Thursday, June 7, 2007

Nukes! -- Pffp podcast

I am now at about one third through the Physics for future presidents series of the fall 2006, by Richard A. Muller (photo). The series of spring 2007 is also already on line, but since I had started the 2006 course already and the 2007 one seems to follow the same lines, I'll just stick with 2006. Maybe it will make me a president, half a year earlier, who knows.

This descriptive course in physics has a very good didactic structure. Even though it is supposed to be a total immersion course and you are indeed bumping into jargon right from the start, way before all terms begin to make sense, the lectures nevertheless follow a neatly designed path that angles Physics from one subject (energy and power) and step by step adds more to it. From energy and power, we are taken to atoms and heat, which brings us consecutively to gravity, satellites, radioactivity and by one third I have reached nukes. Even though I was a Physics drop-out ages ago, I have no trouble following. Quite to the contrary, I am gripped.

In the early nineteen eighties, when I was at secondary school, I dropped out of Physics class, missing out on obtaining a good understanding of radioactivity and nuclear energy and weapons. Yet, at the same time, just as everybody else, I was extremely concerned with nuclear energy and even more so, with nuclear weapons. These seemed contagious, dirty and destructive. So it was not hard to be against them, even though I never basically understood the contagiousness, the environmental dangers and the workings of the weapons. Consequently a whole lot of irrational anxiety based the rejection of nuclear energy and nuclear weaponry.

In Pffp, Professor Muller has succeeded in taking me by the hand and making this subject (and more!) very clear. The immediate result is a much better understanding of radioactivity, its relation to cancer and of nukes. There is still enough to remain worried about, but at least the irrational anxieties made place for knowledge based concerns. You still get cancer from radiation, but at least I can tell the dangerous radiation from the not so dangerous and fathom the relation between doses and increase of chance it causes cancer. Enough to know, my dentist is taking the right precautions when X-raying my teeth and the watch that glows in the dark is not dangerous.

On the subject of nukes, the cold war in 1980 has been replaced with post 9/11 war on terror. We no longer fear the nuclear confrontation between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, but rather terrorists with nukes. Richard Muller has a nice build up. Do terrorists have uranium and plutonium? They probably do. Can they build a nuke? They probably can. Am I worried? A bit, but no, not really. Why?
For a uranium bomb, one needs uranium-235 which is extremely hard to come by. Plutonium for a plutonium bomb is easier to come by, but the design of a uranium bomb wouldn't work and the construction of a plutonium bomb on the other hand is extremely difficult. Hence, chances are in fact slim, terrorists have working nukes.

I am glad some of my misconceptions I had to walk around with for nearly 30 years have been cleared. I am not nearly a president yet, but I am more of a physicist than I ever was.
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