Forum: Our Readers Write (May 2009)

STOCKPILING SECURITY

As a physicist and engineer with over 36 years’ experience in nuclear weapons laboratories, I found ”What About the Nukes?” [March] well reasoned. At the same time, I have some issues with its conclusions. The ability to design a fundamentally new weapons system without at least a minimal testing program is at best suspect. The answer to this problem as promulgated by one of the creators of the Stockpile Stewardship Program, Victor H. Reis, is to rely on simulation. I was one of the initial laboratory directors of the stockpile stewardship simulation program, the Accelerated Strategic Computing Initiative, and I take great pride in its accomplishments. Nonetheless, I am skeptical that the simulation agenda is sufficiently mature to be relied on as a full alternative to testing. We are better off maintaining designs that we know work than we are fielding untested ones. However, I would argue against halting new developments. The book on nuclear weapons design is far from closed. For that reason alone, the United States would be well advised to maintain a vibrant nuclear weapons research, design, and development program.

William J. Camp, IEEE Member

Cedar Crest, N.M.

I have been an electrical engineer in a process industry for more than 38 years. I don’t have any background in nuclear weapons engineering, but I have had exposure to reliability engineering concepts, and I believe that these concepts are quite broad in their application. Your article implies that weapons systems follow a ”bathtub” curve, where there is an early period of infant mortality, followed by a long period of stable performance and a period of increasing failures. The end of life for such a system is defined as the point where failures begin increasing. However, modern reliability thinking posits that there are at least six patterns of failure, of which the bathtub curve is only one. In fact, it has been shown that as systems become more complex, two curves predominate. Both are characterized by the lack of a determinate end-of-life stage.

The stockpile should be replaced with more modern equipment, but for reasons other than reliability. Our current nuclear arsenal was designed to deliver large-yield weapons to targets in the Soviet Union. Today the threat from the former Soviet nations is minimal, and we have the ability to precisely target our weapons, obviating the need for such large warheads. Another reason to renew the arsenal is the need to train a new generation of weapons engineers. The maintenance of 50-year-old legacy systems may not be enough to attract the best and brightest. That by itself could lead to failures of the system.

John M. Briggs, IEEE Senior Member

Vancouver, Wash.

How many nuclear warheads does one country need? 5000? 500? 50? 5? Most countries get by with none.

Peter Flanagan, IEEE Member

Melbourne, Australia

PATENT PROTECTION

I enjoyed Steven J. Frank’s ”The Death of Business-Method Patents” [March]. The Bilski decision is a start toward curtailing these insidious bits of patent overreaching, but we have far to go. I also think something more basic is involved, something to do with adjusting to the change from the industrial age to the information age. For example, our present economic troubles are, I would argue, a product of the information age. With the aid of the computer, financial engineers created products and processes that few understood and that led to an artificial, temporary increase in financial assets. Incidentally, many of these financial products and processes were patented.

David S. Holland, IEEE Member

Alexandria, Va.

The author responds: The urgent issue is to not throw the baby out with the bathwater: We don’t want industrial-age prejudice to preclude all information-age patents, and if Bilski is taken too literally, software will become off-limits almost entirely. If a patent claim requires even a modicum of technology, it should pass muster as patentable subject matter. That doesn’t mean a patent will ultimately be awarded, just that the claim is eligible for consideration on the merits.

Letters do not represent opinions of the IEEE. Short, concise letters are preferred. They may be edited for space and clarity. Additional letters are available online in ”…And More Forum” at http://www.spectrum.ieee.org. Write to: Forum, IEEE Spectrum, 3 Park Ave., 17th floor, New York, NY 10016, U.S.A.; fax, + 1 212 419 7570; e-mail,n.hantman@ieee.org.

 

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