Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The Day They Nuked Mississippi

Once upon a time, the U.S. government detonated two nuclear bombs in Mississippi.

Was this the sequel to the burning of Atlanta? Did Ulysses S. Grant possess a secret nuclear arsenal? No, these were underground explosions near Hattiesburg back in the 1960s, designed to see how easy it would be to detect nuclear tests using seismic data.

The U.S. engaged in all sorts of wacky nuclear high jinks back in the day. There was Project Plowshare, which explored the possibility of using nuclear bombs for the purposes of earth moving. Just imagine if we had built the Interstate Highway System that way -- you wouldn't need street lights because the highways would glow in the dark.

At this point, my duty as a physicist compels me to ruin that joke by pointing out that the debris from a nuclear bomb does not, in fact, glow in the dark -- that's just a scurrilous rumor spread by bad science fiction movies and people like me. You can make radioactive materials glow by mixing them with another substance that gives off light when exposed to radiation -- that's how radium watches work.

Another fun idea to emerge from the nuclear age was Project Orion. This was a plan to propel a spaceship by dropping a series of nuclear bombs out of its rear end, and BANG BANG BANG you're off to the stars. Just don't forget to bring along your lead-lined underwear. This idea plays a key role in the Niven/Pournelle novel Footfall, where it provides the technology needed to defeat the alien invaders (the spaceship drive, not the underwear). Freeman Dyson, who played a major role in this project, talked about it when he visited us a few years ago. He's still very proud of the idea, and pointed out that Project Orion received advice from the Coca-Cola Bottling Company -- the bombs would be stored like bottles in a vending machine and fall out the bottom when needed. I don't know if you had to insert a quarter.


Kathy said...

As I recall, Orion was meant to use nukes in space exclusively. Niven and Pournelle used them to launch a ship into orbit!

Though seeing as how the asteroid had already impacted, and the aliens were all over the world, I suppose a few nukes spewing radiation all over the landscape were the lesser evil.

I also recall reading about a project to dig a canal, with nukes, across Mexico's southeast. Nukes aside, the real feat would be the locks for crossing the mountains in that area.

Robert Scherrer said...

I'm pretty sure that second project you describe was part of Project Plowshare.