Science The Top Five Nuclear Weapons of All Time
posted by May 2 at 16:24 PMon
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.