By now, every sci-fi devotee and his grandmother has sounded off on Watchmen, Zack Snyder’s big-budget big-hoopla film version of the eponymous graphic novel. Love it or hate it (and most fans seemed to do one or the other) we can all admit that the movie remained faithful to the book, minus a few scenes and the absence of [spoiler alert] one giant alien squid.
We’ll leave the debates over the acting, direction, and overall adaptation to others (except to say that Jackie Earle Haley stole the show). But one aspect worthy of analysis is the story’s main conflict—the constant “looming” nuclear holocaust. Granted, we never actually see any evidence that the aforementioned holocaust is looming, save a few shots of Nixon upping Defcon levels—but we’ll address that later. When Alan Moore first published the book in 1986, the apocalypse on everyone’s mind was Cold War atomic bombs—which, as we’ve noted, no longer pack quite the same anxiety punch as, say, biological weapons. Today, gas masks and duct tape have replaced air raids and backyard shelters in the popular conscious, to the point where seeing mushroom clouds onscreen feels like you’re watching an ’80s homage.
Of course, none of this means that the nuclear threat is any smaller now than it was three decades ago: The danger of nuclear war is still present, and fear of missile attack still drives plenty of policy and military tech decisions worldwide. But, like Bird Flu, nukes seem to have a PR problem: Despite the fact that they could wipe us all out, the thought of them isn’t all that scary.
Terrorism pops up all over science fiction, and last night’s episode of Eleventh Hour was no exception with terrorism featuring VX gas. The plot focused on a group of white converts to Islam (thank you, Hollywood, for reinforcing that stereotype. We’re all painfully aware of the dangers of lunatic jihadists, but let’s not become so fixated on that that we blind ourselves to the fact that as, say, Oklahama and Belfast demonstrated, terrorists can have sorts of religious faiths, including agnostic and Christian, while simultaneously tarring all Muslims with the same brush). The terrorists plan to take over a theater full of kids and hold them hostage. The weapon they intend to hold over their heads is VX nerve gas, more or less considered the deadliest chemical weapon in the world’s arsenals. It’s the same stuff Ed Harris was smuggling in The Rock, and one of the weapons Saddam Hussein used on the Kurds. VX gas is, by most experts’ account, the most deadly chemical weapon yet invented. It’s so potent that when the British invented it in 1952, the Americans were willing to trade away nuclear secrets to learn how to make it.
The second issue of the Eureka comic book series is out. Our favorite small-town-that-happens-to-border-the-government’s-most-advanced-research-facility-sherriff, Carter, and his deputy, Jo, are continuing a manhunt.
Because they are interested in taking their quarry alive, Carter is equipped with something he has taken to calling a “bubble gun.” The gun immobilizes its target by shooting out a temporary force-field that forms a bubble. In the real world, bubbles—or more accurately, foam—actually are the basis of a gun designed to immobilize enemies.
I know you all caught the “stay tuned” clips at the end of Knight Rider, right? It looks like we’re going to get our big fight, our KARR v. KITT battle at last! I can hardly wait, but as long as I have to wait, let’s talk about the cliff hanger from last night’s episode. We left our heroes driving straight north at 100 miles per hour carrying a hafnium bomb in the trunk. Dip below 100 miles per hour and BOOM! Keanu-er, Michael and KITT explode, destroying everything in a 10-mile radius.
Now hang on, a hafnium bomb? Hafnium actually exists (which is more than I can say for some elements), but can it actually blow up like that? Well, some scientists believe it can. In the real world, hafnium is closely related to zirconium, and it has many of the same properties. The structure of the hafnium solid is especially effective at storing energy. That makes it useful in control rods in a nuclear reactors, and also as a way to store energy as a kind of atomic battery.
To get any kind of explosion, start with the hafnium isomer 178m2. An isomer is an atomic isotope already charged with energy. Typically that energy will dissipate in its own random radiation, but in the case of hafnium, with it’s high storage capacity, a few (a very few) physicists believe it could be triggered to release all its energy in a fairly short space of time in a kind of explosion. I say “kind of” because the energy released would be in the form of gamma rays. As the highest energy form of electromagnetic radiation, gamma rays usually pass right through most solid objects. But when released in such high doses, they could, as Sharon Weinberger put it in the Wasington Post, “they could act like ray bombs in low-budget films, vaporizing living tissue and heating materials until they explode.” Nasty stuff. (Weinberger, who has written for DISCOVER, is a hafnium bomb sceptic and has since written a lively account of the controversy in her book Imaginary Weapons)
So storing energy in a hafnium isomer is one thing. Getting it all out rapidly enough to make an explosion is another. Carl Collins, a physicist at the University of Texas, claimed in 2004 that he got a lot of energy out just by shooting an X-ray from a dentist X-ray machine, but his work has not been duplicated and is considered dubious by many in the scientific community.
So the science is pretty questionable: Could our villain actually blow up hafnium with an X-ray machine? Well, phycists in the real world haven’t achieved it, but this kind of gray area is, after all, the whole point of SciFi. Maybe with a little elbow grease and a lot of evil-genius know-how, the hafnium bomb could be made to work.
For more on the U.S. Military’s research into the hafnium bomb, readers might want to look at this pair of excellent posts over on Wired‘s Danger Room blog.
Posting update: A surfeit of latkes and holiday galavanting caused me to get behind on Knight Rider and Eleventh Hour. I plan to catch up, so stay tuned.
Last night’s episode of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles centered on Skynet going after a non-Connor-clan target: an unborn child whose natural immunity would would one day provide a cure for a lethal bioweapon developed in the future. It would be easy to think that this would be overkill, even for Skynet — instead of going through all the trouble of sending a terminator back through time, why not just brew up a different bioweapon? The answer is that making militarily effective bioweapons is actually quite tough.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about 3-D printing in light of a Knight Rider episode in which KITT photographed a key and then used a handy laser cutter to produce the key. But in that post, I never considered the other component of that technology, namely, making a key based on a photograph. Fortunately, a couple of scientists at the University of California-San Diego got right on that problem and proved that you can, indeed, copy a key from a photograph.
Dr. Stefan Savage, a UCSD computer scientist, and his student, Benajamin Laxton, demonstrated their software on two images of a key. The first was taken from close range with a cellphone camera. The second set of keys was shot using a telephoto lens form a rofotop to capture an image of keys on a cafe table 200 feet away. Then they wrote an algorithm in Matlab that could normalize the picture of the key depending on distance and the angle of the photo. Once the image has been normalized, it was a relatively simple matter to encode the ridges along the keylength into a numerical pattern, and then render that pattern into a real metal key.
Of course, the unanswered question for this experiment has to be, Why? Here’s what Savage said on the UCSD website: “If you go onto a photo-sharing site such as Flickr, you will find many photos of people’s keys that can be used to easily make duplicates. While people generally blur out the numbers on their credit cards and driver’s licenses before putting those photos on-line, they don’t realize that they should take the same precautions with their keys.”
Well, that’s a good point, and it’s something worth being careful about. But I still say he watched too many police shows.
Last night on Eureka, Sherriff Carter was faced with a bumbling superhero who had constructed his gear from discarded pieces of technology thrown out by the town’s scientists. In this, our wannabe superhero was participating in the ultimate expression of the fine old art of dumpster diving.