Is fringe science good for military technology?
Sharon Weinberger is, to put it mildly, skeptical. Her book, Imaginary Weapons [being discussed tonight in New York –ed.], tells the tangled story of the struggle between the “isomer believers” who think a Hafnium bomb it can be made to work, and the doubters who think is based on impossible science.
I’m not so sure. “Fringe science” is a label that history applies after the event to failures; successes are immediately transferred to the mainstream. What looks like ridiculous like fringe tinkering at the time may later be seen as pioneering genius.
It struck me while writing my book, Weapons Grade, that revolutionary advances tend to come from outside the mainstream. This is pretty much true by definition: if a concept is already in the mainstream then it will not be revolutionary. Let’s look at three cases of kooks who came good after years in the wilderness: the Spaceman, the Flyboy, and Mr. Death Ray.
Case one is the Spaceman, who spent his career dreaming of travel to other planets. He was suspicious other others and tended to work on his own, refusing to publish many of the details of his work. His report on how he spent a $5,000 grant from the Smithsonian was roundly mocked in the press — especially the New York Times, which said he should go back and learn some high school physics. His biggest success was to send a craft a distance of 184 feet into a cabbage patch.
The Spaceman took his plans for giant weapons based on his space drive to the military, but nobody was convinced they were feasible. Twenty years earlier his idea for an infantry weapon — using a music stand — had also been shelved.
The Spaceman was in fact Robert Goddard, pioneer of the liquid-fuelled rocket. NASA’s Goddard Space Center is named in his honor. Three years after the military turned him down, German V-2 rockets started raining down on London. The V-2 directly drew on Goddard’s work from the 1920’s; the Nazis had rounded up amateur rocket enthusiasts, who called themselves ‘Societies For Space Travel’ and set them to building a weapon based on his liquid-fuelled design. Goddard’s portable rocket was also resurrected — the shoulder-mounted rocket launcher, or Bazooka, became an important infantry weapon.
On July 17th 1969, the day after Armstrong and Aldrin set foot on the moon, the New York Times published a correction to its 1920 story, accepting that Goddard was right: “it is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error.”
Case two is the Flyboy, a 22-year-old airman who was convinced he could build better aircraft engines than anything that existed at the time. When he took his designs to his superiors, he was told they were nothing new, and that better men with more experience had failed to get similar plans to work. The working temperatures were too high for any known material, the efficiencies required were too great, and the fuel consumption would be far too high.
“Very interesting my boy,” one distinguished aeronautics professor remarked, “but it will never work.“
The official rejection was scarcely less patronizing: “It must be remembered that a tremendous amount of work is being done, and you may rest assured the criticisms made of your scheme were made with the full knowledge of the results achieved by actual experiment.“
The design was going nowhere. Five years later the patent lapsed; the military did not think it was worth renewing, and Flyboy could not afford the fee. He kept working at it though, building prototypes in a tiny workshop on a shoestring budget scraped together from family and friends.
The Flyboy was Frank Whittle, the jet engine pioneer, whose designs form the basis for almost all modern jet engines. He only started to get taken seriously when it became clear in 1939 that the Germans had flown a jet aircraft and were storming ahead in development. The RAF had thrown away a lead of several years: if Whittle had been taken seriously in 1929, the Battle of Britain might have been fought with jet aircraft instead of Spitfires.
Hans Von Ohain, who developed jets in Germany, even suggested that WWII might not have happened if Britain possessed jets, as “Hitler would have doubted the Luftwaffe’s ability to win.“
Case 3 is the radio Death Ray. Rockets and jet engines may have attracted some ridicule, but death rays were even more absurd. When Marconi developed a directional radio transmitter in 1924, it seemed every crackpot in the word was building one.
One of the most notable self-publicists was Harry Matthews — known to the media as “Death Ray” Matthews — who claimed his apparatus could kill mice and shrivel plants at a distance, and that a weapon based on it would have a range of up to eight miles.
Although radio waves could do serious damage at close range, anything beyond a few feet was less plausible. In the US, the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground offered a standing reward to anyone who could produce a death ray capable of killing a tethered goat. Britain’s Air Ministry put up a similar prize to the inventor whose ray could kill a sheep at a range of a hundred yards.
Neither animal was ever seriously endangered.
So great was the public clamor for death rays in Britain that the Air Ministry appointed a committee to look into them. After considerable research, Dr. Robert Watson-Watt reported on February 4th, 1935 that although in theory it was possible to bring down an aircraft with a radio beam, the power required was far in excess of what was possible in practice.
Having done the work, the Ministry then asked Watson-Watt whether, in the absence of death rays, anything useful could be done with these radio beams. Watson-Watt had found that aircraft reflected radio waves, and he drew up a paper entitled “The Detection and Location of Aircraft by Radio Means.“
Three weeks after the Death Ray paper, the first test was carried out, showing conclusively that an aircraft could be located from the radio waves it reflected. Radio direction finding, later known as Radar, became one of the RAF’s most important tools and was kept strictly secret.
In each of these cases the breakthrough has come from outside the mainstream, and each of them has had a lasting impact. Goddard’s rockets paved the way for satellite technology, global communications, GPS, and space imaging (can you imagine weather forecasts without satellite maps?). Whittle’s jet engine revolutionized air travel, and we now take for granted out ability to fly the world quickly and cheaply. An although the death-ray enthusiasts were on the wrong track entirely, they were responsible for radar and the related rise in radio-frequency technology, including everything from microwave ovens to lasers.
Revolutionary progress is always going to involve going beyond the mainstream, because if something is in the mainstream already it is part of the slow process of incremental change. It is only the outsiders often working alone and without sufficient funding — who can bring in those radical innovations.
It’s easy to laugh at new ideas, whether they are space rockets, giant electronic brains — or manned flight. Supposed experts in the relevant field often reject such ideas out of hand, not bothering to look closely at the data, and dismiss them as impossible.
But it’s surprising how quickly these impossible things become commonplace. We live in an age where robotic terminators taking out terrorists by remote control from thousands of miles away with laser-guided weapons are a routine news story.
Look at the cutting edge of military technology and you see plenty of ideas which are derided by the established authorities. I’ve covered lots of stories where this has been the case: The supercavitating penetrator is said to be impossible, as is plasma stealth, not to mention the Slingatron space launcher and radio-frequency devices which hack the human nervous system.
Small incremental improvements based on existing ideas are never going to produce the weapons which give decisive advantages like ballistic missiles, jet engines and radar. To paraphrase the great physicist Niels Bohr: “We all know the Pentagon has some crazy ideas. The question is, are they crazy enough?“
– David Hambling