Wednesday, November 01, 2017

The problem with Fred Pearce

Environmental journalist Fred Pearce published an article on William Penney (‘Atomic Briton who brought home the bomb’) in NewScientist magazine on 14th October 2017, (p42-43). The article concludes with some brazen distortion of the facts.

Pearce claims that the Orange Herald device, a large fission bomb detonated as part of the Grapple operation in May 1957, misled “US legislators in Congress…Congress amended the McMahon Act, believing they would be sharing science with a fellow H-bomb nation.” Pearce refers to this as "Penney's nuclear bluff."

The definitive reference work on the history of British H-bomb development is Lorna Arnold’s ‘Britain and the H-bomb’ (2001). Here she reports that “weapon debris, radioflash data and microbarograph readings…showed that [Grapple] had only been partially successful. A ‘thermonuclear bluff’ had never been seriously contemplated; the Americans had regularly been assisted to take measurements and collect data at several British trials, including Grapple,” (p151).

The British went on to conduct a successful 3 megaton H-bomb test, Grapple Y, in April of 1958. Strangely, this fact is absent from Pearce’s article. The amendment of the McMahon Act was passed by Congress some months later, on June 30th 1958, and the US-UK Mutual Defence Agreement was signed on 3rd July 1958.

These dates are also omitted from Pearce's article. It's easy to see why, because their inclusion destroys Pearce's argument.

Sadly, then, the only bluff here comes from Mr Pearce. If NewScientist magazine wishes to mislead its readers, publishing Mr Pearce's work is certainly the most effective way of so doing.