The damning global warming emails; when science becomes the casualty

December 11, 2009

By now everyone and his grandmother must have heard about the hacked emails of the prestigious University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit (CRU). The emails were sent by leading climate change scientists to each other and seem to express doubts and uncertainty. More importantly they also seem to display some troubling signs of rather dishonest discourse, with scientists trying to hold dangerously unfavorable opinions of journal editors who seem to be open to publishing papers that don’t seem to agree with their views, and asking each other to delete emails which might signal doubt.

There is at least one example of bad science revealed in the emails. It seems that one set of data from tree ring proxies did not show the expected rise in temperatures for a particular period and showed a decline. What was done was that just for that period, a different set of data from another method which did show the rise was grafted on to this piece of data. John Tierney of the NYT has the two graphs on his blog. Does this change the general conclusion? Probably not. Is this bad science and enough to justify a flurry of indignant questions in the minds of outsiders? Certainly so. Good science would have meant revealing all the pieces of data including those which showed a decline.

Now what is remarkable (or perhaps not remarkable at all) is the vociferous political- not scientific- reaction that has erupted in blogs all over the internet. I would point readers to my fellow blogger Derek Lowe’s succinct summary of the matter. While I am not as skeptical about climate change as he is, it is disconcerting to see how much political, personal and social baggage the whole issue is carrying. Whenever a scientific issue starts carrying so much non-scientific baggage, one can be assured that we are in trouble.

The comments on most blogs range across the spectrum. There are the outright deniers who claim that the emails “disprove global warming”; they don’t, and I can’t see how any set of personal exchanges could say almost anything definitive about a system as complex as the climate. Phrases like “hide the decline” (in the case of the above tree ring proxy data) and “trick” have been taken out of their technical context to indicate subversion and deception. And then there are the proponents who want to act like nothing has happened. I like George Monbiot’s take on it where he says that even if the science of climate change has certainly not come crashing down, the public image of climate change has been dealt a serious blow, and denying this would simply mean burying your head in the sand. After all, we are supposed to be the good guys, the ones who are supposed to honestly admit to our limitations and failings, and we are not doing this. What ramifications this will have for the important Copenhagen climate summit this month is uncertain.

However, the very fact that we have to worry as much about the public image of climate science as the science itself plainly speaks to the degree of politicization of the issue. I think the liability of this entire matter has basically become infinite and I think scientists working in the field are facing an unprecedented dilemma which few scientists have ever faced. Here’s the problem; we are dealing with an extremely complex system and it is hardly surprising if the science of this system (which after all is only a hundred years or so old) keeps getting revised, reshuffled and reiterated even if the basics remain intact. That would be perfectly normal for a vast, multidisciplinary field like this. That is the way science works. One finds such revision and vigorous debate even in highly specific and recondite areas like the choice of atomic partial charges in the calculation of intermolecular energies. The climate is orders of magnitude more complicated. If the usual rules of scientific discourse were to be followed, making such debates and disagreements open would not be a problem.

But with an issue that is so exquisitely fraught with political and economic liabilities and where the stakes are so enormously high, I believe that the normal process of scientific debate, discourse and progress has broken down and is being bypassed. Scientists who would otherwise engage in lively debate and disagreements have become extremely loathe to make their doubts public. These scientists fear that they would essentially be condemned by both sides. The right wing extremists would seize upon any honest disclosure of debate as the kick that brings the entire edifice crumbling down. They would predictably try to discredit even reasonable conclusions drawn by climate change scientists. At the same time, left wing extremists would essentially disown such scientists and either declare them an anomaly or more predictably declare them to be political and corporate shills. A scientist who honestly voices his doubts would become a man without a country.

This is of course in addition to the ample scorn that establishment upholders like climate blogger Joe Romm would heap on them. Thus, if you are a scientist working in climate change today, it would be rather difficult for you to make even the normal process of science transparent. Plus, most scientists are genuinely scared that all the momentum they have built over the years would fizzle out if their right wing opponents pounce on their private doubts. Think about it. The Copenhagen summit is going to be held in a month. Scientists have faced enormous obstacles in convincing the public and governments about climate change. Your work has been crowned by grudging acknowledgement even by George W Bush and the Nobel Peace Prize for Al Gore. Would you be ready to throw away all this rightly hard-earned and hard-fought consensus for the sake of a few dissenting opinions? The simple laws of human nature dictate that you probably would not.

In my opinion, that is what seems to have happened with the scientists at the CRU. They have been so afraid of not only expressing their doubts (many of which as noted above would be valid given the science involved) but also entertaining other dissenting opinions that they have unfortunately picked the option of trying to silence open debate in a way that would be unacceptable in science in general. One can understand their motivation, but their actions still seem deplorable.

I think these emails point to a much more serious structural problem in the scientific enterprise of climate change. For good reasons and bad, whether to stand up to political hacks or ironically to defend good science, this enterprise has accumulated so much political baggage that it is now virtually impossible for it to compromise, to change, to maneuver even in the face of cogent reasons. The science of climate change has essentially bound itself into a straitjacket. My prediction is that important decisions about this science will in the future be mainly politically motivated. Public consensus not completely backed by good science will be the driving force for major decisions. The consequences of those decisions, just like the climate, are uncertain. We will have to wait and see.

But as usual, the casualty is ultimately science itself. What was good science and ineffective politics before is becoming effective politics and bad science. Whatever else happens, science never wins when it gets so overtly politicized. And hopefully about this there will be universal consensus.

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A wrong kind of religion; Freeman Dyson, Superfreakonomics, and global warming

November 4, 2009

The greatest strength of science is that it tries to avoid dogma. Theories, explanations, hypotheses, everything is tentative, true only as long as the next piece of data does not invalidate it. This is how science progresses, by constantly checking and cross checking its own assumptions. The heart of this engine of scientific progress is constant skepticism and questioning. This skepticism and questioning can often be exasperating. You can enthusiastically propound your latest brainwave only to be met with hard-nosed opposition, deflating your long harbored fervor for your pet idea. Sometimes scientists can be vicious in seminars, questioning and cross questioning you as if you were a defendant in a court.

But you learn to live with this frustration. That’s because in science, skepticism always means erring on the safer side. As long as skepticism does not descend into outright irrational cynicism, it is far better to be skeptical than to buy into a new idea. This is science’s own way to ensure immunity to crackpot notions that can lead it astray. One of the important lessons you learn in graduate school is to make peace with your skeptics, to take them seriously, to be respectful to them in debate. This attitude keeps the flow of ideas open, giving everyone a chance to voice their opinion.

Yet the mainstay of science is also a readiness to test audacious new concepts. Sadly, whenever a paradigm of science reaches something like universal consensus, the opposite can happen. New ideas and criticism are met with so much skepticism that it borders on hostility. Bold conjectures are shot down mercilessly sometimes even without considering their possible merits. The universal consensus separates scientists into a majority who provide a vocal and even threatening wall of obduracy against new ideas. From what I have seen in recent times, this unfortunately seems to have happened to the science of global warming.

First, a disclaimer. I have always been firmly in the “Aye” camp when it comes to global warming. There is no doubt that the climate is warming due to greenhouse gases, especially CO2, and that human activities are most probably responsible for the majority of that warming. There is also very little doubt that this rate of warming has been unprecedented into the distant past. It is also true that if kept unchecked, these developments will cause dangerous and unpredictable changes in the composition of our planet and its biosphere. Yet it does not stop there. Understanding and accepting the details about climate change is one thing, proposing practical solutions for mitigating it is a whole different ball game. This ball game involves more economics than science, since any such measures will have to be adopted on a very large scale that would significantly affect the livelihood of hundreds of millions. We need vigorous discussion on solutions to climate change from all quarters, and the question is far from settled.

But even from a scientific perspective, there are a lot of details about climate change that can still be open to healthy debate. Thus, one would think that any skepticism about certain details of climate change would be met with the same kind of lively, animated argument that is the mainstay of science. Sadly, that does not seem to be happening. Probably the most recent prominent example of this occurred when the New York Times magazine ran a profile of the distinguished physicist Freeman Dyson. Dyson is a personal scientific hero of mine and I have read all of his books (except his recent very technical book on quantum mechanics). Climate change is not one of Dyson’s main interests and has occupied very little of his writings, although more so recently. To me Dyson appears as a mildly interested climate change buff who has some opinions on some aspects of the science. He is by no means an expert on the subject, and he never claims to be one. However he has certain ideas, ideas which may be wrong, but which he thinks make sense (in his own words, “It is better to be wrong than to be vague”). For instance he is quite skeptical about computer models of climate change, a skepticism which I share based on my own experience with the uncertainty modeling even “simple” chemical systems. Dyson who is also well known as a “futurist” has proposed a very interesting possible solution to climate change; the breeding of special genetically engineered plants and trees with an increased capacity for capturing carbon. I think there is no reason why this possibility could not be looked into.

Now if this were the entire story, all one would expect at most would be experts in climate change respectfully debating and refuting Dyson’s ideas strictly on a factual basis. But surprisingly, that’s not what you got after the Times profile. There were ad hominem attacks calling him a “crackpot”, “global warming denier”, “pompous twit” and “faker”. Now anyone who knows the first thing about Dyson would know that the man does not have a political agenda and he has always been, if anything, utterly honest about his views. Yet his opponents spared no pains in painting him with a broad denialist brush and even discrediting his other admirable work in physics to debunk his climate change views. What disturbed me immensely was not that they were attacking his facts- that is after all how science works and is perfectly reasonable- but they were attacking his character, his sanity and his general credibility. The prominent climate blogger Joe Romm rained down on Dyson like a ton of bricks, and his criticism of Dyson was full of condescension and efforts to discredit Dyson’s other achievements. My problem was not with Romm’s expertise or his debunking of facts, but with his tone; note for instance how Romm calls Dyson a crackpot right in the title. One got the feeling that Romm wanted to portray Dyson as a senile old man who was off his rocker. Other bloggers too seized upon Romm-style condescension and dismissed Dyson as a crank. Since then Dyson has expressed regret over the way his views on global warming were overemphasized by the journalist who wrote the piece. But the fact is that it was this piece which made Freeman Dyson notorious as some great global warming contrarian, when the truth was much simpler. In a Charlie Rose interview, Dyson talked about how global warming occupies very little of his time, and his writings clearly demonstrate this. Yet his views on the topic were blown out of proportion. Sadly, such vociferous, almost violent reactions to even reasonable critics of climate change seems to be becoming commonplace. If this is how the science of global warming is looking like, then it’s not a very favourable outlook for the future .

If Dyson has been Exhibit A in the list of examples of zealous reactions to unbiased critics of climate change, then the recent book “Superfreakonomics” by economists Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (authors of the popular “Freakonomics”) would surely be Exhibit B. There is one chapter among six in their book about global warming. And yet almost every negative review on Amazon focuses on this chapter. The authors are bombarded with accusations of misrepresentation, political agendas and outright lies. Joe Romm again penned a rather propagandish and sensationalist sounding critique of the authors’ arguments. Others duly followed. In response the authors wrote a couple of posts on their New York Times blog to answer these critics. One of the posts was written by Nathan Myhrvold, previously Chief Technology officer of Microsoft and now the head of a Seattle-based think tank called Intellectual Ventures. Myhrvold is one of the prominent players in the book. Just note the calm, rational, response that he pens and compare it to one of Joe Romm’s posts filled with condescending personal epithets. If this is really a scientific debate, then Myhrvold surely seems to be behaving like the objective scientist in this case.

So are the statements made by Levitt and Dubner as explosive as Romm and others would make us believe? I promptly bought the book and read it, and read the chapter on climate change twice to make sure. The picture that emerged in front of me was quite different from the one that I had been exposed to until then. Firstly, the authors’ style is quite matter of fact and not sensationalist or contrarian sounding at all. Secondly, they never deny climate change anywhere. Thirdly, they make the very important general point that complex problems like climate change are not beyond easy, cheap solutions and that people sometimes don’t readily think of these; they cite hand washing to drastically reduce infections and seat belts to reduce fatal car crashes as two simple and cheap innovations that saved countless lives. But on to Chapter 5 on warming.

Now let me say upfront that at least some of Levitt and Dubner’s research is sloppy. They unnecessarily focus on the so-called “global cooling” events of the 70s, events that by no means refute global warming. They also seem to cherry pick the words of Ken Caldeira, a leading expert on climate change. But most of their chapter is devoted to possible cheap, easy solutions to climate change. To tell this story, they focus on Nathan Myhrvold and his team at Intellectual Ventures who have come up with two extremely innovative and interesting solutions to tackle the problem. The innovations are based on the injection of sulfate aerosols in the upper atmosphere. This rationale is based on a singular event, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Phillipines in 1990 which sent millions of tons of sulfates and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere and circulated them around the planet. Sulfate aerosols serve to reflect sunlight and tend to cause cooling. Remarkably, global temperatures fell by a slight amount for a few years after that. The phenomenon was carefully and exhaustively documented. It was a key contributor to the development of ideas which fall under the rubric of “geoengineering”. These ideas involve artificially modulating the atmosphere to offset the warming effects of CO2. Geoengineering is controversial and hotly debated, but it is supported by several very well known scientists, and nobody has come up with a good reason why it would not work. In the light of the seriousness of global warming, it deserves to be investigated. With this in mind, Myhrvold and his team came up with a rather crazy sounding idea; to send up a large hose connected to motors and helium balloons which would pump sulfates and sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. Coupled with this they came up with an even crazier sounding idea; to thwart hurricanes by erecting large, balloon like structures on coastlines which would essentially suck the hot air out of the hurricanes. With their power source gone, the hurricanes would possibly quieten down.

Are these ideas audacious? Yes. Would they work? Maybe, and maybe not. Are they testable? Absolutely, at least on a prototypical, experimental basis. Throughout the history of science, science has never been fundamentally hostile to crazy ideas if they could be tested. Most importantly, the authors propose these ideas because the analysis indicates them to be much cheaper than long-term measures designed to reduce carbon emissions. Solutions to climate change need to be as cheap as they need to be scientifically viable.

So let’s get this straight; the authors are not denying global warming and in fact in their own words, they are proposing a possible solution that could be cheap and relatively simple. And they are proposing this solution only to temporarily act as a gag on global warming, so that long-term measures could then be researched at relative leisure. In fact they are not even claiming that such a scheme would work, only that it deserves research attention. Exactly what part of this argument screams “global warming denial”? One would imagine that opponents of these ideas would pen objective, rational objections based on hard data and facts. And yet almost none of the vociferous critics of Levitt and Dubner seem to have engaged in such an exercise (except a few). Most exercises seem to be of the “Oh my God! Levitt and Dubner are global warming deniers!!” kind. Science simply does not progress in this manner. All we need to do here is to debate the merit of a particular set of ideas. Sure, they could turn out to be bad ideas, but we will never know until we test them. The late Nobel laureate Linus Pauling said it best; “If you want to have a good idea, first have lots of ideas, then throw the bad ones away”. Especially a problem as big as climate change needs ideas flying in from all quarters, some conservative, some radical. And as the authors indicate, cheap and simple ideas ought to be especially welcome. Yet the reception to Superfreakonomics to me looked like the authors were being castigated and resented for having ideas. The last thing scientific progress needs is a vocal majority that thwarts ideas from others and encourages them to shut up.

Freeman Dyson once said that global warming sometimes looks like a province of “the secular religion of environmentalism” and sadly there seems to be some truth to this statement. It is definitely the wrong kind of religion. As I mentioned before, almost any paradigm that reaches almost universal consensus runs the risk of getting forged into a religion. At such a point it is even more important to respect critics and give them a voice. Otherwise, going by the almost violent reaction against both Dyson and the authors of Superfreakonomics, I fear that global warming science will descend to the status of biological studies of race. Any research that has to do with race is so politically sensitive and fraught with liabilities and racist overtones that even reasonable scientists who feel that there is actually something beneficial to be gained from the study of race (and there certainly is; nobody would deny that certain diseases are more common to certain ethnic minorities) feel extremely afraid to speak up, let alone apply for funding.

We cannot let such a thing happen with the extremely important issue of climate change. Scientific progress itself would be in a very sad state if critics of climate change with no axe to grind are so vilified and resented that they feel inclined to shut up. Such a situation would trample the very core principles of science underfoot.

New Books

October 25, 2009

Tom Zoellner’s “Uranium: War, Energy and the Rock That Shaped the World”

David Hoffman’s “The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy”

Bernard Schriever and the Ultimate Weapon

October 6, 2009

Neil Sheehan has written a book about an obscure man who was to shepherd one of the key developments during the Cold War- the development of the US’s ICBM capability. His book is titled “A Fiery Peace in a Cold War”. The NYT has a review of it and I will be reviewing it myself after finishing it. Definitely worth the time.

Missile shield to be scrapped!

September 17, 2009

It’s a great day. This piece of news makes me feel extremely gratified as I am sure it does many others. Missile defense against ICBMs has been an eternal bug that has bitten almost every President since 1960. The Bush administration had aggressively pushed plans to implement a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. There has always been evidence that the efficacy of such a shield will ultimately be severely limited by the basic laws of physics, and that the adversary can essentially and cheaply overwhelm the defense with decoys and countermeasures.

I have written about these limitations and studies about them several times before (see below). The best article arguing against the European missile shield is a May 2008 article by Theodore Postol and George Lewis in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (free PDF here).

And as arms expert Pavel Podvig succinctly wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists only three days back, it’s not just about the technology, but it’s about a fundamentally flawed concept:

“The fundamental problem with the argument is that missile defense will never live up to its expectations. Let me say that again: Missile defense will never make a shred of difference when it comes to its primary mission–protecting a country from the threat of a nuclear missile attack. That isn’t to say that advanced sensors and interceptors someday won’t be able to deal with sophisticated missiles and decoys. They probably will. But again, this won’t overcome the fundamental challenge of keeping a nation safe against a nuclear threat, because it would take only a small probability of success to make such a threat credible while missile defense would need to offer absolute certainty of protection to truly be effective…It’s understandable that people often talk about European missile defense as one of the ways in which to deal with the missile threat posed by Iran. Or that someday missile defense could provide insurance for nuclear disarmament–this is the vision that Ronald Reagan had. When framed in this way, missile defense seems like a promising way out of difficult situations. But this promise is false. If a real confrontation ever comes about (and let’s hope it never happens), we quickly would find out that missile defense offers no meaningful protection whatsoever”.

Now the Obama administration has decided to scrap the unworkable shield and has decided to replace it with a much more realistic defense against short-range missiles. I cannot imagine how gratified this must make the scores of scientists, engineers and policy officials who have long argued against the feasibility of the shield. It also signals a huge shift in Bush-era foreign policy. Notice how the administration has diplomatically and shrewdly avoided mentioning the basic failures of the earlier system.

Unfortunately, the sordid history of missile defense and the inherent satisfaction that seems to stem by arguing in favor of a “shield” to protect the population makes me skeptical in believing that the concept is dead forever. But for now, there is peace in our time and this is a significant breakthrough.

Past posts on missile defense:
Made For Each Other
Missile Defense: The Eternal Bug
Holes in the Whole Enterprise
Czechs halt missile shield progress

New book roundup

August 26, 2009

Unfortunately I have had to be away for a long time because real life intervened. I will be posting occassionally now and will resume regular posting in a short while. For now, some interesting newly published and upcoming books:

1.Scientists in Conflict: Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, and the Shaping of United States Nuclear Weapons Policy, 1945-1972- Jacqueline M.Bird

2. The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy- David Hoffman (Doubleday, September 2009)

3. Atomic Awakening: A New Look at the History and Future of Nuclear Power- James Mahaffey (June, 2009)

The last one which I am reading currently looks especially interesting. Another good discussion of nuclear power and its future is in “Physics for Future Presidents”

Demolishing the ‘vacuous’ argument for the RRW

April 28, 2009

Jeffrey Lewis and Kingston Reif do a neat and clean job. The last line is priceless and is not exactly BAS-like

Firstly, vacuum tubes are not used in the physics package of a single nuclear weapon design. Vacuum tubes are used only in the radar-fuse, which tells the firing system when the bomb is at the correct altitude for detonation, in some modifications (mods) of one warhead design, the B61 gravity bomb. In total, the B61 bombs that have vacuum tubes in their radar-fuses account for only about one in ten operationally deployed warheads. (Vacuum tubes are used in the radars of three B61 mods: 3, 4, and 7. Mods 10 and 11 have newer radars that use solid-state electronics.) The fuses in these weapons are old, but perfectly functional. To reiterate, vacuum tubes are not in use in any other warhead design, including the W76 warhead, a portion of which would be replaced by the first RRW warhead, the WR1, if it ever were funded and developed.

Secondly, the Energy Department has routinely replaced radars without nuclear testing or redesigning the physics package. In fact, during the 1990s, Sandia National Laboratories scientists developed the MC4033 common radar, which uses solid-state electronics, for planned refurbishments of the B61 and B83 gravity bombs. All B83 bombs now use the common radar, though similar plans to fit a new radar on all B61s have been repeatedly deferred.

Most recently, in 2006, Sandia planned to replace the remaining B61 vacuum tube radars as part of ALT 364/365/366. The National Nuclear Security Administration, which overseas the nuclear weapons complex, canceled these latest ALTs, which would have resulted in the removal of the last vacuum tubes from the U.S. nuclear stockpile, because the U.S. Air Force preferred replacement to life extension. Due to this absurd twist, one could say that vacuum tubes remain in the U.S. nuclear arsenal in part because of the RRW, contrary to Chilton’s insistence that the RRW is needed to get rid of them.

The bottom line is that vacuum tubes are used only sparingly in the U.S. nuclear arsenal and can be replaced on short notice if the need arises, independent of whether Congress funds the RRW Program. Of the many reasons that Defense and Energy officials have put forth to justify the RRW Program, the need to replace vacuum tubes is the worst and has no place in the debate about the RRW or modernizing the nuclear stockpile. General Chilton can stick that prop in his, um, pocket.

Alex Abella’s Soldiers of Reason

April 3, 2009

Due to some unavoidable and important engagements as a graduate student, blogging has been relatively slow recently but I will return with more posts soon. Meanwhile I just wanted to make a brief book recommendation for Alex Abella’s engaging “Soldiers of Reason: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire”, a history of RAND. Abella focuses on the usual suspects; Brodie, Kahn, Wohlstetter etc. and he particularly shines in describing their personalities and mindsets. I have not finished the book yet but it is definitely worth a read; fast paced and informative. The one gripe I have is that Abella seems to overemphasize RAND’s influence (a fact exemplified by the name) and sometimes attaches names like Donald Rumsfeld and Chalabi to it who only had a rather tangential connection with the organization. He also seems to be rather obsessed with Albert Wohlstetter who is the central character in the book. Nonetheless, Wohlstetter’s policy recommendations were certainly quite influential and the book would be worth reading just for its portrait of this one man.

What would a missile defense system for India achieve?

March 18, 2009

Manasi alerts me to this Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists article on a possible Indian missile defense system developed with help from the US. As always, the questions to be asked are; Would it work? and What would it achieve?

I have often talked about the recurring problems with conceived US global missile defense systems as pointed out by various experts over the years and the fact that missile defense in one form or the other has been an unrealized dream for US presidents for 40 years. In India missile defense acquires a very different character from the proposed US missile defense systems against supposed ICBMs from Iran or North Korea. Pakistan is a stone’s throw away from the Indian border, and as Gopalaswamy in this essay and Mian and others in a more detailed 2003 Science and Global Security article explain, flight time for a missile to reach New Delhi from Pakistan would be about 4-7 mins. What would the Indian authorities do in such a short time? Detecting any such signal and confirming it as a true one would consume all the time needed for authorities to determine it as a hostile missile launch from Pakistan. The detection would be done by the Arrow system that India acquired from Israel that’s located about 200 kms from Delhi. But because of this very short flight time, there would be no time for further deliberation and any response would have to be a predetermined one.

As Mian and his colleagues state in their article, there are two forms which predetermined response could take; civil defense and/or retaliation. Retaliation if at all possible in such a short time would have to be very quick. Retaliation against nuclear-tipped missiles would be very difficult in the boost phase (right after the missile lifts off, which gives the defense about 90 seconds to destroy the missile) and extremely dangerous in the terminal phase (the phase before the missile hits the target during which its destruction could nonetheless cause great damage to the home territory). As both articles state, with such predetermined responses the threat of false alarms and nuclear conflict increases, an assertion borne out by several close calls during the Cold War even when the response time was much longer.

As the articles state, the prospect of talks on missile defense between the US and India is definitely a welcome sign of relations between the two countries, but we should think twice before spending taxpayers’ money and scientific and human capital on a system that may not really work, but which may encourage the adversary to build more offensive weapons; after all a single one getting through would be enough to cause havoc. As Gopalaswamy says, ultimately technology will decide the operational capability of such a system. Perhaps more attention should be paid to civil defense, a gesture both prudent and practical, and perhaps less threatening.

Reference:
Mian, Z., Rajaraman, R., Ramana, M.V., “Early Warning in South Asia-Constraints and Implications”. Science and Global Security, 11: 109-150, 2003

An Excellent Primer

February 12, 2009

The Bomb: A New History
Stephen Younger
Ecco, 2009

Stephen Younger’s book on the bomb is a very good primer on nuclear weapons, but somewhat limited by its length. Mr. Younger who is a veteran weapons designer and defense official begins with a succinct history of nuclear weapons and then goes on to review the major weapons and delivery systems in the United States and other countries. He talks about the deterrence triad in the United States; bombers, ballistic missiles and especially submarine-based nuclear missiles that can pack the biggest punch most efficiently. Also included are short discussions of developing and already developed arsenals in other countries including Russia, China, Southeast Asia, France and Britain. Younger writes about the modern weaponization of Russia which is in progress and discusses the status of development in other countries. The discussion also includes a general overview of nuclear weapons effects including thermal, blast, radiation and electromagnetic effects and a chapter on ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ targets and their targeting. Younger contends that a weapon of about 10kT yield would be sufficient to destroy or seriously damage most major cities and installations in the world, except extremely hardened underground facilities. Compare this with the W series of warheads in the US arsenal, many of which pack an explosive force equivalent to several hundred kilotons of TNT.

Younger also discusses nuclear proliferation and the problems inherent in terrorists constructing a bomb. His list of measures for combating such terrorism include a discussion of not just technical measures like missile defense and more efficient border security, but an insightful paragraph on the valuable role of intelligence and especially human intelligence in thwarting terrorists’ attempts to secure a weapon or material in the first place. He also narrates the efforts expended by the Cooperative Threat Reduction Initiative in securing nuclear weapons and reactors in the former Soviet Union. These efforts also involve the dismantling of conventional weapons. While people constantly warn that terrorists might end up constructing a crude nuclear device and while there is some merit in this suggestion, it’s not as easy as it sounds. As Younger says, the devil is in the details, and while much of the general information on nuclear weapons is publicly available, it is far from trivial for any terrorist outfit to actually surmount the many intricate scientific and engineering problems encountered in actual weapons construction. The construction of a plutonium implosion weapon is especially daunting given the excessively exacting conditions that the weapon’s core and outer explosives have to satisfy. A more detailed discussion of dirty bombs is missing from this narrative. Also, while Younger’s analysis of anti-nuclear weapons measures is clear, what is missing is a crucial discussion of countermeasures that can be easily developed against missile defense. These countermeasures have been convincingly demonstrated time and time again to be able to thwart even sophisticated missile defenses. In addition, new missiles such as the Russian SS 27 have been apparently designed to manuever and baffle such defenses.

One of the most informative chapters in the book talks about replacing nuclear weapons with conventional weapons. With better targeting and accuracy, the need for megaton weapons is virtually non-existent. Pinpoint targeting can take out the most crucial command and control centers for nuclear weapons without causing high numbers of casualties. Many new conventional weapons can do the tasks previously reserved for nuclear weapons and and thus lower the spectre of the nuclear threat. In fact, some tasks like hitting biological weapons facilities can be safely accomplished only with conventional weapons, since nuclear weapons might well disperse dangerous biological or chemical material into the surroundings. Even hardened bunkers can be destroyed by especially hardened warheads. In addition, replacing nuclear weapons by conventional weapons can go a long way in nuclear disarmament.

Further on, Younger has a valuable analysis of the security of the US nuclear arsenal. This analysis made me realise that the problem is more complicated than it seems at first sight. The issue is simple. The US has declared a moratorium on nuclear testing in 1992. Congress cut funding for new nuclear weapons research. However, many of the weapons in the US arsenal have extended their shelf lives and it’s not certain whether they would work as designed, an ability that is crucial for deterrence. Doubts have especially been raised about the plutonium pits at the center of implosion weapons. Computer simulations can aid in such predictions, but the only sure criterion for judging the workability of a design would be a test, an act that would have deep repurcussions for non-proliferation. In addition, many of the production and manufacturing units that built these weapons have been shut down since 1992. Perhaps most importantly, talented personnel who were competent in nuclear weapons design are gradually fading away with very few new recruits to replace them. Sometimes it is easy to forget that even if they are terribly destructive, nuclear weapons provide an immense and exciting scientific and engineering challenge for technical minds. To partly counter this, the US government has poured billions of dollars into the three national laboratories that still work on nuclear weapons- Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia. Massive basic science facilities have been developed at these three laboratories to retain personnel and attract new blood. Nonetheless, nobody really knows whether the nation would be able to gear up for producing new weapons if it becomes necessary, and nobody has been really able to say when and why it would become necessary in the first place. The problem is quite a pressing one and the solution is not clear. While Younger’s discussion is sound, he does not say anything about the RRW and especially the JASON study that attested to the 80-year life of the Pu pits.

Finally, Younger talks about the future of nuclear weapons. He examines the three positions that have been taken on nuclear weapons. The abolitionist position was recently made popular by a panel of four non-partisan experienced political leaders (Nunn, Perry, Kissinger and Schultz). While this position may be tenable in principle, in practice it would need constant and complete verification which may be difficult. Then there are the minimalist and moderate positions. Younger himself adopts the moderate position which calls for about 1000-2000 relatively low yield non-strategic weapons on missiles and submarines. It is not easy to decide what number is efficient for deterrence, partly because deterrence dictates that analyses of this number should not be publicly disclosed in the first place! But whatever the number, Younger does not see nuclear weapons disappearing from the face of the earth anytime soon. As he concludes in this primer, hopefully the world can enter a state of security in which rogue states don’t have weapons, bombs and material are secured, and deterrence works as planned. While this succinct primer does not provide the answer to whether such a state will actually be achieved, it certainly provides a slim and good introduction to all basic nuclear issues to the layman that should make him or her think and decide for themselves.