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Author Topic: Atomic bomb chain reaction "might not stop?"
Greg of Winter
Xboxing Day


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I've heard from a few friends a supposed UL concerning the Manhattan Project.

Supposedly, right before the first live-fire test of an atomic bomb, a group of scientists approached the Army officers in charge of the project and warned them that there was a slight chance that the chain reaction from the fission bomb might not stop on its own and the reaction would continue until the entire universe was wiped out.

According to the UL, the military felt it was worth the risk, and in some versions, they even kept it from the President, so he wouldn't get cold feet about nuking Japan.

Hard to believe, but it's been popping up in conversations lately.

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Meanwhile, at stately Wayne Manor...

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zerocool
Deck the Malls


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This is mentioned in Glenn Seaborg's autobiography, and in Robert Oppenheimer's trial transcript. They also talk about the possibility that testing will cause the atmosphere to ignite, and they did it it any way. I will look up the cites later.
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magpie
Deck the Malls


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Well, I've heard that as a risk of nanotechnology, but I don't really have the technical knowledge to know if that is a possibility.

About nukes, I hear that if one went off in any part of the world, the other countries would automatically launch theirs and the whole world would blow up as a result of all the bombs going off at once. Maybe this is some kind of doomsday theory as a result of movies like Dr. Strangelove and Wargames. I'd like to think that any country that was bombed would immediately stop what they were doing rather than perpetuate the loss of life, but I'm optimistic that way.

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Dr. Dave
Frosty the Pitchman


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magpie, although what you heard about nukes is exaggerated, it is not all fiction. What you describe, mutual assured destruction, was pretty much the paradigm of the nukes buildup (US and USSR) in the 1980's. It is a little different now with several nations having nukes. You reference movies such as Wargames, which is certainly fiction, but remember that the movie was a product of its times.
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Delta-V
Xboxing Day


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quote:
Originally posted by Greg of Winter:
Supposedly, right before the first live-fire of an atomic bomb, a group of scientists approached the Army officers in charge of the project and warned them that there was a slight chance that the chain reaction from the fission bomb might not stop on its own and the reaction would continue until the entire universe was wiped out.

IIRC, Teller (who was already thinking of fusion devices) came up with the possibility that the fission reaction would initiate a fusion reaction in Nitrogen present in the air. If this reaction were self-sustaining, it could 'ignite' the atmosphere. Note that they meant a fusion reaction, not a chemical reacion...N2+x02->2NOx is an endothermic reaction and cannot be self-sustaning. They refer to an N+N->Si reaction. I believe Konopinski disproved the idea before the Trinity test. In any case, in 1946 Konopinski, Teller, and Marvin published LA-602 "Ignition of the Atmosphere with Nuclear Bombs", which showed that the radiative losses exceeded the energy production.

quote:
Originally posted by magpie:
About nukes, I hear that if one went off in any part of the world, the other countries would automatically launch theirs and the whole world would blow up as a result of all the bombs going off at once.

Considering that the volcanic explosion of Krakatoa in 1883 released 4-5x more energy in one small area than the world's entire nuclear arsenal combined (~2.5 gigatons), and released more dust into the atmosphere than the nuclear arsenal would, a nuclear war wouldn't even bother the Earth's geologic integrity in the least. The asteroid that hit the proto-Gulf of Mexico 65Mya had the power of about 1 teratons (again, all in one spot), and while it did crack Earth's crust, it didn't blow up the Earth.

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"My neighbor asked why anyone would need a car that can go 190 mph. If the answer isn't obvious, and explaination won't help." - Csabe Csere

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Lainie
Ding Dong! Merrily on High Definition TV


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quote:
Originally posted by magpie:
About nukes, I hear that if one went off in any part of the world, the other countries would automatically launch theirs and the whole world would blow up as a result of all the bombs going off at once.

As Delta-V pointed out, the world would not blow up. The results would be catastrophic enough that "those who survive will envy the dead" (who said that?), but the Earth itself would not explode.

And at the time of the initial tests, of course, only the US had a nuclear weapon.

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How homophobic do you have to be to have penguin gaydar? - Lewis Black

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Doug4.7
Angels Wii Have Heard on High


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It's not really the "boom" of nuclear weapons that makes them "bad". It is that lingering radiation thingy that does the trick.

I think that if they were just big booms, we (and others) would have used them a whole lot more often.

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And now for something completely different...

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Delta-V
Xboxing Day


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quote:
Originally posted by magpie:
About nukes, I hear that if one went off in any part of the world, the other countries would automatically launch theirs and the whole world would blow up as a result of all the bombs going off at once.

One more note on this...obviously, a single nuclear explosion won't cause everyone to launch. The Indian, Pakistani, and North Korean subsurface tests didn't. Nor did the possible detonation near Prince Edward Island in the Indian Ocean. And, of course, neither did any of the other tests during the Cold War. While it is possible to detect a nuclear burst (using the 'double flash' characteristic), there is no 100% certainty and it would be not only pointless but stupid to launch everything on a single possible detonation anywhere in the world. There is no automated system to detect a detonation and initiate launch. In the US, launch permission can only be given by the National Command Authority (both POTUS and SecDef, or their successors), and a similiar system exists in Russia, with 3 members.

Even if the target possesses nuclear weapons, it does not mean they will respond with everything they have. They could retaliate in-kind with a single warhead. They could accept the loss of one of their cities. Or, if accidental, the launching state could sacrifice one of their own cities (as in the book Failsafe) rather than face all-out nuclear exchange.

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"My neighbor asked why anyone would need a car that can go 190 mph. If the answer isn't obvious, and explaination won't help." - Csabe Csere

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Hans Off
Markdown, the Herald Angels Sing


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Slight nitpick, the "double-flash" characteristic only applies to hydrogen bombs and not simple atomic bombs.

IIRC Oppenheimer did express some concern to the military prior to the original detonation that there was a slim probablility that his calculations might contain a significant enough error that an atomic blast would ignite the hydrogen in the atmosphere but he was pretty sure that that would not happen.

In many lines of work, the words might , slim , possibility and probably not don't hold as much weight as his!

There is also an Oppenheimer (I think) tale relating to the first reactor test when the control rods were removed when someone asked him what would happen,

Oppenheimer pulled the slide rule out of his pocket, fiddles with it and said
quote:

Self Sustaining.

I wish I had that level of Maths!


(please feel free to correct me "II don't RC".)

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"British English speakers point to Americans adding more syllables so that they can make even more noise without actually saying anything." Llewtrah


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Silas Sparkhammer
I Saw V-Chips Come Sailing In


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quote:
Originally posted by Doug4.7:
It's not really the "boom" of nuclear weapons that makes them "bad". It is that lingering radiation thingy that does the trick.

I think that if they were just big booms, we (and others) would have used them a whole lot more often.

Tricky; I can see this both ways. Nuclear weapons are distinct from others in compactness, as well as in radiation. It is the notion that one airplane can destroy an entire city that was the major revolution in warfare. No longer can the President, Premier, or Dictator be "safe." If war breaks out, everyone dies.

The new paradigm is "No Hiding." (A pun of the MAD era: you cannot hide from nuclear weapons...and it is no longer possible for one side to give the other side a "hiding," i.e. a drubbing.)

Silas

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Delta-V
Xboxing Day


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quote:
Originally posted by Hans Off:
Slight nitpick, the "double-flash" characteristic only applies to hydrogen bombs and not simple atomic bombs.

My copy of The Effects of Nuclear Weapons doesn't differentiate between fission and fusion devices regarding the opacity of the shock wave, but it uses a 20kt as the example (which is well within the range of fission weapons), and explictly says, "...Similar results are obtained for explosions of other energy yields. The minimum temperature of the radiating surface and the subsequent temperature maximum are essentially independent of the yield of the explosion." (paragraph 2.126) However, the time between pulses decreases with yield, so a very low yield device(say a US SADM at it's lowest setting, 0.1kt) might not register as two seperate pulses.

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"My neighbor asked why anyone would need a car that can go 190 mph. If the answer isn't obvious, and explaination won't help." - Csabe Csere

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Delta-V
Xboxing Day


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quote:
Originally posted by Hans Off:
There is also an Oppenheimer (I think) tale relating to the first reactor test when the control rods were removed when someone asked him what would happen,

Oppenheimer pulled the slide rule out of his pocket, fiddles with it and said
quote:

Self Sustaining.

I wish I had that level of Maths!
That would have been Enrico Fermi, calculating based on the neutron count, IIRC. Brilliant guy. He's also the one that, while waiting in the bunker for the Trinity test, jokingly asked if anyone wanted to take bets on "whether or not the bomb would ignite the atmosphere, and if so, whether it would merely destroy New Mexico or destroy the world."

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"My neighbor asked why anyone would need a car that can go 190 mph. If the answer isn't obvious, and explaination won't help." - Csabe Csere

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NovaSS
I'll Be Home for After Christmas Sales


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Its not the blast or radiation that will kill you, its the BIG MUTANT ANTS that will do you in.
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Il-Mari
We Three Blings


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I think that this and other potential doomsday scenarios were quite common among the general population and even some scientists after the use of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki - I recall seeing part of an old TV statement from a Navy officer previous to Operation Crossroads in which he assures the viewers that, among other things, the tests won't ignite the atmosphere or cause the oceans to be drained by opening a hole in the Earth (or words to that effect, I recall the announcement mostly because that last part sounds so funny to modern sensibilities).

- Il-Mari

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When you mix faith with science, you serve neither and weaken both.

- Richard P. Sloan and Larry VandeCreek

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The Vanilla Gorilla
I'm Dreaming of a White Sale


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Radiation? What are you talking about everybody knows that it gives you spider-like powers or turns you into a big green monster. [Smile]
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