Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Magic of Nuclear Warheads

Nothing is as magical as nuclear warheads. Not unicorns, not Siegfried and Roy, nothing. And even though they were developed to make a really big boom which would cause hostile countries to cower in submission, Hollywood has found inummerable other uses for them.

I write this as I watch (OK, more like passively listen and occasionally glance at the screen) the TV movie 10.5. Besides the hot chick scientist (I commented on that before), it turns out that the solution to preventing California from dropping into the sea is nuclear weapons. In past movies I have seen nuclear weapons used to combat aliens, split asteroids in half, prevent the spread of extraterrestrial superbugs, start the core of the earth spinning, propel spaceships, ... oh yeah, and attack other countries (the purpose they were intended for).

In this great masterpiece of cinematography, they are being used to fuse the tectonic plates together. Heck if it was that easy, then why not do it to all of the plates around the world and we would have been rid of earthquakes forever. Afterall, didn't the US and Soviet Union have enough warheads to destroy the world 500 billion times over? Why couldn't we use half of these and put them to good use?

Well, let's start with a brief synopsis of the plot (I started the movie an hour or so into it, so I may not have the whole scoop). A series of earthquakes on the western seaboard leads the hot scientist to believe that we are about to have a BIG one which will cause a chain reaction which would wipe out about 150 miles inland of the entire western seaboard. Her solution, use 5 nukes to fuse the plates together (this would prevent the chain reaction). So we only have a couple days to figure out where to put these, drill holes, and evacuate 50 million people.

First problem, after discovering that the BIG one is going to be happening, FEMA makes the bold decision to not move their headquarters. While I may believe several government letterganizations (letter organizations - maybe it will catch on) are incompetent at best, this is just plain ridiculous. No fool would stay put if they knew there was a pretty good chance they were going to die. Most morons are capable of figuring out the odds of survival when they are overwhelmingly dismal. FEMA (inspite of all they have done wrong) is more competent than this.

Second problem, evacuating 50 million people in two days with no notice would not be near as orderly as shown. Most people (including all of Hollywood) has no clue about the magnitude of numbers. If all 50 million were evenly spread across the western seaboard, then it might in your wildest dreams be theoretically possible. However, since the population is largely concentrated in Seattle, Portland, San Fransisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego metro areas, you would basically have utter and complete chaos, even if you were magically able to call up the entire national guard within 2 minutes and have them stationed to help. Katrina, Ike, and every other evacuation have shown us that even evacuations of a few hundred thousand people are an absolute nightmare given ideal circumstances and several days of advance notice.

Third problem, nuclear weapons are not the solution to everything. In fact, besides WWII and the Cold War, nuclear weapons haven't been the solution to anything (although, those were two very big things). In this movie, the nukes are buried in holes about 400 feet deep. The massive heat is suppose to fuse the two plates together. This is a nice bit of horse hockey. A nuclear explosion has a whole lot of heat which can melt rock, but it also has another destructive force which is far more damaging. Pressure. A nuclear weapon buried at 400 feet (we'll assume a 1 megaton) would vaporize all of the rock within a 50 meter radius. Vaporize, or in other words, turn it all into its gasseous form. All of those hundreds of thousands of tons of rock being vaporized would cause the pressure in the vaporization cavity to rise exponentially which would imolate the nearby rock (or turn into very small pebbles), and probably shatter most of the rock for a 1 kilometer radius. In other words, there would be no fusion, most of the heat would go towards vaporizing the rock, and since the shaft was only covered with loose fill gravel (which would have all been blown out), most of that vaporized rock would escape as a nice mushroom cloud. So instead of fusing plates together, we would probably create more techtonic chaos (a 1 MT bomb is about the energy in two magnitude 7 earthquakes).

Now assuming that we take a leap of faith and all of the heat magically just melts the rocks, this process still takes place in about 1 microsecond. The rock is now at a temperature of 5000 degrees fahrenheit. For it to be an effective piece of duct tape, it needs to cool to about 1000 degrees fahrenheit rather quickly. It doesn't because there is nothing around that is going to absorb the energy as quickly as is needed. Case in point, we have volcanoes flowing lava at the bottom of the ocean, which is the equivalent of continuously dowsing the lava with freezing water, yet the lava is still flowing.

So we make another leap of faith and just pretend that 100 meters of rock is fused and cooled instantly. This is suppose to hold the plates together. Even though the plates are 100 km thick fusing the top 0.1 percent of them is going to keep them together. Have you ever tried closing a wound by glueing two cells together? It doesn't work. You use a band aid for shallow cuts, sutures or staples for deep ones. Mankind does not have the technology to suture the earth's techtonic plates together. Drilling rigs can get down to about 20 km but that is not enough to suture the earth together.

Fourth problem, when will Hollywood get over the love affair with Volkswagen sized nuclear bombs? We put these things on missiles, and even artillery rounds. The Russians supposedly have suitcase nukes. For once, couldn't we have something that fits in a backpack. I liked the Star Wars thermonuclear detonator, a nice little ball that fits in the palm of your favorite bounty hunter's hand.

I must say, if it weren't for Oppenheimer, then Hollywood would be at a major loss for plot lines. Maybe next time instead of the hot chick scientist, they should go with the brainiac nuclear physicist who just shoots holes in all of their plans and tries to help them realize that Mother Nature cannot be tamed (especially in two days, at least Deep Impact gave them a year or so). Nah, too realistic. It would probably be a bomb at the box office and no one would think it plausible.