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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The Least Substantial Lasts Longest

A few days ago a friend noted that this was the 40th anniversary of the VAX computer line, one of the most successful and most criticized machines ever.   Its first model was the VAX 11/780, which was announced on Oct 25th, 1977.  Even though the last VAX was built in 2000, its software and its operating system, VMS, are still in regular use.   Somehow it still persists when the tens of thousands of tons of its hardware have been junked.   The completely insubstantial bits of its binaries have outlasted the silicon, fiberglass, and steel that used to run it.

My ISCA 2013 - 40th International Symposium on Computer Architecture

Its code name was STAR. Click for link to good history of VAXen.

A VAX was my very first project out of school.  I worked on the fourth model, the 8200/8300, from 1981 to ’84.   I had done some chip design for my master’s, so somehow I got assigned to the first microprocessor version of the line.    There were 10 of us on the main chip, the V-11 IE chip, and most were greenhorns like me.   No one else in the company knew much about this MOS stuff.   The previous versions had all been built with small digital chips and so were the size of refrigerators.   Really expensive refrigerators – the 11/780 started at $120,000 (about $500,000 today) and went to the moon from there.  Our job was to boil all that down to a single 8″ x 8″ card.

We designed each gate by hand.   That is, we drew schematics for all the logic and specified the size of each transistor manually.   Repeated logic  only had to be drawn once, fortunately.  This may sound mind-numbing, but was actually pretty fun, since it was a game to see how small and simple each function could be made.  A different group wrote programs to turn our drawings into lists of transistors and into models that could be simulated for debugging.  This was the result:

V-11 IE chip photograph. 3 um NMOS, 5 MHz, 9×9 mm, 60K transistors, 5W. I did the stuff in the upper right corner. Click for description.

The simulations took forever to run even on these small blocks.  I was into juggling at the time, and so killed time by practicing and teaching others how to do it.  You could look out over the sea of cubicles and see the balls going up and down.  The actual schematics were drawn on a VT100 terminal with a special graphics card.  They overheated all the time, and so we would also regularly see wisps of smoke rise above the cubicle walls.

The V-11 turned out to be a minor part of the VAX line, but it did get used as the basis for the MicroVAX II, the first single-chip VAX microprocessor.  That brought the line down to desktop size, and under $20,000, and the company sold billions of dollars of them.  In a better world it would have been the basis for the PC, as it was far more reliable and capable than Intel’s chips and Microsoft’s OSes.   It did spawn four other VAX micro designs – CVAX, Rigel, Mariah, and NVAX.  The last was scaled up to 133 MHz in 0.5 um CMOS by 1994, but it was the end of the line.

My own contribution to the VAX was to kill off PDP-11 compatibility mode.  When the first VAX came out, it could still execute programs from the previous major line, the PDP-11 series.  The VAX instruction set was so complex that it needed microcode to interpret it anyway, so supporting the old opcodes wasn’t much work.  By the time I was working on the instruction decode, almost everyone had switched to using native VAX instructions.  I looked at the PDP-11 codes and told my manager “We can do it, but it’s kind of annoying.” He reported to his manager “Compatibility mode is delaying the schedule!”  He told his “Compatibility mode is threatening the project!”  Then he told his “Supporting this mode is damaging the VAX line!”  and so the gods decreed that it wasn’t necessary.

Yet the VAX instruction set itself was never meant to be executed directly.  It was designed to be a simple, complete interface between the compiler and OS and any form of hardware.  That made it slow to actually execute, and it became a target and butt of ridicule for every up and coming computer architect.   Yet that’s how it now exists – as emulations on top of x86 or ARM processors.  The architect of the MicroVAX II, Bob Supnik, wrote a thorough, fast program that interprets the VAX’s instruction bytes, and offers it at  One guy used that to implement a full VAX on a Raspberry Pi hobbyist board – one small enough to fit inside a model of the 11/780:

A working VAX 11 780 – revisited – blog@4x

Click for link

It’s 150,000 times smaller, and probably the same speed.  There’s also a commercial builder, The Logical Company, that makes complete systems:

Click for link

These run their own emulator on top of an x86 processor, along with a real-time operating system that can handle all the timing for Qbus peripherals. If you’re a military or industrial customer who still needs to interface to old machinery and run binaries, just drop one of these in.

There’s even a company that supports OpenVMS, the VAX’s bulletproof, perfectly multi-processor operating system, VMS Software Inc.  They have the source, and have ported it to all sorts of other platforms.   They recently held a boot camp to introduce new programmers to the pleasures of a well-built OS.

It all reminds me of a talk that I heard at DEC from Charles Bigelow, the font designer.  He devised Lucida, WingDings, and a lot of the Apple TrueType fonts.  Having chip designers learn about fonts might seem irrelevant to the company’s business, but that’s the sort of thing DEC did.   Bigelow noted that modern people have almost nothing in common with the Romans.   We don’t dress as they did, or build our houses the same way, or eat the same things or even use the same tableware.  But we do use their letter forms.  We can still read their inscriptions 2300 years later.  The same goes for Hebrew and Chinese. This most evanescent thing, the shape of a letter, has outlasted practically everything else about the Romans.  The even more evanescent VAX instruction set has outlasted all of its hardware and DEC itself.  Useful abstractions like letterforms and opcodes can live forever.

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Who Are the World’s Leading EEs?

The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineering (IEEE) is the world’s largest technical society, with about 420,000 members.   Although founded in the US in 1884, over half its members are international.   Its highest rank is Fellow, which can only be achieved by getting 13 other Fellows to nominate you.  That makes it a pretty good estimate of the leading electrical engineers in the world.

The IEEE doesn’t expose a single list of them, but does scatter a lot of data about them across its website.  I’ve collated data from there into this spreadsheet – IEEE Fellow Stats.  Let me try to answer some questions about them:

Q: How many are there?

About 10,000 have achieved this rank, of whom about 800 are known to be deceased.  The earliest was  E. Weber in 1934.  About 300 new Fellows are elevated a year out of a voting membership of 340K.  Of those 300, about 160 are American, a little over 50%. About 10% are women.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics says that there were 400K US electrical engineers in 2016, including occupation codes 17-2071, 17-2072, and 17-2061.   That would make about 40% of them IEEE members.  There have been about 3000 US Fellows elevated since 1999, which would be ~0.7% of the total in the field.   Here’s a 1% one can be proud to belong to!

Q: Are there any I would know?

  • Jack Kilby (1966) – co-inventor with Robert Noyce of the integrated circuit and winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics
  • Gordon Moore (1968) – co-founder, again with Noyce, of Intel, and author of Moore’s Law, which has driven our industry for fifty years
  • Andy Grove (1972) – president of Intel during its formative years, and one of the creators of Silicon Valley
  • Paul E. Gray (1972) – president of MIT, and author of the definitive textbook on transistor circuits
  • John Hennessey (1991) – president of Stanford, and co-creator of RISC computing
  • Andrew Viterbi (1973), co-founder of Qualcomm, and inventor of Viterbi coding, which is used in all cellphones
  • Ray Dolby (2010) – founder of Dolby Labs, and inventor of noise removal schemes used on every medium since cassette tapes

Q: Where do they live?

The IEEE breaks the world into regions, which look like this:

Region Region name Region main states Fellows 2016
1 US Northeast NY,NJ,MA 39
2 US East PA,OH 19
3 US Southeast FL,GA,VA 19
4 US Central MI,IL,MN 20
5 US Southwest TX,CO 26
6 US West CA,OR,WA,AZ 38
7 Canada ON,BC 10
8 Europe, Middle East, Africa UK,DE,FR,NL,IS 65
9 Latin America MX,CL,AR 3
10 Asia and Pacific CH,JP,TW,HK,AU 58

They occasionally cite a Region 11, Low Earth Orbit, but that’s not heavily populated, yet.  Europe got the most here, followed by Asia, the US Northeast, and US West.

If we break this down more finely for the last five years:

Fellow Elevations 2012-2016
US States Non-US Countries
California 165 Japan 69
New York 73 Canada 62
Texas 60 Italy 56
Massachusetts 49 UK 56
Pennsylvania 45 China 55
New Jersey 37 Australia 37
Virginia 35 Hong Kong 36
North Carolina 30 Taiwan 34
Michigan 28 Germany 32
Illinois 26 France 28
Georgia 24 India 23
Washington 23 Switzerland 21
Maryland 22 South Korea 20
Florida 21 Spain 18
Arizona 19 Netherlands 16
Colorado 18 Singapore 16
Ohio 17 Belgium 15
Indiana 16 Sweden 12
New Mexico 13 Austria 8
Tennessee 12 Israel 8
Oregon 11 Brazil 7
Minnesota 9 Portugal 6
District of Columbia 8 Greece 6
Utah 8 Poland 5
Missouri 8 Ireland 4
Wisconsin 8 Denmark 4
Iowa 8 Turkey 4
Connecticut 6 South Africa 3
New Hampshire 5 Mexico 3
Alabama 5 New Zealand 2
Kansas 4 Norway 2
Idaho 3 Finland 2
Hawaii 3 Macedonia 1
Nebraska 2 Macao 1
Kentucky 2 Uruguay 1
Vermont 2 Romania 1
Oklahoma 2 Malaysia 1
South Carolina 2 Lebanon 1
Rhode Island 2 Iran 1
Delaware 1 Hungary 1
Mississippi 1 Montenegro 1
Louisiana 1 Qatar 1
Maine 1
USA total 836 Other total 680

Pennsylvania does better than I expected, as does Italy.   Among US states, Washington DC has the most per-capita (14.1 / million), followed by Massachusetts (7.6), New Mexico (6.3) and California (4.5).   Among countries, Hong Kong has the most per capita (5.0), followed by Singapore (2.9), Switzerland (2.6), Canada (1.7), and Australia (1.6).  It’s surprising to see no one here from Russia, but they do have IEEE chapters there, so their time will come.

To narrow it down even further, the top five places for Fellows are:

  • Tokyo, Japan – 24
  • Beijing, China – 23
  • Atlanta, GA, USA – 20
  • Cambridge, MA, USA – 19
  • Pittsburgh, PA, USA – 18
  • Yorktown Heights, NY, USA – 18

Q: When do they tend to get elevated?

Here’s the breakdown by age for 2016:

Ages 31 -39 40 -44 45 -49 50 -54 55 -59 60 -64 65 -69 70 -76 77 -85 85+ Not Given
# 6 39 64 66 55 31 10 4 3 2 17

I have to admire the energy of the five 77+ Fellows!  The average and median age is about 53.   That means it takes about 30 years of work after one’s bachelor degree to hit this rank.

Q: Where do they work?

Here are the top institutions mentioned in the elevation citations:

Fellows Elevated by Institution 2012-2016
Companies Schools Other
27 IBM 56 U. California 9 None listed
18 Intel 24 U. Texas 8 NASA
12 Microsoft Research 19 Georgia  Tech 5 INRIA
10 Alcatel/Bell Labs 17 MIT 5 Consultant
8 Broadcom 15 Hong Kong University 5 NIST
6 NTT 13 Texas A&M University 4 Sandia National Laboratories
6 General Electric 11 Tsinghua University 3 Naval Research Laboratory
6 Hewlett-Packard 11 Arizona State U 3 US Army Research Office
5 Siemens 9 National Chiao Tung  U 2 IMEC
4 Texas Instruments 9 Stanford University 2 ISO New England
4 Huawei 9 Purdue University 2 Telecom ParisTech
4 Lockheed Martin 8 USC 2 EPRI
3 Hitachi 8 Seoul National U 2 German Aerospace Center (DLR)
3 Analog Devices 8 U Michigan
3 Google Inc 8 Iowa State University
3 Quanta Technology 8 Boston University
3 Qualcomm 7 University of Florida
3 Toshiba 7 Imperial College

IBM and the University of California rule.  The smallest companies listed are Quanta Technology, which does utility R&D, and Analog Devices, which makes a wide range of analog interface chips and DSPs.  The schools are all familiar, except for Hong Kong University.  Arizona State, Iowa State and Imperial College show well.   NASA is where it should be.  Nine people had no affiliation and 5 were just consultants.

Q: Big takeaway?

Talent is everywhere.  It’s in Wyoming, and Qatar, and Montenegro.  Some places, like IBM, have an abundance of it, but you can find it all over the world.


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Recent Posts on Let’s See This Work

I’ve been putting movie-related posts over on  this other blog, Let’s See This Work.   Here are some you might like:

Stats on the Most Influential Effects Movies – When were these made and who did them?

“The Founder” as Design vs Finance – The McDonald brothers versus Ray Kroc.

“Hidden Figures” and Attaining One’s Fullest Stature – the American Dream at NASA.

“Joy” – anti-STEM for Women – One of the world’s leading actresses conveys the worst impression of what it’s like to be an inventor.

“Sully” As a Good Omen – The Miracle of the Hudson was a sign of better times to come.



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The Engineering of Biology at MIT

One of the big reunion activities at MIT is Technology Day, a series of lectures from faculty done shortly after commencement.   This year the theme was Synthetic Life, and the talks were just as creepy and interesting as you might expect.

Technology Day panelists, June 10, 2017, Angela Belcher on right

Seven professors spoke on work ranging from designing viruses, to doing self-assembly of nano-structures, to using massive gene editing to find drugs to kill the malaria parasite.

Three new techniques have now made it possible to design lifeforms:

  • Cheap sequencing – the ability to quickly understand what’s in a biological mixture.
  • CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing – a protein borrowed from the cheese-making bacterium Streptococcus thermophilus that lets one replace particular DNA sequences with others.
  • Fast machine pattern recognition – a neural net technique that can find patterns in vast piles of random data.   Recently made feasible by GPU hardware, large datasets, and efficient training algorithms.

CRISPR lets one make a change, the sequencing tells if it takes, and the pattern recognition says if it does something.

Let me summarize the first talks and then concentrate on the last, which was the wackiest:

  • Prof. Linda Griffith wondered why the drug Jun Kinase worked on endometriosis so well in mice, but failed its human trial.  She came up with a way to grow “organoids”, bits of your own tissue grown in a dish, and found that the drug worked great on the 25% of the population with a particular genetic sequence, and failed on the others.  We can now do human trials on bits of our own flesh.
  • Prof. Ron Weiss has found a way to build Boolean logic gates with DNA – structures that when two proteins come in, can express another protein.   Yes, it’s Turing-complete because it can make a NOR gate.  He wants to set up Boolean equations that will let a virus detect the proteins unique to a cancer cell and then turn on and kill it.
  • Prof. Feng Zhang described retro-viral therapy using CRISPR: inject viruses that will edit in naturally occurring sequences that protect against HIV and cardiovascular problems.   To be exact, they can block the production of the protein PCSK9, which inhibits the regulation of cholesterol.   Robert Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet, is a backer.
  • Prof. Darrell Irvine notes that the long-term survival rate of cancer used to be really bad, but with T-cell immunotherapy it got up to 25%.  That’s still pretty awful, and the reason is that the cancer can use the body’s own defenses against invaders to attack the introduced T-cells.  He has found a way to attach particles of drugs to the outside of the T-cells, and release them in the environment of the tumor to slow down the attackers.
  • Prof. Jacquin Niles says that the first successful anti-malarial drug, chloroquine, has become useless as the bacteria adapted to it, and the second, artemisinin, is losing too. The disease kills 700,000 people a year, mostly children in Africa.  He’s now going after the bacterium’s genome one gene at a time, clipping them out individually with CRISPR to see which ones the drugs are actually responding to.  Sponsored by the Gates Foundation.
  • Prof. Eric Alm is studying the micro-biome, the set of bacterial species that live in our guts and have mysterious influences over us.  We can now sequence them all and so see if key species are missing.  Problems here could be associated with multiple sclerosis and even autism.  It’s another job for neural nets!   It’s possible to transplant the species if we could just figure out what they do.

And finally, Prof. Angela Belcher talked about doing actual machine fabrication with biological methods.   She notes that abalones manage to produce incredibly tough shells using just the elements they can extract from seawater.  Shouldn’t we be able to make finely-layered materials using similar techniques?

One big accomplishment of her lab was to fabricate the electrodes for a lithium-ion battery using a mat of viruses coated with iron phosphate.   Paper here – Fabricating Genetically Engineered High-Power Lithium Ion Batteries Using Multiple Virus Genes. Actual battery here:

Angela Belcher holds a display of the virus-built battery she helped engineer. The battery -- the silver-colored disc -- is being used to power an LED.

The silver disk is the virus-built battery, and it’s powering an LED. Photo Donna Coveney. Click for story.

They adjusted the genes of the virus so that it would create a protein that could hold onto a carbon nanotube.   The nanotubes are only 1 nm wide and 500 nm long, so nothing else can handle them except a scanning tunneling microscope.   Here they make a billion viruses to pick up a billion  tubes at a time.  Then they dunk them in iron phosphate to actually form the electrode to grab the lithium ions, and the nanotubes make the overall material conductive.  The whole process can be done with common materials at room temperature.   They used the M13 bacteriophage virus, which is otherwise harmless.

What’s even wilder is that they can evolve these capabilities through un-natural selection.   Give each virus a different genome and see if they attach to something on a substrate.   If they don’t, wash them away, then repeat the process with the survivors.   You can try billions of variations after a few cycles.   They’re now trying this on particles of lead.  The surface of a lead crystal has a certain pattern of charges that a protein could lock onto.   Evolve those viruses in this hyper-accelerated way, and you have a way to remove lead from drinking water.   Build a filter out of a mass of these viruses, and pour stuff through it.   Make sure that the viruses themselves can be destroyed in another step!

Overall, what MIT is doing is creating a new field of engineering.   To the usual set of electrical, chemical, mechanical, and civil engineering, they’re adding a new one: biological engineering.  They call it Course 20.  It’s now moving beyond medicine and into actual machine manufacture.    People have used the bio-robots called yeast to make beer and soy sauce for millenia, but now we’ll build all sorts of other things with them.    It’s just the sort of breakthrough that alumni are proud to see their alma mater working on.

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“The Earth After Us” – Humanity in Deep Time

So I was once sitting in an introductory geology class, and the instructor was talking about limestone.  “It’s sometimes formed by calcium carbonate precipitating directly out of seawater,” he said, “Until life evolved 600 million years ago, and it then became largely made of skeletons.”  Six hundred million years – yesterday, really, to a geologist.  You look at this layer and there was no life, and in this layer there is.   You can see the difference in the rock’s fine structure.  The field has an effortless sense of the vast scale of time.

2008, Click for publisher link

So when the geologist Jan Zalasiewicz started thinking about what humanity would leave behind after its inevitable disappearance, he wasn’t thinking about the next century or next millennium.   That got covered nicely in The World Without Us by Alan Weisman (2007), who found that Nature comes back fast and hard in places where people can’t go, like the Korean DMZ and Chernobyl.    Zalasiewicz  wondered about a bigger picture.  Suppose that aliens landed in a hundred million years.   What could they learn about us?

It’s a good excuse to talk about geological processes in general, particularly his own specialty, stratigraphy.  He noted that most of the crust of the earth is made of rotted rocks, ones that have been broken to bits, laid down in sediments, and then cycled up and down by tectonics, sometimes multiple times.  This means that nothing of ours that’s inland will survive.   All inland cities will be eroded down to nothing by wind and water.   Higher latitude ones will be ground into sand by glaciers.   Boston and New York certainly won’t make it, since their locations have already been planed down by several rounds of Ice Ages.

The only remnants likely to survive will be ones that are built on river deltas, since they’ll get buried in sediment as the sea rises.  These are cities like New Orleans, Shanghai, and Venice.    New Orleans is below the level of the Mississippi already, and is likely to be all that ever remains of America.  It’s important that things get buried quickly before wave action turns them into beach sand and spreads them over the sea floor. It’s these former swamps where paleontologists find skeletons today, not the uplands where the dinosaur herds used to graze.

Cycad trunk and me in 1998 when I was thinner and had worse taste in hats

I visited one of these sites myself at the Joggins Fossil Cliffs in Nova Scotia.   This was a swamp that got buried in a sudden mud flow 310 million years ago, in the early Carboniferous.  It happened so suddenly that a complete skeleton of an early reptile, Hylonomus Lyelli, was found in a hollowed out trunk.  Oxygen levels were much higher then, and arthropods grew to enormous size; there’s a millipede track there that’s a foot wide.   Those trees made the area a coal mining center until the 1950s when a decline in demand and several disasters closed the mines.

Cities that do get buried in this way will form what he calls an Urban Stratum, a smashed mix of concrete and rusted-away rebar.   For each person in the developed world, about 500 tons of  sand, gravel, limestone, brick clay, and asphalt is used in the course of that person’s lifetime.   We each leave a lot more behind than a ten-ton dinosaur!  Other organic material like plastics and wood in this stratum will get cooked into oil.   Things like pure aluminum are never found in nature, but will occur here.

There will be other, larger traces of our presence.   There is an ongoing die-off of coral reefs, which themselves can form undersea mountains called carbonate platforms.  There has been a sudden disappearance of large mammals over most of the earth.  More distinctively, species that used to be found on only one continent, like rats, are now everywhere, causing a large loss in species diversity.   There’s a nice phrase for this, “Planet of Weeds”, where the species that are the most adaptable and fastest-growing are taking over.

Our own bones won’t leave as much of a record.   The dinosaur age lasted a hundred million years and we still don’t find that many.  He does estimate that the total living mass of humanity is now similar to that of the dinosaurs in the Jurassic.  Bodies in wooden coffins won’t last, but stone ones buried without oxygen might.   He notes that gangsters in concrete overcoats dropped into the Hudson have a good chance of survival, complete with impressions of spats and fedoras.

Nothing of human culture would remain – all art and books and electronic media will be lost.  About the most that the alien paleontologists could infer is that humans took care of their own, since there would be elderly skeletons with healed fractures.  On the other hand, many of the bodies we do find are victims of violence, like the 5300-year old Otzi, who had an arrow in his shoulder and a skull fracture, or the 9000-year old La Brea Woman from the tar pits, who had part of her skull missing.  Bodies found in obscure places generally did not die peacefully.

Spiral view of earth history before the Anthropocene, (c) Astrobio Magazine, click for larger view

Zalasiewicz is actually the chair of the Working Group of the Anthropocene, part of the International Commission on Stratigraphy.   In August 2016 they voted to officially recommend it as the name of a new geological age.  They think that it’s most distinctive marker are the radioactive elements dispersed by atmospheric nuclear testing.   This only lasted from 1945 to 1980, but spread carbon-14 and plutonium over the whole world, a phenomenon now known as the Bomb Pulse.   It’s actually a useful marker for determining the age of trees and bones.   The half-life of these elements is short in geological terms, but the decay products are distinctive.

One thing that Zalasiewicz does not talk about is ruins left in space, since that’s outside the purview of geology.   Satellites below about 2000 km will eventually decay into the atmosphere, but ones at geosynchronous orbits will be there forever, although they’ll drift into stable longitudinal locations above 75E and 105W.   There is also a fair amount of debris on the Moon – 46 missions have impacted there.   The rate has been low in recent decades because The Moon is Dull.   There actually is erosion on the Moon due to a steady rain of micro-meteroites, but I don’t think anyone knows if that will wear away stuff like the large Apollo artifacts over geological spans of time.

The other thing he doesn’t talk about is what actually happens to humanity.  It’s clear that we can’t go on living as we have been – the earth won’t support it.  Yet there’s no telling what a stable, sustainable human culture would look like, since there’s never been one.   Even the nature-loving Indians changed the whole Midwest from forest to prairie by means of fire.  We could go extinct, of course, but that would be a boring outcome, and pretty unlikely given how tough we now are.  We could now survive even the dinosaur-killer asteroid by stockpiling canned food in caverns.   One stable outcome would be to split into multiple species that become a predator-prey ecosystem like that of the Morlocks and Eloi in Wells’ The Time Machine.   Another would be to cycle endlessly between pastoral and industrial modes like Pournelle and Niven’s aliens in The Mote in God’s Eye.  They’ve been technological for so long that they’ve evolved an instinctual understanding of machinery, and go from hunter-gathering to nuclear war every five hundred years.

Science fiction is full of other ideas, but the bottom line is that we aren’t going to be here over the spans of time that geologists work on.  We’ll be just another unusual episode in the long and bizarre history of the earth.   Here the limestone came from seawater, here it came from diatom skeletons, and in this narrow layer it came from concrete.    It’ll be just one more oddity that the geologists deal with, like so many others.




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