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Friday, May 2, 2008

The Top Five Nuclear Weapons of All Time

posted by on May 2 at 16:24 PM

My week is ending poorly.

Rather than go into a lengthy whine about irritatingly arrogant-yet-foolish coworkers, crappily designed and maintained websites, the evil of both the SAX and DOM XML parsers in Python and “what, you can only do one miracle at a time” management, I’d rather present you with an appropriately glum bit of my knowledge.

Thus, I present to you Science’s top five most awesomest nuclear weapons of all time!

V. Little Boy

Little Boy was the first nuclear weapon used on a human population during the decimation of Hiroshima. I happen to love the evil simplicity of the beast.

Let’s take a moment to talk about what makes an atomic bomb go boom. Every element secretly, deeply, desperately wishes to be iron—atomic number 26. The bigger or smaller you—Mr. element—are, the more you yearn for iron-ness. As the fatter elements or skinnier elements get closer to the ideal of iron, they breathe some relief—in the form of a massive release of energy. Boom!

Take Uranium, for example. At a mighty atomic number of 92, it’s so irritable! This is a big boy, coming in isotopes of 238, 235 or 234; the rare 235 variety is particularly ready to cause some mayhem. When it spontaneously splits into two smaller atoms—a little bit closer to iron. YES!—it flings off high energy neutron bullets that have a tendency to split other obese atoms. Get enough U235 in a small space, and a chain reaction starts, resulting in a whole mess of atoms splitting in a short period of time. Combine all the energy and you have a big boom.

So, you’re tasked with building a bomb around these ideas. Some general comes to your desk and tells you “here are kilograms of Uranium enriched for 235. Make a bomb that will definitely work. We don’t want to look bad in front of the Japanese. Boom, or it’s your ass!”

You think to yourself… hmm… if I put this much U235 together it’ll explode. Let’s split this amount into two pieces, and put them on opposite ends of a loooong track. One piece will be bolted in place, the other on a little track, with wheels and shit. Put a little chemical explosive charge at the end of the piece-on-wheels, careening it towards the fixed bigger piece. When they meet, BOOOOM! Excellent. While the bomb might blow itself to pieces before all the U235 can fission, spreading incredibly radioactive half-split products all over the place, who gives a shit! They’re just Japanese! And it’s my ass if there isn’t a boom.

Ah! Little boy was invented.

Very few actual atomic bombs have this design. What if the little piece falls of the track?! No boom! No dead Japanese! It’s your ass. The Fat Man-style plutonium implosion device is quite a bit more popular. Still, not everyone has gotten the memo. The North Korean nuke, so far as we can guess, was most likely a Little Boy-like device. Hence more a fizzle than a boom. I cannot imagine what the poor North Korean bomb engineer’s week-after was like. To quote Ghostbusters, “Many Shuvs and Zuuls knew what it was to be roasted in the depths of the Slor that day, I can tell you!”

IV. Ivy Mike

Ok, the war is won! Go team! The bombs worked! We’re done, right? Not if we still have mortgages to pay. Well, what’s next? Won’t anyone think of all the miserable, pathetic little atoms and their desire to be big and mighty like Iron? Enter the SUPERbomb, otherwise known as the thermonuclear bomb, or hydrogen bomb.

The Teller-Ulam design for a fusion bomb is as follows:

1. We can get these fission-based atomic bombs to work really well now. And we know these bombs can make a ton of high energy neutron bullets in a short order. So, let’s put an implosion-style plutonium or Uranium-235 atomic bomb in the middle to make us some neutrons that…

2. …will hit a bunch of heavy hydrogen (a proton with a neutron or two along for the ride). The hydrogen will then fuse, heading up the periodic table from atomic number 1 to atomic number 2, and become helium. This releases even MORE and even angrier neutrons that…

3. … can be rammed into a bunch of far more placid Uranium-238—the waste product from making all that U-235 for step 1, recycling atomic-style. While the U-238 cannot be made into a chain reaction all by itself, all these really crabby fusion neutrons can do the job.

The result? A HUUUUUUGE explosion. Way bigger, thousands of times bigger, than that from an old-style step 1 only fission bomb. Neat.

Well, wait, isn’t this evil or something? Ok, here’s the plan! We’ll build it, but in such a manner that it’ll be impossible to use in wartime conditions—requiring a massive apparatus, coolant, the whole mess. That way, no one will be stupid enough to actually turn these things into weapons.

Yeah, that worked well, as evidenced by #III on the list the…

III. Tzar Bomba

So, with the three-stage bomb described above, there really isn’t any serious limit to the size of explosion one can make.

The Soviets, cranky from being second on so many, were ready to be number one. Let’s make the biggest man made explosion ever. Originally it was planned to be a 100 megaton explosion. For comparison, the Hiroshima bomb was about 11-kilotons.

The massive damage and radiation release would’ve caused too much misery, even for the soviets. They scaled it back to a mere 50 megatons. It still was (and remains) the largest explosion made by man.

II. Neutron Bomb

You’ve heard this joke: “The only problem with Paris is all the French.” Or “the only problem with Jerusalem is all the Arabs/Jews.” In fact, this next bomb is the answer to the general punchline, “the only problem with [placename] is the [some inconvenient ethnic group].”

Now you’re a really cynical bomb designer. You can’t go bigger. Why not go eviler? Take the same 3-stage design described above, but this time let’s USE those neutrons to do something other than fission Uranium. They also work at killing living things! Like inconvenient ethnic groups in places we liked to have as our own. By replacing the Uranium with Aluminum, we can make a bomb with less explosive force, but much more killing power! Go team!

(A bonus, favorite, nuclear weapon idea—the Doomsday device! Instead of replacing the Uranium-238 with Aluminum, replace it with Cobalt. The neutrons convert the Cobalt into all sorts of incredibly radioactive atoms that’ll stick around for thousands, and in special cases millions, of years. Killing everything. Everywhere. So far as I know, no one has actually built this kind of bomb, so it must stay off the list.)

I. The Davey Crockett M-388 Nuclear Device.

Remember the plan in #IV, to make such a bomb so cumbersome that it’ll never be deployed as a weapon? Yeah, right.

About 54 kilograms and about the diameter of a basketball, it was meant to be used by ground troops as a short range bomb. This teeny nuke, basically able to be held in your hands, could pack the explosive force of 500 tons of TNT. Like, some lieutenant comes to you and says “if you see the Ruskies coming over that hill, grab this Bazooka with a nuclear warhead at the tip of it and fire towards them. You might live for a bit afterwards.” Hence the name “Davey Crockett” to inspire the troops to a proper suicidal zeal.


I think I need a hug now.

I wanted this to end on some nice, edifying NPR moment. Ala, “look, we all survived the Cold War—this stuff makes terrorism and currency manipulation look chickenshit in comparison.”

But the only image that comes into mind, right now, is of the Democratic convention later this year, a HRC supporter throwing a Davey Crockett towards the Obama superdelegates, screaming “Hillary Ackbar!” I giggle and wonder what’s wrong with me.

RSS icon Comments


I think I need a long bath.

Posted by Paulus | May 2, 2008 4:36 PM

Thanks for brightening my day man. Jesus!

Posted by Jerod | May 2, 2008 4:41 PM

Humans are so awesome, aren't we?

Posted by Reverse Polarity | May 2, 2008 4:45 PM

this would be a nice snark, but i _just_ left this website:

it's not so funny now.

Posted by LADave | May 2, 2008 4:46 PM

It's not the XML parser that's evil, it's XML itself.

And 92 is the atomic number of Uranium, not the atomic mass. Geez!

Posted by w7ngman | May 2, 2008 4:48 PM

I think you meant lead (82) not iron. Uranium, and pretty much all the other elements above lead decay to lead eventually.

By 1910, 40 radioactive elements had been isolated that were associated with the process by which uranium metal decayed to lead-

So all the elements bigger than lead DO want to be lead, but lead, and all the elements below it, just want to be themselves.

Posted by ladyiconoclast | May 2, 2008 4:56 PM

Ack, w7ngman. You're correct (about both XML and the atomic mass/number.) Fixed (to atomic number.)

I knew it, but didn't write it.

Posted by Jonathan Golob | May 2, 2008 4:57 PM


This is a common misconception. Lead is indeed the stable element at the bottom of many fission decay chains. But Iron is the element with the highest nuclear binding energy.

Posted by Jonathan Golob | May 2, 2008 5:01 PM

You can worry all you want about aluminum tubes and alleged attempts to build centrifuges to develop weapons-grade nuclear fuel, it's the thousands of so-called "theater" nukes designed to protect (or invade - depending who had em) Western Europe that keep me up at night.

All it takes is one or two of those in a container at the Port of Seattle, and every one of us will have a day that gets much, much brighter, and then very very dark, indeed....

Posted by Mr. X | May 2, 2008 5:29 PM

#8 I appreciate these follow-ups. I thought it was lead too.

I just read that link... I'd love to go walk on a dead, iron star. I'm guessing I'd get smushed on the surface though.

Posted by science rules | May 2, 2008 5:35 PM

The Ivy Mike was true insanity. It was as large as an aircraft hangar. Yes, one bomb. The resulting explosion literally wiped the island it was built on (Elugelab Island in the Enewetak Atoll) off the face of the earth.

Posted by K | May 2, 2008 6:37 PM

Oh god. Am I the only one who thinks there's about a zero chance we won't see one of these used to kill in our lifetimes?

How about a short follow-up on how hard it would be for a terrrist to make one of these?

Posted by poppy | May 2, 2008 6:49 PM

This afternoon, I just heard a scientific talk about diverting asteroids on a collision course with the earth with nuclear weapons. The best case would be to push on it enough so that after a couple of orbits it would miss. But if you had to and it far enough out such that most of the debris would miss, you can just blow it up with a ~10 Mt bomb.

But no, you don't need Bruce Willis to go drill a hole.

Posted by armageddon isn't as dumb as you thought | May 2, 2008 6:57 PM


You're totally right, of course. In November, I slogged that very point--that nuclear weapons are more a demonstration of industrial prowess than an actual weapon.

I still believe the only people to be irradiated by, say, an Iranian bomb will be the Iranians manufacturing the damn things.

And I'll restate another point: Biological weapons remain the most promising technology for a suicidal terrorist group.

Posted by Jonathan Golob | May 2, 2008 7:21 PM

Hey, Jon, since I'm drunk and you're not, help me out here: somewhere, somewhen back before you were born, I seem to remember reading that the basis of a supernova was an iron-fusion reaction. Am I remembering this correctly, or just drunk?

Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty | May 2, 2008 8:01 PM

Regardless, at least give me some credit for not making any bad jokes about ferrous wheels.

Posted by Fifty-Two-Eighty | May 2, 2008 8:04 PM

Ameeeerica, Fuck Yeah! Coming up to here to save the motherfucking day, yeah

Posted by OR Matt | May 2, 2008 8:18 PM

Fifty Two Eighty:

You are correct. At high enough temperature and pressure, any nucleus lower than iron will combine to make iron and give off energy (after that, they will still combine, but will lose energy). After exhausting hydrogen fuel, a big enough star will then burn its helium, then go up through boron, carbon, oxygen, neon, etc. until it either blows itself apart (switching fuels isn't easy, as the star collapses until the necessary pressure / temperature is reached, blowing of a fair amount of material in the process), or just doesn't get hot enough.

In the end, after saving itself by burning everything, it's left with iron combining into heavier elements and soaking up energy.

One common alternative is when a star gets almost to the iron-burning stage, but not quite. If it then arranges to pick up material slowly (as from an orbiting companion star), it will eventually go over the mass limit, and start making iron, blowing up in the process. This is a type II supernova. We can occasionally see these puppies blow up, and then watch them cool off / lose brightness. The nifty thing is, the way they lose brightness confirms that the end result is iron. The half life of the brightness is the same as the half life of an isotope as it decays to iron (don't have the source for which it is, sorry).

It all works out, and it's nifty.
(MS., astrophysics, many years ago)

Posted by spudbeach | May 2, 2008 8:58 PM

Thank you, Jon.

Posted by Amelia | May 3, 2008 2:37 AM

You don't like Castle Bravo? The largest above-ground US nuclear test! The origin of the concept of the 'unexpected fission surplus'.... rather than use a lead tamper around the 'sparkplug', they used U-238. The neutron flux from the fusion reacton caused the U-238 to (AFAIK) turn into Pu239 then quickly fission. (this is what I recall; I may be slightly off) It ended up bigger, and way more fallout-y than anyone expected.

Posted by Fe Man | May 3, 2008 8:02 AM

Any list that omits the W88 is immediately suspect.

Posted by LT L | May 3, 2008 1:00 PM

What about the Death Star???

Posted by jackseattle | May 3, 2008 1:38 PM

You missed the point of the neutron bomb - not so much to leave the cities and whatnot, but that for a "regular" bomb at a decent distance a buttoned up tank (and the crew inside it) won't be all that effected by the concussive overpressure of the blast.

Sure the crew dies of radiation poisoning eventually, but that might take weeks. And by then the 37th Guards Motor Infantry are doing wheelies in Paris.

But the neutron bomb gives off a whole lot MORE radiation, so that the crew gets cooked inside their can. The tank (and as a handy side result, city) gets hit by less of a blast, but that wouldn't have destroyed it in the first place.

Posted by Patrick | May 3, 2008 7:03 PM

I'll grant you, Ivy Mike was impressive as a demonstration of the tech, but from a deployment standpoint the Mk-41 might be a better fit for that slot.

At 25 Mt yield, it was the largest production model thermonuclear device ever put into service, as well as being the only 3 stage TN device ever deployed by the U.S.

Plus, we built a shit-ton of 'em, around 500 all-told, and they also probably stayed in active stockpile longer that just about any other nuclear warhead or bomb built.

Posted by COMTE | May 3, 2008 10:55 PM

Re. neutron bombs vs. modern armour: Nowadays the M-1 Abrams tank uses slabs of depleted uranium in its armour plating. The stuff is superdense and works great against kinetic projectiles and such, but secondary cascade neutron reactions mean that the crew of an M-1 is vulnerable to neutron weapons at about twice the distance of the crew of a tank without DPU armour.

Hurray for the double-edged sword of technology!

Posted by Breklor | May 5, 2008 1:57 PM

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