Saturday, September 26, 2009

Quaker Town and Star Wars

Clare never met a nuclear weapon she liked so back in 1983, soon after we moved to Saffron Walden she joined the local CND. This was just after Ronald Reagan had made his speech about The Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI) aka Star Wars and we were all agog about the new high frontier. What was it, and could it work?

I was a couple of years into my new job at Standard Telecommunication Laboratories, STL as it was universally known, working on formal methods for software specification. As the nearest thing anyone in Quaker Town knew as a scientist, I was invited to address the local CND on the subject of Star Wars.

I read up on the subject, misused STL resources to make OHP slides and dutifully turned up one evening at the local community centre to give my strictly factual talk. The twenty or so people in the audience confirmed my prejudices: a surfeit of beards, an aura of well-meaning and a quality of middle-class niceness suffused the room.

Undaunted I started my talk. Thousands of Soviet ICBMs launching from the steppes. At first stage ignition, SDI space-born infrared detectors would sound the alarm as orbiting Gigawatt radars initiated automatic tracking. Nuclear-powered X-Ray lasers would take out swathes of the missiles in their boost phase. The remaining Soviet rockets would soon be exo-atmospheric. Here Brilliant Pebbles would swing into action – orbital batteries of 40 kg mini-missiles accelerating into intercept trajectories. They would be augmented by Rail Guns: electromagnetic launchers firing terminally-guided kinetic-energy kill weapons accelerated at 10,000g to 24 miles per second.

Anything left would be taken out by the third wave: American ground-based antimissile missiles fired from silos in the Midwest. The Soviet first strike was defeated. America was unscathed and safe.

As I progressed through my illustrated talk, I was gauging the reactions of the audience. And I was amazed. They were panting, their mouths open, their eyes glistening. They were enthralled at this science-fiction Armageddon, this hi-tech battle space, this carnival of destruction. Pure war-porn.

After I finished, it took them a good five minutes to calm down, cool off, regain their dignity and recall that they were actually mean to be ... against all this stuff?