June 22, 2007

End of the world as we know it

I just finished reading one of the ten books I ordered for summer, titled Triumph. The is an On The Beach-style story where fourteen survivors of a terrible nuclear war are holed up underground in an elaborate shelter in Connecticut. Definitely a bit dated, and with the typical Cold War "Soviets are evil incarnate" subplot, the entire northern hemisphere is rendered uninhabitable by a sudden Soviet nuke strike, including numerous cobalt bombs. Cobalt bombs gained a lot of notoriety in the 50s and 60s as the theoretical "doomsday weapon." This is not because of their enormous explosive power (which was implied in the ending of the film "Beneath the Planet of the Apes") but because of the prodigious amount of radiation such weapons would release, and this radiation would last a very long time. As planetary wind patterns continuously circle the globe, this high-intensity radiation would reach everywhere -- if enough bombs were exploded. In Triumph, enough were set off to depopulate just the northern part of the planet. In addition, in the novel, the USSR set off myriad nukes with a yield of over 100 megatons, which would have very devastating effects on the planet with which author Philip Wylie was obviously unaware. The largest nuke ever exploded (in real life) was of a yield of approximately 59 megatons (by the USSR).

Just how much cobalt -- or how many bombs of that type -- would be necessary to kill off all life on Earth? Physicist Leo Szilard estimates that it would take "400 one-ton deuterium-cobalt bombs [to] release enough radioactivity to extinguish all life on earth." This threat is brought to life in another summer reading book of mine, Red Alert. The inspiration for the movie "Dr. Strangelove," it details a rogue US Air Force officer who unilaterally orders a SAC B-52 bomber wing to drop its nuke bombs on the USSR (you have to read the book to see how this is actually possible). Since the chances of actually stopping, or recalling, the wing are almost nil, the president's top generals agree that the US should follow through with the attack, and end the Soviet threat once and for all.

There's just a "small" problem: The president informs his top general of something that only he and the Secretary of State know -- the USSR has a "last-ditch" plan to thwart any [nuke] attack on them by the United States. That plan is a quantity of cobalt bombs stashed in the Ural Mountains that, if exploded, would extinguish all life on the planet. The revelation of this plan actually led to the deteriorating health of the president's predecessor, gruesome as it was.

I'm not quite finished Red Alert yet, but I've already been tipped off as to how it ends. Still, it's awesomely suspenseful reading.

Use of cobalt devices was also utilized in the far-fetched (well, maybe not back then) Not This August. A Soviet and China-conquered USA has one last-ditch weapon to use against their occupiers: A "weapon satellite" that contains a few cobalt bombs. If the USSR and China do not withdraw from US territory, the satellite will drop these devices on the two countries where they (hypothetically) would only devastate that pair of communist nations.

An early issue of Marvel Comics' Silver Surfer in 1970 where he battles the "Doomsday Man" features a cobalt device. The Surfer must take extra care in defeating the menace else the Earth be put in peril. However, this was unlikely as it seems to use a "Beneath the Planet of the Apes" approach -- it was just one bomb and hence not sufficient to actually jeopardize the planet.

Posted by Hube at June 22, 2007 10:14 AM | TrackBack

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