Another Short Story About Nuclear War

The story is told from the viewpoint of some vaguely unknown intelligent life-forms that live a few hundred light-years from where we do now.

And there’s a scientist in it – an observer. They’re reporting on the observations of radio transmissions from several planets in the nearish neighborhood. It has turned out that Einstein (or their equivalent) was right and for all intents and purposes every species is trapped in a newtonian universe – getting up enough speed to see relativistic effects is so hard and energy-costly that nobody bothers. Every species builds their equivalent of the Hubble space telescope, does some observations, and says their equivalent of “well, fuck.” And that’s it. They just listen. And the observer reports to some big shot, that the planet that was transmitting coded radio signals, you remember, the one that achieved fission and limited fusion? That one? Well, its impossible for anything but a fusion warhead to make that distinctive double-pulse: primary (atomic fission) followed in microseconds by the secondary (atomic fusion) it doesn’t occur in nature; it’s always and uniquely the signature of a weapon.

And they tracked the trickle of pulses, then the double-pulses, and yesterday the number of double-pulses was exactly 2,121. The big shot contacts their superiors with great sadness, and there’s a whole cycle of mourning for the planet and the millions that they never knew. What opportunity for beauty and greatness was lost? Nobody will know; the brief flurry of clicks caught by the radio observatory maps the end of all hope into a set of overlapping wave-forms, an epitaph for a world.

The Teller-Ulam Configuration, it’s called: the X-ray wave from the fission causes a tamper around the secondary to explode into plasma and hyper-compress the secondary until it fuses. I’ve studied the physics of nuclear weapons to the point where I think I understand them, and I don’t believe there is anything like them that occurs in nature. Humans ought to have taken that as a sincere warning from the gods, but Edward Teller was one of the most weak-egoed humans who has ever lived; he wanted so desperately to show how clever he was that he forced the US to solve the very complex engineering problems that create a ball of solar surface on an otherwise unsuspecting planet. The Teller-Ulam configuration makes a distinctive radio crackle: tick-tack with a microsecond between them. Plain old fission just makes a brief tick. It’s the difference between a Hiroshima and everything in Los Angeles being flaming wreckage from the Hollywood sign all the way down to Disneyland in a millisecond. The Japanese called the Hiroshima bomb “pika-don” because the ground shockwave and the air shockwave arrived separately; the name really should have been fitted to the hydrogen bomb instead.

My tax dollars at work.

A friend of mine’s father was at Hiroshima after the bombing. Apparently the harbor was jammed solid with swelling bodies from the people who had jumped into the water to put the flames out, or to cool their burns. So casual, the Americans, who went to observe what was left of a city of shocked and dead people, maimed for life physically and psychologically. And those observers stood by while America made weapons 1,000 times more powerful. That’s what the US is building now, for the Russians and Chinese. If we were smart we would arrest the perpetrators of this conspiracy to kill us all. And I actually think hanging’s too good for them. What they have coolly and calculatedly planned for us makes hanging look like like a kiss on the cheek from a shaft of sunlight on a beautiful morning.


  1. geoffarnold says

    The penultimate sentence in the first para needs fixing.
    Original: ” primary (atomic fission) followed in microseconds by the secondary (atomic fission)”
    Fix: ” primary (atomic fission) followed in microseconds by the secondary (atomic fusion)”

    Feel free to delete this comment after fixing.

  2. cvoinescu says

    a ball of solar surface

    It’s hard to picture how comparatively mild the sun is, compared to a fusion bomb. The surface of the sun is barely 6500 K; not something you can get in your forge, but in the same order of magnitude. The hottest chemical flame we know of comes close (Wikipedia says dicyanoacetylene burns at about 6000 K in ozone, and only slightly less hotly in oxygen). The center of the core of the sun is at about 15 million kelvin (and compressed to a density almost seven times greater than the densest material on Earth), but that affords a fusion rate of only 275 W per cubic meter. That’s about the same energy density of a compost heap, and less than the metabolism of a cold-blooded reptile. The reason the sun is so hot is that it’s immense beyond imagination, and conducts heat very badly: it takes close to 200,000 years for heat to transfer from the core to the surface.

    275 W per second is equivalent to about 0.1 ng (nanogram) of hydrogen fusing per second; a cubic meter of sun’s center fuses one gram of hydrogen every 300 years. Your average thermonuclear bomb will fuse a good part of its fusion fuel (of which there can be tonnes) in a millisecond or so. The initiation temperature is in the hundreds of millions of kelvin — and things only become worse as the lithium deuteride fuses.

  3. says

    That was cool, thank you.

    I was listening to the audiobook of Richard Rhodes’ Dark Sun the other day, and there’s one bit where he walks through the entire sequence of events that take place during the explosion of a thermonuclear device. It goes on for a while – it’s really amazing how hard it is to cause fusion on a planet. Fusion is naturally the stuff of very large things with massive gravitational fields.

    a cubic meter of sun’s center fuses one gram of hydrogen every 300 years

    Mind boggled.

  4. aquietvoice says

    @cvoinescu, #3:
    That’s really cool!
    It’s strange, I done the physics of the sun and fusion, but never actually considered the energy density of the core like that.
    It’s such a small percentage of the suns volume, and its ~600 million tonnes of hydrogen to helium per second, I’d just assumed each volume had an enormous output. Guess I never got my head around just how huge the sun was.

    It’s kind of like how, even though everyone is taught photosynthesis, most people still think of trees as getting most of their mass from the ground rather than thinking of them as essentially watered air, more clinging to the earth than coming from it.

    @Marcus Ranum, OP:
    That has a cool, old-era sc-fi / creeping cosmic horror feel. I like it!
    In current times, I’d feel sorrow for the other civilisation, sure, but I’d also be super anxious that the stock market might unconnectedly go up after the announcement, and that someone – someone in particular – would link the two and begin obsessing over it alongside their usual obsession with the stock market.

  5. lochaber says

    back when I was enlisted in the USMC, our boat stopped for repairs for a couple weeks at some port I can’t remember the name of near Nagasaki.

    One day we were offered a chance to go on a trip to visit the Peacepark and museum at the hypocenter. I almost didn’t go, I just felt kinda wrong going to the site of such a massacre as an active-duty member of the organization that was responsible for it.

    I ended up going, and I’m glad. it was a pretty somber museum, with artifacts and photos and such. It was just staggering, the amount of death and devastation. And it was all civilians. School children, families, old people, students, etc.
    Of course, some of the other people on the trip acted like stereotypical American assholes, taking pictures at the hypocenter while making “explosive” hand gestures and/or wording “BOOM”

    I subscribe to the belief that those two nukes weren’t about ending WWII, but more of a show of force directed at Russia, in anticipation of future conflicts.

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