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on January 22, 2014
The book opened up a whole new world to me about fringe weapons and the crazy scientists who try to promote it. For some of these scientists, belief in their radical new weapons verges on religious belief-- despite evidence that the weapons won't ever work.
I think the author did a great job of describing these fantasy weapons that, if developed, would truly change the world.
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on January 9, 2007
the subject matter was interesting

but i found the writer's attempts to create imagery and storytelling to be a little contrived and kind of a distraction.

also, when i first cracked the book open i was expecting a wide variety of diabolical weapons research, instead i got one weapon (albeit diabolical).
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on August 16, 2006
The best aspect of this book is that it leaves you asking, "God, if she found all that in one crazy project, what else is out there?" The book is about the (Hafnium)Hf bomb and how it went from nothing to a multi-million dollar project that refused to die.

Sharon Weinberger documents the ups and downs of a "fringe science" (remote viewing, Star Trek teleports, thought control, etc). She describes in detail the two sides of the project, and the paranoia that each lives with.

Ultimately, she correctly comes down on the side of the skeptics, and for solid reasons. My overall conclusion is that the Pentagon and its subsidiaries fund programs on whims, politicians, General Jack D. Ripper-types, - not whether or not they are valid. It's not what you know, it's who you know, as the saying goes. I could picture a full-page photo of Randy "Duke" Cunningham, now in jail for corruption, as a lead-in to the book.

As a journalist she limited herself to this Hf project-and that's a major drawback. DARPA's over-reliance on high-tech solutions (robots, optical fibers, lap-top battlefields) would have been a very welcomed addition.

About half-way through the book you know that she will ultimately come down on the side of the critics. She also details what the proponents of Hf said, and the dire warnings that the "Russians are further along on this than we are" to justify continued research. Just exactly how does one make an accurate judgement on this?

She's against the idea that someone other than a PhD physicist can come up with anything useful. After the scientists she interviewed, I find myself sympathetic to her conundrum.

But like it or not, history is replete with examples of good ideas or inventions that have fallen to criticisms of "the experts" in the field.

In the last chapter she concludes that most fringe projects are not worth it.
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on February 3, 2010
I don't know. This book is very hard to read. I struggled through it, but I'm not sure why. It doesn't seem to follow a cohesive narrative. The author is trying to convince the reader of a scientific point, but she makes so many basic errors it really strains her credibility. She refers to plants as being 'fauna' and says, at one point, she could barely understand what an isotope was, let alone isomers (which are the topic of the book). I realize she is a journalist, and not a scientist, but the average 6th grader could probably grasp the concept of isotopes in about five minutes. The concept of isomers is really not that much more complex. Is she right about the isomer weapons in the book being a pipe-dream? She might be. But she is wrong about so much else, her opinion really can't be trusted.
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on May 10, 2007
The author has some serious issues she needs to deal with. You don't actually learn anything by reading a book like this. Its about trying to get the reader to elicit an emotional response. Not recommended for American military enthusiasts.
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on June 1, 2010
Ms. Weinberg's book is criticized in the one-star reviews as left-wing propaganda.
Well, let's get one thing straight: there are two distinct styles of investigative writing, the scholarly style and the journalistic style. The book is of the latter style, lacking notes and authoritative "sources". This is most likely why the book is decried as made-up. Not so.
In the prose itself, Weinberg names names and tells the facts straight as known to her. In the journalistic style there is not much that outside references can contribute because it is the author's credibility that undergirds the story's believeability. Basically, either you take her at her word, or you do not. And predictably, sadly, with such a political issue as the making of a new "superbomb" in the age of global terror, and with an ultra-right-wing administration of neocon zealots in control of the US federal governemnt, the believers and non-believers split along ideological lines.
So the two factions argue endlessly back-and-forth. One side must be right, the other must be wrong. And you can count on the black hats to obfuscate the issue with irrelevant minutae such that the impartial observer of the arguments goes mentally numb and unable to decide. It all comes down to who can bray the loudest and make the snappiest sound-bite.
Rather, I say, one should look for the "ring of truth" in the assertions made. For this, one would do well to review the existing literature and make comparative (and not associative) conclusions. One must gain an intuition as to the "look and feel" of what is generally regarded as truthful. To fairly judge "Imaginary Weapons" one must gain a sense of how these DoD people think and talk, and then determine if Weinberger's portrayal of these people seems plausible. If it looks like a duck, waddles like a duck, and quacks like a duck, well then it must be a duck!

At the top of the list is Teller's War by William Broad -- a chronicle of the tens-of-billion-dollar boondoggle that was Reagan's X-ray laser SDI "star wars" project. Next, The Pentagon's New Map by Thomas Barnett. While about policy rather than technology, this book provides a unique view into the dark world of Pentagon defense intellectuals. Evil yet strangely refined, making it yet eviler. Next, The truth about the neutron bomb by Sam Cohen. AKA the "Capitalist Bomb". A real eye-opener. Next, The Secret That Exploded by Howard Moreland. Goes to show how paranoid defense thinkers can get simply about the basic workings of their technologies of mass death. Next, Sacred Vessels: The Cult of the Battleship by Robert O'Connell. Demonstrates how organizational dogma can become entrenched over periods of decades by self-delusional feelings of grandeur. Last, Steven Weinberg's Glory and Terror: The Growing Nuclear Danger which shows how similar notions of nobility in military primacy led to the insanity of the superpower arms race.

Then there are the relevant topics in Defense Department idiocy for which books have yet to be written. Need I mention the "Men Who Stare at Goats" and the cold war research into "remote viewing" ? How about the $10 billion Project Lexington, the nuclear-powered bomber for which the simplest back-of-the-envelope calculations would have shown could not have possibly flown with adequate shielding for its crew? And then there's the "dust defense" of the 1960's in which we would detonate nukes on our own soil to throw up dust into the stratosphere to incinerate incoming warheads -- and carry downwind manyfold-lethal quantities of fallout on our own cities ?

The point of all this is -- if one cares to examine the total history of crank ideas produced by our defense thinkers, that one can gain an appreciation of Weinberger's contention that in the Cheney-Bush era of post-9/11 hysteria, DARPA did indeed spend our nation's money, time, and talent in pursuit of the crackpot idea of an isomer bomb. The book has the ring of truth, and so is to be believed.
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on September 11, 2010
The book was just less than ok. Having seen much of "military science" in action, I'd say she makes a couple good points but otherwise seems pretty dismissive of her subjects (targets?) within the DoD community. I don't think her characterization of AFOSR and DARPA is particularly fair nor does she really understand the military acquisition process. Yes, DARPA PM's have a lot of monetary power and I'm sure a couple odd (or even unscientific) ideas get past the goalies. Yes, the isomer triggering project was a bit over the top and not based on sound science - and it's all interesting to a point. That point being when the author begins to repeat herself over and over again.

My impression is that this would make a far better long form magazine article than book. The author has an interesting story on her hands, be seems to get angry early in the book and makes cheap shots far more often than legitimate points. As a result, the book looses some of its focus and begins making the same points over and over (we get it, the Hf isomer would not really make a good bomb even if it did work- enough already). If you find the book in the bargain bin for $3 and are interested in laughing at crazy ideas at the Pentagon then by all means pick it up. If you want to read about science on the fringe and how it enters the mainstream (and gets large funding along the way), try Voodoo Science by Robert Park. Its a far more serious look at the subject by a far better author.
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on June 12, 2014
Great book, both the science and tbe psudo-science are accurately described and engagingly presented. A perfect depiction of the waste and dangers when irrational belief trumps scientific consensus.
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on February 16, 2012
*****************************************POSSIBLE SPOILER ALERT****************************************
As I read through the list of books eligible for my PHYS/CFB 3333 course I came across the name Imaginary Weapons, a book by Sharon Weinberger. Having watched documentaries on the bizarre weapons that Germany attempted to develop during the Third Reich, I was immediately curious as to whether this book would be something similar but pertaining to the United States. After glancing at some reviews on Amazon I noticed that many people had nothing good to say about the book. It was apparent that many expected it to be a catalog of ridiculous ideas thought up by the Pentagon in an attempt to gain an even bigger advantage as a world power. Knowing what it wouldn't be, I approached this book with an open mind and interested to learn what it was Sharon Weinberger described as "the Pentagon's Scientific Underworld."
Weinberger does a clear job of recording and describing a concept that is popularly known as wishful thinking or the will to believe. This book is an account of a supposed scientific breakthrough that was thought to be the key to changing the world. The military, space travel, significant improvements in energy resources, all of these things relied upon the work of many scientists and their ability to gain more knowledge on isomers. Particularly, these developments relied on the abilities of scientists to get hafmium178m2, an isomer (unlike an isotope, an element with the same number of particles but a different structure), to release the ridiculous potential energy that it stored within. Cold fusion is another topic that is occasionally mentioned. It is the belief that we can make nuclear reactions occur at room temperature, such an accomplishment would create a clean new energy source. However, as Sharon Weinberger comes to show the concepts, known as the hafmium bomb and cold fusion, not only lacked promise they also lacked evidence. In short, Imaginary Weapons is the long story of how the hafmium bomb and cold fusion gained the attention of scientists all over the world and in particular, of DARPA, the Pentagon's weapons research program. It is a tragic tale of how fringe science managed to fool the Pentagon and many others into funding a project that many well known physicists saw as impossible and defiant of current laws of physics. It is a story about how the military and humanity in general should have a better idea of what they invest their attention and the money into. That isn't to say that we are not to venture out into the unknown or into the seemingly impossible. Weinberger merely wants people to understand that if we do so, we should do so cautiously and only when we have evidence of possible success. We should not let ourselves be driven by our will to believe that something might come true or simply because others will not give up on it.
In detail, Imaginary Weapons talks about Carl Collins, a man that many would call a bad physicists and someone who pushed the idea of "triggering" or releasing the energy stored within the hafmium isomer. This book is the story surrounding this man and his supposed claims of success in doing what many considered impossible. It is the real story of his supporters, patrons, and, most importantly, his enemies on the hafmium isomer topic. Weinberger shows how people within the pentagon, independent physicists, and many others came to believe in the probability of the hafmium bomb and how fringe science thrived for over half a century on the big stage. Just as the hafmium bomb was about to die out, another believer came along and brought it back into attention. This trend continued and many sought to put an end to it but due to shady experiments, unclear proof, and gullible people vast amounts of money was pumped into isomers and the hafmium bomb and in the end nothing came of it.
Imaginary Weapons can definitely be categorized as a book about credulous people and the dangers of being one of them. It shows how the Pentagon had a credulous approach to scientific breakthroughs and how when one chooses to believe without having any supporting evidence valuable time and energy can be lost in the pursuit of the impossible. It is an extreme case of how even when the impossible is labeled as such by those with good knowledge of it others still choose to pursue and push the idea to the general public. Zimmerman, a skeptic and very staunch opposer of the idea of the hafmium bomb, embodies the skeptic in this book and is the type of people that Weinberger believes there should be more of. We need more people to approach what may seem too good to be true with the belief that it in fact it may be.
Although I thought this book was very informative and useful for teaching a practical lesson, there are somethings that should be observed. To see this book as an account of the smart being ignored while the careless and fraudulent triumph is to believe that those who opposed the hafmium bomb were truly intelligent and more reasonable than the Carl Collins's of the world. In the end the impressions given of the enemies of the theoretical hafmium bomb are based around Weinberger's views and experiences. The book tends to portray those who oppose outlandish ideas as well educated and experience while Carl Collins and his group are described as obsessive. One has to ask the question: Is it a fair portrayal of both sides? Another problem is that Weinberger never actually explains the physics behind why a hamium isomer bomb was impossible. Although she does give general accounts of the attempted experiments, the book comes down to being a story of telling. It appears that this book in itself is something that you would have to choose to believe without proper evidence since Weinberger doesn't really provide any. There is no real reason to not believe Weinberger but more detailed explanations may of made the book more interesting and better supported.
Personally, I would recommend this book to anyone who was interested in government conspiracies, government scandals, or in plain old critical thinking. It is a true story of the effects and dangers of not thinking critically and of the vast amounts of misinformation that is fed to the general public over many years. There is clearly a lesson to be learned here and that is to question everything in an intelligent manner that will properly and rightfully convince you of the truth. Without clear evidence believing is foolish, impulsive, and in some cases reckless.
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on December 27, 2010
I was disappointed with this book. It's a fascinating topic, but the real story (Carl Collins) gets lost amidst the shifting point of view and lack of attribution (leading the reader to wonder where and how the author gathered her information); repetition (leading the reader to wonder why the author was not more careful with her writing); and incomplete and confusing explanations of the science (leading the reader to wonder how well the author grasped the material she was dealing with).
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