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The H-bomb - the other jubilee

Sixty years on, the reality is that there is no need to carry out nuclear tests.

Sixty years ago, on 1 November 1952, a terrifying explosion rocked Enewetak Atoll in the North Pacific. Ninety seconds later, a mushroom cloud reached the stratosphere.

The H-bomb’s diamond jubilee will no doubt be on Lassina Zerbo’s mind. On 23 October, the physicist from Burkina Faso was appointed executive secretary of the preparatory commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation. It is Zerbo’s task to persuade national leaders to ban further tests of nuclear weapons.

Almost all of the world’s 19,000 nuclear warheads are H-bombs, also known as thermonuclear devices. These employ nuclear fusion, in which atoms release energy as they fuse together, as well as fission, in which the energy is released by breaking atoms apart. Bombs that use fusion are far more powerful than fission-only devices. Close to 5,000 of those 19,000 warheads are operational and 2,000 are on high alert, ready for launch at a moment’s notice.

Before we despair of our astonishing gift for destructive innovation, it is worth dwelling on how, in the past 60 years, not one of these weapons has been used in anger. Some say human beings will eventually destroy themselves. So far, however, such pessimism is without foundation.

Zerbo’s task is to give us more cause for optimism. It won’t be easy. The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty has been around since the 1990s but eight nations with nuclear technology refuse to sign it. Only when it is ratified can we begin to reduce the nuclear arsenals that have kept us on the edge of our seats for so long.

The outcome of the US election will be crucial. Barack Obama will attempt to push the US Senate into ratifying the treaty. If he is elected – and if his push is successful – other nations will be far more likely to follow suit, which would make controlling proliferation easier. If Mitt Romney wins, there will be no ratification; instead, there will be proliferation. The Republicans are committed to ramping things up. The party’s platform has declared that the US “is the only nuclear power not modernising its nuclear stockpile” and that it needs to maintain “an effective strategic arsenal at a level sufficient to fulfil its deterrent purposes, a notable failure of the current administration”.

The reality is that there is no longer any need to carry out nuclear weapons tests. Thanks to our supercomputing capacity, those in charge of nuclear stockpiles can perform accurate simulations of their arsenal’s capabilities and current state. In the US, for instance, a program known as Qbox performs 360 trillion calculations per second to simulate the properties of thousands of atoms at once. This allows scientists at the US department of energy to know just how the weapons would perform on detonation.

Chest fever

Tests are about shows of strength. Nuclear posturing is ingrained in leadership psyches and data released last month by the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) shows that puffed-out chests are hard to deflate.

Since Russia and the US signed the 2010 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, the US has reduced the number of deployed warheads by 78 and Russia by 38. Both figures, according to the FAS, are within the fluctuations created by maintenance schedules. It is possible that nothing concrete has been done towards the treaty’s goal of cutting the number of the signatories’ warheads.

The FAS was formed in 1945 by some of the scientists who built the first atomic bombs. Their founding mission was simple: to prevent nuclear war. It has to be said that, hairy though things have been at times, so far so good. Let’s hope Zerbo can help us do even better.

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.