Nuclear (non)proliferation and the Security of Earth

We all want global security, since at least for now, the Earth is the only planet we’ve got. In the words of The Tick (in the 1990s cartoon), “You can’t blow up the world…That’s where I keep all my stuff!”


In my previous post, I ended by raising the issue of the political scientist James Doyle, who was apparently fired from the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico after publishing a scholarly article questioning US nuclear weapons doctrine and defending President Obama’s goal of a nuclear weapons-free future. James Doyle’s article was titled “Why Eliminate Nuclear Weapons?,” and I’ll give you an extended quote from its conclusions, as it’s written rather well:

The marginal contribution that nuclear deterrence now makes to the absence of major aggression between great powers is being purchased at too high a price. That price is the constant risk that a complex, tightly coupled and largely automated system subject to normal, systemic and human error will, as science tells us, inevitably fail, and fail catastrophically, with unprecedented and unjustified loss of civilian life…Nuclear weapons are useless for confronting and resolving the most likely future international security challenges, but steady progress towards the elimination of such weapons can help nations confront these transnational problems…[E]limination of nuclear weapons will allow creative, intellectual, technical and financial resources now devoted to nuclear threats to be focused toward the resolution of transnational crises faced by all nations. As nuclear weapons are drawn down those resources can be re-focused toward developing clean energy, carbon-capture technologies, clean water management and low-impact, high-productivity agriculture.

The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) is calling on Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz to get involved in the case. According to Science journal, the lab recently made the following statement: “James Doyle’s separation from Los Alamos National Laboratory was a layoff due to the lack of available or anticipated funding in his area of expertise. The separation was unrelated to his publications or professional writings.” Many external arms control specialists are skeptical and believe Doyle’s downfall is the result of his airing of views that are unpopular among those opposing disarmament, including some of the Armed Services Committee’s Republican leaders and staff. And if you’re curious about how many resources LANL spends on weapons activity versus nonproliferation, take a look at the following graph (reported by the Center for Public Integrity).


Although nuclear weapons (and “mutually assured destruction”) seem like a Cold War issue and a thing of the past, they’re as relevant as ever today. In and near the Middle East, where Israel, Pakistan, and India have nuclear weapons, proliferation is a real concern. In addition, according to Newsweek, countries in Russia’s neighborhood are now considering nuclear deterrence. Altogether, the US possesses 2,104 (active) nuclear warheads, Russia has a similar number, and numerous other countries have hundreds either mounted on planes or on submarines. Germany will not continue its nuclear-hosting duties beyond the 2020s, and a Central European official was recently quoted as saying, “If the Germans don’t want [the bombs], we’ll take them.”

According to Scientific American, the FAS begin with the “scientists’ movement” in the mid-1940s when many scientists who had worked on the Manhattan Project recognized that they had a special responsibility to educate policymakers and the public about the implications of nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. (Carl Sagan, who is one of my heroes, had served on FAS’s advisory council and was a leading scientist devoted to reversing the nuclear arms race.) The FAS’s Nuclear Weapons Database is one of the most reliable sources on global nuclear arsenals, and the numbers in the previous paragraph were obtained from it. As far as we know, the US is not developing new nuclear weapons, but unfortunately it’s improving the weapon delivery systems (see this report from the Union of Concerned Scientists). This does not aid the goals of nonproliferation and reducing nuclear weapons, nor does the US’s nearly 500 land-based missiles on “hair-trigger” alert.

As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, nuclear weapons are also relevant to space security and to the risk of a space arms race. Although deploying nuclear weapons in space may be prohibitively expensive and are a violation of the Outer Space Treaty, certain nuclear missiles could have trajectories outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, and anti-satellite missiles are another concern. In any case, space weapons—nuclear or otherwise—increase tensions between countries and increase the risk of conflict.

Another related issue is the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (which, by the way, has never been signed by India, Israel, and Pakistan). In the 21st century era of worsening climate change, we need alternatives to fossil fuel-based energy, but nuclear energy surely is not ideal. It’s not clear how much, if it all, nuclear energy should play a role in our transition to a fossil fuel-free economy. Even in Iran, where there is an apparent abundance of oil, people are trying to prepare for the transition, and as in other places, they have turned to nuclear energy. An additional concern is that developing nuclear energy technologies produces a pathway for countries to develop nuclear weaponry as well; unfortunately, we’ve seen other countries follow this path already. In the case of Iran, as usual, what is required is a diplomatic and political settlement. As argued in a report by the FAS and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, by offering Iran cutting-edge alternative energy technologies, especially to take advantage of the country’s solar energy potential, a positive precedent could be set for other nuclear-hopefuls.

Journalism and Science Groups Criticize EPA’s Policy Muzzling Science Advisers

As reported by the Associated Press and The Hill, a coalition of journalism and science groups are criticizing the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to end a policy of restricting independent science advisers from contacting and communicating with media outlets, Congress, and others, without permission. The organizations include the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), American Geophysical Union, Society of Professional Journalists, Society for Conservation Biology, Investigative Reporters and Editors, and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. (Full disclosure: I am a UCS member and obtained some of my information from them.)


In a letter sent to the agency last week, they said that the new policy

requir[es] advisory committee members who receive requests from the public and the press ‘to refrain from responding in an individual capacity’ regarding issues before the committee. The policy requires all requests…to be routed through EPA officials. This prevents many of our nations top independent environmental science experts from sharing their expertise, unfiltered, with the public…The new policy undermines EPA’s efforts to increase transparency. It also contradicts the EPA’s new scientific integrity policy…[It] only reinforces any perception that the agency prioritizes message control over the ability of scientists who advise the agency to share their expertise with the public. On July 8, 38 journalism and good government organizations wrote the president expressing concern about ‘the stifling of free expression’ across many agencies, including the EPA.

The language of the policy is sufficiently vague that it would be easy for a scientist to interpret it such that she or he can’t speak publicly about any scientific issue under consideration. In addition, as pointed out by Andrew Rosenberg, scientists who work for the EPA also face barrier in communicating with the public.

What are the implications of this and why is it important? As the letter points out, this is clearly related to the issue of scientific integrity. We need scientists to serve on advisory committees, work with agencies and policy-makers, and speak transparently about their work and expertise, but such policies will discourage some from participating and will make the EPA less democratic. Government agencies, journalists, and the public deserve access to independent advice and free speech of scientists. (However, we scientists should be careful about speaking about issues beyond our expertise.) That way agencies can make informed decisions when developing or reforming relevant policies and regulations, and journalists and the public can form their own opinions about them as well.

In an update on the situation, the EPA Chief of Staff Gwendolyn Keyes-Fleming responded to say that their Science Advisor, Dr. Bob Kavlock, would review the matter and engage with people in the organizations involved. Let’s hope that the dialogue results in changing the policy.


Finally, in recent related news, political scientist James Doyle says that he was fired from the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico after publishing a scholarly article questioning US nuclear weapons doctrine. They claimed that the article, criticizing the political theories behind the nuclear arms race and a defense of President Obama’s embrace of a nuclear weapons-free future, contained classified information. (We should note though that unfortunately the DOE’s policy on scientific integrity is much shorter and may be more restrictive than the EPA’s.) I’ll keep you updated on this situation, and time permitting, I may write about it further in another post.

Rosetta and the Comet

The title sounds like I’ll tell you a fable or short story or something. This is neither of those things, but it is quite a story! I’m not personally involved in the Rosetta mission, though I’ll do my best to tell you about it and what’s unique and exciting about this. (For you fellow astrophysicists reading this, if I’ve missed or misstated anything, please let me know.) And if you’d like more information and updates, I recommend looking at Emily Lakdawalla‘s blog posts on ESA and Phil Plait‘s blog on Slate. If you’re interested in the history and importance of comets (and about how “we’re made of starstuff”), check out Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s book, Comet.

Rosetta, the €1.3 billion flagship space probe (see below) of the European Space Agency (NASA’s European counterpart) has chosen to accept an ambitious mission: to chase down, intercept, and orbit a distant comet, and then send the lander Philae to “harpoon” itself to the surface and engage in a detailed analysis. Rosetta is obviously named after the Rosetta Stone in Egyptian history, and Philae is named after an island in the Nile. Rosetta and Philae are hip spacecraft: they even have their own Twitter accounts—@ESA_Rosetta and @Philae2014, respectively. They should be careful when examining the comet below its surface, because if it’s anything like Star Trek, they could find an ancient alien archive in the center! (Fans of the “Masks” episode will know what I’m talking about.)

Science Magazine

Comets are literally pretty cool. They’re clumps of ice, dust, and organic materials with tails that are hurtling through space. What is this comet Rosetta’s pursuing? It’s known as Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, named after a pair of Ukrainian astronomers who discovered it in 1969. 67P/C-G looks like a mere blob from a distance, but it’s 4km in diameter and lopsided with two barely-attached lobes that make it look like a rubber duck from certain angles. “It may be an object we call a contact binary which was created when two smaller comets merged after a low-velocity collision,” said mission scientist Matt Taylor, or it may have once been a spherical object that lost much of its volatile material after encounters with the sun. It also has plumes of dust and gas (from sublimated ices) erupting from the surface, which has a temperature of about -70 C. (The montage of images below are courtesy of ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM/Emily Lakdawalla.)



Comets tell us about our past, since they’re thought to have formed in the cold of the outer solar system 4.6 billion years ago. They also yield information about the formation of the solar system and about the role of comets in delivering water and organic material to Earth in its history—possibly influencing the origin of life here. Cometary impacts are known to have been much more common in the early solar system than today. There may be billions of these dirty snowballs (or icy dustballs) orbiting the sun, and thousands of them have been observed. Prior to Rosetta, three comets have been analyzed by space probes: Halley’s comet by ESA’s Giotto in 1986, Comet Wild 2 by NASA’s Stardust in 2004, and Comet Tempel 1 by NASA’s Deep Impact, which slammed into it in 2005. The diagram below (courtesy of ESA/Science journal) shows the orbits of Rosetta and 67P/C-G. The comet has been traveling at speeds up to 135,000 km/hr, and Rosetta had to use flybys of the Earth and Mars to maneuver onto the same orbital path. Rosetta will be the first mission ever to orbit and land on a comet, so this is really an historic moment in space exploration.


On 11 November, Rosetta will be in a position to eject the Philae lander from only a couple kilometers away. Philae is 100 kg, box shaped with three legs and numerous instruments for experiments (see below), and was provided by the German Aerospace Research Institute (DLR). NASA scientists talk of the “7 minutes of terror” as the Curiosity rover descended to Mars, but Philae’s descent will take hours. Note that 67P is so small and gravity is so weak that the lander would likely bounce off, which is why it needs the harpoons as well as screws on the legs to bolt it to the surface. If the landing is successful—let’s cross our fingers that it is—it will perform many interesting experiments with its instruments. For example, CONSERT will use radio waves to construct a 3D model of the nucleus, Ptolemy will measure the abundance of water and heavy water, and COSAC will look for long-chain organic molecules and amino acids. COSAC will also detect the chirality of the molecules and maybe determine whether amino acids are always left-handed like the ones on Earth. (“Chirality” means “handedness”. I think the only other time I heard the term was for the spin statistics of spiral galaxies.)


Let’s hope for Rosetta’s and Philae’s success! I’ll update you on this blog when I hear more information.

Exploring the “Multiverse” and the Origin of Life

After two weeks away from the blog, I’m back! At the end of July, I attended an interesting event at UC San Diego’s Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination. (Yes, that’s what it’s called!) The event was a panel discussion entitled, “How Big is the World?: Exploring the Multiverse in Modern Astrophysics, Cosmology, and Beyond” (and you can watch the event here). The three speakers included Andrew Friedman (postdoctoral fellow in astronomy at MIT), Brian Keating (professor of physics in my department at UCSD), and David Brin (Hugo & Nebula Award Winning Author).

The Clarke Center seems to be a unique place with an ambitious program that incorporates a variety of “transdisciplinary” activities. This event fits with their nebulous theme, and the talks and discussions frequently overlapped between science, philosophy of science, and science fiction. I think science and philosophy of science go well together especially when we’re exploring the edges of scientific knowledge, including cosmological astrophysics and the origins of human life. (See my previous post and this recent article on Salon.) Too often astrophysicists, myself included, become very specialized and neglect the “big questions.” Nonetheless, I think we should be careful when we traverse the border between science and science fiction: while it’s exciting to connect them and useful for public outreach, we should mind the gap.

Andrew Friedman focused on the “multiverse”. What is a multiverse, you ask? I’m not entirely clear on it myself, but I’ll try to explain. In the first fraction of a second of the Big Bag, the universe appears to have gone through a phase of accelerated, exponential expansion (called “inflation”) driven by the vacuum energy of one or more quantum fields. The gravitational waves that were recently detected by BICEP2 (in which Brian Keating was involved) appear to support particular inflationary models in which once inflation starts, the process happens repeatedly and in multiple ways. In other words, there may be not one but many universes, including parallel universes—a popular topic in science fiction.


Inflationary theory solves some problems involving the initial conditions of the Big Bang cosmology, but I’m not so sure that we have—or can ever have—evidence clearly pointing to the existence of multiverses. In addition, in my opinion, Friedman stretched the concept of “universe” to try to argue for the multiverse. He spoke about the fact that there are parts of the universe that are completely inaccessible even if we could go the speed of light, but that doesn’t mean that the inaccessible regions are another universe. It’s fun to think about a “quantum divergence of worlds,” as David Brin referred to it, but quantum mechanics (with the standard Copenhagen interpretation; see this book by Notre Dame professor Jim Cushing) don’t imply a multiverse either: Schrödinger’s live cat and dead cat are not in separate universes. As far as I know, I’m not creating new universes every time I barely miss or catch the train.

The speakers did bring up some interesting questions though about the “anthropic principle” and “fine tuning.” The anthropic principle is a contentious topic that has attracted wide interest and criticism, and if you’re interested, read this review of the literature by Pittsburgh professor John Earman. The anthropic principle is the idea that the physical universe we observe must be compatible with conscious life. It’s a cosmic coincidence that the density of vacuum energy and matter are nearly equal and that the universe’s expansion rate is nearly equal to the critical rate which separates eternal expansion from recontraction, and if the universe were significantly different, it would be impossible to develop conscious life such as humans who can contemplate their own universe. (In the context of the multiverse, there may be numerous universes but only a tiny fraction of them could support life.) It’s important to study the various coincidences and (im)probabilities in physics and cosmology in our universe, but it’s not clear what these considerations explain.

David Brin spoke differently than the others, since he’s more a writer than a scientist, and his part of the discussion was always interesting. He frequently made interesting connections to fiction (such as a legitimate criticism of Walt Whitman’s “Learn’d Astronomer“) and he had a poetic way of speaking; when talking about the possibility of life beyond Earth, he said “If there are living creatures on Titan, they will be made of wax.” He also brought up the “Drake equation,” which is relevant in the context of the topics above. The Drake equation is a probabilistic expression for estimating the number of active, communicating civilizations in our galaxy. It involves a multiplication of many highly uncertain quantities (see this xkcd comic), but it’s nonetheless interesting to think about. The problem is that space is really big—”vastly, hugely, mindbogglingly big,” according to Douglas Adams—so even if there are Vulcans or Klingons or dozens or millions of other civilizations out there, it would take a really really really long time to find them and attempt to communicate with them. We could send people from Earth in a long shuttle ride to visit another civilization, but there’s no guarantee that humanity will still be around when they try to call back. It’s unfortunate, but this is the universe we live in.