Age Twenty-One: That Freshly Kissed Look


269. Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin (born October 7, 1952) is the current president of Russia. He served as an officer in the KGB (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti, Russian for Committee for State Security) during the Cold War, and during the 1990s was the deputy to Russian president Boris Yeltsin. Putin has led the country since 2000, except for a period 2008–2012 when he was prime minister, the second-highest job in government, due to a constitutional ban on serving as president for more than two terms in a row. During his time in office, Putin has taken Russia in a more authoritarian direction, and been widely criticized for human rights abuses.

Putin was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) during the rule of Joseph Stalin. Growing up, the prevailing view being taught in Russian schools was that communism was the best political system, and that it was the mission of the Soviet Union to defeat America and its capitalist system. After studying law at university, Putin joined the KGB, the feared Soviet foreign intelligence service. He served in communist East Germany for several years, and proved himself to be capable and talented.

Vladimir Putin, president of Russia

Vladimir Putin, former KGB intelligence officer and current president of Russia

Soon after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Soviet empire began to collapse. By 1991, the communist system came to an end, and Boris Yeltsin became Russia’s first democratically elected president. Meanwhile, Putin retired from the KGB and became a political official. He quickly rose to be Yeltsin’s most important deputy, and when Yeltsin resigned in 2000, Putin succeeded him.

At first, many people around the world praised Putin’s leadership. Analysts saw Putin as a no-nonsense, professional figure who could clean up the corruption that had been rampant during Yeltsin’s time in office. The United States and its allies hoped that Putin would promote reforms and help Russian democracy get stronger. These hopes peaked after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the US and Russia began to work together closely to counter the threat from Islamic terrorist groups.

For years, Russia had been fighting an Islamic insurgency in its southern region of Chechnya. Extremist Muslims carried out several devastating terrorist attacks in the early years of Putin’s presidency. In 2002, several dozen Chechen terrorists stormed a theater in Moscow and took nearly a thousand hostages. Russian disabled the terrorists by pumping a toxic gas into the theater’s ventilation system, but this had the side effect of killing almost 130 of the hostages as well. Two years later, in 2004, another group of Chechens seized a school in Beslan, Russia. This time, there were more than 1,100 hostages, and 334 innocent people were killed during the chaotic battle that followed. Russia was frightened by these tragedies, and Putin rallied public support for giving the security services more power. This made Putin himself more powerful, and made it easier for him to suppress political opposition.

In 2006, Anna Politkovskaya, a prominent journalist who had been critical of Putin, was assassinated in Moscow. Just weeks later, Alexander Litvinenko, another of Putin’s critics, was poisoned to death with radioactive polonium slipped into his tea. In the years since, several other journalists, human rights activists, and political dissidents have been killed under suspicious circumstances. Many observers outside Russia allege that Putin was responsible for these deaths. This made it dangerous for people to speak out against abuses by Putin’s government, which was becoming gradually more authoritarian.

Then in 2008, Putin sent in Russian troops to the small nation of Georgia on its southern border. The Georgian military was fighting against separatists in the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia took the side of the separatists, and the conflict killed hundreds of civilians. The United States and many other countries condemned the invasion as Russian aggression, but Putin’s power continued to strengthen.

2008 was also the end of Putin’s second term as president of Russia, and the Russian constitution did not allow him to run for a third term. So he swapped positions with his deputy, Dmitry Medvedev. Medvedev, who had been prime minister, became the president, and Putin became prime minister. After one four-year term, Putin was allowed to return to the presidency, which he did in 2012.

In 2013, there was a revolution in Ukraine, Russia’s southwestern neighbor which had previously been part of the Soviet Union. Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s pro-Putin president, blocked efforts to form closer ties to the European Union, and hundreds of thousands of protestors flooded the streets in response. Yanukovych fled the country, and a new anti-Putin president took office. In response, Putin encouraged dissension in Crimea, a Ukraine-controlled peninsula on the Black Sea. Putin claimed that the Russian-speaking minority in Crimea was under threat by Ukrainian extremists, and sent soldiers with unmarked uniforms into Crimea. There, Russian forces organized a special referendum, where Crimea voted to break away from Ukraine and join Russia—but the United Nations declared the vote invalid due to fraud and Russian interference.

Nonetheless, Russia has kept control of Crimea and has expanded its interference into other parts of Ukraine. In response, the United States and its allies enforced economic sanctions against Russia. By cutting Russia off from much of its foreign trade, the sanctions hurt the Russian economy, and American leaders hoped that this would put pressure on Putin to change his behavior. In reality, though, Putin has continued to consolidate his power within Russia, and expanded its influence abroad.

The Russian military has intervened in the ongoing civil war in Syria, and Putin is one of the main supporters of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Human rights organizations have harshly criticized the Russians for killing civilians during this conflict, and for supporting Assad’s regime despite its use of banned poison gas and other war crimes.

Analysts say that although Putin does not have a communist ideology, he hopes to gradually reassemble a Russian superpower like what the Soviet Union was. To accomplish this long-term objective, he has tried to diminish the influence of the United States and create conflict within the European Union. This has included support for right-wing parties in the EU, massive propaganda operations, and cyber warfare against the United States aimed at interfering with American elections.

Putin is known for cultivating a “tough guy” image in the media. He has frequently staged photo opportunities that show him hunting, fishing, riding horses, practicing judo, shooting guns, playing hockey, driving sports vehicles, or piloting aircraft. He likes being photographed shirtless, showing off his athletic physique. This image has become very popular in Russia, where state-run media frequently highlights his supposed manliness. Outside Russia, such behavior has often been mocked by comedians and in online memes.

Matryoshka set, believed to be the first ever produced

A matryoshka set, believed to be the first ever produced

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, when Danielle is president of the United States, Vladimir Putin brings a birthday cake to the Oval Office for her twenty-first birthday. The cake’s frosting has an image of a family of stacking matryoshka dolls. Just then, she gets a call from her boyfriend, hugs Putin in thanks, and excuses herself from the room.

See entries for Stalin, Cold War, Authoritarian, Oval Office, and Matryoshka dolls.  


270. Matryoshka dolls

Matryoshka dolls, often known as Russian dolls, are sets of dolls made to fit inside each other. Typically, they are wooden dolls in the shape of a person in a traditional Russian costume. The outermost doll is hollow, and made of two halves that fit together. Pulling the halves apart reveals another somewhat smaller doll inside. This doll has a similar design, and opening it reveals yet another doll. Sets of matryoshka dolls often have six to ten layers of dolls, with the smallest traditionally being a solid piece of painted wood in the shape of a baby.

The first matryoshka set is believed to have been designed by the artist Sergey Malyutin in 1890, and carved by the woodworker Vasily Zvyozdochkin. Since then, they have become synonymous with Russia and Russian art. Sometimes, matryoshka dolls are used as a metaphor to refer to objects or systems that have similar versions of themselves in nested layers, such as neural nets in artificial intelligence.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, when Danielle is US president, Russian president Vladimir Putin brings her a birthday cake for her twenty-first birthday. The cake’s frosting has the image of a family of stacking matryoshka dolls, with each one looking like Danielle. Danielle hugs Putin in gratitude, but then ducks away to be with her lover for their first kiss.

See entries for Vladimir Putin and Artificial Intelligence .


271. President Reagan

Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) was the 40th president of the United States, serving from 1981 to 1989. Prior to his election, he had been a professional actor, head of the Screen Actors Guild, and the governor of California. During his time in the White House, Reagan worked to restore confidence in the American economy after a period of stagnation and high inflation during the 1970s. He lowered top tax rates from 70 percent to 28 percent. He is also best remembered for taking a firm stand against the Soviet Union, and encouraging anti-communist resistance by people in the occupied nations of Eastern Europe. These efforts are regarded as having played a key role in winning the Cold War and causing the collapse of the Soviet empire.

After growing up in Illinois, Ronald Reagan first found work as a sportscaster. He commentated baseball and football games over the radio, and soon moved out to California, where he became an actor. Reagan appeared in dozens of movies, and when World War II began, he joined the army and was assigned to a film production unit. In this role, Reagan made training, information, and propaganda films in support of the war effort.

President Ronald Reagan, 40th president of the United States, 1981–1989

President Ronald Reagan, 40th president of the United States, 1981–1989

After the war, Reagan resumed his acting career, and in 1947 rose to become head of the Screen Actors Guild, the labor union for American actors. During this period, Reagan was a supporter of the Democratic Party, and supported the liberal politics of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his successor Harry Truman. Yet as the Cold War continued, Reagan came to believe that the Democrats were too sympathetic to communism. Gradually, his politics became more conservative, and he became a member of the Republican Party.

During the 1964 presidential election, Reagan gave a televised speech called “A Time for Choosing,” arguing on behalf of the Republican nominee Barry Goldwater, who was trying to defeat President Lyndon Johnson, a Democrat who was running for a second term. Reagan’s speech presented the idea that the larger and more powerful government is, the more it will infringe on people’s individual freedoms. He said that citizens and local communities usually know better what is good for them than bureaucrats making decisions from far away. The speech did not succeed in getting Goldwater elected, but it made Reagan an instant superstar in the conservative movement.

Two years later, Reagan was elected governor of California. He served two terms, and was praised for improving the state’s finances and working with Democrats in the legislature. Reagan’s popularity was high, and he showed the ability to express difficult ideas in clear language that ordinary people could understand. This led to his growing reputation as the “Great Communicator.” Reagan ran unsuccessfully for president in 1968, getting more votes in the Republican primaries than the eventual nominee, Richard Nixon. Two elections later, in 1976, Reagan challenged and nearly beat the sitting president, Gerald Ford, for the Republican nomination.

Finally, in 1980, Ronald Reagan’s time had come. He ran against Jimmy Carter, an unpopular president from the Democratic Party. Many voters respected Carter’s personal character, but felt that he was too pessimistic about the economy and too weak on foreign policy. Reagan sent a message of confidence and sunny optimism, and voters responded positively. He won the election in a landslide.

In the speech he gave at his inauguration, Reagan famously told the American people: “Government is not the solution to our problems. Government is the problem.” Reagan went on to coin many famous phrases in the speeches he made during his presidency. As part of his foreign policy strategy of taking a firm stand against the Soviet Union, he used strong language that sometimes made his own advisors squirm. He said that the Soviets would wind up on the “ash heap of history,” and later referred to the Soviet Union as an “Evil Empire.” Largely due to his skill as a communicator, Reagan won reelection in a 1984 landslide that was even stronger than four years earlier.

When the space shuttle Challenger exploded during takeoff in 1986, Reagan delivered a televised address to the stunned and grieving nation. He said: “The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted; it belongs to the brave. The Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, and we’ll continue to follow them.” He added that the shuttle’s crew “honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God.’”

President Reagan delivering speech at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin

Ronald Reagan delivering his famous speech at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin

One of Reagan’s major foreign policy goals was creating a system capable of protecting the United States from nuclear weapons. Reagan’s plan, which came to be known as “Star Wars,” after the popular movie, would have involved a combination of lasers and anti-missile missiles based in outer space. If the Soviet Union launched missiles at the United States, the Star Wars system was intended to shoot them down before they reached their targets. Yet there were two major problems with the plan. The first was that it would throw the Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine out of balance. According to this idea, both the Americans and Soviets knew that if they used nuclear weapons against the other, there would be a massive retaliation that would make such an attack suicidal. But if the United States created a missile defense system, it could, in theory, be free to use nuclear weapons against the Soviets without having to worry about retaliation. Some American strategists worried that building Star Wars might prompt the Soviets to start a war before the system came online. The system would have also violated the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, which mostly forbids missiles used to shoot down other missiles. The second, even greater, problem was that the technology simply wasn’t advanced enough to successfully shoot down real missiles—so Star Wars was never completed.

The other aspect of Reagan’s anti-Soviet strategy was providing support to anti-communist groups all over the world. Reagan hoped that helping them in their fights against Soviet-supported groups would drain Soviet resources without risking a nuclear war. As part of this program, the US provided equipment and other assistance to the Mujahedeen, the extremist Islamic fighters who were resisting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Years later, many of the Mujahedeen turned against America, led by Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorist group.

In 1987, President Reagan traveled to Berlin, which had been divided between a capitalist, democratic West Berlin, and the communist East Berlin since 1961. The Berlin Wall cut off access between the two halves of the city, separating families and loved ones. East German guards would shoot anyone who tried to escape into West Berlin. Reagan visited the Brandenburg Gate, a famous symbol of German unity, and gave a speech sending a direct message to Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader. “If you seek peace,” Reagan said, “if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

On November 9, 1989, just months after Reagan’s presidency came to an end, the Soviets opened the crossing points in the Berlin Wall. Over the following two years, the wall was dismantled, Germany was reunified, and the Soviet Union dissolved and gave up communism.

At the end of his life, Reagan suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Some observers allege that this condition began while he was still president. The condition causes brain tissues to degenerate over time, gradually robbing people of their memories and personality. Reagan’s family became prominent advocates for research into potential treatments and cures for Alzheimer’s. Doctors hope that in the coming decade, new medical technology will allow major progress against this terrible disease.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, when Danielle is president of the United States at ages nineteen and twenty, she creates a plan for a major missile defense program. Danielle realizes the main threat from nuclear weapons is no longer from a massive surprise attack by Russia, but instead that terrorists or hackers might get control of those weapons—or even that missiles might be launched due to an error or malfunction. This makes Mutually Assured Destruction not the primary consideration. For this reason, she authorizes a new arsenal of anti-missile missiles, capable of shooting down incoming nuclear warheads. Danielle’s anti-missile missile program is controversial and causes the media to make comparisons between Danielle and President Reagan.

See entries for Cold War, Thermonuclear weapons, Mutually assured destruction, Anti-missile missiles, Star Wars, Mujahideen, Sunni terrorist groups, al-Qaeda, and Osama bin Laden.


272. Anti-missile missiles

Anti-missile missiles are missiles used to shoot down other missiles. Usually, they are defensive systems designed to protect against attack by incoming missiles—especially those armed with nuclear weapons. Although the technology needed for offensive missiles developed much sooner than the technology needed for these defensive anti-missile missiles, recent advances are making missile defense more effective.

The kind of missiles used to deliver most nuclear weapons are known as ballistic missiles. This refers to the fact that they are not steered continuously in flight in the way an airplane or surface-to-air missile is. Instead, their rocket engines take them out of the atmosphere and onto a path toward the target before falling away. The remaining portion of the missile containing the warhead, known as the reentry vehicle, continues on its trajectory based on its momentum and the influence of gravity.

Shooting down these missiles is extremely difficult. They travel at several thousand miles an hour, so it takes very precise sensors and a lot of computing power to predict their position accurately enough for another missile to hit them. In the 1950s, when the Soviet Union and United States first developed ballistic missiles, shooting them down was widely thought impossible.

In addition, the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) implied that neither side should even try to develop such a technology. According to MAD, both the Americans and the Soviets made clear to each other that they would respond to any nuclear attack with massive nuclear retaliation. Because both sides had thousands of nuclear weapons, each capable of destroying a city, this meant that if one side used nuclear weapons it would be suicidal for the other side to attack as well.

The only exception would be if a “first strike” surprise attack could destroy the other side’s nuclear weapons before they were launched. This would give each side an incentive to use nuclear weapons first in order to avoid retaliation. To prevent this, both the United States and Soviet Union developed “second strike” capability—nuclear missiles that could be launched from armored underground silos or submarines hidden underwater. Even if a first strike destroyed most of a nation’s land based nuclear weapons, enough weapons would survive to be able to launch a counterattack. This preserved the stability of MAD.

On the other hand, if one side had an effective system for shooting down incoming missiles, it could use nuclear weapons against the other without fear of retaliation. Thus, both Soviet and American strategists realized that working to develop a missile defense program could have the unintended result of causing the other side to attack before the system made their missiles useless.

Yet the Soviet Union wasn’t the only threat. By the mid-1960s, Communist China had also become a nuclear power, and American leaders wanted a way to defend against Chinese missiles. Over the next decade, the US experimented with a series of anti-missile missile systems called Nike-X, Sentinel, and Safeguard. These were deliberately designed to be insufficient to stop a Soviet attack so Russian leaders need not worry that America was abandoning MAD. The basic principle was a two-layered defense. Some anti-missile missiles would go up into space and detonate nuclear warheads near the incoming missiles. Hopefully, the shockwaves and X-ray radiation from these explosions would destroy the approaching warheads before they reentered the atmosphere. If some enemy reentry vehicles got through, though, a second layer of short-range interceptor missiles would try to knock them out of the sky with small nuclear blasts before they could detonate large warheads at their targets.

This required anti-missile missiles that could launch with just seconds’ notice and race toward the incoming missiles with sufficient speed. One US missile used for this purpose, the Sprint, accelerated so rapidly that its skin would turn white hot in midflight. Guiding the Sprint to its target at closing speeds approaching 10,000 mph, and preventing the powerful g-forces involved from tearing it apart required difficult technological breakthroughs.

Sprint missile launched in a test flight

Sprint missile moments after being launched in a test flight

At the same time, offensive missiles were also getting more sophisticated. Missiles carried multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles, and came with a range of decoy devices to distract interceptors. This made it impractical for either side to build enough anti-missile missiles to be confident of stopping an attack, so in 1972 the Americans and Soviets signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, agreeing to strictly limit their anti-missile missiles, and cancelled their remaining programs soon afterward. During the 1980s, the US focused on a program known as Star Wars, which hoped to replace anti-missile missiles with powerful space-based lasers. But this program also proved impractical.

Since the late 1980s, the main focus of anti-missile missile technology has been on smaller threats than full-scale nuclear war. The US Navy developed a ship-based interceptor missile system called Aegis, which uses advanced radar to shoot down missiles of small to medium-range. This could include nuclear weapons launched by a rogue state like North Korea, or incoming anti-ship missiles targeting American warships. During the Gulf War in 1991, the US Army used another anti-missile missile system called Patriot. The Patriot missiles had mixed results in attempting to shoot down non-nuclear Scud missiles launched by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

The technological advances of the last 25 years have made anti-missile missiles much more effective and reliable. In the twenty-first century, civilian areas in Israel have come under repeated rocket attack by the Hamas and Hezbollah terrorist groups. In total, they have fired more than 11,000 rockets, which are mostly primitive and unguided but can still be deadly if they hit their target. Since 2011, though, Israel has deployed a system called Iron Dome. The system tracks incoming rockets on radar and uses software to calculate where it should send interceptor missiles to shoot them down. So far, Iron Dome has been credited with stopping up to 85 percent of rocket attacks that would have hit civilian areas.

In the future, anti-missile missiles might be deployed from satellites in orbit. This would make it easier for them to destroy their targets early in flight, and maximize the chances of successfully destroying a ballistic missile. Doing so would require new international agreements to allow such weapons in space, but could make it much harder to use nuclear weapons.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, when Danielle becomes president of the United States, one of her most controversial programs during the first half of her term is a massive anti-missile missile program. This is intended to make nuclear attacks impossible, whether they are deliberately ordered by a country at war, or launched due to an accident or hack by terrorists. Her reasoning is that MAD is an obsolete doctrine, because it was developed when there was less threat from these accidental or terrorist launches.

See entries for Cold War, Thermonuclear weapons, Mutually assured destruction, Atomic bombs exploded in Japan, and Palestine.


273. Center for American Progress

The Center for American Progress is a liberal think tank based in Washington, DC. It was founded in 2003 by a group of Democratic political activists led by John Podesta, who had served as chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. They observed that the Republican administration of then-President George W. Bush was being influenced by conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, so they designed the Center for American Progress as a left-leaning response to Heritage. The Center employs almost 240 people, and focuses on a mix of creating policy proposals, lobbying elected officials, organizing political action, and publicly advocating liberal ideas.

Roles of think tanks like the Center for American Progress change depending on which party controls Congress and especially the White House. When Democrats are in power, the Center focuses on helping the administration craft its policies and rallying popular support for the president’s agenda. When Republicans are in power, the Center focuses on critiquing the administration’s actions and organizing opposition to block conservative policies. When new Democratic administrations come in, such as President Barack Obama’s transition in 2008–2009, many staff members from think tanks like the Center for American Progress go to work directly for the new administration.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, in the third year of her term as president of the United States, twenty-one-year-old Danielle implements a massive program to design and build anti-missile missiles. Danielle does this as part of a plan to end the threat of nuclear weapons to humanity. Anti-missile missiles are used to intercept and destroy incoming nuclear weapons, preventing them from detonating. This technology is extremely challenging, however, and Danielle’s program costs a trillion dollars a year. Danielle’s proposal is controversial, and liberal commentators equate Danielle’s focus on anti-missile missiles with President Reagan’s similar focus which was also criticized by liberals during his administration.

And although the US economy is growing rapidly, the Center for American Progress attributes this to Danielle’s enormous spending on the anti-missile missiles.

See entries for President Obama, Thermonuclear weapons, Hair-trigger, and Mutually assured destruction.


274. Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology is an emerging area of science and engineering that involves creating objects with useful features at the tiny scale of individual atoms and molecules. So far, the most important application of nanotechnology has been the miniaturization of the transistors in computer chips. As transistors get smaller and smaller (they’re now less than 10 nanometers, or billionths of a meter, which is the width of about 50 carbon atoms), computers have been getting exponentially more powerful according to a progression called Moore’s Law. Over the coming years and decades, though, nanotechnology will become even more advanced, to the point where we can build machines atom by atom. This will allow enormous breakthroughs in medicine, computation, communication, transportation, energy, space exploration, and many other areas.

Engineers have been interested in making things smaller for hundreds of years, but it was American physicist Richard Feynman (1918–1988) who got people seriously thinking about nanoscale technology. In 1959, he gave a lecture called There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom, which observed that although we probably can’t build structures smaller than atoms, atoms are so much smaller than the macroscopic world that working directly with atoms would open up remarkable possibilities. Feynman realized that the entire text of the Encyclopedia Britannica could be shrunk 25,000 times to fit on the head of a pin, and this would still be much larger than the smallest size possible. With future technology, he said, it would be possible to shrink all the books ever written onto a piece of dust almost invisible to the naked eye.

Over the next few decades, researchers started thinking more about how to make Feynman’s vision a reality. In a 1974 paper, Japanese scientist Norio Taniguchi coined the term “nanotechnology,” and by the 1980s, innovators all over the world were studying how to manipulate matter at this tiniest of scales. Yet miniaturization is a gradual process. Each new advance makes further advances possible.

In 1986 Eric Drexler did a doctoral dissertation at MIT under the guidance of Marvin Minsky, who was also my mentor. The dissertation was published as a book Engines of Creation, which provided a detailed roadmap for doing atomically precise manufacturing, that is, creating macro objects by placing each atom exactly where you want it. He showed how this technology could create computers trillions of times more powerful than conventional approaches, cure all disease, and solve many other types of problems.

Since the 2000, nanoscale technology has allowed the transistors in commercial use to shrink from 180 nanometers to 10 nanometers. As a result, computers have become thousands of times more powerful. Other key advances have happened in materials science, which studies how to design and produce new materials with useful properties. For example, new coatings just a few molecules thick can protect computer displays while allowing high image quality. Other coatings can make fabric water repellent and resistant to stains. Some plastics now have nanoscale tubes of carbon mixed in, allowing for greater strength and lighter weight, for objects like motorcycle helmets and body armor for soldiers. Nanomaterials can be used to make filters that efficiently remove toxic particles from the air we breathe, and are beginning to be used for stopping pollution from getting into the atmosphere in the first place.

One of the most exciting nanotechnology innovations in materials science is a substance called graphene, which is a type of carbon. Carbon comes in many forms—depending on how the atoms are arranged, it can be coal burned for heat, be formed as graphite for pencils, or diamonds in jewelry. In 2004, University of Manchester scientists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov accidentally discovered graphene by putting Scotch tape on pieces of graphite and lifting away a layer just a single atom thick. In this form, a layer of carbon atoms are arranged in a hexagonal lattice, which is a two-dimensional honeycomb shape. Graphene has many useful properties—it is an excellent conductor of electricity and heat, and is almost transparent to the naked eye. It is 100–300 times stronger than steel, harder than diamond, and yet unbelievably light and flexible. According to the explanation of the scientific work for which Geim and Novoselov were awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics, a hammock made from one square meter of graphene could support the weight of a cat, but would weigh only as much as one of a cat’s whiskers.

The hexagonal lattice structure of graphene

The hexagonal lattice structure of graphene. Each of the balls in the model represents a carbon atom, and the rods represent the bonds between the atoms. In this structure, each atom is bonded to three others

Graphene is closely related to carbon nanotubes, which are hollow nanoscale tubes made of the same lattice that graphene has. Together, these two materials will be very important to the next stage of nanotechnology development. Current applications of these materials have focused on low-precision uses. For example, when carbon nanotubes are mixed into plastics to make them stronger, the nanotubes don’t have to be in an exact shape or orientation. But in the future, graphene and carbon nanotubes will be used for high-precision nano-engineering. This means building tiny machines, or parts of machines, atom by atom. The processes to do this may be very much like the 3D printing that is already used for many macroscopic objects.

Nano racing car  printed at the Vienna University of Technology

A racing car with a length of approx. 285 μm printed at the Vienna University of Technology

Building machines at the atomic scale has many challenges. For example, such a machine will need a source of power so it can send signals to computers that control it. Solutions include tiny batteries, machines designed to produce electricity from sunlight, and harnessing energy inside the human body from adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the energy currency in biological systems.

Another challenge is how nanoscale machines will move. Tiny macroscopic robots could move by flapping wings like an insect, but once you get down to the atomic scale, air behaves more like a fluid. Thus nanomachines might be able to ambulate by rotating flagella—long, flexible tails that many bacteria have.

Once it is possible to build nanoscale robots that can obtain the energy they need, move around, manipulate their environments, and be controlled wirelessly by computers, a very extensive range of possibilities will open up. One of the most important areas for this is in medicine. Much of the disease and death that affects human lives happens because although we know the cause, we don’t have the technology to fix the problem precisely enough. For example, we know how cancer cells grow and damage the body, and we’ve developed drugs that can kill those cells. The problem is that those drugs also kill important healthy cells, and we don’t yet have a mechanism that can deliver the drug to only the cancer cells. Similarly, we don’t have the technology to remove the plaques that cause Alzheimer’s disease while keeping healthy neurons safe, or to selectively remove atherosclerotic plaque in the arteries.

In the future, nanotechnology in medicine will allow us to, in Richard Feynman’s words, “swallow the surgeon.” When something is damaged in our bodies, we can ingest nanoscale robots (“nanobots”) that travel to the affected area and repair the problem molecule by molecule. Smart drugs will contain molecules that can travel to cancers and kill only the malignant cells while sparing all the healthy tissue around them.

Medical nanorobots will augment our immune system, which evolved tens of thousands of years ago when it was not in the interest of the human species for us to live beyond around 25, so evolution did not select for combating diseases that tend to occur later in life. Medical nanorobots constructed atom by atom will be able to destroy all pathogens, including all viruses, bacteria, prions, cancer cells, and cancer stem cells. They will be able to repair organs and tissues at the molecular level. They will also monitor the bloodstream for optimal levels of nutrients, hormones, and toxins and thereby augment, or even replace, the function of most organs.

Scenarios to use atomically precise manufacturing to create medical nanorobots that can overcome essentially all disease and aging processes are described in detail in a two volume series of books by Robert A. Freitas called Nanomedicine, Volume I: Basic Capabilities, and Nanomedicine, Volume IIA: Biocompatibility.

But nanomedicine isn’t just about fighting disease. It can also be used to augment our natural biology to make us stronger and smarter. Prosthetic legs will be faster than normal legs, and artificial eyes will see more sharply than normal ones.

I estimate that around the 2030s, nanobots will be able to enter our brains and connect us directly to the Cloud (computation accessible through wireless communication). This will allow us to access the Internet directly from our brains, and also access much greater information storage and computing power than our brains currently have available. We each have about 300 million pattern recognition modules in our neocortex (with each module containing about 100 neurons), which are organized in an elaborate hierarchy, as I explain in my 2012 book How to Create a Mind. We are able to think more complex and abstract thoughts than rodents or tigers because our brains have more levels of pattern recognition models. So imagine what will be possible for human consciousness when our brains can wirelessly access not just 300 million hierarchical modules, but billions, or even trillions!

Another exciting application of nanotechnology is in energy. For the last several decades, photovoltaic cells have been getting steadily more efficient in generating electricity from sunlight as we have increasingly incorporated nanotechnology techniques. Under laboratory conditions, photovoltaic cells in 1954 could convert to electricity only 6 percent of the energy in the sunlight that landed on them. By 2015, that was up to 44 percent, while at the same being dramatically less expensive. As a result the number of watts of solar energy produced worldwide has been doubling every two years and as of 2016 was over two percent of the world’s energy which is only six doublings from 100 percent. We have 10,000 times more free energy hitting the Earth from the sun than we need to meet all of our energy needs.

Like all technologies, nanotechnology also presents potential risks. Tiny machines that can be programmed and controlled could also be hacked and used for destructive purposes. Criminals could use robots smaller than a speck of dust to enter your home and spy on you. Governments—either your own, or from a foreign country—could use nanobots for intrusive surveillance. Hostile nations or terrorists could create weapons deadlier than anything found in nature. An existential risk could be nanorobots that can self-replicate in a natural environment. Similar to the risks from biotechnology, the key dangers from nanotechnology have to do with uncontrolled replication. Ethical and safety standards to avoid these dangers have already been formulated based on the successful ethical standards created forty years ago for biotechnology called the Asilomar Guidelines.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, when Danielle is president of China at age fifteen, she jump-starts economic reforms by encouraging the use of nano-based photovoltaic power across the country. Later, during the second half of her term as president of the United States, she gets Israel to agree to her nuclear disarmament plan by providing them with an alternative weapon system that uses artificial intelligence and nanotechnology.

See entries for Three-dimensional printing, Atherosclerosis, Artificial Intelligence, Neocortex, Plasticity of the neocortexFruit of Knowledge, and Nano-based solar energy production.

How You Can Be a Danielle and become a physicist.


275. Cold War

The Cold War was the conflict between democratic capitalist countries and totalitarian communist countries that lasted from about 1945 to 1991, but never erupted into violent war (except for proxy wars, see below). On one side were the United States and key allies like Britain and France, which formed an alliance called NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). On the other side were the Soviet Union and its allies in the Warsaw Pact, as well as the People’s Republic of China and several other countries. It is referred to as a “cold” war because the conflict was mainly about rival military buildups, spying, and diplomacy, rather than direct fighting. Throughout the Cold War, both sides were trying to weaken each other without escalating the conflict into a “hot” war. This was especially important because both sides had thousands of nuclear weapons, and according to the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction, one side using them would provoke massive retaliation that could destroy human civilization. The Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, leaving the United States as the world’s only superpower until China started becoming a superpower in the 2010s.

The origins of the Cold War lie in the ideas of communist philosophy. The Communist Manifesto, an 1848 text by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, famously said: “Workers of the world, unite!” Marx and Engels believed that social class was a much more important division between people than nationality or ethnicity. They hoped that the lower social classes all over the globe would rise up together in revolutions and overthrow the system of separate sovereign nations. Communist ideas were not put into practice until 1917, when the Russian Revolution forced Tsar Nicholas II from power. In place of the old monarchy, the revolutionaries created the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR, or Soviet Union). Led by Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924) and later Joseph Stalin (1878–1953), the Soviet Union did not see itself as just a Russian nation. Instead, it saw itself as the starting point of a global communist revolution. The Soviet government sent out spies and political agents to spread communism to foreign countries, and supported efforts by foreign communists, such as the Communist Party of China during the 1930s, to take power by force.

When World War II started in 1939, Stalin had signed a nonaggression pact with German dictator Adolf Hitler (1889–1945). German and Soviet troops were unofficial allies, and invaded Poland at the same time from the west and east, respectively. In 1941, though, Hitler launched an enormous surprise invasion of the Soviet Union. The next year, American and British forces went on the offensive, gradually pushing the Germans out of the territories they had conquered. The western Allies did not like communism, but they cooperated with Stalin on the theory that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

By 1945, Allied armies were driving deep into Germany from the west, while the Soviets were doing the same from the east. The Allied and Soviet leaders met at the Yalta Conference to decide what to do after Germany’s final defeat. The Allies knew that Soviet ideology called for spreading communism throughout the world, so they were afraid Stalin would keep control of the territory in Eastern Europe he had liberated from the Germans. Stalin knew that the Allies were tired of war and didn’t want to fight the Soviets if they could avoid it. So both sides compromised, with the Soviets getting to keep control over some occupied lands, but also promising to allow free elections in Poland. Germany was divided into four parts, and the Americans, British, French, and Soviets each got a zone to run. Likewise, Berlin was divided into occupation zones, even though the German capital was deep inside the Soviet zone.

Allied and Soviet leaders at the Yalta conference in 1945

Allied and Soviet leaders at the Yalta conference in 1945. This conference established the plan for partitioning Germany after the war. Seated (from left to right) are Winston Churchill of the UK, Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the USA, and Joseph Stalin of the USSR

After the war ended, there were a few years of relatively good relations between the Allies and the Soviets. But in 1948, the Soviets started a blockade of the Allied zones of Berlin, not letting supplies through from Allied-run West Germany. Stalin believed this would force the Allies to give in to his demands. Soviet propaganda told Germans in democratic West Berlin that the Allies were about to pull out of their occupation zones and turn the whole city over to the communists. Allied leaders considered sending through a military force to escort supplies to Berlin, but they realized that this would risk starting a war. Instead, the Allies carried out one of the greatest logistical achievements in history. They collected all the supplies the city needed—food, fuel, medicine, and more—and flew them into Berlin on transport aircraft. The Soviets knew they couldn’t justify shooting down unarmed transports, so they let the supplies through. Despite Soviet harassment, the planes kept coming day after day. Ultimately, the Berlin Airlift brought over 2.3 million tons of supplies into the city over more than a year. Seeing that their intimidation had failed, the Soviets lifted the blockade.

In 1949, the Cold War entered a new phase when the Soviets tested their first nuclear bomb. Both sides rapidly stockpiled these weapons, and soon had hundreds, and then thousands of them. At first, they had to be carried by heavy bomber aircraft, but over the next decade, both sides developed missiles capable of crossing the distance between the Soviet Union and America in about half an hour. This led to the development of the Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine. According to MAD, if tensions between the two countries were rising, both sides would have an incentive to use nuclear weapons against the other to destroy its weapons and prevent it from using them first. The solution was to make it clear to each other that if one side launched nuclear weapons, the other would launch a massive retaliation. The invention of submarines capable of launching nuclear missiles meant that even if a surprise attack destroyed one side’s missile silos, submarines hidden underwater could fire retaliatory missiles. This created a relatively stable situation, because both sides knew that using nuclear weapons would be suicidal.

Rifle being fired during the Korean War

A M-20 75 mm recoilless rifle being fired during the Korean War. The war turned into a stalemate because America was worried about the risks of escalation

Although MAD meant that a direct war between the USSR and United States would be disastrous, both sides tried to weaken the other through “proxy wars.” Proxy wars are conflicts where a powerful nation supports a smaller nation that is fighting against another powerful nation (or its smaller ally). In 1950, for example, the Soviet-backed communist government in North Korea invaded South Korea. The United States led a multinational United Nations army to defend the South Koreans. The war dragged on for three years, and although the Americans successfully drove the North Koreans out of the south, they weren’t able to take over the north either. Just when it was looking like the UN force would get victory, the People’s Liberation Army of China entered the war on the side of the North Koreans. The Chinese had enormous numbers of troops, and American leaders realized that would need to use nuclear weapons to win. Rather than risk drawing the Soviets into a nuclear war, they negotiated a cease-fire agreement that divided the Korean peninsula between a communist north and capitalist south.

Map of the the Iron Curtain

The Iron Curtain (in black), prevented citizens in communist countries (in red) from traveling freely or escaping persecution. Countries in dark blue were democratic and allied with the United States, while countries in light blue were neutral, and countries in pink were communist but had some independence from the USSR

In 1961, the Soviets again tried to push NATO forces out of West Berlin. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971) issued an ultimatum, demanding that US, British, and French troops withdraw from the city. The Allies refused. In response, the Soviets rapidly built a wall around the Allied sectors of the city, which came to be known as the Berlin Wall. Soviet tanks and American tanks confronted each other in a tense standoff for many hours, but eventually negotiations led to a compromise. The Soviets wouldn’t keep trying to drive out the Allied armies, but in return, the Allies would accept the presence of the Wall dividing Berlin.

The Berlin Wall became infamous around the world because it prevented citizens of communist East Germany from fleeing to West Berlin and seeking greater freedom there. The Wall divided families, and permanently changed the landscape of the city. It was a physical embodiment of what British statesman Winston Churchill (1874–1965) had in 1946 called the “Iron Curtain” across Europe. The Iron Curtain was the border between democratic countries to the west and communist countries to the east, running from the West Germany-East Germany border on the Baltic Sea all the way down to the Italy-Yugoslavia border on the Mediterranean. The communist countries on the eastern side of the Iron Curtain had been liberated from the Nazis by Soviet troops, and instead of allowing free and fair elections, the Soviets had installed communist governments by force.

In 1962, American spy planes flying over communist-controlled Cuba found nuclear-armed missiles hidden there. The Soviets had made a secret deal with their Cuban allies to put missiles on the island, which is only about 90 miles off the US state of Florida. Advisors to President John F. Kennedy (1917–1963) warned him that the missiles were so close that they could strike key targets in the United States within just several minutes of being launched. This destabilized Mutually Assured Destruction, because it might allow the Soviets to destroy the US military leadership and disrupt American efforts to retaliate.

So Kennedy considered either invading Cuba or bombing the missile launch sites, but decided this would probably lead to nuclear war with the Soviets. Instead, he ordered the US Navy to set up a blockade around Cuba and stop any Soviet ships bringing more missiles to the island. Kennedy went on television and explained this to the American people, saying that he hoped to avoid war. For almost two weeks in October 1962, there was a tense standoff. The world was on the brink of nuclear war. But thanks to negotiation between Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev, the USSR agreed to remove the missiles from Cuba in return for America removing missiles it had secretly installed in Turkey. This event, known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, was probably the closest the Cold War came to becoming a full-blown hot war.

In the mid-1960s, another proxy war started. The former French colony of Vietnam had split into a communist-backed north, and a western- (democratic, capitalist) backed south. The United States sent hundreds of thousands of troops to help the South Vietnamese, and the Soviets provided support to North Vietnam. American involvement lasted from 1961 to 1973, and cost almost 60,000 US soldiers dead or missing. Much like in the Korean War, American leaders were in a difficult position. The North Vietnamese were a very tough enemy, so US generals wanted to use more force against them. But at the same time, they were afraid that using too much force could draw the Soviets into the conflict directly and lead to nuclear war. So after years of stalemate, US forces withdrew, and the communist North took over the whole country.

American troops using helicopters during the Vietnam War

American troops made extensive use of helicopters for transportation during the Vietnam War, due to Vietnam’s dense jungle and rough terrain

Just four years later, the same situation played out in reverse with the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The country sits at the crossroads of Central Asia, and the USSR hoped to improve their strategic position by taking over their southern neighbor. They sent troops to support Afghanistan’s communist revolution. Opposing the communists was a group of Islamic resistance fighters known as the Mujahedeen. The CIA and other US intelligence agencies provided support to the Mujahedeen so they could weaken the Soviets without risking a direct conflict. After ten years of bloody fighting and high casualties, the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan. Unfortunately, many of the Mujahedeen followed an extremist interpretation of Sunni Islam and later joined terrorist groups opposed to the United States, such as Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network.

By the 1980s, the Soviets were under pressure on many different fronts. In addition to the war in Afghanistan, they were in a renewed arms race with the United States. President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) proposed a program of space-based lasers and anti-missile missiles to shoot down any nuclear-armed missiles that might threaten the United States. Known as Star Wars, after the famous movie series, the program turned out not to be technically feasible. But between the threat of Star Wars and an expansion of America’s non-nuclear military forces, the Soviets felt pressure to spend a large fraction of their GDP to keep up, harming their economy and making citizens disaffected. Also, the populations of Eastern European countries under Soviet dominance began demanding greater freedoms. For example, the Solidarność (Solidarity) movement in Poland used massive labor strikes and civil disobedience to defy the Soviet authorities. This eventually forced them to allow free elections.

Meanwhile, the United States and its culture were putting pressure on the Soviet Union, because Soviet citizens were seeing glimpses of the wealth and modern technologies that democracy and capitalism had made possible in America. Soviet propaganda tried to suppress this information, but with improved communication technologies this effort was not successful. When people in the USSR looked around at their own country, they saw outdated technology, shortages of important goods, and grocery stores with empty shelves. British and American music made life in the West seem prosperous and glamorous by comparison. In 1987, President Reagan came to Berlin and issued a direct public challenge to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to stop repressing the people who lived under communism. He famously said: “If you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization, come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

In 1989, partly inspired by Reagan, there were widespread protests in communist East Germany, calling for more freedom and the right to go to democratic West Germany. These demonstrations put pressure on the East German government, which was ambivalent on how to respond. On November 9, huge crowds gathered at the Berlin Wall, demanding that the border guards allow them to cross into West Berlin immediately. The East German government wasn’t willing to massacre their own citizens, so without waiting for Soviet approval, they opened the crossing points in the Wall and allowed people to pass through freely.

West German citizens gather at a newly created opening in the Berlin Wall

West German citizens gather at a newly created opening in the Berlin Wall at Potsdamer Platz in November 1989. The portions still standing are full of graffiti that express decades of resentment against the Wall and what it represented

The Berlin Wall was soon permanently opened, and was then dismantled. Soviet power in Eastern Europe collapsed, and in 1991 the USSR was formally dissolved. Gorbachev handed over power to Boris Yeltsin, who became the first president of Russia, and soon held democratic elections. Countries that had previously been under Soviet rule had their own elections, with mixed results. Some, like Estonia and Poland, quickly formed stable democratic governments and became relatively prosperous. Others, like Belarus, Uzbekistan, and Romania, have remained relatively poor, unfree, unstable, or all three. Overall, though, the world rejoiced to see the Cold War come to an end. Some even called it the “end of history” and predicted a future of world peace and prosperity for all. As it turned out, other issues, such as the rise of terrorism, came to the fore, including the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The nuclear arsenals of the United States and the Soviet Union remain in place, although the nuclear weapons of the former Soviet Union are now controlled by Russia.

Although the Cold War is over, communism has not been totally defeated. The People’s Republic of China remains formally communist, even though it has been steadily incorporating more and more capitalism since the reforms of Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997) during the 1980s. The government in Beijing still strictly limits political freedoms, and restricts citizens’ access to the Internet, with major sites such as Google, Wikipedia, and Facebook blocked. There is also a “mini-Cold War” between communist mainland China, and the democratic Republic of China based in Taiwan. The communists still see Taiwan as a part of their country, while the republicans in Taiwan see themselves as the rightful government of the mainland. Tensions between the two countries, separated only by the narrow Strait of Taiwan, have fluctuated over the years, with no permanent solution in sight.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, when Danielle is president of the United States at ages nineteen and twenty, she pushes hard for a worldwide elimination of nuclear weapons. She says that even though people avoid talking about the threat of annihilation by nuclear weapons since the end of the Cold War, they remain a serious threat. She manages to get agreement from everyone except the US Congress, which votes against her proposal. She then successfully renegotiates the deal, and reduces global nuclear weapon stockpiles by 30 percent, which she finds unsatisfactory.

See entries for Totalitarian, Stalin, Chinese Communist Party, Hitler, Winston Churchill, Thermonuclear weaponsMutually assured destructionPeople’s Liberation Army, the TalibanOsama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, Sunni, Sunni terrorist groups, President Reagan, Star Wars, Anti-missile missiles, Deng Xiaoping, and Kuomintang.


276. Thermonuclear weapons

Thermonuclear weapons are destructive devices that use the energy contained inside atoms to produce devastating explosions. Technically, “thermonuclear” refers to a subset of these weapons that get most of their energy from fusing hydrogen atoms together instead of splitting uranium or plutonium atoms apart. Also called hydrogen bombs, they contain a fission bomb (based on splitting either uranium or plutonium atoms) to create the pressure to force the hydrogen atoms to fuse.

After the first nuclear weapons were developed by the United States in 1945, the technology spread to other major countries around the world. Within two decades, there were tens of thousands of nuclear weapons in the world, each powerful enough to destroy a city. The main political struggle during the second half of the twentieth century was the Cold War, where the US and the Soviet Union tried to outcompete each other without triggering a full-blown war and the use of thermonuclear weapons. Since the end of the Cold War, one of the most urgent international challenges has been preventing nuclear weapons from being used due to an accident, a misunderstanding, a computer hack, or falling into the hands of terrorists.

Atom of radioactive Uranium-235, with protons and neutrons in the nucleus at the center, surrounded by electrons

An atom of radioactive Uranium-235, with protons and neutrons in the nucleus at the center, surrounded by electrons. Although diagrams often show electrons as particles orbiting the nucleus so they are easier to visualize, electrons do not have definitely fixed positions, but are better explained in terms of a cloud of probabilities

The idea for nuclear weapons was developed gradually as scientists in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century began to understand how atoms work. In short, atoms are made of positively charged protons, neutrally charged neutrons, and negatively charged electrons. The electrons exist in a sort of cloud around the very tiny nucleus, which contains the protons and neutrons. Much like how the positively charged sides of magnets repel each other, the protons in an atom’s nucleus all try to repel each other due to electromagnetic force. They would fly apart if they weren’t held together by the nuclear strong force, which holds the protons together, but which only works at extremely short distances.

For very heavy elements, though, there are so many protons that the nucleus is almost too large for the nuclear strong force to hold it together. These atoms are unstable, and “leak” energy in the form of radiation. In 1896, the French physicist Henri Becquerel discovered this leakiness in uranium. Two years later, the groundbreaking female scientist Marie Curie (1867–1934), along with her husband Pierre, termed this phenomenon “radioactivity.”

It soon became clear that radioactive elements had a lot of energy stored inside them, and people naturally started thinking about how to use this property in weapons. In 1914, famed science fiction author H.G. Wells wrote The World Set Free, which described “atomic bombs” that burned continually with a fierce fire. In the 1920s, future British prime minister Winston Churchill wrote an eerie prediction in his book The World Crisis: “May there not be methods of using explosive energy incomparably more intense than anything heretofore discovered? Might not a bomb no bigger than an orange be found to possess a secret power … the force of a thousand tons of cordite and blast a township at a stroke?”

For the next decade, this idea stayed in the realm of science fiction. But in 1933, Hungarian physicist Leó Szilárd figured out that radioactive elements could, under the right conditions, undergo a chain reaction. If one atom releases a neutron that hits another atom and knocks out more neutrons, this process could spread throughout a piece of radioactive material and release huge amounts of energy. He realized that this could allow construction of bombs thousands of times more powerful than anything yet in existence.

In the 1930s, many of the top scientists studying nuclear physics were German Jews. Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), Germany’s ruthless dictator, passed a series of laws persecuting Jews and making it hard for them to find jobs. As a result, many of the world’s top physicists fled Germany and settled in the United States or Great Britain. When World War II started in 1939, some of them realized that the non-Jewish scientists who stayed in Germany would probably work to build a nuclear bomb. So Léo Szilárd and Nobel Prize winner Albert Einstein (1879–1955) sent a letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, warning him of the military potential of a uranium bomb.

Roosevelt recognized the importance of building such a weapon before the Germans did, so he authorized a secret scientific project to figure out how. By 1942, it was called the Manhattan Project, and had thousands of the best scientists in the country working with an unrestricted budget. The challenge was extremely difficult. They were starting with only a set of mathematical calculations that said a nuclear bomb was theoretically possible—and they had to figure out all the intermediate steps needed to actually construct one.

The project’s leaders, Major General Leslie Groves and physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, realized that they were working under intense time pressure trying to beat the Germans to a bomb, and the scientists disagreed over the best fuel to use for the bomb. So Groves and Oppenheimer decided to have two teams working on both options at the same time.

One option was a form of uranium called the U-235 isotope. The problem with this was that most uranium consists of the U-238 isotope, and usually no more than a few percent of its atoms are U-235. Because they are two forms of the same element, though, no ordinary chemical reaction can be used to separate out the U-235. So Manhattan Project scientists had to invent a complicated new separation method, based on the fact that U-235 atoms have a lower mass and therefore pass more easily through membranes used as filters. The other option was to use the plutonium isotope Pu-239. Plutonium does not exist in nature, so physicists would have to bombard U-238 with neutrons. Some of these neutrons are “captured” by uranium atoms, which make a series of transformations and ultimately become Pu-239. This process was also very slow and complicated.

The design for the bomb itself used a principle called “critical mass.” Small pieces of radioactive material (whether U-235 or Pu-239) can’t sustain chain reactions because most of the neutrons escape from the material before they can hit other atoms and break them apart, in what’s called nuclear fission. But with a large enough piece of radioactive material, the neutrons keep bouncing around, triggering more and more fission reactions until the full energy is released. The bomb would need separate pieces of radioactive material, each smaller than a critical mass so they wouldn’t start a chain reaction prematurely. When it was time for the bomb to go off, normal high explosives in the device would detonate, shoving the pieces into each other at high speed. This would set off a runaway fission reaction and the enormous explosion of a nuclear bomb. In an amazing feat of innovation and engineering, the first working atomic bomb was tested on July 16, 1945 at Alamogordo, New Mexico. It had the power of about 20,000 tons of high explosives.

The following month, the United States decided to use this devastating new weapon against Imperial Japan. More than 150,000 Americans had been killed fighting in the Pacific over three years, including over 20,000 in the brutal battle to capture the tiny island of Okinawa. Japan’s four main islands were over six hundred times larger than Okinawa, and the US military estimated that the invasion of Japan might cost half a million more American lives. In addition, because Japanese culture considered surrender to be dishonorable, millions more Japanese soldiers and civilians likely would have died during the invasion. President Harry Truman (1884–1972) hoped that dropping a nuclear bomb might shock the Japanese leaders into surrendering without the need for an invasion. It took two bombs—a uranium bomb called “Little Boy” destroyed Hiroshima on August 6, and a plutonium bomb called “Fat Man” devastated Nagasaki on August 9—but Japan did surrender as a result. Over 200,000 people died as a result of the explosions or radiation sickness, most of them civilians.

The aftermath of the explosion in Hiroshima

The aftermath of the “Little Boy” explosion in Hiroshima. The blast had the power of 15,000 tons of high explosives (compared to 21,000 tons for “Fat Man”), and completely devastated the city

After World War II ended, the Cold War began. The communist Soviet Union was struggling with America and its allies for influence over Europe and the rest of the world—but both sides hoped to avoid an actual war. Nuclear weapons gave the Americans a key advantage in the early stages of the Cold War, so the Soviet Union raced to build a nuclear bomb of its own. They were helped by spies working on the Manhattan Project, and the Soviets tested their first bomb, called Joe-1, in 1949. This led to an arms race between the Americans and the Soviets, as both sides tried to stockpile as many nuclear bombs as possible. This made the Cold War extremely dangerous. If war broke out, bombers from both sides could drop nuclear weapons on each other’s cities, killing millions of people in a single day.

This fact had a major impact on the Cold War, because the Americans and Soviets both wanted to avoid risking nuclear war. As a result, for example, the Americans settled for a stalemate during the Korean War because achieving victory would have required using nuclear weapons against the North Koreans, who were allies of the Soviet Union.

In 1952, the United States developed the first hydrogen bomb, or true thermonuclear bomb, designed by physicists Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam. Unlike the earlier uranium and plutonium bombs that used nuclear fission, the new bombs got much of their energy from fusing together atoms of deuterium, which is a form of hydrogen. The bombs contained a normal fission bomb inside them, and used the enormous heat (thermo- is the Greek prefix meaning heat) and radiation from that explosion to compress the deuterium fuel at extreme pressure. When this happens, the deuterium atoms get so close together that they start merging into helium atoms in nuclear fusion reactions, which release enormous amounts of energy. A year after the first American thermonuclear test, the Soviets conducted one of their own.

Mushroom cloud from “Ivy Mike”

Mushroom cloud from “Ivy Mike” (yield 10.4 mt), an atmospheric nuclear test conducted by the US at Enewetak Atoll on November 1, 1952. It was the world’s first successful hydrogen bomb

Thermonuclear weapons have another major difference from fission-based weapons. Fission bombs have a cap on how powerful they can be, because there is a practical limit on how many subcritical mass pieces of uranium or plutonium can be forced together in the tiny fractions of a second it takes to create the explosion. This means that fission bombs can’t be more than about 25 times as powerful as the one dropped on Nagasaki. By contrast, thermonuclear weapons can be made as large as the designers want, by just adding more “stages,” which are like bombs-within-bombs. After the first fission explosion ignites a fusion explosion, this explosion can be used to trigger fusion in an even larger amount of hydrogen-based fuel. By the 1960s, both the Soviet and American arsenals were full of nuclear weapons 60 times more powerful than the Nagasaki bomb, with tests conducted on even larger designs. In 1961, for example, the Soviets tested a monster-size weapon called Tsar Bomba. It was as powerful as over 50 million tons of high explosives, which is 2,500 times the power of the Nagasaki bomb.

design of a true thermonuclear weapon, also known as a hydrogen bomb

The basic design of a true thermonuclear weapon, also known as a hydrogen bomb

By the 1960s, both sides had also expanded beyond nuclear weapons that had to be delivered by bomber aircraft. They had missiles that could be launched from underground silos on land, or from submarines hidden deep underwater. Instead of taking several hours to reach their targets, these missiles could strike almost anywhere in the world within 30 minutes of being launched. This led to the creation of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction), a strategy where both sides let each other know that they would launch a devastating retaliatory strike if the other launched its missiles. This would make it suicidal for either side to use nuclear weapons, and hopefully prevent their use.

During the 1970s, missile technology continued to advance. Single missiles were often equipped to carry up to 14 warheads, which would be carried up into orbit, and then steered down independently toward different targets. Missiles also came with decoys and other technologies to make it hard for defensive missiles to find and destroy the incoming warheads. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan (1911–2004) proposed creating a missile defense system in outer space that came to be known as Star Wars. This briefly started a new arms race, as the Soviets tried to build more missiles in response, but their economy couldn’t support a massive buildup, and they agreed with Reagan on a massive reduction in both countries’ nuclear arsenals. At that time, there were over 60,000 nuclear weapons in the world. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the Cold War ended, and there was much less need for thermonuclear weapons. Since then, both the Russians and Americans have continued to reduce their numbers of nuclear weapons.

The fireball from “Castle Romeo,” the first American test of a thermonuclear weapon

The fireball from “Castle Romeo,” the first American test of a thermonuclear weapon small enough to be carried on a bomber aircraft, in 1954. This is one of the most well-known images of a nuclear explosion, and is often used as a symbol for doomsday or a nuclear disaster in general

In addition to the United States and Soviet Union, several other countries have developed nuclear weapons of their own. The United Kingdom did in 1952, followed by France in 1960, the People’s Republic of China in 1964, India in 1974, South Africa in 1982, Pakistan in 1998, and North Korea in 2006. Experts widely agree that Israel had nuclear weapons by some time in the 1970s, but it has never publicly acknowledged them. Some of these tests were thermonuclear “hydrogen bombs” while others were fission bombs like those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With the exception of South Africa, which gave up its nuclear weapons during the 1990s, all the countries that have built nuclear weapons still have them—but none have stockpiles of more than a few hundred. In total, including American and Russian arsenals, there are now probably fewer than 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world combined.

Still, 15,000 warheads is enough to kill billions of people and destroy human civilization, or even human life itself. Since 1968, 191 countries have followed the requirements of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). This treaty, which is signed by the United States and Russia, aims to prevent the further spread of nuclear weapons and gradually reduce global stockpiles. There are three main reasons to do this. One is that if dictators get control of nuclear weapons, they may threaten the rest of the world, or even use them in a war. The second reason is that even responsible nations could launch their nuclear weapons without meaning to. This could be because a sensor malfunction makes them think that another nation has already launched missiles at them, or due to a cyber attack hacking into the launching system. The third reason for nuclear disarmament is that these weapons could be stolen by terrorists and used in an horrific attack.

In the future, the main challenge of disarmament will be how rival nations can build enough trust with each other to be willing to gradually take their nuclear weapons off high alert and then deactivate them. The mathematical field of game theory helps explain the actions of nations trying to figure out how to cooperate when they don’t trust each other.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, at age four, Danielle starts working out the basics of nuclear physics with her teacher Dr. Kendall. She then writes a “What If?” story about what might have happened if the United States had not used nuclear weapons against Imperial Japan in 1945. When she becomes US president, Danielle gives an ultimatum to Pakistan to let American special operations forces target al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters within its borders, otherwise she will neutralize Pakistani nuclear weapons through a secret method she does not explain to them. Danielle also seeks total worldwide nuclear disarmament, but due to resistance in the US Congress, she has to settle for a deal that achieves only a 30 percent reduction in global stockpiles.

See entries for Cold War, Winston ChurchillHitler, Holocaust, Hitler’s “Final Solution”Atomic bombs exploded in Japan, Mutually assured destruction, Hair trigger, Pakistani nuclear weapons, President Reagan, Star Wars, Anti-missile missiles, Special Operations forces, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban.

How You Can Be a Danielle and promote nuclear disarmament.


277. Hair trigger

The phrase “hair trigger” refers to a mechanism or reaction that can be initiated with very slight effort. This comes from gun terminology, where triggers can be adjusted with different weights. When a trigger has a high weight, the gun will not fire until a lot of pressure has been applied to the trigger. This makes the gun harder to shoot, but also reduces the chances of shooting it accidentally. On the other hand, when a trigger has a light weight, someone can fire with only slight pressure from their finger. The gun is therefore easier to shoot, but there is an increased risk of an accident. For example, if someone has their finger on a very lightweight trigger, a sudden motion like a sneeze or cough could make it fire by mistake. The lightest weight triggers are known as hair triggers, because historically some guns used a mechanism with two triggers—when the first one was pulled, it made the second trigger so sensitive that it would fire the gun with metaphorically (but not actually) only the weight of a single hair.

The idea of a hair trigger is now usually used metaphorically. Someone who is quick to anger might be said to have a hair-trigger temper. Or a burglar alarm set to go off if someone slightly jiggles a doorknob could be described as having a hair trigger. Some explosives, like nitroglycerin, are referred to as having a hair trigger, because they can detonate violently if a sudden slight force is applied to them. For this reason, they have to be stored and transported very carefully to prevent an accidental explosion.

In international relations, some governments have plans in place to use military force immediately when some triggering condition is met. For example, the NATO alliance commits each member country to respond to an attack on any member as an attack on all members. Similarly, if a military aircraft from another country flies threateningly into restricted airspace near the White House, it would be quickly shot down.

The most famous and consequential hair trigger is the procedure for using nuclear weapons in several of the world’s nations. The two greatest nuclear powers, the United States and Russia, have many thousands of nuclear warheads in their arsenals, yet most of them are in storage. But each keeps about 900 warheads loaded into missiles and ready to launch with just a few minutes’ notice, known as prompt-launch. The motivation for this is that missiles launched in Russia can reach anywhere in the United States within about 30 minutes (and vice versa). Much of that time would be taken up by American satellites and radar systems first detecting a missile launch, then confirming that the missiles are headed for the US, and then informing the president and key national security officials.

If the president believes the report is accurate and decides to launch a strike, this would be communicated to military personnel in underground missile silos throughout the American Midwest. The president always travels with a set of codes that he or she would read to the personnel in the silos, which would confirm that the launch order is valid. The launch officers would then enter the targeting data into their computers according to the president’s instructions, telling the missiles where to go. Finally, two authorized personnel must simultaneously turn special keys near the silo, which actually starts the rocket motors and launches the missiles. This whole process takes so much time that the president would have only 10 minutes or so to decide whether to launch America’s missiles in retaliation before the incoming warheads destroy US missile bases.

As a result, the president would be under pressure to “use them or lose them,” because if enemy strikes destroyed many (or all) missile bases, there might not be enough surviving American warheads to ensure a devastating counterattack. Top experts worry that this extremely short time for making what would be the most significant decision in human history increases the risk of a catastrophic mistake.

One option for American and Russian leaders is to “launch on warning.” This means not waiting for enemy missiles to arrive before ordering a retaliatory strike, but instead to launch a retaliatory strike as soon as the incoming attack is confirmed to be on its way. But what if there is a mistake? There could be a malfunction in the launch-detection sensors. Or a computer virus might trick the early warning systems into thinking that a massive wave of missiles is on its way. Or a training exercise might be confused for the real thing. In any of these cases, a false alarm could convince the president that a nuclear attack is in progress, even though no attack is happening at all. If the president decides to order a nuclear counterattack as a result, this could result in the deaths of hundreds of millions of people for no reason. In addition, the actual attack launched mistakenly would itself prompt a counterattack.

There have been numerous false alarms in the past. For example, on November 9, 1979, a training program was accidentally loaded into a computer in the American missile-detection system. This created a false report that 2,200 Russian missiles had been launched toward the United States. The US National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, was awakened in the middle of the night to receive the warning, and he was about to notify President Jimmy Carter and advise a retaliatory strike when the error was discovered. If it had taken another seven minutes to discover the problem, World War III might have begun. Just four years later, on September 26, 1983, the Soviets suffered a close call of their own. A sensor malfunction caused the Soviet early warning satellites to report that an American missile had been launched toward Russia. Standard procedure said that the officer monitoring the system, Stanislav Petrov, should notify his superiors, who would initiate the process for a retaliatory strike. But Petrov suspected that if America launched a surprise nuclear attack, it would use hundreds of missiles at once, so correctly treated the incident as a false alarm. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the close call became publicly known, and Petrov was widely credited with saving the world.

Many scientists and nuclear security analysts believe that if America and Russia keep their missiles on hair trigger alert, someday one of these false alarms could result in an existentially catastrophic war. As a result, numerous Nobel Prize winners have joined the Union of Concerned Scientists and other groups in calling for all nations to take their nuclear weapons off prompt-launch status. Instead of the missiles being designed to be launched within several minutes of a world leader deciding to use them, storing the warheads separately from the missiles would introduce a delay of a few hours while the warheads are transported and loaded. The experts argue that this would reduce the incentive to launch surprise nuclear attacks aimed at destroying the other side’s missiles, and would eliminate the pressure on an American or Russian president to “use them or lose them” during the tense minutes when it is not clear whether reports of incoming missiles are a false alarm.

On the other hand, nuclear theorists who are responsible for assuring that a counter-response to a nuclear attack can be successfully launched are concerned that this proposal to take missiles off of prompt-launch status would allow the nuclear response forces to be destroyed and therefore unable to be used for a counterattack.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, during the second half of her term as president of the United States, twenty-one-year-old Danielle gives a speech to the American people, arguing that keeping nuclear weapons on a hair trigger alert is part of the “insane logic of mutually assured destruction,” and is irresponsibly dangerous. This idea, often abbreviated as MAD, was one of the central policies of the Americans and Soviets during the Cold War. The logic was that if each side knew that the other would order an overwhelming nuclear retaliation to a nuclear attack, both sides would realize that using nuclear weapons would be suicidal, and therefore decide not to use them.

Danielle argues that the current situation is far too perilous, and she undertakes a campaign to eliminate nuclear weapons from the world. After an extensive and strenuous campaign of diplomacy, she succeeds in obtaining an intricate web of agreements in which nations agree to get rid of their nuclear weapons if everyone else agrees. All countries agree to Danielle’s proposal except for one, the United States.

Unfortunately, Danielle isn’t able to convince Congress of this idea and both the House of Representatives and Senate vote against her nuclear weapons reduction proposal, causing her web of agreements to collapse. She goes back to the drawing board, and manages to negotiate a more modest international treaty reducing global stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

See entries for Cold War, Mutually assured destruction, Thermonuclear weapons, and Nobel Peace Prize.

How You Can Be a Danielle and promote nuclear disarmament.


278. Mutually assured destruction 

Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is a theory that guided American and Soviet strategy about nuclear weapons during the Cold War. Other nations that have acquired nuclear weapons since then have followed the theory as well. According to MAD, if a country came under attack by nuclear weapons, it would retaliate with a full-scale nuclear attack against its opponent. The theory relies on a paradox: by committing themselves to escalating nuclear conflict, nations actually prevent each other from using nuclear weapons at all.

For most of human history, nations have been locked in a fierce competition for land and wealth. If one country thought it could conquer its neighbor, it would often do so. In other cases, one country would invade another with a more limited goal, like stealing a resource-rich province, or weakening its opponent’s military so it wouldn’t pose a threat. Usually, the country with the larger and stronger military would win.

Yet as military technology became more sophisticated, and weapons become more destructive, people began to realize that war would be catastrophic for both the winners and losers of a war. In the nineteenth century, dynamite inventor Alfred Nobel said that his new explosive, “will sooner lead to peace than a thousand world conventions. As soon as men will find that in one instant, whole armies can be utterly destroyed, they surely will abide by golden peace.”

In the middle of the twentieth century, the invention of nuclear weapons made possible the destructive power that Nobel had imagined. A single nuclear weapon can destroy a city, and by the 1950s, both the United States and the Soviet Union each had thousands of them. This meant that both countries could essentially destroy the other many times over. Even though for a time the US had many more nuclear weapons than the Soviets, and then the Soviets had many more than the US, these advantages would not change the outcome of a war, if it happened. Leaders on both sides realized that if they used nuclear weapons, their opponents would retaliate and annihilate their country.

As a result of this shared knowledge, the incentives about war changed. For example, if the Soviets launched a nuclear attack, they could wipe out America’s cities, but their own cities would be inevitably destroyed. Thus, use of nuclear weapons would be suicidal. Hoping that self-interest would encourage both sides to avoid war, in the 1960s US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara formalized Mutually Assured Destruction as America’s policy, and the Soviets did the same.

Around this time, both sides developed submarine-launched missiles that carried nuclear weapons. Because these submarines could lurk hidden in the depths of the oceans, they could survive even a massive surprise first strike by the enemy. In addition, military planners created the “launch on warning” option. This said that if America or the Soviets detected that the other side had launched a nuclear attack, they would launch a full-scale nuclear retaliation before the incoming missiles had a chance to arrive. This would take away the incentive for one side to launch a first strike in hopes of knocking out their opponents’ missiles before they could retaliate.

Although the MAD policy helped promote stability during the Cold War, today’s world is very different. Now, the primary threat is not deliberate nuclear attack by a major power. Instead, it is that a mistake or malfunction might fool one side into thinking that it was under nuclear attack. Another possibility is a cyberattack by terrorists that would either simulate an incoming wave of missiles or actually launch a nuclear weapon. With about 2,000 weapons on so-called hair-trigger alert, and ready to launch within minutes of receiving an order, there would be little time for calm consideration. In those cases, MAD could cause a catastrophic and unnecessary escalation that would kill many millions, possibly billions, of people.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, as president of the United States, twenty-one-year-old Danielle seeks to bring an end to what she calls the “insane logic of mutually assured destruction.” Although Danielle doesn’t succeed in convincing Congress to take American nuclear weapons off high alert, she is able to negotiate an international treaty that reduces global nuclear stockpiles by 30 percent.

See entries for Cold War, Alfred Nobel, Hair trigger, and Thermonuclear weapons.

How You Can Be a Danielle and promote nuclear disarmament.


279. Pulitzer Prize

The Pulitzer Prize is widely considered the most prestigious award in American journalism. Each year, prizes are awarded to journalists and newspapers to recognize excellence in a wide range of categories such as Investigative Reporting, International Reporting, Local Reporting, Commentary, Editorial Cartooning, and Breaking News Photography. Pulitzer Prizes are also awarded in literary and artistic categories such as Fiction, Drama, History, Poetry, and Music. In total, awards are made in 21 categories.

The Pulitzer Prizes were established in the will of Joseph Pulitzer (1847–1911), one of the most successful newspaper owners of the late nineteenth century. Pulitzer was a Jewish Hungarian who immigrated to America and fought in the Civil War before becoming a journalist and publisher in St. Louis. With a combative style that appealed to ordinary people, his newspapers became extremely popular. In 1883, Pulitzer purchased the New York World, and transformed it into the largest newspaper in the country. He gave opportunities to journalists of many different religions and ethnicities, and hired Nellie Bly, a pioneering female reporter who became internationally famous both for her investigative journalism and her dispatches from an around-the-world trip in imitation of Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days. Yet Pulitzer was also criticized for using sensationalism to drive up his newspapers’ circulation. This exaggerated and emotional style became known as Yellow Journalism, and is blamed by some historians for inciting America to go to war with Spain in 1898.

The Pulitzer Prize medal for Public Service

The Pulitzer Prize medal for Public Service

Hoping to improve his reputation and legacy, Pulitzer steered his newspapers away from Yellow Journalism toward the end of his life, and dedicated a large chunk of his fortune to promoting journalism that helps society. He endowed a school of journalism at Columbia University, and established the prizes that bear his name to honor the most outstanding journalism in the country every year.

The Pulitzer Prize program is run by Columbia, with winners selected by juries of distinguished journalists and scholars. Each prize comes with a certificate and an award of $15,000, and a special gold medal is awarded to the newspaper that wins the award for Public Service.

First awarded in 1917, the Pulitzer Prize has been awarded to many of the most distinguished Americans in the century since, including the poet Robert Frost, the historian and biographer David McCullough, and the journalist Thomas L. Friedman.

In the alternative reality of Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, Danielle’s sister Claire wins a Pulitzer prize in Nonfiction for her book Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine, Part One: Dancing on Quicksand.



No more pages to load