Saturday, April 19, 2014

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Rail gun: too much of a jolt to the arms race?

The Navy plans to show off -- with no live firing -- its latest whiz-bang weapon, a "Star Wars" rail gun, to the public soon at its San Diego base.

The weapon, developed by San Diego-based General Atomics and BAE Systems, uses a powerful electromagnetic pulse to hurl a 23-pound projectile up to 100 miles at a speed as high as Mach 7. Each projectile costs about $25,000, which is 1 percent of the price of a conventional ship-borne missile, the Navy said.

The Navy sees the weapon as a major force multiplier. A ship can carry far more rail gun projectiles than ballistic (unguided) missiles.

Now, of course, local defense industry boosters are doubtless pleased. And any military officer worth his or her salt favors, as a general rule, force multiplication.

However, the United States -- even with proposed Pentagon cuts -- still has the strongest Navy in the world. Is the proposed benefit actually cost effective? Expending very costly ballistic missiles might be seen as wasteful, but that depends on the probability of their actually being used as anything more than a deterrent.

On the other hand, with the substantial reduction in force coming for women and men in uniform, it seems sensible to at least partly compensate with weapons that magnify firepower.

Nevertheless, merely because defense contractors and admirals say something is a great idea, doesn't necessarily make it so. After all, won't Russia, Iran, North Korea and other nations, such as Israel, England and Japan, attempt to develop such a weapon? Might we unnecessarily be stimulating an arms race?

The technology is no doubt secret, but the "Lorentz force" the weapon uses is very well understood by engineers and physicists. If Iran and North Korea can figure out the rudiments of nuclear arms design, it seems plausible that they can dope out the basics of rail guns, which, we guess, get their pulse of energy from a powerful laser, and laser technology is quite well understood.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Jason's eerie UCal specter

The first chancellor of the University of California at San Diego was physicist Herb York, a Jason, as were some 10 other scientific colleagues whom he recruited to the school's physics and math departments when UCSD was first established in the 1950s at a time the Cold War was dominating American politics.

The Jasons were and are a shadowy group of scientists who advise the Pentagon on scientific matters, and who sometimes dream up technical innovations deemed beneficial for military purposes. In the past the Jasons, many of whom are highly rated professors at top-notch academic institutions, were affiliated with Darpa, aka the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency. Darpa finances all sorts of weapons research, including military robots that respond directly to a handler's thoughts. Though still Pentagon-sponsored, the Jasons are no longer subject to Darpa's control.

Considering the death and mayhem associated with weapons-related research, the chararacter Jason of the Friday the 13th movies is not an altogether inappropriate association, though doubtless the Jasons considered their military work a patriotic duty.

Except for a few former members, you won't find their names on the internet. Ann Finkbeiner, in her 2006 book The Jasons: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite, talked with about 36 Jasons, but outs only a few old-timers.

The Jasons have issued numerous reports. For example, one unclassified report with Stanford University's imprimatur, suggests changes that could be made to assist those engaged in computational ("applied") mathematics.

There are various reports as to how the romantic mythological name "Jason" (of the Argonauts) was chosen, but it replaced the whimsical name Dept. 137, which refers to the fine structure constant of physics.

Of course, the Jasonite colonization of San Diego dovetails nicely with the heavy military presence here, along with the thriving defense contractor industry.

Noted Jasons include the likes of John Archibald Wheeler, Freeman Dyson and Luis Alvarez. Wheeler, of Princeton University and the University of Texas, was a major force in the field of quantum mechanics. Freeman Dyson, of Princeton University, won accolades for synthesizing the work of Richard Feynman and Julian Schwinger in quantum physics. Alvarez of UCal Berkeley, won the Nobel prize for his work in particle physics. Alvarez is famous for his role in identifying an iridium layer that coats the planet as evidence of an asteroid or comet impact that, he and his geologist son Walter argued, wiped out the dinosaurs.

Wheeler managed to get Hugh Everett, author of the now-respectable "many worlds" (parallel universes) interpretation of quantum theory, a position at the Pentagon, though Everett was shunned by academic physics departments. In fact, Niels Bohr, to whom Wheeler had sent his student, received Everett with displeasure.

The Jasons were pulled together as a "new generation" of scientists who would quietly assist the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies, following in the footsteps of Manhattan Project experts, many of whom by 1960 were either dead or on the retirement rolls, or whose loyalty was questioned as a result of clashes over nuclear weapons policy or as a result of suspect associations.

Alvarez, like his Rad Lab mentor Ernest Lawrence, were fiercely anti-communist to the point that their peers in academia tended to distrust them. Alvarez was known as a big backer of hydrogen bomb research.

The defense-intelligence clique with which the Jasons were associated took a dim view of President John F. Kennedy; the stories circulated that JFK was weak on communism -- despite his masterly performance during the Cuban missile crisis -- and that early in his term he had "betrayed" the CIA invasion of Cuba. He was detested by those who thought that JFK had given a raw deal to Allen Dulles and Richard Helms, chief of the CIA and the CIA's "director of plans" respectively, who were cashiered for their role in the Bay of Pigs misadventure. Dulles went on to a seat on the Warren Commission, which was impaneled after many questions were raised about the FBI's "lone deranged gunman" theory.

In 1976 Alvarez used his prestige to defend the government as essentially accurate concerning JFK's murder. The paper conjectured that, if enough material had been ejected from the back of the president's head, this could have caused a recoil that made the head snap backward after being shot, supposedly, from the rear. Yet Alvarez did not address the many inconsistencies that demonstrated that the Warren Commission tale was a tortuous attempt to place all the blame on one man, Lee Harvey Oswald.

The general public was unaware of Alvarez's role as a Jason at the time his report was published.

An examination of copies of the Zapruder film available on the internet shows that Kennedy's head jerking backward was preceded by an explosion of debris -- presumably organic matter from the president's head.

If the bullet came from the rear, this explosion at the front of the head could conceivably have been caused by a tumbling bullet exiting the cranium. Alvarez's claim is that the ejecta from the back of the head [including chunks of JFK's brain] could have carried enough momentum to have caused a recoil. Such a scenario would seem more plausible had the bullet not exited the head, instead explosively gouging out material and using the front of JFK's head to contain the force, bringing about a rocket-type reaction.

Even so, one might argue that the recoil force could still have been the greater.

However, for Alvarez's conjecture to be plausible, we should have seen JFK's head first lunge forward from the impact of the bullet from the rear, and then jerk backward, from the momentum of the rearward ejecta -- much as if one strikes a ball attached to a spring. But one does not see a violent forward jerk first.

Hence, one must wonder about the esteemed physicist's mental competency in 1976 or about his motivation.

And then we have UCal chief Janet Napolitano, whose tenure at the federal Department of Homeland Security was checkered with complaints that she was stretching, or even violating, the Constitution in order to promote what is today known as the Surveillance State or the National Security State.

She is castigated for her role in cracking down on Occupy protesters, a theme that has accompanied her presence at UCal, where activist students accuse her of using heavy-handed police tactics against student protesters. Certainly, the California national security industry's interlock with UCal suggests that, though no Jason, she fits well with that set.

Zapruder film links

Alvarez's article defending the Warren Commission

Wikipedia article on the Jasons 

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Of tumblers and temblors

California is in the throes of a drought. What do you suppose is the economic impact of the latest prolonged water crisis? In the billions, without a doubt.

Consider the forced fallowing of farmland. What will that do to what Californians pay to put food on the table? Tourism is likely to be crimped in some areas. Real estate people are already moaning about the prospect of rezoning for desert landscaping to replace lush green lawns.

And what of health costs that result from exposure to certain particulates released into the air we breathe as a result of highly arid conditions? For example, a high asthma rate afflicts Imperial County as a result of the Salton Sea's evaporation, exposing lake bottom particulates.

San Diego County draws about 25 percent of its water from Imperial County, which in turn draws all its water from the drought-stricken Colorado River.

And the Golden State's population isn't getting any smaller. So a drought that was not so bad two decades ago becomes far more problematic in 2014.

Gov. Brown's water crisis task force is holding meetings around the state, which is to the good.

But it seems obvious that, among other water measures, the idea of more reservoirs makes sense. A problem is that reservoirs can throw wetlands ecology off-balance, arousing resistance from environmental groups.

That said, from a purely economic perspective, the claim that $10 billion is too much money for new or expanded reservoirs doesn't really hold. Sure, no one wants to see pork barrel waste. But $10 billion is small change by comparison with the probable economic impact of failure to take action to store water from good seasons for use during dry spells.

Republicans ignored a call by West Coast Democrats to seek $16.1 million in federal aid to establish a "heads up" earthquake warning grid, according to Richard Simon of the Los Angeles Times.

Rep. Adam Schiff, a Burbank Democrat, is quoted: "Even a few seconds of warning before the next Big One will allow people to seek cover, automatically slow or stop trains, pause surgeries and more -- and the benefits of this small investment now will be paid back many times over after the first damaging quake."

Warnings would arrive by phone, radio and TV, Simon wrote.

Seismic warning systems deployed in Mexico and Japan show that "this is a proven technology,"
William Leith, a senior adviser on geologic and seismic hazards for the U.S. Geological Survey, told the Times.

But the fight over high deficit spending in Washington means that such funding may be off the table. Yet, the Constitution provides a remedy: An interstate compact, which can be established by states straddling the quake-prone region where tectonic plates collide.

Surely, California, Oregon, Washington State and Alaska should do whatever is necessary to protect their populations. The fact that a killer quake has not rocked the West in a while is no excuse for not deploying the relatively inexpensive warning technology.