DATE June 12, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Journalist and author Sharon Weinberger discusses her
new book "Imaginary Weapons" about fringe science projects
under way in the Pentagon
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Sharon Weinberger, is a journalist who covers national security and
defense technology. Her new book, "Imaginary Weapons," is about what she
describes as `fringe science in the Pentagon's scientific underground.' It
focuses on a Pentagon plan to build an isomer bomb, a grenade-sized
superweapon so powerful it could melt human flesh, penetrate hardened
underground bunkers and evaporate whole city blocks. It would be unlike any
other bomb ever made, using powerful bursts of gamma rays, but most scientists
thought and still think, it could never work. Weinberger is the editor of
Defense Technology International. Several of her articles on fringe science
in the Pentagon have been published in The Washington Post magazine.
Sharon Weinberger, welcome to FRESH AIR. I want to start by acknowledging
that it's really hard for someone like me to tell the difference between
fringe science and real science because the real science is so far out and
beyond my comprehension. For example, what are some of the more far-out
weapons being marketed now at military conferences that actually work or
really close to working that would seem really far out to most of us?
Ms. SHARON WEINBERGER: Well, certainly, anything having to do with lasers or
what's known in the field as `directed energy' is very far-out, and this is
something that's been under development for, well, about 40 years or longer
and is only now coming to fruition. And that certainly was considered
`far-out' when the first lasers were developed in the 1960s. At the same
time, it wasn't considered `fringe' because the underlying science behind it
was considered sound, and it was just the applications that were considered
But what you point out is exactly correct. It's very, very hard for most
people who don't have an in-depth scientific background to tell that
difference between fringe and far-out, and that's why, in the United States,
we have--we have a science base which uses peer review by the scientific
community to try to sort some of these things out.
GROSS: And one of the points you make on this book is that that peer review
process is being allowed to or being forced to deteriorate.
Ms. WEINBERGER: I think particularly within the Pentagon, not in other parts
of government so much. The National Science Foundation is very wedded to peer
review as is the National Institute for Health. But the Pentagon has
historically taken a different approach. They call, particularly within the
Defense Research Project Agency, which is the research and development arm of
the Pentagon, they take a high-risk, high-payoff view, that we might find 100
projects and only one of them will pay off, but the payoff will be so high
it's worth the risk.
But I think what a lot of people have noticed over the past couple decades is
that as the scientific base within these agencies related to the Pentagon
deteriorates, as the positions of scientific advisers are eliminated and as
there's less and less scientific capability within these agencies, there's
less and less ability to determine what is high-risk, high payoff and what is
foolish risk and no payoff.
GROSS: Then there's a group called the Jasons, and there's a recent book
that's all about the Jasons. Would you explain what the Jasons are?
Ms. WEINBERGER: The Jasons are a group that was formed in 1959, and they
were kind of a child of the Manhattan Project, the next generation of
scientists, who really felt there was a need to provide scientific advice to
the national security institutions, not just the Pentagon but also other
agencies as well. And they started off working on everything from ballistic
missile defense and air defense studies and focusing very much on nuclear
weapons. And then, in later years, branching off into other areas. And it
was really kind of a unique phenomenon, that you had scientists who were in
academia, who had top secret clearances providing completely independent
advice to the Pentagon, and they were always walking a tightrope between not
wanting to anger their sponsors in government but at the same time wanting to
provide scientific advice, and they were really an invaluable resource.
GROSS: The Jasons fit into a story that you're about to tell about a bomb
that was in development that a lot of scientists thought could never really
happen and was an example of fringe science that shouldn't really be pursued
or funded, and this is called an isomer bomb. Would you describe what the
advocates of this bomb claim it would be able to do?
Ms. WEINBERGER: The advocates of what has been dubbed the isomer bomb claim
you can take radioactive material dubbed in isomer--it's sort of a charged-up
nucleus. One person described to me, it's like a balloon filled up with air.
And so in the concept of a bomb, if you take a balloon filled up with air, if
you could find a pinprick to release all of this energy at once, that would be
a bomb. And the idea of doing something useful with isomers has been around
for years and years because they store all of this energy. They're highly
energetic, and they're fascinating for physicists, and with any bomb, the idea
is to get a lot of energy and then find a way to release it very, very
And so isomers, kind of, even to a lay person, if you describe it to them, it
sounds like it would make a great bomb. Lots of energy and you can release
it. And you get very, very, very close to nuclear levels of energy, very
close to what a nuclear weapon would be. Only it's not, at least, according
to the letter of the physics law, a nuclear weapon. So what you would be able
to do is create bombs in very, very small packages. One of the concepts was a
nuclear hand grenade. And though there's a lot of debate on the point, the
argument is that you could even get around restrictions on nuclear weapons,
both congressional restrictions on building new nuclear weapons and also
moratoria on testing new nuclear weapons, and that's what makes the isomer
bomb intriguing to the nuclear weapons laboratories and to the defense
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sharon Weinberger, and she's
the author of the new book, "Imaginary Weapons: A Journey Through the
Pentagon's Scientific Underworld." And she is also the editor of Defense
Sharon, how were you first introduced to the idea of this isomer bomb?
Ms. WEINBERGER: Back in 2003, I was looking at writing a longer story on
what are colloquially called bunker-busting nuclear weapons, the idea that we
could hit underground targets with earth-penetrating nuclear weapons. And I
was sort of intrigued by why people wanted to do this, so I was attending a
number of briefings around Washington on the issue, and there was a nuclear
weapons scientist giving a briefing on Capitol Hill. In the middle of the
briefing, someone asked about something called a hafnium bomb, and I'd
absolutely never heard of this concept before, and a few people in the
audience started chuckling and laughing like it was some inside joke. So I
asked the gentleman who asked about it, `What is a hafnium bomb?'
And it turned out that this was a scientist named Peter Zimmerman who used to
work in the old Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. And we sat down the next
day and he tried to explain what isomer bomb was and it was the most confusing
thing. He introduced to me the idea of a nuclear isomer, which is a material
that exists in a charged-up state and stores a lot of energy, and he began to
tell me the story of how in 1998 a Texas scientist named Carl Collins had
gotten a hold of a sample of hafnium, this very radioactive material that had
been bought by his wife's company. And then he used a used dental x-ray
machine, shone it on the hafnium to trigger the energy, and lo and behold,
about five years later, we have an entire Pentagon weapons project based
And story seemed so outlandish and so farfetched I thought it couldn't
possibly be true, only it was. So I began to trace the history of it. You
know, how did this obscure experiment in Texas involving a radioactive
material called hafnium and a used dental x-ray machine end up in the
Pentagon? And the story I got out of that was the story of hafnium bomb or
isomer bomb that I tell in this book.
GROSS: Now this experiment with the dental x-ray machine releasing the energy
of the hafnium, prominent scientists tried to replicate the results. What
Ms. WEINBERGER: In 2000 and 2001, a group of scientists at the National
Laboratories, which are owned and operated by the Department of Energy--about
12 of them got together and said, `Look, this, if it's true, has important
implications for national security. We don't think it's true because it
violates some basic laws of physics but if it is true, it's very important.
So let's do what we do in the scientific community and let's try to replicate
the results.' So they did their own experiment, using much better equipment
and instrumentation. Rather than a dental x-ray machine, they used a massive
x-ray facility. They prepared the hafnium sample in a very specific way. And
they did one experiment first and then published the results. Carl Collins,
the Texas scientist who did the first experiment said, `Oh, no. They did this
wrong. They did that wrong.' So they went back a year later, and they did
another experiment to those specifications, and again they found no results.
GROSS: The Jasons were asked to examine this, and the Jasons are the panel of
scientists, several Nobel prize winners, so this panel of scientists, whose
job it is to evaluate technology like this, they were asked to examine
this--the idea of the isomer bomb, the hafnium bomb. What was their
Ms. WEINBERGER: Their consensus of their study, which was done in 1999, was
that `Look, the initial results were improbable. We looked at the experiment
and there were several just outright flaws with the way the experiment was
done. Not only does it violate the laws of physics, but as an experiment,
there were lots of unknowns. There were things that weren't answered.' They
were very critical of the procedures that were used by the Texas group, and
what they said was, `Well, we don't believe this. Perhaps it should be
repeated at a better lab.' But then they looked beyond the science of the
experiment itself and looked at the possibility of the bomb and they found a
whole host of problems. They said, `Look, if you try to produce this
radioactive material called hafnium, you're talking in the billions of dollars
for the amount needed for a bomb, and we simply don't have the facilities to
do this.' They also saw other problems. If you look at the way a nuclear
weapon works, you don't need just an initial spark of energy. You need a
chain reaction, and no one knew how you would get a chain reaction with
isomers, and they said, simply looking at the next 20 years, there's no threat
of an isomer bomb being developed by other countries. There's no ability for
us to do it in our country, and the whole thing is improbable. What they did
do is leave open the door saying, `Let's repeat the experiment,' which was
exactly what was done by other groups who again found nothing.
GROSS: So how is the project to build--you know, to fund the research to
build this isomer bomb kept alive after, you know, projects fail to replicate
the results, the panel of scientific experts, the Jasons said that this was
like really improbable and should not be funded. How has the project kept
alive after all that?
Ms. WEINBERGER: I think it has to do with an increasing interest and support
for fringe science within the Pentagon, as well as related agencies. That
mainstream science or critics or skeptics like the Jasons or like other review
boards are dismissed as being simply naysayers. What do they know? They
don't know everything. They're just arrogant scientists. The other idea
being forwarded by some in the scientific underworld is that there's this
cobbled elder physicists who have a stranglehold on funding who are only
interested in funding their own projects or their colleague's projects and
aren't willing to look at new ideas. In essence, what they're arguing for is
that the whole notion of peer review is flawed. And for many, particularly
for a lay audience, this might be very compelling. It sort of appeals to the
very American sense of being in love with the itinerant inventor, the sort of
the rogue individual going against the mainstream. And there's nothing wrong
with that romantic notion, but in science, particularly science that serves
national security, this can be a recipe for disaster. If you're not willing
to listen to the experts, you're going to pay the price--both the price of
lost opportunities, as well as pursuing projects, like the isomer bomb, that
are not going to pan out.
And increasingly in the Pentagon you have a number of officials who are
willing to continue on with these ideas, to fund them and to simply not listen
to the experts at all.
GROSS: My guest is Sharon Weinberger. Her new book is called "Imaginary
Weapons." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sharon Weinberger. She's the
author of the new book, "Imaginary Weapons: A Journey Through the Pentagon's
Scientific Underworld." She's also the editor of Defense Technology
International, and she's been covering defense technology for several years.
In 2002 DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, started up a
project to try to develop a hafnium isomer weapon. What was--wasn't it DARPA
that basically invented the Internet, that basically designed the Internet?
Ms. WEINBERGER: Yes, it is. DARPA has done just wonderful things over the
years. The Internet is probably the most famous example. It started off in
DARPA as the ARPANET and eventually became the Internet, and there are
numerous examples of things that DARPA has done that have fed into mainstream
science. The question that a lot of people are raising is the sort of `What
have you done for me lately?' Are we seeing DARPA on the decline? And I don't
know that that's an easy answer. I do think there are concerning things going
on with DARPA in terms of dismissing peer review, and the Jasons and their
being removed from DARPA support and moved over to another part of the
Pentagon may be a symptom of that.
GROSS: Why do you think DARPA decided to take on further research to try to
build this bomb?
Ms. WEINBERGER: Well, what happened was--is it first came to the director of
DARPA's attention in 2002. You had an Air Force--a former Air Force scientist
named Martin Stickley who'd been interested in isomers for several years, and
he had moved over to a new position at DARPA. And the way DARPA works is you
get program officials who come in for five years, and they often bring in
their pet projects. And the DARPA Web site likes to describe their program
manager as this freewheeling zealot who will ignore everything in pursuit of
their goals, and the idea being that they really like high risk, and that, in
and of itself, is not a bad thing.
In the case of this scientist, he came into DARPA, and he went to the director
and said, `Look, I have this great idea for a project I have. There's a
scientist in Texas who claims to have these breakthrough results with isomers,
and we think it would make for a really great explosive.' And this really got
the attention of the DARPA director because this was 2002. It was still in
the beginning stages of the war on terror, and there was a lot of interest in
new sorts of weapons, new explosives, because we were looking at sort of the
caves in Tora Bora and Afghanistan. We were looking at underground targets
that might store weapons of mass destruction or leadership bunkers. So the
idea of a new explosive was really very intriguing. Plus another thing that
it fed into at DARPA was the whole nuclear bunker-buster debate. This has
been a big push from this administration and from this Pentagon to develop
these new nuclear bunker busters, but there's a lot of pushback from Congress
and from the public on developing any new nuclear weapons. So what the isomer
bomb presented to DARPA was a way around this. You could develop a new
nuclear-type weapon that might be appropriate for the war on terror, but you
can get around congressional restrictions, you can get around treaties, and
it's something new. And this really was very appealing to DARPA in 2002 and
to the Pentagon.
GROSS: So what's the status of this research project at DARPA now?
Ms. WEINBERGER: DARPA has officially transitioned it out of the agency. In
2004 after I first published a cover story in The Washington Post magazine
about the isomer bomb, Congress stepped in and said, `Look, this thing is a
mess. You have tremendous scientific opposition to the program, and plus we
don't like the whole idea of developing a new type of nuclear weapon without
congressional review of it.' And they said, `It's too big and it's too much of
a mess.' At that point, the Pentagon was talking about spending upwards of $30
million and more just on the research stage, which is a lot of money for basic
physics research. And so Congress ended the DARPA program but allowed it to
go on at a lower research level, and from what I understand, it was moved over
to the Department of Energy. Congress earmarked a small amount of
funds--well, small, meaning about 5 million for isomer production. And so
there are still experiments that go on related to the hafnium bomb, but at a
very, very low level. Beyond that, you still have isomer research, not bomb
applications but in basic physics that is sponsored by the Army and the Air
Force, but one might argue that this is very legitimate research into just
trying to understand isomers.
GROSS: Los Alamos, which is a premier nuclear laboratory, was nearly taken
over by Lockheed Martin, which is, you know, a defense contractor. How did
that nearly happen and what do you think it would have meant if the deal had
Ms. WEINBERGER: Well, all of the weapons lab--all the nuclear weapons
laboratories are owned by the Department of Energy but operated by private
contractors. Los Alamos, since its inception, like its sister lab, Lawrence
Livermore, has been operated by the University of California, and there have
been a lot of criticisms over the year about how the University of California
has managed the lab. But there is for the most part among scientists a
consensus that being run by a university is really essential for a lab like
Los Alamos that depends on science. A sort of a university atmosphere
pervades the place. The idea that right or wrong you will always be giving
scientific advice to the best of your ability, that you're not serving a
defense company. Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico has been
historically run by Lockheed Martin, and people say that Lockheed Martin is a
good manager of it, but Sandia is not really, to the extent of Los Alamos, a
In either case, these labs every so often are up for competition, and there
had been so much criticism in recent years with things like the Wen Ho Lee
scandal or missing computer disks, that a lot of people thought that Los
Alamos was really going to be given over to Lockheed Martin, and there were
concerns that there would be mass retirements of scientists there who thought,
`Life under Lockheed Martin may be well-managed but it won't be independent.
We won't be working for a defense company, a defense company that's involved
in other large contracts, and how independent will we really be? Will we be
able to contradict government on even issues like the hafnium bomb?' And in
that case, I think luckily for a lot of scientists, the lab was--did end up
staying under the University of California, did not go to Lockheed Martin.
But the trend has been in recent years to turn these laboratories over to
GROSS: Now that you've told us some of the story of attempts to do the
research and then create this isomer bomb, what do you think are some of the
larger issues that the story raises?
Ms. WEINBERGER: If you go back to the 1980s, something like the Challenger
disaster, we appointed a high-level panel and had the kind of iconic physicist
like Richard Feynman looking at the Challenger accident. That was really, I
think, an important point in history where a physicist was really able to
explain to the American public what went wrong with the Challenger disaster.
It was really a scientific issue, and we looked to scientists to help us solve
these problems. I think today, increasingly, government turns to these
scientific advisers less and less. They--science is often looked at as simply
a way to further a political agenda rather than sort of a check and balance on
the types of things we're doing. I think the danger that I talk about in this
book is not fringe science in and of itself--I wouldn't want this to seem like
a clarion call to rally forces against fringe science. It's maybe, perhaps, a
healthy thing that we have scientists out there interested in anomalous
phenomenon and things that are farfetched and maybe even outrageous. But
unless government is willing and able to turn to scientific advice to help us
decide what's real and what's not, we're going to see more and more imaginary
GROSS: Sharon Weinberger is the author of "Imaginary Weapons." She's the
editor of Defense Technology International. She'll be back in the second half
of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Sharon Weinberger,
author of the new book, "Imaginary Weapons: A Journey Through the Pentagon's
Scientific Underworld." It focuses on the Pentagon's attempt to create a
superweapon that scientists warned could never work. Weinberger is the editor
of Defense Technology International.
Now, you know, your new book is about fringe science within the Pentagon and
the defense technology community. What directions do you think the Bush
administration has been heading in in terms of weapons technology? Do you
think they've been heading any more or less in the direction of fringy
Ms. WEINBERGER: I think they've certainly been headed in the direction of
bad science, and with bad science often comes fringe science. One of the
larger examples of that is missile defense, not to say that everything under
missile defense is fringe science or bad science, but once again, you have a
large scientific community really criticizing a lot of the work that has gone
on under the missile defense plan, and again and again you have the Bush
administration simply dismissing that advice and pushing it forward. In fact,
a lot of the work that they've done on missile defense has been to take it out
of even the normal reviews within the Pentagon and really isolate it from
either scientific reviews or even programmatic reviews. But you can also see
it in another area, for instance, the development of nuclear bunker-busting
weapons. This has been another big push from the current administration where
they really want this new generation of nuclear weapons, these
earth-penetrating bunker busters. We've developed bunker busters in the past.
They're looking at developing a new one. And a number of scientific reviews
have really criticized this concept--not saying you couldn't build one but
saying it would never do or be effective the way they want to use it. And
these scientific reviews, like, for instance, the National Academy of
Science's review of it, have simply been dismissed or ignored.
GROSS: What are their criticisms of the bomb?
Ms. WEINBERGER: There were a number of key criticisms of the bunker-busting
bomb. One of the key ones was that the radiation would really be dispersed,
that this would not be the sort of weapon that would burrow into the ground
and take out an underground target. That there would be a lot of
radioactive--radiation that would go out with it, making it a very dangerous
weapon to use the way the Pentagon wants to use it. The other problem is you
have to sort of know what you're hitting. A fundamental dilemma of the
bunker-busting bomb is you have to know where the underground target is, and
as we can see from our military conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, we often
don't know where things are, and that's another big problem with trying to
drop a nuclear weapon on something.
GROSS: You know, the Bush administration has been criticized a lot by the
science world, for its attitude toward science, for its downplaying of global
warming, for its open mind to intelligent design, and, you know, President
Bush has said it should be taught in classrooms alongside evolution. So I'm
wondering if you think its approach to defense technology science connects at
all with its other science policies.
Ms. WEINBERGER: It's definitely part of the larger issue, and the whole
point of scientific advice is you have an idea, you have a policy, and maybe
you want to see how well it falls in reality with science and you turn to
scientific advisers. What we're seeing on issues like global warming, like
missile defense, like bunker-busting nuclear weapons and maybe even by
extension to the hafnium bomb, is you have a policy goal and you're not
interested in learning whether the science behind it pans out. You're only
interested in the goal for the goal's sake. So either you seek out scientists
who will tell you what you want to hear or you simply ignore scientists
completely. Unfortunately, I think this is an issue that goes beyond a little
bit the current administration. One of the things that really riled the
scientific community under Clinton-Gore was when Gore--when Clinton-Gore first
came in, the chief science adviser in the Department of Energy was summarily
dismissed because he said on global warming, `Well, let's look at more of the
evidence,' and right or wrong, that didn't fall in with what was going on in
the administration. He was dismissed, so it is, I think, particularly endemic
in the current administration, but it's also something that goes back a number
of years and that both Democratic and Republican administrations are prone to.
GROSS: Let's talk a little bit more generally about weapons here. We've been
testing new weapons in Afghanistan and Iraq, and one of the weapons you've
written about that we've used for the first time in the war on terror is the
thermobaric weapon. What is that and how have we used it?
Ms. WEINBERGER: Basically thermobaric means high heat, high pressure, and
the idea is, and it's not necessarily a new idea, though, it's only recently
used by the United States. It's a slow-burn explosive, and the purpose of it
is to hit something like a cave or a tunnel complex, and it sucks the air out
slowly, creating a vacuum, essentially, to be blunt, incinerating everything
inside and killing everyone inside. This was used actually by the Russians
during their war in Afghanistan and also allegedly in Chechnya and was very
heavily criticized. The United States used their version of a thermobaric
weapon for the first time in Afghanistan and claimed that `it worked very
well.' What exactly that meant is not clear, but the idea is we're looking for
new weapons that can hit these hard-to-reach targets, be they caves, be they
complexes or underground targets. One of the criticisms of something like the
thermobaric bomb by human rights groups is that it can often have very
gruesome injuries, and since you're basically creating a vacuum, you can have
a whole array of just very unpleasant injuries for people along with that.
GROSS: My guest is Sharon Weinberger. Her new book is called "Imaginary
Weapons." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Sharon Weinberger. Her new
book is called "Imaginary Weapons: A Journey Through the Pentagon's
Scientific Underworld." She's also the editor of Defense Technology
Your new book is about fringe science within the weapons technology industry,
and you are the editor of Defense Technology International. As the editor of
that, you probably get to see all kinds of fringe science proposals. Would
you tell us about some of the more like far-out proposals that have crossed
your desk over the years or that you've seen proposed at conferences?
Ms. WEINBERGER: Well, there's a number of examples. I think the most famous
example is the intelligence agency's involvement with psychics, and this goes
back to the Cold War and also to a little bit the problem with brain science.
Basically, the intelligence community during the Cold War found out that the
Soviet Union was very interested in ESP, parapsychology, psychic phenomenon,
and there was a concern that if the Soviet Union is paying that much attention
to something within their science base, then maybe we should do it, too. And
so, sure enough, the United States began investing in psychics and a program
that was based in part out of the old Stanford Research Institute but it was
funded by the Department of Defense and basically looked at whether we can use
psychics to help the military community, and they tried to do it with a veneer
of scientific credibility. They tried to study the phenomenon, but it just
gets to the point of the absurd. Can people sitting in darkened rooms really
spot missile silos and submarines, and this went on for many years because it
was classified, it was top secret, and so there was no scrutiny of it. There
were no outside scientists available to say, `Look, we really need to look at
this in a scientific manner,' and it went on and on until 1995 when it was
declassified. They had a scientific review of it. Some people said there's
something there, some people said there's not, but `Look, you've been doing it
for a long time. It's not coming to anything.'
Another example that comes to mind is the Tesla coil. The Tesla coil was
invented over 100 years ago by Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla, and it basically
shoots sparks a few feet, and every couple years at a defense conference,
you'll find some itinerant garage inventor who comes up again with a Tesla
coil, and it shoots sparks about a few feet, and he'll tell military
officials, `Look, I can take this and I can make it shoot lightning bolts
across the room.' And the defense officials maybe don't know that this has
been tried for a long, long time. It's really hard to shoot lightning across
the room, but every few years they see this. It looks really cool, because it
shoots out sparks and these sorts of lightning guns and Tesla coil weapons
come up again and again.
GROSS: You also write about a device that would be designed to transmit the
voice of God into the enemy's head. What is that?
Ms. WEINBERGER: Ah, this is the idea that's colloquially called the `voice
of God weapon.' It's also been around for a lot of years. Basically back in
the 1960s, if not sooner--I think the first published report was in the
1960s--scientists discovered that microwaves at a certain level can create an
auditory effect, and this explained a lot. In World War II, engineers working
with radars reported hearing clickings or buzzings, only not hearing them but
having them in their head.
Scientists began to look at this, and one of the first published papers in
1961 said, `Look, there really is an auditory effect associated with
microwaves,' and immediately this raised the interest of defense officials,
who said, `Well, suppose we could create more than clicks or buzzes. Suppose
we could make it voices and speak into people's head and make them think that
God is talking to them or send messages. Make them think they're crazy. And
so colloquially this is known as the `voice of God weapon.' And at the
unclassified level, you've seen lots of small business contracts that have
gone to small businesses that specialize in microwaves to see if you can
create this weapon. The rumor has always been that there's been more research
on this effect going on in the weapons laboratories. This is not fringe
science in the sense that it may work or not work. It's fringe science in--I
classify that because it's really one of these things that defense officials
can't give up on because they think it sounds so good if we could, against
insurgents, make a weapon that makes them think God is telling them to put
down their arms. That would be a wonderful thing. Now the problem is is
that, again, this is an idea that just never goes away. It's just too
intriguing to be turned down.
GROSS: What are some of the real weapons in the works now, or about to be
used, that sound really far out but appear to actually work?
Ms. WEINBERGER: I think that laser weapons are really something that are
coming of age. The military right now is investing in a solid-state laser
that would reach up to 100 kilowatts. This is still a couple of years away
though. The military has been investing in laser weapons for 40 years, and
the big problem with them is not creating the laser--and we know that lasers
exist. We know how to make them. We can get them up to higher-energy levels.
The problem is making them so you can use them. Right now we have one concept
for an airborne laser. It's a chemical laser that would go on a Boeing
aircraft, and it would fly around and shoot down ballistic missiles. They've
had lots of problems with this. The laser itself can shoot but you need to
integrate it. You need to make it into a weapon. It needs to go on an
airplane. At the very lower level, I think, some of the first laser weapons
that we'll see are going to probably be solid state lasers. They've made a
lot of progress. They can be made smaller, but even that's a couple of years
away, but a couple of years is a lot better than the 40 years we've been
working on other lasers.
GROSS: The Army is buying Chinese-made lasers designed to blind the enemy.
And I think one of the uses they want to put it to is to prevent suicide
bombers from rushing checkpoints. Is it controversial for us to be buying
weapons technology from China?
Ms. WEINBERGER: Very. This is an interesting issue. That's been kind of
gurgling up in the defense establishment over the past few months and is
really only now getting some play in the press. One of the most sort of
realistic uses of lasers are very, very lower-energy lasers that can be used
to blind an enemy. This technology has been around for years. I mean, even a
laser pointer shone at someone will, you know--people will--may block their
eyes to block the beam. The problem with--this has always been getting it
through--the Pentagon actually does have a very rigorous review board for the
use of lasers on humans, and there are international treaties that they have
to abide by and then there's internal regulations. And the controversy that
has come up lately is that if you say, `I have a laser that will be used to
temporarily blind the enemy,' it goes by one set of standards. But if you
say, `I'm not using this on people's eyes. I'm using this on a rifle as a
rifle pointer,' then it goes under a separate set of standards. But the issue
at hand in Iraq is that these lasers are likely being used for both. They're
being used as pointers but also to designate--to put a spot on something but
also used to block the eyes of an enemy, and that creates a real issue of
whether these are going through the rigorous standards that we have in the
defense department. But these things are real. They're being deployed. They
can be used to temporarily blind an enemy as well as a pointer, and these
GROSS: But what about the controversy of buying it from China?
Ms. WEINBERGER: Ah, that issue has been that basically that the US has been
in recent years flooded by very cheap Chinese-made lasers, and customs has
created a whole list of Chinese companies that are shipping these lasers that
don't meet our safety standards but inevitably some come through. There was a
specific controversy in recent months where one of the Army labs was putting
together one of these laser pointer systems and started using Chinese
components, and when questioned about it, they said, `Well, look, these are
cheaper. You know, we'll let someone else worry about the standards of
whether they're safe or not. That's not our job. We're just building the
system, and we're going to use whatever's cheapest, and this was really a
concern because in defense shows a few years ago, the Chinese actually
marketed a product that was defined, that was specified for blinding an enemy,
and it really was above any medical safety threshold. It would have caused
permanent blindness. And China was really heavily criticized in Congress for
marketing this, and now you have US companies, as well as US military
laboratories, buying these same components from China but saying, `Well,
they're cheaper, and also these aren't really meant for blinding, they're just
meant for designating.'
GROSS: You have been writing about defense technology for several years. You
deal with the science behind it, with the funding of it, with the issues
behind it. You know, one of the things you say in your book that I thought
was very interesting, you say, `Journalism has never dealt well with science
because its emphasis is on balance.' I mean, journalists are really proud of
emphasizing balance. Well, why do you see that as a problem in your field, in
your part of journalism?
Ms. WEINBERGER: It's a problem when you write about a field that doesn't
rely on balance. Balance is a wonderful thing. Objectivity is a wonderful
thing but how do you use that balance when you're writing about a field that
doesn't want balance. They want scientific consensus. And that's a challenge
that I think is very hard to resolve. The scientific community doesn't say,
`We're going to look at cold fusion and say "One scientist says cold fusion is
right, one scientist says cold fusion is wrong."'
What the scientific community says is `Look, we're going to look at this the
way the community looks at it. We'll do a series of experiments. If they
don't replicate, we may not accept it. If better results come around one day,
we'll look at it again.' So the problem is is that you get this phenomenon
within journalism. Out of the best of intentions that every few years one of
these anomalous phenomenon that are very popular, like cold fusion, reappears
in the press. And the challenge for journalism is how do you look at it? A
scientist comes forward and says, `Look I have a cold fusion result.' And so
then you go to one scientific expert who says cold fusion is impossible, but
the first scientist you interviewed said it is possible. And so you write
both, and these articles appear every couple of years and say, `Cold fusion is
back. Maybe it's possible, maybe it's not.' And these sorts of articles
enrage the scientific community because they say, `Look, we don't look at cold
fusion anymore because it doesn't meet our scientific standards of consensus,
of reproducibility.' So I think the role of journalism in this and how we do
it better is that we shouldn't lose our objectivity, we shouldn't lose our
balance. What we need to work harder at is explaining the way the scientific
method works and the way the scientific community works and explaining that,
the scientific community is very harsh but it's very harsh for a reason. If
you let every result come through, we would never make any progress. We would
still be stuck in the age of alchemy, trying to make lead into gold.
GROSS: Sharon Weinberger, thanks so much for talking with us.
Ms. WEINBERGER: Thank you.
GROSS: Sharon Weinberger is the author of "Imaginary Weapons." She's also the
editor of Defense Technology International.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews a new CD by tenor saxophonist Eric
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews tenor saxophonist
Eric Alexander's latest CD "It's All in the Game"
TERRY GROSS, host:
Tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander passed through the Seattle and Chicago jazz
scenes on his way to becoming a New Yorker over a decade ago. He's recorded a
couple of dozen albums but jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says, `Many jazz fans
have yet to notice how good he really is.' Here's Kevin's review of
Alexander's latest CD.
(Soundbite of "Where or When" by Eric Alexander)
Mr. KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Eric Alexander jump-starting his version of Rogers and
Hart's ballad "Where or When." Some jazz musicians win you over by being
suave, by caressing a melody. Alexander tears into a nice tune like Popeye
into a can of spinach, with the same explosive results. Playing or
improvising on a song, he'll lean into the beat, impatient to get moving. A
favorite ploy is to bounce one note between octaves or alternate between two
ways of fingering the same note, so he jogs in place like a runner at a
(Soundbite of music by Eric Alexander)
Mr. WHITEHEAD: Eric Alexander, with former teacher and frequent partner,
Harold Mabern, on piano. Nat Reeves is on bass and Joe Farnsworth on drums.
When the saxophonist was coming up in the '90s, his other mentors included the
great tenor players Von Freeman and George Coleman, but neither's as obvious a
role model as John Coltrane with his big noble tone all over the horn,
lightning quick articulation and a buzz-saw approach to ballads. Those
alternate fingerings and a weakness for nervous trills help pull Alexander out
of Coltrane's shadow. Here he is on Monk's ballad, "Ruby, My Dear."
(Soundbite of "Ruby, My Dear" by Eric Alexander)
Mr. WHITEHEAD: For Alexander, this fireworks show can't be the conceptual
triumph it was for Coltrane, but it's still a win for dazzle and technique.
On Eric Alexander's new album, it's all in the game on high note, the
excitement may flag when the pace does. The most noticeable changeup is a
Bosa Nova-ish take on the 1971 Roberta Flack/Donnie Hathaway hit "Where Is the
Love?" Alexander finds a bluesy undercurrent below a slick surface.
(Soundbite of music of "Where Is the Love?" by Eric Alexander)
Mr. WHITEHEAD: As a post-1960 pop song recorded by a jazz musician, "Where
Is the Love?" is one of those tunes mislabeled `new standards' by some jazz
folk. A real standard, new or otherwise, is a tune that dozens or hundreds of
jazz musicians play, part of a shared repertoire. By that measure, none of
the Monkeys or Bjork or Radiohead songs covered by a jazz musician or two is a
bona fide standard, although the Beatles' "Blackbird" is on the way. Not that
good players like Alexander shouldn't play pop music of the last 40 years.
Still, the speed drills bring out his best. It's a thrill to hear someone so
confident at high velocity who doesn't exhaust his ideas even while riffling
through them in a hurry. As far as I'm concerned, Eric Alexander can play
anything he wants--but maybe he could play it really fast.
(Soundbite of music by Eric Alexander)
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead teaches English and American Studies at the University
of Kansas, and he's a jazz columnist for eMusic.com. He reviewed "It's All in
the Game" by tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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