Friday, June 5, 2009

Murder by Maxwell's equation - or how I learnt to love the magic bullet

Science magazines have become pop savvy in recent times. They dress up fairly mundane stories in provocative titles like "Hunks get more sex" (New Scientist) or "Secrets of the Phallus: Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?" (Scientific American). So I was only mildly piqued when I stumbled across "Radio-controlled bullets leave no place to hide" on the New Scientist site today.Far from this title being a snappy cover for say a new type of flu vaccine its rather banaly about, well, radio controlled bullets. The science content of the article is a standard application of Maxwells Laws. The said bullets, being rifled, rotate in the earth's magnetic field. A little loop inside the bullet has an AC current induced which radio receives the distance travelled in combination with the gun's 'smarts' - that's the electronic rangefinder - not the grunt who pulled the trigger. It gives the soldier "another tool in his kitbag". Now all we have to do is find someone capable of pointing it in the right direction.

From a scientific point of view it might have been a vaguely interesting article if it had gone on to discuss the effect of turbulence or whether the rotation speed, or pointing it north or south makes much difference to the range accuracy. Instead it read like a boring version of an arms fair advert

"the XM25 rifle to give its troops an alternative to calling in artillery fire or air strikes when an enemy has taken cover and can't be targeted by direct fire. "This is the first leap-ahead technology for troops that we've been able to develop and deploy," says Douglas Tamilio, the army's project manager for new weapons for soldiers."

The "X" stands for Xtremely smart bullet which after passing through the Afghan mudhut window (if it had one) dodges all the kiddies and takes out the wayward father sitting on the couch reading a copy of "Al Qaeda Monthly". Even if our smart bullet is unable to perform this feat of magic it can simply explode - and since the final range offset is +/- 3 metres - presumably with some force.

Oh did I mention that the bullet explodes? Yes, thats the idea. You cant actually see who is in the room, so better just to cause an explosion, killing or maiming everyone inside. Now the clue as to why this "tool" is any different from the current ones is given in the text:

"You could shoot a Javelin missile, and it would cost $70,000. These rounds will end up costing $25 apiece. They're relatively cheap," Tamilio says."

Now thats a word to the wise in our current economic troubles - carnage on the cheap. The best method (if a little bit of an overkill) would be just to nuke every town in Pak/Afghan/Iraq-istan, but have you seen the price of plutonium recently? That market has gone to the dogs since the North Koreans and Iranians cornered it..

As a little marketing aid, a helpful diagram of how the XM25 carries out its mission is enclosed (and reproduced here for your consideration).

Our do-gooder marine, outnumbered 2-to-1 by the dastardly foes is wisely prone behind his smart-rifle. Evil-doer number one is taking a rest in his trench after a hard morning studying the suicide bomber manual. Our smart bullet sails over the trench wall and explodes, gently showering our baddie in a black rain (thats the clue that lets you know it actually hurts). Evildoer number two after seeing the fate that has befallen number one flees - in case his uniform also gets wet from the black rain. We then quickly take out the retreater and his cowardly mates with a fuel air or DIME bomb.

As our advertising brochure picture rather gleefully informs us, "trenches arent safe anymore"... because we know how safe they were in WWI where millions of soldiers idled about on banana lounges, sipping cocktails and writing casual postcards home. And the trenches in the first Gulf War were also notably safe. There an older technology was employed - we simply drove giant tractors to the edge of the trenches and buried many tens of thousands of poor Iraqi conscripts alive. But at least they didnt get their uniforms wet from black rain.

From an earlier article in 1999, also strangely from the New Scientist (amazing what 10 years and a change of sub-editors can do) we have a more realistic description of what happens when an exploding bullet strikes flesh

"WHEN Red Cross surgeon Robin Coupland needs to demonstrate the horrific effect of outlawed weapons, he produces a slightly smudged photo of a wounded man on a stretcher. Your eyes widen as you realise what you're seeing. Like a cartoon character chomped by a shark, there's a beach-ball sized semicircle where his shoulder used to be. The man's arm is still attached to his trunk by a perilously thin strip of tissue. The grotesque injury provides ample evidence that an illegal exploding bullet has been used."

"Outlawed". Yes, thats right, by the St Petersburg Declaration of 1868, the Hague Declaration of 1899 and Article 35 of the Geneva protocols. But the world's remaining superpower saw fit to dispense with the Geneva convention sometime ago when it became clear that they only faced rag tag foes with nothing else much except for 50 year old kalashnikovs. That shouldnt be good enough for New Scientist though. How about some small disclaimer at the bottom of this banally amoral article saying that editors dont endorse the breaking of international law?

Perhaps I should go further...what the hell is something out of Dr Strangelove's laboratory notes doing in a science magazine?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Roentgen's Humanitarian Machine

Having the opportunity to do some travelling with my partner in Southern Germany recently, we happened upon the preserved laboratory of Whilhelm Roentgen in Wurzburg. Roentgen discoved what he called x-rays using a Crookes tube cathode to produce a stream of high energy electrons which generated characteristic frequency x-radiation via interactions with the tube anode.

Exhibiting admirable modesty, Roentgen attempted to resist the move to name the new radiation after him (an attempt which failed in at least Germany and Russia). On being awarded the first Nobel prize he declined to make a speech and donated the award money to his university. He was offered the noble appellation "von" from the Prince Regent of Bavaria but turned it down. He accepted honors from his university with a call to new students to focus on the essential joy of research.

"During the time when congratulations and honours were showered upon me [...] one thought has always remained lively and fresh, and that is the memory of the satisfaction which I felt when my work was finally developed and completed."

Noone could accuse Roentgen's attitude towards scientific research as being tainted by worldly values. He expressed astonishment at the amount of money available for research in the US (even then) and thought that essential physics could be carried out with simple apparatus and clever thinking. He refused to patent an x-ray machine and endorsed the idea of knowledge for its own sake. This was an attitude that others saw an opportunity in. For instance, Thomas Edison was quoted saying

"Professor Roentgen probably does not draw one dollar profit from his discovery. He belongs to those pure scientists who study for pleasure and love to delve into the secrets of nature. After they have discovered something wonderful someone else must come to look at it from a commercial point of view [...] One must see how to use it and how to profit from it financially"

This is either a pragmatic or cynical view depending on how you look at it. I certainly would take a hard line to such pronouncements. Not only should science be pursued for the benefit of all (not least because it is funded from the public purse), but one should prevent any individual or corporation from extracting profit from it to the disadvantage of the public generally.

This is particularly an easy case to make for applications related to medical health (as x-rays are). Profits are derived in proportion to the direct cost of medical machines. Without an enlightened public health policy this can only lead to restricted access based on the financial ability of patients. This is a societal disease which we are yet to eradicate.

Apart from his attitude to financial gain, Roentgen does not appear to have particularly left-wing though, expressing a horror of Bolshevism and cheering on the German war effort in WWI. To be fair, one had to have hard left politics to see the 'Great' War for what it was, an imperialist adventure in which workers were sent to kill each other.

One wonders what Roentgen thought of the use of poison gas in the trenches (introduced by the Germans but in the end used mostly by the British). Though Roentgen signed the pro-war proclamation of the 93 intellectuals (which Einstein refused to sign) he later expressed embarrassment and claimed he was persuaded to sign without reading it.

On his death, Roentgen ordered his scientific and personal correspondence destroyed. This act of self effacement underlined an earlier speech he gave sayng that scientists must expect their work to be surpassed and forgotten. Roentgen does us a disservice here in my opinion - there is much to be learned from the history of science and the thought processes (and mistakes) of scientists. It is not in the interest of science to obscure the background to significant work.