Potential for Disaster

by Sean McMullen

My story “Damocles” [in our March/April issue, on sale now!] is about releasing energy very, very quickly and easily, and what a bad idea this might be for civilization in general and ourselves in particular.

Where did it all begin? Let us go back two million years, to a hominid (probably homo ergaster) contemplating a pile of wildebeest bones left after the lions, hyenas, jackals and vultures had finished eating. He knows that large, intact bones contain marrow, but he cannot crack them open. Perhaps in a fit of temper, he picks up a rock and smashes it down on a femur. The bone cracks open. Moments later, one of his stronger relatives pushes him aside and settles down to eat the marrow. Our hominid, in another fit of temper, swings the rock again, this time at the bully’s head.

The idea of storing energy in something inanimate (a rock) and releasing it very rapidly (swinging it at something) had been born. The rock could be used as either a tool or a weapon.

Fast forward to perhaps fifty thousand years ago. A hunting party (homo sapiens this time) is walking through a forest, and the leader pushes a branch aside and lets it go. It hits the guy behind in the face. It hurts, and he realizes that potential energy can be stored and kept ready in a length of wood, maybe with a bit of string at either end. It can then be used to shoot a little spear way faster and further than anyone could throw a full sized spear. Note also that the energy stored in the newly invented bow is released a lot faster than the time it takes to swing a rock.

Come forward again, to only a couple of thousand years ago. Some Chinese alchemists are trying to develop a longevity drug. One mixture of charcoal, sulfur and saltpeter is found to explode instantly when a spark is applied. Entertaining fireworks follow, then arrows powered by little rockets appear on the battlefields . . . and cut lives short rather than extending them. Things really go downhill when some European pours the mixture into a pipe, followed by a bit of scrap metal, and applies a smoking fuse to a touchhole.

Gunpowder’s energy could be kept ready for hours, months or even years. Note also that the strength to swing a rock and break a bone is considerable, and one is within reach of the enemy—who might also have a rock. Shooting an arrow is less risky, but it still requires some strength and a few months of training. On the other hand, a gun requires minimal strength and a morning’s training. Storable, rapid release energy had arrived.

Ever since then, we have been learning to put more and more energy in our tools and weapons. Seventeenth century experiments with steam power led to ships could be powered by coal. Steam engines never get tired—unlike rowers—and can take a ship anywhere, any time—unlike sails.  Put a large gun on a steam powered ship, and you have the ancestor of weapons platforms like battleships and submarines, and even fighter planes, bombers, tanks.

What about the potential of individuals to do a lot of damage with stored, rapid release energy? I mean the loner, not the terrified guy holding a gun on a battlefield and tossing up between being shot for desertion and getting shot by the enemy. Want to get your own back on the local bandits for stealing your livestock? Buy a barrel of gunpowder, load it onto a wagon with WINE painted on the side, and balance a slow burning fuse on the rim of the barrel. This could easily take out a dozen or more dangerous bandits, with no expertise required. Using this method, Guy Fawkes and a few friends came close to doing to the British political establishment what the Spanish Armada could not. Many subsequent bombers have had better luck than Guy.

It is inevitable that civilization is going to need increasing amounts of energy as it grows and develops, but if we want civilization to survive we need to make sure that the technology providing that energy releases it slowly, as needed.

By the twentieth century the situation with rapidly releasable energy had become about as extreme as was possible. Chemical explosives are reasonably effective at killing a few hundred people at most, but nuclear bombs can trash a city. At first the use of nuclear weapons by individuals did not seem likely. Building uranium and plutonium bombs stretched even the industrial and scientific might of the USA, taking 125,000 scientists, engineers, and support staff, and two billion dollars to accomplish. Soon the Soviet Union had built one too, however, because they also had nuclear scientists and heavy industry. Actually, so did Britain, France and China, and within three decades they also had the bomb. Names kept being added to the list of nuclear powers . . . but why go to all the expense of DIY when there are now thousands of nuclear bombs out there, and a black market to locate a couple that are not well enough guarded?

Seventy-five years after the Manhattan Project, atomic weapons are within reach of resourceful and moderately well funded individuals, and this was my original inspiration for “Damocles.” In this story, I propose a technology that can rapidly liberate the energy stored within common materials. Worse, I propose that such devices are cheap and easy to build. Any amateur electrician who feels hard-done-by can build one for a few hundred dollars. This is not good. Our civilization depends on the ability to store and release vast amounts of energy, but remember that hominid with a stone two million years ago? If a lot of energy can be released quickly, you have a weapon.

Now for the good news. Make it difficult to release energy quickly, and the agents of chaos must look for things that are easier to weaponize. Electricity derived from wind, solar panels, or tidal generators and stored in batteries is not very attractive if you wish to kill lots of people. Several billion cars powered by hydrogen? That makes me nervous. Sheer incompetence in dealing with a shipment of ammonium nitrate wiped out a sizeable part of Beirut in 2020. Does anyone seriously think there will not be a few incompetent fools and highly competent terrorists among the millions of mechanics servicing a hydrogen transport industry? 

It is inevitable that civilization is going to need increasing amounts of energy as it grows and develops, but if we want civilization to survive we need to make sure that the technology providing that energy releases it slowly, as needed. Convenient, rapid release means the thing is a weapon. In “Damocles” I removed the threat hanging over the world by means of some brave and ethical people sponging away a discovery with immense destructive potential. The Damocles machine was easy to build and certain to be misused. In the real world the temptation to publish and receive a Nobel Prize would probably be overwhelming, so what can be done?

Strict controls over anything that can release a lot of energy quickly would be a start. In 1995 the four Oklahoma City bombers killed 168 people and caused over half a billion dollars in damage using an IED based on that seemingly innocuous agricultural fertilizer, ammonium nitrate. If you want a tutorial about the risks posed by other commonly available chemicals and devices, try watching the television series Breaking Bad.

Strict controls are not the only solution, because even though the authorities are getting better at spotting and closing down terrorist activity, blithering incompetence can be just as dangerous. Twenty-five years after the Oklahoma City bombing, quite a lot of Beirut was flattened by a shipment of badly stored ammonium nitrate. The economies of scale cannot apply to moving or storing anything with the potential to release its energy in a millisecond or less.

Strategically, it is best to close down threatening technologies while they are still being designed, and before the support infrastructure is established and economists get involved. For example, if we have to choose between hydrogen and batteries to power our vehicles, choose the batteries. Even if hydrogen has a better economic case, the potential for accidental or intentional misuse must always be factored in. Substitute the Damocles machine for hydrogen and the problem is multiplied a thousand times or more. Anger management therapy will not be very useful after some disgruntled loner has flattened a city in a fit of pique.

Sean McMullen lives in Melbourne, worked as a laboratory technician while an undergraduate, then spent three decades in scientific computing while running a parallel career as a science fiction author. He has had 120 books and stories published and has won over a dozen awards, as well as having Hugo and BSFA award nominations. Sean’s History of New Zealand Science Fiction and Fantasy, coauthored with Simon Litten, was published online in July 2020. His daughter is the award-winning SF and horror screenwriter, Catherine S. McMullen. Online, Sean is at http://www.seanmcmullen.net.au.

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