I recently got a call from a source with big news: Something called a hafnium review panel had convened in last month to assess the not-quite-dead controversy over whether a radioactive material called hafnium could be made into the next superbomb.
Why wasnt I invited, I wondered?
For two years, I followed the hafnium bomb, the concept of building a nuclear-type weapon based on charged-up nuclei called nuclear isomers. Through the story of the hafnium bomb, I was trying to understand how the Pentagon gets involved in harebrained projects. The end result is my new book, Imaginary Weapons: A Journey Through the Pentagons Scientific Underworld, which chronicles the rise of fringe science in the Pentagon. (The book is officially released this week; and the Monday edition of NPRs Fresh Air features an interview with me on some of topics covered in the book.)
The tale of the hafnium bomb, as I like to describe it, is a tragicomedy about how a fast-talking scientist from Texas convinced the Pentagon to sink millions of dollars in pursuit of the next superbomb. The whole scheme hinged on an experiment involving a used dental X-ray machine, a music amplifier, and a few specks of highly radioactive dust.
At the height of the controversy, the State Department was demanding briefings, and everyone from the DIA to the CIA was looking into hafnium. The Pentagons Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) also hopped on board, with plans to spend tens of millions of dollars. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, always an optimist, was said to want a hafnium bomb in 18 months. It was, simply put, a bit ludicrous.
Why does it matter? It matters because the world is filled with strange ideas that could be important for national security, if they were real. Red mercury, antimatter bombs, and military psychics are all candidates. Then there are the mysteries of ball lightning and cold fusion, both of which have also attracted interest from military circles.
Theres nothing wrong with government officials considering wild ideas. Science is about curiosity and being open-minded and no idea should be summarily dismissed. (I even admit a soft spot in my ice-cold skeptics heart for some of the more serious cold fusion researchers, who are trying very, very hard to solve the energy crisis but a bit better reproducibility, and maybe a good theory would be helpful.)
But should the Pentagon fund them? And how does the Pentagon know which far-out ideas to fund? Is it okay to fund a teleportation study, which the Air Force did a couple years ago, but not to fund cold fusion? Many of these ideas have been around for quite some time. As one former Pentagon official put it to me: There is a big difference between high risk, high payoff, and foolish risk, no payoff.
And this is why the Pentagon needs peer reviewin other words, review of scientific concepts by independent scientists. They may not always be right, but it sure beats a crapshoot approach to funding anything and everything.
Hafnium, at this point, has been reviewed by just about every peer out there. The JASONS, the secretive group of elite scientists, reviewed it in 1999. So did the Institute for Defense Analyses, a highly regarded federally funded think tank. So did a host of other researchers some even hired by DARPA. They all concluded the experiments done by the Texas group were flawed.
Why does it matter? It matters because funding for science and technology is in decline, and a $1 spent on a bad project is a $1 not spent on a good one. Imagine if the military has passed over physicist Charles Townes and his work that led to the laser, because they decided instead to fund someone like Josef Papp, who claimed to have built a nuclear submarine in his garage (apparently defense company TRW came to Papps 1968 public demo with check in hand).
Luckily, Congress stepped in two years ago to cancel DARPAs isomer bomb, although rumor has it that a small amount of money through the Department of Energy keeps these periodic hafnium reviews alive. The Air Force and Army also fund some isomer research, though nothing related to a bomb and they appear to be staying away from hafnium.
Will isomers someday yield a breakthrough that could make investment in research worthwhile? Possibly. Scientists have imagined everything from a nuclear battery to a new way to power rockets into outer space. But a nuke the size of a hand grenade? Aint gonna happen, at least according to the experts. And if you dont want to listen to the experts, then there are some fantastic perpetual motion machines out there you can buy.
So what happened at last months hafnium meeting? Hard to say, but the hafnium believers havent given up. The Texas scientist who invented the imaginary hafnium bomb recently posted a new update to his website claiming even greater confidence in isomer triggering. Hes also not very fond of my book.
But last I heard, DARPAs director told the hafnium believers that if they want more money out of the agency, they should publish their results in a peer-reviewed journal. What a great idea!
— Sharon Weinberger
UPDATE 11:44 AM: “Speaking of superbombs, says GM, did you ever wonder “how much power would it really take to explode a planet?” New Scientist has the answer.
UPDATE 06/14/06 12:06 PM: Carl Collins drops by to respond, here.