Wednesday, October 29, 2014
While the trial of Admiral James T. Kirk following his theft of a starship and the “Whale Probe” incident that followed it are well known in the public consciousness, portions of the trial were sealed and classified Top Secret, in order to protect the security of the planet Earth, Starfleet Command, and The United Federation of Planets. What follows is a transcript of those previously secret portions, here made public for the first time.
President Hiram Roth: Admiral Kirk, can you please explain how you picked the late 20th century to travel back to? A time when nuclear tensions were at their height and the appearance of a phantom object on a reentry path toward North America—such as, say, a Klingon Warbird—could potentially result in the atomic holocaust of the entire planet.
Admiral James T. Kirk: Well, as it turned out, Sir, going back any farther would have left us stranded. As Mr. Scott has already noted in his testimony, the high-energy particles used to restart the Bird of Prey’s warp core were only available in those decades when nuclear fission was used as a power source.
President Hiram Roth: I see. And those particles were available at no other time in Earth's history?
Admiral James T. Kirk: Not to my knowledge, Sir.
President Hiram Roth: Where do those particles originate, Admiral Kirk?
Admiral James T. Kirk: Ahhh... help me out here, Spock.
Spock: Mr. President, the particles in question are emitted by the collision of a slow moving neutron with a uranium-235 nucleus. In this case, inside the fission reactor of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Enterprise.
President Hiram Roth: Uh-huh. And where did the uranium in that ship’s reactor come from?
Admiral James T. Kirk: Couldn't say, Sir. The ground, I suppose.
President Hiram Roth: According to our databanks, it came from the Black Hills region of Wyoming, though any number of natural uranium deposits on Earth should have been visible to the Warbird’s sensors. What would have stopped you from using uranium from one of them, had you traveled to a time several centuries earlier?
Admiral James T. Kirk: Certainly the time pressures involved meant that...
President Hiram Roth: Admiral, need I remind you that yours was a time machine? You had all the time you needed. If it took you ten years to get your hands on that uranium, you could have still collected the whales and made it back to the present day exactly when you left. So in truth, you could have gone back a hundred thousand years, to a time when the oceans were filled with whales and there was no risk of catastrophically altering the timeline.
Admiral James T. Kirk: That’s certainly true, Sir. But why would I want to go into the ancient past to find whales in the wild, when I could go to 1986 and find whales in an aquarium?
President Hiram Roth: Because those whales hate us! Do you know what we did to them? People in the 1980’s hunted and killed their entire families. Their mothers, their fathers, their children were all killed by whalers! Even these two were nearly killed. And, in between, they were captured by scientists and kept in an aquarium barely large enough to turn around in. Admiral Kirk, those two whales hate our guts! You couldn’t possibly find a worse pair of whales to gossip with a giant alien probe that has the power to destroy us.
Admiral James T. Kirk: I, ah, I’m sure the aliens will understand that humanity’s past is in the past, Sir.
President Hiram Roth: No, Admiral Kirk, the aliens don’t understand that. Do you think they’d send a probe on a 400-year journey to commune with an extinct species if they had an appreciation for that kind of thing? Admiral Kirk, they do not understand that humanity’s past is in the past. In fact, top scientists have been working day and night to decipher the communications between the whales and the aliens, and... In fact, Dr. Bryce, could you take the stand and tell us what the whales think of us?
Dr. Randi Bryce: They think we’re major assholes, Mr. President.
President Hiram Roth: Do you understand now, Admiral Kirk? The whales think we’re assholes, and now their alien friends, who have the power to destroy us all, think we’re assholes too.
Dr. Randi Bryce: Major assholes, Mr. President.
President Hiram Roth: Major assholes, Admiral Kirk. What do you say to that?
Admiral James T. Kirk: Well, Mr. President... any number of women have started out thinking I was a major asshole, but their... opinions frequently changed with time.
President Hiram Roth: What the hell are you talking about, Admiral Kirk?
Dr. Leonard McCoy: He means he bagged them in the sheets, Mr. President.
Admiral James T. Kirk: Thanks Bones. You’re a big help.
President Hiram Roth: Admiral Kirk, are you suggesting that you will one day have sexual intercourse with the aliens who sent the Whale Probe?
Admiral James T. Kirk: I don’t like to brag, Sir, but if history is any judge...
Dr. Leonard McCoy: If that doesn't work out, you could try sleeping with the whales.
Spock: That would be consistent with his past behavior.
President Hiram Roth: I tell you what’s going to happen to you, Admiral Kirk. You’re not going to be sleeping with those aliens, for one thing. For another thing, I’m going to order the engineers over at Spacedock to cut out the most broken and dysfunctional parts of every Constellation class ship in the system and slap them all together into the single most broken, busted, dysfunctional starship in the history of the Federation. And then I’m going to name it Enterprise. And then I’m going to bust you down to Captain and put you in charge of it! And I’m going to keep my eyes open for missions that send you to the ass end of the sector, or to some barren garbage heap of a planet, or anything else truly wretched. And whenever I see a truly shit mission come up, you’re the one who’s getting it. Because when it comes to shit missions, from now on you’re the only ship in the quadrant!
Dr. Leonard McCoy: This isn't going to turn out well for us.
Spock: The outlook indeed appears grim.
Admiral James T. Kirk: Oh, don’t be so glum. Maybe this little project just needs the right director.
Spock: I believe it may be time for another colorful metaphor.
Dr. Leonard McCoy: Ah, fuck me.
Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
Nuclear bombs: they’re pretty safe, right? Just make sure you’re standing behind the yellow line when they go off and you should be fine. Who drew the yellow line? Umm... some guy, I think. He had a clipboard and everything, so he must know what he’s doing.
It’s hard to do an article on the most ill-advised nuclear tests of all time, because it’s such a competitive area. You’d like to think that any nuclear testing would occur only after the most careful study and extensive cost-benefit analysis. In reality, however, most nuclear test programs seem to have their genesis with someone saying, “Hey, you know what look cool?”
The tradition of poorly thought out nuclear testing goes back almost to the beginning, in fact, when competing superiority and inferiority complexes in top military brass collided to make Operation Crossroads, also known as the Able-Baker tests. It all began in August 1945, the same month that atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, when the Navy and a United States Senator independently proposed that we drop a few nukes on warships.
The Navy wanted to do it so they could prove they still had relevance in the nuclear age. The Army Air Force, by way of their pet Senator, wanted to do it to prove the Navy’s irrelevance in the nuclear age. Both proposals were more or less rigged to produce the desired results. The Air Force wanted to pack as many ships in as tight as possible with full loads of fuel and ammunition to assure maximum destruction, while the Navy wanted unarmed, unfueled ships spread over a wide area to show how survivable they were.
To understand these political machinations, you have to understand that the Air Force brass, drunk with power after killing something like a million civilians with nuclear and conventional weapons during WWII, were of the opinion that, eh, America didn’t really need a navy anymore. The Air Force’s shiny new nuclear weapons could do anything the Navy could, and better! Shit, I bet if you put floaties on a nuclear bomb, it could have landed troops at Normandy at least as well as the stupid Navy did.
The competing plans eventually compromised, crowding the ships into a small area but loading them with only small amounts of fuel and ammunition. Scientists who’d worked on the Manhattan project, apparently oblivious to the critical need for the Air Force and the Navy to get into a dick-measuring contest, warned that the entire project was as dangerous as it was pointless. They were, of course, ignored. What the hell did they know about nuclear weapons, anyway?
The preparations for the test were abysmal. Simulations were conducted using a stick of dynamite and model ships. Many of the test ships being moored at Bikini Atoll had unrepaired damage from the war, which would complicate any later damage analysis. And no pretesting of the effectiveness of planned decontamination techniques was made, so they really had no idea whether they’d be able to decontaminate surviving ships. The man in charge of the tests, Vice Admiral William Blandy, apparently didn’t even realize that ships might survive an atomic blast but still receive a fatal dose of radiation. When someone brought this up, he hastily added test animals to the target vessels. He also didn’t know that the Geiger counters used on site could not detect alpha radiation, and were therefore blind to plutonium contamination.
In short, the whole operation was fucked from the start.
Rare color photo of Admiral Blandy observing the Able-Baker tests.
Nevertheless, in June of 1946 the first bomb was readied for air drop aboard an Air Force B-29. It was armed with the infamous “demon core,” which had already taken the lives of two scientists in separate accidents during the Manhattan Project. In one last act of defiance, no doubt, the bomb missed its target by half a mile and landed well to the edge of the cluster of test ships, sinking only five of them.
Score one for the Navy.
You can find color footage of the Able test here.
Within a day of dropping the bomb, most of the surviving target ships had been boarded for inspection and decontamination. So, yeah, let’s take that point right back. However, in what I’m just going to assume was sheer luck, given the competence level of the people in charge, the Able bomb was air-burst high enough to avoid significant fallout. Most of its fission products dispersed into the atmosphere, where you’re still breathing them today.
News reporters brought in to witness the blast expressed disappointment that the bomb didn’t sink more ships, which just goes to show how quickly human beings get bored with even the most incredible events. This was only a year after the first detonation of an atomic weapon, and the A-bomb was already blasé.
For the Baker test, a nuclear bomb was suspended by cable from the ocean surface, so that it could detonate underneath the surviving target ships. This was a monumentally poor idea, because no one had a clue how this would affect the blast dynamics. Here’s a little preview, though: it wasn’t for the better.
When Baker went off, it lifted millions of tons of irradiated water and seabed material up to a mile in the air. When it inevitably came back down, this radioactive material expanded into a turbulent cloud of mist which spread outward, engulfing all of the test ships and bathing them in radioactivity. Since Baker was detonated below the surface, nearly all of the fission products and unfissioned plutonium settled into the local environment.
Baker Test. The shadow at the base of the water column is thought to be the battleship Arkansas
being upended by the blast.
5000 people were sent into that radioactive environment to perform evaluation and decontamination. Fireboats tried to scour contamination off target ships with their hoses, but the process was largely ineffective—partly because they were trying to decontaminate with water pumped from the lagoon, which was now also radioactive. In many cases, this process only created more problems, when radioactive spray from the hoses blew back onto the fireboats and contaminated them too.
Video of the detonation and some of the fireboat cleanup efforts can be found here.
And if you think that’s dumb, you haven’t heard nothing yet, because sailors were actually sent aboard test ships to decontaminate them by hand. With soap and water. These sailors were given no protective equipment. They went to work in their uniforms, scrubbed plutonium-contaminated decks on their hands and knees, and then returned to their ships—dragging the contamination with them to spread it there.
Cleanliness is next to glowiness.
Even worse, the Navy was under the impression that target ships moored at the very edge of the test site could be recrewed and sailed home before being scrapped. Why in the holy hell would anyone want to occupy a ship that’s had an a-bomb dropped on it, and that’s just going to be scrapped anyway? Well, remember that dick-swinging contest between the Air Force and the Navy? The Navy wanted to take its surviving ships back to the mainland and get pictures of them steaming into port, to prove they were still operational after being hit by an atomic blast.
Two ships were thus reoccupied. Their crews promptly received a dangerous dose of radiation and had to be evacuated. The commander of the condemned battleship USS New York even got into a pissing match with the officer in charge of safety, Colonel Stafford Warren, and accused him of taking his Geiger counter readings too close to the deck of the ship. The deck where, you know, people have to walk, so wouldn’t it be a nice little bonus if it wasn't a cancer factory?
Speaking of things that aren't supposed to glow in the dark, guess what the fish in the lagoon started to do. Yup. They started to glow. Not in a visible wavelength, mind you, but let's just say that you could take an x-ray picture of them without actually using x-rays. Because, see, the fish were so radioactive that they now provided their own x-rays. Here's one of the blue tangs (a.k.a. surgeon fish) caught after the test, photographed in both x-ray and visible wavelengths:
At least it has a positive attitude.
No one immediately died from the radioactive contamination of the Crossroads tests, though not for lack of effort on the Navy’s part. The mortality rate among veterans present at Bikini, however, has been higher than that for veterans generally, and 200 premature deaths may be attributable to the Able-Baker tests.
Oh yeah, and did I mention that people were living there? Yeah, Bikini was inhabited prior to the tests. It isn’t now, of course, what with the glow-in-the-dark fish and whatnot. The natives were evacuated to Rongerik Atoll, which then had to be evacuated after it too was contaminated by fallout from the botched Castle Bravo nuclear test in 1954.
So congratulations, Bikinians. You’re honorary nijū hibakusha! Hopefully that thought will help get you through your chemotherapy.
Wednesday, October 8, 2014
Transcript of Order of Dagon Contingency Planning Meeting Regarding The Key
Brother Kazamir: Order, order. This meeting will now come to order. Thank you for attending, Brothers. I’ve called you here today because the Hell Goddess known as The Beast, a.k.a. Glorificus, a.k.a. Glory, a.k.a. The Abomination, a.k.a. That Which Cannot Be Named, has discovered that we hold The Key and seeks us even now. If she defeats us and takes The Key, she will unleash Hell on Earth in her attempt to return to her own dimension.
Brother Michal: Question, Brother. I’ve never understood the “That Which Cannot Be Named” part. Can anyone explain that?
Brother Vladimir: It’s very simple, Michal. She is far too evil to even put a name to.
Brother Michal: But Kazamir just put a name to her. Several, in fact. For someone who cannot be named, she has quite a few of them.
Brother Kazamir: Will both of you please shut up? We refer to Glory as “That Which Cannot Be Named” because she was born in the far depths of time, when the universe was fluid and mystical—before sound, before speech, and thus before names.
Brother Vladimir: Fair enough, fair enough. But, technically speaking, can't anything that existed in that time be accurately called “That Which Cannot Be Named”? It seems to me that we need a more specific system. Perhaps Glory could be “That Which Cannot Be Named One”, and then the next thing which cannot be named would be two, and then three, and everything would follow from there, until eventually you reach things that can be named.
Brother Otmar: Oh, and can we change it to “That Which Could Not Be Named”? “That Which Cannot Be Named” implies that it cannot be named now, which is plainly untrue, since we're obviously naming it.
Brother Kazamir: I fear that we’re wandering from the point.
Brother Michal: I have an idea. Why don’t we call her “That Which Could Not Then But Currently Can Be Named.”
Brother Vladimir: One.
Brother Michal: What?
Brother Vladimir: “That Which Could Not Then But Currently Can Be Named One.”
Brother Michal: Can be named one what?
Brother Vladimir: No, no. I mean she’s the first thing that could not then but currently can be named.
Brother Otmar: Do we know that for certain, though? She could be the second thing that could not then but currently can be named.
Brother Vladimir: Yes, yes, but she’s the first thing that could not then be named, but which we’ve taken to naming now, though it could not once but now can certainly, currently... be... ummm... be named. Thus, one.
Brother Otmar: I don’t follow you.
Brother Kazamir: Shut up! Shut up! We’re here to talk about my plans for The Key! If Glory obtains The Key, the world is doomed! We must do everything in our power to hide it from her. We'll figure out the name shit later.
Brother Vladimir: Quite so! Please continue, Brother Kazamir.
Brother Kazamir: Very well. I have been working on this problem all night, and I have a brilliant solution. I propose that we use an ancient ritual to transform the key into a teenaged girl living in Southern California, younger sister to Buffy Summers, the Slayer, and that we alter the fabric of reality throughout the entire world so that all humanity—with the contractually stipulated exception of the mentally ill—believe The Key is and has always been Buffy’s younger sister.
[Here, the transcriber notes that there followed “One full minute of crickets chirping”.]
Brother Otmar: Apologies, Brother, but ARE YOU HIGH ON CRACK RIGHT NOW?
Brother Vladimir: I was just going to ask that.
Brother Kazamir: What? What? Why would you say such a thing? I think it's a good plan. I thought you'd like it!
Brother Michal: If I may be permitted to speak for my esteemed Brothers Otmar and Vladimir, I believe that they mean no insult, but merely wish to point out the fact that this is the plan of someone who’s high on crack.
Brother Kazamir: Oh, come on! Think about it! The Slayer will protect The Key, for The Key will be her own sister. For what would she sacrifice more, than for her own sister?
Brother Vladimir: I, uhh, I don't know about more, but I daresay she’d sacrifice exactly as much to protect a Key that could destroy the whole world.
Brother Otmar: Exactly. If we’re going to count on The Slayer, why not just give her the damn Key and tell her exactly what it’s for? Why all this obfuscation? It just seems like we could save everyone a lot of hassle that way. Also, The Key wouldn't be wandering around and causing shenanigans.
Brother Kazamir: But if The Key were a mere object to her, she might destroy it rather than letting it fall into Glory’s hands.
[Here, the transcriber notes that there followed “TWO full minutes of crickets chirping”.]
Brother Otmar: What, exactly, would be wrong with that?
Brother Vladimir: Indeed. In fact, why don't we just destroy it ourselves?
Brother Michal: I’ve always wondered why we don’t just break the damn thing. I mean, why keep it around when it serves no useful function and can destroy the world? That’s not the kind of thing you keep in a junk drawer, for old time’s sake.
Brother Kazamir: It is a sacred object of ancient power! We cannot simply smash it.
Brother Vladimir: Why not?
Brother Kazamir: Because... ancient power. You know. Ancient power!
Brother Vladimir: What ancient power? It only does one bloody thing. It opens up a gateway to every dimension simultaneously, thereby unleashing countless hells on Earth. What do we want one of those for?
Brother Michal: Maybe he's worried he'll get bored with the Earth someday?
Brother Otmar: You’re both wrong. Brother Kazamir keeps The Key around so he can extract favors from people. I can’t count the number of times I’ve refused to lend him money, and then he’s been all like, “That sure is a nice planet you got there. Shame if anything happened to it.”
Brother Michal: Merciful Dagon! That’s horrible!
Brother Kazamir: We’re not destroying The Key, okay? I'm putting my foot down. That’s final. And if you don’t like it, then...
Brother Vladimir: Are you threatening to unleash countless hells on Earth if we don’t go along with your stupid plan?
Brother Otmar: That’s exactly what he’s doing. He does it all the time.
Brother Michal: Now that I think of it, he did once threaten to destroy the Earth if I didn’t turn down my music.
Brother Otmar: So I suppose we have no choice.
Brother Kazamir: Then we're agreed. We use our powers to transform The Key into Buffy’s little sister. And we name her Dawn.
Brother Vladimir: Dawn?
Brother Kazamir: Give me that look one more time, Brother Vladimir, and I'll destroy the Earth. Don't think I won't.
Brother Michal: Ahem. I think, perhaps, that I’ve found a compromise...
[Here, the transcriber notes that Brother Michal held up a newspaper whose headline announced the impending launch of NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover, Opportunity.]
Brother Michal: Perhaps instead of transforming The Key into the Slayer’s little sister, we should transform it into the Mars robot’s little sister, eh?
Brother Otmar: And no one would ever suspect a thing! There would be no one to work out the secret, what with The Key being shot off to another planet. And even if they did suspect, how are they going to get to it?
Brother Kazamir:That's a stupid plan. Who would believe that NASA would launch two identical robots to the same planet?
Brother Vladimir: It's better than your dumb plan.
Brother Otmar: Because, unlike you, we’re not on crack.
Brother Kazamir: I am not on crack! Not... today.
Brother Vladimir: I'll lend you money for crack if you agree to our less insane plan.
Brother Kazamir: Deal!
Brother Otmar: Then let us begin the ceremony...
Wednesday, October 1, 2014
“Well, I, uh, don't think it's quite fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slip-up, sir.”Have you ever lost something important at work? An expensive tool, a critical spreadsheet, or maybe an entire intern? You know that sinking feeling you get when you realize how badly you screwed up? Just imagine how much worse it would be, if that intern were made of plutonium.
–General Buck Turgidson, Dr. Strangelove
The U.S. military classifies nuclear weapons incidents on a scale that starts small at “Dull Sword,” indicating an event which could have become a nuclear incident under different circumstances. For example, in 1950 the crew of a B-36 Peacemaker bomber that was experiencing engine trouble decided, before bailing out, to drop their Mark 4 nuclear bomb on Canada. Because fuck Canada, right? The bomb was only loaded with a practice nuclear core, however, which made a nuclear detonation impossible.
1950, in fact, witnessed a second Dull Sword event when a B-50 also experienced engine trouble and its crew also decided to drop their Mark 4 nuclear bomb on Canada. Yeah, by 1950 the United States Air Force had already dropped as many nuclear bombs on Canada as it had on Japan. And why the hell not? It’s nothing but snow, hockey, and socialized medicine up there. It’s practically Russia already.
Here you go, Canada. Have two of these on Uncle Sam.
Next in order of severity is a Bent Spear incident, which involves a relatively minor mistake or accident which has only the smallest probability of ending civilization. The most famous of these occurred in 2007 when a B-52 that was supposed to be ferrying unarmed cruise missiles for disposal was accidentally loaded with six live nuclear warheads, each one having a maximum yield of 150 kilotons. That’s a total explosive potential around 50 times larger than the “Little Boy” bomb that killed a hundred thousand people when dropped on Hiroshima. Breaking with tradition, these cruise missiles were not fired at Canada, but were instead delivered to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana, where someone finally noticed they were live weapons. By then, a full two days had passed since they were improperly removed from their secure bunker. In that time, no one at the site of origin had noticed that six nuclear warheads were missing.
Next comes Empty Quiver, which is the theft, seizure, or other inadvertent loss of a nuclear weapon. Boooooring. Wake me up when we get to…
A Broken Arrow. These are the mack daddies of nuclear weapons incidents. A Broken Arrow is any incident in which there's a risk of detonation or release of fissile warhead material. Since the 1950’s, there have been approximately a gajillion of these incidents. Taken individually, most involved no or fairly low probabilities of accidental nuclear detonation, but put all of them together and it’s a fucking miracle that we haven’t accidentally vaporized a bunch of people.
The first Broken Arrow I’m aware of happened in 1950—a real banner year for nuclear mishaps—when a nuclear-armed B-29 crashed three minutes after takeoff. The nuclear core was aboard but not installed at the time of the crash, so the fissile plutonium merely cooked in the fire until they could put it out. No big.
Not to be outdone by the Americans, a Soviet submarine in 1977 accidentally dropped a nuclear missile into the northern Pacific Ocean. There was a build-up of pressure in the launch tube and they just, you know, accidentally dropped it overboard. Woops.
In fairness to the Soviets, the ocean floor is a popular place for accidentally leaving nuclear weapons. In 1965, the U.S. Navy dropped one off an aircraft carrier while steaming south of Japan. The bomb, the pilot, and the aircraft they were both attached to rolled off an elevator and were never recovered. The loss was not revealed, however, until 1981. Apparently, someone at the Pentagon feared that Japanese people might have strong opinions about nuclear weapons for some strange reason.
God, Japan, you’re such a Canada.
My absolute favorite broken arrow, however, has to be the 1961 crash of a B-52 in Goldsboro, North Carolina. The Air Force, having learned absolutely nothing from the shenanigans back in 1950, had armed the aircraft with two Mark 39 thermonuclear bombs—both live, with their plutonium cores fully installed. During a refueling operation off the coast, the tanker crew noticed a fuel leak on the B-52’s right wing. The pilots attempted to make an emergency landing, but the bomber began to break up at around 10,000 feet and the crew ejected, leaving the live bombs in their falling aircraft.
On one of the bombs, three of four safety mechanisms completely failed on the way down and the bomb armed itself for a ground burst. Following its programming to the letter, it deployed its drag chute to slow its descent, activated its detonation triggers, and charged its firing capacitors. When it hit the ground in a muddy field, the trigger mechanism activated, sending an electrical signal to the firing capacitors. If that signal had arrived, the capacitors would have discharged and the bomb would have detonated.
If it had gone off, according to calculations I made using Nukemap, the 3.8 megaton bomb would have created a crater five hundred feet deep. The fireball would have been a mile wide. It would have leveled every building for five miles in every direction. It would have inflicted third degree burns on 100% of exposed persons within twelve miles. The cloud of radioactive fallout would have stretched four hundred miles under moderate wind conditions, reaching as far as Atlanta or Philadelphia depending on wind speed and direction. Something like 20,000 people would have died.
Only an arm/safe switch—the single safety mechanism which worked properly on that bomb—stopped this from happening.
But, you protest, that arm/safe switch couldn’t possibly have malfunctioned, right? It’s surely failsafe, right? Right? RIGHT?! For fuck’s sake, Robyn, that last switch must have been very reliable!
Actually, now that you mention it, do you remember that there were two bombs? On the second bomb, the triggers did not activate, the capacitors did not charge, and the drag chute did not open. Many of its components were never found, but they did recover the arming switch—the same switch that, on the first bomb, was all that stood in the way of a nuclear detonation.
When found, the second bomb’s switch was set to the armed position.
Sleep tight, everyone.