Predicting The A-Bomb: The Cartmill Affair

The cover of the infamous issue of Astounding, March 1944

There’s an upcoming movie, Argylle, about an author whose spy novels are a little too accurate, and she becomes a target of a real-life spy game. We haven’t seen the movie, but it made us think of a similar espionage caper from 1944 involving science fiction author Cleve Cartmill. The whole thing played out in the pages of Astounding magazine (now Analog) and involved several other science fiction luminaries ranging from John W. Campbell to Isaac Asimov. It is a great story about how science is — well, science — and no amount of secrecy or legislation can hide it.

In 1943, Cartmill queried Campbell about the possibility of a story that would be known as “Deadline.” It wasn’t his first story, nor would it be his last. But it nearly put him in a Federal prison. Why?  The story dealt with an atomic bomb.

Nothing New

By itself, that’s probably not a big deal. H.G. Wells wrote “The World Set Free” in 1914, where he predicted nuclear weapons. But in 1914, it wasn’t clear how that would work exactly. Wells mentioned “uranium and thorium” and wrote a reasonable account of the destructive power: Continue reading “Predicting The A-Bomb: The Cartmill Affair”

Why Nuclear Bombs Can’t Set The World On Fire

Before the first atomic bomb was detonated, there were some fears that a fission bomb could “ignite the atmosphere.” Yes, if you’ve just watched Oppenheimer, read about the Manhattan Project, or looked into atomic weapons at all, you’ll be familiar with the concept. Physicists determined the risk was “near zero,” proceeded ahead with the Trinity test, and the world lived to see another day.

You might be wondering what this all means. How could the very air around us be set aflame, and how did physicists figure out it wasn’t a problem? Let’s explore the common misunderstandings around this concept, and the physical reactions at play.

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Yes, You Can Put Out A Burning Gas Well With A Nuclear Bomb

Nuclear explosives were first developed as weapons of war in the pitched environment of World War II. However, after the war had passed, thoughts turned to alternative uses for this new powerful technology. Scientists and engineers alike dreamed up wild schemes to dig new canals or blast humans into space with the mighty power of the atom.

Few of these ever came to pass, with radiological concerns being the most common reason why. However, the Soviet Union did in fact manage to put nuclear explosions to good use for civilian ends. One of the first examples was using a nuke to plug an out-of-control gas well in the mid 1960s.

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