F O R U M O N P H Y S I C S & S O C I E T Y
of The American Physical Society 
July 2005



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Protecting the Ozone Layer:  Science and Strategy

By Edward A. Parson, Oxford University Press, 2003, 400 pages, ISBN 0-19-515549-1,  $74.50

     The recognition of the threat posed to the ozone layer by chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), and the international treaties that have been in effect during the past two decades to alleviate this problem, have been considered by many to be a uniquely important example of efforts by the global community to deal with human effects on environmental problems that are intrinsically global in scope. This book is a comprehensive study of how scientists first determined that these seemingly benign chemicals were so dangerous and how the international community eventually agreed on ways to virtually eliminate the emission of CFCs into the atmosphere. A critical examination of how and why CFCs have been successfully regulated may provide lessons on how to deal more effectively with the regulation of emission of carbon dioxide and other global warming gases.

Edward A. Parson was a professor of public policy at Harvard University when he wrote this book; he currently holds joint appointments in Michigan University's Law School and School of Natural Resources and Environment.  His research has concentrated on the study of this and related issues and this book is a very detailed and technical study of the ozone issue.

Some have argued that control of CFC emission is a special case where the danger was clear and the solution relatively easy and therefore there is little to be learned with respect to other global environmental problems.  Parson argues that although there are clearly some unique aspects to the ozone case there are many features that have more widespread applicability.  Indeed a considerable portion of this book is devoted to examination of the many obstacles and delays that initially frustrated attempts to come to terms with the ozone depletion problem.  For example, Parson notes that there was an initial decade of relatively fruitless discussion and negotiation that included debates about whether there was any clear scientific evidence of a problem.  He also describes claims that were made that severe technological and economic problems would result if attempts were made to reduce, let alone eliminate, CFC emissions.

One of the most interesting parts of this book is the discussion of particular methods and procedures that eventually led to international agreement on the near-elimination of CFC emission and use.  Parson clearly documents the importance of authoritative scientific assessment.  The scientific evidence of depletion of the ozone layer due largely to CFC emission had eventually become clear to most of the researchers themselves but was less obvious to those who had to negotiate and set regulatory policy.  It required a careful review of the available research by a group of recognized experts from several different countries before there was general agreement about the nature and scope of the problem.  Once this had been achieved the world community was faced with the difficult task of negotiating a regulatory treaty that would gain initial approval from the major CFC-consuming and -producing countries and would also be amenable to change when new technical data became available. 

Of particular interest is the "adaptive regime" that set machinery in place that was particularly effective in assessing new scientific research, and the exchange of information about the production of new chemicals that could safely replace the CFCs and other ozone depleting materials.  These mechanisms provided the structure that allowed an ongoing evaluation of the situation, and a forum to facilitate negotiations for more effective control of ozone depleting chemicals.

This is a valuable book, particularly for those interested in having an effective impact on public policy that is driven by scientific research and evaluation.  It provides enormous detail and annotation; there are almost 90 pages of footnotes.  This does not always make for easy reading, particularly for those who are not experts in public policy.  The general reader may be most interested in Chapters 1, 2 and 9 and might wish to skim much of the discussion in the other chapters dealing with the fine details of the issue and the negotiations that led to the adoption of the current stringent controls on CFC production and emission.  Nonetheless, any expert or layman interested in how to effectively deal with global environmental problems will find much to learn from this study.

Martin Epstein
California State University, Los Angeles

The Four Faces of Nuclear Terrorism by Charles D. Ferguson and William C. Potter with Amy Sands, Leonard S. Spector and Fred L. Wehling,

Center for Nonproliferation Studies, 2004, ISBN 1-885350-09-0. 

It's noteworthy that, when asked “What is the gravest threat to American security,” both major candidates for president in the 2004 election gave the same answer: “nuclear terrorism” (San Francisco Chronicle, 28 Oct. 2004).  This book catalogues the growing nuclear threat.

This is a well-researched, sobering, flawed and ultimately disturbing look at the possibility of a nuclear terror attack at the heart of a major city in the near future.  This reader views this book as an invaluable guide to the current international efforts to secure fissile material by physical security improvements, by regulatory initiatives, and by treaty provisions, but believes the book’s suggestions to escape the danger are incomplete.

The “four faces” of potential nuclear terrorism are: the acquisition and detonation of an existing nuclear weapon, the building of such a weapon by a terrorist group, an attack on a nuclear facility (e.g. a nuclear reactor), and the dispersal of radioactive material by a conventional explosive (e.g. “dirty” bomb).  The book presents a chain of causation for each potential terrorist act which provides readers with the necessary context to judge the threat, along with presenting opportunities to disrupt a nuclear terrorist action.

The book is at its strongest when presenting the facts on the potential for nuclear terrorism.  The numerous tables of statistical and other information are well-designed and informative.  The most important table presents the current worldwide stocks of fissile material.  Worldwide, there are about 2,100 metric tons of both highly enriched uranium and plutonium.  Given that only 50 kg of highly enriched uranium (HEU) or 10 kg of plutonium are needed to build a 10 kT device, there is enough fissile material worldwide to build 40-50 thousand weapons.

Additionally, as the authors suggest, we can take no solace in the idea that a terrorist group would need to test a device to prove its design prior to use.  If a terrorist group uses HEU, a simple gun barrel design would suffice.  The South African government held full confidence in their HEU weapon prior to their unilateral disarmament in the 1990s, although they may never have carried out a test.  Their bomb was assembled in a warehouse that escaped detection over the many years when it was used as a nuclear weapon factory (p. 137).

In contrast with HEU, the spontaneous fission rate of plutonium precludes its use in a gun barrel design.  A nuclear weapon constructed from plutonium requires an explosive lens to uniformly compress the fissile material, and would probably require testing.  A terrorist group might not find this a difficult barrier to overcome.  Forty years ago, two new physics PhD’s developed a credible implosion design based on open literature; and in 1977 a Princeton undergraduate developed a credible plutonium bomb design for a term paper.

While the detonation of a nuclear weapon by a terrorist group would be a horrific event, an attack on a nuclear facility, or the detonation of a “dirty” bomb needs to be guarded against.  The chapters dealing with these two possibilities are the most compelling.  The authors detail current security problems at nuclear reactors and other nuclear facilities, along with current regulatory reform designed to address the very real problem of spreading radioactive material via a conventional explosive.  These sorts of attacks will very likely be an effective terror mechanism, though clearly not as catastrophic as the detonation of a nuclear device .

The book’s conclusions remarkably mirror those of the recent Nuclear Terrorism, The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe by Graham Allison.  Both books advocate controlling all nuclear weapons and all fissile material worldwide.  However, Allison’s book is far clearer in its prescription for the world.  On p. 141, Allison states his unambiguous prescription:  no loose nukes; no new nascent nukes; and no new nuclear weapon states.

There are some significant problems with the book.  The book is filled with an alphabet soup of acronyms.  While many terms are well known, some are obscure.  For example, the book without prior definition uses the term NIS to mean Newly Independent States of the former Soviet Union.  A minor correction would simply be to provide a glossary of terms.  An editing shortcoming is the repetitive nature of many of the book’s points.  While repetition has its place in accenting certain ideas, the book makes too many references to the problems with the Russian nuclear security apparatus, as well as the uncertain political trajectory of Pakistan.

Moreover, this book comes up short in providing a roadmap for addressing the nuclear threat.  The word “terrorist” or “terrorism” appears in nearly every sentence of the first few chapters.  Yet, the book manages to avoid defining the term.  Molly Ivin’s column (reprinted in San Francisco Chronicle 16 Sep. 2004) puts the problem squarely: “defining terrorist ... as an absolute irrational evil gives us a spurious and intoxicating sense of self-righteousness, thus missing any chance to consider if correcting or changing our own conduct would be effective."  The irony of “one goal common to all terrorism--causing psychological reaction within the target community” is that the statement applies to states and not just what we consider a terrorist group (p. 27).  One might ask the authors what were the ‘shock and awe’ campaign of the Iraq war, the German Blitz, and the ensuing bombing campaigns of the United States and Britain in WWII, other than sowing terror in the target community?  U.S. policy makers will find their efforts incomplete unless we look at our actions through the same lens as do our potential adversaries.  For instance, Rear Admiral Jack Shanahan (Ret) argues that unless the United States curtails its efforts to develop a ballistic missile defense system, there will be little progress on issues of nuclear proliferation (Topeka Capital Journal, 18 Nov. 2004; on the web at www.cdi.org).

As a scientist, I cannot dismiss the possibility that any particular person with an agenda could engage in nuclear terrorism.  However, I find it disturbing that the book lumps together “Animal liberation activists, anti-abortion advocates, pro-environmentalists, and even the anti-nuclear movement” with al Qaeda.  Though the book does not consider these groups as dangerous as al Qaeda, the authors seem to believe any group that doesn’t share the interests of the current power elite in the U.S is subject to suspicion.

In conclusion, the book states that there are very few terrorist organizations worldwide that can acquire or build a nuclear weapon and detonate it “in the United States.”  The book missed, perhaps purposely, the opportunity to acknowledge that the detonation of a nuclear explosive in any major city worldwide would be a catastrophe not limited to the United States.  Like its conclusion, the book is an opportunity missed to broaden the debate on nuclear terrorism.

Forest Rouse

Collapse – How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

By  Jarid Diamond: Viking, 2005:560 pages,$29.95; ISBN 9-670-03337-5

            Jared Diamond is a professor of Geography at the University of California, Los Angeles.  He began his scientific career in physiology and expanded into evolutionary biology and biogeography.   He writes "For the first time in history, we face the risk of a global decline.  But we also are the first to enjoy the opportunity of learning quickly from developments in societies anywhere in the world today, and from what has unfolded in societies at any time in the past.  That is why I wrote this book”.  His motivation is praiseworthy and the resulting publication is superb.  What he says touches on many disciplines making this book of universal interest.  For example:

             This is a book for environmentalists and for big business managers!  The author has ornithological research as part of his background, but he insists that he is interested in environmental issues because of their consequences for people rather than their consequences for birds.  On the other hand he has had much experience, interest and ongoing involvement with big business that exploits environmental resources and is often viewed as anti-environmentalist.  His view is that if environmentalists aren’t willing to engage with big business, which are among the most powerful forces in the modern world, it won’t be possible to solve the world’s environmental problems.   On the other hand one of the most optimistic signs is that several big businesses are getting the message that they can best serve the their stockholders in the long run, by carefully including environmental concerns in their planning operations thereby producing sustainable resources,  retaining public support and avoiding devastating clean up costs.

            This is a book for the public.  Diamond believes that in the long run it is the public, directly or through its politicians, that has the power to make destructive environmental policies unprofitable.  Changes in public attitude will be essential for changes in businesses’ environmental practice.   As a corollary, this is a book for politicians who are encouraged to take bold courageous steps in long term planning.. 

            Here is the pattern of the book.  Part 1 is an analysis of Montana, a first world society with environmental and population problems that are real, and for which facts and societal relations are essentially clear.  This sets a perspective for what happened in remote past societies.  Part 2 is an analysis of societies that did collapse: Easter Island, Pitcairn and Henderson Islands, Native American Anasazi, Maya, and Norse Greenland.  This is followed by societies which succeeded:  Iceland, Tikopia, New Guinea Highlands, and Japan of the Tokugawa era. In Part 3 Diamond returns to what is happening in the modern world including Rwanda, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, China, and Australia.  Finally with the knowledge of the past, Part 5 is concerned with practical lessons for today.

            The method of study is quite different from that of the more exact experimental sciences.  Diamond compares many different societies that differ with respect to “input” and “output” variables.  The input variables are many.  To make the analysis tractable he chooses the four factors; environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors and friendly trade partners.  These factors may or may not prove significant for a particular society, but a fifth factor, the societies’ response to its problems, is always significant.  The “output” variables examined in this book are collapse and survival. By relating output to input variables, the author aims to tease out the influence of input variables on success or collapse.  The environmental factor covers a large range of problems.  For example, for Montana they include toxic wastes, logging and burning of forests, nitrogen exhaustion and soil erosion, the over-allocation of water, air quality, and the introduction of harmful non-native species.

             Here is a glimpse of some of the factors that arise for specific societies.   The population of Easter Island at its peak in was ~15,000.  In 1872 it was 111.  The decay was associated with most of the above factors.  For example pollen counts indicate that the islands were covered with forest including giant palms up to 7 feet in diameter, and yet, when the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen visited the island in 1722, there was not a single tree over 10 feet tall.  The deforestation of the island was a vital factor in the subsequent decay.  Diamond poses the question: What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last tree say while he was doing it?  Were the answers parallel to what we hear today:  “Jobs, not trees!” or, “Technology will solve our problems; we will find a substitute for wood!” or, “There is probably more forest to be discovered; concern is premature and driven by fear mongering!”  This is the subject of study in part 5. Of course there were many other problems, such as hostile neighbors, leading to the collapse. 

            In contrast, the tiny, isolated Pacific island of Tikopia has an area of 1.8 square miles, and has sustained a population of 1200 people for almost 3000 years.   Working in favor of the Tikopeans was a high rain fall, moderate latitude, and location in a zone of high volcanic dust fallout which contained nutrients essential for the maintenance of soil fertility.  The remainder of their good fortune must be credited to what they did for themselves through the bottom –up nature of their society in which every resident was familiar with the whole island, and was aware of the necessity to maintain a sustainable food supply and to prevent their population from increasing to an unsustainable degree.   One of their delicacies and sources of protein came from the husbandry of pigs.  A momentous decision taken consciously was the killing of every pig on the island because they recognized that pigs raided and rooted up gardens, competed with humans for food, and were an inefficient means of feeding humans. The Ticopians saw the problem, sacrificed a great delicacy and subsequently maintained their self supporting and sustainable life style.

            Dr. Diamond succeeds in making the detailed story of these countries fascinating, almost like reading a detective novel as the various factors are disentangled. The fascination carries over to section five on the practical lessons for today. 

            The author recognizes the seriousness of the problems facing us.  “If we don’t make a determined effort, and if we do not succeed, the world as a whole within the next few decades will face a declining standard of living or perhaps something worse.”  After a gloomy analysis, it comes as a surprise when Dr. Diamond announces that he is a cautious optimist!  One basis for hope comes from the realization that we are the cause of our environmental problems, and therefore we can, or cannot, choose to stop causing them and start solving them.  We ‘just’ need the political will to apply solutions readily available.  It depends on having the courage to practice long-term thinking and to make bold courageous, anticipatory decisions at a time when problems become perceptible, but before they reach crisis proportions.  This contrasts with the short-term reactive decision making that too often characterizes our elected politicians. The Tikopeans did make those bold anticipatory decisions.  The Easter Island community did not.

            Another basis of hope is that the modern world’s interconnectedness gives us the opportunity of learning quickly from developments elsewhere in the world today and from what has unfolded in societies at any time in the past.   Along with this is the increasing diffusion of environmental thinking among the public around the world.  This book is a great catalyst in this process, which is so necessary if public opinion is going to have the right effect.  It has my highest recommendation.

Peter Schroeder. 
Emeritus Professor of Physics
Michigan State University.



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