Pentagon Science: Crazy Enough?

Is fringe science good for military technology?
Sharon Weinberger is, to put it mildly, skeptical. Her book, Imaginary Weapons [being discussed tonight in New York -ed.], tells the tangled story of the struggle between the “isomer believers” who think a Hafnium bomb it can be made to work, and the doubters who think is based on impossible science.
Goddard_and_Rocket.jpgI’m not so sure. “Fringe science” is a label that history applies after the event to failures; successes are immediately transferred to the mainstream. What looks like ridiculous like fringe tinkering at the time may later be seen as pioneering genius.
It struck me while writing my book, Weapons Grade, that revolutionary advances tend to come from outside the mainstream. This is pretty much true by definition: if a concept is already in the mainstream then it will not be revolutionary. Let’s look at three cases of kooks who came good after years in the wilderness: the Spaceman, the Flyboy, and Mr. Death Ray.
Case one is the Spaceman, who spent his career dreaming of travel to other planets. He was suspicious other others and tended to work on his own, refusing to publish many of the details of his work. His report on how he spent a $5,000 grant from the Smithsonian was roundly mocked in the press — especially the New York Times, which said he should go back and learn some high school physics. His biggest success was to send a craft a distance of 184 feet into a cabbage patch.
The Spaceman took his plans for giant weapons based on his space drive to the military, but nobody was convinced they were feasible. Twenty years earlier his idea for an infantry weapon – using a music stand – had also been shelved.
The Spaceman was in fact Robert Goddard, pioneer of the liquid-fuelled rocket. NASA’s Goddard Space Center is named in his honor. Three years after the military turned him down, German V-2 rockets started raining down on London. The V-2 directly drew on Goddard’s work from the 1920’s; the Nazis had rounded up amateur rocket enthusiasts, who called themselves ‘Societies For Space Travel’ and set them to building a weapon based on his liquid-fuelled design. Goddard’s portable rocket was also resurrected – the shoulder-mounted rocket launcher, or Bazooka, became an important infantry weapon.
On July 17th 1969, the day after Armstrong and Aldrin set foot on the moon, the New York Times published a correction to its 1920 story, accepting that Goddard was right: “it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.”

Case two is the Flyboy, a 22-year-old airman who was convinced he could build better aircraft engines than anything that existed at the time. When he took his designs to his superiors, he was told they were nothing new, and that better men with more experience had failed to get similar plans to work. The working temperatures were too high for any known material, the efficiencies required were too great, and the fuel consumption would be far too high.
whittle.jpg“Very interesting my boy,” one distinguished aeronautics professor remarked, “but it will never work.”
The official rejection was scarcely less patronizing: “It must be remembered that a tremendous amount of work is being done, and you may rest assured the criticisms made of your scheme were made with the full knowledge of the results achieved by actual experiment.”
The design was going nowhere. Five years later the patent lapsed; the military did not think it was worth renewing, and Flyboy could not afford the fee. He kept working at it though, building prototypes in a tiny workshop on a shoestring budget scraped together from family and friends.
The Flyboy was Frank Whittle, the jet engine pioneer, whose designs form the basis for almost all modern jet engines. He only started to get taken seriously when it became clear in 1939 that the Germans had flown a jet aircraft and were storming ahead in development. The RAF had thrown away a lead of several years: if Whittle had been taken seriously in 1929, the Battle of Britain might have been fought with jet aircraft instead of Spitfires.
Hans Von Ohain, who developed jets in Germany, even suggested that WWII might not have happened if Britain possessed jets, as “Hitler would have doubted the Luftwaffe’s ability to win.”
Case 3 is the radio Death Ray. Rockets and jet engines may have attracted some ridicule, but death rays were even more absurd. When Marconi developed a directional radio transmitter in 1924, it seemed every crackpot in the word was building one.
One of the most notable self-publicists was Harry Matthews – known to the media as “Death Ray” Matthews – who claimed his apparatus could kill mice and shrivel plants at a distance, and that a weapon based on it would have a range of up to eight miles.
Although radio waves could do serious damage at close range, anything beyond a few feet was less plausible. In the US, the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground offered a standing reward to anyone who could produce a death ray capable of killing a tethered goat. Britain’s Air Ministry put up a similar prize to the inventor whose ray could kill a sheep at a range of a hundred yards.
Neither animal was ever seriously endangered.
So great was the public clamor for death rays in Britain that the Air Ministry appointed a committee to look into them. After considerable research, Dr. Robert Watson-Watt reported on February 4th, 1935 that although in theory it was possible to bring down an aircraft with a radio beam, the power required was far in excess of what was possible in practice.
radar-watson-watt-1935.jpgHaving done the work, the Ministry then asked Watson-Watt whether, in the absence of death rays, anything useful could be done with these radio beams. Watson-Watt had found that aircraft reflected radio waves, and he drew up a paper entitled “The Detection and Location of Aircraft by Radio Means.”
Three weeks after the Death Ray paper, the first test was carried out, showing conclusively that an aircraft could be located from the radio waves it reflected. Radio direction finding, later known as Radar, became one of the RAF’s most important tools and was kept strictly secret.
In each of these cases the breakthrough has come from outside the mainstream, and each of them has had a lasting impact. Goddard’s rockets paved the way for satellite technology, global communications, GPS, and space imaging (can you imagine weather forecasts without satellite maps?). Whittle’s jet engine revolutionized air travel, and we now take for granted out ability to fly the world quickly and cheaply. An although the death-ray enthusiasts were on the wrong track entirely, they were responsible for radar and the related rise in radio-frequency technology, including everything from microwave ovens to lasers.
Revolutionary progress is always going to involve going beyond the mainstream, because if something is in the mainstream already it is part of the slow process of incremental change. It is only the outsiders often working alone and without sufficient funding – who can bring in those radical innovations.
It’s easy to laugh at new ideas, whether they are space rockets, giant electronic brains – or manned flight. Supposed experts in the relevant field often reject such ideas out of hand, not bothering to look closely at the data, and dismiss them as impossible.
But it’s surprising how quickly these impossible things become commonplace. We live in an age where robotic terminators taking out terrorists by remote control from thousands of miles away with laser-guided weapons are a routine news story.
Look at the cutting edge of military technology and you see plenty of ideas which are derided by the established authorities. I’ve covered lots of stories where this has been the case: The supercavitating penetrator is said to be impossible, as is plasma stealth, not to mention the Slingatron space launcher and radio-frequency devices which hack the human nervous system.
Small incremental improvements based on existing ideas are never going to produce the weapons which give decisive advantages like ballistic missiles, jet engines and radar. To paraphrase the great physicist Niels Bohr: “We all know the Pentagon has some crazy ideas. The question is, are they crazy enough?”
David Hambling

12 Comments on "Pentagon Science: Crazy Enough?"

  1. How many more times do we have to wear a tin hat with Defense Tech posting articles about these X-Files like weapons?

  2. indeed, Noah. I thank you in behalf of all “cranks” “jokes” and “space cadets”.
    I am one. WALRUS came about largely because of my design and writings, although the established Pentagon lackys’ approaches still hearkened back to failed technologies, causing even DARPA to backpaddle the concept.
    The future is always stranger than most of us imagine.

  3. Hambling’s examples are valid enough (well, two out of three: the radar example mostly demonstrates that the good things come when the establishment learns in fact to back off of crazy futuristic thinking and ask “what can we do with this principle that might be far more prosaic but a whole lot more useful”), but strength of numbers still lies with the *thousands* of cases where some more or less well-qualified person spent decades lobbying the defense establishment to fund his or her unconventional, they-all-laugh-at-me idea – and succeeded only in proving the conventional wisdom right – sometimes after significant taxpayer expense.
    Every idea deserves its hearing, but it’s silly to trot out history’s greatest outliers every time some outlandish scheme fails to get funded.

  4. David Hambling | July 11, 2006 at 1:28 am | Reply

    “Every idea deserves its hearing, but it’s silly to trot out history’s greatest outliers every time some outlandish scheme fails to get funded.”
    Obviously well-grounded research is going to be the basis of the vast majority of developments.
    But when it comes to revolutionary developments, is is possible for them to come from anywhere other than the fringe?
    I couldn’t think of any transformational developments that had not started off as crazy ideas. Perhaps there are some, but by and large they are, well, revolutionary, ie overturning the existing accepted order.
    “Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.” — Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre, 1904.
    “There is no likelihood man can ever tap the power of the atom.” — Robert Millikan, American physicist and Nobel Prize winner, 1923
    “The idea that cavalry will be replaced by these iron coaches is absurd. It is little short of treasonous.” — Comment of Aide-de-camp to Field Marshal Haig, at tank demonstration, 1916.

  5. Tech_manager | July 11, 2006 at 2:28 am | Reply

    Having worked in developing “fringe” technology for a non-DoD agency, I would like to add that the problem with Ms. Wienberger’s hypothosis that funding should only go to non-risky research means that 1) you had better be working on the right technology and have the right end product and 2) this approach will ensure only an incrimental increase in preformance (see for example the progress made in launch vehicles performance the last forty years). Now, on the other hand, the largest problem I have encountered in the “fringe” world is that most of these ideas are promoted by a handful of individuals who have most often self-serving goals because they have tied their career to proving this technology works. They usually love to trot out the trades that show off the best attributes and ignore or obscure the detriments (my favorite is anti-matter propulsion, how do you direct that blast, talk about a potential ray gun). I hope to be lucky enough to continue to do this type of work and do not phatom helping develop anything quite as ground breaking as radar(which I though was discovered from reflection of radio waves from large ships) but would settle for helping develop new and improved UAVs (which was considered fringe just 20 years ago).

  6. @David:
    Off the top of my head, I think you just named the most “transformational” weapon to ever emerge from a non-fringe environment: the nuclear bomb. While there were certainly dissenters, the main stream of nuclear physicists realized well before 1941 that there was potential for a weapon to exploit the energy released in nuclear fission – that’s why so many countries were working on the idea during WWII. And when Manhattan did get underway, the manpower it tapped was nothing if not the heart of the scientific mainstream in the US – basically, total mobilization.
    In general, it’s tough to answer your question, because the term “transformational” sort of implies that it happened suddenly, which implies that it sat in a lot of people’s blind spots. In general, though, it’s safe to say that most of the crucial developments in weapons technology in the twentieth century, including the great leaps forward, came from painstaking research within some sort of main strem. Consider the tank, the supersonic jet, poison gases….
    But even more in general, nothing that you’ve said refutes my original point that the validity of Goddard’s idea a century ago has absolutely no bearing whatsoever on the question of whether or not isomer weapons have a future. That’s not a philosophical question, or even a historical one, but a scientific one.

  7. Sharon Weinberger | July 11, 2006 at 5:51 pm | Reply

    Just a clarification regarding an earlier note in this discussion. I absolutely support investment in risky research. I would like to see DARPA’s budget increased; I would like to see the S&T goal back up at 3 percent of the defense budget; and for the Pentagon to take risks in new technology areas. Supporting research into nuclear isomers is something I also support. This field may some day possibly yield breakthrough in energy sources and propulsion, tell us things about our nuclear stockpile, or even just enhance our understanding of nuclear physics. But will low-energy triggering of hafnium-178m2 pave the way for a superbomb? No, at least according to the multiple experts who have reviewed this area, and scientists who tried to repeat the original 1998 experiment that supposedly supported this claim. My point is there is a difference between risky research and foolish research.
    For example, I would say SUSTAIN (the Marine Space plane) or Walrus (the heavy lift airship) are very risky endeavors. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t support investment in the technology behind these ideas. Even if the more ambitious goals don’t pan out, the technology could have other spin offs.

  8. David Hambling | July 12, 2006 at 2:46 pm | Reply

    “My point is there is a difference between risky research and foolish research.”
    But can anyone tell which is which in advance?
    I would suggest that examples like Goddard and Whittle (and I could go on to others) show that the established authorities are not always good judges, especially when their credibility is at stake.
    You could surely make a lot of money if you really could identify promising technology ahead of time.

  9. Then Ill shift the burden of proof onto you: how do you think the defense establishment should decide which ideas NOT to invest in? What proof would you accept that a fringe technology is not viable, or – which is very different – not worth spending the money that could be spent elsewhere?
    These questions are not meant to be snide – Im genuinely interested to hear your answer.

  10. Sharon Weinberger | July 12, 2006 at 8:25 pm | Reply

    Yes, we have a system in place for judging

  11. Sharon Weinberger | July 13, 2006 at 12:06 pm | Reply

    Without judging the reality or non-reality of remote viewing, let me make a basic statement. Your last paragraph is the exact same argument made by those who support the use of psychics by the military (i.e. the lab results don

  12. David Hambling | July 14, 2006 at 5:19 am | Reply

    That paragraph did not argue for supporting anything – it said that a lack of evidence makes it frustrating for outsiders trying to judge. One assumes that the people responsible for funding programs have access to all information, classified or otherwise.
    As for Remote Viewing, I suspect the reasons behind the US military RV project had little to do with the dubious abilities of psychics. The fact that it was “one of the worst kept secrets in the military” suggests other reasons for keeping it going, considering the Soviets may have believed in it.

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