Oct 21, 2018 in Model, Politics, Science
A while back, I was linked to this Tweet:
|￣￣￣￣￣￣￣￣￣￣￣|— Audra J. Wolfe, PhD (@ColdWarScience) July 12, 2018
It had sparked a brisk and mostly unproductive debate. If you want to see people talking past each other, snide comments, and applause lights, check out the thread. One of the few productive exchanges centres on bridges.
Bridges are clearly a product of science (and its offspring, engineering) – only the simplest bridges can be built without scientific knowledge. Bridges also clearly have a political dimension. Not only are bridges normally the product of politics, they also are embedded in a broader political fabric. They change how a space can be used and change geography. They make certain actions – like...
Sep 12, 2017 in Literature, Science
I recently read The Singularity is Near as part of a book club and figured a few other people might benefit from hearing what I got out of it.
First – it was a useful book. I shed a lot of my skepticism of the singularity as I read it. My mindset has shifted from “a lot of this seems impossible” to “some of this seems impossible, but a lot of it is just incredibly hard engineering”. But that’s because I stuck with it – something that probably wouldn’t have happened without the structure of a book club.
I’m not sure Kurzweil is actually the right author for this message. Accelerando (by Charles Stross) covered much of the same material as Singularity, while being incredibly engaging. Kurzweil’s writing is technically fine – he can string a sentence together and he’s clear – but incredibly repetitious. If you read the introduction,...
Jun 11, 2017 in Science
Do you want to understand how the material world works at the most fundamental level? Great! There’s a tool for that. Or a method. Or a collection of knowledge. “Science” is an amorphous concept, hard to pin down or put into a box. Is science the method of hypothesis generation and testing? Is it as Popper claimed, asking falsifiable questions and trying to refute your own theories? Is it inextricably entangled with the ream of statistical methods that have grown up in service of it? Or is it the body of knowledge that has emerged from the use of all of these intellectual tools?
I’m not sure what exactly science is. Whatever its definition, I feel like it helps me understand the world. Even still I have to remind myself that caring about science is like caring about a partner in a marriage. You need to be with it in...
Apr 30, 2017 in Model, Physics, Science
It can be hard to grasp that radio waves, deadly radiation, and the light we can see are all the same thing. How can electromagnetic (EM) radiation – photons – sometimes penetrate walls and sometimes not? How can some forms of EM radiation be perfectly safe and others damage our DNA? How can radio waves travel so much further than gamma rays in air, but no further through concrete?
It all comes down to wavelength. But before we get into that, we should at least take a glance at what EM radiation really is.
Electromagnetic radiation takes the form of two orthogonal waves. In one direction, you have an oscillating magnetic field. In the other, an oscillating electric field. Both of these fields are orthogonal to the direction of travel.
These oscillations take a certain amount of time to complete, a time which is calculated by observing the peak value...
Feb 24, 2017 in Falsifiable, Literature, Model, Science
I just finished Pump Six, a collection of short stories by Paolo Bacigalupi. A few weeks prior to this, I read Ted Chiang’s short story collection, Stories of Your Life and Others and I couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast between them. Ted Chiang writes stories about different ways the world could work. Paolo Bacigalupi writes stories about different ways the future could happen.
These are two very different sorts of speculation. The first requires extreme attention to detail in order to make the setting plausible, but once you clear that bar, you can get away with anything. Ted Chiang is clearly a master at this. I couldn’t find any inconsistencies to pick at in any of his stories.
When you try to predict the future – especially the near future – you don’t need to make up a world out of whole cloth. Here...
Feb 12, 2017 in Politics, Science
In an effort to make my nuclear weapons post series a one stop resource for anyone interested in getting up to speed on nuclear weapons, I’ve decided to add supplementary materials filling any gaps that are pointed out to me. This supplementary post is on laser enrichment.
Enrichment is one of the more difficult steps in the building of certain nuclear weapons. Currently, enrichment is accomplished through banks of hundreds or thousands of centrifuges, feeding their products forward towards higher and higher enrichment percentages.
Significant centrifuge plants are relatively big (the Natanz plant in Iran covers 100,000m2, for example) and require a large and consistent supply of energy, which often makes it possible spot them in satellite imagery. The centrifuges themselves require a recognizable combination of components, which are carefully monitored. If a nation were to suddenly buy up components implicated in centrifuge design, it would clearly signal...
Jan 29, 2017 in Falsifiable, Politics, Science
Nuclear weapons represent an existential risk. I’ll let 80,000 Hours speak for me for a minute:
A survey of academics at the Global Catastrophic Risk Conference by Oxford University estimated a 1% chance of human extinction from nuclear wars over the 21st Century. … Luke Oman estimates the probability “for the global human population of zero resulting from the 150 Tg of black carbon scenario in our 2007 paper [delving into the effects of a single nuclear exchange] would be in the range of 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 100,000.” This being said, we think this estimate is too low, as it doesn’t account for the potential for weaknesses in their model or the risk of a societal collapse causing a permanent reduction in humanity’s ability to reach its potential (which is nonetheless an existential risk even if people remain).
If you’re interested in reducing the existential risk...
Jan 28, 2017 in Falsifiable, Politics, Science
Having covered the practicalities of nuclear physics, nuclear weapon design, and nuclear weapon effects, we may now turn our attention to the strategies that have grown out of these physical realities.
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of nuclear weapons – tactical and strategic. This post has been focused primarily on strategic nuclear weapons, high yield weapons capable of destroying cities and hardened targets. Tactical nuclear weapons have smaller yields, allowing them to be hypothetically used on a battlefield that contains friendlies.
The line between the two gets somewhat blurred with the highest yield tactical weapons. Is a 5kt bomb tactical or strategic? No one really has a clear answer. These already crystal clear waters get muddied further when you add in “dial-a-yield” weapons, which can yield anywhere from <1kt to ~100kt. On the low end, they’re definitely tactical. But at the high end,...
Jan 27, 2017 in Falsifiable, Politics, Science
All the nukes in the world are useless unless you have a way to get them to their targets. Aside from outlandish and potentially suicidal methods like suitcase nukes or nuclear artillery, there are three main ways of doing this: bombers, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).
The only nuclear weapons ever used in anger were delivered by B-29 bombers, the Enola Gay and the Bockscar. Because the Allies had attained near total air-superiority over Japan at the time of the bombings, it was possible for these bombers to go in without any real escort. They were accompanied only by weather reconnaissance and observation planes.
In a modern nuclear exchange, total air superiority would probably be required for a country to be able to openly deliver a bomb. If a nuclear bombing is attempted with anything less than total superiority, the attacker can...
Jan 27, 2017 in Falsifiable, Politics, Science
To understand the effects of nuclear weapons, you first need to understand how those effects scale with weapon yield.
Modern bombs are much smaller than the Tsar Bomba. The standard US nuclear warhead, the W88, is a “mere” 475kt, a yield that is 100x less than that of the Tsar Bomba. On the other hand, the W88 weighs in at 360kg, 75x lighter.
This may seem like a poor trade, but it’s actually a very good one, due to the fundamental properties of explosive scaling. Scaling factors are very important to weapons. They determine the stable equilibriums that designs fall into. For example: we have tanks instead of mechs because strength scaling and mass scaling together make tall vehicles very vulnerable to weapons.
Scaling factors for all nuclear weapon effects (the fireball, the shock wave, and electromagnetic radiation) are different, but we can use the scaling factor...
Jan 26, 2017 in Falsifiable, Politics, Science
The last section required that you take it on faith that nuclear weapons are hard to design. Now it’s time to get into the nitty-gritty details of weapon design and understand why that is.
Nuclear explosions require a critical mass of the right unstable isotope. But there’s no safe way to store an assembled critical mass. As soon as you get to the critical mass, the chain reaction starts and an explosion will occur without drastic countermeasures.
All nuclear weapon design ultimately starts with this problem of assembling a critical mass in situ (and only ever in situ).
The first atomic bombs used one of two methods: gun assembly or implosion. These methods are still used to this day in fission weapons or in the fission first stage of multiple stage weapons.
Jan 25, 2017 in Falsifiable, Politics, Science
There are currently nine countries with acknowledged or suspected nuclear arsenals. Five of them are signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the main international treaty aimed at minimizing the number of nuclear armed states. Ideally, no country or group would have nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world; the NPT is maybe the next best thing.
The NPT acknowledges the right of the permeant UN Security Council members (UK, USA, France, China, and Russia) to possess nuclear weapons even as it bans anyone else from getting (or trying to get) them. The remainder of the nuclear armed states (Israel, Pakistan, India, and North Korea) haven’t signed on to NPT or signed and later withdrew from it. South Sudan also isn’t a signatory of the NPT – I think they just haven’t gotten around to it – but no one is particularly worried about that (for reasons that...
Jan 24, 2017 in Falsifiable, Politics, Science
For this to all make sense, we should start with a brief review of atomic theory.
All matter is made up of atoms. Atoms have an outer shell of negatively charged electrons (more accurate descriptions exist, but I’m not going to delve into them; throughout this section I’m going to use simplified models wherever they’ll do the topic justice) and an inner core containing uncharged neutrons and positively charged protons.
The number of protons in an atom determines which element the atom is. All atoms with two protons are helium, all atoms with six protons are carbon, and so on. Much of the time, elements will have the same number of electrons as they have protons, so that the charges cancel each other out. Forms of elements with differing numbers of electrons are called ions. Ionization is a very common phenomenon. You observe it whenever you see lightning or dissolve...
Jan 23, 2017 in Falsifiable, Politics, Science
With President Trump in possession of the nuclear launch codes, I have a feeling that many people who’ve neglected nuclear weapons as an important cause area may begin to sit up and take notice. This is a good thing. There currently exist basically no checks and balances on a US President’s ability to go to nuclear war. Harold Hering was cashiered from the Air Force in 1973 after asking (on the subject of nuclear weapons launch) “How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president?”. Nothing has changed since then.
This post series is meant as a non-exhaustive primer on the (declassified) physical and strategic realities of nuclear weapons. It’s supposed to get you up to the point where you can begin asking the right questions in a relatively short time period. If you want more information, I’ve included relevant...
Aug 18, 2016 in Biology, Falsifiable, Science
There are a lot of living things that are quite good at killing humans. Tigers, anthrax, lions, cows, bears, and other people do away with thousands of us each year.
There are a few non-living things that are also quite good at offing us. Good old water manages to take quite a few. In good years, we don’t lose anyone to the nerve gasses sarin or VX (Unfortunately, the last few years haven’t been good ones in that regard).
What about those liminal critters though? Viruses and prions aren’t really alive in the traditional sense. They can replicate, they can even evolve, but they lack the hallmarks of life, foremost among them the ability to reproduce. Both of them find ways to hijack the machinery of living organisms and use them for their own ends.
These self-replicating patterns and their potential to wipe us out are the subject of this...