27 July 2005

Nuclear weapons and ball lightning

Today I attended a very interesting lecture (and a free, very tasty lunch) given by the vice president of our branch of the Sandia org chart who just retired two weeks ago.

He started the lecture by discussing the prisoner's dilemma, and noting that traditionally the most effective method is that of "tit-for-tat," where responses are based on previous actions. He said that once 40% of a population uses this method, a stable system develops where 7% always rat out/trade a null bag and the remainder always cooperate. This led into him talking about wars and how that method no longer works when "tit" means the destruction of both entities.

Last year, the PRC launched its first of a new class of nuclear missile submarines. They are also, apparently, in the process of constructing two more, a fact that didn't make any major news source (according to him) because of our close trade relationship with China. Not good, especially when they're making crazy threats about nuking the U.S. if we get involved in a war between them and Taiwan.

He also believes that within the next 3-5 years, another country will give an Islamic terrorist organization a ~6 kiloton nuke which they will detonate above the Pentagon, causing the U.S. to withdraw completely from the Middle East.

Among other things, the vice-pres mentioned an interesting study correlating the ratio of males over 18 to males under 18 and a nation's willingness to go to war and sacrifice larger numbers of the male population.

Most of that, along with some stuff about needing more energy, was given as reasons that Sandia exists and needs to continue to exist. He talked a lot about the future of pulsed power as the only feasible fusion energy source, as economically, laser-induced ICF and Tokomak as producers of energy won't happen. I'm personally dubious that they'll be able to get pulsed power ICF to work reliably and continuously, but that's beside the point.

Then he went totally off-topic to talk about a research project he's been pursuing in his own time. He's interested in the kind of ball lightning that doesn't happen anytime near a lightning strike (though usually sometime around a storm). There are stories of this kind hovering around for 20 minutes, doing all sorts of crazy things. One account took place 130 years ago in Ireland, witnessed by one Fitzgerald, of a "lightning ball" about 5 feet in diameter. It moved about a meter per second down a hill, and went into and out of the ground, finally going into a stream and exhausting itself after running into the bank. The crazy part is, everywhere it touched the ground (which was peat) left a huge hole about 4 feet (or meters, I can't remember) deep, so it carved huge tracks in the ground and in the bank near the stream. No mention in the account was made of piles of ground where it might've dug it up, or of steam rising from the ground. I wouldn't believe this at all, but the vice-pres actually went to Ireland and found the place where it happened. Since peat grows so slowly, the holes it allegedly carved in the bank were still there.

Another extraordinary anecdote was in the '70s in England. A lady was in her house when a 6 inch diameter ball hovered up to her and contacted her polyester miniskirt and the underwear underneath it, which a part of vaporized or vanished. She had swatted at it with a hand with a ring on it, and in the moment of time where her hand passed through it, the ring was heated to "scalding temperatures." The vice-pres calculated that if this were due to a powerful RF source, it would have to be outputting about a gigawatt of power. And, since she wasn't vaporized or heated up in contact with it, the band in which it emitted would have to be significantly less than the 2GHz water dipole resonance frequency like in microwave ovens. A physicist allegedly examined the portion of her dress that disappeared, and didn't see any singing or melting or anything. It didn't burn the woman, either.

One thing he's done recently is, using his powers as vice-president, obtained satellite data from Los Alamos of low microwave band emissions over the last several years. There are some anomalies in the data, one of which is a signal that translates to at least a 500MW output in the ~130MHz band over several minutes. He's hoping to use radio towers located all over the U.S. to triangulate a signal such as that if it ever comes around.

Now, personally, I don't know what to believe about those stories. A ball of hovering, glowing substance that emits power in the megawatts per cubic centimeter range for minutes at a time and can mysteriously make huge amounts of mass just disappear? Sounds impossible. My best guess? Demons, because I doubt even aliens could even pull these ridiculous stunts.


Naomi said...

Hey, Seth, do you remember the balls of fire described in the Little House on the Prairie Books? They came rolling out of the fireplace and it was weird. Also, I think these balls of lightning are otherwise cited as those mysterious lights around ships sometimes.... what are they called... "someone"'s lights or something...drat, can't remember.

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