote stories of a “gonzo scientist”, or a mad scientist who wasn’t evil. She once came out with this line:

“Scientists talk about mad science to scare each other. When mad scientists want to scare each other, we tell Edmund Teller stories.”*

(She also once worked out the math for a Teller weapon, one that would set the Earth’s atmosphere on fire, for the express purpose of making sure that if any aliens conquered earth they wouldn’t get much out of it, and promptly destroyed the notes and tossed the computer she used into a live volcano so no one else could get it.)

* yes, I stole it from a DC comic, but it’s still effective.
posted by mephron at 9:17 AM on August 19, 2018 [4 favorites]

this calculator goes way up there - 10 gigatons is not good
posted by pyramid termite at 9:39 AM on August 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

Did Teller ever meet Curtis LeMay? Seems like that would have been a match made in one of the lower circles of Hell.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:04 AM on August 19, 2018 [5 favorites]

AIUI the approach path to one of the main V-bomber bases passed over the centre of Northampton

Good God. We could have lost Alan Moore.
posted by Halloween Jack at 10:06 AM on August 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

Teller and Ulam.
posted by jamjam at 10:19 AM on August 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

the more i read about the cold war arms race, the more convinced i become that the only reason we're here to talk about it is because of the anthropic principle:

we exist in one of the incredibly low-probability world-lines where humanity didn't blast itself into extinction 10 times over
posted by murphy slaw at 10:22 AM on August 19, 2018 [9 favorites]

Did Teller ever meet Curtis LeMay? Seems like that would have been a match made in one of the lower circles of Hell.

I would be really surprised if they didn't meet and work directly together at Los Alamos or Yucca Flats.

Also, all of these people are utterly mad. There's some film of Teller out there briefly but gleefully talking about how much of a mad scientist he was and it'd be hilarious if he wasn't talking about world-ending nuclear weapons. But, no, instead it's just utterly terrifying.

The older I get and the weirder things get, the more I ponder if Phillip K. Dick was right about some things, and if Project Paperclip was actually a memetic/social/political virus that's caused the Nazis to "win" by turning the USA into a paranoid, violent clusterfuck of delusions and ultraweapons.

Because sometimes it feels like we didn't win out over fascism at all, and instead we actively imported it and tried to eat it, and it made us collectively sick and mad.

You could write all of this into a screwy science fiction novel and it would all be plausible, logical and consistent enough to suspend one's disbelief.
posted by loquacious at 10:22 AM on August 19, 2018 [10 favorites]

So unless I'm missing a zero, a 10 GT burst detonated in Los Angeles would (barring the curvature of the earth) set Portland on fire. And everything else, including all of Utah, Nevada, California, Arizona and most of Colorado and New Mexico.

This would be the thermal radiation sphere capable of causing instant third degree burns and igniting just about anything flammable. The entire western US would be on fire. Instantly.

I'm having a hard time even imagining what such a firestorm would look like as it would likely run out of oxygen very quickly, and I'm imagining the largest reduced oxygen charcoal furnace in the history of the universe. I have a feeling it would self-extinguish in the middle, but not before charring/burning everything in some kind of giant fire hurricane.

If I missed a zero, we're talking about from LA to Canada and BC and most of the US, which probably implies some major portion of the ground or crust near ground zero achieving escape or orbital velocities and would essentially be an existential impact event from a large comet or meteor.

Both of these gigaexplosions would likely trigger major quakes and tsunamis on top of all the globe-circling dust and fallout.

There's some crazy David Webber space operas out there that deal with weapons in these kind of scales, including antimatter and vacuum bombs that can take huge planetoid sized bites out of planetoid sized space ships, which is about the only "safe" place to use something like this.

A gigaton nuke would probably be pretty handy if we had a major asteroid headed our way and we absolutely, positively wanted to vaporize it, but it's definitely not the kind of thing you want to keep laying around and in the hands of some relatively unstable and cranky nation states.
posted by loquacious at 10:39 AM on August 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

So unless I'm missing a zero

It's reasonable to expect that whatever limited value their calculator has diminishes as you add zeroes. I mean, it'll let me put in a one exaton bomb, apparently equivalent to annihilating about 25 million tons of antimatter, but I'd be surprised if the results were accurate.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 11:03 AM on August 19, 2018

A gigaton nuke would probably be pretty handy if we had a major asteroid headed our way and we absolutely, positively wanted to vaporize it

I think not, because that would only result in an expanding cloud of radioactive dust heading to Earth. No, what you want there is a decent asteroid tracking system, plus some rocket engines parked in orbit or at the Lagrange points that could be attached to killer asteroids and push them laterally so that they'd miss us. Or at least that's my best guess, I'm no rocket wizard.
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:04 AM on August 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

Command and Control by Eric Schlosser is an amazing book but it mostly limits scope to US nukes as others have noted. A couple of great companion books would be The Dead Hand by David Hoffman that covers the history of nukes, chemical and bio weapons produced by the US and Russia (and it won a Pulitzer Prize so it's got that going for it, which is nice). And Atomic Accidents by James Mahaffey covers all nuclear accidents worldwide (most of which occurred in the production and use of fissionable materials) since the beginning of humans playing with atomic fire. Mahaffey's book is particularly good at showing how normal everyday stable piles of fissionable material can turn into the fires of hell (or at least the blue flashes of lethal radiation) just by changing the shape of the container storing it. A lot of people have died horrible deaths just because they got complacent.

Don't get me started on the "tickling the dragon" experiments. That was fucking nuts.
posted by ensign_ricky at 11:05 AM on August 19, 2018 [4 favorites]

That was Teller’s bomb, but imagine how much louder Penn’s bomb would be.
posted by w0mbat at 11:25 AM on August 19, 2018 [16 favorites]

I’m still amazed we made it through the Cold War.

Did we? We've still got 14,000 or so nukes in the world, just sitting there. Waiting.

Even as a young, space-struck sci-fi boy, before I understood politics, I knew Teller was evil when I saw him on my grainy TV screen. Creeped me the fuck out.
posted by mondo dentro at 1:46 PM on August 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

Edward Teller sounds like a really strange guy. He gave us the H-Bomb on the one hand, but he was warning us about global warming (as early as 1957!) on the other. This is a story about a 1959 talk on global warming.
posted by Western Infidels at 3:49 PM on August 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

This would be the thermal radiation sphere capable of causing instant third degree burns and igniting just about anything flammable. The entire western US would be on fire. Instantly.

Pretty sure at this point, even if you haven't missed a zero, we're at the "I think the survivors would envy the dead" stage.
posted by Definitely Not Sean Spicer at 5:45 PM on August 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

if you're an ordinary lunatic, you end up in an institution - or a streetcorner somewhere - it's a terrible thing

An honest mistake, well intentioned I'm sure, but this is poor framing and should be discouraged. It encourages the myth that serve mental illness is "some sort of misunderstanding" rather than a really horrible biological/genetic/psychosocial disorder.

The vast majority or people with severe mental illness have their lives ruined by it, full stop.

A vanishingly small % are both genius and mad.

A related statistic: roughly 1-10 in 1000 of people have severe autism. But the number of autistics-savants is close to 1-10 per billion. The public perception is that most autists are savants.

In reality less than one in a million of them are.
posted by soylent00FF00 at 6:20 PM on August 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

Edward Teller was an asshole, but truly, I blame Stanislaw Ulam for a lot of this.

Teller looked at the Atomic bomb and said "nope, that's not good enough" and wanted to make something larger; but HE COULDN'T GET THE PHYSICS TO WORK. Everyone else thought he was nuts and that it would never work, and they wouldn't have bothered trying. The Russians wouldn't have gotten it to work either. But, Ulam? No, he wasn't an evil genius; he was just a good physicist and figured out how to make it work. If he'd just shut up about it, we might have not gotten the details of the Hydrogen bomb until decades later.

The only part that concerns me about that is that, barring the enormity of the H bomb, we might have already used more A bombs by now; as they're worthless, but they're "MOAB" levels of worthless, and we occasionally chuck those stupid things around in modern times.

Still. Teller was just a giant asshole.
posted by Xyanthilous P. Harrierstick at 6:45 AM on August 20, 2018

nth-ing the recommendation for Rhodes "The Making of the Atomic Bomb". I've read it three times so far.

I once years ago saw a special about reagan-era "Star Wars" design where a very elderly Teller was being quizzed in some government session and making this and that and the other claim about ease of design and capability...and over and over they'd cut away to actual scientists working on the program who would say basically "yeah, we had no actual idea how to do that."
posted by hearthpig at 7:16 AM on August 20, 2018

Speaking of Trinity, video game blogger Jimmy Maher wrote an amazingly good essay on Teller as part of his coverage of that game.
posted by zeusianfog at 11:23 AM on August 20, 2018

My grandfather, who ran T-Division at Los Alamos for a while and had the unenviable job of having to manage various rockstar physicist personalities (including Teller), once recommended Richard Rhodes' work as being about the best he'd seen on the development of the bombs.

And to the "Teller vs. Ulam" question, I feel like it tells you everything that people (meaning, friends of my family) had lots of good things to say about Ulam and I don't remember ever hearing Teller mentioned approvingly. Ulam had friends, Teller didn't.

(Also, who can imagine Teller co-writing this memo?) (Or me passing up a chance to mention it?)
posted by nickmark at 11:42 AM on August 20, 2018 [3 favorites]

I know this has been done in this thread already, but I'm boggled by the NukeMap results for a 10GT bomb in Dallas. (I actually live in Houston, but I picked Dallas not out of intra-Texas rivalries but because, since Houston is coastal, results here would be less dramatic unless you're especially concerned with the Gulf Coast fishery.)

10GT in Dallas results in a "thermal radiation radius" of over 500 km. That means starting fires in every major city in Texas except El Paso. To the east it nearly reaches the Mississippi River. It stretches north well past Oklahoma City -- almost to Wichita. To the west it catches Midland and Lubbock, and almost gets Amarillo and Odessa. Corpus Christi escapes, but just barely.

The actual blast zone -- which I'm defining as "most buildings collapse and most people are injured or dead" -- covers the entire DFW metroplex with a substantial margin. Obviously, there are widespread fatalities beyond that 150km radius.

The contrast with the biggest weapon actually detonated in anger is amazing. The "thermal radiation radius" for Fat Man was 2.4 km. The W-76 -- a 100kt warhead common in the US arsenal -- didn't quite double that despite being about 5x the yield of Fat Man.
posted by uberchet at 1:24 PM on August 22, 2018

Also, loquacious, your first sim is for a 100GT blast, not a 10GT blast. 10GT in LA sets San Jose on Fire, but not San Francisco.

OTOH, 100GT in Dallas pushes too far out into the Gulf. If we move it up to, say, Omaha, the first unburnt city to the west is Salt Lake City, and just barely. ABQ is toast. So is all of Wyoming. To the north, the fire reaches well into Manitoba and Ontario; Saskatchewan mostly gets away, but Regina doesn't. To the east, Toronto is safe, but just barely. Atlanta isn't.

If you drag the 100GT blast so that the eastern edge covers the east coast, it still stretches west well into Wyoming and Colorado.
posted by uberchet at 1:35 PM on August 22, 2018

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