In the 1940s and 1950s, a group of brilliant engineers led by John von Neumann gathered in Princeton, New Jersey with the joint goal of realizing Alan Turing’s theoretical universal machine-a thought experiment that scientists use to understand the limits of mechanical computation. As a result of their fervent work, the crucial advancements that dominated 20th century technology emerged. In Turing’s Cathedral, technology historian George Dyson recreates the scenes of focused experimentation, mathematical insight, and creative genius that broke the distinction between numbers that mean things and numbers that do things-giving us computers, digital television, modern genetics, and models of stellar evolution. Also a philosopher of science, Dyson’s previous books include Baidarka, Darwin Among the Machines, and Project Orion. (recorded 3/13/2012)
Tagged with “war” (18)
Good times. Bad Movies.
The movie: Future War
Episode guest: Lauren Beukes
The Highlights: Robots with mustaches, The Beard of Alan Moore, Dinosaurs, Thumbs, Guns, Nuns, and Flannel. So much flannel.
In November 1941, two warships from Australia and Germany clashed off the coast of western Australia. Both sank. Despite extensive search efforts during and after World War II, the ships weren’t found until 2008, after a team of psychologists analyzed the statements given by the surviving German crew members.
On 17 June 1940, HMT Lancastria was sunk by a German bomber while evacuating troops from St Nazaire; over 9,000 troops were packed on board. The exact number of soldiers who died that day will never be known, though even the lowest estimates rank this as the worst British maritime disaster in history, with losses exceeding those of the Titanic and Lusitania combined. This talk attempts to explain why so many who were lost will never be accounted for.
The evening began with a short version of Isao Ishimoto’s animation of all the world’s atomic explosions in the period 1945 to 1998. The total is shocking to most people—-2,053. Rhodes commented that seeing the bomb tests on a world map over time shows how much they were a strange form of communication between nations. He also noted how the number of tests dropped from decades of intensity to near zero after 1993. In this century only North Korea has tested bombs, and those could be the last explosions.
Most Americans, he’s found, think that we don’t have nuclear weapons any more, and that may reflect a realistic perception that we no longer need them. But our government keeps looking for reasons to keep them, and maintaining the current much reduced arsenal still costs $50 billion a year.
How much did the Cold War cost everyone from 1948 to 1991, and how much of that was for nuclear weapons? The total cost has been estimated at $18.5 trillion, with $7.8 trillion for nuclear. At the peak the Soviet Union had 95,000 weapons and the US had 20 to 40,000. America’s current seriously degraded infrastructure would cost about $2.2 trillion to fix—-all the gas lines and water lines and schools and bridges. We spent that money on bombs we never intended to use—-all of the Cold War players, major and minor, told Rhodes that everyone knew that the bombs must not and could not be used. Much of the nuclear expansion was for domestic consumption: one must appear "ahead," even though numbers past a couple dozen warheads were functionally meaningless.
Rhodes noted that people fear the blast and radiation effects of atomic bombs, but it’s really the fires that are most destructive. The fireball ignites everything far beyond the blast effects. As a result, nuclear winter remains a threat. Former researchers of nuclear winter used sophisticated new climate models to assess what would happen if, say, there was an exchange of 100 Hiroshima-sized bombs (1.5 kilotons) between India and Pakistan. The smoke clouds would disrupt the weather long enough to collapse some agriculture, leading to starvation of as many as a billion people.
Serious efforts are underway to get the world’s nuclear weapons down toward zero. All weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (HEU) is being tallied and secured. Sophisticated, unrestrained inspection systems are gaining ever more access. In some cases, arsenals are being "virtualized"—-nuclear capability substitutes for weapons stockpiles. India and Pakistan, for instance, have disassembled their nuclear weapons into widely separated parts that would take considerable time and deliberation to reassemble.
In the course of his research, Rhodes shifted from opposition to nuclear power for electricity to becoming a strong proponent. Among its benefits is offering a way for the thousands of warheads to be converted into something useful when diluted into large quantities of reactor fuel. Also the international fuel banking proposed for bringing proliferation-free nuclear power to developing nations can help enable more thorough inspections of all fissile material.
At dinner Rhodes reflected that nuclear weapons may come to be seen as a strange fetishistic behavior by nations at a certain period in history. They were insanely expensive and thoroughly useless. Their only function was to keep a bizarre form of score.
Black Sabbath’s War Pigs vs. Led Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love.
Ever wondered what might have happened if Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin got together for a studio session 37 odd years ago?
Wonder no more…
In the early 1940s, the US Airforce faced a dilemma. Thousands of new airplanes were coming off assembly lines and needed to be delivered to military bases nationwide, yet most of America’s pilots were overseas fighting the war. To deal with the backlog, the government launched an experimental program to train women pilots to fly military aircraft.
The Centre for Independent Studies 2010 John Bonython Lecture with Niall Ferguson. Is the rise and fall of empires cyclical or arrhythmic? How does economic profligacy - whether the result of arrogance or naivety - contribute to the downfall of civilisations? Today Professor Ferguson will argue that great powers or empires are in the strict sense of the word, complex systems. Made up of very large numbers of interacting components that are quite asymmetrically organised. In other words, he continues, their construction more resembles a termite hill than an Egyptian pyramid. They operate somewhere between order and disorder. Moreover imperial falls are nearly always associated with fiscal crises, when there are dramatic imbalances between revenues and expenditures. Thus alarm bells should be ringing in Washington DC but what does that for mean for Australia?
"This story [of This American Life] includes excerpts from a radio documentary called "The Human Button", which originally aired on BBC Radio 4 in December, 2008. For more information visit www.bbc.co.uk/radio4."
Via This American Life 399: Contents Unknown, http://thisamericanlife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?episode=399
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