Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Star Wars, the Demise of the Soviet Union, and Scientist Salesmen

Ashlee Vance produced an article in Bloomberg Businessweek to note that a current scientist/inventor had just received a patent that brought his count to one more than the number of patents granted to Thomas Edison.  The article appeared in print under the title Polymath Who Dreams Up more Contraptions than Edison.  It carried this as a subtitle.

“The work and ideas of Lowell Wood, America’s most prolific inventor.”

The online version of the article was changed to How an F Student Became America’s Most Prolific Inventor, and a new subtitle was provided.

“Lowell Wood broke Edison’s patent record and helped bring down the Soviet Union.”

Vance makes clear the fact that Lowell Wood is indeed very bright and very inventive.  However, the claim of helping bring down the Soviet Union seems a bit of a stretch.  In addition, some of the statements attributed to Wood in the article suggest a role more reprehensible than heroic.

Lowell Wood joined Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in 1972.  LLNL was one of the two laboratories developing nuclear devices for weapon applications.  Edward Teller, at the time, resided there part time as a kind of “associate director at large.”  In 1975 he was named Director Emeritus.  Teller had a long history in the nuclear weapons program stretching back to the Manhattan Project.  He was a long-time advocate of continued research in new applications of nuclear devices, and was well-connected with political and military leaders.  It was inevitable that Teller and Wood would find each other. 

Vance describes Wood as a protégé of Teller.

“Wood worked on projects ranging from spacecraft to the use of gamma rays to place hidden watermarks on objects.  Then came the Star Wars project, officially known as the Strategic Defense Initiative, for which Wood pushed a team of scientists to build a weapons system capable of detecting and destroying Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles midflight.”

Vance does not provide much detail about the role of Teller and Wood in the Star Wars effort, other than to mention that it was controversial.

“Historians and journalists have not been kind to Teller, one of the most polarizing figures of the cold war, and Wood often gets lumped in with him as a fringe science lunatic, especially when it comes to Star Wars.  After billions of dollars and years of controversy, the initiative never made it out of the lab.”

Fortunately, Wikipedia provides much information about Star Wars activities.  In fact, Teller was so well connected that he could go directly to President Reagan and use the work of Wood and his group to convince him of the viability of the program.  From Wikipedia,

“The initial focus of the strategic defense initiative was a nuclear explosion-powered X-ray laser designed at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory by a scientist named Peter L. Hagelstein who worked with a team called 'O Group', doing much of the work in the late 1970s and early 1980s. O Group was headed by physicist Lowell Wood, a protégé and friend of Edward Teller.”

“Ronald Reagan was told of Hagelstein's breakthrough by Teller in 1983, which prompted Reagan's March 23, 1983, "Star Wars" speech. Reagan announced, "I call upon the scientific community who gave us nuclear weapons to turn their great talents to the cause of mankind and world peace: to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete."

One does not know exactly what Reagan was told, but one can assume that Teller was not hesitant in describing the scientific wonders that were on the horizon.  Again from Wikipedia,

“Some time later Teller used similar language in a letter to Paul Nitze, who was preparing a new round of strategic limitations talks, stating that ‘A single X-ray laser module the size of an executive desk... could potentially shoot down the entire Soviet land-based missile force….’”

The controversy referred to by Vance arose because many believed that Teller and Wood had underplayed the technical difficulties associated with their anti-missile concept and oversold the probability of success.  From Wikipedia,

“Scandal erupted when Teller (and his associate Lowell Wood) were accused of deliberately overselling the program and perhaps had encouraged the dismissal of a laboratory director (Roy Woodruff) who had attempted to correct the error.   His claims led to a joke which circulated in the scientific community, that a new unit of unfounded optimism was designated as the teller; one teller was so large that most events had to be measured in nanotellers or picotellers.”

It is not uncommon for scientists to be overoptimistic about projects they propose for funding, but the threat from peer review keeps them within reason.  The nature of the joke about the “teller” unit suggests that those in the know believed Teller and Wood missed their goal by many powers of ten.

Vance was surprised that Wood was willing to talk about what might be viewed as a very expensive and embarrassing failure.  What he had to say is startling to say the least.

“Wood is quick to suggest that he knew all along that the system, while technically feasible, was too complex and expensive to be practical.  It was mainly for show, he says—a feint that broke the enemy’s morale and treasury.  ‘I went into it with my eyes wide open, and I did the job,’ he says.  ‘I got the result that I wanted.  The Soviet Union collapsed.  Check.  It’s done.  The Evil Empire is no more.  My colleagues and I helped to make it so, and it was just what was aimed for’.”

According to this, Wood knew from the beginning that his X-ray laser weapon would never work.  It was all a plan to force the Soviet Union to enter another very expensive arms race, go broke, and die.  If this was so, then who was in on the plan?  Did Wood mislead Teller before he talked Reagan into the SDI Program (which was much bigger and more expensive than Wood’s particular project).  Did Wood and Teller decide to mislead Reagan in selling the project?  Did Wood, Teller, and Reagan together decide to mislead the entire nation and the defense community in order create a scam aimed at financially bleeding the Soviet Union to death?  Where would such a conspiracy end?  This all becomes a bit mind boggling.

And what can be said about the notion that Wood and Star Wars “broke the enemy’s morale and treasury?”

In 2013 Pavel Podvig posted the results of his study of Soviet documents related to SDI and the Soviet response in Did Star Wars Help End the Cold War? Soviet Response to the SDI Program.  Who is Pavel Podvig?  He provides this description.

“Pavel Podvig is an independent analyst based in Geneva, where he runs his research project, ‘Russian Nuclear Forces.’ He is also a Senior Research Fellow at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research and a researcher with the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University.”

Podvig provides some conclusions from a long and heavily referenced study.

The main result of the SDI effort was to complicate and delay arms reduction progress, which was of great interest to Soviet leaders.  Nothing significant emerged from SDI, meanwhile the Soviets went about preparing new systems that would have escalated the Cold War tensions.

“The negotiation positions and policies of the Soviet state were a result of a complex process of interaction between various institutions involved in the decision-making - from the military to the defense industry and to the political leadership. On the balance, however, the documents support the view that the SDI program, while affecting Soviet policies, did not help bring the cold war closer to the end. Instead of facilitating the arms control process, SDI seriously complicated it, creating an unnecessary obstacle that the Soviet leadership, eager to move to arms reductions, had to deal with. Finally, the evidence suggests that one of the basic premises behind the SDI program - that it would be able to shift the arms race to the areas of advanced technologies, dissuade the Soviet Union from competition, and eventually provide a more stable defense-dominated environment - did not work. While the SDI program had failed to produce any result, the Soviet Union had developed and was ready to deploy a range of weapon systems that would have brought the U.S.-Soviet confrontation to a more dangerous new level.”

While the Soviet defense industries and military did take note of SDI, it was viewed more as a justification to procure new capabilities for which they had already planned than as a threat to be dealt with.  Any actual new spending was minor compared to military spending in total.

“The issue of the Soviet own program that was produced in response to SDI brings a question of whether the burden that it imposed on the Soviet economy was a factor in the decision of the Soviet leadership to initiate reforms or even in accelerating the demise of the Soviet Union. The answer to this question is most certainly negative. While the package of anti-SDI programs was supposed to be a massive effort, comparable in scale to its U.S. counterpart, very few of these projects were actually new. The most expensive programs….existed long before SDI. When they became part of the….[anti-SDI] programs, they did not require any additional commitment of resources. Most of the projects included in the package never went beyond paper research and those that did were among the least expensive ones. Overall, while the military spending was certainly putting a heavy burden on the Soviet economy, there is no evidence that SDI or the Soviet response to it increased that burden in any substantial way.”

The role of SDI in Soviet history will probably remain controversial.  There are those in politics who will attribute to Reagan all successes whether or not he had anything to do with them.  And frustrated scientists will always try to extract a victory of some sort from a defeat.

With his incautious remarks, Wood put himself in a curious position in order to emerge from his defeat.  His comments suggest that either he perpetrated a fraud on the nation, wasting a lot of the taxpayers’ money and potentially elevating Cold War tensions, or he was a key participant in a massive plot to induce an expensive response from the Soviet Union. 

There is another explanation—a more obvious one.  It seems most likely that Wood and his team got carried away with enthusiasm for their project and failed to adequately assess the potential difficulties.  Highly intelligent people sometimes mistakenly assume they can think their way through any difficulty.

Wood also discusses other issues in Vance’s article.  Perhaps an indication of his approach to complex problems can be found there.  Consider his thoughts on geoengineering as a way to combat global warming.

“Wood, for example, is of the mind that global warming can be stopped relatively quickly and inexpensively through geoengineering.”

“He seems most bullish on the idea of using high-altitude balloons to release particles of sulfur or some other substance that would, in effect, provide shade for the planet.  He’s convinced that this would not only be feasible but would also come with few, if any, consequences.  ‘All these sort of things involve capital investments on the order of $10 billion, but people are talking about going out and spending $1 trillion a year to cope with global warming, and they’re not even doing a very good job of it,’ Wood says.”

Wood is rather casual in concluding such experiments would have “few, if any, consequences.”  In fact, he views these as defined solutions rather than experiments, as if one could predict all known effects.  His sulfate idea is a particularly risky experiment.  There is no way of using small scale experiments to represent what might occur in a global event.  And the concentration of sulfates would have to be maintained for years before one can assess what the outcome might be. 

Those who support such schemes tend to point to volcanic eruptions as a reason why we should not be worried about consequences.  Volcanoes erupt, the earth is shielded from the sun and life goes on.  What’s the problem?  The problem is that volcanoes do have significant consequences.  The climate does change.  Any change in the distribution of energy from the sun reaching the earth will cause climate changes, and one cannot predict accurately what they will be.  Any geoengineering process will go on forever, not fade away after a few years.  There will be winners and losers.  Locally, rainfall and temperatures will change and alter the ability to raise food crops.  The lives of hundreds of millions of people could be put at risk.  More on this topic can be found here.

And all of this will occur while continuing to spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere because we chose a potentially easy way out of the climate problem.  Continued absorption of carbon dioxide by the oceans will have dramatic consequences.

Here we have Lowell Wood claiming he can solve a tremendously complex problem with a simple solution.  That is presumably what happened in his Star Wars misadventures.  Two such events are enough to define a trend.

Just as we learned that bankers and other financiers can be blinded by over-confidence and a lust for money and put the world at risk, we need to learn that over-confidence and a lust for prestige on the part of scientists can also put the world at risk.

Choose your scientists wisely.

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