Monthly Archives: March 2014

Centralia — A Modern American Ghost Town

624px-Censign“This was a world where no human could live, hotter than the planet Mercury, its atmosphere as poisonous as Saturn’s. At the heart of the fire, temperatures easily exceeded 1,000 degrees [Fahrenheit]. Lethal clouds of carbon monoxide and other gases swirled through the rock chambers.– David DeKok (1986)

The world Mr. DeKok was describing wasn’t an alien planet. He was describing conditions beneath a small Pennsylvania town named Centralia. It was a sleepy town where nothing happened; that is, until the early 1980s, when residents discovered the terrible secret burning beneath their feet.

 

An American ghost town

Coal was the life blood of Centralia. Most of its residents were employed in the mines dotting the area. Ironically enough, the very coal that gave the town life would ultimately kill it. That is because many coal seams and defunct mines snaked beneath the town itself. The town was one ill-placed flame away from disaster. The spark that began the inferno came when local volunteer firefighters were ordered to clear out the town’s landfill in May of 1962. The landfill was located in a strip mine pit near a cemetery on the edge of town. While the town had routinely used fire to clear the waste,  this time it was not properly extinguished. Embers smoldered in the pit, and eventually burned down into a vein of coal that lay untapped beneath.

And that, as they say, was that.

Some early attempts were made to fight the fire, but they weren’t effective. It burned on beneath the townspeople’s feet — out of sight and out of mind– until the early 80s, when a local gas station owner checked the fuel levels of his underground tanks with a stick. It came up hot, so he lowered a thermometer to check the temperature. It came back up reading 172 degrees Fahrenheit.

Then, in 1981, the situation became serious. A sinkhole opened up at the feet of Todd Domboski, age 12, who was saved by the quick reaction of his cousin. Had he fallen in, he would have smothered to death in a cloud of steam and noxious gases.

After the near tragedy, Congress acted by aiding residents with relocation efforts. Most residents accepted, but a few stayed behind, despite stern warnings to leave.

Nowadays, Centralia is still a sleepy little town where nothing happens. Only about seven people still live there, and there is still a church standing which seems unaffected by the fire. Nature has already begun to reclaim the land, with forests encroaching more and more every year. Every now and then a sinkhole opens up and belches out steam and toxic gas, reminders that the inferno still rages deep underground.

 

Sources:

“Centralia, Pennsylvania.” Wikipedia.org. March 22, 2014. Wikipedia. March 23, 2014. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centralia,_Pennsylvania>

O’Carrol, Eolin. “Centralia, Pa.: How an underground coal fire erased a town.” CSMonitor.com. February 5, 2010. The Christian Science Monitor. <http://www.csmonitor.com/Environment/Bright-Green/2010/0205/Centralia-Pa.-How-an-underground-coal-fire-erased-a-town>

 


Circles Within Circles: The Ptolemaic Universe

800px-Bartolomeu_Velho_1568The history of science is littered with ideas that, in retrospect, seem pretty silly. While it is easy to mock ridiculous notions from yesteryear, it is good to keep in mind that our ancestors were as intelligent as we are; they only lacked the sheer weight of knowledge that we have today, mostly because they were the ones figuring it all out in the first place. They were starting from scratch, so they were bound to make a few mistakes along the way.

Which leads us to questions of cosmology. These days, it is generally accepted in the scientific community that the Earth is only one of billions and billions of planets orbiting an average star on a distant arm of an average galaxy. The universe, according to current understanding, is an unimaginably vast place full of all sorts of odd and interesting stuff (the Nazis didn’t agree, but nobody in their right mind listens to Nazis.)

But, to the ancients, the modern view of the universe would seem preposterous. One of the leading cosmologies of the ancient world was the Ptolemaic System. It was a geocentric model, meaning it posited that the Earth was center of the universe and all things orbited around it, including the sun. This system floated around long before Claudius Ptolemy,  who lived from about 90 AD to 168 AD in the Roman Empire, gave his name to it. He refined the system into a model that could accurately predict the motions of stars and planets, despite being completely wrong.

 

Circles within circles

The Ptolemaic System was built around three central concepts. The first and foremost was that the Earth was the center of the universe, and everything orbited around it. The second was that everything in the Heavens moved in perfect circles, because everything in the Heavens was perfect and thus it should move in a perfect way, and the ancients regarded the circle as the perfect shape. The third concept, which was related to the second, was that the objects in the Heavens were perfect and immutable. Which is to say that they wouldn’t change their intrinsic properties, like shape or brightness.

The problem with these strict ideas about how the universe ought to be was that the actual, observed movements of the stars and planets didn’t match. Mars, for example, appears to move backwards in the sky, a phenomena known as retrograde motion. And Venus appears to undergo phases, which it should not do if the properties of the spheres were immutable.

To account for this, Ptolemy and his supporters came up with the concepts of deferents and epicycles. The deferent was the orbit of the plant around the Earth. An epicycle was a circle that essentially orbited around a point of the deferent. Roughly speaking, the point on the deferent that the epicycle orbited was called the equant. Each planet had its own equant and epicycle, and in some cases some epicycles had other epicycles. Charts from the time are a mess of circles within circles, but surprisingly it worked pretty well in describing the motions of the heavens. While some argued for a heliocentric model–which put the sun at the center of the solar system– most stuck with the Ptolemaic model because it worked.

 

The sun takes its rightful place

This was the state of affairs, at least until the 1500s, when the heliocentric model began to gain steam as a series of scientific heavy hitters — Copernicus, Brahe, Galileo, and Kepler — argued in its favor. The painful system of circles here there and everywhere worked in making calculations, but obviously these were difficult to carry out. A simpler system would make calculations simpler. Plus, the old system did not account for the growing number of observations about the universe. For example, Galileo turned his famous telescope to the moon, and saw mountains, valleys, and craters. He also saw moons orbiting Jupiter, which gave a small glimpse of the complexity of the wider cosmos.

Copernicus had already set out a model of a heliocentric system before Galileo came around, but the problem was that it predicted the motions of the planets no better than the old Ptolemaic model. It was only when Kepler came around, using Brahe’s observations, and determined that the planets orbited not in perfect circles but rather ovals, that the heliocentric system was made workable and began to become generally accepted among the scientific community and the lay community alike. The Ptolemaic universe faded into history, discarded into the junk drawer of obsolete ideas.

 

Sources:

“The Universe of Aristotle and Ptolemy.” The University of Tennessee, Knoxville. <http://csep10.phys.utk.edu/astr161/lect/retrograde/aristotle.html>

Cessna, Abby. “Geocentric Model.” UniverseToday.com. June 17, 2009. Universe Today. March 8, 2014. <http://www.universetoday.com/32607/geocentric-model/>

“Geocentric Theory.” jrank.org. March 8, 2014. <http://science.jrank.org/pages/2999/Geocentric-Theory.html>

 

The Man Who Measured The Weight of a Soul

People have tried to photograph souls (in this case, the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, the most famous alleged ghost photo)  but only one guy tried to weight them.

People have tried to photograph souls (in this case, the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall, the most famous alleged ghost photo) but only one guy tried to weight them.

Humans have long believed that something in them survives death (although some afterlives are weirder than others.) Although this entity has gone under many names over the centuries, the one that most people in the West are familiar with is “the soul.” Most people take it on faith that a thing called a soul exists. This essential essence of human beings is said to be without substance, a part of another plane of existence that is temporarily wrapped in a body of flesh and bone before returning from where it came.

But for some, that is not enough. In a world of materialism, where we understand more and more how the world functions in a measurable and verifiable way, the existence of a thing without substance that is supposedly responsible for all of the functions of the human mind is a big pill to swallow. After all, many things that people took for supernatural in previous centuries have since been proven to work according to measurable, physical processes. No supernatural explanation required.

This demand for a tangible model of the soul inspired a very odd experiment performed in 1907. Dr. Duncan MacDougall, of Haverhill, Massachuesetts, believed that the soul had physical substance. And he set out to find its exact mass by measuring the weight of patients at the moment of death.

 

Dr. MacDougall’s soul weighing apparatus

In order to perform his odd experiments, Dr. MacDougall built a specially made scale. The dying patient would be laid on one side, which was a hospital bed rigged to the apparatus, and the other side would be weighted to balance out the patient’s weight.  Dr. MacDougall reasoned that if the soul had substance, it must have mass, and thus that loss of mass could be measured.

MacDougall performed his experiment on six human patents and fifteen dogs. In the human patients, more than one case showed a drop in weight, about 3/4 of an ounce or about 21 grams. The dogs showed no drop in weight, confirming MacDougall’s belief that animals did not have souls.

It seems cut and dry, but there were some very serious flaws with MacDougall’s methods.

 

A flawed method births a cultural meme

The biggest flaw of the soul weighing experiment was the small sample size. Only six data points is not really enough to pull a general conclusion from. Besides that, of the six people he experimented on, only a handful showed any results. He had to throw out two cases outright. One died before he could finish adjusting the balance of the apparatus, while in the second discarded case the measurements were interrupted by hospital staff who weren’t happy with the doctor’s macabre experiments. One patient showed a drop immediately after death. Two more showed a drop in weight that increased with time, while another showed a drop in weight that decreased and then increased again. Another showed a drop in weight, but after a slight delay, which MacDougall attributed to his dull wits. The poor soul apparently was too dumb to know it was in a dead body and hung around a bit before realizing it could leave (I’m paraphrasing, of course.)

Put short, the results were too inconsistent to draw any conclusions from. If MacDougall had access to a larger sample size and better equipment, his data would have been more convicting. But since his data set was tiny and his equipment cumbersome, so his findings are dubious at best.

In MacDougalls defense, he did try to explain some of the variables. He and some fellow doctors involved in the study tested whether the release of the final breath at death might account for a loss in weight. They did this by laying on the scales and, after they were balanced, taking deep breaths and blowing them out forcefully. The scales didn’t register any change.

But probably the biggest flaw in the whole experiment had little to do with the apparatus or the sample size. MacDougall and his fellow experimenters didn’t have a way to accurately determine the time of death, which is pretty important if you believe the soul departs right after that point.

The experiment was reported on in the New York Times, but other than that it made few waves. Most scientists recognized the flawed methods and roundly criticized the work. There is no evidence that MacDougall performed any other similar experiments. Or, if he did, he found no notable results. He died in 1920, a fairly obscure figure by that point. His experiment lives on in the zeitgeist though. The experiment is held by some as a proof for a soul, and the weight of 21 grams inspired a 2003 movie by that name.

To date, no one has again seriously attempted to measure the soul. The issue of the soul’s existence remains, as it ever was, an issue of faith.

 

Sources:

“Soul has Weight, Physician Thinks.” The New York Times. March 11, 1907

“Soul Man.” Snopes.com April 24, 2013. Snopes.com. March 7, 2014. <http://www.snopes.com/religion/soulweight.asp>

Project Daedalus: A Plan to Reach Among the Stars

Barnard's Star. Someone  looked up at this, squinted, and said "Yep, we could get their."

Barnard’s Star. Someone looked up at this, squinted, and said “Yep, we could get their.”

Humans have always looked at the night sky and tried to imagine what the twinkling lights were (some answers were more…creative, than others.) Thanks to the science and technology of the last century, humankind has been able to develop unprecedented insights into the celestial world. No longer do we rely on stories of gods, goddesses, and monsters to explain the motions of the night sky.

So the celestial dreams of the previous era have been swept away, a new set of dreams have replaced them. Humans have not only used technology to peer into the edges of the cosmos, but we have also projected ourselves physically into the solar system with exploration probes. We’ve managed to land humans on the moon, not once but a few times. Today, there is serious interest in not only landing humans on Mars, but establishing permanent colonies on our red neighbor.

Ambitious as all of this is, there are dreamers who see humans establishing themselves no only in our own solar system, but out among the stars. One set of dreamers, thirteen volunteers with the British Interplanetary Society, set out to determine whether it was possible to design a probe that could reach a nearby star system using near future technology. The ambitious study spanned from 1973 to 1978, and it was dubbed Project Daedalus.

 

Not quite science fiction

Project Daedalus had three goals:

  1. Design a spacecraft using current and near future technology
  2. It must reach its destination within a human lifetime
  3. It must be able to reach a variety of target stars

The heart of the Daedalus would be a fusion powered propulsion system. The proposed engine would work in two stages: a boosting stage that would last 3.8 years and a cruising stage lasting 46 years. The engine would be powered by deuterium and helium-3 pellets. These fuel pellets would be fused using an electron beam diode system, and the resulting exhaust would be directed out of the fuel nozzle by an electromagnetic “nozzle.” The pellets would detonate at a rate of 250 per minute, and accelerate the craft to 12% of light speed (22320 miles per second, if you’re curious how insanely fast that is.) The craft’s target would be Barnard’s Star, 5.8 lightyears from earth. At this speed, the Daedalus would reach its destination in about fifty years.

Once there, the probe would release 450 tons of science probes to explore the system. The main craft would continue flying, as there would be no feasible way to slow down such a huge object moving at those speeds. The probes would collect a variety of data, transmit it back to the mother ship, which would transmit the data back to Earth (the data would take another 5.8 years to reach Earth.)

As for the size of the craft, Daedalus would carry 40,000 tons of fuel for the boost phase and 4,000 tons for the second. The craft itself would be a behemoth, not only to carry the amount of fuel and the scientific machinery, but to survive the trip. It would have been about 1000 feet long. In order to survive the trip, the massive ship would have been constructed of molybdenum alloys that could withstand the incredible temperature changes the craft would experience over its journey. The nose of the ship would be constructed out of a beryllium disk that could absorb impacts from the interstellar medium (a fancy term for dust between stars.) Other objects would be deflected using a particle shield, which would be produced by a support craft called a “dust bug” that would fly 200km ahead of the main craft. The ship would be maintained by robots who would repair damage and monitor systems. It would be outfitted with telescopes and other equipment to gather data about Barnard’s star, and equipment to transmit findings back to Earth.

 

More than 30 years later, and still influential

A project of the scale of Daedalus would have required an unprecedented amount of cooperation among the human species to achieve, not to mention a ridiculous amount of material. The fuel alone, according to the study, would need to be mined from the clouds of Jupiter in order to secure enough (Helium-3 is rare on Earth, but plentiful on Jupiter.) Basically, the Daedalus would require the infrastructure of not one planet to produce, but that of a solar system wide civilization. Even then,, it would no doubt be a massive strain on resources.

But then the craft was not meant to be built. It was merely a feasibility study, to try and ascertain whether it was possible to build an interstellar craft. It was a starting point, a study meant to be built upon by future generations. And build upon it we have. A new iteration of Project Daedalus is indeed in the works. Dubbed Project Icarus, the study, which began in 2009, looks to design a feasible interstellar craft that, like the Daedalus, could inspire future generations. With the astounding leaps in technology humans have made in the last 30+ years, it will be fascinating to see what design the project produces.

Who knows? Perhaps in my lifetime, humans will produce a craft capable of reaching out among the stars. A guy can dream, can’t he?

 

Sources:

O’Bousy, Richard, Icarus Interstellar. “Project Daedalus: A Plan for an Interstellar Mission.” News.Discovery.com. January 19, 2011. Discovery.com. Accessed on: February 22, 2014. Retrieved from: http://news.discovery.com/space/private-spaceflight/tau-zero-project-daedalus-icarus-110119.htm

“Project Daedalus — Interstellar Mission.” bis-space.com. February 23, 2014. The British Interplanetary Society. Accessed on February 23, 2014. Retrieved from: http://www.bis-space.com/what-we-do/projects/project-daedalus

“Project Daedalus.” Wikipedia.org January 28, 2014. Wikipedia. Accessed on: February 23, 2014. Retrieved from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Daedalus

An Ancient Super Weapon: The Iron Hand of Archimedes

745px-Parigi_griffeThe words super weapon bring to mind gigantic, terrifying weapons with unparalleled destructive power. That, or super villain-esque contraptions that sound like something from the pages of a comic book.

But super weapons don’t need to be either gigantic or sound like bad science fiction to be effective. Any weapon could be a super weapon if your enemies possess it and you don’t. In fact, one super weapon from the ancient world was relatively simple in its construction, but very deadly in application.

This weapon was called the Iron Hand, but it is better known today as Archimedes Claw. While some tales of Archimedes’ weapon building prowess are greatly exaggerated, the ancient genius did make his share of contributions to the killing arts. He was put in charge of the defense of ancient Syracuse, his home city, and set to work applying his engineering knowledge to making the city walls as impenetrable as possible. These improvements were put to good use when the Romans came calling with both a large fleet and a land army in 214 BC. The Iron Hand of Archimedes helped Syracuse stand against one of the strongest powers in the region for three long years.

 

A deceptively simple contraption

So what sort of weapon could terrify the Romans, never known for their cowardice, so much that they would opt to starve out an enemy rather than simply storm the city walls? The answer is surprisingly simple — a crane.

At least, the Iron Hand was a lot like a crane. The weapon consisted of a long wooden arm, a rope with a grappling hook on the end, a lead counterweight on the short end, and a wooden sub structure that could act as a pivot point. Several of these contraptions were placed on the seaward walls of Syracuse. When not in use, they were likely concealed by positioning them parallel to the walls, but when Roman ships approached the operators would swing the arm around and dangle the grappling hook over the opposing ship. They would then dip the grapple down, and snag the ship either on its front or side. When they released the lead counterweight, the grapple hook shot upwards with enough force to either capsize the ship. A well-placed grapple could pluck a ship clean out of the water. Then the operators could shake the ship or smash it against the rocks at the base of the wall.

Mind you, we aren’t talking about rowboats here. The Romans employed sixty quinquiremes during the siege of Syracuse. These were the largest battle ships of their day, capable of holding 420 men and even of being platforms for catapults and other artillery. Fully loaded, a quinquireme could weight as much as 100 tons. The Iron Hand could take such a ship and lift it clear out of the water. Was it any wonder that the Romans were terrified of the thing?

What is even more amazing about the Iron Hand is that it utilized relatively simple physics: the Law of Levers and the Law of Buoyancy, both of which were discovered by Archimedes. By utilizing the principle of the lever, Archimedes was able to design a machine that could lift 100 plus tons, no easy feat even today. And the principle of buoyancy revealed an Achilles Heel in the Roman’s deadliest ship; while they were stable on the move, they were unstable when still. Using a grapple hook to apply a little extra force to one side could flip the whole ship over.

 

In the end, it was not enough

As devastating as the Iron Hand was, it could not fend off the Romans forever. After three long years of war, the Syracusan defenses collapsed and the Romans stormed the city. Archimedes was killed by a Roman soldier, despite orders that the genius of Syracuse be taken alive.

 

Sources:

“Archimedes’ Claw.” physics.weber.edu. Weber State University. March 3, 2014. <http://physics.weber.edu/carroll/archimedes/claw.htm>

Rones, Chris. Harris, Harry G. “A Formidable War Machine: Construction and Operation of Archimedes’ Iron Hand.” Symposium on Extraordinary Machines and Structures in Antiquity. August 19-24 2001. <http://www.math.nyu.edu/~crorres/Archimedes/Claw/harris/rorres_harris.pdf>

 

The Legend of Archimedes’ Death Ray: Fact or Fiction?

545px-Thesaurus_opticus_TitelblattArchimedes was the Einstein of his age. His theories and inventions revolutionized the ancient world and to this day remain influential. He discovered the Law of Buoyancy, calculated pi to unprecedented precision, and developed the Archimedes screw. A lifetime resident of the city of Syracuse, in what is today Sicily, he led the defense of the city against the Roman army during a three year siege. He developed at least one devastating weapon which was used against the Romans, called Archimedes claw, which helped hold the indomitable Roman army at bay.

But legends claim that Archimedes built a weapon so devastating it even gave the Romans pause. This weapon is popularly known today as Archimedes’ Death Ray. It is certainly a romantic notion: a genius develops a super weapon to defend his home against the international equivalent of the neighborhood bully. The idea has certainly gained traction today, with the Mythbusters famously testing the idea three times, once at the request of President Obama. Even MIT got in on the recreation game in 2005.

But whether such a weapon could be built isn’t the question. The real question is whether Archimedes actually built one. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Lets look at the legend itself first.

 

Death by sunlight

Archimedes’ Death Ray allegedly worked by focusing the rays of the sun using mirrors, much like the Nazi’s take on the death ray concept over 2000 years later. The weapon would have consisted of either several highly polished mirrors held by troops along the city walls, focusing the sun’s rays on oncoming Roman ships. By focusing these rays, they were able to create a point of intense heat that would set fire to Roman ships. An alternative version of the weapon was a single, large parabolic mirror. This giant mirror would act more like the modern concept of a laser gun, incinerating whatever it was aimed at.

Several modern experiments have shown that the concept could potentially work. The MIT experiment managed to set a fire on a recreation Roman ship using 127 mirrors that were 1 foot square. These, arranged in a parabola (a shallow bowl shape, basically) were able to create a flame after 10 minutes of focusing sunlight. A 1973 experiment by a Greek engineer deployed a similar set up, but used it against a row boat in the ocean. He was also able to achieve ignition.

So, it’s possible to recreate the legendary weapon under modern experimental conditions. That, however, doesn’t mean that Archimedes actually built it. Something being possible and something being real are two entirely separate things. As we will see, there’s strong reason to believe that the legend is nothing more than just that.

 

A problematic weapon

While it is possible for an array of mirror to set fire to a wooden ship, there would have been severe problems deploying such a weapon. The 1973 experiment managed to ignite a rowboat at 160 feet. However, while it would have indeed been possible for Archimedes forces to do the same, they would have been well within bow or sling range. Not to mention, many ships of the day employed torsion powered artillery pieces that could fire well beyond the range of a bow. So, any troops standing in place long enough to ignite an enemy ship (10 minutes according to the MIT study) would have found themselves shot to pieces.

Another problem with the death ray of legend is that it relied on the sun to operate. One stray cloud and a deadly weapon would become nothing more than a bunch of guys holding mirrors. Besides that, the Romans could have attacked at night, or any other time of the day when the light wasn’t just right.

 

Lack of documentation

488px-Archimedes1

A 15th century engraving of Archimedes. Probably not what he actually looked like.

So, the Archimedes death ray would not have been a very practical weapon. But the real nail in the coffin of the legendary super-weapon is that nobody from the time period says anything about it.. If a weapon was powerful enough to devastate the Roman army in one fell swoop, somebody would have wrote about it. But three prominent ancient historians who wrote about the siege– Polybius, Livy, and Plutarch — never mentioned anything close to a death ray. Polybius was born twelve years after the Siege of Syracuse. He would have been able to interview combatants from both sides of the siege to put together his account. If there was a death ray, nobody said anything about it.

Another historical proof that the death ray didn’t exist is the fact that no one imitated it. The Romans especially were great adaptors of foreign ways, if it fitted their purposes. For example, the Romans originally fought in dense hoplite phalanxes, like the Greeks, until they confronted some of the hill tribes of Italy, who fought in more flexible formations and utilized short swords and javelins. Seeing how effective these new ways of fighting were, the Romans adopted them, laying the foundation for an army that would conquer the world.

Put short, if a weapon as devastatingly effective as the Archimedes Death Ray existed, the Romans would have adapted it and we would have seen accounts in the histories of armies and fleets being burnt to ash by Roman mirror guns. That, or other cultures who fought the Romans would have used the dread weapons in their resistance, just as Archimedes did.

But nothing quit that dramatic appears in the history books. The people of Syracuse did employ fire against the Roman fleet, a fact that over the centuries morphed into reports of a fantastic weapon. But that fire probably took the form of a well known ancient wonder weapon; Greek Fire, a kind of early napalm. No death ray required

 

Sources:

“Burning Mirrors: Refuting the Legend.” math.nyu.edu. New York University. March 1, 2014 <http://www.math.nyu.edu/~crorres/Archimedes/Mirrors/legend/legend.html>

Chang, Kenneth. “Archimedes: Separating Myth From Science.” nytimes.com. June 24, 2013. The New York Times. March 01, 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/25/science/archimedes-separating-myth-from-science.html?_r=1&>

Clark, Josh. “What was Archimedes’ Death Ray?” HowStuffWorks.com. How Stuff Works. March 01, 2014. <http://history.howstuffworks.com/historical-figures/archimedes-death-ray2.htm>

The Teleforce — Nikola Tesla’s Death Ray

Tesla's Broadcast Tower, designed to produce and receiver wireless electrical transmissions. It isn't the Teleforce, but the weapon would have been housed in a similar tower.

Tesla’s Broadcast Tower, designed to produce and receiver wireless electrical transmissions. It isn’t the Teleforce, but the weapon would have been housed in a similar tower.

Death rays are the stuff of comic books and bad sci-fi movies. Owned by cackling mad scientists with some sort of physical deformity who is bent on holding the world for ransom, they’re usually disabled in the last moment by the gallant hero before the villain meets a suitably ironic end.

These staples of fiction have their origins in the works of real inventors. Archimedes built a death ray out of mirrors to destroy the Roman fleet during the Siege of Syracuse (so the legend goes, at any rate.) The Nazis had a detailed plan to build their own orbital death ray called the Sun Gun, which like Archimedes death ray would utilize the sun as a weapon of war.

But the most plausible historical death ray was designed by the misunderstood genius, Nikola Tesla. His wonders were far ahead of his time, from ideas to make power free by utilizing free electricity in the atmosphere to what would have been the 1920s version of WiFi. In true mad scientist fashion, Tesla reportedly designed a weapon that could destroy 10,000 planes and a million man army instantly, from hundreds of miles away.

He dubbed this weapon the Teleforce. Ironically enough, the ultimate weapon of war was designed to be a tool of pacifism. Tesla’s most ambitious project was not only to build a superweapon, but to make war obsolete.

 

Making war obsolete

Tesla’s super weapon would consist of four components. One would eliminate the need for a vacuum, which was normally needed to produce electromagnetic beams. This would allow the beam to be generated in free air. The second component would be a machine capable of producing “a great electrical force.” The third would be an amplifier for said force, and the last would be a method for producing a strong electrical repulsion.

These components would be housed in plants placed strategically along the nation’s borders and coasts, and smaller versions could be mounted on battleships. As for the beam itself, it wasn’t a laser as one might suspect, but rather a beam of tiny tungsten pellets propelled by electromagnetic force. These pellets, Tesla reasoned, would prevent the tendency of electromagnetic beams to disperse over time. The beam would be aimed by a telescope, and could theoretically target anything sighted by an operator. The weapon would be silent, and leave no trace when it struck.

Tesla imagined about 200 of these plants stationed around the borders and coasts of the United States, making an impenetrable shield against the nation’s enemies. He claimed that his weapon would burn through all but the thickest armor, melt engines to slag, and otherwise destroy anything a potential enemy could muster.

Ever the pacifist, Tesla saw peaceful uses for his superweapon, although these ideas were less fleshed out than the weapon concept. He claimed the Teleforce could be used to transmit vast amounts of energy. However, he did not detail how the energy would be converted from beams or what the dangers of these beams zinging through the air might be.

 

The death of a genius and his radical idea

Nikola Tesla, looking dapper as usual.

Nikola Tesla, looking dapper as usual.

Tesla passed away in New York in 1943, leaving behind a long list of patents and world changing inventions. He did not, however, manage to build his death ray. Despite approaching many companies and the fact that America was embroiled in the largest war in history, he could find no backers for his revolutionary weapon. It was an ambitious plan, that is for certain. Perhaps too ambitious for its time, considering it was an unproven idea that would need extensive testing before becoming a viable weapon, if it could even work to begin with.

Technical aspects aside, Tesla seemed to have missed one important detail in his plan to make war obsolete: human nature. Even today, when we possess weapons that could literally end us as a species, we still fight wars. Not on the scale or with the intensity of wars of previous eras, granted, but we still fight on. Even if Tesla could have built his Teleforce and installed it in the borders of every country, people would still fight. They would just adapt to the new circumstances. People are endlessly inventive, especially when it comes to ways to off their fellow humans.

 

Sources

“‘Death Ray’ for Planes.” The New York Times. September 22, 1940  <http://www.rense.com/general10/deathray.htm>

Seifer, Marc J. Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla: Biography of a Genius. Citadel Press, 2001

Alsop, Joseph W. “Beam to Kill Army at 200 Miles, Tesla’s Claim on 78th Birthday.” New York Herald Tribune. July 11, 1934. Pg 1, 15. Retrieved from: http://www.tesla-coil-builder.com/Articles/jul_11_1934b.htm

“Tesla’s Death Ray.” Lettersofnote.com. July 14, 2010. Letters of Note. February 27, 2014. <http://www.lettersofnote.com/2010/07/teslas-death-ray.html>

“Tesla, at 78, Bares New ‘Death Beam.'” The New York Times. July 11, 1934. <http://www.rastko.rs/rastko/delo/10887>

 

The Sun Gun: The Nazi Plan to Build an Orbital Death Ray

The Sun. Naturally, someone looked up and wondered "Can I kill somebody with that?"

The Sun. Naturally, someone looked up and wondered “Can I kill somebody with that?”
Image Credit: NASA

Death rays are the stuff of comic books and B-grade sci-fi movies, usually wielded by cacklng mad scientists in an attempt at world domination. While they are normally considered the stuff of fiction, real scientists (I’ll leave it up to you to decide if they’re mad or not) have tried to develop their own versions of the fictional weapon. Tesla worked on a machine that could use electricity to make a particle beam and Archimedes allegedly built a solar death ray to combat the Romans.

Not to be outdone, the Nazis too had plans on the book to build a solar death ray, the Sun-Gun. Now the Nazis were no strangers to cartoon-ish supervillainy, their plans for the Sun-Gun really took the cake. In fifty to one hundred years, the Nazis wanted to build an orbital super weapon that could scorch cities to the ground and boil oceans.

 

Planned in every detail

By the time the Allies learned of the Sun Gun plan, Nazi Germany was in ruins and the US and Soviet Union were in a mad dash to acquire Germany’s so-called “wonder weapons.” The Nazis were able to construct the world’s first ballistic missiles and functional jet fighters, weapons the Allies couldn’t match. So when technical experts came across the plan for an orbital death ray, it seemed chillingly plausible.

The weapon had its origins in the work of Dr. Hermann Oberth, a German engineer and rocketry pioneer. He developed detailed plans for an orbital space station in the 1920s. This space station would be used as a jumping off point for further exploration of the solar system, and beyond.

Hermann Oberth

Hermann Oberth

The Nazis looked at Oberth’s plan and decided to weaponize it by building a giant mirror out of sodium, which could be used to focus solar radiation into a pin point on the Earth’s surface. The highly focused energy would act essentially like a giant laser, able to vaporize anything it was aimed at. Such a weapon would be impossible to combat; any gathering of strength could be targeted from on high and burned to a cinder before an attack could be mounted. It would also be a weapon of terror that could be used to assure Nazi dominance of the Earth. No one would be too enthusiastic about mounting an assault on the Nazi Empire when their cities and people could be vaporized, after all.

In order to build the orbital monstrosity, the Nazi scientists working on the project envisioned using rockets to lift prefabricated sections into orbit. Once the station was built, it would house operators who lived and worked on the station. Pumpkin patches would be established on the station, primarily in order to produce oxygen. Pumpkin seeds and other supplies would be brought up by rocket, and dock by thrusting through a thirty foot hole in the station’s structure. Workers living on the station would have to wear magnetic shoes, because there would be no gravity on the station (the Nazis were apparently pragmatic enough to realize that artificial gravity was beyond their reach.) The whole station would be moved into position by strategically placed miniature rockets, and the sodium mirror would be built in segments to best be able to move it into position to fire.

The Nazis were playing the long game in planning the Sun Gun. They recognized that the technology did not yet exist to build the weapon. Their best rocket, the infamous V-2, would not have been able to reach the 5100 mile orbit called for in the plan by itself, much less with enough payload to begin building the mirror. In addition, the technology required for orbital construction would need to be worked out. So, the scientists working out these plans hoped that it might be able to be put into play within the next fifty or one hundred years, presumably after the Nazi Empire had spread over a significant portion of the planet.

Unfortunately for them, and fortunately for the rest of us, the Thousand Year Reich came to a fiery end after less than two decades.

 

A feasible weapon?

The ISS. Currently, this is the largest human made object orbiting Earth. It is a LOT smaller than the Sun Gun would have been.

The ISS. Currently, this is the largest human made object orbiting Earth. It is a LOT smaller than the Sun Gun would have been.

While the empire that planned the Sun Gun went up in flames, the weapon itself remains an intriguing possibility. Would it have been possible to have built such a space station, and would it have been a workable weapon even if it could have been built?

A station the size of the Sun Gun would have been a mammoth undertaking.The exact size of the planned station is unclear. The mirror alone could have been hundreds or even thousands of meters in diameter. That does not include life support systems, living space, storage space, and other additions.

Using the minimum time span projected by the planners, the space mirror should have been built by about the mid 1990s. In 1998, NASA and the Russian space agency embarked on the initial construction of the International Space Station, a cooperative project between several of the world’s space agencies. At 239 feet in length and weighing 990,000 pounds sixteen years after its initial launch, the ISS is the largest artificial object in orbit. It is only a fraction of the size the Sun Gun would need to be in order to function properly as a living station and a weapon. So, while that does not show that the Sun Gun would have been impossible, even now it remains outside of our technological reach. This does not even take into account the economic and political realities that would be involved in such a project. No doubt, the Sun Gun would be the biggest engineering feat in human history, and would require unprecedented international cooperation to achieve.

So, the construction of the weapon isn’t impossible, but could the Sun Gun really be used as a weapon? It turns out that a quirk of optics mean that rather than destruction from on high, the sun gun would probably unleash nothing more horrifying than a pleasant spring day. This is because of the distances involved. Using a magnifying glass to fry ants works because the glass is held close, which results in a smaller area of focus and thus enough heat to be deadly (or to light a fire in a survival situation.) Pulling back the magnifying glass would widen the focal point and decrease the intensity of the radiation. A similar principle would be at work with the Sun Gun. At 5100 miles up, the focal length would be too large to produce intense enough heat to destroy anything, let alone an entire city or army.

In the end, the Sun Gun remains little more than a historical curiosity, another one of those grand ideas from the last century that turned out, for one reason or another, to be unworkable.

 

Sources:

“The German Space Mirror.” Life. July 23, 1945; 19(4) pgs78-80. Retrieved from: http://books.google.com/books?id=30kEAAAAMBAJ&lpg=PA2&ots=fITNLFvpm_&dq=life%20magazine%20july%2023%201945&pg=PA78#v=onepage&q=life%20magazine%20july%2023%201945&f=false

Keely, Charles. “Space Mirror.” Lodi News Sentinel. October 11, 1961. Retrieved from: http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2245&dat=19611011&id=1BgzAAAAIBAJ&sjid=vTIHAAAAIBAJ&pg=3133,757546

Noordung, Hermann. The Problem of Space Travel: The Rocket Motor. DIANE Publishing, 1995 Retrieved from: http://books.google.com/books?id=te15mpHmmTwC&dq=The+Problem+of+Space+Travel&source=gbs_navlinks_s

“International Space Station.” Wikipedia.org. February 22, 2014. Wikipedia. Accessed on: February 22, 2014. Retrieved from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Space_Station