APS News

Physicists Bring Their Moxie to National Intelligence

By Calla Cofield

“How many people have heard of DARPA?” asks a woman in a fuchsia business jacket at the front of the room. Nearly everyone in the room raises their hand. She smiles, “Ok—we’re like DARPA for spies.”

That’s how Lisa Porter describes the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, IARPA, a government agency started in 2008 that invests in high-risk, high-payoff research to advance national intelligence. Ten years ago Porter worked as an applied physicist, but 9/11 prompted her to put her efforts toward national security. Now Porter is director of IARPA, where she keeps her physics roots strong. She spoke at a session at the APS April Meeting and discussed both the obvious and less-obivous ways that  the physics community can contribute to national intelligence.

The obvious ways include advancing technology from basic research: quantum information science, sensor technology, and pushing the size, weight and power limit on increasingly discrete devices. At a press conference at the meeting, scientists from Los Alamos National Laboratory and the National Institute for Standards and Technology, NIST, discussed the microcalorimeter: a new device about the size of a quarter, intended for astronomical applications but with potential uses in radioactive materials detection. Cooled to just above absolute zero, the lack of thermal noise gives the microcalorimeters the highest resolution of alpha particles of any detector available.

Current detector technologies cannot discern between radon and uranium, for example, two elements with very similar alpha particle signatures. This causes a significant number of false alarms at border checkpoints since radioactive radon is usually legal to transport, but uranium sends up a red flag for its weapons applications. But the microcalorimeter can determine the difference between these two elements with no ambiguity, and even distinguish between isotopes of the same element, like plutonium.

It could still be three to five years before the devices are available for such applications, and because they are superconducting and need to be cooled with liquid helium, hand-held versions are unlikely. Ullom says lower-resolution detectors could be used to scan samples, and if they read radioactive, then the sample would be subject to search by a microcalorimeter.

Besides technology, physicists have information that can benefit national security. Physicist Richard Muller had information he felt was pertinent to national security, and wanted to make sure it got to the right people. So, he titled his book Physics for Future Presidents. (He hears that Michelle Obama did receive a copy to give to the President.)

Muller has taught a class at Berkeley by the same name for ten years and delivered an excerpt from it at the April Meeting titled, “A Physicists Evaluates the Terrorist Threat.” Muller shares with students the energy content of an atomic bomb, a stick of dynamite, a tank of airplane fuel, and a batch of chocolate chip cookies. The point is to illustrate the most efficient and inefficient ways to cause destruction, and why heat, not an explosion, brought down the twin towers on 9/11.

Muller’s non-partisan course is intended for non-physics majors (although he challenges undergraduate physics students to pass his exams), and prepares students to discuss physics in a public forum. Muller is now publishing a course guide so teachers can adopt his class format.

Besides technology and information, what else can physics provide to national intelligence? Porter argues it’s their way of thinking: their methodologies and their moxie.

Porter and IARPA are currently focused on cyber security as the field that needs their attention both because of our increasing dependence on the cyber world, and a lack of structure in the study of cyber security.

“As physicists we like to model things and predict behavior,” says Porter. “You don’t get that a lot in the [cyber security] community.”

Cyber security experts currently have no way to quantitatively evaluate how secure any one system is, or even determine which of two systems is more secure. Porter hopes that physicists’ ways of thinking, of modeling, of asking questions, of organizing and testing will be the key to building a systematic approach to predicting and overcoming cyber vulnerabilities that loom on the horizon.  

“Is there a science of cyber security that we could try to develop?” asks Porter. “It certainly seems worth asking the question. If it turns out we can’t do it, then along the way we probably will have learned quite a bit.” She ended her talk to a roar of applause, and pointed her audience to the IARPA website, where they accept open solicitations.

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Editor: Alan Chodos