Locklin on science

The Leduc ramjet

Posted in big machines by Scott Locklin on November 29, 2016

I ran across this gizmo from looking at Yann LeCun’s google plus profile, and wondering at the preposterous gadget sitting next to him at the top. Figuring out what it was, I realized the genius of the metaphor. Yann builds things (convolutional networks and deep learning in general) which might very well be the Leduc ramjets of machine learning or even “AI” if we are lucky. Unmistakably Phrench, as in both French and physics-based, original in conception, and the rough outlines of something that might become common in the future, even if the engineering of the insides eventually changes.


Rene Leduc was working on practical ramjet engines back in the 1930s. His research was interrupted by the war, but he was able to test his first ramjet in flight in 1946. The ramjet seems like a crazy idea for a military aircraft; ramjets don’t work until the plane is moving. A ramjet is essentially a tube you squirt fuel into which you light on fire. The fire won’t propel the engine forward unless there is already a great deal of air passing through. It isn’t that crazy if you can give it a good kick to get it into motion. If we stop to think about how practical supersonic aircraft worked from the 1950s on; they used afterburners. Afterburners to some approximation, operate much like inefficient ramjets; you squirt some extra fuel in the afterburning component of the engine and get a nice increase in thrust. Leduc wasn’t the only ramjet guy in town; the idea was in the proverbial air, if not the literal air. Alexander Lippisch (a German designer responsible for the rocket powered Komet, the F-106 and the B-58 Hustler) had actually sketched a design for a supersonic coal burning interceptor during WW-2, and his engine designer was eventually responsible for a supersonic ramjet built by another French company. The US also attempted a ramjet powered nuclear cruise missile, the SM-64 Navaho, which looks about as bizarre as the Leduc ramjets.


Navaho SM-84

In fact, early nautical anti-aircraft missiles such as the Rim-8 Talos used ramjets for later stages as well. The bleeding edge Russian air to air missile, the R-77, also uses ramjets as does a whole host of extremely effective Russian antiship missiles. Ramjets can do better than rockets for long range missilery as they are comparably simple, and hydrocarbon ramjets can have longer range than rockets. Sticking a man in a ramjet powered airframe isn’t that crazy an idea. It works for missiles.

The Leduc ramjets didn’t quite work as a practical military technology, in part due to aerodynamic problems, in part because they needed turbojets to get off the ground anyway, but they were important in developing further French fighter planes.  They were promising at the time and jam packed with innovative ideas; the first generation of them was much faster in both climb and final speed than contemporary turbojets.


Ultimately, their technology was a dead end, but what fascinates about them is how different, yet familiar they were. They look like modern aircraft from an alternate steampunk future. Consider a small detail of the airframe, such as the nose.  The idea was a canopy bubble would cause aerodynamic drag. Since ramjets operate best without any internal turbulence, the various scoops and side inlets you see in modern jets were non starters. So they put the poor pilot in a little tin can in the front of the thing. The result was, the earliest Leduc ramjet (the 0.10) looked like a Flash Gordon spaceship. The pilot was buried somewhere in the intake and had only tiny little portholes for visibility.


Later models incorporated more visibility by making a large plexiglass tube for the pilot to sit in. Get a load of the look of epic Gaulic bemusement on the pilot’s “avoir du cran” mug:

faire la moue

faire la moue


The later model shown above, the Leduc 0.22, actually had a turbojet which got it into the air. It was supposed to hit Mach-2, but never did. In part because the airframe didn’t take into account the “area rule” effect which made supersonic flight practical in early aircraft. But also in part because the French government withdrew funding from the project in favor of the legendary Dassault Mirage III; an aircraft so good it is still in service today.

The Leduc designs are tantalizing in that they were almost there. They produced 15,000 lbs of thrust, which was plenty for supersonic flight. A later ramjet fighter design, the Nord Griffon actually achieved supersonic flight, more or less by using a more conventional looking airframe. Alas, turbojets were ultimately less complex (and less interesting looking) so they ended up ruling the day.


As I keep saying, early technological development and innovative technology often looks very interesting indeed. In the early days people take big risks, and don’t really know what works right. If you look at a radio from the 1920s; they are completely fascinating with doodads sticking out all over the place. Radios in the 50s and 60s when it was down to a science were boring looking (and radios today are invisible). Innovative technologies look a certain way. They look surprising to the eye, because they’re actually something new. They look like science fiction because, when you make something new, you’re basically taking science fiction and turning it into technology.

Some videos:

Putin’s nuclear torpedo and Project Pluto

Posted in big machines by Scott Locklin on December 31, 2015

There was some wanking among the US  foreign policy wonkosphere about the  nuclear torpedo “accidentally” mentioned in a Russian news video.


The device described in the leak is a  megaton class long range nuclear torpedo. The idea is, if you build a big enough bomb and blow it off in coastal waters, it will create a 1000 foot high nuclear tidal wave that will physically wipe out coastal cities and Naval installations, as well as pollute them with radioactive fallout. If the Rooskies are working on such a thing, rather than trolling the twittering pustules in our foreign policy “elite,” it is certainly nothing new. Such a device was considered in the Soviet Union in the 1950s, and the original November class submarine design (the first non-US built nuclear sub) was designed around it. It was called the T-15 “land attack” torpedo.  Oddly this idea originated from America’s favorite Soviet dissident, Andrei Sakharov when thinking about delivery systems for his 100 megaton class devices. People forget that young Sakharov was kind of a dick. Mind you, the Soviet Navy sunk this idea, in part because it only had a range of 25 miles (meaning it was basically a suicide mission), but also, according to Sakharov’s autobiography, some grizzled old Admiral put it “we are Navy; we don’t make war on civilian populations…”

Notice the big hole in the front: that's where the torpedo went

Notice the big hole in the front: that’s where the original doomsday torpedo went

The gizmo shown in this recent Russian leak is  a modern incarnation of the T-15 land attack torpedo without the Project 627/November class submarine delivery system. Same 1.6 meter caliber, megaton class warhead and everything. The longer range  of 5000 miles versus the 25 of the T-15 could be considered an innovation, and is certainly possible, but it only has tactical implications. From a strategic point of view: they had the same idea  years ago, for roughly the same reasons. Fifties era Soviet nuclear weapons delivery systems were not as reliable as American ones. In the 50s it was because Soviet bombers of the era were junk (mostly copies of the B-29). If they’re building this now, it’s because they’re worried about US missile defense.


Various analysts have been speculating that the thing is wrapped in cobalt or something to make it more dirty, because the rooskie power point talks about area denial. While it’s entirely possible, these dopes posing as analysts have some weird ideas about what a nuclear weapon is, and what it does. Nobody seems to have noticed that there’s a nuclear reactor pushing the thing around; predumably one using liquid metal coolants like the Alfa class submarines. I’m pretty sure lighting off a nuke next to a nuclear reactor will make some nasty and long lived fallout. At 1 megaton, just the bomb casing and tamper makes a few hundred pounds of nasty long lived radioactive stuff. The physics package the Russians would  likely use (SS-18 Mod-6 rated at 20Mt, recently retired from deployment atop SS-18 satan missiles) is a fission-fusion-fission bomb, and inherently quite “dirty” since most of the energy is released from U-238. Worse still:  blowing up a 1-100 megaton device in coastal mud will  make lots of nasty fallout.  Sodium-24 (from the salt in the water) is deadly. Half life is around 15 hours, meaning it would be clear in a few days, but being around it for the time it is active …. Then there is sodium-22, which has a half life of two and a half years; nukes in the water make less of this than sodium-24, but, well, go look it up. There is all kinds of other stuff in soil and muck which makes for unpleasant fallout. There’s an interesting book (particularly the 1964 edition) called “The Effects of Nuclear Weapons” available on archive. Chapter 9 shows some of the fallout patterns you can expect from blowing something like this up. Or, you could use this calculator thing;  a 1Mt device makes a lethal fallout cloud over thousands of square kilometers.



The twittering pustules who pass for our foreign policy elite are horrified, just horrified that the rooskies would spook us with such a device.  As if this were somehow a morally inferior form of megadeath to lobbing a couple thousand half megaton nuclear missile warheads at your least favorite country. Apparently this is how civilized countries who do not possess enemies with a plurality of coastal cities exterminate their foes. I don’t understand such people. Nuclear war is bad in general, m’kay? Mass slaughter with a nuclear torpedo is not morally inferior to mass slaughter with an ICBM. More to the point, getting along with Russians is easy and vodka is cheaper and more effective than ABM (and doomsday torpedo) defenses. If we hired actual diplomats and people who study history, instead of narcissistic toadies and sinister neocon apparatchiks to labor in our foreign services … maybe the Russians wouldn’t troll us with giant nuke torpedoes.

Doomsday engineering is often stranger than any science fiction. The things they built back in the cold war were weird.  While the US never admitted to building any 100 megaton land torpedoes (probably because Russia doesn’t have as many important coastal cities as the US does), we certainly worked on some completely bonkers nuclear objects.


Imagine  a locomotive sized cruise missile, powered by a nuclear ramjet, cruising at mach-3 at tree level. The cruise missile  showers the landscape with two dozen hydrogen bombs of the megaton class, or one big one in the 20 megaton class. When it is finished its job of raining electric death mushrooms all over the enemy, it cruises around farting deadly radioactive dust and flattening cities with the sheer power of the sonic boom… for months. In principle, such a device can go on practically forever. If I were to use such a contraption as a plot device, you’d probably think it was far fetched. Such a thing was almost built by the Vought corporation 50 years ago. Click on the link. The Vought corporation thought it was cool enough to brag about it on their website (please don’t take it down guys; anyway if you do, I’ll put it back up).


65,000 lbs, 80 feet long, with the terrifying code name, SLAM (Supersonic, Low Altitude Missile), or … “project Pluto.” This thing was perilously close to being built. They tested the engines at full scale and full power at Jackass Flats, and the guidance system was good enough they used essentially the same thing in the Tomahawk cruise missile. The problem wasn’t technical  … but how to test it? The fact that it was an enormous nuclear ramjet made it inherently rather dangerous. Someone suggested flight testing it on a tether in the desert. That would have been quite a tether to hold a mach 3 locomotive in place. Fortunately, we had rocket scientists who built ICBMs that worked. Of course, having an ICBM class booster would have been necessary to make the thing work in the first place (nuclear ramjets don’t start working until they’re moving at a decent velocity), which makes you wonder why they ever thought this was a good idea. Probably because people who dream these things up are barking looneys. Not that I wouldn’t have worked on this project, given the chance.


The ceramic matrix for the reactor was actually made by the  Coors Porcelain company. Yes, the same company that makes shitty  beer has been (and continues to be) an innovator in ceramics; and this originated from the founder’s needing good materials for beer bottles and inventing beer cans. According to Jalopnik, they used exhaust header paint ordered from hot rod magazine to protect some of the electronic components. Apparently when they lit the reactor off at full power for the first time, they got so shitfaced, the project director (Merkle; yes, nano-dude’s father) had vitamin B shots issued to the celebrants the following day. Yes, I would have worked on project SLAM: as far as I can tell, it was the most epic redneck project ever funded by the US government. Not that we should have built such a thing, but holy radioactive doomsday smoke, Batman, it would have been a fun job for a few years.

I wouldn’t blame the Russians if they wanted to build a giant nuclear  torpedo-codpiece when the US sends Russiophobic dipshits like Michael McFaul to represent us in  Russia (look at his twitter feed; it is completely bonkers). I certainly hope they don’t build such a thing. It would also be nice if the US would stop screwing around with crap like that as well. Pretty sure it’s a giant troll, but the T-15 and Project Pluto were not.

Interesting pdf on Project Pluto:


Edit add:fascinating Russian wikipedia page MichaelMoser123 posted to hacker news:


Can the Su-25 intercept and shoot down a 777?

Posted in big machines, War nerding by Scott Locklin on July 21, 2014

Personal background: I’ve flown Malaysian Airlines and declare it better and more civilized than any US airline. I’ve been to Ukraine on a business-vacation. I’m sympathetic to the aspirations of the long suffering Ukrainian people. I’m also sympathetic to the position of the Russian government with respect to Ukraine, which is, after all, sort of like their version of Canada, if Canada had annexed part of New England in 1991. I am not sympathetic to the claque of sinister war mongers and imperial Gauleiters in the US State department with respect to their activities in Ukraine and towards Russia. If I had my way, creeps like Vicky “fuck the EU” Nuland and Geoff Pyatt would be facing prison and the firing squad for what they’ve done over there. In my opinion, US policy towards Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union has been knavish, evil and disgusting. My opinion isn’t a mere slavophilic eccentricity; George Kennan, our greatest Cold War diplomat, said more or less the same things before he died.

If this was a shoot down by Donetsk separatists, and even if the Russians supplied the missiles to the separatists (who could have captured them from Ukrainian forces, or simply borrowed a couple from the local arms factories), this doesn’t make the Russians culpable for the tragedy. By that logic, the US is responsible for all the bad things done with weapons it supplies to its proxies, such as ISIS in Syria and Iraq, which is arguably worse. Certainly the US is responsible for the escalation of the situation in Ukraine. I say all this, because passions are high, and the war drums are beating. I am not a  war monger, or apologist for anybody; in fact, I’m the closest thing you’re going to get to an unbiased observer in this disaster. I have no horse in this race. I wish they’d all learn to get along.

So, the Rooskies are now implying that a Ukrainian Su-25 may have shot down flight MH17. Facts and objective reality seem to be in short supply in Western coverage of the Ukraine crisis; I aim to supply some. I am going with the assumption that the Rooskies are telling the truth, and that there was indeed a Ukrainian Su-25 where they said there was. They said the Su-25 came within 2 to 3 miles of the 777.


Everyone agrees that the Boeing 777-200ER was flying over the separatist region at 33,000 feet. A Boeing 777’s cruising speed is about 560mph or Mach 0.84. Its mass is about 500,000 pounds, and it has a wingspan and length of about 200 feet each. The MH17 was flying from West to East, more or less.

The Su-25 Frogfoot is a ground attack aircraft; a modern Sturmovik or, if you like, a Rooskie version of the A-10 Warthog. The wingspan and length of the Su-25 is about 50 feet each, and the mass is about 38,000lbs with a combat load. The ceiling of an unladen Su-25 is about 23,000 feet. With full combat load, an Su-25 can only make it to 16,000 feet. This low combat ceiling was actually a problem in the Soviet-Afghanistan war; the hot air and the tall mountains made it less useful than it could have been. At altitude, the maximum speed of the unladen Su-25 is Mach 0.82; probably considerably lower with combat loads. For air to air armament, it has a pair of 30mm cannons and carries the R-60 missile. The Su-25 is also capable of carrying the Kh-13, though it is not clear that the Ukrainians deploy this missile on their Su-25s. For the sake of argument, we’ll talk about it anyway.


Since it was a Ukrainian Su-25, we can also assume it was heading West to East; more or less the same trajectory as flight MH17. It could have been traveling in some other trajectory, but we can already see the problem with an Su-25 intercepting a 777; it’s too low, and too slow. If you want to believe  the crackpot idea that Ukrainian government were a bunch of sinister schemers who shot down MH17 on purpose, an Su-25 is pretty much the worst armed military aircraft you can imagine for such a task. The Ukrainian air force has a dozen Su-27s and two-dozen Mig-29s perfectly capable of intercepting and shooting down a 777. They also have the Buk missile, and are  capable of placing it somewhere near the Donetsk separatists if they wanted to make them look bad. So, the theory that the evil Ukrainians shot down a 777 with a Su-25 on purpose is … extremely unlikely.

Could an Su-25 have shot down a 777 by accident? Fog of war and all that? Perhaps they thought it was a Russian  plane? Well, let’s see how likely that is. The weapons of the Su-25 capable of doing this are the cannons, the R-60 missile (and its later evolutions, such as the R-73E) and the  K-13 missile.

Cannons: impossible. The Su-25 was at minimum 10,000 feet below the 777. This means simply pointing the cannon at the 777 without stalling would have been a challenge. The ballistic trajectory of the cannon fire would have made this worse. The Gsh-30-2 cannon fires a round which travels at only 2800 feet per second, significantly lower than, say, the round fired by a  338 Lapua sniper rifle. Imagine trying to shoot down an airplane with a rifle, from 2-3 miles away using your eyeball, in a plane, at a ballistic angle. If the MH17 was somehow taken out by cannon fire, it will have obvious 30mm holes in the fuselage. None have been spotted so far.

K-13 missile: extremely unlikely. The K-13 is a Soviet copy of the 50s era AIM-9 sidewinder; an infrared homing missile. Amusingly, the Soviets obtained the AIM-9 design during a skirmish between China and Taiwan in 1958; a dud got stuck in a Mig-17. It is not clear that the Ukrainian air force fields these weapons with their Su-25’s; they’re out of date, and mostly considered useless. Worse, the effective range of a K-13 is only about 1.2 miles, putting the 777 out of effective range. Sure, a K-13 miiiight have made it to a big lumbering 777 with its two big, hot turbofans, but it seems pretty unlikely; a lucky shot. The 16lb of the K-13 warhead is certainly capable of doing harm to a 777’s engines. Maybe it would have even taken out the whole airliner. Doubtful though.

The K-13 AA missile

The K-13 AA missile

R-60 missile: extremely unlikely. If a Su-25 was firing missiles at a 777, this is probably what it was using. The R-60 is also an IR guided missile, though some of the later models use radar proximity fuzing.  Unlike the K-13, this is a modern missile, and it is more likely to  have hit its target if fired. Why is it unlikely? Well, first off, it is unlikely the Ukrainian Su-25s were armed with them in the first place: these are ground attack planes, fighting in a region where the enemy has no aircraft. More importantly, the R-60 has a tiny little 6lb warhead, which is only really dangerous to fragile fighter aircraft. In 1988, an R-60 was fired at a BAe-125 in Botswana. The BAe-125 being a sort of Limey Lear jet, which weighs a mere 25,000lbs; this aircraft is 20 times smaller than a 777 by mass. The BAe-125 was inconvenienced by the R-60, which knocked one of its engines off, but it wasn’t shot down; it landed without further incident. A 777 is vastly larger and more sturdy than any Limey Lear jet. People may recall the KAL007 incident where an airliner was shot down by a Soviet interceptor. The Su-15 flagon interceptor which accomplished this used a brobdingnagian K-8 missile, with an 88lb warhead, which was designed to take out large aircraft. Not a shrimpy little R-60. The R-60 is such a pipsqueak of a missile, it is referred to as the “aphid.”

The R-60 aphid

The R-60 aphid

That’s it; those are the only tools available to the Su-25 for air to air combat. The other available  weapons are bombs and air to surface missiles, which are even more incapable of shooting down anything which is  10,000 feet above the Su-25.

My guess as to what happened … somebody … probably the Donetsk separatists (the least experienced, least well trained, and least well plugged into a military information network), fired a surface to air missile at something they thought was an enemy plane. It could have been the Buk SA-11/17 with its 150lb warhead and 75,000 foot range, just like everyone is reporting. Another candidate is the Kub SAM, which is an underrated SAM platform also in use in that part of the world. Yet another possibility is the S-125 Pechora, which isn’t deployed in Ukraine or Russia, but it is probably still manufactured in the Donbass region. A less likely candidate is the S-75 Dvina (the same thing that took out Gary Powers), though the primitive guidance system and probable lack of deployed installations in Ukraine and Russia make this unlikely. The fact that the MH17 disappeared from radar at 33,000 feet, and the condition of the wreckage indicates it was something really big that hit flight MH17; not a piddly little aphid missile. The pictures of the wreckage don’t indicate any sort of little missile strike which might have knocked off an engine; it looks like the whole plane was shredded. Both engines came down in the same area, more or less in one piece.

Whatever it was, it wasn’t an Su-25. There is also no use going all “Guns of August” on the Russians over something that was very likely beyond their control. Here’s hoping all parties concerned learn to resolve their differences in a civilized manner.

War is bad, m'kay?

War is bad, m’kay?

Interesting links from the rumor mill (as they come in):


Update July 22:
Nobody else has yet noticed that Donetsk manufactures SAMs, or that there are several other potential sources and varieties of such weapons. The Russians are sticking with the Su-25 idea, and haven’t corroborated the Su-27 story, making it seem much less likely.

“Blame the Rooskie” war mongers would do well to remember the Vincennes incident, where the US shot down an Iranian air liner over Iranian airspace, killing a comparable number of innocent civilians.

Update July 23:
A run down of some of the capabilities of the Buk system from “The National Interest” (one of the few sane US foreign policy periodicals):


 Update Aug 16:

A SAM based video game


Anatomy of a Fusion press release

Posted in big machines, Design by Scott Locklin on March 5, 2014

Listening to the nonsense mindlessly parroted  by media outlets, you’d think we were a few months away from limitless fusion power. I’d like to believe that. I’d like to believe my country was still capable of making important technical breakthroughs. Just as I’d like to believe my country’s foreign policy isn’t run by simpering baboons who don’t know a Cossack from a cassock.

Unfortunately, I went to college, and I once worked in a government lab, so I know better. The actual news behind the recent fusion press release is no cause for rejoicing. NIF isn’t be something we should be lionizing in the press; it’s a national embarrassment. The people who made the press release certainly know this. Unfortunately, the people who read the press release couldn’t be bothered to understand anything about it.


What is NIF? NIF, or “national ignition facility,” is a bunch of  big lasers, designed to implode a pellet of deuterium and tritium well enough to achieve fusion “ignition.” Ignition means, the reaction is self sustaining; the fusionables burn after you light them on fire, so to speak; just like the regular-world definition of ignition. LLNL had hoped to have achieved ignition by now, but they haven’t. NIF construction also took about four times what it was supposed to cost, and was turned on five years behind schedule. The original management team (including perennial presidential candidate Bill Richardson) was excoriated in the GAO report. This is a terrible record, even for a government program. But it gets worse…

In 2012, Congress reviewed the project, wondering why the project had not yet achieved ignition. They’re in deep shit with their paymasters. It’s now 2014, and they still haven’t achieved ignition. Hence this press release, just in time for the 2014 fiscal year.


What did they announce in this press release? Well, they claimed a kinda-sorta “scientific break even.” Supposedly, they got 5×10^15 neutrons out, which somehow is higher than the energy they managed to impart on the actual target. This is, to say the least, deceptive. The energy obtained in this reaction was allegedly as high as 14KJ. The energy put into the reaction was 1.8MJ. Their “break even” assertion is that the 1.8MJ laser flash managed to put slightly under 14KJ on target. An article in science magazine mentioned this back in 2013, when the first press release hit; mentioning that the 1.8MJ pulse is about the same as a two-ton truck going 100mph, and the imparted result was something like a baseball going 50mph. The author didn’t mention that the energy required to generate the two-ton truck laser pulse required a few hundred two ton trucks worth of energy input, because the laser system uses old school flash-tube pumped YAG technology, but that’s a factor also. All this totals to around 3 * 10^-5 away from true break even. Unfortunately, LLNL made another press release a week or two ago, essentially repeating the September 2013 press release, and nobody bothered checking with a grown up.

NIF as an engineering project actually does what it promised; it consistently delivers 2MJ UV laser pulses. Laser inertial confinement is an old idea at LLNL, and it was an ambitious engineering job to get to this point. As an engineering project, I have to admit it’s pretty cool; the high energy pulse control, the giant KDP crystals  and the deformable mirror optics is all good stuff. It ought to be, considering it cost 4X what it was supposed to, but the engineering of the device  is blameless. It’s the physics that failed.

While the history of NIF is marred by some lousy management, we have a pretty good idea of why it has failed to do what it is supposed to do. The computer models used to calculate the physics of a laser pulse hitting a target: they don’t work. They’re making a prediction which is at least a factor of 5-10 off from what is observed, in terms of energy absorption.  Worse; the  material used to compress the fuel seems to have unpleasant characteristics which tend to snuff out the fusion reaction, slowing the neutrons and generally behaving differently than it is supposed to (as documented in this review PDF) and nobody understands that either.

So, the actual fuel doesn’t work like it’s supposed to, and neither does the “match” which is supposed to light it on fire. This should not be a great surprise. Computer simulation works fairly well when you understand all the physics, and when the equations are well behaved. It doesn’t work at all when you leave out important physics, or when the equations are badly behaved. I’d expect something like a highly focused megajoule nanosecond UV laser pulse on exotic materials to be something which falls into the “not so well behaved” class of physical models. I’m guessing the recommendations in the review article are being followed, and the NIF folks are attempting to adjust their models using some indirect observations and calibrations. I think they’re also taking a punt by fiddling with beam pulse shape. It appears the “good” result of September 2013 happened via the latter technique.


One of the saddest things about this debacle is the JASON committee recognized problems with the computer models back in July of 2005 (see page 44-48 of this report). The same group has also pointed out that, one of the alleged benefits of NIF, that of stockpile stewardship,  is a mirage, as tiny little explosions don’t have a whole lot to do with great big explosions. That would be true, even if the thing worked.

Sadder still, we didn’t need the JASON committee to tell us this sucker was going to fail. The history of inertial confinement fusion at LLNL provided ample evidence that NIF would fail. Consider the last laser inertial confinement project at Livermore: the NOVA project. It, too, claimed that it would achieve ignition, and using a much smaller laser. They claimed you’d only need tens of kilojoules to achieve ignition. Its performance as far as break-even goes was approximately the same as what NIF has done so far (I think it released 10^13 neutrons, which is about what you’d expect from a laser which generates two orders of magnitude less power). It did so with a much lower energy laser pulse. They blamed all kinds of stuff for its failure, but at the end of the day, the physics of the laser/plasma and “shell/fuel” interaction is poorly understood. This was somewhat known back in the 1980s with the results of the Halite-Centurion experiments. These test results, classified and done with nuclear weapons, seemed to indicate that the implosion approach might need as much as 100MJ laser pulses to achieve the goals of NIF.

Following “current events,” while the thing was being built would also have been instructive. Our media class seem to enjoy making fun of the corruption among the ruling classes of Slavic countries. I figure it is a fair cop; those places are pretty blatant in their corruption, at least looking at things from over here, but the media also almost always overlook corruption in America. This is inexcusable, as this is their job. I can laugh at the Rooskie without any assistance from the tittering pustules in the New York Times. Their only excuse for taking up space is to unearth corruption in America. They don’t do this very well. Here’s a few little pieces of information about NIF from way back in 1999-2003; mostly ignored by the media, yesterday and today.

  1. The review committee responsible for signing off on this project was widely viewed as stacked in LLNL’s favor. Having witnessed a few DoE national lab committees; this is fairly common, and a really bad idea if you think the idea of “peer review” is useful. There are also rumors that a certain DoE bigwig (one who got his job via bribery; common enough for political appointees these days) who engineered this, hoped to profit from NIF, as he owned a laser optics company. I  have been unable to verify it with DoE old timers, but if it’s true, well, I’m not a reporter, but someone should have noticed …
  2. The associate director of NIF in 1999, E. Michael Campbell, had to resign, as it was revealed that he never got a claimed Ph.D. in physics from Princeton. He had a soft landing; he got a job at General Atomics afterwords, and eventually got a Ph.D. from some lesser school. I hear he was a decent physicist; you don’t need a Ph.D. to be good at this kind of work. But this is shady business. It was a scandal at the time, but somehow nobody thought to investigate whether or not this fraud’s main project was also a fraud.
  3. A NIF whistleblower, Lee Scott Hall, was brutally stabbed to death in 1999. Hall was one of the NIF designers. I didn’t know him, but I know people who knew him. He definitely wasn’t into any shady business, and by all accounts was a straight shooter and a decent guy. This … really looks like a man was stabbed to death for pointing out that NIF couldn’t work (or any number of other things). Sure, nobody knows who killed him, but this is at least as shady as anything I’ve heard of happening in Russia. This sort of thing has happened quite a few times to whistleblowers at the Department of Energy.
  4. Two NIF whistleblowers who didn’t die, Les Mikolsy and Luciana C. Messina, were ignored, then fired in 2003. They were involved in the code that controlled the giant contraption, and pointed out some serious problems with it, including problems with safety implications, and the management of the project. Not a peep from anyone about their assertions or the lawsuit they filed against LLNL (it was dismissed; yay objective and completely non-corrupt court system!).

One of the greatest problems with the United States of America right now is a complete lack of accountability among our ruling classes. People still get fired; never the managers who break things. Maybe patience is necessary in this instance, and that inertial confinement fusion is “coming real soon now.” Maybe Ed Moses should be frog marched to the firing squad, or made to peel potatoes until he pays the taxpayer back the billions his gizmo cost. One thing is certain though: NIF, and all who are involved with it (heroic whistle blowers excluded), are presently national embarrassments. They have failed, and they should be roundly mocked for it. This isn’t a matter of, “gee, we should wait a little longer,” this is a matter of, “they promised it would work factors of 100 or 1000 better than it does several years ago, and they have failed repeatedly.”

Wanna know why human progress has slowed? Talented people wasting their lives on crap like NIF, which only exists because of corrupt empire builder bureaucrats in white laboratory jackets.

Interesting links: