Please Don’t Ignite the Earth’s Atmosphere…

Stanislaw Ulam (1909-1984)
from Los Alamos Technical Report
LA-UR-00-2532; 16 October 2000

When in 1952 the world’s first thermonuclear fusion bomb was ignited, mathematicians and physicists thought it would be rather unlikely that testing the device might result in burning all the nitrogen in the earth’s atmosphere. But, the possibility could not be excluded completely. Nevertheless, they have tested the bomb and fortunately for us not the like did happen. One of the key persons behind the development of the hydrogenic bomb was Stanislaw Ulam, who together with physicist Edward Teller came up with the first successful design.

Today 103 years ago, mathematician Stanislaw Ulam was born. Before developing the hydrogenic bomb, he also participated in America’s Manhattan Project producing the very first atomic weapon based on thermonuclear fission. After the second World War scientists believed that maintaining nuclear fusion to support another kind of weapon should be rather unlikely. But in January 1951, Ulam came up with the decisive idea: put a fission bomb and fusion fuel together inside a massive casing. When the bomb detonated, the casing would contain the explosion long enough for mechanical shock to heat and compress the fusion fuel, and for fission neutrons to ignite nuclear fusion.

I don’t support any weapon technology and it might be controversial to acknowledge also a scientist like Stanislaw Ulam or his colleague Edward Teller, who spent a great deal their lives in the development of apocalyptic technology. But what really shocked me was the fact that both could not completely exclude the possibility of igniting the earth’s atmosphere when testing the first thermonuclear fusion bomb and thus possibly causing the end of the world:

“There remains the distinct possibility that some other less simple mode of burning may maintain itself in the atmosphere… the complexity of the argument and the absence of satisfactory experimental foundations makes further work on the subject highly desirable.” (Report LA-602, Ignition of the Atmosphere with Nuclear Bombs)

Nevertheless, Stanislaw Ulam also has left us something more substantial: the Monte Carlo Method of Computation, a class of computational algorithms that rely on repeated random sampling and often used for computer simulations of mathematical or physical models.

At yovisto, you might watch a documentary on ‘Operation Ivy‘, the detonation of the world’s first hydrogenic bomb back in 1952.

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