Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Nuke – Or how I learnt to build the Bomb

The worlds greatest Secret is not a Secret

A few weeks ago I moved to the countryside and as one do when moving you find the odd tidbits and whatnots that constitutes your past. One of the more odd relics I found was an old physics tests from way back when I was thirteen. One of the questions was to draw up something that utilized a nuclear process. What the teacher was thinking about, asking that kind of a question to thirteen year olds is now unfathomable to me, but as a thirteen year old I just tried to answer it as well as I could. What I drew was a simple nuclear Bomb. What amazed me more than 20 years later was that the design basically would have worked.
Okay, I was not a normal kid and I am still not exactly normal. Not in the way of being crazed, more in the way of looking at the world in a different way than the normal. Where other people look upon the world out of the sum of their sensory perceptions, I look upon the world as the sum of the actual relativistic forces and quantum electro dynamical effects. How did my world view come to this?
Well, you take a twelve year old with a lot of free summer time on his hands and add a library. Here I might as well point out that one word I never heard when I grew up was “impossible”. So when I heard about relativistic theory I got infuriated about the speed of light being absolute and that it is impossible to travel faster than light. I kind of preferred my science fiction books with hyperspace and whatnots. So I had to read about it all.
The face of the librarian when I ordered the actual first article from Annalen der Physic was spectacular. When I finally got it I found out one of life’s surprises. It was written in German.
A friendly librarian than helped me and gave me Albert Einstein’s book “Relativity: The Special and the General Theory”. With that one I withdrew from the world just too pop up to get a few books on Cartesians and Minkovsky rooms.
After painstakingly having thought myself relativistic physics over the summer I became a kid who could understand the fundamental principles of how a nuclear Bomb might work.
Of course I hadn’t calculated the Bomb. To do that you need to know Quantum Electro Dynamics and I didn’t run into that until I was fifteen.
What now is the idea behind this story? Well it is a reminder that it is not hard to build the Bomb. Very few teenagers can do it, but most good physics majors can do it. What took some of the greatest minds ever to build and calculate at the Los Alamos site is today scientifically mundane.
First of all you know that it works. Most of the knowledge needed is known and you can look them up in books in a research library. And the few things that are secret you can deduce from the known fundamentals of physics.
The most secret of all the secrets of all time is supposedly the “Pincher formula” that you use to calculate the critical mass of weapons uranium and plutonium. It was invented by Richard Philips Feynman and Hans Bethe at Los Alamos and that formula is the heart of the atom bomb project. Supposedly it has never been shared or spread. But that is of course myth, one of the scientists was a spy for the Soviet Union and he handed it over to them within weeks. But with that exception it has never been given out.
A couple of years ago I got interested in seeing if I could re-invent the formula. By then I knew how much Plutonium 239 and respectively uranium 235 it took to build a simple fission bomb. I was a bit surprised about how tricky it was, but after a couple of weeks I was finished. Happy with myself and my new totally useless knowledge I perused a couple of sixties physics books in a different area. To my surprise the first thing I ran into was a slightly different equation that rendered the same pincher results in a text book on high energy particle physics written by a Swedish physicist. Big secret, yeah!
Okay, but isn’t it hard to build and tool a nuclear Bomb? It once was, but nowadays quite normal machine tools are built to produce things with sufficient tolerances. Basically the guys at Orange City Choppers have the tools to build a nuke. Thankfully they lack the knowledge!
Okay, but then it must be hard to get the uranium or plutonium required? The answer to that is, not really if you have a nuclear reactor of the right type and a big lardy bunch of cyclotrons. This is where you either have or you don’t.
North Korea for instance have a very limited supply of cyclotrons, perhaps just one or two. And that explains the limited amount of reactive material put into their Bomb and the low kiloton yield. And no, I will not go into the technology of this. I never said I like the idea of nukes. In the end it is simpler to steal the material.
For some reason the world is teaming with unused high grade plutonium stored in low security facilities. Stealing a couple of tons is quite possible, which the Israelis proved beyond any doubt when they raided the Oak Ridge facility in the United States.
So in the end I might just say that it is surprising that so few states have nuclear Bombs and that getting one is nightmarishly simple. And to top it off as we will see, it is even theoretically possible to build weapons that will make the nuke look like a Chinese firecracker. But first we must understand the intermediate stage of the computational Bomb.


Blogger Pass-by said...

"Impossible" = I am possible


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