Of nukes and crackers
Today's Washington Post
carried a story
about a class being taught this semester at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. The class, which has about 20 graduate students, is titled "How to Build a Nuclear Bomb" and is taught by Dr. Charles Ferguson
, a physicist who now works on nuclear nonproliferation issues at the Council on Foreign Relations. A "senior White House official" is quoted as saying that there is a "proliferation concern" about this class, but Ferguson points out that what he's teaching are "cartoons" and that nobody's going to walk out of class with dangerous knowledge about nukes. Instead, the idea behind the class is to teach students who will go on to careers in foreign policy some of the basic science behind one of the most important international relations issues of our time.
I think this is great, and I'm glad that it's Ferguson who's doing it. I met Charles at an APS meeting last spring and we hit it off talking about a little-known uranium enrichment technology called Laser Isotope Separation (LIS). Several of the National Labs and some private companies in the US worked on this laser-based technology in the 1980s, but they eventually abandoned it. However, Charles is concerned that modern laser technology might make LIS an increasingly attractive enrichment method for countries that want to get their hands on a nuke. I agree, and we're now starting work on a collaborative project (along with Jack Boureston
at FirstWatch) to better understand this threat and what we might do about it. Since laser technology follows somewhat of a Moore's Law, what was extremely challenging or impossible twenty years ago may no longer be that hard to do.
Scotto just sent me a link to a BBC story
about cracking Nazi codes using distributed computing over a network of volunteer computers. Stefan Krah, a "German-born violinist," put together the project and now has 2,500 machines working on decrypting messages encoded with the advanced Enigma machine in 1942. So far the project has decyphered one message and appears to be working on two more. This reminds me of the RSA decryption contest
held several years ago, in which one of the victorious teams to crack a 56-bit DES cypher did so using this kind of distributed computing, demonstrating just how powerful distributed volunteer computing can be. Happily they did it in less than 64 years.