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The Curve of Binding Energy
By John McPhee
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 1974 John McPhee
All rights reserved.
TO many people who have participated professionally in the advancement of the nuclear age, it seems not just possible but more and more apparent that nuclear explosions will again take place in cities. It seems to them likely, almost beyond quibbling, that more nations now have nuclear bombs than the six that have tested them, for it is hardly necessary to test a bomb in order to make one. There is also no particular reason the maker need be a nation. Smaller units could do it—groups of people with a common purpose or a common enemy. Just how few people could achieve the fabrication of an atomic bomb on their own is a question on which opinion divides, but there are physicists with experience in the weapons field who believe that the job could be done by one person, working alone, with nuclear material stolen from private industry.
What will happen when the explosions come—when a part of New York or Cairo or Adelaide has been hollowed out by a device in the kiloton range? Since even a so-called fizzle yield could kill a number of thousands of people, how many nuclear detonations can the world tolerate?
Answers—again from professional people—vary, but many will say that while there is necessarily a limit to the amount of nuclear destruction society can tolerate, the limit is certainly not zero. Remarks by, for example, contemporary chemists, physicists, and engineers go like this (the segments of dialogue are assembled but not invented):
"I think we have to live with the expectation that once every four or five years a nuclear explosion will take place and kill a lot of people."
"What we are taking with the nuclear industry is a calculated risk."
"It is simply a new fact of existence that this risk will exist. The problem can't be solved. But it can be alleviated."
"Bomb damage is vastly exaggerated."
"What fraction of a society has to be knocked out to make it collapse? We have some benchmarks. None collapsed in the Second World War."
"The largest bomb that has ever been exploded anywhere was sixty megatons, and that is one-thousandth the force of an earthquake, one-thousandth the force of a hurricane. We have lived with earthquakes and hurricanes for a long time."
"It is often assumed true that a full-blown nuclear war would be the end of life on earth. That is far from the truth. To end life on earth would take at least a thousand times the total yield of all the nuclear explosives existing in the world, and probably a lot more."
"After a bomb goes off, and the fire ends, quiet descends again, and life continues."
"We continue in the direction we're going, and take every precaution, or we go backward and outlaw the atom. I think the latter is a frivolous point of view. Man has never taken such a backward step. In the fourteenth century, people must have been against gunpowder, and people today might well say they were right. But you don't move backward."
"At the start of the First World War, the high-explosive shell was described as 'the ultimate weapon.' It was said that the war could not last more than two weeks. Then they discovered dirt. They found they could get away from the high-explosive shell in trenches. When hijackers start holding up whole nations and exploding nuclear bombs, we must again discover dirt. We can live with these bombs. The power of dirt will be reexploited."
"There is an intensity that society can tolerate. This means that x number could die with y frequency in nuclear blasts and society would absorb it. This is really true. Ten x and ten y might go beyond the intensity limit."
"I can imagine a rash of these things happening. I can imagine—in the worst situation—hundreds of explosions a year."
"I see no way of anything happening where the rubric of society would collapse, where the majority of the human race would just curl up its toes and not care what happens after that. The collective human spirit is more powerful than all the bombs we have. Even if quite a few nuclear explosions go off and they become part of our existence, civilization won't collapse. We will adapt. We will go on. But the whole thing is so unpleasant. It is worth moving mountains, if we have to, to avoid it."
"A homemade nuclear bomb would be a six-by-six-foot monster. It would take cranes to lift it. You're not going to get a sophisticated little thing that fits into a desk drawer."
"No. But you could get something that would fit under the hood of a Volkswagen."
"If it is possible to build such a device, the situation will come up. We just should be prepared for it, and not sit around wringing our hands. You can't solve this problem emotionally. No. 1: This is a hazard. No. 2: The strictest practicable measures have to be taken to prevent it."
"We have to ask ourselves, 'What are we spending our money on, and what are we getting out of it?' I don't believe we can protect ourselves against every bogeyman in the closet. I think we have to take the calculated risk."
Some years ago, Theodore B. Taylor, who is a theoretical physicist, began to worry full time about this subject. He developed a sense of urgency that is shared by only a small proportion of other professionals in the nuclear world, where the general attitude seems to be that there is little to worry about, for almost no one could successfully make a nuclear bomb without retracing the Manhattan Project. Taylor completely disagrees. In the course of a series of travels I made with him to nuclear installations around the United States, he showed me how comparatively easy it would be to steal nuclear material and, step by step, make it into a bomb. Without revealing anything that is not readily available in print, he earnestly wishes to demonstrate to the public that the problem is immediate. His sense of urgency is enhanced by the knowledge that the nuclear-power industry has entered an era of considerable growth, and for every kilogram of weapons-grade nuclear material that exists now hundreds will exist in the not distant future. To give substance to his allegations, he feels he must go into ample detail—not enough to offer an exact blueprint to anyone, to cross any existing line of secrecy, or to assist criminals who have the requisite training by telling them anything they could not find out on their own, but enough to make clear beyond question what could happen.
The source and the reach of his worry result from his own experience. He knows how to do what he fears will be done. Peers and superiors considered him stellar at it once, and used that word to describe him. When he was in his twenties and early thirties, he worked in the Theoretical Division at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, where he was a conceptual designer of nuclear bombs. He designed Davy Crockett, which in its time was the lightest and smallest fission bomb ever made. It weighed less than fifty pounds. He designed Hamlet, which, of all things, was the most efficient fission bomb ever made in the kiloton range. And he designed the Super Oralloy Bomb, the largest-yield fission bomb that has ever been exploded anywhere.
WHEN Ted Taylor was growing up, in Mexico City in the nineteen-thirties, he had three particular interests, and they were music, chemistry, and billiards. His father had been a widower with three sons who married a widow with a son of her own, so Ted had four older half brothers—so much older, though, that he was essentially raised an only child, in a home that was as quiet as it was religious. His maternal grandparents were Congregational missionaries in Guadalajara. His father, born on a farm in Kansas, was general secretary of the Y.M.C.A. in Mexico. His mother was the first American woman who ever earned a Ph.D. at the National University of Mexico. Her field was Mexican literature. The spirit of revolution, which had peaked in Mexico long before Ted was born, was still very much in the air, and his earliest impression of politicians was that they were people who carried silver-plated pearl-handled Colt .45s, wore cartridge belts the size of cummerbunds, and went around in Cadillacs firing random shots into crowds of people whose numbers were weighted toward the opposition. Elections, he decided, were a time to stay home. Moreover, politicians were not the only menace in the streets. One time, Ted went out—he was eight—and met a man who told him that he could have a new bicycle if he would go back inside and get something pretty. He went in and got his mother's most precious ring and gave it to the man. Only too late did he realize what had happened, and he burst into tears. He went to the American School, where he started fourth grade one year and finished sixth grade at the end of the same year, thus finding himself about three years younger than most of his friends as he emerged into his teens. In the mornings, before school, he would sit for an hour and listen to music, occupying himself with nothing else while he did so. Years later, he would notice a difference among physicists with regard to music. Working in a scientific enclave at Cornell, where room after room had been equipped with speakers that were connected to a common source of classical music, he found that the theoretical physicists all embraced the music, while the experimental physicists uniformly shut it off. (He also would find that theoretical physicists tended to be loose-knit liberal Democrats, while experimental physicists-conservatives, Republicans—showed a closer weave.) In the afternoons after school, for a number of years, Ted played billiards almost every day, averaging about ten hours of billiards a week. He was, among his friends, exceptionally skillful. He knew nothing of particle physics—of capture cross-sections and neutron scattering, of infinite reflectors and fast-neutron-induced fission chain reactions—but in a sense he was beginning to learn it, because he understood empirically the behavior of the interacting balls on the table, and the nature of their elastic collisions, all within the confining framework of the reflector cushions. "It was a game of skill, dealing with predictable situations—an exact game. The reason it appealed to me was probably the same reason physics appeals to me. I like to be able to predict what will happen and have it come out that way. If you play billiards a lot, you find you can have a great deal of control over what happens. You can get all kinds of things to happen. I have thought of billiard balls as the examples in physics as long as I can remember—as examples of types of collisions from Newton's mechanics to atomic particles. The balls made a satisfying click if they werenew and expensive. Downtown, they were new and expensive. It was a treat to go downtown. You could try a twelve-cushion shot there."
He developed a quiet and somewhat shy personality, and considerable self-sufficiency, but he overcame his shyness to dance through long weekends and drink his share of Cuba Libres. Sometimes, he and his friends went off to Acapulco, as many as fifteen teenagers on the loose, and they took one hotel room, for the toilet and the shower, and slept on cots lined up in a long row on the beach. His family lived part of the time in Cuernavaca, which had almost no electricity then (a generator ran the Cuernavaca movie house), and Ted developed there a lifelong preference for candlelight. If the supply-and-demand ratio for electric power were based on him, there would be no power stations, nuclear or fossil. He remembers—almost more than any other image from Mexico—the bread bin, a small wooden box full of bread, in the middle of the table in Cuernavaca, surrounded by burning candles. His thoughts would wander then, as they do now, for remarkably long periods of time, and when he went off into other worlds in Cuernavaca his eyes must have glazed for hours, reflecting the candle flame.
At home in Mexico City—a street-corner house, Atlixco 13—there were certain books that contained pages that could unfailingly cause in him a sensation of terror. They were atlases and geographies, mainly, and he knew just where they were—which book, which shelf. He would muse, and his eyes would wander to one of them, and he would go and get it. He would open to a picture of the full moon or of a planet—any disclike thing seen in full view—and his flesh would contract with fear. He could never look through a telescope without steeling himself against the thought of seeing a big white disc. He began to have recurrent dreams that would apparently last his lifetime, for he still has them, of worlds, planets, discs filling half his field of vision, filling all his nerves with terror. And yet he could not imagine anything more exciting than having travelled to and being about to land on Mars. He wanted to go there desperately. Years later, he would make intensive preparations to go to Mars in a ship of his design, driven by two thousand exploding nuclear bombs.
When he was ten, he was given a chemistry set for Christmas, and he steadily built it up, year after year, until Atlixco 13 had a laboratory that might have served a small and exclusive university. Things were available from local druggists that would not have been available to him in the United States. Corrosive chemicals. Explosive chemicals. Nitric acid. Sulphuric acid. He enjoyed putting potassium chlorate and sulphur under Mexico City streetcars. There was a flash, and a terrific bang. He made guncotton by the bale. He soaked cotton in nitric and sulphuric acid, thus producing nitrocellulose, then washed it in water, squeezed it, and hung it up to dry. The result looked just like cotton but would explode—poof—and leave almost no ash. It was pretty at night. He once wadded it into a .22 cartridge and hit the cartridge with a hammer. The cartridge went into his finger. He hunted through the 1913 New International Encyclopaedia, which contained lots of chemistry, and he found many things to make. He made urethan (ethyl carbamate), a sleep-inducing drug, starting from a point very close to scratch. He first needed urea, and the nearest source was his own bladder, so he drained it out and went to work. He boiled a pint of urine until he had a half cup, then precipitated out the urea. He added nitric acid, and got urea nitrate. He added formaldehyde, and got crystals of urethan. He tried it on his white rats, and put them to sleep for up to twelve hours at a time, but he brought the dose up slowly, and he killed no rats. He worked in his chem lab three hours a day in term, and all through the annual long vacations, which came in winter and lasted two and a half months. He liked the beauty of some precipitates, and the most beautiful by far, he thought, was lead iodide. It looked like gold dust being sprinkled into water when, with light behind a beaker, he dropped lead-acetate solution from an eyedropper into sodium iodide. Particulate flakes of gold drifted down, shimmering, sparkling with gold light. He made a yellow-and-red powder that was a combination of picric acid and red lead. It was a relatively stable material, but it would detonate, given sufficient heat. He would set a little pile of it on a piece of one-sixteenth-inch steel plate and heat the plate from below. Flash. Bang. One-quarter teaspoon of the mixture, unconfined, would blow a hole right through the steel. In repeated experiments, he figured out exactly how little powder was needed to penetrate the plate. He added ammonia to a concentrated solution of iodine crystals in alcohol. The resulting precipitate, filtered out, was a wet, blackish blob of nitrogen iodide. He dried it. Dry nitrogen iodide is stable with regard to heat but unstable with regard to motion. It can literally be exploded by tickling it with a feather. Ceilings were high in Mexico, and there were long feather dusters at Atlixco 13. Holding one like an épée, Ted would reach gingerly toward a mound of nitrogen iodide. Flash. Bang. A purplishbrown cloud. A miniature mushroom. His mother was incredibly tolerant of his chemical experimentation. He was graduated from high school when he was fifteen.
Excerpted from The Curve of Binding Energy by John McPhee. Copyright © 1974 John McPhee. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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