Archive for the 'Imaginary Weapons' Category

Final Revision to Stupid Weapons Index

Wednesday, October 4th, 2006

Yes, I know I promised it weeks ago, but what can I say? Life has been busy. This new page provides the (almost) final revisions to the system I created for rating (possibly) stupid weapons, known officially as the Stupid Weapons Index (and hereafter referred to by its acronym SWI).

At long last, there’s finally a way, albeit imperfect, to go through those crazy, goofy Rube Goldberg-esque ideas to see if something has a prayer of a chance at working. For rube_goldberg_machine2.jpgexample, several astute readers have e-mailed me about this New Scientist article, which describes an ”enormous ring of superconducting magnets similar to a particle accelerator could fling satellites into space…” Folks, I just don’t know, but the fact that it’s in New Scientist (home to articles on many a stupid weapon idea) is already a good indicator that it may earn more than its fair share of points. We’ll see.

What really prompted me to finish the SWI, however, was recent news about one of my favorite subjects, Metal Storm, the Australian company that produces a million-rounds-a-minute weapon. If you remember, number 10 on the SWI was for if the inventor/company claimed that a foreign country was trying to buy the weapon and/or technology. Sure enough, as Defense Tech points out, the inventor of Metal Storm, Mike O’Dwyer, now claims that China wanted him and his family to move to China.

I’m actually inclined to believe that Metal Storm in fact might have niche applications that could prove a harbinger of long-term changes in weapons. Note the word “long-term” in that previous sentence. Unfortunately, what pushes Metal Storm deep, deep, deep into the realm of (possibly) stupid weapons ratings is the company’s often amusing forays into PR, such as this red scare tactic.

I don’t know what to say about this claim of Chinese interest in Metal Storm, other than it conveniently boosted the company’s stock price, which has been in the doldrums lately. Even the local Australian papers have grown cynical of the company.

So, did the Chinese government really scheme to import the brains behind Metal Storm? Well, like the old saying goes: There’s one born every minute, so who’s to say that a few of them aren’t born in China?

Of course, maybe what China was really after was the inventor’s other nifty invention — self-ventilating shoes.

P.S. And for those of you with an eye to history, this is the time that I will remind people that Metal Storm is not by any means the first publicly traded company based on the premise of a super-fast gun that would revolutionize warfare. There was also John Puckle, whose Puckle Machine Company is now one of the most famous examples of 18th century ”bubble companies.” It never produced great wealth for its shareholders, or weapons that revolutionized warfare, but it did leave us with this lovely little poem: 

A rare invention to destroy the crowd
Of fools at home, instead of fools abroad.
Fear not, my friends, this terrible machine,
They’re only wounded who have shares therein.

Scientists Wanted (for Iraq)

Thursday, September 28th, 2006

The United States isn’t the only country to be concerned about its scientific base, it turns out that insurgents in Iraq are also thinking about ways to recruit scientists. The plea for Islam’s “best and brightest” was made in a newly released video by Abu Hamza al-Muhajir - also known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri - the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, reports AP.

 The speaker said “the field of jihad” could provide scientists with an avenue for experimentation.

“The field of jihad (holy war) can satisfy your scientific ambitions, and the large American bases (in Iraq) are good places to test your unconventional weapons, whether biological or dirty, as they call them,” he said.

That’s scary. Let’s just hope that Al Qaeda gets “scientists” like Ronald Grecula, the osama_wants_you.jpghapless inventor who was going to build a fusion bomb with nothing more than what you can buy from the local hardware store.

I doubt that will happen, however. One of the things I’ve noticed is that countries and groups trying to build real weapons don’t waste much time on fringe science. Just ask Mohammad, a young Iranian physicist, whose research on negative energy has failed to inspire the Iranian government (There’s a really charming interview with Mohammad here on  American Antigravity’s website).

P.S. Grecula, would-be inventor of the fusion bomb, pled guilty last week, and is expected to spend upwards of five years in prison. That pretty much answers my question of a couple weeks ago about whether you could go to jail for trying to build an imaginary weapon. The answer is yes.

It’s alive!

Tuesday, September 12th, 2006

file-cabinet.gifPeople often ask me: is the hafnium bomb (the main subject of my book, Imaginary Weapons) still alive?

I’ve been trying lately to put my hafnium files to rest, but I tell them exactly what I know: Although Congress took away most of the funding for the hafnium bomb in 2004, I’ve heard a number of reports that the believers continue to hold review meetings, and indeed, that experimental work goes on, albeit at a low level. I also hear, true to form for this entire mess, that the believers are claiming new ”great” experimental results (though sadly, no published papers or releasable data to back up this claim).

But for the most part, I try not to care too much. Why?

Because I view the hafnium bomb as only a symptom of a worsening problem in the Pentagon: the tendency to ignore scientific and technical advice. Hafnium, in that sense, is only one issue among many that is of concern (it’s just that hafnium tends to be so much more funny than the other examples). Also, I’m pretty busy these days with other issues, and frankly, my loved ones are a little tired of every nitnoid twist and turn of the hafnium saga.

But each time I attempt to move the big box marked “HAFNIUM” to my archives, something a little odd happens. Last weekend, for example, I was sent a copy of a mysterious letter written by one of the government officials in charge of research related to the hafnium bomb.

The undated letter was marked: Imaginary Weapons: A book on DARPA’s SIER Program. (SIER stands for Stimulated Isomer Energy Release and was the official name of the Pentagon program that supported work on the hafnium bomb concept.)

By the looks of the letter, the hafnium bomb is hoping to make a comeback.

I’d like to provide details of this letter, which contains some giggle-worthy lines (after all, what crackpot writing would be complete without an Einstein quote), but well, I think I’ll keep a bit of suspense going.

After all, I need something to put in the paperback edition.

Answer of the Day

Tuesday, September 5th, 2006

dirty-bomb-ch.jpgQuestion: Can you go to jail for a plot involving imaginary weapons?

Answer: Yes, but it’s not clear if the charges will stick.

In 2005, Ronald Grecula, a would-be inventor, hatched a harebrained plan to build a fusion bomb that violated the laws of physics. He was arrested in Texas after he pitched the idea to undercover FBI agents. The bomb, Grecula said, used light to activate a hydrogen-chlorine solution, which somehow produced fusion. Hmmm.

Dutiful journalists ran the idea by scientists, who were dubious that the scheme could destroy city blocks, as Grecula claimed. (The fact that Grecula was nutty doesn’t mean he was original, by the way. The idea of a light-activated hydrogen-chlorine engine appears to be first imagined by Robert Scragg of West Virginia.)

Result: Grecula, who pleaded innocent, has been in jail since May of 2005. New charges have recently been added to his indictment.

Now, over in the United kingdom, three suspects were recently let go after a British court rejected claims that they broke the law when they allegedly attempted to buy something called red mercury, a nasty substance rumored to be, among other things, fuel for a dirty bomb. The best thing about red mercury, however, is it doesn’t exist. And the whole plot was set up by a tabloid hoping to score an expose of terrorism.

Result: The trio was set free.

More recently, you have the bumbling boobs in Miami who dreamed about blowing up the Sears Tower. They never even quite got around to the imaginary weapons part, according to the Washington Post.

Result: Indicted.

Now, it’s easy say that even if these were fools, they were dangerous fools. But in all these cases, it wasn’t even that the ideas were half-baked, but that the law enforcement efforts required to even make their plots look credible were amusing.

For Grecula, the FBI flew him down to Texas to hear him babble about needing to buy fusion bomb materials from the local hardware store. The FBI kicked in money for office space for the Miami gang. As for the red mercury guys, it’s not even clear the would-be purchasers even thought they were buying something that was dangerous.

I suppose what’s troubling in these cases is the concern that law enforcement agencies can’t or won’t differentiate between real weapons that can be relatively simple, but lethal (box-cutters, bombs using fertilizer) and attention-grabbing imaginary weapons that pose little threat to anyone.

P.S. While Wikipedia has its problems, I have to say, if you want any evidence of how hysterically bad About.com is, check out their explanation by the “expert” on red mercury.

Question of the Day

Saturday, September 2nd, 2006

question-mark-778895.jpgCan you go to jail for for trying to use imaginary weapons to blow up a building? (Let’s assume the building is real.)

I’ll answer that question after the weekend (on break till Tuesday).

Also next week, I’ll update the (Possibly) Stupid Weapons Rating System. I’ve gotten some great comments and ideas (it’s also posted over at Defense Tech). Any suggestions for a catchy name (and acronym) to describe the scoring system would be appreciated.

How to Rate a (Possibly) Stupid Weapons Idea

Friday, September 1st, 2006

Metal Storm.jpg

If you follow the fascinating history of Metal Storm, the Australian company that built a weapon that can shoot a “million rounds a minute,” you might want to check out this story in Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald on their latest trials and tribulations (if you’re not familiar with their history, you can check out my very long article with sidebars in the September/October 2005 issue of Defense Technology International.

I’m going to write a longer post on this company next week, but this news got me thinking on whether there’s a way to predict bad and/or stupid weapons. Now, I’m not saying Metal Storm is a bad or stupid weapon, I’m just saying that it would be great if there were some way to guess ahead of time which ideas are really bad, and which are just a little silly.

In giving some thought to this issue, I’ve created the rating system below — this is still a work in progress (and some credit clearly goes to the crackpot index) — but I think it’s a good starting point.

For suggestions or additions, please leave comments below (or if you prefer, e-mail me at sharonweinberger@gmail.com). I’m going to need to run a few possibly stupid weapons through this rating system to get an idea of how the scoring works.

And before anyone gets up in arms (yes, a bad cliche), PLEASE NOTE THIS IS A SLIDING SCALE. For example, Metal Storm has indeed built working prototypes, and I’ve met some really bright military engineers who love to make references to Star Trek. Just look at this system as a reality check.

Enjoy!

How to rate a possibly stupid weapons idea:

1) Promises a “revolution in warfare.”

Add 50 points. Add 25 points for claims of a “new arms race.” Add 5 points for each time any derivative of the word “transformation” is used in promotional materials describing the weapon.

2) Is supposedly based on a “new” innovation, yet on closer examination, there are myriad examples of attempts using similar ideas in the past.

Add 10 points for each case of a similar idea in the past. Add another 15 points, for each case inventor/company was unaware of this earlier attempt, and thus failed to learn from past mistakes.

3) Lacks a realistic operational scenario of where or how such a weapon could be used.

Add 25 points. Add 15 points if inventor/company describes an operational scenario, but it has no relation to current warfare (i.e. aircraft equipped with laser beams shooting at each other).

4) The usability of the weapon assumes as yet unproven leaps in technology to reduce size, power generation or other critical elements.

Add 15 points for each needed technological advance.

5) The idea comes from someone who is unfamiliar with how the military fights and how weapons are used.

Add 15 points (this is slightly subjective, so add only five points if served in military, but never involved in any military operations). Add 20 points if military experience is derived from watching war movies or the evening news.

6) The company/inventor relies on obtaining funding (private or public) from people who themselves have no idea how the military uses weapons (i.e. private investors, congressional earmarks).

Add 20 points if developmental funding relies on congressional earmarks (as opposed to funds requested in the Pentagon’s budget). Add 25 points if developmental funding relies on publicly traded stock. Add 30 points for developmental funding from intelligence agencies.

7) Incorporates references to and/or inspiration from Star Trek, Star Wars, Buck Rogers, or video games.

Add 10 points for Star Trek, 5 points for Star Wars, 3 points for Buck Rogers, and 2 points for video games (regardless whether XBox or Playstation II).

8) Inventor/company argues that people also once doubted the feasibility of a nuclear weapon, as if that automatically means that this weapon will work and/or is deserving of nearly unlimited funding.

Add 25 points. Also add 20 points if similar references are made to the Wright Brothers and airplanes.

9) Claims foreign countries are working hard on this technology, and could overtake the United States if we don’t invest in it (without proof of such work).

Add 10 points for claiming Russia is working on the same type of weapons, 20 points for China, 30 points for North Korea, and 5 points for the French. Score extra 100 points if claim is that extraterrestrial life forms are working on it (in fact, stop now if that’s the case – trust me, that’s a stupid weapon).

10) Claims foreign governments have contacted inventor/company about buying the weapon and/or idea (but with no actual sales).

Add 10 points.

11) Relies on PowerPoint in lieu of engineering details to demonstrate workability.

Add 5 points for each cartoon depiction of technology not yet in existence.

12) References to previous military funding as proof the idea is valid, because we all know the military only funds things that work.

Add 5 points.

13) When presented with possible scientific laws that the weapon – as proposed – might violate, inventor/company simply insists the weapon works, and it’s up to the scientists to explain how.

Add 35 points.

14) Cost of the weapon (please include nonrecurring costs if the weapon doesn’t yet exist), exceeds that of similar one currently in inventory by a factor of 10.

Add 20 points for each factor of 10. Add another 5 points if you assert that costs will come down with mass production without being able to cite evidence for demand and/or how much those costs would be reduced.

15) Any proof the weapon works is openly paraded to the media, but questions about problems with the weapon are rebuffed by claims that the information is “classified” or “proprietary.”

Add 25 points.

Texas Calling

Tuesday, August 29th, 2006

I’ve gotten a couple comments from ”John Warner” of Austin, Texas (although the IP address points more in the neighborhood of a certain household in Dallas, Texas linked to the imaginary isomer bomb). “John,” who is not a fan of my book, Imaginary Weapons, wants to know why I won’t answer.

I won’t answer “John,” because I’m concerned, based on his multiple use of pseudonyms (Andarte, George, Peter, Drac2000, Stephen, etc.), his fabrication of quotes, and completely inappropriate web behavior – that he is a cyberstalker. Life is short, so sorry, I won’t answer. But “John” should look at the bright side, I’ve decided not to delete his comments from my blog.

It’s a glass half-full sort of thing for “John,” I guess.

P.S. For the record, the real John Warner (as in the senator from Virginia, not a sockpuppet from Dallas) didn’t support the isomer bomb either–his congressional committee cancelled it. So, ”John,” might want to find a more appropriate nom de geurre.

Jimmy vs. Jack

Sunday, August 27th, 2006

I woke up Saturday to find that I had e-mail from none other than Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia. Wow, I thought, Jimmy must be writing me to address the Wiki War over my puny little Wikipedia entry.

                               wiki.jpg

 

No such luck. 

Instead, I found that Jimmy was responding to Jack, as in Jack Sarfatti, co-founder of the Physics Consciousness Research Group. Actually, the response was to the entire Sarfatti list–the dozens if not hundreds of people who get e-mails every day from Jack and his colleagues about subjects ranging from wormholes to UFOs. The list is great reading, although Jimmy (or Jimbo as he’s called) does not agree:

“Including me personally on the cc list of random emails about the sorts of things you all talk about (UFOs, the future of Iran, etc.) is just totally not a good thing. –Jimbo”

Jack Sarfatti has been waging a long and hard battle over his Wikipedia entry, which has led to a rather personal war with Jimmy Wales. The batttle has had many incarnations, but right now it’s over a link on Jack’s entry to “pseudophysics.”

Wikipedia is a great resource, but I have been even more fascinated by a model of dealing with knowledge that could dispense with the elitism inherent in peer review. Wikipedia’s open editing model sounds so wonderfully subversive. But now that Wikipedia has a dominant web presence, it’s finding that allowing the masses to have free reign over knowledge has its downsides.

I have argued in many recent interviews about my book, Imaginary Weapons, that peer review, though an imperfect system, may be the best system we have for dealing with science–at least as it pertains to science funded by government. I’ve often doubted my own conviction about this argument, and had secretly hoped that Wikipedia offered some alternative–if not for funding science–then at least for propagating science that might be unfairly quashed by peer review.

This appears, so far, not to be the case.

For example, when I  went to the Wikipedia entry for the isomer bomb, I found that it’s been merged with what was already an oddball entry for Ballotechnics, and that the latest changes were dominated by the same people who waged war on my entry, i.e. those who support the imaginary isomer bomb. The isomer bomb entry is now a collection of selective facts, bits of nonsense, and a definite bias toward Carl Collins‘ claimed results with triggering the hafnium isomer– results which have been rejected by the scientific community (that fact has been mostly wiki-edited out by you-know-who).

In fact, someone currently reading my book has pointed out how Wikipedia makes the idea of an isomer bomb now sound almost legitimate.

So, returning to Jack Sarfatti’s entry. Some people see Jack Sarfatti’s work as belonging to the pseudophysics category; Jack and his allies don’t. Jack himself has been banned from editing his own entry. Under the current Wikipedia system, to determine whether pseudophysics belongs on Sarfatti’s entry comes down to an edit war (and/or intervention by an administrator). Short of daily Wiki Wars, how are we to resolve this? Answer: Under a true open model, we can’t.

Jack has unconventional ideas about physics, but I’ve also seen him denounce plenty of pathological science (like the hafnium bomb). Maybe there needs to be some new category.

In the final analysis, my issue with the entry isn’t even whether Sarfatti belongs to pseudophysics, but who gets to determine that classification. Wikipedians, Jack Sarfatti, Jimmy Wales, or perhaps peer review?

I don’t have the answer, and neither does Wikipedia, so I think Jack has a legitimate gripe.

Billionaires Invited!

Saturday, August 26th, 2006

Earlier this year, I was flying back to Washington, D.C. from Paris and ended up sitting next to some the nicest guys I’d met in a long time. They worked counter-terrorism issues at the Pentagon for the Joint Staff. Along with giving me coupons for free drinks (since most lousy carriers now charge $5), they talked me through my intense fear of flying (I wonder what tipped them off—the look of sheer panic on my face each time we hit the tiniest bit of turbulence?)

One of the stories they told me was about a guy who kept writing the Pentagon with with his idea for how meditation would solve our problems in Iraq. By meditating, the would-be Gandhi wrote, the warring sides would be soothed and no longer wish to fight.

“But what if only one side meditated?” asked the Joint Staff official. “I mean, the guys planting IEDs in Iraq may not want to meditate. So, then only our side would be peaceful. It could prove a tactical disaster.”

“Well, the soothing brain waves from the side that was meditating would travel to the insurgents and calm them,” insisted the meditation guy.

For this to be as funny as I found it, you perhaps needed to be sitting on that plane I was convinced would crash, drinking your second gin & tonic, and watching a straight-laced military official make little waving motions with his hands held up to his forhead as he recounted the story.

Why the heck were the Pentagon’s best and brightest spending their time talking to a guy who thought that only thing standing between us and world peace is a cheap yoga mat?

Their boss, they explained, strongly believed it was the job of public servants to communicate with the American public. So, while they personally thought battlefield  brain waves were a little looney, they took it as their duty to listen to the idea (note: no money was involved in this consideration).

I thought that was a great explanation.

What reminded me of this little vignette was a recent e-mail I received on what must surely be the same idea. The e-mail message subject read: “Billionaires Invited!”

Billionaires Invited to
Make Their Nations Invincible

Employ 500 to 1000 Yogic Flyers to
Create Coherent Collective Consciousness
for a Problem-Free, Sovereign Country

“You Will Be Crowned as the
True Ruler of Your Nation”

The Yogic Flyers are linked to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and  Maharishi University in Holland. If you’re interested in learning more (and if you’re a billionaire), they hold weekly press conferences.

Of course, if you are a billionaire, you face a dilemma: train Yogic Flyers or fund a perpetual motion machine. Both claim to solve some of the word’s biggest problems. Choices, choices.

P.S. The Guardian ran this really great article on Steorn, the company that purports to have a perpetual motion machine.

Speaking about Imaginary Weapons

Friday, August 25th, 2006

I’ll be speaking in Philadelphia Monday, Aug. 28, on the topic of Imaginary Weapons at Drexel University’s Great Works Symposium. I’m going to cover the isomer bomb, but also weave in some very real weapons–specifically, debates over the nuclear stockpile and new nuclear weapons.

Also, on September 18 I’ll read from my book, Imaginary Weapons, at Prairie Lights, a bookstore in my hometown of Iowa City. Prairie Lights is an Iowa City institution–a real independent bookstore, so it meant a lot to me when they actually tracked me down to invite me to speak there.

P.S. Later today I’ll be doing a radio interview about the book with WJBC in Bloomington.