Ear to the Ground, Listening for Nuclear Blasts

This week, our featured book is Silencing the Bomb: One Scientist’s Quest to Halt Nuclear Testing, by Lynn R. Sykes. Today, we are happy to present a short excerpt from an interview that with Kevin Krajick at State of the Plane blog. You can read the interview in full at the Earth Institute website.

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Seismologist Lynn Sykes has been working for more than 50 years to halt the testing of nuclear bombs. His work, along with others’, has demonstrated that clandestine tests can be detected and measured using seismic waves. Development of this technology led up to the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty. Since then, testing has nearly stopped, though key nations including the United States have so far failed to ratify the agreement. In his forthcoming book, Silencing the Bomb: One Scientist’s Quest to Halt Nuclear Testing, Sykes provides an insider’s look at the issues. Below, he discusses the science, his experiences and the current outlook. Sykes is the Higgins professor emeritus at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Why this book now? Many people say climate change is our main threat. Has it become unfashionable to consider nuclear weapons?

Well, it’s exceedingly frightening, so I can understand why a lot of people don’t want to think about nuclear war. But more people could be killed with a large use of nuclear weapons, and those areas would be uninhabitable for a hundred years. I think climate change, sea level, are a big thing–right up there. But people have forgotten about nuclear war. It’s the topic that is the most important to our world. I’ve seen some horrendous things that some people have done with the test ban, and some very brave and forward things that others have done.

How did you get started with this?

My original work didn’t have anything to with nuclear testing; I was studying natural earthquakes. But the more I found out about it, I gradually got involved in research. Several of us made contributions to better monitoring of Russian explosions, and later, Chinese ones. I started writing papers, and they got picked up gradually in the 1980s, when the Democrats controlled the House and Senate. There were a lot of hearings. I participated in at least five.

You ran into a lot of resistance, saying that seismology couldn’t really pick up tests.

There was a large number of exceedingly conservative people, particularly in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and they attempted to bottle the subject up. When I became a member of the U.S. negotiating team for the Threshold Test Ban Treaty in 1974, virtually all the information on how do you convert seismic measurements into estimates of yield of Russian explosions was controlled by just two people. And they seemed quite determined that there not be a comprehensive test-ban treaty.

Read the entire interview at the State of the Planet Earth Institute blog.

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