The Bomb that Never Was
Friday, July 13, 2007 - Iddo Genuth
Home >> Book Review >> Defense and Security
Imaginary Weapons is the story of the unique relationship between a small part of the scientific community and the military establishment in the United States. This book is the result of research conducted by journalist Sharon Weinberger on fringe science - which operates on the outskirts of conventional science—and its connection with the military. Most people see fringe science as a hotbed for "loony" science, but others believe that some of the greatest scientific revolutions might come from such scientists because they are the ones willing to take risks and face the possible backlash from the scientific community.
Problems with fringe science start when research stops being objective and results become all that matters. Mainstream science has evolved over the last several centuries to include built-in safeguards against bad research. Scientific papers are scrutinized by a peer review before they are published, and new scientific work is usually presented at professional conferences, where it is open to criticism by colleagues. At the heart of modern science lies deep and inherent skepticism. Scientists who reach an unexpected result will triple-check their method and equipment, consult with their colleagues, and do everything in their power to make the data agree with existing theory before claiming a groundbreaking discovery. This skepticism together with the external safeguards is what makes science so successful. Without them, instrumentation errors and calculation mistakes can result in “new discoveries,” negatively affecting the solid foundations of science.
Scientists crave recognition for their accomplishments—both real and, in some cases, imaginary accomplishments. The safeguards built into the scientific method are meant to protect science against scientists who wish to promote their status based on imaginary or “bad” science. But what happens when these safeguards are superseded by a powerful external factor? This is the story of Imaginary Weapons—how the military establishment in the United States financed the development of an impossible bomb using millions of dollars in taxpayer money.
In early 1999, Carl B. Collins, a physicist from the University of Texas, published a paper in which he claimed to have triggered an energy release from a isomer of the element hafnium—called hafnium-178m2—using a simple dental X-ray machine. The article, published in the respectable journal Physical Review Letters on January 25, 1999, described how a powerful burst of gamma rays originated from a piece of hafnium-178m2 after it was bombarded with X-rays from the dental machine.
The article sparked a furious debate among scientists who were unable to repeat the results. Not uncommon in the field of science, this turn of events would probably have gone unnoticed by most of the outside world—if not for the intervention of the United States military. Despite scientific debate among scientists regarding the experiment, Collins and his followers were able to convince people at the Pentagon that hafnium-178m2 could be turned into a bomb. This “hafnium bomb,” as it came to be called, would require only a few grams of hafnium-178m2 and could produce a devastating burst of gamma radiation equal to that of a small nuclear weapon—gamma rays so powerful, they could penetrate deep into the ground, pass through thick concrete walls, and destroy living tissue. In many respects, the hafnium bomb could have been everything the neutron bomb never was without being considered a nuclear weapon, as no fission or fusion would have taken place. The problem was, team after team of scientists rejected Collins’ results, including a team appointed by the Pentagon itself. The supporters of the hafnium bomb at the Pentagon, however, refused to back down and for several years pumped millions of dollars into the hafnium research. Congressional intervention did take place, but each time the hafnium bomb story seemed to be finally put to rest, it found a new source of financing and kept on going.
What Are Nuclear Isomers?
Nuclear isomers are not considered very useful, since most of them decay very quickly, often within minutes or less. Some nuclear isomers, however, like that of technetium Tc-99m and Tc-95m, can stay in their metastable states longer—for six hours and for 61 days, respectively—and have medical and industrial uses.
I, much like the author of Imaginary Weapons, first became acquainted with the subject of nuclear isomers and the hafnium bomb around 2004. It was during advanced academic research and although I found the scientific side of the story intriguing, I was more interested in its sociological and philosophical aspects. At the time, I was writing a paper on the complex relationships between science and technology, and the hafnium-bomb story was one my referenced examples. My claim, trivial as it may seem, was that science is more often than not influenced by outside forces with different, often contradictory, objectives.
Bombs have a special suggestive power when it comes to scientific controversies. It is doubtful that in 1945 there were many scientists who seriously contested the scientific basis of the atomic bomb, but only several decades before, the mere suggestion that an atom could be split would have constituted an act of scientific heresy. If a hafnium bomb can ever be built, it will have the power not only to kill an unimaginable number of people, but it will also be able to settle a scientific controversy with the push of a button.
In discussing the case of Collins and the hafnium bomb, Imaginary Weapons brings ample evidence of ad hoc behavior on the part of Collins. On page 201, Weinberger writes:
Every time someone repeated the triggering experiment and came up with a null result, Collins would claim they had gotten some essential detail of the experimental setup wrong. And each “detail” would happen to be something not included in his original paper.
First it was the wrong triggering level, then it was the wrong type of X-rays, and then the measurements were being done at the wrong time. And, of course, Collins had never revealed to anyone the exact composition of his precious hafnium target, although he accused others of not preparing their hafnium correctly. Collins’s articles would typically say only how many hafnium nuclei were in the target, and that it was encased in plastic.
It is important to understand that it is possible—although not very likely—that at some point in the future, scientists will discover and agree that hafnium-178m2 can indeed be triggered and made into a fuel source, or even a bomb. As important as this discovery will be, it will not change the fact that Collins’ work should be considered a case of pathological science. Pathological science is not judged by its truthfulness but rather by the way scientists present their arguments in accordance with the scientific method.
Scientists, like other people, crave power, money, respect, and influence, and they also fear for their jobs. Each can be a healthy motivator, but each has the ability to turn a good scientist into a bad one; and in some cases, they can turn a good scientist into a charlatan.
Imaginary Weaponsis neither a scientific nor a popular-science book, instead it is a book about science and even more so about scientists. Reader reviews on the Internet make this point clear. People who bought this book looking for a technical discussion on the science and potential applications of nuclear isomers were left disappointed. People looking for some scoop about a new class of superweapons secretly under development by the Pentagon were similarly disappointed. However, people trying to understand how science works and how science can fail reached very different conclusions about the book. Imaginary Weapons is articulate and, in some cases, funny, though parts can be quite tedious and even repetitive. Especially irritating is the poor copyediting, along with several factual errors that will hopefully be fixed with the second edition of the book.
An interesting footnote is the personal rivalry sparked by Imaginary Weapons between the author and the supporters of the hafnium bomb, led by Carl Collins himself. A high point of this rivalry came after Sharon Weinberger created the website imaginaryweapons.com, which was quickly followed by the creation of imaginaryweapons.net by Collins and his wife, who seem focused on slandering Sharon Weinberger’s reputation. Although Weinberger seems to be taking the whole subject with a smile, given the current climate in the U.S., this rivalry could easily deteriorate into a legal confrontation.
Sharon Weinberger – An Interview
TFOT had the chance to interview Sharon Weinberger about Imaginary Weapons and her upcoming book, A Nuclear Family Vacation.
Q: What has happened on the hafnium-bomb front since the publication of Imaginary Weapons?
To recap recent history: the hafnium bomb, which was funded by the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, first ran into problems in 2004, after I wrote a cover story about it for the Washington Post Magazine. Congress at that point decided to take away the money for the project. Nonetheless, there was still some money left for research and experimentation, and, as I understand it, the supporters were able to find some government funds to sponsor review meetings. Professor Carl Collins, whose experiments with “hafnium triggering” sparked interest in the bomb, continues to update a rather unique website in support of his work, though I’m unaware of any scientific experiments he might be conducting.
So the hafnium bomb continues to be great comedy, though perhaps not for those people intimately involved with it.
Q: What do you know about the way the TRIP experiment ended, and why do you think DARPA did not publish the results?
The scientific method is inherently imperfect, but it is self-correcting—if someone publishes a new and better result demonstrating low-energy triggering of the hafnium isomer, then the scientific community will again look at those results.
As an example, look what is going on with cold fusion, which I also discuss in my book. After 18 years, the scientists involved in this very controversial area are again garnering some attention with claims of better and more reproducible experiments. Does that mean cold fusion—or so-called “low-energy nuclear reactions”—is real? I’m not sure, and there is still plenty of reason to be skeptical. But as those experiments are presented at conferences and in publications, the scientific community will at least get the opportunity to see if there is something there worth examining again.
The future is unknown, and that’s a wonderful thing, both in life and in science. That’s why we must keep an open mind to new developments. But we also must base our present judgments on the evidence we have in hand today.
Q: The reaction to Imaginary Weapons spans from high praise to downright hatred. Do you see this as another part of the ongoing battle between supporters and those who oppose the hafnium bomb?
A: Yes, I do think this love/hate reaction to the book is a reflection of the controversy and the people involved. Of course, I would prefer to have everyone like the book, but that’s not realistic, considering how controversial the subject was. For those who enjoyed the book, well, that’s gratifying, of course. I’m happy that the story of the hafnium bomb reached a much wider audience than I thought possible. I’m also pleased that the hafnium bomb has joined, in the public’s mind, the ranks of imaginary weapons.
As for those who hate the book, well, there are the hafnium-bomb supporters who are going to hate anything critical of their ideas. There are also some people, I suspect, who disliked the book for the same reason they dislike any skeptical book: it doesn’t match their worldview. I’m actually somewhat sympathetic to those people. As I state in the epilogue to the book, as a writer, I am drawn to groups of people who view the world very differently than I do, and in some cases I find their views quite imaginative and fascinating. There are a number of nonmainstream scientists whose wild and sometimes wonderful ideas about quantum mechanics and the universe are intriguing, if perhaps far-fetched. In holding their views, they are not deceiving the American public; they are simply exploring the outer limits of science. I’ve got no problem with that.
But when it comes to national security and the public trust, I hold people to a higher standard. The hafnium bomb wasn’t just about people with wild ideas; it was about people who manipulated fears of national security to get funding for their wild ideas. I don’t have much sympathy for such machinations at the end of the day.
Q: Assuming that people who work for the Pentagon are not completely incompetent, what do you think made them spend all those millions of dollars on an idea repeatedly rejected by the scientific community?
I see an increasing tendency in government—not just in the Pentagon—to view scientists as an interest group rather than as people to whom the government can turn for outside expertise. That’s disturbing. I also think it’s increasingly a challenge for the Pentagon to recruit and retain talented officials with a sufficient scientific and technical knowledge to distinguish between good and bad ideas. That perhaps is the bigger problem.
Q: Where would you draw the line between high-risk-high-gain military research and a mindless waste of taxpayer’s money?
The hafnium bomb was doomed to fail because the project didn’t deal with the scientific controversy over the so-called “dental X-ray experiment” [the 1998 experiment led by Professor Carl Collins, who claimed to have triggered hafnium-178m2 using a dental X-ray machine]. Nor was the project really trying to resolve the scientific barriers—the supporters simply chose to ignore the critics. The only question DARPA asked was, Can hafnium be triggered by low-energy photons? And there was only one answer they were looking for: Yes.
As for nuclear-isomer research, there is a middle position among those who continue to hope that, even if a hafnium bomb is impossible, nuclear isomers could prove useful. For example, some scientists have proposed a “nuclear battery,” and others have suggested nuclear isomers could be use for powering a rocket through space. Those ideas are controversial, but only in the sense that many other scientific ideas are controversial; meaning, it’s high-risk, but maybe it isn’t ludicrous if it’s backed up with solid research.
If DARPA had set up its project as a fundamental research program that funded isomer research, rather than focusing on a hafnium bomb, then who knows, maybe there would have been some breakthrough. Isomers, from everything I’ve learned, are a fascinating area of physics and could benefit from more funding. It’s a shame DARPA didn’t go that route.
Q: Let’s assume that the hafnium bomb—or some other similar isomer-based weapon—will eventually work. Do you think it can prove useful in some extreme cases where a high-power, nonnuclear weapon is required?
Underground facilities might be another target. The theoretical attraction of the hafnium bomb is similar to that of any high-energy density material: you pack more punch than with regular chemical explosives. The problem, however, is that no bomb is 100-percent efficient, so even if it worked and you could trigger the hafnium isomer, and if you could get a chain reaction—all big ifs—you’re going to be scattering some amount of radioactive hafnium-178, which probably isn’t a good thing if you live nearby. The biggest problem, however, was that by all credible accounts, the hafnium bomb wasn’t going to work; and a bomb that doesn’t work isn’t any good to anybody.
As I describe in the book, the experts explain the problem of a hafnium bomb as roughly similar to that of a theoretical jelly-donut bomb. The hafnium isomer stores a lot of energy—much more than that of TNT, for example—but a jelly donut also has a greater energy density than TNT. The problem is, you can’t release the energy from sugar that easily, and so we don’t have a jelly-donut bomb. It’s the same thing for hafnium: no one has found a way to release the energy quickly.
Q: Can you tell us something about your upcoming book, A Nuclear Family Vacation?
It’s been an exciting, and challenging, book to research, and we hope that it makes the current nuclear-weapons debate accessible to a wide audience. A Nuclear Family Vacation is scheduled for publication in 2008.
|Other Articles||The Rise of the Phoenix||Green Computing|
|Related News||Toy Rocket Inspires Variable Speed Bullets||360-Degrees Panoramic System for the 'Big Boys'|
|Related Pictures||Bat-Inspired Spy Plane||Airborne Laser Fire Control Test|
Can it be that DARPA is not publishing the results of this experiment
because doing so would jeopardize national security? This is DoD
we\'re talking about. DoD is not a part of the \"scientific
community\" and is under no obligation to have its research findings
subjected to a peer review process.
Actually, Pentagon agencies and the military services typically
require that scientists they support publish their research in the
open literature. They do so for the same reason other government
agencies require publication; to ensure they are supporting good
science and to advance work in various disciplines. Even when the
Pentagon conducts classified research, it typically employs peer
review (that's one of the reasons the Pentagon turns to groups like
the JASONS). DARPA maintained, quite adamantly, that work on isomer
triggering was not classified and that the TRIP experiment would be
published in the open literature. That the experiment has not been
published (yet) could be for at least two reasons: the investigator
decided not to submit it for publication, or that it was submitted for
publication and turned down.
What I find interesting about these two techologies is that they are
extraordinarily disruptive. There is no good reason to build the
I-Bomb (Isomer Bomb) as the technology can easily trickle down and
could put incredible lethality into the hands of terrorists. Cold
Fusion or Solid State fusion has the potential for radically changing
I can come up with many reasons not to build the I-Bomb and there are
many people just as afraid of Solid State Fusion.
The I-Bomb deserves to die. However Solid State fusion is like global
warming in that there is just enough anecdotal evidence to suggest
that something is happening, we just don't unnderstand the mechanism.
That the experiment has not been
published (yet) could be for at least two reasons: the investigator
decided not to submit it for publication, or that it was submitted
publication and turned down..... Sharon, that suggests failure in a
Non-Viable Imagination project, which would be one of those vanity
projects of the pathologically driven. IT happens/A trip down a path
leading nowhere except somewhere to turn around and go back to the
beginning to try again on another tack/route/root. A deep fantasy
psychosis in a closed loop rather than improving and expanding
program. In Reality, or to be more thruthful, in a Reality which is
Virtual and only made \"Real\" by virtue of the development and
placement of Viable Imagination/Ideas which ARE Shared
Globally/InterNetworked, it is via such communication that the Beta
Management of Perception leads/rules.
The advent of Global Operating Devices and/or Satellite GODs allowing
Instant Messaging to myriad positions, permits AI New Orde
In Dec 2006 we successfully detonated 4 Hafnium warheads.
We used 1 gm of 99.995% pure Hf as a shaped charge liner that was
supporting approximately 3 grams of A5. To close out the air gaps we
used a very thin gold liner between the A5 and the Hafnium
The video evidence clearly shows that there was a tremendous release
of energy in front of the A5 explosive envelope.
X-rays may not trigger the energy release but a highly focussed
release of energy seems to do the job quite nicely
I'm not sure how I ended up on this website, but I found this article
absolutely fascinating. I had heard of the halfnium bomb and had some
vague notion that it wouldn't be a fission device, but because I never
studied isomers, I just assumed that the mechanism was well understood
enough to trigger, and that the questions that remained were economic
and political. (After all, a new program in nuclear bomb research has
its political downsides and probably violates some international
The truth turns out to be far more interesting. Thank you for telling
|wow thats a low price!|
|hill city is the worst city in Minnesota|