Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Nation Books, 3
The government has flirted with some pretty dubious ideas over the years in the interests of national defense. The CIA used LSD, for example, as a potential truth serum in the 1950s. During the Cold War, supposed psychics were employed by the military to search for remote hidden facilities using ESP. And just recently we’ve seen such innovative scientific methods of interrogation as dressing prisoners at Guantánamo Bay in women’s underwear.
Those weren’t anomalies. The Pentagon is crawling with stupid ideas, impossible projects, and bad, bad science, says journalist Sharon Weinberger, who has reported on defense technology for the Washington Post and Slate and is editor-in-chief of Defense Technology International. Her book, Imaginary Weapons: A Journey Through the Pentagon’s Scientific Underworld, tells the story of one particular fringe idea that received the blessings—and dollars, tens of millions of them—of Pentagon officials: the hafnium isomer bomb, a weapon that never existed and was based on science that, according to almost all the scientists who were ever asked to review it, was complete garbage.
Yet, by the time funding for the idea was publicly squelched by Congress, in 2004, the hafnium bomb had made itself some powerful friends at the Pentagon and was set to receive billions more in funding. Weinberger set out to understand why the project was allowed to get as far as it did by interviewing dozens of government scientists and officials who had dealt with the project.
The main proponent of this theoretical weapon, and the antihero of Weinberger’s story, was Carl Collins, a flashy, cowboy-hat-wearing, charismatic Texan—you know, the kind of guy you might elect president. Collins, a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, was into nuclear isomers, special forms of an element that can exist in highly charged states. What makes isomers interesting to both scientists and military officials alike is that they can store incredible amounts of energy. A single molecule of dynamite stores about 1 volt, Weinberger reports; a really excited hafnium isomer stores somewhere in the neighborhood of 2.5 million volts. If that energy could be harnessed, the stable hafnium isomer might make a top-notch battery—or it might make one hell of a bomb. Guess which potential use got more attention.
Collins claimed, rather improbably, to have found a way to release the hafnium isomer’s energy—using a commercial medical X-ray machine he’d had his grad students dig up for him. He took his supposed results to the Pentagon and was promptly given $10 million to keep working on his weapon. It mattered little that his work was already being refuted. For one thing, his results were so unusual that, if accurate, they potentially made for radically new physics—which was exactly what he claimed the data meant. As Collins’ papers began to appear with more frequency, he was increasingly derided by his peers, who were unable to replicate his experiments. As the years went by and Collins’ work was alternately ridiculed and carefully discredited by one team of scientists after another—including many employed by the Department of Defense itself—the Pentagon nevertheless continued to fund him. Collins’ project would be shuffled around for years, funded here and there, and ultimately slipped past dissenting scientists to a special division of the Pentagon.
Government scientists are not, as a group, the most riveting characters, and Weinberger isn’t terribly skillful at sexing them up; Imaginary Weapons reads less like a story than like a series of interviews interspersed with Weinberger’s own repetitive commentary. She continues to be shocked (shocked!) that Collins was funded and makes her point—that he shouldn’t have been—over and over: “Zimmerman listened politely, convinced that it was all nonsense. That wasn’t the end of it, however.” “Collins returned to teaching and publishing occasional articles on optics. But the dream of a revolutionary laser remained….All he needed was money.” “The criticism was proving no more than a minor speed bump. Isomers were about to hit the Capital Beltway.” The writing is choppy, and there are a disconcerting number of typos. However long it took to research, the book reads like it was pounded out over a few lattes and sent to the publisher without much fuss.
Still, Weinberger makes up for her clumsy writing with several surprisingly humorous interviews. By talking to people we don’t normally hear from—obscure scientists, minor officials, low-level bureaucrats—Weinberger does a good job of showing the fine line between politics and science, and how each, especially in the shadows of military secrecy, can manipulate the other. Many of the physicists she talks to are deeply involved in experiments with military potential and are thus caught between policy considerations and the demands of science, with its peer reviews, reproduction of experiments, and sharing of information—all safeguards that are of little concern to Pentagon officials eager to discover the next big thing in blowing people up.
Weinberger has another point to make, as well: Pentagon research is being increasingly infected by “fringe science.” As examples, she cites kooks she’s met at weapons conventions over the years—inventors of homemade sound-wave weapons, mind-control devices, and the like. A disturbing number of these inventors claim, as did Collins, to have broken the known laws of physics. And some of them, she points out bitterly, go on to get big bucks from the Pentagon.
“Why do a certain set of scientists end up chasing a certain set of nearly hopeless scientific pursuits?” Weinberger asks at one point. Her interviews reveal a bizarre subculture of zealot “scientists” on the edges of the scientific community who profess an almost religious dedication to ideas like cold fusion, wormholes, time travel, and nuclear isomers. (Collins supporters, she writes, would wear “I believe in isomers” buttons.) And even as she rips Collins throughout her book, Weinberger notes that he seems to have believed passionately in the junk he was selling.
But why Collins pursued his weapon isn’t the central mystery of this book—he pursued it because he was given money to do so, and Weinberger assigns the blame for that to the Pentagon. Specifically, she blames the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a division of the Pentagon responsible for investigating and developing out-there technologies. DARPA, she charges, gave scientific refuge to the project when less reputable divisions wouldn’t take it.
And it’s here that her claims about the growing danger of “fringe science” ring hollow. Giving a home to crazy ideas is exactly what DARPA is supposed to do, and sometimes it works: DARPA developed stealth bombers in the ’70s; it came up with the Predator, an unmanned attack plane currently at use in Afghanistan and Iraq, and it advanced such nonlethal playthings as GPS and the ARPANET, which became the Internet. Technology magazines have reported on DARPA projects like brain-computer interfaces, insect cyborgs, and remote-controlled sharks. How much of this is nonsense isn’t that clear, and neither is it clear that the hafnium bomb was more egregiously suspicious than any other DARPA project. DARPA is given money to play with, and so it plays.
Weinberger’s story is most effective as a real-life fable of what happens when politicians, and not scientists, decide what constitutes science. It is a point relevant to local government—think intelligent design—but also to the Bush administration, whose own scientists acknowledged the reality of global warming only to be casually dismissed by the president. In her epilogue, Weinberger mentions another case of unfounded “facts”: those given by the Bush administration to justify the invasion of Iraq. “As we now know,” she writes, “Bush and his closest advisers probably could have declared a toilet seat a critical centrifuge.”
The tone of Weinberger’s book is relatively lighthearted; she paints the rise and fall of the hafnium isomer bomb as a zany-but-true account of governmental foolishness. But her larger statement—that scientific facts matter and that reputable scientists are often ignored for political reasons—is no poke in the ribs. Yes, it’s funny to think of the CIA secretly snipping blotter sheets or of DARPA loosing remote-controlled sharks in enemy waters. But when ignoring facts and citing incomplete evidence leads to waste, war, and worse, it’s hard to imagine anyone laughing about it, even years from now.CP