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Salvation by algorithm: God, technology and the new 21st-century religions

With its world-changing inventiveness, technology has become the force religion once was.

More than a century after Nietz­sche pronounced Him dead, God seems to be making a comeback. But this is probably a mirage. Despite all the talk of Islamic fundamentalism and Christian revival, God is dead – it just takes a while to get rid of the body.

Nowadays, the most interesting place in the world from a religious perspective is not Syria or the Bible Belt, but Silicon ­Valley. That is where hi-tech gurus are brewing for us amazing new religions that have little to do with God, and everything to do with technology. They promise all the old prizes – happiness, peace, justice and eternal life in paradise – but here on Earth with the help of technology, rather than ­after death and with the help of supernatural beings. (Of course, this does not mean that these techno-religions will fulfil all their extravagant promises. Religions spread themselves more by making promises than by keeping them.)

Godless religions are nothing new. Thousands of years ago Buddhism put its trust in the natural laws of karma and paiccasamuppāda (dependent origination) rather than almighty deities. In recent centuries creeds such as communism and Nazism have also upheld a system of norms and values based on allegedly natural laws rather than on the commandments of some supernatural being. These modern creeds prefer to call themselves “ideologies” rather than “religions” but, seen from a long-term perspective, they play a role analogous to that of traditional faiths such as Christianity and Hinduism. Both Christianity and communism were created by human beings rather than by gods, and are defined by their social functions rather than by the existence of deities. In essence, religion is anything that legitimises human norms and values by arguing that they reflect some superhuman order.

The assertion that religion is a tool for organising human societies may vex those for whom it represents first and foremost a spiritual path. However, religion and spirituality are very different things. Religion is a deal, whereas spirituality is a journey. Religion gives a complete description of the world and offers us a well-defined contract with predetermined goals. “God exists. He told us to behave in certain ways. If you obey God, you’ll be admitted to heaven. If you disobey Him, you will burn in hell.” The very clarity of this deal allows society to define common norms and values that regulate human behaviour.

Spiritual journeys are nothing like that. They usually take people in mysterious ways towards unknown destinations. The search often begins with some big question, such as: who am I? What is the meaning of life? What is good? Whereas most people accept the ready-made answers provided by the powers that be, spiritual seekers are not so easily satisfied. They are determined to follow the big question wherever it leads, and not just to places they know well or wish to visit. Often enough, one of the most important obligations for spiritual wanderers is to challenge the beliefs and conventions of dominant religions. In Zen Buddhism it is said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Which means that if, while walking on the spiritual path, you encounter the rigid ideas and fixed laws of institutional Buddhism, you must free yourself from them, too.

From a historical perspective, the spiritual journey is always tragic, because it is a lonely path, fit only for individuals rather than entire societies. Human co-operation requires firm answers rather than just questions, and those who rage against stultified religious structures often end up forging new ones in their place. It happened to Martin Luther, who – after challenging the laws, institutions and rituals of the Catholic Church – found himself writing new law books, founding new institutions and inventing new ceremonies. It happened even to the Buddha and Jesus. In their uncompromising quest for the truth, they subverted the laws, rituals and structures of conventional Hinduism and Judaism. But eventually more laws, more rituals and more structures were created in their names than in the name of any other person in history.

***

Because they are human creations that seek to cater to human fears and hopes, religions always dance a delicate tango with the technology of the day. Religion and technology push one another, depend on one another, and cannot stray too far from one another. Technology depends on religion because every invention has many potential applications, and the engineers need some priest or prophet to make the crucial choices and point towards the required destination. Thus, in the 19th century, engineers invented locomotives, radios and the internal combustion engine. But as the 20th century proved, you can use these same tools to create fascist societies, communist dictatorships or liberal democracies. Without religious or ideological convictions, the locomotives cannot decide which way to go.

On the other hand, technology often defines the scope and limits of our religious vision, like a waiter who demarcates our appetites by handing us a menu. For instance, in ancient agricultural societies many religions had surprisingly little interest in metaphysical questions and the afterlife. Instead, they focused on the very mundane task of increasing agricultural output. The Old Testament God never promises any rewards or punishments after death. Rather, he tells the people of Israel:

 

“And if you will diligently obey my commandments that I am commanding you [. . .] I will also give rain for your land at its appointed time [. . .] and you will gather your grain and your new wine and your oil. And I will provide vegetation in your fields for your livestock, and you will eat and be satisfied. Be careful not to let your heart be enticed to go astray and worship other gods and bow down to them. Otherwise, Jehovah’s anger will blaze against you, and he will shut up the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will not give its produce and you will quickly perish from the good land that Jehovah is giving you.”

Deuteronomy 11: 13-17

 

Scientists today can do much better than the Old Testament God. Thanks to artificial fertilisers, industrial insecticides and genetically modified crops, agricultural production nowadays outstrips the highest expectations the ancient farmers had of their gods. And the parched state of Israel no longer fears that some angry deity will restrain the heavens and stop all rain – the Israelis have recently built a huge desalination plant on the shores of the Mediterranean, so they can now get all of their drinking water from the sea. Consequently, present-day Judaism has almost lost interest in rain and agricultural output and has become a very different religion from its biblical progenitor.

The faithful may believe that their religion is eternal and unchanging, but in truth even when they keep their names intact, religions such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism have no fixed essence. They have survived for centuries and millennia not by clinging to some eternal values, but by repeatedly pouring heady new wine into very old skins. For all the heated debate about the supposed nature of Islam – whether it is in essence a religion of peace or a religion of war – the truth is that it is neither. Islam is whatever Muslims make of it, and over the centuries they have made of it remarkably different things.

 

 

***

New technologies kill old gods and give birth to new gods. That is why agricultural deities were different from hunter-gatherer spirits, why factory hands and peasants fantasised about different paradises, and why the revolutionary technologies of the 21st century are far more likely to spawn unprecedented religious movements than to revive medieval creeds. Islamic fundamentalists may repeat the mantra that “Islam is the answer”, but religions that lose touch with the technological realities of the day forfeit their ability even to understand the questions being asked. What will happen to the job market once artificial intelligence outperforms people in most cognitive tasks? What will be the political impact of a vast new class of economically useless people? What will happen to relationships, families and pension funds when nanotechnology and regenerative medicine turn 80 into the new 50? What will happen to human society when biotechnology enables us to have designer babies and to open unprecedented gaps between rich and poor and between the remaining productive class and the new useless class?

You will not find the answers to any of these urgent questions in the Quran or sharia law, nor in the Bible and the Confucian Analects, because nobody in the medieval Middle East nor anyone in ancient China knew much about computers, genetics or nanotechnology. Radical Islam may promise an anchor of certainty in a world of technological and economic storms – but in order to navigate a storm you need a map and a rudder rather than just an anchor.

True, hundreds of millions may go on believing in Islam, Christianity or Hinduism, but numbers alone don’t count for much in history. Ten thousand years ago most human beings were hunter-gatherers and only a few myriad pioneers in the Middle East were farmers. Yet the future belonged to the farmers. In 1850, more than 90 per cent of humanity lived as peasants, and in the small villages along the Ganges, the Nile and the Yangtze nobody knew anything about steam engines, trains or telegraph. Yet the fate of these peasants and villages had already been sealed in Manchester and Birmingham by the handful of engineers, politicians, financiers and visionaries who spearheaded the Industrial Revolution.

Even when the Industrial Revolution spread around the world and penetrated up the Ganges, Nile and Yangtze, most people continued to believe in the Vedas, the Bible and the Quran more than in the steam engine. As of today, so too in the 19th century there was no shortage of priests, mystics and gurus who argued that they alone hold the solution to all of humanity’s problems. In Sudan, Muhammad Ahmed bin Abdalla declared that he was the Mahdi (the Messiah), sent to establish the law of God on Earth. His supporters defeated an Anglo-Egyptian army and beheaded its commander – General Charles Gordon – in a gesture that shocked Victorian Britain. They then established in Sudan an Islamic theocracy governed by the sharia.

In Europe, Pope Pius IX led a series of reforms in Catholic dogma. Among other initiatives, he established the novel principle of papal infallibility, according to which the pope can never err in matters of faith. In China a failed scholar called Hong Xiuquan had a religious vision, in which God revealed that Hong was none other than the younger brother of Jesus Christ, sent to establish the “Great Peaceful Kingdom of Heaven” on Earth. Instead of proceeding to establish a kingdom of peace, Hong led his followers into the Taiping Rebellion – the deadliest war of the 19th century. In 14 years of warfare (1850-64), at least 20 million people lost their lives, far more than in the Napoleonic Wars or the American Civil War. Meanwhile, in India, Maharshi Dayanand Saraswati led a Hindu revival movement whose main principle was that the Vedas are never wrong.

Hundreds of millions clung to such religious dogmas even as factories, railroads and steamships filled the world. Yet most of us don’t think about the 1800s as the age of faith. When we think of 19th-century visionaries, we are far more likely to recall Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Lenin than the Mahdi, Pius IX or Hong Xiuquan. And rightly so. Although in 1850 socialism was just a small fringe movement, it soon gathered momentum and turned the world upside down. If you count on national health services, pension funds and free education, you need to thank Marx and Lenin (and Otto von Bismarck) far more than the Mahdi and Hong Xiuquan.

Why did Marx and Lenin succeed where the Mahdi and Hong failed? Because Marx and Lenin were relevant to their time. They studied new technologies and novel economic structures instead of perusing ancient texts. Steam engines, railroads, telegraphs and electricity created unheard-of problems as well as unprecedented opportunities. The needs, hopes and fears of the new urban proletarian class were simply too different from those of biblical peasants. To answer these needs, hopes and fears, Marx and Lenin studied how a steam engine functions, how a coal mine operates, how railroads shape the economy, and how electricity influences politics.

Lenin was once asked to define communism in a single sentence. “Communism?” he answered. “Communism is power to the soviets [workers’ councils] plus electrifi­cation of the whole country.” There can be no communism without electricity, without railroads, without radio. Marx and his followers understood the new technological and economic realities, and so they had relevant answers to the new problems of industrialised society, as well as original ideas about how to benefit from the unprecedented opportunities.

The socialists created a brave new religion for a brave new world. They promised salvation through technology and economics, thus establishing the first techno-religion in history and changing the foundations of human discourse. Up until then, the great religious debates revolved around gods, souls and the afterlife. Naturally, there were differences between the economic ideas of Sunnis, Shias, Catholics and Protestants. Yet these were side issues. People defined and categorised themselves according to their views about God, not production methods. After Marx, however, questions of technology and economic production became far more divisive and important than questions about the soul and the afterlife.

In the second half of the 20th century, humankind almost obliterated itself in an argument about production methods. Even the harshest critics of Marx and Lenin adopted both men’s basic attitude towards history and society, and began thinking about technology and production much more carefully than about God.

***

In the 19th century few people were as perceptive as Marx, and only a few countries underwent rapid industrialisation. These countries conquered the world. Most societies failed to understand what was happening and therefore missed the train of progress. Dayanand’s India and the Mahdi’s Sudan were occupied and exploited by industrial Britain. Only in the past few years has India managed to close the geopolitical gap separating it from Britain. Sudan is still lagging far behind.

In the early 21st century the train of progress is once more pulling out of the station. And this will probably be the last train ever to leave the station called Homo sapiens. Those who miss this train will never get a second chance. Whereas during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century human beings learned to produce vehicles, weapons, textiles and food, in the new industrial revolution of the 21st century human beings are learning to produce themselves. The main products of the coming decades will be bodies, brains and minds. The gap between those who will know how to produce bodies and brains and those who will not know will be far bigger than the gap between Charles Dickens’s Britain and the Mahdi’s Sudan.

Socialism, which was very up to date a hundred years ago, failed to keep up with the new technology of the late 20th century. Leonid Brezhnev and Fidel Castro held on to ideas that Marx and Lenin formulated in the age of steam, and did not understand the power of computers and biotechnology. If Marx came back to life today, he would probably urge his supporters to devote less time to reading Das Kapital and more time to studying the internet. Radical Islam is in a far worse position than socialism. It has yet to come to terms with the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. No wonder it has little of relevance to say about genetic engineering and nanotechnology.

In the past, Christianity and Islam were a creative force. For instance, in medieval Europe the Catholic Church was responsible for numerous social and ethical reforms as well as important economic and technological innovations. The Church founded many of the first European universities; its monasteries experimented with novel economic methods; it led the way in techniques of data-processing (by creating archives and catalogues, for instance). Any king or prince who wanted an efficient administration turned to priests and monks to provide him with data-processing skills. The Vatican was the closest thing 12th-century Europe had to Silicon Valley.

Yet in the late-modern era Christianity and Islam have turned into largely reactive forces. They are busy with rearguard holding operations more than with pioneering novel technologies, innovative economic methods or groundbreaking social ideas. They now mostly agonise over the technologies, methods and ideas propagated by other movements. Biologists invent the contraceptive pill – and the Pope doesn’t know what to do about it. Computer scientists develop the internet – and rabbis argue about whether Orthodox Jews should be allowed to surf it. Feminist thinkers call on women to take possession of their bodies – and learned muftis debate how to confront such incendiary ideas.

Ask yourself: “What was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of the 20th century?” This is difficult to answer, because it is hard to choose from among a long list of candidates, including scientific discoveries such as antibiotics, technological inventions such as computers and ideological creations such as feminism. Now ask yourself: “What was the most influential discovery, invention or creation of religions such as Islam and Christianity in the 20th century?” This, too, is difficult, because there is so little to choose from. What did priests, rabbis and mullahs discover in the 20th century that can be mentioned in the same breath as antibiotics, computers or feminism? Having mulled over these two questions, whence do you think the big changes of the 21st century will emerge: from Islamic State, or from Google? Yes, Isis knows how to upload video clips to YouTube. Wow. But, leaving aside the industry of torture, what new inventions have emerged from Syria or Iraq lately?

This does not mean that religion is a spent force. Just as socialism took over the world by promising salvation through steam, so in the coming decades new techno-religions are likely to take over the world by promising salvation through algorithms and genes. In the 21st century we will create more powerful myths and more totalitarian religions than in any previous era. With the help of biotechnology and computer algorithms these religions will not only control our minute-by-minute existence, but will be able to shape our bodies, brains and minds and to create entire virtual worlds, complete with hells and heavens.

If you want to meet the prophets who will remake the 21st century, don’t bother going to the Arabian Desert or the Jordan Valley – go to Silicon Valley.

Yuval Noah Harari lectures at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of “Sapiens: a Brief History of Humankind” and most recently of “Homo Deus: a Brief History of Tomorrow”, newly published by Harvill Secker

This article first appeared in the 08 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Three Brexiteers

Charlie Forgham-Bailey for the New Statesman
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"I teach dirty tricks": the explosives expert who shows armies how to deal with terrorists

Sidney Alford used to blow things up in his garage. Now his expertise is helping save lives.

“I’ll fetch the hammer,” says Sidney Alford, leaving me in a laboratory filled with mysteriously named drawers and small bottles with skulls on their labels. When he has fetched it – “it’s a jeweller’s hammer, given to me in Paris by a friend of Salvador Dali” – the 82-year-old plans to tap gently on a small mound of white powder called triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, better known as the explosive favoured by Isis in their suicide belts and homemade bombs. Because of its instability and destructive power, its nickname is “Mother of Satan”.

Tapping it with a hammer is enough to make it go bang.

Directing me to stand by the door, he searches for ear plugs before stuffing some paper in his ears – “I’m quite deaf, you know,” were almost his first words to me that morning – and begins to tap the Mother of Satan. On the fourth tap, it explodes in a genteel fashion with a flash and a pop. Its sensitivity to percussion is one of the reasons that jihadi bomb-makers suffer so many workplace accidents. “See,” Alford says. “You’d be OK walking, just don’t fall over or get shot.”

I have wanted to meet Sidney Alford ever since I heard about him from the investigative journalist Meirion Jones, who once uncovered a British man who sold £50m-worth of fake bomb detectors in Iraq and other countries. (The fraudster, James McCormick, was jailed for ten years in 2013.)

Giving a presentation to students, Jones mentioned that he could prove the gadgets were useless – just black boxes with radio aerials sticking out of them – because he had taken them “to a guy the BBC uses for explosives, who has a quarry in Somerset where he blows things up”. I decided then and there that I was very interested in being in a quarry in Somerset where someone blew things up. Maybe I would even get to press the button.

There was a less childish reason for visiting, too. Sidney Alford’s life story is interwoven with one of the technologies that defines the modern world: explosives. We fear explosives – suicide bombs, car bombs, bombs on aircraft – but we also need them, for everything from realistic film scenes to demolition. (Alford has a letter from Stanley Kubrick thanking him for his help on Full Metal Jacket.) Surprisingly, the best way to defuse an explosive is often with another explosive, something that Sidney’s company, Alford Technologies, has pioneered.

In other words, if you want to make something go bang – or, just as importantly, stop something going bang – he is the man to talk to. Quite loudly.

***

The first explosive materials Alford ever saw were fragments of bombs and V2 rockets left over from the German shelling of London. Born in 1935 in the suburb of Ilford, he moved with his family to Bournemouth when the Second World War broke out. When he returned, he found rich pickings in his battered neighbourhood in the form of magnesium incendiary bombs, which he filed down and turned into fireworks.

I ask him if, like my own father, he ever frightened his teachers with nitrogen triiodide, an unstable explosive compound that schoolchildren used to make themselves and set off in lessons to terrify unwary members of staff in the era before health and safety. “Oh yes,” he says. “I put it under my French teacher’s chair.” A pause. “He’d been in the army, so he didn’t make a fuss.”

Alford went to a grammar school, where he was an undistinguished pupil, angry that the headmaster wouldn’t let him learn German (rather than Latin) so he could speak to the Jewish child refugees he knew. But he was always interested in chemistry, and “by the fifth form, I’d recruit classmates to make bigger bangs”.

A chemistry degree came next, followed by a series of odd jobs, including diet research and studying the brain, an MSc in the science of environmental pollution, and two business associations with men he now characterises as “bad sorts”, who ripped him off.

By this time, he had moved to Ham, in west London, and had begun to take his chemistry experiments more seriously. It was the early 1970s, and the IRA’s bombing campaign had come to England. How could these weapons be neutralised, Alford wondered? Was it better to encase suspect packages in “blast containers”, or use shaped charges – typically, small cones that focus explosive energy into a point – to disrupt their ability to go off?

A brief digression on explosives is necessary here. When you think of something going bang in a spectacular fashion, that’s a detonation. “Detonare,” says Alford at one point during my tour of the quarry, relishing the Latin. “Like thunder.”

High explosives such as TNT, nitroglycerin or Semtex can be detonated by administering a violent shock to the main charge using a small amount of relatively sensitive and violent material in a metal capsule. This creates a hot shock wave, which sweeps through the substance faster than the speed of sound.

Old-fashioned gunpowder, house fires and your car’s internal combustion engine go through a different process, known as “deflagration”, where the chemical reaction moves through the molecules much more slowly. This burning is usually less dramatic and easier to manage. (Alford hates the term “controlled explosion”, reasoning that an expert should always control their explosions. If they fail, it’s a cock-up.)

The theory goes, then, that if you attack a munition just hard enough to ignite its contents but without causing a violent shock wave, it will deflagrate but, on a good day, it will not detonate. “Yes, it might make a massive fireball, but I’ve done it in jungles under a tree,” says Alford. “[With deflagration] the tree may lose most of its leaves, but with detonation, there is no tree.”

In the 1970s, he set up a makeshift laboratory in his suburban garage. There, he would experiment with making explosive charges, using measured quantities of material in different casings. He would leave his car engine running so any bangs could be plausibly written off as backfiring.

This cover story clearly didn’t wash with the neighbours, though, as first the police and then MI5 – “the most gentlemanly man” – came round to see why exactly a chemistry graduate they had never heard of was blowing stuff up in his suburban garage. When he explained himself to the security services, they put him in touch with the Ministry of Defence, and he was offered a contract.

***

Alford Technologies has a slogan: “For when you can’t afford to fail”. It also has an office in a business park outside Trowbridge in Wiltshire, but the real action happens at its testing ground, a former quarry amid the rolling hills of the Mendips, not far outside Bath. It feels like a cross between a scrapyard and a building site. “Here’s the bottom half of a Soviet mine, which we use as a brazier,” says Alford at one point, prodding it with a toecap.

Soldiers from various armies come here to learn about explosives and how to render them harmless. It’s vital work: last year in Iraq and Syria there were dozens of car bombs, with a single one in Baghdad claiming 250 lives. In Manchester this year an Isis-inspired jihadi killed 22 concert-goers and injured 250 with a backpack bomb apparently built from instructions found
on the internet.

Learning to counter such threats means understanding them; jihadists and other terrorists might have access only to basic materials, but many also display great ingenuity. When I ask why Alford has a packet of Tampax in his lab, he says the tampons can be dipped in liquid explosives and turned into cartridges: “I teach dirty tricks so they don’t get caught out by them.”

Sidney Alford’s contributions to the world of explosives rest on an unlikely substance: water. When he first began tinkering in his garage in the 1970s, engineers had already worked out a rough-and-ready way of disabling improvised explosive devices (IEDs). They used a gun barrel loaded with a blank cartridge to fire a jet of water that broke through the explosive’s casing and disrupted it. However, a sufficiently strong casing – say, one made of steel – could defeat this method.

In a low outbuilding in the quarry, Alford shows me his answer to this problem. Within a shaped charge, the force of a small explosion collapses a metal cone, turning it inside out and extruding it into a long, thin rod that shoots out at high velocity, about five times faster than a bullet.

The young chemist had an idea: why not combine the water from the older gun-barrel method with the accuracy and force of the metal jet in a shaped charge? In Alford inventions such as the Vulcan and the Pluton, the explosive charge shoots a targeted jet of water at high speed and with incredible accuracy.

Ho ho, you’re thinking. Water! Very scary. This is broadly what I thought until I saw one of Alford’s smaller shaped charges in action. After the demonstration with the hammer, he put on a pair of sturdy boots instead of brogues and we hopped into a small four-by-four to get to the base of the quarry. “Should I take my safety glasses?” I asked, even though we would be inside an old reinforced lookout hut salvaged from the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. “Oh no,” replied Alford. “If it goes wrong, it will kill you. No need to waste a perfectly good pair of glasses.”

The Vulcan is about six-inches long, with a case of grey plastic, and loaded with 30g of plastic explosives with a cone of water held in front of it. The explosive is “about two toasts’ worth of butter,” said Alford’s project manager, Matt Eades, who served in the Royal Engineers for 25 years.

Alford placed the charge above a 10mm-thick steel plate using the aluminium-wire legs as a tripod, inserted an electric detonator into the Vulcan, and we retired to the hut, whose thick, double-glazed windows gave a good, if smeary, view of the sandpit. “If you write a nice, ingratiating article about me you can press the button,” said Alford.

I pressed the button.

There was a significant bang, making me glad of my ear defenders, but the plume went straight upwards. When we ventured out to the sandpit, Alford practically skipped up the side and fished out the metal plate, now with a clean-edged circular hole punched straight through it.

This practical demonstration had followed a whirlwind tour of the various Alford Technologies products and a brisk explanation of the theory of explosives. Alford clearly enjoys naming his creations: the Vulcan sits in his display alongside the Krakatoa and the Vesuvius, which can also be used for bomb disposal and demolition. The BootBanger is so called because “it bangs car boots” while the Van Trepan cuts a neat, round hole in the top of a larger vehicle. The Bottler is not only shaped like a bottle, but named for the Australian slang “that’s a bottler”, which Alford translates as “the cat’s whiskers”.

Even the Dioplex, a linear charge that creates a chopping blade, has a story attached: “I thought it was a do-it-yourself device, but I thought ‘do it oneself’ sounded better. So: ‘Do It Oneself Plastic Explosive’.”

One of the things a trip to the quarry teaches me is that the ways in which humans try to kill and maim each other are nothing if not inventive. The company sells a version of a Bangalore torpedo, an old invention used by Alford’s own father when he fought in the First World War. This is a modular tube you can push underneath barbed wire, blowing it apart to clear a path for infantry. A stronger version was needed, Alford says, because of the advent of razor wire. “Barbed wire was soft steel, designed to keep in cows. Razor wire was designed to cut you.” The new Alford Bangalore Blade torpedoes through the wire coils, severing them using four aluminium cutters and creating an unobstructed 10m route through.

The Breacher’s Boot is a door-shaped panel filled with water, used to punch through walls in hostage situations. “It gives a ‘kick’ to the wall, so bits of it will fall down. You don’t want to use shaped charges then,” he says. “If there’s a person on the other side of the wall, you’d cut them in half. And if you simply used a mass of high explosive, the concrete would fly almost horizontally.”

A similar idea lies behind the Alford Strip, a sticky rope of explosives and tamping material used in terror arrests, where the police would once have used a sledgehammer to open a door, but are now much more worried about booby traps. You run the 25mm- or 42mm-long plastic extrusion down a door, window or wall and then lay a length of det cord far enough away from it to put service personnel at a safer distance.

Down in the quarry, having punched through one square steel plate, we now try ten taped together versus a 40g load of explosives and a copper cone. The result: a 2m-high flash and the same clean hole – although the jet doesn’t make it through all ten plates. It stops at seven.

This isn’t an error: the shaped charges can use copper, water, aluminium or magnesium, depending on the force and space needed. Magnesium is incendiary; water and aluminium might be chosen because they lose velocity very quickly. You cut through what you want to cut through, without damaging either the structural integrity of the object surrounding it or innocent bystanders.

This precision is particularly important in demolition work. Last year, Alford Technologies took over the contract to break up Didcot Power Station, slicing through steel beams to dismantle the decommissioned building. It was called in after a terrible accident on 23 February 2016, when four workers employed by a respected firm, Coleman and Company, were killed while trying to lay charges inside the structure. “There was this crash – I looked over my shoulder and saw the boiler coming down,” one of the survivors, Mathew Mowat, told the Birmingham Mail. “We ran in self-preservation – then there was a loud bang and a massive cloud of dust, we couldn’t see much for a few minutes.”

It took months to recover the bodies of all four missing men, who had to be identified from dental records and tattoos.

***

Over an Eccles cake in the main office, Alford tells me about some of his other jobs, including cutting up sunken ships in the Persian Gulf during the “Tanker War” of the mid-1980s, between Iran and Iraq, and joining a mission to retrieve £40m in gold bars from HMS Edinburgh, which sank in 1942 off the coast of Norway. (It was carrying 4,570kg of Russian bullion destined for the western allies.) The ship had been designated a war grave to stop it being plundered, and an air of mystery hung over the whole salvage project. Alford was told not to mention that he was an explosives expert.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, his work – and his anti-authoritarian streak – has caused conflict. “I’m doing things government departments ought to be doing,” he tells me in the car on the way to the quarry. “I’m in the anomalous position of someone who is quite admired, but also quite despised. Civil servants hate my guts.” When he was 40, he says, he asked for a formal job working with the department of defence, “and was told I was too old to have new ideas”. He set up Alford Technologies in 1985, and it now employs six people. The latest set of accounts at Companies House value the firm’s net worth at £2.3m.

Although Alford is scrupulously careful when handling explosives, he loathes health-and-safety culture. As we tramp round the quarry, he indicates a sign next to a pond, reading “Deep Water”, and tuts theatrically. He voted for Brexit to give the establishment a kick, not thinking it would actually happen.

It is a source of great chagrin that the government breathes down his neck, regulating what compounds he can keep and how he can keep them. “You have to have a licence for every substance,” he tells me in the car. “I’ve got them all. Well, it might be different if I wanted to go nuclear.”

 In 1996, he decided to make a stand against the pettifogging bureaucracy that, as he saw it, interfered with his work. Spooked by the thought of Irish republican terrorism, the regulators had insisted that he had to put a lock on his explosives store. “I told them that if the IRA really wanted to get my explosives, they would kidnap one of my family.” (He has two sons with his Japanese-born wife, Itsuko; the elder, 46-year-old Roland, now runs the business.) Besides which, he didn’t see why he should put an alarm on his few kilos of various explosives when the farmer next door had tonnes of ammonium nitrate fertiliser, a key ingredient in the IRA’s bomb-making.

The stand-off broke when his request to renew his explosives licence was turned down; soon after, the police came to raid his stores. He had tipped off a friendly journalist, however, and the visit was captured on camera and written up first in the local paper and then the Daily Mail, where Christopher Booker took up the cause of a Englishman’s inalienable right to keep high explosives in his shed. “I felt morally obliged to be prosecuted,” he says now.

The court case, documented in the newspaper clippings, sounds like a mixture of deadening legal procedure and high farce. At the magistrates’ court, Alford and a friend pursued and rearrested the next defendant, who tried to do a runner; when his case was kicked upwards to Swindon Crown Court, he turned up in an armoured Daimler Ferret, posing for photographs with his head poking out of the top, white hair tucked into a helmet. He was eventually charged with possessing explosives without a licence and fined £750, with £250 costs. The judge ordered the police to give him his licence back, but ticked him off for using the court system for political purposes.

Listening to this story, it becomes clearer why Alford never ended up in the warm embrace of an official government role. He offered his ideas to the Ministry of Defence, but he shows me a letter from April 1977, where an unlucky official reveals that he is “regarding your correspondence with diminishing enthusiasm”. Still, he is sanguine. “Most of my enemies have now gone to the laboratory in the sky, or retired,” he says. “I’m glad I didn’t work for them. Would I have fitted in? Probably not.” In any case, he has had some official recognition, receiving an OBE in 2015.

***

Alford’s work is used in war zones including Afghanistan, but also places like Cambodia, which are still riddled with unexploded ordnance from previous ground wars. Over the years, he has visited that country and Laos several times to practise new ways of dealing with old bombs. (The company produces a more affordable version of the Vulcan for non-military use.) He first went to Vietnam during the war; the last person, he says, to get a Japanese tourist visa into the country in the 1950s. The company’s brochures show smiling locals posing next to the sleeping monsters they have had to live alongside for decades.

But Iraq, too, is in dire need of methods to deal with cheap, homemade explosives. After Matt the Ex-Army Guy and Alford have demonstrated how to blow a door off its hinges, cut through a 50mm steel bar, and turn a fire extinguisher inside out – “that is unzipped in all known directions, it is a former IED,” says Alford, Pythonesquely – they show me the Bottler and the BootBanger.

They drag beer kegs into the boot of an old blue Nissan Almera, explaining that these were a favoured IRA device: who questions a few beer kegs in the street? First, they stick a Bottler between the front seats, showing how you would disrupt any electronics without setting the vehicle on fire – which would destroy forensic evidence. “They’d usually use a robot,” explains Matt. “And the robot usually leaves [the area], because they’re expensive.” A six-wheeler bomb disposal robot costs around £750,000.

We retreat again to the hut. I must be looking increasingly nervous, because Alford tries to reassure me about the building’s structural integrity: “If it tips over, it will take two weeks to get you out. But they’ll know where to find your body.”

As promised, the explosion is focused – and controlled, in the Alford-approved sense of the word. The windscreen is peeled back, lying on the roof, but the fuel tank didn’t ignite and the back windows are intact. “I know it might look like a mess,” says Matt, “but this would be classified as a result. You use a smaller bit of explosive to get rid of a larger one.”

Finally, it’s time for the big one. Matt slides the BootBanger, shaped like a suitcase, under the back end of the car. It has a curved sheet of 400g of plastic explosive through the middle, sandwiched by water on both sides and encased in nondescript grey plastic.

Now this is a bigger bang. I suddenly see the point of all those “Blasting!” warning signs that surround the quarry. If you drove past and heard this, you’d think the Russians had invaded. As an orange-red flame flashes and a deep, throaty boom fills the quarry, the beer kegs are fired out of the back of the car, pinwheeling 20 feet in the air and coming to rest yards away. Debris rains down on the roof of the hut. I swear I can hear the plinking sound of metal cooling. The car is now missing its back windscreen, and is, it’s fair to say, probably never going to pass another MOT. Nevertheless, it is still recognisably car-shaped; the skeleton is undisturbed.

Unfazed, Alford hurries to the car, and plucks a piece of paper from the boot, clearly left there by a previous owner. It is undamaged.

And then it’s time to rejoin the real world. As he drives me back to Bath, I ask Alford what it feels like to do what he does. He has saved possibly hundreds, maybe thousands of lives. “Yes, but in an already over-populated world,” he sighs.

I know he doesn’t mean it callously; he just doesn’t want credit for what, in his eyes, is barely a job at all. The schoolboy who wanted to make a bigger bang got his wish. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 08 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Three Brexiteers