Wednesday, September 22, 2010

I'm not saying we wouldn't get our hair mussed

I saw a talk by Richard Rhodes last night at the Long Now. Rhodes recently published his fourth book on nuclear weapons; I've read the first two and they are great. The theme of this latest is somewhat more hopeful now that the idea of nuclear weapons seems to be in decline. A couple of highlights from the talk:

- most of the destruction of a nuclear strike comes from fire effects rather than the blast or radiation, which affect only a fairly small radius. But the heat is enough to set a whole city ablaze. One prediction is that if India and Pakistan have a "small" nuclear exchange with 50 Hiroshima-sized weapons apiece, that would be enough to cause a mini-nuclear winter effect approximately the same as a a major volcanic eruption, and with the global food system as stretched as it you might see a billion deaths from starvation.

- all world leaders quickly realized that nuclear weapons were basically unusable. He quoted Khruschev:
When I was appointed First Secretary of the Central Committee and learned all the facts of nuclear power I couldn't sleep for several days. Then I became convinced that we could never possibly use these weapons, and when I realized that I was able to sleep again.
So as a result, nuclear weapons development is basically a very expensive signalling game (7.8 trillion during the period 1948-1991 according to his estimate).

- The idea that a state would develop a nuclear capability and then hand it off to a terrorist group is just silly.

I don't know, personally I have moved on and don't give much thought to nukes any more and haven't for years. Bioterrorism is a lot more scary, because unlike nukes the development technology is accessible to non-state groups and getting more so all the time.

The short feature before the talk was this nice little visualization of all the (terrestrial) nuclear explosions since Trinity:

4 comments:

David Xavier said...

- The idea that a state would develop a nuclear capability and then hand it off to a terrorist group is just silly.

Perhaps not a State, But Pakistan's "Father" of its bomb, did just that, (a regular Rosenberg) .. to a terrorist Theorcratic State -Iran, which besides indulging in its own terrorism has a couple terrorist proxies that it could supply...if , non .. when it developes the technology fully.

Maybe the Mullahs arent that ...what's that word you use , silly ( seems inadequate). Earlier posts you seem to imply that the US military desperately want to use nukes at the height of the cold war, our luck held, cooler heads prevailed. Iran is truly scary, for its seemingly lack of cooler heads ... but , your right , lets not think about it, move on . Obama's on it.

mtraven said...

Earlier posts you seem to imply that the US military desperately want to use nukes at the height of the cold war, our luck held, cooler heads prevailed.

That's an excellent point...one way to look at it is that countries and leaders and militaries all have their rational and irrational sides. I think what Rhodes was saying is something like: the leadership of the nuclear powers were largely rational, knew that nukes were useless, and despite some near-misses held them back from use.

But while nukes might be used irrationally in the heat of a conflict, constructing them obviously requires determined rationality. So why was so much money and mental effort spent on something that couldn't rationally be used? Signalling is one explanation (that Rhodes favored), although I'm more inclined to chalk it up something like institutional self-aggrandizement, the institutions here being the military-industrial-research complex.

Iran is truly scary, for its seemingly lack of cooler heads

I don't see the leadership of Iran as particularly irrational relative to other heads of state.

We can be thankful that in general ascending to leadership requires a degree of self-interest. So most leaders, no matter how corrupt or vile, are not going to start a war that will result in the immolation of themselves and their country. I guess there are exceptions of leaders who seem to have a will towards self-destruction (Hitler, Nixon). But again, I see no particular evidence that the leadership of Iran is that crazy.

mtraven said...

<a href="http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economics/laureates/2005/schelling-lecture.pdf>Thomas Schelling's Nobel lecture</a> makes some interesting points about the taboo on nuclear weapon use and how it was maintained.

david Xavier said...

It strikes me that Ahmadinejad's incitement to genocide is a little irrational ,even when compared to other world leaders ( ok there's North korea , and some would say Obama's foreign policy) , but let us say that is simply rhetorical brinksmanship and pandering to the Muslim world. You mention Hitler as a self destructive leader (as well as Nixon , which tells me something about the era you grew up in, was Nixon that bad, please) Hitler invaded Poland because he thought he could get away with it. Appeasement encouraged him.

Now think Iran , armed with nukes and the revolutionary guards struting their stuff around the Gulf States... over reach, doing God's work, and the particular cultural need to not lose face is a dangerous combination.