One of the less-covered of recent terrorism-related stories is almost too bizarre to be true – the arrest of some guys in New York (near Albany) who were apparently trying to build a death-ray gun. It seems they were hoping to market it to either a white supremacist group or to a Jewish group to use against Muslims and the device’s “designers” were hoping that it would mow people down by the hundreds. They were arrested even though their “weapon” would never have worked – the road to hell may be paved with good intentions, and I guess the road to prison is paved with bad ones.
Without getting into the nitty-gritty details, it’s important to note that this weapon would never have worked the way they envisioned. First – yes it’s possible to make an x-ray machine that will emit a fatal dose of radiation, but such devices are fairly large and they suck down huge amounts of power. Not the sort of thing that can be taken out and used surreptitiously, and certainly nothing that can be moved without a large vehicle. And even with these, distance works against the would-be terrorist since dose drops off rapidly as distance increases. Smaller devices might be able to cause minor harm, but only if held at a close distance for many minutes or hours – these requirements would certainly preclude massive number of casualties. The whole plot is simply impossible from many standpoints – neither the science nor the engineering nor the logistics would have worked.
It could be that plots such as this are a little-appreciated positive outcome of our slipping standards in science education. A good science education would have given these hapless boneheads the ability to come up with something genuinely lethal. The over-achieving students in Japan joined Aum Shinrikyo and developed chemical weapons, drones, and were working on biological and nuclear weapons. Ours were seemingly influenced more by Star Trek re-runs than by science. Thank goodness for scientific illiteracy.