The (contested) street, finding new uses for things

Paul Raven @ 01-03-2013

From a photo-essay/collection thingybob at The Atlantic: Syrian rebel fighters and their homebrew military hardware. There are lots of shots of chaps lathing mortar shells, as well as crude hand-welded onagers made from shelving and rebar; that’s your continuity verification, a through-line of human experience that you can draw through the wars of centuries past. But these two are the ones that tell you we really ain’t in Kansas any more:

Syrian rebel fighters using iPhone as compass

Syrian rebel fighter using games controller to aim gun turret

We can only hope

Paul Raven @ 23-09-2010

nuclear weapons may come to be seen as a strange fetishistic behavior by nations at a certain period in history. They were insanely expensive and thoroughly useless. Their only function was to keep a bizarre form of score.” – Richard Rhodes [link and video via Chairman Bruce]

Dan Brown’s antimatter bombs are nothing to worry about

Paul Raven @ 20-05-2009

mushroom cloudI miss a lot of things about working in public libraries, but exposure to Dan Brown novels is not one of them. As such, I had no idea that Hollywood had made a movie from another of his books, Angels & Demons, but apparently they have.

Less surprising is the revelation that Brown has played fast and loose with the facts (and the writing, I fully expect); Wired UK takes a look at Brown’s antimatter-bomb-in-the-Vatican plot and points out that we’ve no need to worry about terrorists stealing the stuff from CERN:

And it’s true – scientists there really have  produced antimatter. But only in submicroscopic quantities. “If you add up all the antimatter we have made in more than 30 years of antimatter physics here at CERN, and if you were very generous, you might get 10 billionths of a gram,” CERN’s Rolf Landua, told New Scientist magazine recently. “Even if that exploded on your fingertip it would be no more dangerous than lighting a match.”

It would be possible to make more, of course, but not cheap:

The cost of antimatter is, by [NASA’s] estimates $62.5 million per microgram (£41 million). However, they suggest that a dedicated antimatter production facility, with a pricetag of $3 – $10 billion, would bring the price down to just $25,000 per microgram (a mere £16 million).

But even if that much were just lying around, the storage facilities don’t exactly lend themselves to a cat-burglar raid:

Positrons can be stored in a Penning Trap, a sort of magnetic bottle. (The Air Force bought a new positron trap in December – but only for a device to examine defects in semiconductors.) However, such traps are leaky and you can’t store your positrons indefinitely. There’s also the issue of what happens when the power fails. The trap stops working and all your positrons come into contact with the container walls, which could mean a big boom. Then there’s the question of how many positrons you can store. At the moment storing a microgram of positrons would require a Penning Trap of stupendous size. A 2004 report by the US National Research Council said that much greater energy densities were needed for positrons to be useful as an explosive. The study advised against heavy investment in such a high-risk, immature technology.

So, fear not – the Vatican is safe from antimatter, at least for now. Given the size of the place, I can’t imagine why you’d think you needed anything bigger than a small nuke to take it out… but that doesn’t sound quite as exotic, I guess, and exotic puts the ‘thrill’ into ‘technothriller’. Best leave the plausibility and scientific rigour to those science fiction nerds, eh? [image by V 2]

War-porn for the week – smart bullets

Paul Raven @ 15-04-2009

sniperRegardless of your opinion about the Somalian pirate situation, if you’ve a jones for high-tech weaponry you’ll have been enjoying the brief flurry of military hardware reportage that emerged in the wake of the kidnapping rescue mission.

Wired has the low-down on how much more awesome the armed forces might be once DARPA has churned through a bit more R&D work:

Already, we’ve seen Navy SEAL shooters take out three pirates with three trigger-pulls — despite uneven seas and bobbing ships. Imagine how much easier the snipers’ jobs would have been, if they had rounds that could change course in mid-air, to account for crosswinds, air density, and moving targets. Darpa, the Defense Department’s way-out research arm, launched a $22 million effort in November to do just that. By countering these “fundamental limitation[s] of accuracy,” Darpa thinks it can dramatically improve American snipers’ range — and “provide a dramatic new capability to the U.S. military.”

Dramatic? Not the ideal choice of word, perhaps. Surely it would be more dramatic for the sniper to miss with every bullet but his last? But I digress – there’s more to come:

A companion project, Super-Resolution Vision System (SRVS), wouldn’t just make snipers more accurate. It would make them functionally invisible, as well. The system is trying to use “heat haze” — that shimmer you see on summer days, out in the distance — for helping snipers, instead of inhibiting them. In any given instant, the heated air acts as a series of lenses; you may be able to look right through them and see a magnified view of the scene beyond. The trick is to use digital technology to identify the “lucky regions” or “lucky frames” when a clear view appears and assemble them into a complete picture. SRVS researchers are aiming to do just that.

It’s always a relief to know that, even in the depths of a global economic slump, we’re still working hard at finding new and inventive ways to kill one another. [image by mateus27_24-25]

Seven great games to play with civilian nukes

Paul Raven @ 14-04-2009

old Russian nuclear bombHey, guess what – nuclear bombs can be used for more than just annihilating entire cities!Wired has an article rounding up a selection of seven proposed civilian deployments of nuclear weapons, most of which (unsurprisingly) leverage their ability to make a very big hole in something. [image by mikelopoulos]

But how’s this for a counterintuitive idea – why not use nuclear weapons to dispose of nuclear waste!

This scheme was originally proposed at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. A hole is bored beneath the waste processing plant, and a nuclear bomb is set off in the hole. Then the radioactive waste is poured into the subterranean cavity so formed, over a 25-year filling period. The wastes heat up through their own activity, boil dry, and eventually melt themselves and some surrounding rock into a glassy ball. The cost is quite uncertain but was judged to be extremely attractive.

If you’re anything at all like me (i.e. not a nuclear scientist), you’re probably thinking that’s a batshit stupid idea. But apparently not:

“For excavation, we put a lot of time and effort and money into developing nuclear explosives which had minimal fissionable material so that you could carry out a 100-kiloton cratering explosion and release the radioactivity equivalent to a 20-ton explosive of fissionable material,” Nordyke said.

But despite the technical success of the Plowshare program, Nordyke doesn’t see nuclear weapons being used for excavation or mining anytime soon because it doesn’t seem politically feasible.

“I think its time came and went,” he said. “I think reconciling it with the enhanced environmental concerns today and the inherent association with weapons is difficult.”

My reaction proves his point, I suppose. Nukes are a Pandora’s Box technology, in that we can’t just pretend we don’t know they exist (which is one of George Dvorsky’s points regarding the risks of nuclear disarmament), but because we’ve been predominantly shown nuclear blasts doing things which are deeply nasty and lethal we have this knee-jerk reaction to the idea of them being used for a more creative purpose.

Then again, there’s a trust issue as well – a government-commissioned experimental mega-engineering project involving not just nuclear waste but nuclear weapons? Even if you could show me the calculations and experimental data that proved it could be done, I’m not sure I’d feel at all confident in the ability of a government – or a corporation, for that matter – not to screw up by cutting corners somewhere.

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