Sunday, December 21, 2008

History Channel: Modern Marvels: "The Manhattan Project"


The Manhattan Project” is an important episode, made in 2002, in the History Channel’s “Modern Marvels” series, 45 minutes long, narrated by Max Raphael, produced by Sean Dash, documenting the history of the atomic bomb and of President Truman’s use of this weapon twice to end World War II. The web link is this. The name of the Project is based on the Manhattan Engineer District (MED).

The film discusses the science of chain reactions, of separation of U235 from U238, and of how HEU (highly enriched uranium) differs from plutonium. It described the “Little Man” and “Fat Boy” devices of 1945 as held together by 3M masking tape, suggesting that, for all the assembly of world scientists, there was something essentially crude about the devices, perhaps a warning in relevant to today’s world situation. The film shows the Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and even Hanford, Washington facilities, the last of which was involved in separating plutonium. I drove by that facility on a vacation trip in a rental car in the summer of 1990.

The Metropolitan Opera recently produced the opera “Doctor Atomic” by John Adams, covering some of the same material.

The actual history starts out in 1939 with a letter for FDR proposing the possibility of the device. Many of America’s best scientists (including Fermi and Zolard) were assembled in Los Alamos, New Mexico, to develop the weapon, and the most controversial and perhaps psychologically unstable was Oppenheimer. At the same time, enormous facilities were built in Oak Ridge, TN to separate and produce the necessary components. (I had a high school friend who would get summer jobs there during college in the 1960s.) Workers were recruited at both facilities, especially Oak Ridge, and promised amenities like steak dinners every night, but sworn to absolute secrecy. Society during the war was sensitive to the spread of information (and overhearing by enemies) to an extent that would shock today’s publicity-seeking world.

The film traces the Trinity test, and the fear that it could set the world on fire. The name “Trinity” came from a John Donne poem that dealt with the ability of God to recreate things by destroying them.

President Truman was told that he might be impeached if he didn’t use the weapons. The United States also feared the Soviets, and that they would try to partition a postwar Japan into north and south regions as was done with Korea and Germany. Scientists at Oak Ridge wanted to petition the President to do a demonstration drop on an unpopulated island before using the weapon on cities with civilians. The petition was squashed. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were left untouched by conventional weapons in order to be “available” for nuclear weapons.

Since World War II, the death rate from war has been steady and much lower than it had been in the first part of the 20th Century, because of the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons and “mutually assured destruction”. Scientists who worked at Los Alamos and who are still living count how many civilian deaths they were “personally responsible for” but believe that they saved lives in the long run. But in a time of asymmetry, rogue and failed states, and non-state terror groups like Al Qaeda with “no return address” the MAD doctrine seems to turn on itself.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

"Tornado Rampage" on the Discovery Channel


On December 18, 2008 The Discovery Channel presented “Tornado Rampage”, a cornucopia of live storm-chaser footage of twisters, mostly in the Midwest, as far back as 1991.

The program started with winter tornadoes, the outbreak in the south on Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2008, with interviews of students at Union College in Tennessee.

The program showed chilling footage of the May 2008 tornadoes that destroyed Pitcher, IA and that killed several boy scouts camped in a river valley area that should be been less exposed.

Another impressive sequence took place in Windsor, CO with a hailstorm first.

The show explained that a supercell is a large persistent rotating thunderstorm. The rotation occurs because of squeezing in the atmosphere as warm moist air from the southeast collides with cool dry air from the northwest. The twister is an example of the principle of the law of the conservation of angular momentum (a good question for a physics quiz).

The show presented some large wedge tornadoes, which often blacken part of the sky to the ground. Smaller tornadoes often seem to appear near the ends of storms in areas where rain has already past.

The show maintains that it is not a good idea to wait out a tornado under a highway underpass. The structure could increase the windspeed with a Bernoulli effect. It is safer to lie face down in a low ditch.

Other major tornadoes shown included Greensburg, KS in 2007 and a 1999 of 66 tornadoes near Oklahoma City. Sometimes there are multiple twisters and supercells forming north to south over an area.

I recall the tornado outburst on March 30, 1998 in Minnesota. I was in northern MN and returning to Minneapolis with a friend when we got caught in a violent hailstorm, unusual that far north that early in the Spring.

Update: June 21, 2010

MSNBC has a fascinating video of one tornado circling another in South Dakota


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

History Channel: The Universe: Deadly Comets and Meteors


The History Channel “Universe” program tonight is accompanied online by a three-minute video “Comets of Doom”, link here.

The “main course” of this “Universe” installment was called “Deadly Comets and Meteors”. The program started with mention of a website that allows one to calculate the effect of a given sized asteroid at a given location. The asteroid that caused the Chicxulub Crater near the Yucatan 65 million years ago, if it hit Los Angeles, would also destroy San Francisco with the “fallout” from the plume.

The film used the terms asteroid and meteorite more or less interchangeably, and most of the rest of the hour long film was a descriptive exploration of asteroids and comets in general.

The film talked about carbonaceous and ordinary meteorites. It moved to comets, and a female scientist made a “comet” in a laboratory with corn syrup, window cleaner, and dry ice. The film described Halley’s comet and then the Mam belt of comets in the regular orbits similar to those in the asteroid belt. Some comets that could threaten Earth could come from the Oort Cloud outside Pluto, extending to almost a light year.

The film then explored the idea that both meteorites and asteroids helped seed the Earth with life. Comets could have provided enormous quantities of water, and asteroids seem to have primitive amino acids, or at least their building blocks.

The film went back to the possible threats, including a small asteroid hit in 2029, which could be large enough to destroy a city, but had less than 1 chance in 40000 in striking. The film also showed comet Shoemaker-Levy (NASA link) which hit Jupiter in 1994. Jupiter protects Earth from most major asteroid and comet hits. We owe our lives to Jupiter. The film briefly described the Tunguska explosion over Siberia in 1908. There is an article by Charles Q. Choi in Space "Huge Tunguska Explosion Remains Mysterious 100 Years Later," link here.

At the end of the film there was a comment that a major strike of some kind would occur within the next 1000 years. But you don't need asteroid insurance, nor can you get it.

There was a related "Mega Disasters" entry (2 films, one on comets, one on asteroids) reviewed on this blog Sept. 5, 2007.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Discovery: Biblical Mysteries Explained: Sodom and Gomorrah: a warning about asteroids


Tonight, the Discovery Channel presented “Sodom and Gomorrah” as part of its “Biblical Mysteries Explained” series.

The one hour film presents an overwhelming case for the theory that the destruction of several ancient cities along the Dead Sea occurred on June 29, 3123 BC from the back plume following an asteroid that exploded over what is Austria today, even knocking the top off a mountain in the Alps. The plume would have looked like an enormous meteor shower, but soon the temperature over Sodom and other cities would have become so hot that the occupants fired and buildings burned. Lot’s wife was probably incinerated when out in the open, her charred corpse looking like a pillar of salt in the region today.

The asteroid has been tracked down from Sumerian drawings kept in the British Museum in London (which I visited in 1982).

The asteroid came from the Aten Belt (link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aten_asteroid ) between Earth and Venus. The explosion was 10 times the size of the Tunguska explosion over Siberia in 1908. The explosion was 100 times as powerful as the largest hydrogen bomb. The event resulted in a “climate collapse”: a “nuclear winter” of several years, and the turning of north Africa into the Sahara Desert and the middle East into the arid region it is today.

Ancient people would have seen this as the end of days, but were it to happen today, it could be a mother of all mega-disasters and threaten civilization as we know it. Yet the asteroid was less than a mile long and wide.

A comet could cause such a catastrophe, although the details of how it would explode and do damage could be much different.

The Biblical story in Genesis 19 now seems to present us with a great deal of irony. There seems to be an ultimate moral truth, but it is more about how fragile our world can be. Ancient nomadic culture was communal and socialistic (but so was early Christianity) with great emphasis on sharing hardships as well as wealth. Cities were seen as anathema to these values (as perhaps they are today – I had a roommate at the University of Kansas from the western Kansas town of Tribune, which I eventually visited, and he often talked about the corruption of cities, but this was back in the 1960s – even though he was also a fan of Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged). Sodom and Gomorrah (I’m reminded of Judge Robert Bork and his book “Slouching Towards Gomorrah”) apparently were quite inhospitable to Lot and his family and other nomads seeking shelter. Lot and his family left in advance of the catastrophe. The moral lesson for today is that the demands for hospitality can come at anyone as a bolt from the blue. After Hurricane Katrina, many people took in relatives and sometimes strangers. Hospitality demands could come in any area if there were a disaster, manmade or natural. Were I still in Dallas (I owned two different condos when I lived there), I probably would have heard appeals to take in people from the Dallas MCC or Cathedral of Hope (separate now). I once did take in someone for a few months in October 1980.

Of course, this gets us to the issue of homosexuality, and the idea that this story led to the condemnation of any sexuality that does not risk procreation, and the word “sodomy” and the legal issue (stemming in large part from religious misinterpretations) that would not be settled until Lawrence v. Texas (2003). Yet, some of us experienced the early days of the AIDS epidemic as a mega-disaster, which it has always been in Africa (although, again, apparently not because of homosexuality).

Pictures: McCollum Hall, University of Kansas, where I lived in room 907 1966-1968, looking out of Iowa Street in Lawrence; devastation in Bay St. Louis, MS, photo taken by me in February 2006.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

PBS: Avoiding Armageddon: Our Future, Our Choice: Turning the Tide


The PBS Series “Avoiding Armageddon: Our Future, Our Choice” continues in DVD 4 with “Confronting Terrorism: Turning the Tide”. Again, Walter Cronkite narrates. Bill Clinton appears frequently with extra comments.

The thrust of this film (90 min) is that failed states in the developing world breed unrest and encourage resentment against the West, often based superficially on religious ideology, especially among young men. To preserve our way of life, we have to maintain eternal diligence to avoid an instant of horror. We have to get it right all the time; the enemy needs to score only once.

The film points out early that there is not real control of international shipping or tracking what is on it reliably. That seems to contrast with how freight railroads work in western countries.

The film showed a computer simulation of what might happen with an anthrax could over Seattle, by the National Atmospheric Release Advisory Center (NARAC) of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, where a friend of mine in San Francisco worked in the 1980s.

It also showed attractive young adults with smallpox, and interviewed Michael Osterholm from the Minnesota Health Department (link).

There was some attention to a typical family’s preparing itself to survive a long time without government after an attack.

The film goes on to investigate the three most critical states (outside of Iraq, that is).

First, it reviews Afghanistan, which, before 9/11, was one of the most obscure places on earth. I did a geography paper on it in ninth grade, and the general education teacher said, she just knew I would pick that country. How prescient!

The film points out that the Taliban had an ideological reason to keep its population illiterate, and to keep women subservient and hidden from society. This seems to fit into what seems like an odd psychology of marriage and family and how it fits self-concept in the world of radical Islam. The film shows the squalor and lack of infrastructure and utilities in Afghan villages. Most do not have phone service or electricity.

The second dangerous country is Iran, about which I’ve written recently The film briefly covers the 444 day hostage crisis at the end of the Carter administration, and Carter appears. However, the film (made in 2004) precedes the influence of the bellicose Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the controversy over its nuclear program.

The third area of instability risk is most of sub-Saharan Africa, because of the AIDS epidemic as starting in the 1980s. The film focuses on Uganda. The prevalence of AIDS among adults has dropped from 20% in 1992 to 6% today. Castro in Cuba found that many African soldiers were HIV infected when they came to Cuba for training in the 1980s. The disorder in Somalia and the Sudan, where Osama bin Laden hid out, and the attacks in Africa in 1998 may be related to instability caused by AIDS. The disease appears to be spread by heterosexual contact during rapid urbanization, and is probably exacerbated by other sexually transmitted diseases.

The film concludes with panel discussions and some remarks, as by Madeleine Allbright.

The range of material covered in the film shows how, in a globalized economy, problems tend to interact and cause social and economic tensions previously unknown. The film mentions that the Internet has provided an effective asymmetric tool among extremists un recruiting others to their ideology.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

"The Fight of Her Life" and "Paradise Now": how the psyche works


There is a little film from 1999 from India and Phaedra films that now seems particularly prescient for what has happened in Mumbai, although it probably is more indicative about what happens in the middle East. The Indian name is “Theeviravaathi”, in French “Malli: Le combat d’une vie” or simply "The Terrorist". The film has been promoted by John Malkovich, and is directed by Santosh Sivan. The 95 minute film is a bit crude technically and has a somewhat monotonous musical moog sound track.

Ayesha Darker plays Malli, a teenage girl (from Sri Lanka) who is “recruited” out of grief following the death of her brother, shown graphically in the prologue. She is fitted with the explosives and a belt, and she is supposed to detonate herself while putting a garland around an official a few days later. Yet, pretty soon, she seems to veer away from the shame that is typically the motivation in these cases (particularly in Palestine and probably with other conflicts around the world). She gets back into blood loyalty, and soon learns she may be pregnant. The movie has lots of ideological speeches that seem to turn in on themselves. Taken in by the family “sponsoring” her martyrdom, she meets a old woman who has remained catatonic since the loss of her own son to terror. Her moment of truth is at the end. This movie has a real end, with a red button. Not quite the red phone.

Landmark Theaters have been selling the DVD of this film recently.

A more recent film along the same lines is "Paradise Now" (2005, Warner Independent Pictures/Augustus, dir. Hany Abu-Assad, 90 min) in which two boyhood friends on the West Bank go toward their path of martyrdom. The film is graphic as to how they are “prepared..” The film, shot in full 2.35:1, shows the West Bank and Israel on location with breathtaking realism.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Discovery Channel Sci-Tech: New York Earthquake


Tonight the Discovery Channel aired a one-hour film “New York Earthquake” as part of its Sci-Tech series. It is very similar to the History Channel Mega-Disasters film of the same name which I reviewed on this blog Oct. 23, 2007 but it does not seem to be identical. The credits say that it was made for Discovery Channel (they rolled too fast to get the name of the director).

The film seemed to me more specific as to the danger New York could be in than I recall from the History Channel film. As before, it mentioned the 1884 earthquake, magnitude 5.5, south of Long Island. As a general rule, earthquakes in the East for a given magnitude are more destructive and over a wider area than in California. A 6.0 in New York City (which could happen ever 400 years) might be more destructive as a whole than a 7.0 in San Francisco, despite the logarithmic nature of earthquake Richter scale. A 7.0 could happen every 3500 years, but no one know when the last “big one” was so the clock could be ticking now.

This film (a scientist named Gates) examined the mountains north of New York City (Harriman Park, perhaps the Schewangunks, a popular destination for the Sierra Club when I lived there) for active faults, and found a fault that could explain the 1884 quake.

A physicist (Steve Ross, native of the City) discussed the vulnerability of bridges and buildings in New York. Masonry buildings without reinforcing steel, common in brownstones, could collapse. The external masonry from older skyscrapers like the Empire State Building could fall off as if shaved. Shorter buildings have higher natural frequencies and are more exposed to mechanical resonance. Some bridges have only vertical steel support and are vulnerable. The Roosevelt Island tram (which I rode in 1976 and actually looked at an apartment – too much trouble) is vulnerable. So are some apartment buildings built over the East Side or West Side highways. Some subway tunnels are not sufficiently reinforced.

The bedrock underneath New York City varies in thickness, which explains why skyscrapers generally are built only at the lower end and in midtown.

New York does sit in the middle of a plate now, but there are very old faults underneath, and possibly some dimpling, as with New Madrid. Boston and Charleston SC have had severe earthquakes since the settlement of America.

Most of New York City remained functional on 9/11. That would not be true after a major earthquake.

Chuck Scarborough, former local television anchor in New York, appears in the film. He is author of "Aftershock: Earthquake in New York", which became the four hour film (1999, directed by Mikhael Solomon) that has appeared on ION TV. (There is also a 1998 shorter TV film by that name, directed by Terry Ingram.)

So, Donald Trump, watch out. The City can eat people up.