Google Is Getting Creepy

Facebook has always been creepy, of course, with its reliance on selling your personality to advertisers.  People are shocked, shocked, that this would be used for political ends by Cambridge Analytica and other manipulators, but that’s basic to what they do.

But Google has been getting creepier too with time, and not just because they also try to infer your preferences from your search choices.   They’re also using the new tech of machine learning to do creepy things.

I saw this directly at a talk last month by  Olivier Temam of Google Paris called “A Shift Towards Edge Machine-Learning Processing”.    This was at ISSCC 2018, and the slides are here  and abstract here.  The talk started by describing the recent successes of machine learning, and those are impressive and uncontroversial.   It has now gotten quite good at difficult tasks like language translation and image recognition, even of things like cancer cells.  The rest was about how to do machine learning on small systems, ones that could go into gadgets, instead of having to communicate with huge servers in distant buildings.   These need interesting hardware techniques to run fast and at low power, and are now the subject of massive research efforts.

But they’re getting applied to hackle-raising things.   Temam talked about occupancy detection for offices, where a camera tries to count the number of people in a room in order to control the temperature and ventilation.   They want to do the counting in the camera itself for “privacy reasons”, so that the whole video stream does not get uploaded to some server.   But who would believe that it isn’t being uploaded?   Or that the camera isn’t looking at you or your screen to monitor what you’re doing?  This kind of counting can be done much more easily and cheaply with an infrared sensor, with no such privacy concerns.

Then there’s Google Clips, a new camera they’ve developed that can run their machine learning package:It uses a brilliant new chip called the Movidius Myriad 2, now owned by Intel, that can do huge amounts of work at low power.  It has 16 GB of internal storage, but links wirelessly to your phone to upload everything.

So do they have it cleaning up pictures, allowing you to get the best shot no matter what the lighting?   No, they want it to take the video, not you.  They got a team of professional photographers to work with a crew of babies and pets.   They captured the entire video stream from their cameras, and looked at when the pros actually pressed the shutter button to capture a clip.  Then they set their neural nets to work on the stream, trying to determine just what the cutest moments were.   Should it capture when the baby is facing you?  The net detects a large round blob in the middle of the image.   When it’s smiling?  When it’s raising its arms in glee?   When it’s rolling over?  The net doesn’t care – it’s just trying to predict when the professional would push the button.  It knows when the actual push happened, and adjusts the synaptic weights on all of the filters it runs on the images to generate features that map to cuteness.

As Elon Musk said “This doesn’t even *seem* innocent.”  This widget is watching and judging your baby constantly.   It’s assuming that you’re too busy or stupid to film your own baby.  God knows what it actually does with the video, but somewhere a Facebook type is thinking about how to monetize your baby videos.

OK, but creepier still is their AIY camera kit:This contains a lens, image sensor, button, and a cardboard box for the body.  You supply a Raspberry Pi processing board, and load their software onto it.   The demo is, and I’m not kidding, a joyfulness detector.   You point it at someone’s face, and it gives you a measure of how joyful their expression is.  An LED turns yellow for joy and blue for sad, just like the emotions in the Pixar “Inside Out” movie.    “And if your joy score exceeds 85%, an 8-bit sound will play. Cool!”  That’s one reaction, but not the one I would have.

This is still all kind of minor, though.   Where this attitude starts to matter is in their self-driving cars.  For the last ten years they’ve been saying how wonderful it will be when driving is taken away from fallible humans.   30,000 people a year are killed on the road in the US!   If you’re skeptical about this, you’re some Luddite delaying the self-driving millenium, and costing thousands of lives in the meantime.  Cars shouldn’t even have steering wheels!   Trust the machine!   Put your lives in our hands!

I would believe more of this if Google (now spun off into Waymo) were actually selling car safety systems.  They’ve spent billions on this by now, but haven’t offered a single product.  Real car companies are steadily adding safety features: blind spot detection, back-up collision alerts, and automatic forward braking.  I have them on my 2017 Chevy Volt, since they really do make a difference in accident rates.  I find the braking to be annoying, to be honest, since the alert goes off constantly in harmless situations, and every few months it applies the brakes when it shouldn’t.  But Google isn’t doing any of this.

I think the reason is money.   The Volt’s collision detector is based on a camera built by an Israeli company called Mobileye:

A Mobileye camera and processor, usually built into the back of the rear view mirror

They were acquired by Intel in 2017 for $15B, but in 2016 they sold about 6 million systems for $400 million.   That’s terrific for a small company, but chump change to Google.  Even if they sold ten times as many systems, 60 million a year, enough for 75% of the cars built each year, that’s still only $4 billion.  Google makes over a $100 billion a year.

No, serious money in self-driving cars only comes when they can sell car-when-you-want-it subscriptions.  Charge $500 per month, and have one car handle four or five subscribers, since each one only uses it for an hour or two a day.  Now you’re making $25K / car / year.   Run a million of those and it’s $25 billion.   When the tech really works, run 10 million of them, and you’re making $250 billion.

That’s what this is about, not safety.  It’s certainly what Uber is going for, since they’re presently losing money on every ride.  Actually doing full autonomous driving (called Level 5) is an enormously difficult problem because the driving environment is really ill-defined.   Just because Google’s Alpha Go program can beat a human champion doesn’t mean it handle situations without fixed rules.  No one cares if it makes a bad Go move, but people care a lot when your software kills someone.  The current accident rate in the US is about one fatality per hundred million miles, or several million hours.  It’s extraordinary hubris to think that computers can do this a lot better, and that hubris is going to kill people.

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Who Are the Best-Selling SF Authors?

There doesn’t seem to be a direct way to answer this.   Book sales data appears to be kept very private between authors and publishers, probably for the same reason that you never tell anyone your income.  In any case, books are a highly durable product and can last for centuries, so knowing modern sales figures wouldn’t say much about how many books were sold long ago.

But maybe we can answer this a different way.  The website LibraryThing lets you keep a catalog of your own library online.  It currently has 2.2M members, and 122M works cataloged, representing 11.7M unique titles.  I use it myself.   It can show the number of works held by its members by author.   This can tell us how popular authors are, at least among these bibliophilic and technophilic users.   They’re far from a random sample of readers, but they’re probably more similar to you, if you’re reading this blog post.

The most popular author by this standard is J. K. Rowling, who has 625,782 works in the collection as of this writing.  That’s 0.5% of all the books listed!   For other authors, let’s express their popularity as a percentage of hers, rather than by somewhat meaningless raw copy counts.   The webpages also show which individual book has the most copies, so let’s also look at whether that book dominates the author’s total.  It even shows the total number of works held, although that can include a lot of really minor stuff.

I sampled a lot of authors in this spreadsheet: LibraryThing Author Statistics.  Many of them write in multiple genres, but I assigned them to the genre of their biggest book. I did make an exception for Ursula K. Le Guin, because I’m a fan.   Below is how it looks for the top 20 SF authors.  Click on the link to see the author’s full list on LibraryThing:

Author Lived % of Rowling’s copies Book with Most Copies % of author’s total Number works
Isaac Asimov 1920–1992 29.6% Foundation 7.6% 1901
Orson Scott Card 1951– 23.8% Ender’s Game 20.8% 340
Anne McCaffrey 1926–2011 23.7% Dragonflight 4.1% 262
Kurt Vonnegut 1922–2007 22.2% Slaughterhouse-Five 23.7% 227
George Orwell 1903–1950 21.4% 1984 43.3% 266
Douglas Adams 1952–2001 21.4% The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy 20.9% 110
Robert A. Heinlein 1907–1988 20.2% Starship Troopers 7.1% 341
Margaret Atwood 1939– 19.0% The Handmaid’s Tale 22.7% 187
Ray Bradbury 1920–2012 16.2% Fahrenheit 451 35.6% 803
Ursula K. Le Guin 1929–2018 14.9% A Wizard of Earthsea 10.8% 397
Philip K. Dick 1928–1982 14.7% Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? 14.1% 525
Frank Herbert 1920–1986 13.4% Dune 31.0% 178
Arthur C. Clarke 1917–2008 13.4% 2001: A Space Odyssey 10.7% 482
Neal Stephenson 1959– 13.0% Snow Crash 18.5% 70
Larry Niven 1938– 11.0% Ringworld 10.1% 299
Aldous Huxley 1894–1963 10.6% Brave New World 59.1% 234
William Gibson 1948– 10.6% Neuromancer 25.8% 51
Iain M. Banks 1954–2013 10.2% Consider Phlebas 7.8% 54
H. G. Wells 1866–1946 9.8% The Time Machine 19.7% 898

Asimov wins! And he’s not just known for Foundation. And there are an enormous number of works under his name, 1901, which is unsurprising given that he wrote over 500 full books.  The authors with the most works are him, Wells, Bradbury, Dick, and Le Guin, who all had long, productive careers.

Orson Scott Card and Ann McCaffrey come in at #2 and #3, which higher than I would have expected.  Likewise Heinlein at #6 and Clarke at #12 are lower.  I’m pleased that Iain M. Banks made it onto the list, and if you added in his non-SF work (published as just Iain Banks), that would add another 3%.

Orwell, Bradbury and Huxley are mainly known for one work, but those works are major.  McCaffrey, Heinlein, and Asimov had the lowest percentages for their biggest book, showing what diverse output they had.

There are only a few living authors (although we just lost Le Guin!), and only three women, so this represents an older view of the field.  This might well be an older audience, one that has had time to build up enough of a library to want to catalog.

For comparison, let’s look at the top 10 genre authors:

Author Lived % of Rowling’s copies Book with Most Copies % of author’s total Number works
J. K. Rowling 1965– 100.0% Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone 14.9% 177
Stephen King 1947– 77.6% The Gunslinger 3.3% 664
Terry Pratchett 1948–2015 61.1% Good Omens 6.3% 312
J. R. R. Tolkien 1892–1973 48.3% The Hobbit 21.5% 620
C. S. Lewis 1898–1963 46.1% The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe 10.1% 618
Neil Gaiman 1960– 45.9% American Gods 9.1% 575
Stephenie Meyer 1973– 28.2% Twilight 26.1% 72
Dan Brown 1964– 23.8% The Da Vinci Code 38.3% 35
Dean Koontz 1945– 22.7% Odd Thomas 4.2% 342
Mercedes Lackey 1950– 21.3% Arrows of the Queen 2.3% 295
George R. R. Martin 1948– 21.0% A Game of Thrones 21.4% 494

Fantasy sells a lot more than SF!  Six authors here are bigger than Asimov, including the youngster Neil Gaiman.  The youngest author in both these lists is Stephenie Meyer, followed by Rowling.

Are you dismayed that fantasy and SF seem to dominate people’s collections?   Don’t worry – classic authors do very well too:

Author Lived % of Rowling’s copies Book with Most Copies % of author’s total Number works
William Shakespeare 1564–1616 40.8% The Complete Works of William Shakespeare 9.0% 4336
Agatha Christie 1890–1976 36.8% And Then There Were None 5.2% 1502
Jane Austen 1775–1817 30.6% Pride and Prejudice 29.8% 705
Charles Dickens 1812–1870 29.3% Great Expectations 14.2% 1841
Mark Twain 1835–1910 19.2% Adventures of Huckleberry Finn 24.2% 2040
Ernest Hemingway 1899–1961 17.4% The Old Man and The Sea 19.3% 501
Fyodor Dostoevsky 1821–1881 16.6% Crime and Punishment 29.8% 952
Gabriel Garcia Marquez 1927–2014 15.0% One Hundred Years of Solitude 35.1% 289
Arthur Conan Doyle 1859–1930 14.4% The Hound of the Baskervilles 10.0% 2350
F. Scott Fitzgerald 1896–1940 14.1% The Great Gatsby 58.0% 425

Big Bill is way up there, and blows away those lightweights with 4336 works.  Even Dostoevsky and Marquez do well by this measure.

Is this a fair measure overall?  It’s certainly not a measure of overall influence – Austen and Dickens are clearly more important authors than Rowling or King.   It’s probably not a good measure of actual unit sales either, but that only matters to investors in publishing houses.  Maybe it’s best thought of as a sense of what people who care about books have actually read.    You’ve probably heard of all of these authors.   If not, give them a try!

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“2001” Was Completely Wrong

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the best SF movie ever made, 2001: A Space Odyssey.  I actually saw it when it first came out, and have seen it many times since then.  I think I’ve also read everything by Clarke and seen everything of Kubrick’s.

Yet what strikes me these days is how far off the movie is on, well, everything:

  • The prime use of intelligence is not murder.  The opening scene has the monolith uplifting a hairy hominid, who promptly starts using tools to kill his enemies.  Yet the distinctive characteristic of homo sapiens is not violence, but cooperation.  We live in vast social groups, and achieve enormous wealth because of trade.  Chimpanzees are actually much more violent than people.   Note that the famous jump cut from the flying bone to the flying orbital nuclear weapon was already wrong in 1968:
Watch: 4 Things All Great Edits Have in Common


The Outer Space Treaty had already banned nukes in spaces in 1967. It was easily passed because having nukes outside of one’s immediate control is a really terrible idea.   Having a dark view of human history is not rare, of course, and this movie was made not long after the worst war ever, but it’s still not right.

  • None of the space tech happened, and none of it will for the foreseeable future.  There was an orbital space plane, the Shuttle, but it was a disaster from the start.   Rotating a space station for gravity means that far more mass is needed for structural support, at enormous expense, and you’ll have pieces flying off. Moon bases aren’t in the cards because there’s nothing to do up there.   Nuclear rockets have all been cancelled because of safety issues.  Manned space flight in general is fading – the last space tourist was nine years ago, and many fewer individuals are flying now.  (see The Human Population of Space).
  • We’re not close to HAL’s general artificial intelligence.   More and more specific human abilities are now able to be done by machine, from image and speech recognition to language translation, but those are isolated programs.  Machines don’t make their own way in the world.   They don’t have their own will for just the reason shown in the movie – they’ll then do what we do NOT want.  AI programs are expensive industrial software, not children.   They better damn well do the right thing or else their programmers will all be fired.

Why does all this matter?   Because 2001 was as good as it gets for SF.  It hit most of the field’s tropes – aliens, space, robots – and did it as well as anyone could do in 1968.  No sound in space, no dogfights in vacuum, no whizzing past nebulae.  It took on big themes like technology and evolution, and what transcendence looks like.   It still has that core feeling of SF, of alienation and wonder, but its future just never happened.

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Mad Science #3: Land Mine Follies

Two stories of mad science this time about this vicious class of weapons, and one about how they ought to be done:

Radioactive Nazi Land Mines

Like Mad Science #1, the first story comes from Atomic Adventures (2017) by James Mahaffey.   Ordinary land mines have steel or aluminum cases, and so can be found by metal detectors.  These work by inducing a current in the object with a changing magnetic field, and then picking up the object’s field.  To defeat that, you can make the mine out of something non-conductive, and the Nazis actually built 11 million mines with glass shells.  These had the added ‘feature’ of riddling people with glass shards, which are hard to see on X-rays.

But you don’t just want to hide mines – you want  to be able to find them yourself.  So the Nazis came up with another idea – make them radioactive.   They can then be detected with Geiger counters.   In 1944/45 they built a class of anti-tank mines called Topfmines which were painted with a material called ‘tarnsand’.   No one seems to know quite what this was, but it appears to be tailings from uranium mining.   The mine’s case was made of pressed wood pulp, and it contained 6 kg of TNT.  It had a pressure plate on the top and a trigger that responded to 150 kg of pressure.  That’s heavier than a person (at least in those days), but would be set off by a vehicle.

Topfmine Radioactive Anti-tank Mine – credit  Bottom right image shows the bottom of the mine and its carrying handle

They then mounted a Geiger counter called the Stuttgart 43 on a long pole and attached it to the front of tanks. It could pick up this mine long before they drove over it.

The Allies never caught onto this.   About 800,000 were made in 1944 and 45.   They were probably laid in France and Poland to stop Allied advances, and many may still be there, along with so much other unexploded ordnance.  The casings would degrade over time, and the charges would also deteriorate, but the radioactivity would last forever.  They’re just another memento of Nazi occupation.

British Nuclear Land Mines, Heated by Chickens

One expects craziness from Nazis, but an even madder project came from the British.   They started developing their own nuclear weapons in the 1950s after the US cut off research cooperation due to spying scandals.  Their first bomb was called Blue Danube, and went into production in 1956.   This was a huge implosion device, weighing about 5 tons, with about a 10 kiloton yield.   That’s a hard thing to move by bomber, so they thought about other applications for the same design.   They hit upon using it as a land mine on the plains of Northern Germany.   If the Cold War turned hot, and thousands of Soviet tanks rolled out from East Germany to attack the West, these would be set off by timers or miles-long wires for remote detonators.   The project was called Blue Peacock and two were actually built:

That Time the British Developed a Chicken Heated Nuclear Bomb
Blue Peacock Nuclear Land Mine in the collection of the UK Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE,  Click for AWE article by curator

Yes, turning Germany into a radioactive wasteland just to block tanks was a deeply terrible idea.  But, they reasoned, it would be even worse if it didn’t work.   These bombs were just sitting there in the cold ground.  How could they be sure that the timers and detonators wouldn’t freeze up in the winter?  They considered swathing them in glass fiber pillows, but then hit on a much better idea – put a crate of chickens inside.  Their body heat would amount to about 10 watts per chicken.  Keep them from pecking at the wiring, give them some feed and water, and they would be fine, at least until they were vaporized.

This was discovered on April 1st, 2004, when the program was declassified after 50 years.  April 1st, eh?   But no, it wasn’t a prank – there were archival drawings of just where the coop would go.  Wasn’t that rather cruel to the chickens?   Well, when setting off an atomic bomb, the health of chickens is low on one’s priority list.

Although ten of them were proposed to be built, the whole program was cancelled in 1958 when they came to their senses.  However, the US did go on to build nuclear land mines, the Medium Atomic Demolition Munition, and deployed them between 1961 and 1989 in Europe, South Korea, and possibly even the Golan Heights.

Modern Mine Replacements

Land mines are horrible anyway, and injure many thousands of people a year, often children playing in abandoned fields.   Most countries are banning them under the auspices of the Ottawa Land Mine Treaty.  Unfortunately, the major military powers – the US, Russia, China, and India – have refused to sign.  In spite of spending trillions on their militaries, they still like this cheap and dangerous weapon, even though it injures their own people.

But if there have to be minefields, let’s at least make them safer.  A friend of mine suggested that instead of strewing a field with explosives, strew it with sensors.  When they detect a person or vehicle crossing a restricted area, signal an automated mortar.  It drops a shell on the detected position within a couple of seconds.   The signals are encrypted to prevent spoofing, and the sensors disable themselves if disturbed.  The whole thing can be disabled if your own troops are entering the area, and shut down when the front changes position.  This is just what DARPA was trying to do with its Smart Dust program in the late 1990s.

Given the progress in Internet-of-Things electronics, this could well be cheaper than minefields!  These sensors could cost pennies.   Maybe then this weapon class can be eliminated everywhere.

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Is STEM Recruitment Working?

The technical world, that of math, science, and engineering, has been trying for decades to get more young people interested in it.   It collectively sponsors TV programs, high school contests, and scholarships.   Politicians are constantly touting the benefits of STEM careers, as are companies.

So has all this encouragement had an effect?   To check, let’s look to see if more people are entering the fields, as defined by getting bachelor’s degrees in them.  This should be a better guide than graduate degrees, because those are often not economic, and are heavily affected by how many foreign students come.  Let’s also derate by the number of people in the age group, to make sure it’s not some population shift.  The Census tracks population in five-year groupings, so let’s pick ages 20-24, which covers the usual age for  for when people get bachelor’s degrees. The number of people in that range has varied from 16M in 1969, up to 22M at the peak of the Boomers in 1983, down to 18M in 1997, and back up to 23M in 2015.

The National Center for Educational Statistics, a division of the NSF, tracks the number of degrees here: WebCASPAR database.  I’ve massaged all the data into this spreadsheet –  STEM Recruitment As Measured by Bachelor Degrees – but let me put the charts here with some description. So, first, engineering:

I’m including Computer Science under engineering, because science is the study of nature, not machinery.   CS is much the most popular degree, but interest in it varies a lot.  It peaked in 2003, when people got into it during the Dot-Com Bubble in the late 90s, crashed in the Great Recession, and is still not back to peak levels.

Mech E was stable for decades, but recently is on the rise, probably because of robotics. The TV shows Mythbusters and Junkyard Wars may also be helpful, since those stress mechanical invention above all other kinds of engineering.

EE peaked in the 80s, and has been on a long, slow decline since, although there’s a recent small up-tick.  EE is a capital-intensive field these days, unlike most of its history, and so recruitment is down.

Civil is pretty constant, as are Industrial and Aerospace, but Chemical is doing well.

Other is a catch-all for many categories, and is doing very well.   Its major categories are Biochemical, Biomedical, Mechatronic, Naval and Ocean Engineering, Nuclear, and Systems.  The data doesn’t break this down, but I would expect that the bio-oriented and the robot-oriented ones have big increases.

Now let’s look at math and the major sciences:

Biology utterly rules, and is doing great.  About twice as many people get bachelors in biology as in CS.  In fact, there are more biologists than all engineering fields combined.  This is partly because Bio is an entry degree for medicine, and partly because Bio really is the dominant field of scientific research these days.

Math is actually down from its level in the 1960s, but is on a slow rise these days.   CS probably took away the more practically-oriented math people in the 1970s.

Chemistry, physics, and the natural sciences (Astronomy, Meteorology, Oceanography, and Geology) are all stagnant.

The above are the so-called hard sciences, a term I dislike, but they’re the ones that concern the natural world.  The ones that concern the human world are more popular:

Psychology and Sociology are just fundamentally more interesting to us humans than fields that deal with abstract forces or invisible molecules.  I think we’re on a threshold in these fields of being able to truly model what’s happening in them, which should lead to breakthroughs at least as big as those of 19th century physics and 20th century chemistry.   Like those, they can also be used for ill, as I mentioned in Weaponized Psychology Helped Elect Trump  and in When Modeling Goes Bad – “Weapons of Math Destruction” .  But understanding is always key to progress, and these fields are moving fast.

Medical Sciences is on an upswing as part of medicine in general, but Anthropology seems constant, perhaps because too much of the world is inter-connected.  Linguistics as actually on a good upswing but can’t be seen at this scale.

Finally, let’s look at how STEM fields compare to the trends in degrees as a whole:

The large fields that are growing are Business (unsurprising as the country becomes more mercantile), Natural Science (largely Biology), and Human Science (largely Psychology).  Engineering is on a slight rise (largely CS), and Humanities and Education are flat.  The big changes happened in the 1980s, when Humanities and Education were displaced by Business, probably as opportunities for women grew.

So what can we say overall?   It doesn’t really look that good for STEM.   Biology and CS are up, but they’re volatile.   Other STEM fields are largely flat or only slowly growing.  My own field, EE, is actually declining.  STEM promoters are almost certainly not trying to increase the number of Psychology majors, but that’s doing very well.   Maybe this promotion has a minor effect compared to people’s inherent interest in fields and the career prospects for it.




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Mad Science #2 – Zapping ICBMs with Nuke-Induced Radiation Belts

The Imagineers of War by Sharon Weinberger

Click for publisher site

Another great recent source of crazed science stories is Sharon Weinberger’s thorough and refreshingly skeptical history of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, The Imagineers of War.    DARPA has been all the rage for the last few years because it has been instrumental in some big advances.  These include the VELA nuclear test detection network, early computer networking, the Internet of Things, and autonomous cars.

But that’s not what we want to hear about.  The US Pentagon is the best-funded ministry of the richest nation in the world, so of course it can do important research.  It would be embarrassing if it didn’t. No, the reason to read a history like this is for the baroque stuff, the ideas that people with too much money and no oversight can produce.

One of DARPA’s very first efforts qualifies: Operation Argus in 1958.   In brief, this was the launching of three small nuclear bombs about 300 miles up to see if their explosions could emit enough charged particles to damage ICBMs as they flew through.  It was elaborate, brilliantly managed, incredibly expensive, and ridiculous.

DARPA had been founded that very year in response to Sputnik.   It showed that the Soviets could launch inter-continental nuclear missiles, which panicked everyone.   DARPA’s immediate goal was to try something, anything, that might defend against them.

Nicholas Christofilos, 1916-1972, click for bio

They immediately adopted a proposal from Nicholas Christofilos, a Greek-American physicist at Lawrence Livermore.   He had made his bones by inventing a way to focus particle beams in accelerators, leading to much higher energies.   In the mid 1950s he had been working on a fusion scheme called Astron, which contained a hot plasma by having the charged ions spiral around magnetic lines.  When Sputnik was launched, he realized that the same might happen in the Earth’s magnetic field, and was pleased when the first Explorer satellite detected exactly that in the form of the Van Allen Belts.  He fell to wondering if such belts could be induced artificially.  He did some quick calculations, and estimated that a one-megaton bomb could set up a radiation belt capable of delivering 100 roentgens per hour.   That would kill an astronaut fairly quickly, and maybe it would damage an ICBM.

Herbert York.jpg

Herbert York, 1921-2009

His work came to the attention of Herbert York, Chief Scientist of ARPA, and in only four months the whole experiment was put together.  They were in a hurry because everyone expected that atmospheric nuclear testing would soon be banned, and Eisenhower did halt it at the end of October 1958.  They would use small bombs, of only 1 to 2 kilotons, to avoid ground radiation hazards, and launch them in secret from Navy ships in the South Atlantic, where the Belts dip closest to the Earth.    They would monitor the blasts with equipment on the ships, with sounding rockets, and most importantly with the Explorer 4 satellite.   That was only the third satellite that the US ever launched, and it was already dragooned into this mad scheme.   Van Allen himself helped with the instrumentation on it.

The whole expedition was huge, with 9 ships and 4500 crew.  They did three launches in August and September of 1958, but the scintillator detector on Explorer 4 failed before the third one.   The sailors saw the flashes and then some striking auroras as the particles rained down.  The particles also bounced around the field lines and came down over the Azores in the north Atlantic, causing more auroras.   The satellite really did detect an increase in electron flux up in the Belts, and radio propagation was affected.

The news of the test leaked out a year later.   Detailed reports were published, and everyone congratulated themselves on an experiment well-done.  Christofilos went on to lead an equally grandiose but actually useful project, the gigantic Ground Dipole Antenna for using 80 Hz radio waves to communicate with submarines.  York became chancellor of UCSD, and later helped negotiate the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

Yet no one seemed to have stopped to think this through.   Unless you did a lot more testing, how could you be sure this would have any effect on ICBMs?   And how was that supposed to happen when atmospheric testing was both poisoning the planet and illegal?    Even if this did work, the Van Allen belts start at about 500 miles up, and ICBMs can easily fly below that.   Were they seriously thinking of spending extremely expensive H-bombs and rockets for something that could be dodged with a guidance tweak?   And are warheads that enter the atmosphere at several miles per second really going to be bothered by a couple of minutes of radiation exposure?    A nuclear bomb is pretty radioactive to begin with, so shielding the ignition mechanism and timer wouldn’t be hard.

Still, the coolness factor reigned.   We’re going to build nuke shields in space, with gigantic bombs that light up the sky.   It got the new Agency started with a literal bang.   They got a lot of support after that, although not for projects as spectacular as this.

And nuclear defense is still a gigantic grift.   The US has spent a total of $250 billion on it (see US Missile Defense Spending 1985 to 2017) in 2017 dollars between Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative of 1985 and the present-day Missile Defense Agency.   It’s budget is half the size of all of NASA’s, and it can still be defeated with decoys.  Nuclear weapons really are apocalyptic, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that they make researchers and politicians lose their minds.

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Mad Science #1 – Soviet Space Station Rayguns

I’ve been reading a lot of juicy stories about completely crazed projects recently, so I’d like to pass some on.  These were projects that made sense to someone at the time, but were really awful ideas, ones that you can be glad you were never involved with.  They should really be called Mad Engineering instead of Mad Science, but unfortunately that evokes images of angry guys with pocket protectors.   They call them Rocket Scientists after all, because that’s cooler than Rocket Engineers.

So let me set a few qualification rules up front.  A Mad Science project has to be:

  • Dangerous – Otherwise we don’t care.
  • Stupid – ’cause that’s what makes them mad.  It clearly wasn’t stupid to the people involved, but everything looks sensible if you work on it for long enough.
  • Actually done, not just proposed.  The Orion fission-bomb-propelled spaceship would certainly qualify, but was sadly and fortunately never built.
  • Unfamiliar, at least to me.   Well-known stories, like the Babylon Gun that Gerald Bull was building for Saddam Hussein before he (Bull) was assassinated, are already well described.

That said, let me start with a story from Atomic Adventures (2017) by James Mahaffey.   He was a nuclear physicist at Georgia Tech, and has been putting down lots of great stuff in a series of recent books.   This particular device wasn’t nuclear, but was an actual laser pistol that the Soviets built to defend their space stations against attacks by the US Space Shuttle:

Exhibit at the Peter the Great Military Academy in Moscow

It was first revealed in English by English Russia in 2013, but Mahaffey gives a much more detailed description.

The Soviets have always armed their cosmonauts, starting with a pistol that Yuri Gagarin carried.   Somehow the NRA has never done the same to Americans – the most they ever carried were knives.   The Soviets said that the guns were in case a capsule landed in a wolf-filled wilderness.   Wolves do actually roam the lonely steppes of Kazahkstan, where the capsules land, and are even used to guard villages there, so maybe that was a legitimate worry.

By the time of the Mir space station in the 1980s, they were getting worried about the US Space Shuttle.   This was the era of the belligerent Ronald Reagan, who actually did arm mercenaries to attack Soviet clients in Nicaragua and Angola.  What could they do if he decided to take over Mir?   You sure don’t want use a gun in orbit, since that can open you to vacuum and knock you about with the recoil.

A laser would be perfect, but they’re too bulky.   The solution was to use several meters of optical fiber as the lasing medium.   They wound it into a spool inside the barrel, and the end came out the muzzle.  The laser was pumped by a flash bulb in the middle of the spool.  The bulb was filled with zirconium metal in pure oxygen, so the whole thing would work in a vacuum for EVA fights.   Old-fashioned flash bulbs used magnesium, but zirconium gives three times as much light per weight, and its spectrum can be tuned to match the resonant wavelength of the fiber optic.   The bulb was ignited by a tungsten-rhenium wire coated with pyrotechnic paste.  It was set off by a voltage from a piezoelectric crystal when it was hit by the gun’s hammer.   A magazine carried 8 flash bulbs, so you just ejected one to use the next.   They were also apparently working on a revolver variant that could probably fire faster.

So why was this stupid?  Because you can’t really put out much energy this way.  It’s unlikely that you could even hole someone’s suit, especially if it was reflective.   Maybe you could blind them, but helmets are mirrored too.  Lasers just aren’t that efficient in converting their input energy into a destructive output, unlike guns.   There have been a number of laser weapon projects, and they’ve almost all been cancelled for being too energy-hungry, big, and expensive.   The only one left is the HELLADS anti-missile system, and after 10 years of work it’s just getting field trials now, 30 years after this work.

The Soviet effort stopped when the country did in 1989.    The Russians ultimately invited the Americans onto Mir, and they’ve been a prime contributor to the International Space Station.    Space piracy just isn’t a concern any more.   But even when it had been, a  cutlass would have been a lot more effective weapon than a raygun.  As much as we love the idea of blasters, sometimes the old ways are the best.

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