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Why Nukes Are Still Just As Scary As They Were in the 60s

I think people today, especially younger people, don’t think of nuclear weapons as a real threat the way that people who lived through, say, the Cuban Missile crisis did. Remember the days when campuses would erupt in “no nukes” protests? When activists would lie across train tracks to stop trains from delivering bombs to missile sites? The crises are hidden now. The protests small, when there are any. The Cold War has ended, the assumption goes, and with the Berlin Wall fell the threat of World War Three. I had been operating under this tacit assumption for some time: that a Dr. Strangelove-style disaster was, if not impossible, then nearly so. But as I recently heard someone point out, if the probability of something is not zero, it will eventually happen. So it’s not an antiquated concern; the nuclear threat is as present as it was when Kennedy said this to the UN, if not moreso:

As the documentary film Countdown to Zero eloquently and frighteningly lays out, that “Sword of Damocles” still hangs above our collective heads, despite significant reductions in the nuclear arsenals of Russia and the U.S., and the decision of countries like South Africa to get rid of their arsenals altogether. Kennedy cites “miscalculation, mistake, or madness” as reasons the next bomb could go off, and the film discusses each in turn. Mistake and miscalculation are why we’ve had a number of quiet but very serious close calls in the two decades since the Cold War supposedly ended — the U.S. and Russia still have thousands of nuclear warheads on hair trigger, such that if just enough mistakes or miscalculations were made in the right order, hundreds of millions in both countries could be dead within thirty minutes. It almost happened in 1995, in what’s known as the Norwegian Rocket Incident:

From PBS.org:

It was one of the most frightening moments since the Cuban missile crisis. In the early morning hours of January 25, 1995 a Russian radar crew spotted a fast-moving object above the Barents Sea at Russia’s northern border. A missile they couldn’t identify. The Russians have always viewed U.S. nuclear submarines as the greatest threat; a Trident missile launched from that area could reach Russia’s mainland in 10 minutes. At the Russian radar station, the crew saw the missile suddenly separate into several sections just as the warheads of a Trident missile would. Their trajectory seemed to be carrying them towards Moscow. In Moscow, a signal went out to the nuclear briefcases which always accompany President Boris Yeltsin and top defense officials. Russia had established a deadline: they’re supposed to detect an attack, assess it and reach a decision on retaliation within 10 minutes.

There were only 5 minutes left. Urgent radio contact was made with Russian submarine commanders. Orders were given to go into a state of combat readiness and the military issued orders to the Strategic Forces to prepare to possibly receive the next command, which would have been the launch order. For 4 minutes, the Russian commanders waited for the order to launch. The Russian strategic plans permit launching Russian missiles before enemy missiles hit Russian territory. Eight minutes after the alarm was first sounded, the mysterious objects fell into the seas. The decision to launch a retaliatory nuclear strike was averted; the Russian forces stood down.

Hours later, the Russians learned that the unidentified object had been a scientific rocket launched from Norway to study the Northern lights. The Russian government had been notified weeks earlier the launch was coming, but no one told the radar crew.

In other words, one day in 1995, Russian president Boris Yeltsin, who was by all accounts frequently drunk, and was characterized by one diplomat as a “robot on drugs,” had the proverbial red button placed before him. If he’d been in a less rational state of mind, or if he’s listened to the advice of his military commanders, there would have been a nuclear holocaust.

Other nuclear alerts have been triggered by flocks of migrating geese, meteor showers (in 1960), and a malfunctioning computer chip costing 46 cents (1980). Pentagon officials admit that even today, equipment failures cause two or three false alarms every year.

As for madness, let’s look at Pakistan. It is a nuclear power with some seventy bombs in its arsenal. Its government is highly unstable. It’s a hotbed for religious radicalism. Osama Bin Laden lives there. Bin Laden has stated that his ultimate goal is to kill somewhere in the neighborhood of four million American citizens, which according to his calculations, would just about even out the body count in his holy war. It’s pretty clear that terrorist organizations are not going to be able to kill that many people with airplanes or conventional weapons. They will need a nuclear bomb.

There’s lots of talk about terrorists smuggling a “dirty bomb” into the states. The government has spent billions of dollars installing radiation detectors at American ports, which scan the great numbers of shipping containers that come into the country every day. They are very good at detecting elements like Cesium, which you’d use to make a dirty bomb. Various reports have argued that while such bombs would cause plenty of panic and certainly some deaths, they would be nowhere near as destructive as an actual nuke. You can make perhaps a few thousand people very, very sick with a dirty bomb. You cannot level a city.

Highly enriched uranium, however — which you need to make a “real” bomb — is much easier to sneak past those sensors. When encased in lead, its radiation signal is quite weak. Porcelain, china, even kitty litter give similar signals. (Every day there are thousands of false alarms at ports involving household products like those.) The whole thing, even sealed in lead, would be about the size of a football. If it was hidden in a shipment of kitty litter, they’d never find it. (According to this article, we’re working on better detectors.) Once you had the material inside the country — say, in the heart of the target city — making the device that sets it off is not an insurmountable challenge. You need about a million dollars worth of equipment and the help of a few dozen people trained in various aspects of weapons technology. This sort of tech might’ve been a big secret in the 1950s — it’s not anymore.

So what can the world do to prevent a nuclear holocaust, accidental or intentional? The Global Zero foundation has a step-by-step plan (and a nice little petition you can sign if you feel so inclined) which involves a combination of further nuclear reductions (the ultimate goal being zero) and much better and more secure policing of the world’s existing stockpile of highly-enriched uranium, the key to bomb-making.

To close, here’s a nice little featurette on Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the bomb,” and the incredible regret he came to feel in the decades following the Manhattan Project.

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10 Things We Know About The Handmaid’s Tale Season 2
Hulu
Hulu

Though Hulu has been producing original content for more than five years now, 2017 turned out to be a banner year for the streaming network with the debut of The Handmaid’s Tale on April 26, 2017. The dystopian drama, based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 book, imagines a future in which a theocratic regime known as Gilead has taken over the United States and enslaved fertile women so that the group’s most powerful couples can procreate.

If it all sounds rather bleak, that’s because it is—but it’s also one of the most impressive new series to arrive in years (as evidenced by the slew of awards it has won, including eight Emmy and two Golden Globe Awards). Fortunately, fans left wanting more don’t have that much longer to wait, as season two will premiere on Hulu in April. In the meantime, here’s everything we know about The Handmaid’s Tale’s second season.

1. IT WILL PREMIERE WITH TWO EPISODES.

When The Handmaid’s Tale returns on April 25, 2018, Hulu will release the first two of its 13 new episodes on premiere night, then drop another new episode every Wednesday.

2. MARGARET ATWOOD WILL CONTINUE TO HELP SHAPE THE NARRATIVE.

Fans of Atwood’s novel who didn’t like that season one went beyond the original source material are in for some more disappointment in season two, as the narrative will again go beyond the scope of what Atwood covered. But creator/showrunner Bruce Miller doesn’t necessarily agree with the criticism they received in season one.

“People talk about how we're beyond the book, but we're not really," Miller told Newsweek. "The book starts, then jumps 200 years with an academic discussion at the end of it, about what's happened in those intervening 200 years. We're not going beyond the novel. We're just covering territory [Atwood] covered quickly, a bit more slowly.”

Even more importantly, Miller's got Atwood on his side. The author serves as a consulting producer on the show, and the title isn’t an honorary one. For Miller, Atwood’s input is essential to shaping the show, particularly as it veers off into new territories. And they were already thinking about season two while shooting season one. “Margaret and I had started to talk about the shape of season two halfway through the first [season],” he told Entertainment Weekly.

In fact, Miller said that when he first began working on the show, he sketched out a full 10 seasons worth of storylines. “That’s what you have to do when you’re taking on a project like this,” he said.

3. MOTHERHOOD WILL BE A CENTRAL THEME.

As with season one, motherhood is a key theme in the series. And June/Offred’s pregnancy will be one of the main plotlines. “So much of [Season 2] is about motherhood,” Elisabeth Moss said during the Television Critics Association press tour. “Bruce and I always talked about the impending birth of this child that’s growing inside her as a bit of a ticking time bomb, and the complications of that are really wonderful to explore. It’s a wonderful thing to have a baby, but she’s having it potentially in this world that she may not want to bring it into. And then, you know, if she does have the baby, the baby gets taken away from her and she can’t be its mother. So, obviously, it’s very complicated and makes for good drama. But, it’s a very big part of this season, and it gets bigger and bigger as the show goes on.”

4. THE RESISTANCE IS COMING.

Just because June is pregnant, don’t expect her to sit on the sidelines as the resistance to Gilead continues. “There is more than one way to resist," Moss said. “There is resistance within [June], and that is a big part of this season.”

5. WE’LL GET TO SEE THE COLONIES.

A scene from 'The Handmaid's Tale'
Hulu

Miller, understandably, isn’t eager to share too many details about the new season. “I’m not being cagey!” he swore to Entertainment Weekly. “I just want the viewers to experience it for themselves!” What he did confirm is that the new season will bring us to the colonies—reportedly in episode two—and show what life is like for those who have been sent there.

It will also delve further into what life is like for the refugees who managed to escape Gilead, like Luke and Moira.

6. MARISA TOMEI WILL APPEAR IN AN EPISODE.

Though she won’t be a regular cast member, Miller recently announced that Oscar winner Marisa Tomei will make a guest appearance in the new season’s second episode. Yes, the one that will show us the Colonies. In fact, that’s where we’ll meet her; Tomei is playing the wife of a Commander.

7. WE’LL LEARN MORE ABOUT THE ORIGINS OF GILEAD.

As a group shrouded in secrecy, we still don’t know much about how and where Gilead began. That will change a bit in season two. When discussing some of the questions viewers will have answered, executive producer Warren Littlefield promised that, "How did Gilead come about? How did this happen?” would be two of them. “We get to follow the historical creation of this world,” he said.

8. THERE WILL BE AT LEAST ONE HANDMAID FUNERAL.

A scene from 'The Handmaid's Tale'
Hulu

While Miller wouldn’t talk about who the handmaids are mourning in a teaser shot from season two that shows a handmaid’s funeral, he was excited to talk about creating the look for the scene. “Everything from the design of their costumes to the way they look is so chilling,” Miller told Entertainment Weekly. “These scenes that are so beautiful, while set in such a terrible place, provide the kind of contrast that makes me happy.”

9. ELISABETH MOSS SAYS THE TONE WILL BE DARKER.

Like season one, Miller says that The Handmaid’s Tale's second season will again balance its darker, dystopian themes with glimpses of hopefulness. “I think the first season had very difficult things, and very hopeful things, and I think this season is exactly the same way,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “There come some surprising moments of real hope and victory, and strength, that come from surprising places.”

Moss, however, has a different opinion. “It's a dark season,” she told reporters at TCA. “I would say arguably it's darker than Season 1—if that's possible.”

10. IT WILL ALSO BE BLOODIER.

A scene from 'The Handmaid's Tale'
Hulu

When pressed about how the teaser images for the new season seemed to feature a lot of blood, Miller conceded: “Oh gosh, yeah. There may be a little more blood this season.”

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NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero
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Researchers in Singapore Deploy Robot Swans to Test Water Quality
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero

There's something peculiar about the new swans floating around reservoirs in Singapore. They drift across the water like normal birds, but upon closer inspection, onlookers will find they're not birds at all: They're cleverly disguised robots designed to test the quality of the city's water.

As Dezeen reports, the high-tech waterfowl, dubbed NUSwan (New Smart Water Assessment Network), are the work of researchers at the National University of Singapore [PDF]. The team invented the devices as a way to tackle the challenges of maintaining an urban water source. "Water bodies are exposed to varying sources of pollutants from urban run-offs and industries," they write in a statement. "Several methods and protocols in monitoring pollutants are already in place. However, the boundaries of extensive assessment for the water bodies are limited by labor intensive and resource exhaustive methods."

By building water assessment technology into a plastic swan, they're able to analyze the quality of the reservoirs cheaply and discreetly. Sensors on the robots' undersides measure factors like dissolved oxygen and chlorophyll levels. The swans wirelessly transmit whatever data they collect to the command center on land, and based on what they send, human pilots can remotely tweak the robots' performance in real time. The hope is that the simple, adaptable technology will allow researchers to take smarter samples and better understand the impact of the reservoir's micro-ecosystem on water quality.

Man placing robotic swan in water.
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero

This isn't the first time humans have used robots disguised as animals as tools for studying nature. Check out this clip from the BBC series Spy in the Wild for an idea of just how realistic these robots can get.

[h/t Dezeen]

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