Superbomb Ignites Science Dispute

Mike Friedman mikedf at
Mon Sep 29 08:38:20 MDT 2003

San Francisco Chronicle
September 28, 2003

Superbomb Ignites Science Dispute

Pentagon Advisers Challenge Experiments Behind Nonnuclear Weapon

by Seay Davidson

The Pentagon's pursuit of a new kind of nonnuclear super-weapon has
sparked a behind-the-scenes revolt among its elite scientific
advisers, some of whom reject the scheme as pseudoscience.

The military's goal is to develop a bomb that might be far more
powerful than existing conventional weapons of the same size.
Precisely targeted, such a weapon could take out targets -- such as
underground caverns that conceal weapons of mass destruction --
without posing the severe political risks of using nuclear bombs.

The key to the concept is a little known element called hafnium. By
figuring out how to unleash the abundant energy from a hafnium
isotope, called hafnium-178, the military hopes to develop a new
generation of weapons. According to a Defense Department Web site,
such a weapon might "revolutionize all aspects of warfare."

The Pentagon is now quietly investigating ways to mass produce the
isotope. Late last year, it created the 12-member Hafnium Isomer
Production Panel (HIPP). Its purpose: to assess ways to mass-produce
the isotope for military uses ranging from bombs to advanced forms of

Yet some of the nation's most distinguished scientists and military
advisers say that such futuristic dreams of tomorrow's battlefields
are premature at best and nonsense at worst.

For four years, working largely behind the scenes, they have advised
the Pentagon that claims by hafnium-178 enthusiasts -- led by
physicist Carl Collins of the University of Texas -- defy sound
physical theory and have not been reproduced in lab experiments by
other researchers. For the first time, some of these skeptics are
going public with their concerns.

Last month, in a memorandum to Pentagon and Energy Department
officials obtained by The Chronicle, five of the 12 members of the
military's own advisory panel on mass producing hafnium-178 and other
top experts warned against prematurely proceeding to develop weapons
"applications that may not make physical sense."

"In my opinion, this matter is worse than cold fusion," said panel
member Bill Herrmannsfeldt, referring to unconfirmed claims by
scientists in the 1980s that they had generated nuclear fusion energy
at low temperatures. Herrmannsfeldt, a physicist at the Stanford
Linear Accelerator Center, is leading a revolt against hafnium-178
weapons work within HIPP itself.

Although Herrmannsfeldt regards claims for hafnium-178's super-energy
powers as nonsense, he fears that other nations will take them
seriously, triggering a new arms race. Recently, he successfully
urged numerous top scientists to co-sign a letter to Washington
officials citing experts' reservations about the scientific
credibility of hafnium-178 claims and asking for a review of those
claims by independent experts.

Michael Friedman
Ph.D. Candidate in Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Behavior
City University of New York

Molecular Laboratory
Department of Invertebrate Zoology
American Museum of Natural History
Central Park West at 79th Street
New York, NY  10024
(212) 313-8721

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