Saturday, August 11, 2007

"Imaginary Weapons; A Journey Through the Pentagon's Scientific Underworld," by Sharon Weinberger.

An amazing story of the Pentagon's pet fringe-science projects. The book focuses on the elusive hafnium isomer bomb, but also touches on efforts to develop an antimatter weapon and the use of psychics to influence enemy troops. Altogether, these projects start to make rumors about the "Philadelphia project" look realistic.

At least it's not just the U.S. who specializes in the ridiculous. One Russian scientist complained about a group from St. Petersburg who claimed to have "triggered" an isomer of tellurium with X-rays: "the details of work were without doubts invented by authors who proved 'too incompetent' to even bother to invent something plausible."

"Beginning in the 1970s, the intelligence community began hiring psychics to describe objects in remote locations. ... The central figure in the U.S. psychics program was...Hal Puthoff, who convinced intelligence officials that psychic phenomena could be proved. Recounted in...Nick Cook's...The Hunt For Zero Point, the CIA's obsession with psychics...emerged from paranoid fears of Russian superiority." Such were the frontlines of the cold war.

When the author was researching this book, she interviewed the Air Force scientist in charge of funding basic physics, Forrest "Jack" Agee. Agee suggested she speak with someone named Hill Roberts, a scientist at SRS Technologies in Huntsville Alabama. Roberts supposedly knew a lot about isomers. When she Googled Hill Roberts in combination with "hafnium-178," she was directed to a web site belonging to an organization called "Lord I Believe." Halfnium-178 was considered to be proof of an intelligent designer, and Roberts was a proponent of something called "Christian Evidences."

A chemist and physicist named Irving Langmur gave a talk in 1953 in which he provided definitions for "pathological science," or, "the science of things that aren't so":

· Pseudoscience - the attempt to dress up non-scientific ideas as science.

· Junk science - shoddy techniques or poor methods used to promulgate a desired conclusion.

· Pathological science - any scientific pursuit where the scientist involved would claim that the inability of others to reproduce their results was caused by some fundamental flaw in the others' work. Usually resulting from an otherwise good scientist reporting an exciting result too soon, thus raising the stakes too high.

"The Crackpot Index" as written by mathematical physicist John Baez. A "simple method for rating potentially revolutionary contributions to physics."
* 20 points for suggesting that you deserve a Nobel Prize
*20 points for bringing up (real or imagined) ridicule...
*20 points for each use of the phrase "self-appointed defender of the orthodoxy."
* 40 points for claiming that the "scientific establishment" is engaged in a conspiracy to prevent your work form gaining its well-deserved fame...
*40 points for comparing yourself to Galileo, suggesting that a modern-day Inquisition is hard at work on your case.