The Bomber Mafia nearly changed the world—and you've likely never heard of them.
- Much has been written about World War II in the seven and a half decades since it ended in 1945. But as writer Malcolm Gladwell shows with his new book The Bomber Mafia, some incredible stories and perspectives have been largely forgotten.
- A group of pilots, led by Brigadier General Haywood Hansell, earned the derogatory nickname Bomber Mafia because of a not-widely-shared dream that they could use a few strategic bombings to lower the death toll and have a "clean" war.
- "But that's not what war ever is," says Gladwell. "It never has that kind of fairy tale ending." A few failed attempts led to a changing of the guard, the invention of napalm, and a summer of attacks on Japanese cities that Gladwell says was at "a scale of destruction almost unmatched in human history."
Nuclear weapons, whale sharks, and how to use both to make eco-tourism more sustainable.
- Scientists have finally determined the age of whale sharks using radioactive elements from bomb tests.
- Using the new data, the age range of the animals' bones has now been determined.
- The findings will help conservationists better maintain whale shark populations.
Majestic whale sharks, the gentle giants of the shark family.
Weighing in at 9 tons (20,000 pounds) and typically growing to around 10 meters (32 feet) long, the whale shark is the largest living species of fish. Despite the name, it is not a whale, though it is the size of one. Like many kinds of whales, it filter feeds on plankton.
Many things about the whale shark have remained unknown to science; how long they can live, their mortality rate, and how exactly to determine the age of a specimen from its remains was chief among them. However, these questions are now a little closer to being settled. In a study recently published in Frontiers in Marine Science, scientists explain how they were able to date the bones of two whale sharks who met their fate earlier than they may have expected.
Like trees, whale sharks' bones have growth rings. Scientists have known about these rings for a while, but how quickly the rings grow has been unknown. It is difficult to use them to estimate the age of a shark if you aren't sure how much time each ring represents.
A whale shark vertebra from Pakistan, in cross section, showing 50 growth bands
Image: © Paul Fanning, Pakistan node of the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation
This is where carbon-14 comes in. As a result of nuclear bomb tests during the Cold War, large quantities of carbon-14 were put into the oceans. The isotope slowly made its way up the food web and into the bodies of larger animals. Knowing the yearly changes in the amount of carbon-14 in the oceans due to bomb testing, scientists merely had to compare that data with the changes seen in the sharks' bones.
"We found that one growth ring was definitely deposited every year," said Dr. Mark Meekan of the Australian Institute of Marine Science in Perth, a co-lead on the study. "This is very important, because if you over- or under-estimate growth rates you will inevitably end up with a management strategy that doesn't work, and you'll see the population crash." This means the sharks used in this study were around 35 and 50 years old at the time of their deaths.
Working forward from there, the scientists were able conclude that the animals may have an age range of 100-150 years. "Earlier modelling studies have suggested that the largest whale sharks may live as long as 100 years," Dr. Meekan explained in a statement. "However, although our understanding of the movements, behaviour, connectivity and distribution of whale sharks have improved dramatically over the last 10 years, basic life history traits such as age, longevity and mortality remain largely unknown. Our study shows that adult sharks can indeed attain great age and that long lifespans are probably a feature of the species. Now we have another piece of the jigsaw added."
Whale sharks are an interesting species that many eco-tourists want to see. Conservation efforts for them rely on having accurate data on their longevity, mortality rate, and the age of specific animals. This information will help those managing ocean preserves keep the population stable for future generations to enjoy.
MIT team successfully tests a new method for verification of weapons reduction.
How do weapons inspectors verify that a nuclear bomb has been dismantled? An unsettling answer is: They don't, for the most part.
When countries sign arms reduction pacts, they do not typically grant inspectors complete access to their nuclear technologies, for fear of giving away military secrets.
Instead, past U.S.-Russia arms reduction treaties have called for the destruction of the delivery systems for nuclear warheads, such as missiles and planes, but not the warheads themselves. To comply with the START treaty, for example, the U.S. cut the wings off B-52 bombers and left them in the Arizona desert, where Russia could visually confirm the airplanes' dismemberment.
It's a logical approach but not a perfect one. Stored nuclear warheads might not be deliverable in a war, but they could still be stolen, sold, or accidentally detonated, with disastrous consequences for human society.
"There's a real need to preempt these kinds of dangerous scenarios and go after these stockpiles," says Areg Danagoulian, an MIT nuclear scientist. "And that really means a verified dismantlement of the weapons themselves."
Now MIT researchers led by Danagoulian have successfully tested a new high-tech method that could help inspectors verify the destruction of nuclear weapons. The method uses neutron beams to establish certain facts about the warheads in question — and, crucially, uses an isotopic filter that physically encrypts the information in the measured data.
A paper detailing the experiments, "A physically cryptographic warhead verification system using neutron induced nuclear resonances," is being published today in Nature Communications. The authors are Danagoulian, who is an assistant professor of nuclear science and engineering at MIT, and graduate student Ezra Engel. Danagoulian is the corresponding author.
The experiment builds on previous theoretical work, by Danagoulian and other members of his research group, who last year published two papers detailing computer simulations of the system. The testing took place at the Gaerttner Linear Accelerator (LINAC) Facility on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, using a 15-meter long section of the facility's neutron-beam line.
Nuclear warheads have a couple of characteristics that are central to the experiment. They tend to use particular isotopes of plutonium — varieties of the element that have different numbers of neutrons. And nuclear warheads have a distinctive spatial arrangement of materials.
The experiments consisted of sending a horizontal neutron beam first through a proxy of the warhead, then through a an encrypting filter scrambling the information. The beam's signal was then sent to a lithium glass detector, where a signature of the data, representing some of its key properties, was recorded. The MIT tests were performed using molybdenum and tungsten, two metals that share significant properties with plutonium and served as viable proxies for it.
The test works, first of all, because the neutron beam can identify the isotope in question.
"At the low energy range, the neutrons' interactions are extremely isotope-specific," Danagoulian says. "So you do a measurement where you have an isotopic tag, a signal which itself embeds information about the isotopes and the geometry. But you do an additional step which physically encrypts it."
That physical encryption of the neutron beam information alters some of the exact details, but still allows scientists to record a distinct signature of the object and then use it to perform object-to-object comparisons. This alteration means a country can submit to the test without divulging all the details about how its weapons are engineered.
"This encrypting filter basically covers up the intrinsic properties of the actual classified object itself," Danagoulian explains.
It would also be possible just to send the neutron beam through the warhead, record that information, and then encrypt it on a computer system. But the process of physical encryption is more secure, Danagoulian notes: "You could, in principle, do it with computers, but computers are unreliable. They can be hacked, while the laws of physics are immutable."
The MIT tests also included checks to make sure that inspectors could not reverse-engineer the process and thus deduce the weapons information countries want to keep secret.
To conduct a weapons inspection, then, a host country would present a warhead to weapons inspectors, who could run the neutron-beam test on the materials. If it passes muster, they could run the test on every other warhead intended for destruction as well, and make sure that the data signatures from those additional bombs match the signature of the original warhead.
For this reason, a country could not, say, present one real nuclear warhead to be dismantled, but bamboozle inspectors with a series of identical-looking fake weapons. And while many additional protocols would have to be arranged to make the whole process function reliably, the new method plausibly balances both disclosure and secrecy for the parties involved.
The human element
Danagoulian believes putting the new method through the testing stage has been a significant step forward for his research team.
"Simulations capture the physics, but they don't capture system instabilities," Danagoulian says. "Experiments capture the whole world."
In the future, he would like to build a smaller-scale version of the testing apparatus, one that would be just 5 meters long and could be mobile, for use at all weapons sites.
"The purpose of our work is to create these concepts, validate them, prove that they work through simulations and experiments, and then have the National Laboratories to use them in their set of verification techniques," Danagoulian says, referring to U.S. Department of Energy scientists.
Karl van Bibber, a professor in the Department of Nuclear Engineering at the University of California at Berkeley, who has read the group's papers, says "the work is promising and has taken a large step forward," but adds that "there is yet a ways to go" for the project. More specifically, van Bibber notes, in the recent tests it was easier to detect fake weapons based on the isotopic characteristics of the materials rather than their spatial arrangements. He believes testing at the relevant U.S. National Laboratories — Los Alamos or Livermore — would help further assess the verification techniques on sophisticated missile designs.
Overall, van Bibber adds, speaking of the researchers, "their persistence is paying off, and the treaty verification community has got to be paying attention."
Danagoulian also emphasizes the seriousness of nuclear weapons disarmament. A small cluster of several modern nuclear warheads, he notes, equals the destructive force of every armament fired in World War II, including the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The U.S. and Russia possess about 13,000 nuclear weapons between them.
"The concept of nuclear war is so big that it doesn't [normally] fit in the human brain," Danagoulian says. "It's so terrifying, so horrible, that people shut it down."
In Danagoulian's case, he also emphasizes that, in his case, becoming a parent greatly increased his sense that action is needed on this issue, and helped spur the current research project.
"It put an urgency in my head," Danagoulian says. "Can I use my knowledge and my skill and my training in physics to do something for society and for my children? This is the human aspect of the work."
The research was supported, in part, by a U.S. Department of Energy National Nuclear Security Administration Award.
Russia urges villagers to leave nuclear fallout area and then tells them to come back.
- Residents of Northwestern Russian villages were told to evacuate after a nuclear-powered engine exploded.
- Russian authorities originally stated they saw radiation levels spike to 16 times above normal.
- Other reports from officials stated there was no spike and also no need to evacuate, creating confusion for villagers and international reporters.
Earlier this week, Russian authorities initially ordered the evacuation of a village nearby the nuclear accident in northern Russia, fueling international fears that the explosion was more dangerous than previously thought.
At least five nuclear specialists were killed (possibly seven), with a significant amount of radiation spreading. Apparently, a small nuclear reactor exploded during a test of a new kind of missile. There has been a great deal of contradictory messages being released from Russian officials and scientists involved with the work.
First, the incident was reported as the result of a fire from a liquid-fueled rocket engine, before Russian officials conceded only a few days later that a nuclear reactor was leaking on an offshore platform in the White Sea.
The reports have only become more convoluted as Russian authorities now seem to have called off the evacuation of the village of Nyonoksa.
Downplaying the nuclear incident
Russia is no stranger to nuclear catastrophe nor are they averse to outright denying claims of gross misconduct.
Russian state news agency TASS recently reported that the evacuations were just called off. Valery Mashenkov, head of administrative department for the village of Nyonoksa, told TASS that villagers wouldn't be required to leave their homes anymore.
The only official response so far from the Kremlin was a simple "accidents happen." Spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to say whether or not the nuclear accident was related to the nuclear-powered cruise missile known as Burevestnik or Skyfall.
Ignoring the potential crisis at hand, Peskov instead remarked that this accident didn't hamper their development of further advanced weaponry.
"Accidents, unfortunately, happen. They are tragedies. But in this particular case, it is important for us to remember those heroes who lost their lives in this accident."
Peskov reinforced President Vladimir Putin's assertion that in their efforts to advance nuclear technologies, they are "considerably far ahead of the level other countries have managed to achieve."
Suspected site of the nuclear explosion
Nyonoksa is a small village 30 miles west of the port of Severodvinsk on the White Sea. News of the official, planned evacuation became public on Tuesday, August 13th, before it was reneged.
Rosgidromet, the Russian meteorological agency, initially reported that radiation levels were anywhere from four to 16 times higher than regular levels in the vicinity. The Russian military at that time told state new agencies that the radiation levels were normal.
The deputy head of Severodvinsk, Irina Sakharova, told TASS that "Everything is calm at Nyonoksa, life goes on."
Conflicting reports from Russia
Some speculate that the nuclear reactor fell into the water. Aleksandr K. Nikitin, a researcher from the Norwegian environmental group Bellona, thinks that might be the case. But he was quick to remark, "There are mostly questions without clear answers."
Officials are still claiming that radiation levels are not elevated and there is no need for a displacement of the village.
The governor of the Arkhangelsk region, Igor Orlov, echoed these sentiments and stated to the Interfax news agency, "There is no evacuation. That is complete nonsense."
Residents from Nyonoksa were told they'd be leaving on a special train to evacuate their village. Russia's official reason was for unspecified "planned" activities at a nearby military testing range. But supposedly, this didn't go through, as a later announcement from Severodvinsk city officials stated, "Yes, indeed, they informed us that the military had canceled tomorrow's activities."
While we can only speculate, it seems that the "military activities" were a cover for the nuclear accident. Under the auspice of this ruse, villagers and others affected by the radiation fallout would have been evacuated. But as far as we can tell now, those plans have been halted.
Russian authorities wouldn't reveal what type of weapon was related to the nuclear accident. But they have at least officially acknowledged that some radioactive materials and a nuclear reactor were involved in the incident.
For the Japanese in World War II, surrender was unthinkable. So unthinkable that many soldiers continued to fight even after the island nation eventually did surrender.
- Japan may have surrendered to the Allies on August 15, 1945, but many Japanese soldiers did not get word until much later.
- The culture of death before surrender that permeated the Japanese military caused many to continue to fight even after Japan's formal surrender.
- Hiroo Onada was one such holdout. He engaged in a guerrilla war in the jungles of the Philippines for nearly 30 years.
The idyllic islands of the Pacific Ocean typically have little role to play in the wider world aside from offering white shores and blue oceans that come about as close to paradise as it gets. But in World War II, these islands were bloodily contested. They represented strategic positions for the Allies, who could establish bases for bombing raids on the then-Axis Japan. In turn, Japanese soldiers were sent to these islands to defend them at all costs. Many, including a lieutenant named Hiroo Onada, were instructed to fight until killed; surrender was not an option. Hiroo Onada and others obeyed these orders literally. In fact, Onada continued to fight for 29 years after World War II ended.
Twentieth-century Japan had transformed the ancient concept of Bushido — a military code of conduct presented in some texts as "a way of dying" that demanded samurai be prepared to lay their life down for their lords — into a full-on propaganda tool to stir up nationalism and a culture of death before surrender. Surrender was so anathema to World War II Japan that Emperor Hirohito's surrender speech did not even feature the word "surrender." Instead, he characterized the coming capitulation as "enduring the unendurable and suffering the unsufferable."
This attitude led Lieutenant Onada and his men to go into hiding on the mountains of Lubang Island in the Philippines after Allied forces took the island back from Japanese control in February of 1945. Major Yoshimi Taniguchi was evacuating the island with other Japanese soldiers but instructed Onada and other men to stay and fight. "It may take three years, it may take five, but whatever happens we'll come back for you," the major said. "As an intelligence officer," said Onada, "I was ordered to conduct guerrilla warfare and not to die. I had to follow my orders as I was a soldier." The war ended in September of that year, but Onada continued to follow his orders.
During his time in the jungle, Onada engaged in guerilla warfare and several skirmishes with the local Filipinos and police. In October of 1945, he and his team found a leaflet that a villager had left. It read: "The war ended on August 15. Come down from the mountains!" Later that year, more leaflets came, but Onada and his men believed them to be American propaganda. They were full of mistakes, he said, and so they could not have come from the Japanese. And how could the Japanese have surrendered, anyway? So, they stayed in the jungle for 29 years.
Hiroo Onoda presenting his sword to the Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos. Image source: Wikimedia Commons
The holdouts continued to fight local Filipino police and others, who fought back in self-defense. The continued engagement was taken as a sign that the war was still on. One of Onada's men eventually surrendered in 1950. Another was killed by a search party in 1954 looking for the group. After burning a field of rice in 1972 as part of their guerilla war, police killed Onada's last companion. Now, he was alone in the jungle.
But back in Japan, Onada and his men had become something of an urban legend. Although he had been declared legally dead by Japan, the holdout's presence on the island was almost certain; after all, he had been engaged in guerilla warfare for nearly 30 years and had killed 30 Filipinos after the war had ended. So, in February of 1974, a college dropout named Norio Suzuki decided to go look for him. "[I'm] going to look for Lieutenant Onoda, a panda, and the abominable snowman, in that order," he told his friends.
Surprisingly, Suzuki did find Onada, but the lieutenant still refused to surrender. Onada would only surrender were he ordered to do so by his commanding officer: Major Yoshimi Taniguchi.
Suzuki returned to Japan and tracked down Taniguchi, by then an old man and a bookseller. He brought him back to Lubang to meet with Onada. Twenty-nine years after the end of World War II, Taniguchi relieved Onada of his duty. Before he left for Japan, however, Onada gave the Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos his sword in surrender — Marcos returned the sword and pardoned Onada for his actions during what Onada had believed to be wartime.
Onada was given a hero's welcome in Japan in testament to what is either his incredible discipline or fanaticism. The island nation had changed drastically since he was gone, changes that Onada couldn't entirely come to grips with. In 1975, Onada retired to Brazil to raise cattle, later returning to Japan in 1984 to start a wilderness survival school.