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A most fascinating report has appeared in Aviation Week and Space Technology on plans by the Pentagon to develop a “counter-ASAT weapon” which would make for an interesting class of space weapon. The report informs us that the get go on this at the moment is my favourite little topic on space weaponisation namely space situational awareness

…Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) is leading efforts to improve space situational awareness - including upgrades to the Space Fence - ground-based
space-monitoring sensors - as well as the planned fielding in 2009 of the Space-Based Space Surveillance electro-optical satellite designed to monitor other spacecraft. These systems will provide a better understanding of what objects are in space, which is
increasingly important since hard-to-detect micro satellites that could jeopardize Pentagon systems are beginning to proliferate…


So we get

…The Rapid Attack Identification Detection Reporting System (Raidrs) Block 20 is only conceptual, but the Air Force intends for it to collect data from open and
classified sources to provide predictability in the event of an Asat attack. The Pentagon had been monitoring activities in China leading up to its 2007 anti-satellite test, but defense officials worry that future threats may be a surprise and, thus, hard to outmaneuver…


We also have

…While work is being done in classified programs on both fronts, Raidrs Block 20 has the peculiar distinction of being the Pentagon's only acknowledged
program designed to counter direct-ascent Asat attacks…


Which means there are more programmes than openly acknowledged. Raidrs Block 20 is directed at direct ascent ASATs for low earth orbit targeting

…The new system would, by contrast, provide a monitoring capability for all Pentagon assets and possibly those classified systems operated by other agencies. It will be software-intensive, collating data including space weather; missile-warning alerts
that would be triggered by an Asat launch; satellite position and telemetry from space, and intelligence from various sources. This effort is akin to recent upgrades funded by the Air Force to shift its air operations centers to a more net-centric system,
giving operators insight and an integrated look at systems that once operated on disparate software architectures…


And

…This delivery will be designed to detect a direct-ascent satellite threat with enough swiftness to allow operators to divert the target…


The report does not tell us how the Pentagon would knock out a direct ascent ASAT using this information. Presumably interception will occur on the basis of a space based asset. In which case we have a number of issues. Counter-ASAT might actually be an Orwellian phrase meaning ASAT or it might also act as a space based ballistic missile defence interceptor.

Why not suppose that a counter-ASAT weapon could also function as a space based interceptor? If it can Moscow and Beijing would need to factor that into their strategic calculations.

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Penney Report Drawing of First Pu Bomb




Funny but I think I have seen that before. This is supposed to be a schematic of the first Pu implosion device the so called “fat man” design.

This comes from the Penney report. Actually the actual report is more useful and has been available from the Nuclear Weapon Archive since last August.

Some happy perusal for terrorists!

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The Gates BMD Offer


Well you would think that it is peace in our time. I refer to the latest movement on the Eastern Europe BMD saga. According to the New York Times

…Mr. Gates said that while the United States would not grant Russia a veto over missile defense sites in Europe, the Bush administration was willing to guarantee that neither the radar proposed for the Czech Republic nor the 10 missile interceptors proposed for Poland would be turned on until Iran had proven it had a missile that could reach Europe.

“When we see flight testing that leads us to believe the Iranians are close to developing a capability to hit our allies in Europe, that would be the point at which we would operationalize the sites,” Mr. Gates said.

That could mean that the missiles would not be placed into silos until then, although the specific details have not been worked out, he said…


That’s very sketchy. It states that Gates has proposed to keep the X-Band radar and the Silos empty until “the Iranians are close to developing a capability to hit our allies in Europe” but then it states that the proposal could be just restricted to keeping the GMD silos empty.

If the latter the thing still would be of concern to Moscow on grounds that the X-Band radar could be used to track the telemetry of Russian ICBM tests and take a good look at the point of flight when the RV separates from the bus. If it includes keeping the Radar in the dark you would think Moscow would like some verification when it counts.

Another problem is that the definition of when Iran is considered to be able to hit “our allies in Europe” is not very clear. The other interesting thing is that according to these purported Intel documents on Iranian RV work (the bit about the inner core of an RV as discussed in the last IAEA safeguards report) Tehran is interested in developing a warhead for the Shahab 3 not the Shahab-4 or 5. The latter two is known to us by way of speculations for the most part. And we still don’t really know if these docs are legit.

In fact it is highly unlikely that Iran would want to develop a capability to hit Hungary or Romania if they seek to develop a deterrent capacity by way of European targeting.

So we should be talking here testing of the Shahab-5. A capability to place a nuclear payload on the Shahab-5 is way off and I suspect not what Gates is offering. Iran claims it doesn’t really want to go on and develop the 4 and 5 (although Shahab-4 is sometime spoken of in terms of a SLV). Notice also that the 4 and 5 are heavily based on the Soviet SS-4 not SCUD technology which is a factor when we look at timelines and Iranian capability.

This is an ambit diplomatic move that really is not meant to be taken seriously. Besides we know from Postol and so on that the architecture to meet any Iranian ballistic missile threat to Europe need not be based in Poland and the Czech Republic.

On these matters Team Bush is a lame duck moreover.


By the way just a point on Fogbank. Only a few US warheads in the current stockpile use Fogbank in the interstage section. The W76 is one hence the issue with respect to RRW. However, it is not really clear whether the W76-1 does use fogbank. If not the argument against using this for RRW by undermining Stockpile Stewardship becomes stronger.

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ScanEagle UAV and Bioagent Targeting.


Boeing and DTRA have developed an intriguing UAV that is meant to detect and collect data on dispersed bioagents

…The U.S. Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and Boeing [NYSE: BA] have demonstrated successfully that ScanEagle unmanned air vehicles modified to look for biological warfare agents can effectively intercept, detect and fly through simulated biological plumes or clouds to collect airborne agents.

Tests also show that the UAVs can successfully collect airborne material and data from a target site that can help U.S. forces combat the threat from biological agents and minimize the danger to friendly forces and civilians. …


The interesting point here is that this UAV is meant to play a role in counteforce strikes against against biological research, production and storage facilities.

…During the developmental tests at Fort Leonard Wood and the operational tests in the Gulf of Mexico, two BCAS ScanEagle UAVs, one equipped with a biological collection system and the other equipped with sensors to perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), flew tandem beyond-line-of-sight missions into and out of simulated counterforce strike target locations. They were to collect air samples within simulated biological plumes, which represented the collateral effects of counterforce strikes on weapons-of-mass-destruction research and production facilities, and bring back the samples for further analysis…


As we no doubt are aware such strikes are usually spoken of in a nuclear context. But surely the extreme heat and radiation following a nuclear strike would prevent the venting of a bioagents? Well not really according to an important study by ,Michael May and Zachary Haldeman

… The bunker is destroyed by some combination of heat, pressure and other shock phenomena. On the other hand, heat and radiation are the mechanisms that deactivate the stored bioagents. A conservative but realistic criterion for destroying the bio-agents
themselves may thus be whether the explosion delivers enough heat and
radiation to destroy the bio-agents before they can vent to the surface…

The effectiveness of the radiation from a nuclear explosion depends on the
storage configuration of the bio-agents and the precise location of the explosion
with respect to this configuration…


They make the point that (in relation to two case examples),

… It follows from the above estimates that, for both Case 1 and Case 2, the
completeness of sterilization may well depend on irradiation after venting begins
and during cratering, when conditions are much harder to predict…


One of their conclusions is that

… A penetrating nuclear weapon in the 1- to 10-kiloton range will deliver
enough heat and radiation to sterilize all or nearly all bio-agents stored
within 10-30 meters, depending on yield and DOB. This short range means
that the explosion should occur within the targeted volume, which is an
extremely exacting target location and weapon delivery requirement…


Which it is indeed. Even a null result by an over flying UAV would be a strike damage assessment. It is likely that even after a nuclear strike there would be some venting of bioagents.

This UAV might well be a physical manifestation of those, controversial, aspects of US nuclear strategy that call for using nuclear weapons against biological targets which is of course contrary to US Negative Security Assurances.

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Good reports have emerged on questions surrounding the W76 warhead and the Life Extension Programme. It is clear that the most important impact that this will have is further supporting the case for the Reliable Replacement Warhead.

The question revolves around a special non-nuclear material manufactured at Y-12 for the interstage section of a thermonuclear warhead known as “Fogbank”.

There two good primers here from ACW and here from the Scottish CND[click on the word document]

The Scottish CND report states,

… Fogbank is a critical component of the Trident W76 warhead. The design margins of the W76 warhead are so tight that it is unlikely that AWE could produce an alternative secondary with a different design that would fit the constraints of the Mk4 Re-entry Vehicle…


That’s important because remember the tight design constraints are often stated as a rationale for RRW. These constraints can be relaxed by manufacturing warheads with less of an eye being directed toward yield-weight ratios.

The above statement is true but the W76-1 warhead is paired off with the Mk5 RV. If so, the problem with Fogbank could be mitigated by precisely producing an alternative secondary for the W76-1 that may well fit the constraints of the Mk5 RV.

To appreciate the point I am making here one need only take this on board from SIPRI,

… The modernization of the W76 warhead continues with three specific efforts under way. One involves an LE programme that inter alia replaces the arming, firing and fuzing (AF&F) system on the W76/Mk4 re-entry vehicle to add a ground-burst capability that will significantly enhance the lethality of the weapon against harder targets. The modified warhead, which will be called the W76-1, may permit a reduction of the explosive yield. A second effort involves adding the 'accuracy adjunct' to the Mk4 re-entry vehicle to enhance the effectiveness of the W76-1/Mk4 and to enable deployment of conventional warheads on the Trident II (D-5) SLBM. The third effort involves a design incorporating the W76-1 on the larger Mk5 re-entry vehicle normally used for the W88 warhead in order to relax the design constraints required when using the smaller Mk4 re-entry vehicle…


We must be very, very careful when seeing reports on the reliability and so on of warheads like the W76 and the W88 in the current climate. We must avoid getting inadvertently sucked into a pro RRW agenda.

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India has completed drawing up a safeguards agreement with the IAEA. The issue now is how the agreement will play out in the ruling coalition in India and the IAEA Board of Governors.

Some preliminary info, and highly polemical for what is supposed to be a serious newspaper, appears at The Times of India. It makes a few points about assurance of supply

…According to high level sources, India's core concerns about fuel supply assurances have broadly been met in the safeguards agreement that has virtually been completed with the IAEA. Quite apart from the vastly technical negotiations that have been done with the international agency, what set apart the safeguards agreement this time was India's insistence that the "entitlements" that it had got in the 123 agreement with the US should be adequately reflected in the main text of the agreement…


So,

…The fuel supply assurances encompass three important issues — uninterrupted supply of nuclear fuel, which means different countries would step in if the US cannot, India's right to build a strategic reserve of fuel for the lifetime of the reactors and measures that it could take to safeguard its nuclear interests in case fuel supplies were cut off at any time…


The “recalcitrant left” has pointed out that these assurances are not for the IAEA to make; that’s a matter for the US and other supplier parties. But the premise of the article is nonetheless sound. These, it would appear, have been put into a safeguards document in order to package the document to suit domestic political needs; never has the IAEA entered into such a propaganda exercise through a safeguards document before.

It seems that the Indian’s are pleased with the safeguards arrangement that they have reached with the IAEA

…Ultimately though, the safeguards will not be as intrusive as most NSG members, particularly the Europeans, would like. This might make it tough going at the NSG, as well at the US Congress later…


Hmmm, that’s interesting. Look forward to seeing the text.

The annual Pentagon report has some pretty juicy things in it. One that is of particular interest is the question of Chinese strategic nuclear modernisation and command system vulnerabilities.

What the Pentagon does not tell you is that this demonstrates not the awesome threat that China poses, as they would have us believe, but rather the insanity of US nuclear weapons policy.

It is interesting that this report neatly coincides with congressional testimony by US Strategic Command chief General Chilton. His remarks were interesting for a number of different reasons one being the whole issue of cyberwarfare and network-centric warfare.

Could cyberwarfare be an asymmetrical way of negating the force multiplying effects of net-centric warfare? It’s interesting that these remarks came from STRATCOM and one wonders; what are the implications of net-centric warfare for nuclear operations?

Chilton has stated that Washington must rely on nuclear deterrence throughout the rest of the century and at numbers inconsistent with proposals for deep cuts. The tenor of his discussion suggests that in so far as arms control is concerned the US should not move too far beyond SORT levels.

So, what of the Pentagon report on China? Well according to Global Security Newswire

…The report adds that a new generation of transportable Chinese ballistic-missile submarines and mobile ICBMs “will create new command and control challenges for China’s leadership, now confronted with a different set of variables related to release and deployment authorities,” the Washington Times reported.

The Pentagon noted that China’s military “has only a limited capacity to communicate with submarines at sea and the PLA Navy has no experience in managing [a nuclear missile submarine] fleet that performs strategic patrols.”

China’s strategic missile forces have experienced control “issues” related to mobile missile launchers, the report says, noting scenarios in recent drills “in which missile batteries lose communication links with higher echelons and other situations that would require commanders to choose alternative launch locations.”

“Pentagon concerns over China’s command and control of nuclear forces are growing,” said one Pentagon official, adding that the concerns of U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates were shared by his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld.

China has kept its procedures for handling and firing nuclear weapons shrouded in secrecy…


These are very interesting comments. China has traditionally adopted a form of what in the trade is called “minimum deterrence.” Modernisation of ballistic missiles does not necessarily mean that minimum deterrence is being abandoned. That is the important thing when it comes to Chinese modernisation often overlooked in China threat theory analysis.

BUT

China has a declared no first use policy. So we would expect, if accurate, that the Chinese system of command and control is configured for launch under attack (LUA) but one important consequence, it seems to me at any least, is that the shift to road mobile and sea based nuclear deterrence must seriously lead the Chinese to question its effectiveness given the issues mentioned in the report.

This may lead to China quietly, if not already, dumping no first use. Would any self respecting Chinese strategic planner in a crisis rely on LUA given the above command vulnerabilities? They would be mad to do so.

But why the shift to road mobile and sea based deterrence?

Surely one reason is US nuclear strategy and strategic nuclear forces transformation. China is seeking to ensure the survivability of its deterrent force. This does not necessarily mean the eclipsing of minimum deterrence but it clearly does pose issues for strategic stability.
This really demonstrates the insanity of US nuclear strategy more than anything else.

I am writing an essay about 2500-3000 words prospectively for a US publication called Stability-Instability Paradox and the Second Nuclear Age that will expand on this a little (the book will have more). I feel that we are seeing a dangerous new structural feature of strategic nuclear interaction that I want to discuss.

I am glad that the Pentagon report has mentioned this in the way it has. Chilton should read it carefully and think about his own role in all this.

By the way I have seen reports stating that the US Air Force is blocking access to certain blogs for Air Force personnel. Have they blocked this one? Wouldn't surprise me.

IAEA Provides More Info On Weaponisation.


I don’t want to sound like the Iranian foreign minister or anything but let us try and go through the latest IAEA safeguards report on Iran. There have always been interesting remarks in these reports about the need to get Iran to play ball on the Additional Protocol so these comments are interesting

…The Agency has recently received from Iran additional information similar to that which Iran had previously provided pursuant to the Additional Protocol, as well as updated design information. As a result, the Agency’s knowledge about Iran’s current declared nuclear programme has become clearer. However, this information has been provided on an ad hoc basis and not in a consistent and complete manner. The Director General has continued to urge Iran to implement the Additional Protocol at the earliest possible date and as an important confidence building measure requested by the Board of Governors and affirmed by the Security Council…


These are more positive remarks than have appeared in previous safeguards reports and hardly discussed in media reports on this latest safeguards document. Of course, things are not perfect but take a look at the previous reports and see if you can pick up the difference.

But we still have,

… Although Iran has provided some additional detailed information about its current activities on an ad hoc basis, the Agency will not be in a position to make progress towards providing credible assurances about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities in Iran before reaching some clarity about the nature of the alleged studies, and without implementation of the Additional Protocol. This is especially important in the light of the many years of undeclared activities in Iran and the confidence deficit created as a result…


The Additional Protocol remains important for verification on undeclared activities. It seems to me that the IAEA here is re-affirming one of the main, I believe the main, tenets of the NIE namely that the issue about any current nuclear weapons programme and perhaps a future one in Iran centres on undeclared nuclear facilities.

On enrichment we are informed that

…The throughput of the facility has been well below its declared design capacity. There has been no installation of centrifuges outside the original 18-cascade area. Installation work, including equipment and sub-header pipes, is continuing for other cascade areas. Since March 2007, a total of nine unannounced inspections have been carried out at FEP. All nuclear material at FEP remains under Agency containment and surveillance…


Which brings us to weaponisation. As the Agency tells us


…The one major remaining issue relevant to the nature of Iran’s nuclear programme is the alleged studies on the green salt project, high explosives testing and the missile re-entry vehicle. This is a matter of serious concern and critical to an assessment of a possible military dimension to Iran’s nuclear programme…


So what do we have?

Sorry to cite the report at length but I think this time it’s really important that we do so. Before getting on to the bit that I want to concentrate on notice that the report clears Iran on Po-210 and states that the main hurdle on the uranium metal hemispheres document is now Pakistan. But let us proceed to the nitty gritty.

… The Agency has continued to urge Iran, as demanded by the Security Council, to address the alleged studies concerning the conversion of uranium dioxide (UO2) into uranium tetrafluoride (UF4) (the green salt project), high explosives testing and the design of a missile re-entry vehicle, which could have a military nuclear dimension and which appear to have administrative interconnections, and in view of their possible link to nuclear material (GOV/2007/58, para. 28). As part of the work plan, Iran agreed to address these alleged studies…


These administrative interconnections are very, very important. If there are administrative interconnections between conversion, high explosives testing and RV design then we are starting to talk bomb programme here, or at least that Iran had a bomb programme. The Agency does claim it see no evidence of a connection between these alleged programmes and nuclear material.

On the high explosives we have

… During the meetings on 3–5 February 2008, the Agency made available documents for examination by Iran and provided additional technical information related to: the testing of high voltage detonator firing equipment; the development of an exploding bridgewire detonator (EBW); the simultaneous firing of multiple EBW detonators; and the identification of an explosive testing arrangement that involved the use of a 400 m shaft and a firing capability remote from the shaft by a distance of 10 km, all of which the Agency believes would be relevant to nuclear weapon R&D. Iran stated that the documents were fabricated and that the information contained in those documents could…


The Agency would be right to surmise that these would be consistent with nuclear weapons R&D. The question is; are these documents legit? Iran claims that they are frauds and thereby dismisses the matter but as the Agency points out Iran agreed to play ball in the modality accord.

I have seen an interesting report claiming that these documents were produced by the MEK; I don’t think so. The MEK wouldn’t be sophisticated enough to come up with documents like this. Maybe their original provenance was with Western intelligence agencies and Mossad. I don’t know and won’t speculate.

We then come to the RV for the Shahab-3

… During the meetings mentioned above, the Agency also described
parameters and development work related to the Shahab 3 missile, in particular technical aspects of a re-entry vehicle, and made available to Iran for examination a computer image provided by other Member States showing a schematic layout of the contents of the inner cone of a re-entry vehicle. This layout has been assessed by the Agency as quite likely to be able to accommodate a nuclear device. Iran stated that its missile programme involved the use of conventional warheads only and was also part of the country’s space programme, and that the schematic layout shown by the Agency was baseless and fabricated…


Again what matters here is how legit are these documents? I believe these documents should be made public.

Remember that the Shahab-3 is not a stand alone missile programme. The Shahab-3 is the Iranian sister missile of the North Korean Nodong and Pakistan’s Ghauri-II. Both were designed with nuclear missions very much in mind.

These comments from ISIS on North Korea are interesting

… Given that North Korea has been working on developing a warhead for the Nodong ballistic missile since at least 1994 and is strongly suspected of having obtained nuclear weapon designs to fit on missiles from the Pakistani Abdul Qadeer Khan, North Korea is judged capable of putting a crude warhead on a Nodong missile. Nonetheless, the warhead may not be reliable, and it may have a relatively low yield…


This suggests a level of inter-linkage on RV work. They certainly share a common problem namely tumbling warheads as this FAS primer points out

… Recently, it was suggested that the developing nations missile program warheads would be tumbling about their center of gravity during re-entry, which would then make it difficult to identify. This was because they were not being spun-up along their longitudinal axis prior to re-entry through the atmosphere.

A warhead is much like a bullet fired from a rifle barrel. If the barrel is grooved to spin up the bullet along its longitudinal axis it tends to fly through the atmosphere to its target more smoothly and accurately. If the barrel is not built with this capability, the bullet tumbles uncontrollably about its center of gravity throughout its flight in the atmosphere to its target. This tumbling reduces the accuracy of the projectile.

This kind of missile warhead tumbling was noted in the ballistic flights of Iraqi's Scud-B, Scud-C/Al-Hussein, Scud-D/Al-Abbas ballistic missiles during the Gulf war…


However

… Today this is not the case with North Korean derived warhead technology. North Korea successfully demonstrated payload spin up with the satellite launch attempt of the Taep'o-dong-1 or PAEUTUSAN-1 booster. The Paeutusan-1 solid propellant third stage both demonstrated a near full duration burn and the spin up of the stage and satellite along its longitudinal axis. However, the third stage solid motor ruptured, de-orbiting the satellite, almost immediately after achieving orbital velocity.

Therefore, it would be correct to assume that besides North Korea's, No-dong (first stage of Taep'o-dong-1), both Pakistan's Ghauri-II and Iran's Shahab-3 all benefit from this spin-up technology. The Shahab-3/Ghauri-II both apparently spin up the single booster stage and warhead combination starting at about 10 seconds before the termination of the powered flight at 110 seconds. At this point after 110 seconds of powered flight the warhead is then separated from the booster stage to fly on a re-entry trajectory that remains stable to its target…


OK this doesn’t go to the inner core of a RV but I just like to make the point that the Shahab-3 is not an autonomous Iran only gig. The 3 states of concern here have had incentive to work together on re-entry technology so if Iran has an RV blueprint able to accommodate a nuclear explosive physics package this should not be seen as much of a surprise as it appears at first blush.

Again Iran claims that these documents are not legit but again I’m not going to speculate. Let us wait and see.

It’s funny how the debate now seems to focus on Iran’s past activities not its current and plausible future nuclear activities.

Did Iran have a pre 2003 bomb programme? Might very well be the case. I think the big issue here is the “administrative interconnections”. On this surely we will hear more.
Nothing in this report really smashes the NIE and there is nothing here that justifies a bombing campaign perhaps not even intensified sanctions for that matter.



The local "news pictorial" The Herald-Sun once carried this picture with the caption "Einstein calculates the density of the Milky Way". This had me wallowing in laughter for like ages...Einstein here is writing down the field equations of General Relativity and that looks awfully like the Riemann curvature tensor...

How many p-branes can stand on the end of a pin?

Generally speaking whenever we see collective irrationality we know that we are going to need the tools of the "sociology of knowledge" in order to discern the hidden institutional and social interests that underlies it. This is not a universal rule. For example, collective irrationality can arise because of mysticism and various crazed cultish forms of belief but for the most part in the modern world irrationality pays, for someone at least.

The key form of irrationality that interests us is the widespread upholding of systems of belief in the intellectual world that completely fly in the face of empirical reality.

The sociology of knowledge has come to be associated with the "strong programme" which asserts that knowledge is a social convention. This is unfortunate because the "strong programme" is a mere collection of poly-syllabic discourse and fashionable nonsense. It is fashionable because its presence is ubiquitous in the social sciences and humanities and nonsense because here the real world, or should we say "real world", is but a trifling which we can safely be ignorant of.

The sociology of knowledge works when we ignore the fashionable nonsense and concentrate on the empirical study of why systems of irrational belief come to be upheld on a collective basis. It is an interesting self-referential paradox for adherents to the "strong programme" and "social constructivism" that their school of thought is a classic case of collective irrationality.

But can collective irrationality also be displayed in the hard sciences? Sure, Isaac Newton spent much of his time on mysticism and alchemy. Albert Einstein spent many years on a futile attempt at "unified field theory" through refined mathematics whilst all around him physicists were working on developing new theoretical insights in conjunction with experiment. We have seen the saga over cold fusion, fraud in nanotechnology research and so on.

But these are not really collective forms of intellectual mania.

Collective irrationality in the sciences is usually seen as a feature of totalitarian regimes. For instance during the Stalin era we had the Lysenko affair in biology, "Aryan physics" in Nazi Germany and mad "Mao Tse Tung Thought" style particle physics during the cultural revolution. Sometimes, funny enough, this type of collective irrationality can work. For instance a group of Japanese physicists, who tried to prove Karl Marx's philosophy of "dialectical materialism", actually made some important discoveries in our understanding of the strong nuclear force in the 1950s but alas they went off the rails thereafter.

But could we be going a through a period of collective irrationality right now in physics, the queen of the sciences? If so, what would that tell us about knowledge and the university?

One of the enduring goals of theoretical physics is the marriage of Einstein's general theory of relativity, a theory of gravity, with quantum mechanics which accounts for the microworld. It is hoped that the consummation of this marriage, quantum gravity, would unify physics and provide us with new insight into the underlying laws of nature. Some even hold out the promise of a "theory of everything" following unification.

But the problem here has been a most calamitous and rocky courtship. Every attempt at unification resulted in ugly mathematics that spewed out nonsense and anomalies including particles that travel faster than light and too many predictions of infinite physical quantities. Even Dexter with his compatibility algorithm in Perfect Match would be struggling.

Without any shadow of a doubt the most popular theory that promises to deliver the unification of physics is what is called "superstring theory". Superstring theory has had a very long and torturous history but essentially the premise is that the physical world, including spacetime, is fundamentally composed of strings and membranes, such as D-branes and p-branes. Those who follow popular science would be familiar with the theory for it is truly remarkable to observe how many books, magazine articles, TV documentaries and Radio shows have been produced that attempt to explain the promise and hidden intricacies of the theory. For a theory still in development this is surely unprecedented and it would be interesting to inquire to what extent public rapture has played in the fortunes of the theory.

To be sure superstring theory is noted for its mathematical elegance and in fact has prompted important new developments in pure mathematics. But it appears that string theorists are collectively making the same mistake as Einstein in his latter years.

It is not the only theory that promises to deliver new theoretical insight. There are others such as twistor theory, loop quantum gravity, canonical quantum gravity and so on. But if we measure the amount of papers that have been written we see that superstring theorists are by far the most productive. That's because there are so many of them. Needless to say at the popular level the alternatives have hardly been given the limelight.

But superstring theory comes at a price. To be mathematically consistent we must assume that spacetime has many dimensions. First it was 26 dimensions. Then mercifully it went down to 10 dimensions. It now stands at 11. The obvious paradox is explained away by simply assuming that all those extra dimensions that we do not perceive are hidden in tiny, tiny topological spaces. The theory in some guises has predicted a kind of "shadow matter" that mirrors the ordinary matter that we are familiar with.

It also has many "solutions". This means that the theory requires more universes than our own. For a theory purporting to be a "theory of everything" we seem to have an embarrassment of riches. The embarrassment is explained by invoking the "anthropic principle". It is asserted that our particular universe takes a physical form consistent with the evolution of observers. Because we are here our universe is a life consistent solution to the theory. This is a sloppy way to do the unification of physics. In essence the theory of everything has become a theory of nothing precisely because there is too much of everything.

Superstring theory, since the 70's!, has made precisely zero verifiable predictions. To be sure it has made a number of "postdictions". For instance in a particularly celebrated result amongst string theorists, the theory was used to derive Stephen Hawking's equation on radiating Black Holes. But alternative conceptions of general relativity from Einstein's can postdict Newton's law of universal gravitation. So what?

What this all means is that progress in superstring theory is being conducted without reference to empirical reality, like "postmodernism" in the humanities. In the 1980s the leading theorist explained this by stating that superstring theorists are doing 21st century physics with 20th century mathematics. But it's 2008 already. It is also argued that the theory operates at energy levels far beyond current experimental technologies. However most of the work in classical general relativity occurred in similar circumstances but this did not prevent progress that was founded on solid ground.

In fact, we know that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. This expansion is consistent with a small but albeit non-zero value for the cosmological constant. This was introduced by Einstein into his field equations of general relativity to preserve a non-expanding universe, the widespread belief at the time, and so is a kind of anti-gravity. Einstein subsequently went on to describe this as the greatest mistake of his life after the static universe was exploded by Edwin Hubble.

Current theory has problems with a small cosmological constant because quantum theory predicts a value for the constant way at odds with observation. Einstein himself famously viewed quantum mechanics with more than a little contempt. It would be ironic if his greatest mistake should be the undoing of quantum theory. Needless to say, string theorists need another "postdiction". In fact the "super" in superstring comes from what is called supersymmetry and the small cosmological constant seems incompatible with supersymmetry.

Richard Feynman is reputed to have remarked of superstring theorists that they "don't make predictions, they make excuses". One excuse for the small cosmological constant involves all those universes. It is said that different universes have different values for the constant and a small one is compatible with life. It thereby follows that we observers must be in a universe where the value for the constant is small. So again we have the anthropic principle. In other words, Feynman was spot on.

Fundamental new science occurs when an experimental anomaly cannot be explained by current theory. This is how the scientific revolution began with Copernicus and quantum physics was ushered in by trying to explain blackbody radiation. The accelerating expansion of the universe appears to be our experimental anomaly perhaps requiring us to have a fundamental re-look at both of our most cherished physical theories. If only the horde of bright theorists were concentrating on this universe instead of all those other universes we might get somewhere.

A small, but growing, number of critics, have made these points in relation to superstring theory. In other words we may very well be witnessing a form of collective irrationality in the most basic and fundamental of the sciences. If so, then the sociology of knowledge would be the appropriate tool to account for this. Such a study has not been attempted but it may tell us a lot about the nature of science and the university system in the context of funding constraints.

It is true that it is easier to get a job or get on the box doing superstring theory than any of the rival approaches. If we look at superstring theory and cults in the humanities it might be appropriate to conclude that it is the university itself with the dual emphasis on quantity of publications and citations combined with the gravitational effect that intellectual celebrity has on university funding levels that is helping to block intellectual progress . In the humanities irrationality has now reached the level of scandal.

Ultimately, the purpose of the university is to advance human knowledge and if current structure is helping to hinder this then reform is needed.