Ancient A-bomb possible?
November 3, 2010 5:01 PM   Subscribe

Based on this article, how would it have been possible to create a nuclear bomb with primitive materials?

If it took some of the finest scientific minds of the time to create the A Bomb, how could such technology have been achieved in ancient India? Remember that I don't even understand how the CURRENT A bomb works.
posted by generic230 to Science & Nature (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
They couldn't. If there's a way to make a nuclear bomb without using technology that's less than 100 years old, no scientist today knows about it. There just isn't a way to do it without purifying Uranium or Plutonium. Which is hard, and couldn't have been discovered by accident.
posted by auto-correct at 5:08 PM on November 3, 2010

Also, even if someone did set off an atom bomb in ancient India, the radiation wouldn't even be remotely severe enough to require cordoning off the area. Nagasaki and Hiroshima are lively cities today, and that was within living memory. Radiation's nasty to living things, but it does fade and the aftereffects of a bomb fade pretty quickly, on a civilizational scale. What keeps places like Chernobyl nasty is that the fuel is still there, breaking down over time.
posted by Tomorrowful at 5:13 PM on November 3, 2010

Hahahahaha, that's like asking how Batboy could have come to be. It's a rather obvious hoax.
posted by halogen at 5:14 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

It wouldn't be. The problem is that no fissionable exists in nature which can be purified with simple chemical processes. The two which were used in the Manhattan Project were U-235 and Pu-239.

U-235 is chemically identical to U-238 and only represents 0.65% of naturally-occurring uranium, so it can only be purified using the mass difference, via selective gas diffusion or gas centrifuges. Irrespective of anything else, that's only possible if you have hydroflouric acid, which is not easy to make, let alone to store or to handle. HF will burn through glass and ceramic.

Pu-239 doesn't occur naturally, so the only way to make it is in a breeder reactor.

All of this is extremely high tech. None of it is within reach of a stone-age, bronze-age, or iron age technology. In fact, none of it was within reach of our technology as recently as 1850.

If you look carefully at your article, what you'll find is that this is about "scientists" finding supporting evidence for ancient religious writings, the Mahabharata. Which is to say that you should give this about as much credence as you would an article that talks about how "scientists" have found proof the Noah's flood really happened.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:14 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

First hit on Google for "Harrapa nuclear debunk"
posted by Jakey at 5:17 PM on November 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

An atomic bomb requires purified uranium or plutonium, and a significant amount to make a critical mass. Radioactive materials will release particles at random. When one of these particles hits another atom of the same material, it can cause a second radioactive reaction. When you get the reactions to continue (particle hits an atom, releasing a particle which hits a different atom, etc) you have a nuclear reaction. This is the basis of nuclear power. If you take enough radioactive material like uranium or plutonium, and get it close enough together, you get a critical mass, which will have a very powerful chain reaction, which explodes. This is an atomic bomb. If you have tritium, hydrogen with two neutrons, near this explosion, you can get a hydrogen bomb and a much larger blast.

The issue with getting a nuclear bomb made in antiquity is that there wouldn't have been the means necessary to get purified uranium. The type of uranium needed to make a bomb is uranium 235, which in nature composes around 0.7% of all uranium. Not only would they need to purify uranium ore to just uranium, then it would have to be further purified to specifically uranium 235. Plutonium is even further out there: it is synthesized by radiating uranium 238. None of this would have been feasible.

The other part of this is the sources in the article. The article looks to be pseudo-science, and the sources listed at the bottom go to more pseudo-science. I couldn't find any reliable sources to indicate the area and ruins have any traces of radiation outside of baseline. When the Harappa site was investigated and studied, they used carbon dating. If radiation were found, it would be all over the place on studies and we would likely know about it. That makes this article to stink of fecal matter excreted from your common male Bos taurus.
posted by Mister Fabulous at 5:20 PM on November 3, 2010

I'd be very skeptical. When there is a fantastical claim, the burden of proof fall on those who make the claims, and the scrutiny will be above standard. So far, the article was light on evidences and heavy on scriptures.

Heavy radiation does occur naturally in nature; even fissile chain reactions do too ( In fact, the Earth core is currently liquid because of on-going fissile reaction of heavy elements. However, for the reaction to become destructive, there must be criticality ( which must be engineered for. Rich countries with large industrial base, smart scientists and good engineers still have to do a lot of tests to arrive at the optimal design. Perhaps, once there is a good design, one does not have to have the smart scientists to replicate it; but there are still a lot of skills and industrial know-how to achieve a working A-bomb. I doubt that India 6000 B.C. has this kind of achievement.
posted by curiousZ at 5:21 PM on November 3, 2010

This is a fantastic example of why you shouldn't believe everything you read, especially on the internet. The fundamental scientific knowledge required to even conceive of a nuclear bomb is less than 100 years old. Building a nuclear bomb requires an extremely sophisticated modern industrial base. If you want a good layman's overview of how to build a bomb, read this book.
posted by Dasein at 5:27 PM on November 3, 2010

A single projectile charged with all the power in the Universe
As an amateur rocket-spotter and cold war nerd, I'd have to also ask exactly what delivery method the ancient Indians would have used for the warhead. Artillery shell? Ballistic rocket, cruise missile? Low altitude, slung, high altitude gravity delivery from an aircraft?

To have atomic warfare it's not only necessary to have nuclear materials and a bomb design; you've also got to have a whole lot of other supporting infrasctructure: a mechanism for relatively long-distance delivery, very detailed maps, accurate navigation methods, and so on. (Unless like Herman Kahn's doomsday device they just buried the bombs).

More importantly, IMO, to have atomic warfare you have to have a military mindset very specific to the twentieth century, contingent on a sense of airmindedness and strategic bombing theory, and dependent on a certain understanding of total victory and total defeat. It's not just about the science and engineering, it's also about the basic understanding of what war is.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:33 PM on November 3, 2010

Based only on that article, that article is a load of crap. It's not even making internally consistent arguments.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:33 PM on November 3, 2010

As an amateur rocket-spotter and cold war nerd, I'd have to also ask exactly what delivery method the ancient Indians would have used for the warhead.

Psh. Obviously ancient astronauts dropped the bomb from their vimana, using technology borrowed from alien gods from outer space.
posted by synecdoche at 5:39 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

how would it have been possible to create a nuclear bomb with primitive materials?

It would be absolutely impossible, period. You should understand two phases of the process: nuclear fuel production, and weapon detonation.

First, the fuel production stage would be impossible in its own right. You would need to collect a massive quantity of uranium ore, which first of all you would need to recognize somehow without a Geiger counter or any other radiation detection device. No guarantee it would be found within a thousand miles of your site, mind you. Then, since uranium still only constitutes a small percentage of the ore, you need to separate it out, which is typically done in modern times with a huge high-speed centrifuge that divides the ore by molecular weight (oh yeah, by this time you also crushed all the ore into a superfine powder somehow). Mind you, this seems like a relatively brute force approach, but even so it requires spinning thousand-pound devices around at several thousand RPMs. Now, the uranium is still in its oxidized state, so you need to reduce it to elemental metal by a series of acid treatments and solid precipitations.

The idea of purifying plutonium is right out, since you'd need to set up a uranium power plant to get there.

Second, assume God himself (or the aliens, or the lizard people) has come down from above and bestowed some solid uranium upon you. It would still be impossible to detonate a nuclear weapon. The essential step here is to generate a supercritical mass of fissile material, in which there is so much uranium so close together than the natural shedding of neutrons (radioactive decay) strikes enough other nucleii that it accelerates their radioactive decay, in a runaway-increasing manner, to generate a nuclear blast. The old-fashioned, dirty, inefficient way to do this was to smash together two subcritical masses at speeds approaching a rifle shot (the modern, more elegant way requires a perfectly spherical explosive device to detonate absolutely simultaneously, so let's just write that off entirely). So now you would need sufficient conventional weapons technology to accelerate a 50-pound mass of metal to about 2000 mph, in a controlled environment, such that it smashes into 50-block of metal #2. And in theory you should be able to do this remotely, from at least a mile away, so as not to blow yourself up.

In short, I would almost literally believe in alien visitors doing this before I would believe in a pre-industrial human civilization doing it. Or perhaps the clay in that area used to build those structures was just very high in radioactive isotopes, and the author of this piece misinterpreted the significance of the radiation readings.

(p.s. it's been a long time since I learned this stuff and would welcome corrections from nuclear physicists.)
posted by rkent at 5:40 PM on November 3, 2010 [2 favorites] was an unknown weapon,
An iron thunderbolt,
A gigantic messenger of death,

Or, you know, a meteor.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 5:53 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

It wouldn't be. The problem is that no fissionable exists in nature

Not *quite* true...
posted by 7-7 at 6:19 PM on November 3, 2010

There ARE (were) natural nuclear reactors, however. Large concentrated deposits of uranium that were dense enough to get hot, and which eventually burned out.

I suppose it is possible that some old civilization piled up a bunch of pretty yellow stones and caused some trouble.

But a bomb is a whole different thing from a reactor. Impossible.
posted by gjc at 6:20 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

In his entirely remarkable attempt at character assassination on a national scale (India: A Wounded Civilization), V. S. Naipaul delights especially in mocking this tendency to exaggerate beyond any pretense of rationality the technological achievements of the ancients.
posted by jamjam at 6:25 PM on November 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

An ancient culture could obtain the fuel, provided they were sufficiently ancient. Eg. a-few-billion-years-before-humans-evolved ancient.

The reason there is insufficent U-235 without purification is the half life of U-235 plus the age of the earth means most of it has decayed. But if you were around 2,000,000,000 BC (and were able to solve the no-breathable-air problem) the concentration of U-235 was greater, such that fission reactions could occur in nature
posted by -harlequin- at 6:52 PM on November 3, 2010

A reactor (including natural ones) requires a U-235 concentration of at least a couple percent. A bomb requires U-235 that's nearly pure, and a lot of it (like on the order of 20 kilograms).
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 8:52 PM on November 3, 2010

There's quite a few inconsistencies in the article...

The "Rama empire" is about as real as Atlantis (there's even an article about Rama Empire's war with Atlantis, go figure). The first historically documented empire in India would be the Mauryan Empire which came centuries after after the Mahabharata was created.

"The Indus valley is now the Thar desert" This is untrue. The Indus Valley still exists and is located at (surprise surprise) Indus River in modern-day Pakistan.

"Ancient cities whose brick and stonewalls have literally been vitrified, that is, fused together, can be found in India, Ireland, Scotland, France, Turkey and other places. There is no logical explanation for the vitrification of stone forts and cities, except from an atomic blast."

If you google this, you can't find any evidence of it being actually said by Oppenheimer other than mirror sites spouting conspiracy theories.

Also, the Lonar Lake was created, irrefutably, due to a meteor event.

That article is just a load of conspiracy theorist bunk, OP.
posted by Senza Volto at 9:26 PM on November 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

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