[Marxism] Fwd: H-Net Review [H-War]: Lizon on Sykes, 'Silencing the Bomb: One Scientist's Quest to Halt Nuclear Testing'

Andrew Stewart hasc.warrior.stew at gmail.com
Sun Nov 24 15:56:16 MST 2019

---------- Forwarded message ---------
From: H-Net Staff via H-REVIEW <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
Date: Thu, Nov 14, 2019 at 7:56 AM
Subject: H-Net Review [H-War]: Lizon on Sykes, 'Silencing the Bomb: One
Scientist's Quest to Halt Nuclear Testing'
To: <h-review at lists.h-net.org>
Cc: H-Net Staff <revhelp at mail.h-net.org>

L. R. Sykes.  Silencing the Bomb: One Scientist's Quest to Halt
Nuclear Testing.  New York  Columbia University Press, 2018.  304 pp.
 $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-18248-5.

Reviewed by Eric Lizon (Air University)
Published on H-War (November, 2019)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey

In _Silencing the Bomb_: _One Scientist's Quest to Halt Nuclear
Testing_, Lynn Sykes offers a fascinating look at the time and effort
it took for states, during and after the Cold War, to agree on a
Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). Sykes's work contains a
sweeping overview of his passion, which is not only seismology but
the effect seismology had on the United States' desire for an
international treaty that would ban the testing of nuclear weapons.
In 1947, the US began to monitor the testing of nuclear weapons
through a classified program called "Long-Range Detection." Shortly
thereafter, on September 23, 1949, President Truman notified the
American people that the Soviet Union had successfully conducted a
nuclear test. From that point on, monitoring nuclear explosions would
be critical to the US. Sykes's specialty in seismology,
differentiating explosions from earthquakes and estimating the yield
of explosions (if it was indeed an explosion and not an earthquake)
would become invaluable as the US moved closer to a CTBT.

During his fifty years studying seismology, both political and
scientific leaders pushed back on the factual information Sykes
presented in support of technology's role in global nuclear treaties.
The US government thought the Soviets were trying to muffle the shock
waves from nuclear explosions in an attempt to evade detection and
disguise the signals, which in the book he calls the theory of
"decoupling" (p. 40). Although Sykes consistently proved that his
arguments against decoupling were based on factual seismic
information gained from test sites, the government continued to
concur with theoretical opinions from the Defense Advanced Research
Projects Agency (DARPA) and the Defense Science Board (DSB) that
states were attempting to use decoupling to circumvent detonation
limits set by the 1974 Threshold Test Ban Treaty (TTBT), which
limited nuclear detonations to 150 kilotons or less. Sykes continued
to trust in his work and in advances in technology. Following early
treaties (the TTBT and 1976 Peaceful Nuclear Explosion Treaty), which
acknowledged that testing needed more controls, the CTBT was signed
in 1996. This book is proof that Sykes has dedicated his career to a
very specific specialty for the betterment of mankind, because he
knew, as he puts it, that "a major [nuclear] exchange would be a
cataclysmic disaster with a level of destruction unprecedented in the
entire history of our species" (p. 257).

During most of Sykes's time studying seismology, the Soviet Union was
the primary nuclear threat to the United States. It conducted
frequent, high-yield nuclear tests that worried the US. Sykes's
primary mission during the Cold War and beyond was to prove that the
risk of decoupling nuclear explosions by the Soviets was not as big
as politicians and nuclear deterrence activists portrayed it to be.
The topic of decoupling became very critical following the signing of
the TTBT. The next sixteen years became known as the "yield wars" (p.
91). During this time, Sykes and other scientists worked diligently
to disprove DARPA's theories about Soviet attempts to decouple
nuclear tests and cheat on the TTBT. They focused their studies on
the speed of surface waves, P-waves, and later Lg waves following a
detonation, which is very similar to the study of waves produced from
an earthquake. These theories were disproved by studying the speed of
waves as they traveled through different types of rock, salt,
air-filled cavities, alluvium (unconsolidated sand and gravel), the
Earth's upper mantle, and water. This was incredibly important
because the ground composition at Soviet test sites was very
different from where the US conducted tests. By studying the speed of
waves (mainly following explosions at the Nevada Test Site), Sykes
saw his hard work justified when the Congressional Office of
Technology Assessment (OTA) released a report in 1988 stating,
"Seismic monitoring is central to considerations of verification,
test ban treaties, and national security ... unless differences in
the transmissions of seismic P waves beneath Eastern Kazakhstan and
Nevada were taken into account, the sizes of Soviet explosions were
greatly overestimated" (pp. 118-19). This report from the OTA,
combined with the continual advancement of seismic measuring
technology, assisted in the development of a revised TTBT in 1990,
which called for "... measurements for US and Russian weapons tests
larger than fifty kilotons" (p. 125), and ultimately the signing of
the CTBT.

Throughout _Silencing the Bomb_, Sykes explains how his research on
nuclear yield estimates, his rebuttal to the theory of decoupling,
and overall advances in seismic technology helped inform US
government officials when entering into treaty discussions. Although
the CTBT was signed by the US in 1996, it has not been ratified.
During George W. Bush's initial presidential bid, when asked a
question about ratification of the CTBT, he stated, "our nation
should continue its moratorium on testing, but in the hard work of
halting proliferation, the CTBT is not the answer ... it would stop
us from ensuring the safety and reliability of our nation's
deterrent" (p. 217). Unfortunately, the fight continues for Sykes.
However, this does not diminish his incredible accomplishments, which
include his lasting effects on past and future nuclear treaties and
his loyalty to making sure states do not ignite a "cataclysmic
disaster" (p. 257).

Citation: Eric Lizon. Review of Sykes, L. R., _Silencing the Bomb:
One Scientist's Quest to Halt Nuclear Testing_. H-War, H-Net Reviews.
November, 2019.
URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54472

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons
Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States

Best regards,

Andrew Stewart

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