This earthquake expert dodged Russian surveillance to try to halt nuclear testing

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At 5 am in June 1974, seismologist Lynn Sykes woke up with a phone call from the Department of Defense. The voice on the other end of the line asked Sykes to be ready to go to Moscow that night. The Department of Defense needed your help to negotiate a treaty that would limit the size of underground nuclear explosions in the United States and Russia.
Sykes, now professor emeritus at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, was invited because of his unusual experience. Sure, he was an earthquake expert. But he was also an expert in underground nuclear explosions, which, like earthquakes, can send vibrations through the Earth. So, the same devices that monitor and measure earthquakes can serve a double function as secret nuclear test sensors.
In his new book, Silencing the Bomb: One Scientist's Quest to Halt Nuclear Testing, Sykes recounts his efforts to end the explosive nuclear tests. When Sykes visited Russia in 1974, nuclear tests in the atmosphere, under water and in space had already been banned by the Prohibited Testing Treaty signed in 1963, the result of public rejection of the dangers of radioactive fallout.

The cover of the book by Lynn Sykes, Silencing the bomb: the search for a scientist to stop the nuclear tests.
Credit: Columbia University Press

But there was an ongoing debate about whether it was possible to determine the size of an underground nuclear explosion from the seismic tremors collected by the monitoring stations. If there was not a sure way to verify if someone was cheating in the deal, then neither the US UU Neither Russia wanted to completely stop the clandestine tests. That's why Sykes was in Russia: to confirm that the detection of underground tests was scientifically possible, and to help negotiate a treaty that would limit underground nuclear tests to 150 kilotons or less.
The negotiations were a success, and President Richard Nixon and Soviet Prime Minister Leonid Brezhnev signed the treaty about a month later. But the search for a complete ban on nuclear tests continues. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which would ban all nuclear tests of all sizes, was finalized in 1996. But the United States, China, Iran and North Korea have yet to ratify it for the treaty to take effect.
In his new book, Sykes reflects on his 50-year career working toward an examination ban that is still out of reach. But, he says, he sees the glass almost full, since no one, except North Korea, has exploded a nuclear bomb since 1998: "I consider it a great achievement," Sykes tells The Verge. "I am very sad because we did not have a complete ban on the test at that time, but I did everything I could, I think, to try to open this problem."
The Verge spoke with Sykes about the detection of underground nuclear tests, the fights over the size of explosions and the dangers of nuclear war.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Why work for 50 years to prevent nuclear testing?
I came of age during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 as a graduate student. It was a job I thought I could do, as few others could do, to develop better methods of identifying underground atomic tests, so that eventually we could have a total ban on nuclear testing. The prevention of nuclear war is the most important thing facing humanity and the United States.
You start the book by talking about how in 1974, you were taken to Moscow to help negotiate the ban on threshold tests with Russia, which eventually culminated the underground nuclear tests at 150 kilotons. What do you remember about that experience?
There was a general who represented the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I was going to the opera and asked one of our handlers & # 39; Would I get lost? & # 39 ;, And in a very thick Russian accent they said: "Do not worry".
Does that mean they were following you?
Of course. Some of us, for exercise, walked about a mile and a half from where we usually met at the US embassy. UU In our hotel in Russia. A couple of our drivers said: "You guys walk fast."
It must have been scary to know how close they saw you in what was, for you, almost a scientific meeting.
Was. I was involved in some classified work, so I knew what to take care of and what things were classified. We were warned in advance not to leave classified information in our hotels, or at a desk in the place where we were having our negotiations, because they could be seen by roof cameras, and not to talk in the cars about classified information.
You say in the book that technology has existed since 1969 to monitor, detect and verify underground nuclear tests. So, why did it take until 1996 to negotiate a complete ban on exams?

Lynn SykesCredit: Columbia University

There were several robberies, and one was that the agency responsible for the investigation on this subject was the Department of Defense and there were many people there who thought that EE. UU I needed to continue the tests for a variety of reasons, and were against having a complete test. prohibition.
Another was that I discovered quickly, right after negotiations in Moscow in 1974, that the United States was overestimating the size (yields) of Soviet explosions by about a factor of three, and that they proved to be of great political importance. Then it took a long time to clarify that. And two of the people who had armed the US calibration of Soviet explosions were wrong, and they were in high places, one within the Department of Defense and the other with a principal adviser, and they were adamant about maintaining their old method of determining yields.
Why was it so difficult to determine the size of the explosion, the yields, of the Russian tests?
What we had was the size of the wiggles produced in the seismic instruments by the Russian explosions. And we wanted to find out from them what the yields were. We had information about the size of the wiggles and the yields from the Nevada test site, where we had done virtually all of our underground atomic tests. And Nevada is a region of young geology and seismic waves are absorbed, or moistened, as they pass under the Nevada test site, while Soviet explosions were overwhelmingly on old, strong rocks. And then those seismic waves were not so absorbed, and they were larger for a given performance than what you saw for a test in the United States. Therefore, it took a long time to get it to work, and to enter into the policy arena, and it was accepted.
There were claims that the Soviets were testing 350 kilotons or 450 kilotons, well above the limit of 150 kilotons. Many believed that they were cheating this treaty. And that turned out to be just an artifact of not correctly determining the yields of seismic waves.
So, if the Department of Defense and experts like you had agreed that the Russians were not cheating then, how do you imagine that the world would be different today?
There were many new weapons that developed after 1968, including most Russian warheads for missiles carrying nuclear warheads that could be attacked independently, a very dangerous development and many other weapons developed by both countries. In addition, many other countries such as China developed larger arms after the prohibition of threshold tests was negotiated. Then in 1969, if we had a complete test ban, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea could not have developed weapons so easily. If they had tried it, maybe only North Korea would have done it.
When you came back and refreshed your memory and researched the book, was there anything that surprised you?
I was surprised at how consistently I worked on this problem. I had not given the credit that I finally had, when I wrote the book, about "Yes, I really worked on this". and I worked hard and systematically and I resisted many of these people. So I caress my back for that.


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