From MAD to Star Wars

“Well, boys, I reckon this is it – nuclear combat toe to toe with the Roosskies.”
– Major T.J. “King” Kong
(From Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove)

Incoming! The projectiles were launched stealthily and proceeded ahead on schedule. “This area is being targeted for attack," the alert might have read.In fact, there was no alert. Red lights might have flashed as the alert was broadcast to local government offices. But, again, there were no red lights – because there was no alert.

Alert wage peace

All out nuclear war? Were ICBMs finally unleashed from their hidden silos in the grain fields of Montana and the Chelyabinsk region of Russia? Did some mad cowboy like Kubrick’s Major Kong ride a hydrogen bomb like a bucking steer into oblivion?

Fortunately, nothing so dramatic or apocalyptic. The projectiles? A swarm of bugs released from a jar into the audience by Bill Gates at a recent TED gathering to illustrate what it feels like to be exposed to the major malaria carrier in Africa – the mosquito.

Malaria, largely eradicated in the US, remains a major global health threat, killing about one million people annually. Insecticide-treated bed nets (ITNs) are a form of personal protection to reduce severe disease and mortality due to malaria in endemic regions. In community-wide trials in Africa, ITNs have been shown to reduce mortality by about 20%.

“The [bed net] movement is like a modern version of the March of Dimes, created in 1938 to defeat polio, or like collecting pennies for Unicef on Halloween,” reports the New York Times. However, bed nets are mainly useful when you are sleeping. What about a different approach –perhaps thinking of mosquitoes as projectiles to be shot down like the digital missiles in the free online Internet game MAD: Mutually Assured Destruction?

This is precisely what some well-known scientists are considering. A recent Wall Street Journal article announces: “A quarter-century ago, American rocket scientists proposed the ‘Star Wars’ defense system to knock Soviet missiles from the skies with laser beams. Some of the same scientists are now aiming their lasers at another airborne threat: the mosquito.”

MADYes, lasers. Nathan Myhrvold, a former Microsoft software architect who now runs Intellectual Ventures LLC., consulted with Lowell Wood – the famous Pentagon weaponeer known in some circles as “Dr. Evil” – when Myhrvold’s old boss, Bill Gates, asked him to explore new ways of combating malaria.

Wood is a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California, a protégé of Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb and architect of the Reagan-era Star Wars missile-defense system. Wood is infamous for championing fringe science, from X-ray lasers to cold-fusion nuclear reactors.

The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) – later known as Star Wars after George Lucas’ movie of the same name – was proposed by President Reagan in the early 1980s to use ground and space-based systems to protect the US from attack by ICBMs carrying multiple nuclear warheads (MIRVs). The emphasis was strategic defense, rather than the strategic offense of the 1960s Cold War doctrine of mutual assured destruction (MAD) so effectively parodied in Kubrick’s movie Dr. Strangelove.

A mosquito SDI? "We’d be delighted if we destabilize the human-mosquito balance of power," says Jordin Kare, an astrophysicist who also worked at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. So would a lot of Africans hiding under their bed nets.

Demonstrating the laser technology near Bellevue Washington recently, Jordin Kare, Nathan Myhrvold, and other researchers stood below a small shelf mounted on the wall about ten feet off the ground. On the shelf were “five Maglite flashlights, a zoom lens from a 35mm camera, and the laser itself – a little black box with an assortment of small lenses and mirrors.” A personal computer controlled the laser.

A mosquito hovered into view. Zap! Suddenly, it bursts into flame. A thin plume of smoke rose as the mosquito fell. All that was left is a smoldering carcass.

MosquitoThe glass box of mosquitoes – not unlike the glass box full of mosquitos that Bill Gates unleashed on that unsuspecting TED audience – is an old 10-gallon fish tank. Each time a beam strikes a bug, the computer “makes a gunshot sound to signal a direct hit.”

To locate individual mosquitoes, light from flashlights hits the tank across the room and creates tiny mosquito silhouettes on reflective material behind it. A zoom lens picks up the shadows and feeds the data to the computer, which controls the laser and fires it at the bug.

This prototype mosquito laser was built inexpensively from parts bought on eBay. It is still in an early experimental phase, however, and does not always work reliably. But you could easily imagine a ring of these lasers surrounding an African village with an SDI-like mosquito shield.

And what would Austin Powers’ nemesis, the other famous Dr. Evil, say? “You know, I have one simple request. And that is to have sharks with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads! Now evidently my cycloptic colleague informs me that that cannot be done. Ah, would you remind me what I pay you people for, honestly? Throw me a bone here!”


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