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AFTERWORD Houston TEN YEARS AGO, when I was just starting college, I had to decide whether I wanted to pursue beauty and truth by majoring in physics, or to pursue wealth by majoring in engineering. I opted for beauty and truth. Recently, as I struggled through graduate school while ‘ watching my engineer friends buying new cars and nice homes, I often wondered about my decision. Maybe I should have majored in engineering and then bought truth and beauty. But all my worries about a future as a poor academic are gone now. It seems, that the Reagan administration has called on physicists to save the world, and they are willing to pay us quite well for the effort. In 1983 when Reagan set up the Star Wars, he called on the scientists of the U.S. “to turn their talents towards rendering nuclear weapons obsolete.” He painted an idyllic picture of a peaceful world guarded from nuclear weapons by complex high-tech defense systems. The feasibility of this dream has generated a controversy which still rages. On the pro-SDI side there are the large aerospace and electronics industries who hope to reap large contracts from it. Almost all the voices of the opposition come from independent scientists in the nation’s colleges and universities. And since . only in these schools is there the scientific and technical expertise to argue against those who claim Star Wars will save us from a nuclear doom, the Pentagon has begun a campaign to win the hearts and minds of the skeptics. Or at least calm them down a bit. Thus, we were visited at Rice University last October by Brig. General Malcolm R. O’Neill, Ph.D. alumnus of the Rice physics department and head of the kinetic energy technology division of SDI. Wearing a suit instead of a uniform, he gave a calm description of Marc Hairston is a graduate student in Space Physics at Rice University. He will receive his doctorate in May. the program and tried hard for an hour to convince us that SDI was “only research.” When one of the professors questioned the true motives for his talk, General O’Neill swore that this was “just a friendly visit to my alma mater to see my old friends and profs.” Of course this was the one and only visit he had made to see his “old friends” in the ten years since he graduated. “And he just happened to bring a bunch of pretty viewgraphs with him,” muttered the graduate student next to me. After the talk I asked O’Neill about what many feel is the fatal flaw in Star Wars: “What about cruise missiles?” We’ve had a choice of different funding sources for our research. But as the SDI budget swells, pure research budgets dwindle. “We haven’t done much work on that yet, but I’m hopeful that we will begin addressing that problem next year,” he said. “When President Reagan first called on us to design a defensive shield, he wanted us to do the hard part first, and that’s a defense against ICBMs.” General O’Neill \(and by implication cruise missiles is easier than stopping ICBMs, but it’s difficult to find anyone else who does. It is hard enough to use a laser, particle beam, or rail gun out in a vacuum shooting at a target that, though distant, is detectable and moving on a fairly predictable parabolic trajectory. It is vastly more difficult to detect and destroy a nearly invisible target flying five hundred feet off the ground on an irregular path. Not even the most optimistic SDI wizards know a way to shoot a laser, particle beam, or rail gun from space through a hundred miles of atmosphere with lethal force. If we go ahead with building Star Wars, it would not be completed until sometime between 2005 and 2015. The Soviet military planners will use that time to transfer their nuclear arsenal from ICBMs to cruise missiles, thus leaving us with a Maginot Line in space, a trillion dollars poorer, and back to square one in the nuclear stalemate. So why are scientists willing to participate in a program that has such a dubious chance of success? Some of them work on Star Wars because they are true believers. They sincerely think they are building “weapons of peace” that will pull us out of the political morass of our current nuclear strategy. But most are working on SDI for a very pragmatic reason: funding. With $25 billion scheduled to be spent on R&D between 1984 and 1989, Star Wars is seen as the greatest funding windfall in years. Imagine you are an untenured physics professor. You are doing fairly good work, but to do really first-rate research, you absolutely must have a tunable freeelectron laserand they don’t come cheap. NSF has just turned down your proposal for the second time \(“due to reapplying to NSF and risk falling behind, or do you send the proposal to SDI with an additional page explaining how this research might produce information on laser interactions with missile surface materials? After all, you rationalize, this is only research and you would not be involved directly in any weapons development. Some of the scientists will just take the money and run. This attitude was expressed by a professor who said, “Don’t tell them this thing won’t work. Get them to fund you for three years, then tell them it won’t work.” He has a point. If the military is dumb enough to fund your work in the vain hope that they can get a weapons system out of it, why not take their money? It might also have more influence with the Pentagon if their own research showed Star Wars to be unworkable. The military at first discounted the findings about nuclear winter since the work was done in universities by several known arms control supporters. Only when a Pentagon-funded NRC study turned up the same results did they begin to take it seriously. One of my undergraduate professors told us there was only one good reason for choosing physics as a career: love. I don’t mean to sound flippant about this; most of us really did go into physics because of our love for the stuff. An understanding of the elegance and The Price of Truth and Beauty By Marc Hairston 22 APRIL 4, 1986