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Fringe Science? I’ll Take Vegas!

by david_axe on June 15, 2006

Last year, I got a strange call. Thats not surprising, because I get lots of strange calls. But this one was strange because the person on the other end of the phone was asking me for investment advice, and since I cant quite balance my checkbook, Im a strange person to be offering financial tips to anyone.
las-vegas 3.jpgWhaddya think of this firm Ionatron? the man asked, introducing himself as vice president of a boutique investment firm in California. He didnt know much about defense or the Pentagon, but he was really interested in investing in this weapons firm, which he thought had big potential.
For those who dont know about Tucson-based Ionatron, I first advise reading up on Tesla coils. Once you understand what a Tesla coil is, youll be about halfway toward understanding Iontraon, a company that claims to have pioneered a weapon that will shoot lightning bolts (Noah has written some excellent posts on Ionatron here and, most recently, here). When newspapers talk about Ionatron, they usually start by talking about Buck Rogers guns or Star Trek phasers. I prefer to begin by talking about Tesla coils, which shoot sparks a few feet. Legions of would-be inventors, up to an including those in Ionatron, have dreamt of extending those sparks out to tens of meters, or even miles.
I took an hour out of my day to explain to this guy all the reasons why Ionatron, even if its technology pans out, was not likely to be equipping the Army with handheld lightning guns anytime soon. There were some basic practicalities. For example, ionizing the air to make the lightning bolt go at any great distance is really hard. The power sources needed to break down the air and shoot the lightning are pretty bulky. And finally, electricity, as we all learn in grade school, likes to travel in the most efficient manner possible. That means if lightning were ever shot out of a handheld device, youd need a way to ensure it doesnt hit the guy holding it, or the unlucky buddy next to him. Good luck.
Okay, those are the scientific barriers, but then there are the bureaucratic considerations. The Pentagon doesnt one day throw down all its tried and true guns in favor of some fancy static electricity. Theres an entire acquisition process that takes years, and sometimes decades, to field a weapon. So, even if youve really perfected the lightning gun, itll be quite some time before the first soldier ever lays his hands on it. Finally, you have to ask, are lightning bolts really any better than good old-fashioned bullets? Not always, is likely the answer.
I said all this, but I could tell the guy wasnt listening, because I wasnt telling him what he wanted to hear. Well, he finally said, if theres even one in a hundred shot that Ionatron is really on to something, then its worth my relatively small investment.
Then I realized the problem: I was on the phone with a true believer. There was nothing I could say that this guy would listen tohis logic was that of the hardened gambler. Its also the same argument that explains the nearly obsessive support among some in the Pentagon for the hafnium bomb, a notional weapon based on an experiment that violated the laws of physics. As I write in my new book, Imaginary Weapons: A Journey Through the Pentagons Scientific Underworld, the true believers grasp on to the most perverse logic: Any chance that a weapon might work warrants investment if the payoff is high enough. In the case of the hafnium bomb, the Pentagon figured that tens of millions of dollars was worth the investment if the result was a weapon that could revolutionize warfare.
But the problem in this argument, like with most fringe science, is that if you follow it to its logical conclusion, youll only invest in failures. Its like arguing that rather than putting money in your 401K, you should invest in slot machines, because the investment is low and the payoff is high. Almost all fringe science is high-risk, high payoff, so by the logic of the true believers, you should invest in all fringe science.
People often ask me: whats your favorite example of fringe science? I usually tell them, Its the Tesla lightning gun. Not because its fringe per se (Tesla coils exist and work), but because every few years, someone modifies a Tesla coil, declares it the next great weapon, and boom, the Pentagon gives them some money. So, will Ionatron buck the trend (or Xtreme Alternative Defense Systems) and invent a really cool weapon? Heck if I know, but the chance that the Pentagon will anytime this decade buy a lightning weapon in mass quantities is so remote as to be almost nil. So, why not just go to Vegas, put your money in the slots, and have some fun.
And, heck, at least in Vegas, the drinks are free.
Sharon Weinberger

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