Physicists Bring Their Moxie to National Intelligence

By Calla Cofield

Courtesy of IARPA
“How many people have heard of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency)?” asks a woman clad in a fuchsia business jacket during a recent APS meeting in Denver. Based on a show of hands, nearly everyone in the conference room knows something about the agency.

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 that began in 2008 and 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. She is now director of IARPA, where she keeps her physics roots strong.  

Porter said the physics community could contribute to national intelligence through a variety of ways: advancing technology from basic research, quantum information science, sensor technology and pushing the size, weight and power limit on increasingly discrete devices.

During a press conference at the Pittsburgh 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 detecting radioactive materials. Cooled to just above absolute zero – the coldest temperature theoretically possible   – 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, two similar elements, leading to false alarms at border checkpoints. Radioactive radon is usually legal to transport, but uranium sends up a red flag because of its weapons applications. The microcalorimeter could distinguish between the two elements with no ambiguity. Because it could still be three to five years before the device is available for such applications and because it needs to be cooled with liquid helium, a hand-held version is unlikely.  

In addition to technology, physicists have expert information that could benefit national security.

For instance, physicist Richard Muller wrote the book, Physics for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines, which addresses critical topics such as energy, nuclear bombs and global warming using scientific reasoning. For the past 10 years, he has taught a class at Berkeley by the same name. Porter also says physicists can contribute their moxie and their methodologies for solving problems to the national security field.

She said IARPA is focused on cyber security because of the nation’s increasing dependence on the cyber world and a lack of structure for how to study 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 says she hopes that physicists’ ways of thinking, modeling, asking questions, 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.”

Gray arrow  IARPA Website.

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