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Bewildering Stories

Sharon Weinberger, Imaginary Weapons

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

Imaginary Weapons
Author: Sharon Weinberger
Publisher: Nation Books, 2006
Length: 276 pages
ISBN: 0-56025-849-7

I read a tremendous amount of non-fiction, but most of my non-fiction samplings are not particularly appropriate for a speculative fiction webzine. At last, however, I found one that I just had to review for this zine. That’s both because it’s a fascinating story in itself — one I did not put down until I had finished it — and second (more on this later) because it’s an entirely appropriate topic for a science fiction audience.

The book is journalist Sharon Weinberger’s Imaginary Weapons: A Journey Through the Pentagon’s Scientific Underworld, and it is the story of the isomer bomb.

First, what is an isomer bomb? It’s also been called the ’nuclear grenade’ or the ultimate ’dirty bomb’, and with good reasons. A single molecule of hafnium isomer (hafnium, like plutonium, being the metal, and isomer being, more-or-less, its charged-up or radioactive state), stores, according to Ms. Weinberger, about two and a half million electron volts of energy. That’s compared to a single molecule of dynamite — which stores just one electron volt.

And unlike an atomic (that is, conventional nuclear) bomb, an isomer bomb would release almost all of its energy in the form of deadly gamma-ray radiation, capable of penetrating concrete and steel. Want a comparison between old and new horrors? The more radioactive a material, the shorter its half-life — the amount of time it takes the material to lose half its radioactivity. Radioactive uranium has a half-life of thousands of years. Radioactive hafnium (Hafnium-178m2), produced at an estimated cost of $30 billion per thirty grams, has a half-life of thirty-one years. Don’t stand too close to ground zero! According to one scientist, the isomer bomb would turn you into glue.

You can imagine how such stats excite bomb-makers the world over. Indeed, not only were bomb-makers excited. Some considered hafnium an ideal nuclear battery (depicted in a wishful Popular Science issue, no less). Others envisioned it as a deadly gamma-ray cannon — Buck Rogers’ space-ray, here at last! And finally, more optimistic, (and gentler), souls dreamed of beaming energy to Mars or the moon to power future space exploration and colonization, or using hafnium’s ultimate potency against cancer.

But there was, it seems, a problem with these rosy (or for those who have not learned to love the bomb, less than rosy) scenarios. Hafnium had just one problem (other than that horrendous manufacturing cost of $30 billion dollars, of course!) that prevented all this wishful thinking from coming true. Hafnium wouldn’t give up its energy.

Weinberger uses, cleverly, the analogy of a sugar molecule to explain the problem. A molecule of plain old sugar — the food that fuels our bodies, in one form or another — has more energy, or electron volts per molecule, than TNT. We do not, of course, build sugar bombs (no, Krispy Kreme, get thee behind me!). We build bombs out of dynamite.

That is because dynamite, as well as conventional uranium (plutonium) bombs, can be triggered into giving up their matter into a flash of energy. Sugar just doesn’t work. And fortunately for peaceniks the world over, neither would hafnium. The silvery metal stubbornly held on to its energy, no matter what was done to it.

At this point, Weinberger’s story became even more fascinating for me. Now we get into the stranger-than-make-believe real-life history of the would-be isomer bomb. Its history involves the Pentagon, (and a familiar, scolding, grandpa-like figure in wire-framed glasses who wanted a really big, really bad bomb, and just wasn’t going to take no for an answer); a mysterious, anonymous group of scientific advisors called the JASONs who panned the isomer bomb early on and more or less got fired over it; and, last but not least, a renegade Texan scientist whose promising results with hafnium just couldn’t be reproduced by anyone else. (Does anyone remember cold fusion? Does any of this sound familiar?).

This last same scientist and his supporters convinced those gotta-have-it-now believers in the U.S. government to hand over an unbelievable amount of money. DARPA, the US government agency which funds various far-out sciences, (in the spirit of “we can’t let those Russkis surprise us!”), awarded him at least $40 million dollars for research... grandpa sure wanted his bomb!

By the time the fountain of cash ran dry — squeezed off by an alarmed Congress — the U.S. government had little more than an aged dental X-ray machine to show for its results (our Texan’s jury-rigged machine being the sole device that ever seemed able to generate any hafnium triggering). That’s according to Collins, the Texan scientist and dental ray operator, at least. And, at last, we had one Russian scientist, taking pity, I suspect, after a long, no doubt partly worried, partly smirking silence, who wrote an article referring delicately to the “lack of science” in certain physicist’s supposed results.

Somewhere, I suppose, there’s a stubborn Texan who just won’t give up, laboring away with his dental X-ray machine and a few precious samples of hafnium, trying to build the nastiest bomb the world has ever dreamed of. But he’s descended into the scientific underworld now, right along with the man who sold the Pentagon on those psychic powers (who also worked for DARPA during this time period, in spite of his test psychics’ failure to find those hidden Russian missile sites. Did I also mention that this same government agency held meetings at Disneyland? I hope they’ve sobered up since).

Let’s hope the isomer bomb stays in fantasyland, though. The world doesn’t need something worse than Hiroshima. Please, God, let this story stay fictional!

I highly recommend Ms. Weinberger’s book. Thank goodness for those old-fashioned, intrepid journalists who just keep digging in spite of all those smacks in the keister... Free Press, live on!

Copyright © 2006 by Danielle L. Parker

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