The problem with the two kiloton hand grenade...
August 6, 2006 12:13 AM   Subscribe

The two kiloton hand-grenade and the dental x-ray machine. For several years, the military spent well over $30 million on a new kind of bomb, based on an isomer of hafnium that would have an explosive power just shy of a nuclear weapon, despite the fact that physicists said it was impossible. Sharon Weinberger (the author of the article in the main link) wrote a book about this project, with a related website. In response, the scientist behind the isomer bomb effort created an oddly childish parody website to mock her book. And, if that isn't strange enough, people have been arrested in the UK for attempting to obtain an imaginary substance, that may or may not be linked to the concept of the isomer bomb.
posted by blahblahblah (28 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
For those interested in more (and the story is even stranger than the FPP would indicate), there is a great interview with the author about fringe scientists and the Pentagon, including the isomer bomb, but also psychic research, star wars, and all kinds of other material.
posted by blahblahblah at 12:28 AM on August 6, 2006

Isomer? I think they're using the term incorrectly, Isomer refers to the arrangement of atoms in a molecule, while isotope refers a specific version of an element based on the number of Neutrons.

Like carbon 12 and carbon 14 are different isotopes, while L-methanphetamine and R-methanphetamine are different Isomers, the same compound chemically but mirror images of each other. One is a drug and the other one isn't.

So I don't really think you can have an isomer of an element like hafnium, they must have meant isotope. Or they could have meant a weird molecule of all hafnium, like you might consider different isomers of four carbon atoms (C4), one of which was an explosive.
posted by delmoi at 12:51 AM on August 6, 2006

Oh wait, according to this an Isomer can refer to an Atom with the same mass but with a diffrent amount of 'energy'.
posted by delmoi at 12:54 AM on August 6, 2006

delmoi: Nuclear isotopes differ in the number of neutrons present. Nuclear isomers differ in their state - they'll be excited to a different spin state or something similar, but will contain exactly the same number of neutrons and protons.
posted by edd at 12:56 AM on August 6, 2006

Right, I just found the wikipedia entry. It's actually really interesting. One thing I noticed from the article:

a dissident member of HIPP, is convinced that Hf weapons cannot work, he expresses concern about the possible effects that widely publicized Pentagon plans for isomer weapons might have on countries that don't yet have conventional nuclear weapons.

If he's so sure it can't work, what's the problem in other countries wasting their money on research?
posted by delmoi at 1:05 AM on August 6, 2006

We've discussed Red Mercury before(my first comments after joining!). It used to be a big deal in SA in the mid 90's because there was a worry that the Apartheid era government and South African weapons dealers were involved in it. Quite a few investigative pieces in the media at the time and still no one could actually produce a milligram of the stuff, describe what it is or how it's supposed to actually work.

IMO it doesn't exist.
posted by PenDevil at 1:07 AM on August 6, 2006

This is really interesting. Hmm.
posted by blacklite at 1:11 AM on August 6, 2006

Well, I think it's interesting research. Sounds really expensive though, so perhaps some of the scientists are upset that funding is going to what they consider cold-fusion territory?

Other people mentioned using it as a fuel source, rather then an explosive, which is an interesting idea.
posted by delmoi at 1:16 AM on August 6, 2006

I like the detail that Hafnium costs $1,000,000 a gram, down from the original Pentagon estimates of $1,000,000,000 a gram. Then we're informed just how much explosive power is in a golf-ball sized amount of hafnium. If a gram of the really good, billion dollar stuff, before it got cut with baking soda and rat poison by the Pentagon, could kill an equivalent amount of people, it'd just take 6 billion dollars and a ziploc bag for us to immanentize the eschaton. Why hasn't some true philanthropist released us from all this tension already?

Not that any of that is possible. But it sounds scary enough. I know I'm scared. Did you take note of all the scientists' calling cards, the various agencies, DARPA, MARPA, RIGPA and whatnot, and the big numbers Weinberger uses in that Washington Post article? It's damn long, too. She quotes some Ullrich guy, and then an Oelrich guy: they're not the same guy! If someone were reading this to me, they'd have to spell it out. Then she mentions a group of guys going by the name JASON, might've been an acronym, not sure. But they're a shadowy group who go unnamed! That's spooky shit!:

The Jasons' conclusions, reached in July 1999, were damning on all four fronts. In essence, the Jasons concluded that the whole thing didn't pass the "snicker test," according to Zimmerman.

So a gram of hafnium will make an unknown group of powerful scientists snicker. Must be some good spooky shit. Just don't freak out on it.

Then I read the six other links and realize this is time I won't get back to be properly terrified about tangible things that I know will kill me, rather than possible things planning to kill me as soon as we solidify them from the idea realm. It may happen, it may not. But don't worry, there's always the good old bomb we've already got, and bird flu, and stockpiled bioweapons, and the usual random danse macabre.

Now, at 2:00 AM, I know what new thing I'm to be afraid of (isomer bomb), the half life of hafnium (31 years), whose book to buy (Weinberger's Imaginary Weapons), but tell me what train to stand in front of so as to lose my legs in protest. I'm not feeling vain and useless enough.
posted by eegphalanges at 2:00 AM on August 6, 2006

A $7 million 2004 research expenditure against a budget of $30 million for that period is the Government's way of saying "We don't believe." Sure, it's $7 million down the tubes, if we're to believe government research accounting, but I bet some of that, even, wound up in other accounts, where the sun never shines. It's sad when the best that can be said about silly government spending is that it probably went to spooks.
posted by paulsc at 2:01 AM on August 6, 2006

^Oh, yeah, I see how spooks make a fat living off this stuff, and some fools go scrounging for "red mercury" because of it. Disinfo, hooray! Somebody's sincere Ghost Dance is going to catch up with us all someday, I'm sure, though.
posted by eegphalanges at 2:12 AM on August 6, 2006

As a long time casual national labs watcher, and someone with numerous family and friends having been employed at Sandia and Los Alamos, I find the role of Sandia in this story interesting and unsurprising. The article mentions that Los Alamos and Livermore are the nations nuclear weapons design labs, and does mention that Sandia was the engineering center for Los Alamos during the Manhatten Project, but they didn't emphasize enough the culture gaps and conflict between these three labs.

LA and LL are both primarily theory labs, and both do a huge amount of non weapons-related work, though I'm pretty sure that LA is the larger of the two in that regard—LA has been a center of HIV research, for example. All three do a lot of basic physics research. The culture gap and bad feelings between LA and LL go back to the schism between those who wanted to pursue thermonuclear research (Teller and friends) and those who didn't (Oppenheimer and friends). Teller built LL.

But the bigger chasm, really, is between those two labs and Sandia. Sandia does a lot of research, including non weapons research and, of course, fusion energy research. But, still, Sandia, going back to the days of the Manhatten Project, has always been the engineering lab, has always stayed closer to applications, and always had a closer relationship with the DoD. (And note that, until recently, both LL and LA had always been managed for the DoE by University of California while, in contrast, Sandia has been managed by a defense contractor, Lockheed Martin.)

Sandia is seen by the other two labs as the little brother, not as intellectually impressive. And Sandia has long had an inferiority complex.

So you can see how both Sandia's scientists and management would have a weakness for something like this weapons-related isomer research.

It's a shame, really.

I'd guess that a lot of weapons/national security related research, not just in physics, follows the trajectory that this isomer research has. ESP stuff comes to mind. Where there's a lot of money and insecurity there's a life-support for crap science that would otherwise properly die. And people like Collins would continue to be given enough rope to slowly hang themselves instead of being forced to move on to something else. At some point he's already commited career suicide, but because there's people and money keeping his research (even if not directly) alive, he'll keep feeding on it and nursing his resentment and his self-image of the unrecognized visionary.

This is also a sketch of how SDI has remained alive. Although in its case, it's really all about the true believers in the DoD and their political sponsors (or perhaps the other way around) and then the huge, unbelievable amounts of money being thrown around which basically completely undermines all good scientific, engineering, and rational public-policy forces.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 2:20 AM on August 6, 2006 [1 favorite]

I can't believe the British tried to prosecute someone for trying to obtain red mercury. The prosecutors tried to claim that they wanted it for it's magical radioactive properties, and the defense said they wanted it for it's magical life-extending properties.
posted by delmoi at 2:31 AM on August 6, 2006

We cannot allow a mineshaft gap!
posted by pruner at 4:01 AM on August 6, 2006

Will James Doohan take the secret of transparent alumin(i)um to his final resting place with him?
posted by rob511 at 4:24 AM on August 6, 2006

He encapsulated his vision of the program in a startling PowerPoint slide: a small hafnium hand grenade with a pullout ring and a caption that read, "Miniature bomb. Explosive yield, 2 KT [kilotons]. Size, 5-inch diameter." That would be an explosion about one-seventh the power of the bomb that obliterated Hiroshima in 1945.

That'd work only if you find someone strong enough to throw it really far away. Unless... Oh, I know, we could use a catapult!
posted by NewBornHippy at 4:33 AM on August 6, 2006

That'd work only if you find someone strong enough to throw it really far away. Unless... Oh, I know, we could use a catapult!

Yes :)

This is well established actually, it is the reason the Davy Crocket never went anywhere. We have discussed the Davy Crocket here too, but yahoo seems to be down, so no searches from me for the time being..
posted by Chuckles at 5:28 AM on August 6, 2006

Well actually.. The Davy Crocket was substantially smaller than 2kT. Anyway, I should have said "part of the reason"..

Anyway, the point is that you have to balance accuracy, throw distance, and destructive power or you end up wasting a lot of money (or a lot of your own troops, etc.).
posted by Chuckles at 5:32 AM on August 6, 2006

Any way you look at it, I use anyway too often..
posted by Chuckles at 5:40 AM on August 6, 2006

Outstanding post blahblahblah.
posted by three blind mice at 8:21 AM on August 6, 2006

> Other people mentioned using it as a fuel source, rather then an explosive, which is an interesting idea.

Say, I have this fantastic startup that's going to do dilithium mining on the Moon. We're looking for venture capitalists. Get in on the ground floor!
posted by jfuller at 8:29 AM on August 6, 2006

rob511: Behold, aluminum oxynitride.
posted by boo_radley at 9:24 AM on August 6, 2006

These guys, on the other hand, believe the evidence in favor of triggered Hf-178m decay is better than googol:1.

Hmmm, actually they seem to be the original researchers, not a separate group. So never mind.

As I understand it, induced gamma emission itself is not too controversial; it's just the extremely high yield claimed for hafnium that's not been replicated. (But IANAP.)
posted by hattifattener at 10:57 AM on August 6, 2006

There fnord is fnord nothing fnord to fnord see fnord here, fnord move fnord along.
posted by nlindstrom at 11:00 AM on August 6, 2006

but yahoo seems to be down, so no searches from me for the time being..


Do you have an exclusive sponsorship from Yahoo or something? Or maybe you work for them and it's like being a Pepsi employee getting in trouble for drinking Coke.

I assume you have some sort of philosophical beef with both Microsoft and Google?
posted by Ynoxas at 6:54 PM on August 6, 2006

Yahoo indexes MetaFilter much better than the others - search on MetaTalk and you will see this confirmed by many individuals - consequently the tools I use to improve searching of MetaFilter depend on Yahoo.

Now Dave's Quick Search Deskbar, on the other hand.. I do shill for that software regularly. If you tried it you might begin to understand :P
posted by Chuckles at 10:08 PM on August 6, 2006

Chuckles: gotcha. I thought you meant no web searches of any kind, and I thought that was rather restrictive given the other choices in the world.

I'll take a look at DQSD.
posted by Ynoxas at 1:30 PM on August 7, 2006

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