Cleaning thermonuclear fire

exactly what would it not take to turn the world into one big fusion reaction, wiping it clean of life and making it a barren rock? Asking for a pal.

Graphic from the 1946 film, “One World Or None,” produced by the nationwide Committee on Atomic Suggestions, advocating for the importance of the international control of atomic power.

One might wonder whether that kind of question provided it self while I became reading the news headlines nowadays, plus one will be totally proper. However the explanation individuals typically ask this real question is in mention of the the story that researchers at Los Alamos thought there is a non-zero chance your Trinity test might ignite the environment throughout the very first wartime test.

The essential concept is a simple one: in the event that you heat up really light atoms (like hydrogen) to very high conditions, they’ll battle around like mad, therefore the chances that they’ll collide into both and undergo nuclear fusion become a great deal greater. If that occurs, they’ll release more energy. Imagine if the very first rush of an atomic bomb started fusion reactions floating around around it, say between your atoms of air or nitrogen, and people fusion responses generated enough power to start out more responses, and so forth, over the whole environment?

It’s difficult to say exactly how seriously it was taken. Its clear that at one point, Arthur Compton concerned about it, and that likewise, a few boffins developed persuasive thinking on effect that this couldn’t take place. James Conant, upon experiencing the searing temperature of the Trinity test, briefly reflected that possibly this rumored thing had, certainly, visited pass:

Then arrived a burst of white light that seemed to fill the sky and appeared to last for seconds. I’d expected a relatively fast and bright flash. The enormity associated with light and its own length quite stunned me personally. My instantaneous reaction was that something choose to go wrong which the thermal nuclear [sic] transformational of the atmosphere, as soon as talked about as possibility and jokingly referred to a few momemts early in the day, had actually taken place.

Which does at the very least tell us that some of those at the test remained joking about this, even around the previous couple of moments. Fermi reportedly took wagers on whether or not the bomb would destroy simply New Mexico or in fact the entire world, nonetheless it had been comprehended as being a laugh.1

The introduction associated with Konopinski, Marvin, and Teller paper of 1946. Filed under: “SCIENCE!“

Into the fall of 1946, Emil Konopinski, Cloyd Marvin, and Edward Teller (whom else?) composed up a paper describing why no detonation in the world ended up being likely to start an uncontrolled fusion response within the environment. It is really not clear to me whether this is often the logic they utilized prior towards the Trinity detonation, but it is most likely of the comparable character to it.2 In a nutshell, there clearly was only 1 fusion reaction in line with the constituents of the air which had any probability anyway (the nitrogen-nitrogen effect), and the scientists were able to show it was not to more likely to take place or spread. No matter if one makes assumptions your response had been much simpler to start than anyone thought it was probably be, it absolutely wasn’t likely to be suffered. The reaction would cool (through a selection of real mechanisms) faster than it might distribute.

That is all a typical section of Manhattan Project lore. But I suspect many who possess read with this prior to never have really see the Konopinski-Marvin-Teller paper to its end, in which they end for a less sure-of-themselves note:

There continues to be the remote possibility that several other less easy mode of burning may keep itself inside atmosphere.

Even if the effect is stopped within sphere of the few hundred meters radius, the resultant earth-shock while the radioactive contamination of the environment might become catastrophic for a world-wide scale.

One may conclude that the arguments of the paper allow it to be unreasonable to expect your N+N effect could propagate. An limitless propagation is even less likely. But the complexity associated with the argument and also the lack of satisfactory experimental foundations makes further work with the subject extremely desirable.

That’s not quite as protected as you might want, considering these boffins were in reality focusing on developing weapons plenty of that time period stronger than the Trinity unit.3

The relevant part of the Manhattan District History (cited below) interestingly links the study to the “Super” hydrogen bomb with the research into perhaps the atmosphere might be incinerated, which makes feeling, though it would be interesting to understand just how closely connected these questions in which.

There is an interesting section in the recently-declassified Manhattan District History‘s that covers the ignition for the environment issue. They repeat fundamentally the Konopinski-Marvin-Teller outcomes, and then conclude:

The impossibility of igniting the atmosphere was therefore guaranteed by science and good sense. The essential factors in these calculations, the Coulomb forces associated with nucleus, are one of the better comprehended phenomena of modern physics. The philosophic likelihood of destroying the planet earth, from the theoretical convertibility of mass into power, continues to be. The thermonuclear response, that is in order to now understood where such a catastrophe could take place, is evidently eliminated. The typical stability of matter in the observable universe contends against it. Further familiarity with the character regarding the great stellar explosions, novae and supernovae, will put light on these questions. Into the almost complete lack of genuine knowledge, it’s generally speaking believed your tremendous energy of those explosions is of gravitational rather than nuclear origin.4

Which again is at the same time reassuring and perhaps not reassuring. The footing which this knowledge was based ended up being… very good? But like good researchers these were happy, about in secret reports, to acknowledge there might actually be methods the earth become damaged through nuclear evaluating that they hadn’t considered. Intellectually honest, but in addition terrifying.

The ever relevant XKCD.

This dilemma arrived up once more prior to the process Crossroads nuclear tests in early 1946, that was to include a minumum of one underwater shot. None other than Nobel Prize-winning physicist Percy Bridgman stressed that detonating an atomic bomb under water might ignite a fusion effect into the water. Bridgman admitted their own ignorance into nuclear physics (his specialization had been high-pressure physics), but warned that:

Even the most readily useful human intellect has not imagination enough to envisage exactly what might take place once we push far into new territory. … To an outsider the tactics regarding the argument which will justify operating perhaps the slightest danger of that colossal catastrophe seems extremely weak.5

Bridgman’s worries weren’t actually your globe could be destroyed. He worried more that if the researchers showed up become cavalier about these specific things, therefore ended up being later on made public that their argument the safety associated with tests was according to flimsy evidence, that it would lead to a strong public backlash: “There might be a response against technology generally speaking which would end up in suppression of all clinical freedom while the destruction of technology itself.” Bridgman’s views were strong enough that they were forwarded to General Groves, but it isn’t clear whether or not they led to any significant modifications (though I wonder when they were the impetus for the write-up of this Konopinski-Marvin-Teller paper; the timing type of calculates, but we don’t understand).

There wasn’t lots of evidence this issue concerned the researchers an excessive amount of moving forward. They had other things on the head, like building thermonuclear weapons, and it quickly became clear that beginning a big fusion reaction by having a fission bomb is hard. Which can be, in its very own means, an answer to the initial concern: if starting a runaway fusion response on purpose is hard, and needs really particular forms of arrangements and factors to have working also on a (relatively) little scale, then beginning one in the entire atmosphere, will probably be impossible.

Operation Fishbowl, Shot Checkmate (1962) — the lowest yield weapon, but something about its perfect symmetry together with path regarding the rocket that put it into the air invokes the notion of a planet turning out to be a celebrity for me. Supply: Los Alamos Nationwide Laboratory.

Great — cross that one from the directory of possibilities. But it wouldn’t really be technology unless they also, in the course of time, re-framed issue: exactly what conditions could be needed whenever we were to turn the complete earth into a thermonuclear bomb? In 1975, a radiation physicist on University of Chicago, H.C. Dudley, published an article inside Bulletin of Atomic Scientists caution of the “ultimate catastrophe” of setting the environment burning. This received a few rebuttals and a lot of scorn, including one in pages associated with Bulletin by Hans Bethe, who’d formerly addressed this concern into the Bulletin in 1946. Interestingly, though, Dudley’s primary desire — that some body re-run these calculations on a modern computer simulation — did seem to generate research along these lines within Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.6

In 1979, Livermore experts Thomas A. Weaver and Lowell Wood (the latter appropriately a well-known Edward Teller protege) published a paper on “Necessary conditions for the initiation and propagation of nuclear-detonation waves in airplane atmospheres,” which is a jargony way to ask issue into the name with this post. Here’s the abstract:

The basic conditions the initiation of a nuclear-detonation wave in an environment having airplane symmetry (age.g., a thin, layered fluid envelope for a earth or star) are developed. Two classes of these a detonation are identified: those where heat regarding the plasma resembles that the electromagnetic radiation permeating it, and the ones where the temperature associated with plasma is significantly greater. Necessary conditions are developed for the propagation of such detonation waves for an arbitrarily good distance. The contribution of fusion chain reactions to these processes is assessed. Through these factors, it’s shown that neither the environment nor oceans of this Earth may be designed to go through propagating nuclear detonation under any circumstances.7

Now if you simply browse the abstract, you might think it absolutely was merely another version (with fancier calculations) of this Konopinski-Marvin-Teller paper. And so they do rule out conclusively that N+N reactions would ever be energetic sufficient become self-propagating. But it is a lot more! Because unlike Konopinski-Marvin-Teller, it in fact centers around those “necessary conditions”: just what will have to be different, if you did want to have a self-propagating response?

The solution they found: if the Earth’s oceans had twenty times more deuterium than they actually contain, they could be ignited by a 20 million megaton bomb (which will be to say, a bomb utilizing the yield equivalent to 200 teratons of TNT, or perhaps a bomb 2 million times more powerful than the Tsar Bomba’s complete yield). If we assumed that this type of tool had even a fantastically efficient yield-to-weight ratio like 50 kt/kg, that’s still a tool that will weigh around a billion metric tons. To put that into viewpoint, that’s about ten times more mass than all the concrete of Three Gorges Dam.8

So there you have it — it can be done! You simply have to completely change the composition of the oceans and require a nuclear tool numerous instructions of magnitude more powerful than the gigaton bombs dreamed of by Edward Teller, then, perhaps, you’ll display the cleansing thermonuclear fire experience.

Which will be to express, this won’t be exactly how the planet dies. But don’t worry, there are plenty other plausible alternatives for human self-extinction around. They simply probably won’t be as quick.


I will be undergoing completing my book manuscript, that will be the actual work of the summer, therefore most other writing, including blog posting, is going for a back chair for a few months while We concentrate on that. The irreverent name of this post is obtained from a recurring theme into the Twitter feed of anthropology grad student Martin “Lick the Bomb” Pfeiffer, whose work you should have a look at when you yourself haven’t currently.

(The Impossibility of) Lighting Atmospheric Fire,” does a very good task of reviewing a few of the wartime conversations and clinical problems.

  • Emil Konopinski, Cloyd Marvin, and Edward Teller, “Ignition for the Atmosphere with Nuclear Bombs,” (14 August 1946), LA-602, Los Alamos National Laboratory. Konopinski and Teller additionally apparently composed an unpublished report about them in 1943. I have only seen mention of the it, as report LA-001 (suspiciously like the LA-1 that is the Los Alamos Primer), but have not seen it.
  • Teller, in October 1945, wrote the following to Enrico Fermi about the chance for a “Super” detonating the environment, as part of that which was basically a “Frequently expected Questions” in regards to the H-bomb: “Careful considerations and calculations have shown that there’s not the remotest likelihood of such an occasion [ignition associated with the atmosphere]. The concentration of energy encountered in super bomb just isn’t higher than that the atomic bomb. In my experience the risks were greater once the first atomic bomb had been tested, because our conclusions had been based in those days on longer extrapolations from understood facts. The chance associated with the super bomb doesn’t lie in physical nature however in human being behavior.” What I find most fascinating concerning this is his comment about Trinity, though Teller’s rhetorical point is an apparent one (overstate the Trinity uncertainty after the fact to be able to emphasize their certainty currently). Edward Teller to Enrico Fermi (31 October 1945), Harrison-Bundy data associated with the Development for the Atomic Bomb, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1108 (Washington, D.C.: nationwide Archives and reports Administration, 1980), Roll 6, Target 5, Folder 76, “Interim Committee — Scientific Panel.”
  • Manhattan District History, Book 8, amount 2 (“Los Alamos – Technical”), paragraph 1.50.
  • Percy W. Bridgman to Hans Bethe, forwarded by Norris Bradbury to Leslie Groves via TWX (13 March 1946), copy in Nuclear Testing Archive, Las vegas, nevada, NV, document NV0128609.
  • H.C. Dudley, “The Ultimate Catastrophe,” Bulletin associated with Atomic researchers (November 1975), 21; Hans Bethe, “Can Air or liquid Be Exploded?,” Bulletin of the Atomic experts 1, no. 7 (15 March 1946), 2; Hans Bethe, “Ultimate Disaster?,” Bulletin of the Atomic researchers 32, no. 6 (1976), 36-37; Frank von Hippel, “Taxes Credulity (Letter towards the Editor),” Bulletin of Atomic boffins (January 1946), 2.
  • Thomas A. Weaver and Lowell Wood, “Necessary conditions for the initiation and propagation of nuclear-detonation waves in plane atmospheres,” Physical Review A 20, no. 1 (1 July 1979), 316-328. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevA.20.316.
  • Specifically, they conclude it might take a 2 x 107 Mt power release, which they call “fantastic,” to ignite an ocean of 1:300 (instead of the actual 1:6,000) concentration of deuterium. Being an apart, but the collision event that created the Chicxulub Crater (and killed the dinosaurs, etc.) is believed to own released around 5 x 1023 J, which means about 120 million megatons of TNT. So’s not a totally unreasonable energy release for the earth to encounter during the period of its presence — simply not from nuclear weapons.