clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Zap! E-bomb could shut down society

Question: You know about A-bombs and H-bombs. And now, heaven help us, we're hearing about E-bombs. No, they're not sent via E-mail. Are they coming to a theater near you?

Answer: They've already been there, featured in the James Bond film "GoldenEye," where satellites fire off an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that destroys all electrical equipment, says physicist Barry Parker in "Death Rays, Jet Packs, Stunts & Supercars: The Fantastic Physics of Film's Most Celebrated Secret Agent." EMPs are now a big military concern. In the 1960s, a high-altitude nuclear test over Johnson Island showed EMP effects 850 miles away in the Hawaiian Islands.

"Streetlights and fuses failed on Oahu, and telephone service was completely disrupted for several hours on Kauai."

An EMP does not affect humans directly, so few scientists worried about this at first. In a nuclear blast, large fluxes of gamma rays generate surging currents in electrical and electronic systems that can wreak havoc. Computers, telephones, car electrical systems, etc., can be destroyed. A large device detonated 250 miles up over Kansas could stop "every car on every freeway in the 48 contiguous U.S. states. It's hard to believe but it's true. And it would be a major job getting them running again."

More startling still, you don't need a nuclear blast to unloose an EMP, says Parker. An E-bomb can be a simple flux compression generator — copper wires around an explosive — sending out a pulse as powerful as in a nuclear blast. "In many ways, although it does not kill people, the E-bomb would be more devastating to society than a nuclear bomb."

Question: You're a savvy basketball player trying to distract the shooter with a hand thrust up in front of his face. Sports scientists say your best bet is to (a) wave your hand frenziedly to unnerve your opponent; (b) hold your hand up like a steady fencepost, fingers splayed, to block his vision; (c) hold your hand up, fingers stationary together, to best eclipse the air route to the basket.

Answer: The surprising answer is (c), says Mike McBeath, Arizona State University cognition and behavior scientist. Most people assume that waving the hand adds confusion for the shooter, but in fact it is relatively easy to learn to ignore the motion. A stationary hand has a better chance of blocking the critical line of sight to the hoop, the difference — in one study by McBeath — being 39 percent hits with no hand up, 36 percent hits with a waved hand up, down to only 33 percent with a still hand up, fingers together. While this is not widely known among players, some of the best such as Scottie Pippen have made use of this defensive approach.

Question:Why has eating gotten so complicated these days, what with overweight and eating disorders everywhere? Wasn't eating somehow a lot simpler in the past?

Answer: Overeating/obesity has been around since remote antiquity, says University of California-Davis nutritionist Louis Grivetti. Bulimia's origins are less obvious (eating and vomiting), but certainly it has been around since Roman times . . . anorexia, too. Sure, stress, fast foods and ads 24/7 are factors today, but there have always been eating problems — getting enough to eat, balancing the diet, finding safe drinking water. "People didn't even know about boiling to kill germs until the late 19th century."

So with food problems worldwide, found equally among men and women, what is the future of eating? Why not this? Let's try to enjoy food, not be afraid of eating, revel as much in a chocolate sundae as five spears of broccoli, eat broadly across the spectrum of fresh and processed food. Most of the world just wants enough to eat, while many affluent nations simply labor and worry too much.

"Instead, think about healthy patterns, not specific healthy foods. If you eat only oranges, you die. If you eat oranges and hamburgers and x, y, and z, and move your body and exercise easily/enjoyably throughout the day/week/years to come, we all would be better off, right?"

Send STRANGE questions to brothers Bill and Rich at