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Tony Hartin | DESY | Germany

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Murder by Maxwell’s equations – or How I learnt to love the magic bullet

Science magazines have become pop savvy in recent times. They dress up fairly mundane stories in provocative titles like “Hunks get more sex” (New Scientist) or  “Secrets of the Phallus: Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That?” (Scientific American). So I was only mildly piqued when I stumbled across “Radio-controlled bullets leave no place to hide” on the New Scientist site today.

GI Joe goes room to room

GI Joe goes room to room

Far from this title being a snappy cover for say a new type of flu vaccine its rather banally about, well, radio controlled bullets. The science content of the article is a standard application of Maxwell’s Laws. The said bullets, being rifled, rotate in the earth’s magnetic field. A little loop inside the bullet has an AC current induced which calculates the distance travelled via radio communication with the gun’s ‘smarts’ – that’s the electronic rangefinder – not the grunt who pulled the trigger. It gives the soldier “another tool in his kitbag”. Now all we have to do is find someone capable of pointing it in the right direction or firing it at an appropriate time.

From a scientific point of view it might have been a vaguely interesting article if it had gone on to discuss the effect of turbulence or whether the rotation speed, or pointing it north or south makes much difference to the range accuracy. Instead it read like a boring version of an arms fair advert

“the XM25 rifle to give its troops an alternative to calling in artillery fire or air strikes when an enemy has taken cover and can’t be targeted by direct fire. “This is the first leap-ahead technology for troops that we’ve been able to develop and deploy,” says Douglas Tamilio, the army’s project manager for new weapons for soldiers.”

The “X” stands for Xtremely smart bullet which after passing through the Afghan mudhut window (if it had one) dodges all the kiddies and takes out the wayward father sitting on the couch reading a copy of “Al Qaeda Monthly”. Even if our smart bullet is unable to perform this feat of magic it can simply explode – and since the final range offset is +/- 3 metres – presumably with some force.

Oh did I mention that the bullet explodes? Yes, thats the idea. You cant actually see who is in the room, so better just to cause an explosion, killing or maiming everyone inside. Now the clue as to why this “tool” is any different from the current ones is given in the text:

“You could shoot a Javelin missile, and it would cost $70,000. These rounds will end up costing $25 apiece. They’re relatively cheap,” Tamilio says.”

Now thats a word to the wise in our current economic troubles – carnage on the cheap. The best method (if a little bit of an overkill) would be just to nuke every town in Pak/Afghan/Iraq-istan, but have you seen the price of plutonium recently? That market has gone to the dogs since the North Koreans and Iranians cornered it..

As a little marketing aid, a helpful diagram of how the XM25 carries out its mission is enclosed (and reproduced here for your consideration). killer_rifle_graphic

Our do-gooder marine, outnumbered 2-to-1 by the dastardly foes is wisely prone behind his smart-rifle. Evil-doer number one is taking a rest in his trench after a hard morning studying the suicide bomber manual. Our smart bullet sails over the trench wall and explodes, gently showering our baddie in a black rain (thats the clue that lets you know it actually hurts). Evildoer number two after seeing the fate that has befallen number one flees – in case his uniform also gets wet from the black rain. We then quickly take out the retreater and his cowardly mates with a fuel air or DIME bomb.

As our advertising brochure picture rather gleefully informs us, “trenches arent safe anymore”… because we know how safe they were in WWI where millions of soldiers idled about on banana lounges, sipping cocktails and writing casual postcards home. And the trenches in the first Gulf War were also notably safe. There an older technology was employed – we simply drove giant tractors to the edge of the trenches and buried many tens of thousands of poor Iraqi conscripts alive. But at least they didnt get their uniforms wet from black rain.

From an earlier article in 1999, also strangely from the New Scientist (amazing what 10 years and a change of sub-editors can do) we have a more realistic description of what happens when an exploding bullet strikes flesh

“WHEN Red Cross surgeon Robin Coupland needs to demonstrate the horrific effect of outlawed weapons, he produces a slightly smudged photo of a wounded man on a stretcher. Your eyes widen as you realise what you’re seeing. Like a cartoon character chomped by a shark, there’s a beach-ball sized semicircle where his shoulder used to be. The man’s arm is still attached to his trunk by a perilously thin strip of tissue. The grotesque injury provides ample evidence that an illegal exploding bullet has been used.”

“Outlawed”. Yes, thats right, by the St Petersburg Declaration of 1868, the Hague Declaration of 1899 and Article 35 of the Geneva protocols. But the world’s remaining superpower saw fit to dispense with the Geneva convention sometime ago when it became clear that they only faced rag tag foes with nothing else much except for 50 year old kalashnikovs. That shouldnt be good enough for New Scientist though. How about some small disclaimer at the bottom of this banally amoral article saying that editors dont endorse the breaking of international law?

Perhaps I should go further…what the hell is something out of Dr Strangelove’s laboratory notes doing in a science magazine?

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