[Editorial] End Of Innocence: How Hiroshima and Nagasaki Changed The World

It was mankind’s greatest crime against itself and the demonstration of one of his greatest achievements. It wasn’t just the number of people killed or maimed, it wasn’t even the number of building flattened or vaporized, it was about the effect and the awe of an object never seen before. Two blobs of metal, weighing about four tonnes each and concealing inside them the results of five years of intensive research by the best minds of the world, would change history forever. Two days mark this permanent turn of history 6th August and 9th August.

There are only a few events in history, which can serve as dividers in time; any other event can be described as before or after such an event. The innocuously named atom bombs, Little Boy’ (Hiroshima) and Fat Man’ (Nagasaki), would create in its wake a world, where either mass murder could become the norm or a sudden realization may jolt Man out of its madness. It was the end of innocence.

Living under a strange shadow

The Most Unkindest Cut of All

Probably, the greatest threat from the bomb was not that it killed so many, but that the very act of deploying such a bomb involves so little emotional pain. Photos showing Hiroshima before and after the explosion tell a story, but it is up to the viewer to interpret it. Often, the interpretation of the devastation on a large scale is that of awe, not of sympathy. We’re awed by the tremendous power of the bomb, shocked by the emptiness of space in which a city once existed and, sadly, also get an ego boost from all this. Somewhere, the tiny voice of sympathy and pity for unspeakable human atrocities is drowned.

Did the utter destruction of Hiroshima (right) rob the sense of tragedy? (Left: A burn victim)

The estimates of the number of dead vary – more than 100,000 dead at Hiroshima and nearly 70,000 dead at Nagasaki are official numbers- but those are mere numbers. Five years of research went into this. The irony of the Manhattan Project, the super secret governmental project to design the atom bomb, was manifold. A congregation of the best minds in science were not involved in solving a cosmic riddle, but to tinker around with the ugly equations of engineering and design a weapon to replicate the Sun on Earth. They were driven by a fear, more than patriotism that Hitler might produce the super-bomb’ before them and he would have no qualms about using such a murder device. It was, in fact, the grizzly-haired, peace-loving Einstein, who signed the historic letter to Roosevelt, urging him to put the bomb research at the forefront.

The city of Nagasaki, before the bomb and after it. (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

The Manhattan Project

Within one year, under the supervision of General Leslie Groves, Robert Oppenheimer brought together a galaxy of stars from the world of physics that included veterans like Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller and Arthur Compton alongwith not-yet-a-PhD-but-blindingly-brilliant Richard Feynman. Housed in the secluded and, often, freezing mountains of Los Alamos, shielded from the rest of the world by intense security and allowed an indefinite amount of grants, these men dealt with radioactive substances like Uranium. Their aim: purify the Uranium ore enough so as to gain a large percentage of the fissile U-235 isotope, rather than the benign U-238 material. How ever protected they might have been from the external world, they  weren’t  shielded from the isotope that they regularly handled. Like a Mummy’s Curse, this would be the cause of death for most people working at the facility. They would die of radiation-induced cancer, but this was all for the country and against all-conquering Germany, with true intentions of altruistic world peace.

Carpet bombing of major cities of Germany, like Dresden, Hamburg and Wesel, following the Normandy invasion on German’s west front and simultaneous advances by Soviet troops on the East flanks, meant that the Fuhrer had no choice, but to surrender in March, 1945. Hitler is believed to have committed suicide, leaving a broken world behind. The atom’s energy hadn’t been harnessed yet.

[Editorial] How The US Fund Cuts Due to War Affect Science and All Of Us

Lost jobs, growing fuel prices and rising public discontent is the scene in the US as far as the economy is concerned. Funds are short in all aspects of life, whether it concerns fuel prices (government subsidy), the education sector or business. The dollar falling against the Euro, or even the Indian Rupee, mirrors the sorry state of affairs. The worst hit, it seems, is the science sector, which has been left crippled by a spate of fund cuts across almost all disciplines. The reason for this: War.

The “War On Terror”

Yes, the American long drawn War on Terror’ is acting like a very effective pipe draining monetary resources from all other aspects of governance and life. An estimated $4 trillion has been spent on the war in Afghanistan and Iraq (sorry for not using the label War on Terror’). The achievements have been few and too far apart in time. The most significant achievement in the eyes of the public is the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, who, experts believe, wasn’t very active anyway in the terror network and the success was little more than symbolic. Al Qaeda has the same reach and structure as it had just before Bin Laden’s death. If anything, the martyrdom’ of Bin Laden (as it is viewed in many parts of the Islamic world) has helped Al Qaeda gain more recruits without resorting to covert recruitment procedures. Not to mention, the operation has undermined the relations between Pakistan and the US.

Victims No. 1

Science has had to suffer a lot, as this foolish carnage was unfolding. The most notable victim has been the James Webb Space Telescope. Recently, we reported the plans to scrap the successor of Hubble the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and once Hubble completes its lifetime in 2014, there will be no eye in space in the visible range of the spectrum with which we will be able to peer deep into the cosmos.

What Next : Hubble to the left. James Webb on the right. Or is it?

The giant telescope, which would make Hubble look like a pair of binoculars, was set to replace both Hubble and Spitzer in one stroke. Spitzer, which observes in the infra-red frequencies, is still operational and is expected to outlast Hubble. The fund cut by the Appropriations Sub-committee is bound to render astrophysics blind for, at least, the decade.

Victim No. 2

There has been other victims with lower profiles. We had also told you about the ATA (Allen Telescope Array) of SETI put out of operation due to the lack of funds. It is a widespread misconception that SETI’s only job is the search for extra-terrestrials. The ATA was being used for much more than intercepting intelligent radio signals from space, like looking at radio signals originating from very strong radio-sources like Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN’s) and looking at transient radio-sources. This would be extremely useful for studying how quasars truly operate. Further, looking at any active radiation source in many wavelengths is of the utmost essence in observational astronomy.

Victim No. 3

Arguably, the best telescope is The Chandra X-Ray Telescope (no, it’s not the Hubble). Orbiting the Earth, high above the atmosphere, it captures stunning images in the X-Ray band. The X-Ray band of radiation is notoriously difficult to capture on film. The primary reason for this is the extremely high penetrating power of X-Rays; lenses made of glass are useless. The mirrors used to focus a parallel beam of X-Ray radiation need to be at glancing angles (about a degree or so) to the direction of radiation. Further, the mirrors need to be coated with pure gold. Both these factors contribute to increased expenses, the former being responsible for the need of large mirror sheets and the latter being responsible for the obvious reasons. The question is what next? What after Chandra? With the recent spate, there is real worry about the maintenance and succession to the premier X-Ray Telescope.

Victim No. 4

The search for exotic gravitational waves is also expected to take a hit. The existing detector, Laser Interferometer Space Antenna or LISA, is capable of detecting a gravitational wave emanating from a powerful astronomical event in the cosmological vicinity the moment it passes Earth. The problem is the back-up observations. This needs to be followed up by observations in the electromagnetic spectrum, which will be impossible given that Hubble will not have a successor and radio telescopes on land are also in trouble. In other words, a goldmine of observations (say, LISA detects gravitational wave after gravitational wave) will be going to waste given that there is no back-up observation. LISA will be effectively out of operation.

Osama Killed: Technology That Got The World’s Most Wanted Man – Part 2

It was a battle fought using information, rather than just bullets. The greatest challenge the US administration faced in getting to Bin Laden and breaking his global network was the lack of information, not so much the firepower. Now, with Osama bin Laden dead, we can track the steps and count a few of the technological advances that led to him being eventually hunted down. We’ve considered five technologies connected to his death. We considered two in the first part. Here we continue our journey through the last two.

Continued from Part 1

DNA Tests

The US administration has been long preparing for an event like this and had already collected hundreds of blood samples from relatives of Bin Laden. This was to get a definitive DNA match. The face-recognition software used gave a 95% confidence that the body was indeed that of Bin Laden, which is pretty high, especially after the mutilation during the encounter. DNA tests gave a 99.9% certainty of the identity of the body, which basically seals the deal.

It is indeed an ironic twist of fate for those who were reminded of 9/11, since bodies of many victims were identified by using blood samples from close relatives or from hair from the comb used. In any case, the match is definitive.


A 33-year old computer programmer became an instant hit worldwide due to his tweets. Shoaib Athar (@ReallyVirtual) unwittingly live-blogged the operations as he perceived them, having moved to Abbottabad a few days earlier in order to escape the urban bustle, and earned more than 14000 Twitter followers in the process. He started off with an innocent:

Helicopter hovering above Abbottabad at 1AM (is a rare event).

The first few tweets were laced with jokes, but they grew grim. One of the earliest people to understand that this wasn’t normal, he tweeted:

The few people online at this time of the night are saying one of the copters was not Pakistani.

His definitive 36th tweet said:

Osama Bin Laden killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

Keith Urbanh (@KeithUrbanh), claiming to be the chief-of-staff of Donald Rumsfeld, ex-US defense secretary, tweeted

I’m told by a reputable person they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn!

(P.S.: The account no longer seems to exist. A retweet exists, however.)

This came about an hour before President Obama’s official statement.

Facebook already has an Osama Bin Death Videoscam circulating.


It is irony on both ends. The US’s high-tech methods were foiled by the low-tech techniques used by the militants, since cyber tracking or telephonic interception became impossible. However, it was also this same low-tech that blew their cover. US officials triangulated the compound after it looked suspicious because of the lack of any sort of electronic noise, inspite of being a sprawling complex, estimated at a million dollars. There were no cables, or Net connection or any other tractable electronic communication device emissions. The CIA were sure of their targets.


Osama Killed: Technology That Finally Got The World’s Most Wanted Man – Part 1

It was a battle fought using information, rather than just bullets. The greatest challenge the US administration faced in getting to Bin Laden and breaking his global network was the lack of information, not so much the firepower. Now, with Osama bin Laden dead, we can track the steps and count a few of the technological advances that led to him being eventually hunted down. We’ve considered five technologies connected to his death. In this first part, we take on three out of the five.


Satellites are now the most obvious ways to obtain and transmit information. With the real target on the ground in an unfamiliar terrain against an enemy that knows the surrounding exactly, a system of orbiting satellites evened out the scores. Osama was believed to be hiding in Abbottabad, Pakistan. The US Military used the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency to create a map of the premises, so detailed that they could even simulated a drill. Commercial satellite companies like GeoEye and DigitalGlobe, which supply images for Google Earth, played a crucial role, providing images of the suspected compound through about four years. Even a layout was prepared.

Satellite Image of the compound as on Jan 15 (Courtesy: DigitalGlobe)
The Layout Prepared with the Satellite Inputs (Courtesy: CIA)

The main military satellite constellations involved were the Defense Satellite Communication System (DSCS-III) and the more secure Milstar.

Night vision

Nighttime is particularly nasty on a battlefield, especially in an unknown country. The main problem lies with the highly reduced light intensity. One of the ways out is to collect more light, and the other is to shift to a different wavelength regime in the electromagnetic spectrum. The former technique is used to make Night Glasses. They basically capture more light over a large area and concentrate it on the pupil. Soldiers often use dilute atropine (a muscle relaxant) as eye drops to dilate the pupil before using these glasses. These are often used just before dawn, when the surroundings are too dark for an unprepared enemy, but just right for the attacker.

Night Vision

The more esoteric active infrared nightvision takes in light across the spectral range of 700 to 1000 nm (our vision extends from about 400 to 800 nm) and slightly beyond, and creates a monochromatic image using a special CCD.

The US military uses both. Active Nightvision is extensively used by attack helicopters used for nighttime operations. This particular raid started at 1:00 AM. The reader can be rest assured that these vision enhancers played a major role in the campaign.

Stealth Jets and Helicopters

These have achieved mythical status. The B-2 Spirit stealth bomber or the ultra-modern F-22 Raptor have been flaunted by the side possessing them, feared by the enemy and held with awe by both. Lockheed Martin was the company to build the operational model, closest to the modern stealth designs. Almost all angles were flat, or at best very obtuse. When exposed to radar, the aircraft would radiate all of the signals and not send much back to the  receiver.

B-2 Spirit Bomber

True stealth is achieved by not only eluding radar, but also heat seeking missiles. Further, these planes reduce their electronic components, thus producing electronic noise so low that it cannot be picked up. This is achieved by the F-22 Raptor. Bombers like B-2 don’t need to implement this, since their altitude provides them enough protection, being out of range of most surface-to-air missiles.

The ultramodern F-22 Raptor

Stealth helicopters, like the Comanche, were also being considered. However, they were scrapped in 2004 due to fund deficit. The stealth technology is to be integrated into the Apache, which were extensive used in Iraq during the Gulf War. Even in Afghanistan, they were used against the Taliban. No word has been said as to whether the Apache had been used in this mission.


However, helicopters were involved in the final assault. In fact, they were used to clear the ground initially, before the ground ops began.

Hold on for the second part. There we discuss the role DNA testing played in identifying the body and what Twitter did!

To be continued…