Not all heroes wear capes by Gregory Chivers

One of my favourite figures from history is the Empress Theodora. Her life story is sometimes grim, but truly epic. She was born the daughter of a bear-trainer, and rose to become mistress of the Byzantine empire, the most powerful woman in the world, and a saint.

Theodora watching the games at Byzantium’s Hippodrome, which was the cauldron for the city’s politics

Theodora watching the games at Byzantium’s Hippodrome, which was the cauldron for the city’s politics

In the 19th century her life story was made into a play, and she was portrayed by one of the first globally famous actresses, Sarah Bernhardt. But in the 20th century Byzantine history fell out of fashion, and Theodora fell from historical megastar into undeserved obscurity.

A C19th theatre’s guess at Byzantine costume and decor. Accurate? No. Interesting? I think so.

A C19th theatre’s guess at Byzantine costume and decor. Accurate? No. Interesting? I think so.

The young Theodora’s father plied his unusual trade at the Constantinople Hippodrome. His trained bears probably featured in intermission shows between chariot races. In the sixth century, this was the most exciting place on the planet, but it’s not perfect for raising children.

Chariots raced for teams denoted by colour - Blues, Greens, Reds & Whites. Each team represented a powerful political faction in the city. The races were proxy wars as well as entertainment.

Chariots raced for teams denoted by colour - Blues, Greens, Reds & Whites. Each team represented a powerful political faction in the city. The races were proxy wars as well as entertainment.

Her mum was an actress and dancer, and Theodora’s dad died when she was just four. At a young age, she went to work in a brothel. This doesn’t necessarily mean sex – Byzantine brothels employed stage performers and waitresses, but it was probably pretty grim.

She was about 16 when she travelled to North Africa (part of the Byzantine Empire) as the companion of a high-ranking official, who got bored of her, then dumped her thousands of miles from home. She made her way home via Alexandria and Anticoch, undergoing a religious conversion en route.

It’s an awful long way from Byzantium (Constantinople on this map) to the empire’s African provinces

It’s an awful long way from Byzantium (Constantinople on this map) to the empire’s African provinces

That journey lasted years, and it must have been terrifying, but Theodora used it to forge connections in high society. We’re not sure exactly what she did we she got back in Constantinople, but somehow she met the young prince Justinian, heir to the Imperial throne.

Limited choice of haircuts in the Byzantine court.

Limited choice of haircuts in the Byzantine court.

He wanted to marry her, but there was a law against important people marrying actresses. Justininian got his father, the Emperor, to CHANGE THE LAW. What was so amazing about her to drive him to do this? We don’t know, but history proved she was worth the effort.

In 532AD, riots in Constantinople threatened to topple Justinian from the throne. A huge crowd gathered in the Hippodrome ready to crown a new emperor and storm the palace. Justinian was ready to flee. Theodora was having none of it.

It was the political power of one of the chariot-racing factions that threatened to topple Justinian

It was the political power of one of the chariot-racing factions that threatened to topple Justinian

She told her husband "Those who have worn the crown should never survive its loss. Never will I see the day when I am not saluted as empress." Steeled by his wife’s words, Justinian came up with a plan, and bribed half the rebels, who slunk away with the money. His troops slaughtered the rest.

He went on the conquer vast new territories, with Theodora ruling in his place while he was on his travels. Many officials resented her authority, but she put them in their place, forcing them the prostrate themselves and kiss their own feet.

She fought corruption, promoted new (good) generals and oversaw construction of the spectacular Hagia Sophia cathedral – the largest building in the world at that time. When the Pope (Silverius) refused to obey one of her orders, she had him replaced.

The Hagia Sophia still dominates the skyline of Istanbul

The Hagia Sophia still dominates the skyline of Istanbul

When she died, Justinian was distraught at the loss of his co-regent. She was buried in the Church of the Holy Apostles which stood for a thousand years before the empire fell, and it was demolished by the city’s new rulers.

But her legacy lives on ins surprising ways. The Hagia Sophia still stands, and even finds its way in games like Assassin’s creed.

Not my kind of game, unfortunately, but I can still enjoy the art.

Not my kind of game, unfortunately, but I can still enjoy the art.

Or if you happen to catch 'Taken' when it's being repeated on TV or Netflix, take a moment to pause during that incredible rooftop chase, and think about the life of a truly remarkable woman…

The sun sets over Theodora’s incredible legacy.

The sun sets over Theodora’s incredible legacy.

That Time I Crashed a Plane by Gregory Chivers

It was a Boeing 727, an airliner about a hundred and fifty feet long, with seats for just under two hundred passengers. Thankfully, I didn’t have to fly it into the ground myself. There was a stunt team. I just had to work out how to make it happen, and how to film it…

CRASH 3.jpg

It started in October 2009. I got a phone call from Dragonfly Film & TV, who were one of my regular clients as a freelance producer. They were making a documentary about aviation safety for Channel 4 & National Geographic. It was all going to be about a big stunt – crashing a real plane and analysing what happens to it.

The production had already been running a couple of months, the schedule required the crash to happen before the end of December, and they’d run into some ‘technical difficulties’ so they wanted me to join the team, figure stuff out, and make things happen. At this point, you might be thinking ‘Greg must be some sort of aviation expert’, but he really isn’t. He knows more about planes and how they work than 99.9 percent of people who work in TV, but that really isn’t the same thing. Really not.

I knew I didn’t have all the skills needed for the job, but I also knew there probably wasn’t anyone better, and if we could recruit enough real expertise, we could cover our gaps, so I got stuck in. Day one on the job was an eye-opener. There were good people on the team, but it was obvious we’d bitten off more than we could chew. The whole thing was astonishingly naïve. We didn’t have a plane. We didn’t have anywhere to crash a plane. Worst of all, we didn’t know why we wanted to crash a plane. We just knew we wanted to do it. The networks definitely wanted us to do it.

Research actually turned up some pretty good reasons to do the crash. We discovered all the current guidelines on aviation safety were based on computer simulations of what happens in a crash. The simulations are astonishingly precise, but nobody had crashed a real airliner since NASA in the ‘70s, so a comparison would be useful.

This is called a finite element model. The structural characteristics of the aircraft are modelled down to the last nut and bolt.

This is called a finite element model. The structural characteristics of the aircraft are modelled down to the last nut and bolt.

We quickly decided the Boeing 727 was the plane for us. Big enough to be meaningful. Old enough to be affordable within our budget (sort of). It had a unique feature that made it perfect – a staircase at the back that could be lowered in flight, enabling our pilots to jump out before the plane hit.

If you try jumping out of the front doors on any ordinary airliner in flight, you'll be sucked into a jet engine, or be decapitated by a wing, so this was a straightforward choice.

If you try jumping out of the front doors on any ordinary airliner in flight, you'll be sucked into a jet engine, or be decapitated by a wing, so this was a straightforward choice.

This feature had already given the 727 a place in history, as the only plane ever to be hijacked and then escaped in mid-air by the hijacker. DB Cooper (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/D._B._Cooper) famously disappeared in the skies above Seattle after jumping off the staircase.

The hijacking caused a fear of copycat attacks that never came

The hijacking caused a fear of copycat attacks that never came

Artist’s impression of the disappeared criminal

Artist’s impression of the disappeared criminal

We found our plane at a storage facility in Arizona. It was airworthy enough for a couple of final flights before its glorious death. We just had to convince the Federal Aviation Authority to let us fly it out of the country. They were understandably suspicious of TV producers wanting to fly ageing planes into the ground.

These places are weird in many ways. The aircraft here will likely never be used again, but they’re still worth a fortune.

These places are weird in many ways. The aircraft here will likely never be used again, but they’re still worth a fortune.

The plane made a short hop to an airfield in San Bernardino, California, where it was to undergo modifications to make it ready for the crash. Thankfully, we did have some real experts on board for this stuff. The engineering and flying would be carried out by a company called Broken Wing, who were a bunch of ex-US Navy test pilots. Their engineer had regularly carried out work for the Navy, converting ordinary aircraft of all shapes and sizes into drones for experimental purposes.

The plan was this. One aircrew flies the plane until it’s about five minutes away from the crash site. They slow to about 100 knots and then lower the staircase at the back. One by one they jump out and parachute to safety, leaving the plane unmanned.

Obviously, an unmanned airliner could crash anywhere and do a lot of damage. That’s where the modifications come in. The engineer had tweaked the controls so they could be operated remotely. Another pilot, in a chase plane, would use the remote control to bring the airliner in on its final approach for the crash.

So, we had a plan, but we still needed somewhere we could crash an airliner without posing a risk to innocent people. A mistake could wipe out a couple of city blocks. We were looking at Mexico, mostly for economic reasons, because we’d need to hire a lot of people for logistical support and clear-up, and US wages would have broken the budget (which had never been adequate, but that’s not interesting). Our contacts in the LA film industry cautioned us against filming across the border – they said the help we’d hire there would be low-skilled and unreliable.

The truth was the opposite. Mexico was amazing. The Mexicans were amazing. After some searching, we found a great place. Laguna Salada is a dry lake bed in northern Mexico. Our location fixer, Omar Veytia, had just overseen local production of the Bond Movie, Quantum of Solace, and he did an amazing job getting the authorities on board.

It’s really hard to find a photograph that captures the scale of this place.

It’s really hard to find a photograph that captures the scale of this place.

Back in San Bernadino, we started filming the modifications to the plane being carried out. Because the budget was so tight, I was acting as camera operator, and I noticed a potential problem. It was dark inside the aircraft – not dark enough to cause problems for the human eye, but these things matter to cameras. I could compensate by opening up the exposure, or bringing in extra lights, but I knew that wouldn’t be an option while the plane was in flight and about to crash.

The really difficult thing would be filming the passenger safety experiments we were setting up in the cabin. On impact the crash test dummies would shake around violently, and we’d need to capture that movement in slo-mo to understand what was happening. Slo-mo filming DEVOURS light. When you ramp up the frame rate, a sunny day in your garden can look like a darkened cave.

Troubleshooting the problem with a slo-mo specialist yielded an ingenious solution (his ideas, me just throwing problem after problem at him). LED lights (bright, with a low power draw) would run off an array of car batteries bolted to a steel frame in front of the passenger seats. This set-up would give them enough juice so an operator could turn them on before take-off and then the lights would last for the 2-3 hours the airliner would be in flight before the crash.

Experts advised us where to place the dummies around the plane to provide useful data. They’re expensive, so we didn’t have nearly enough.

Experts advised us where to place the dummies around the plane to provide useful data. They’re expensive, so we didn’t have nearly enough.

But how were we going to get the footage from those slo-mo cameras? Tapes would almost certainly be destroyed in the crash. Solid-state drives offered greater survivability, but they would fill up quickly, and once they were recording, any delay might mean we didn’t get the shot. This was 2009, and digital wasn’t much of a thing yet (Panasonic loaned us two of the first Go-Pros ever released) – it existed, but it was a pain in the ass and you only used it if you had a good reason. Well, this was a reason. The slo-mo guy rigged the cameras and drives to record constantly, overwriting when they ran out of room. When the plane hit the ground, the force would trigger a switch rigged to an accelerometer, which would stop the drives recording a few moments later. The footage captured a few seconds either side of the crash would be what’s kept.

The big question we’d tried to answer in making the film was ‘What can you do to survive a plane crash?’ and the slo-mo filming of the dummies was going to give us the answers.

In some ways we’d been pretty smart figuring out all this stuff, but in one important way, we’d been pretty dumb. The reality is, buying airliners and getting permission from the FAA to perform dangerous experiments takes months. The production was running out of money and we’d hardly filmed anything. We were forced to cut cameras and crews from our filming plan for the crash. The killer was when we had to lose the helicopter that was going to follow the action and capture it from above.

At one point I went to the exec (my boss) and said ‘We’re doing something that happens once in a generation and there are provincial horseraces with better camera coverage’. There was just no point going through all this hassle if we weren’t going to shoot it in a way that the audience could see what was going on.

As the money ran out, me and the director, Srik Narayanan, had to leave the production and move onto other jobs. Production manager Luke Boyle stayed on to keep things moving before eventually giving way to his deputy, Amanda Hibbits. In the end, it took her three years, but she did it. She got the plane to Mexico, and arranged for a small town to be built in the desert to support filming and clear-up operations.

Our careers all moved on. A new producer and a new director took over. I didn’t know what happened until I saw the finished film. Amazingly, after three years, it all unfolded almost exactly as we’d planned. The Boeing hit the desert floor in a streak of dust and the nose broke off. No fire, but that impact would have killed people.

From a visual perspective we wanted a fireball, but this crash was the best possible result for experimental data.

From a visual perspective we wanted a fireball, but this crash was the best possible result for experimental data.

There was one major problem. It missed the intended impact point by 2.5 kilometres. The only camera to catch the crucial moment was the one on the helicopter following the plane - the helicopter we’d had to cancel because the production couldn’t afford it. All the other cameras were in the wrong place.

Crashed planes are dangerous. Don’t go near one unless you know what you’re doing.

Crashed planes are dangerous. Don’t go near one unless you know what you’re doing.

The reason for the miss was painful. On the day of the crash, the chase plane that was supposed to carry the remote-control team developed a mechanical fault. There was a back up plane, but it was slower. In the air it struggled to keep up with the jet-powered 727. The airliner slowed as much as it could without falling out of the sky, but it still left the chase behind. The remote pilot couldn’t let it fly on out of control, so he brought it down early.

That’s life in factual television. Even if we had the money, we can’t fake things like Hollywood. Reality gets in the way. You can’t guarantee anything. I’m just glad somebody (probably @moodle1234) found the money for the helicopter, and the film worked. Most importantly, nobody got hurt.

By now you’ll have worked out it wasn’t actually me who crashed the plane. I was one small part of a team of dozens who contributed, but I hope you enjoyed the story. It wasn’t terrific fun to live through at the time - thinking of the potential for things to go wrong took a heavy toll on all of us - but it’s a great memory.

Guardians of Peace by Gregory Chivers

One of the strangest filming trips I ever made was to Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota. It’s one of three places where the US Air Force houses intercontinental ballistic missiles, ready to launch the moment they receive presidential authorisation. It’s a place that leaves a mark on anyone who visits.

minot satellite.PNG

Security is tight for obvious reasons. The silos themselves are spread across 8500 miles of empty country, an area roughly the size of Massachusetts, with minimal road access. If you want to visit a crew on duty, you fly in by chopper. This isn’t just because of the distance – they don’t want people learning routes to the silos, and they don’t want ground vehicles leaving tire tracks that could give away the location to anyone looking at satellite photos.

The distances, and the security need to minimise travel to and from the silos, mean the crews have to stay underground for weeks at a time with nothing to do. They spend every minute knowing that if they’re called into action, it will be to launch a missile that could kill millions of people.

This takes a massive toll on their mental health. It’s a huge issue for the base. Everywhere you go, you see signs for counselling services, helpline numbers. Next to the main gate there’s a sign that reads ‘Days since last DUI’. When we arrived, the number on the sign was five. The next day, the five had been wiped out and replaced with a zero.

minot2.PNG

The missile crews stick to unspoken rules for self-care to make the job survivable. The way they govern language is remarkable. They never talk about the destructive power of their weapons, even when asked directly in an interview context. A lot of the terminology is based around ‘space’ and ‘rockets’ and ‘re-entry vehicles’. Technically, this is all valid. The Minuteman III is a fully functioning space vehicle – it exits the atmosphere, and the nuclear warheads re-enter just like an Apollo or Soyuz capsule. In the early years of space travel, all spacecraft were launched into orbit on ICBM’s, because it wasn’t worth developing separate rockets for civilian use.

This choice of vocabulary sends a very clear message about what the missile crews don’t want to think about. Conspicuously absent from conversation, signs and documents are words like ‘warhead’, ‘explosive’ or ‘radioactivity’. These are intelligent people. They're not fooling themselves. They just consciously avoid facing the darkness day to day. It's evasive, but who am I to judge?

I still have the unit patch they gave me. 'Custodes Pacis' - 'Guards of peace'. I'm not going to speculate about the validity of nuclear deterrence – you could write an entire book about it, but the badge tells you about how these guys have to see themselves, or the job would be impossible.

Latin - it’s for the Church and the military.

Latin - it’s for the Church and the military.

In fact, the only reason my visit was permitted was because it fitted into the unit’s coping strategies. They were pretty open about this. Having journalists poking around creates a HUGE amount of work for them as they have to brainstorm every possible security risk and work out how to show me stuff without compromising anything important. They welcomed the work because it gave them a project much more tangible and immediate than their endless vigil, waiting for war. Consequently, they laid on far more than we could possibly shoot in the two days we spent on the base. We had to turn down the opportunity to film the special ops troops responding to a simulated attempt to break in and steal nukes, and other cool stuff. They were happy to fly us anywhere because the end result was a film that reinforced their positive self-image, which is what they need more than anything.

To add to the stress of holding the keys to the apocalypse, Minot is a hard place to live. In the Air Force there’s a saying “Why not Minot? Freezin’s the reason.” North Dakota does get fearsomely cold in winter, but it’s also empty and boring, with not much to do as an antidote to the stress. The town near the base is small, and an expensive place to hang out because it’s one of the centres for the ‘black goldrush’ created by the fracking boom.

(Photo by Bobak Ha'Eri)

(Photo by Bobak Ha'Eri)

Fracking has created prosperity and jobs for hoteliers and bar-owners in the area, but it’s also created a worrying problem for the Air Force. Seismic disturbances from the drilling and fluid injection have caused cracking in missile silo walls. It’s seven years since I visited now, and I don’t know how this problem was resolved. It tells you something about the economic power of the fracking industry that there was no governmental backlash for doing this kind of damage, or at least none I could see.

When we were done filming, every frame of our footage was inspected by four Air Force officers, including the base commander himself, to check for anything that could reveal secrets relating to the nukes. We were clean, and allowed to go on our way. I left with mixed feelings. I’m against nuclear weapons, but I acknowledge the reality that the US is never going to get rid of them. So, someone has to maintain and operate the missiles. These are the people who do it. It is a hard job that never ends.

My cameraman for the trip was my long-time collaborator Rich Ashdown. We wanted to go back to shoot a different kind of documentary (we were making a show about weapons tech), but getting good interviews would have required unpicking the crews' coping mechanisms. I couldn't do it, so we left the idea alone. Perhaps a better, ballsier film-maker could have made it work – I’d be interested to see someone try, but it wasn’t for me.

The Big Apple's Big Lie by Gregory Chivers

One of my favourite urban myths is the story about the mast at the top of the Empire State Building. Legend has it, the mast was built as a mooring post for zeppelins, so wealthy transatlantic travellers could disembark right into the heart of the Big Apple.

Guides to the building still refer to it as 'the mooring mast' because of this wonderful story. Unfortunately, it's not true. The origins of the story have been traced to this postcard, which shows passengers walking straight out of an airship onto the tower's observation deck.

It’s a lovely idea, just not true, or practical. The wind hitting the Empire state would wreck any airship.

It’s a lovely idea, just not true, or practical. The wind hitting the Empire state would wreck any airship.

At the bottom of the postcard, you'll see some text 'winches anchor dirigible to mast'. This is what betrays the whole mooring mast idea, & the postcard, as fiction. If you go inside that section of the building, there's no room for any bulky machinery. It was never there; it was never even planned to be there. The mast was there for one reason - to make the Empire State taller than its nearest rival, the Chrysler building.

Beautiful, but relatively speaking, not that tall.

Beautiful, but relatively speaking, not that tall.

It was a cheap trick, but it worked, and the Empire State won its place in history as the tallest building in the world. Of course, taller buildings were built. I think the Empire State is only the 25th tallest now, but the story of the 'mooring' mast lives on.

If you're fed up with politicians, read this. by Gregory Chivers

These days, naming a politician you really admire is harder than it should be, so I’d like to talk about Count Axel Oxenstierna. We’re all used to the Swedes being cool and progressive, but most of us don’t realise they were already ahead of the game 400 years ago. Oxenstierna was the grandaddy of Scandi-cool.

Hipster beard - just one more way in which Oxenstierna was centuries ahead of his time

Hipster beard - just one more way in which Oxenstierna was centuries ahead of his time

In an era when most men achieved greatness through war, Count Axel made his name by ending one, negotiating a peace with Denmark. Now, you might be thinking ‘Sweden and Denmark isn’t exactly a clash of the Titans - ending that war is not going to make you one of history’s all-time greats.’ If you’re thinking that, I see your point, but you’ve got to get your head around 17th century geopolitics to understand how big a deal Oxenstierna was. In early 17th century Europe, the modern-day minnows of Sweden and Denmark were heavy hitters. Sweden was a superpower. Under the warrior-king Gustavus Adolphus, its elite armies bullied Russia and carved a path through Germany.

Catholicism vs Protestantism was the great ideological struggle of the era, a bitter, bloodier version of the C20th clash between communism & capitalism. Gustavus Adolphus was Kennedy or Khruschev, depending on your perspective. I don’t want to labour the analogy, because analogies always wear out sooner or later, but you could think of Oxenstierna as Henry Kissinger without the war crimes, or at least not quite so many war crimes (He did also start at least one war, but y’know that’s positively starchild hippy levels of violence by C17th standards)

So what makes this guy better than today’s politicians? Two things.

First, he actually did stuff. Unlike so many politicians who consider it their business to spout ideology and rile people, Count Axel got his hands dirty governing. He raised money, organised armies, came up with laws. He built the system of government Sweden still uses today. He was always looking ahead for problems and squashing them before they could get serious. Global warming would be a quirky memory from the ‘80s if we had this guy in charge.

Second – He admitted when he was wrong and changed his mind. He regarded anyone incapable of doing this as unfit for office. This pragmatism made him revered as the wisest man in Europe. Cardinal Richelieu (The bad guy from the Three Musketeers and possibly the most powerful man in the world at this time) often turned to Oxenstierna for advice. Can you imagine anyone you’ve ever voted for doing that?

But we shouldn’t be misty eyed, longing for the days when we were ruled by intellectual titans.  In a letter to his son, Oxenstierna wrote the words that have become his most famous legacy.

"Do you not know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is governed?"

Idiots in politics are nothing new. The only thing that changes is how we deal with them.

Against All Odds by Gregory Chivers

In 1567, King Philip II of Spain received a letter from one of his subjects in the Philippines. It was a request for permission to invade and conquer China. The bold adventurer making the request estimated a force of eighty men would be necessary. Yes, 80. To conquer China.

The Great Wall of China was the least of this guy’s problems

The Great Wall of China was the least of this guy’s problems

Philip was not mad. He turned it down. Undeterred, the adventurer came up with a new plan. Two years later he sent a revised estimate. Sixty men was all he'd need to conquer the most populous country on the planet.

This fascinating snippet (which I learned from Vermeer’s hat, by Timothy Brook) begs the question, how could anyone conceive of such a mad idea?

Well, history’s full of these mad ideas, and sometimes they work. If you’re a Spanish adventurer in the Philippines in 1567, you’re going to be thinking ‘Why, it wasn’t even fifty years ago Hernan Cortes subjugated the Aztec Empire with a handful of men and guns: no reason I can’t do the same.’

With twenty-twenty hindsight, we know better. Mexico is five times smaller than China, the Chinese were more technologically advanced, and the common cold and influenza did more damage to the Aztecs than any number of Spanish troops could have inflicted. That trick was never going to work in Asia.

None of this stuff would have been visible to our adventurer. He would have been hooked on Cortes glory stories from an early age. He saw a rich, populous, technologically backward nation that was ripe for the taking, just like the Aztecs. If he studied his conquistador history, and I’m betting he did, he would have known all you need to do to take down an empire is break it into its constituent parts, and pit them against one another. For every conquistador slaughtering Aztecs in Mexico, there were a hundred Tlaxcalans or other native American allies fighting to free themselves from the Aztec yoke. The lesson from Mexico was clear - If you can exploit the local politics, you don’t need big numbers.

Were there similar fault lines to exploit in China in 1567? I don’t know, and I doubt our would-be conquistador knew either, but the stress of foreign invasion has fractured China several times in its history, notably in response to Mongol invasions and during the Second World War. To this day, fear of fragmenting haunts China, and fuels their draconian rule of outlying provinces like Xingjian and Tibet.

So, was our adventurer really so mad? I think not. I suspect, like many men of action, he just couldn’t count; like a swashbuckling Brexiteer, he had a bold plan and he wanted to make it happen, never mind that the numbers didn’t add up. He couldn’t imagine the vast unknown territory that lay beyond what he could see, so he convinced himself it didn’t matter. Thankfully for the world, King Philip II put a bullet in this particular mad idea, and saved Spain from a world of pain.

Who’s going to do the same for Britain?

Fire From Heaven by Gregory Chivers

Project Thor wouldn’t look exactly like this, but it’s a cool pic of an orbital weapon

Project Thor wouldn’t look exactly like this, but it’s a cool pic of an orbital weapon

They say never meet your heroes. Well, Jerry Pournelle had been a hero of mine ever since I read ‘The Mote in God’s Eye’* as a teenager, and I never met him. Instead I encountered him in the strange, detached way I’ve encountered many great people in the course of my work.

As a showrunner, I sometimes have thirty episodes in production at once. It’s not practical for me to clock up air miles personally interviewing the 200+ people who’ll feature in my stories, so skilled directors do it for me. I equip them with a list of questions, and sometimes scripted lines, for the incredible people who bring my stories to life on screen. The directors bring back the recorded interviews, and I oversee the editing that crafts them into a story. In this peculiar way, I develop a weird one-sided relationship with people I have never met. They answer my questions, perform lines I’ve written for them, but they have no idea who I am.

This was my relationship with Jerry. He was a regular cast member in NASA’s Unexplained Files from season 2 onwards. We initially interviewed him for just one story, but we found out he had something to say about almost everything, and with the knowledge to back it up, so we kept coming back for more. My proxy for interviewing Jerry was the excellent Ian Levison, a veteran director who quickly mastered the art of handling a difficult character.

Jerry was nearly 80 when we first interviewed him. He would forget who Ian was. He would forget he’d agreed to the interview. He would make occasional references to the gun he kept somewhere handy. Ian took this all in his stride (He’s been through worse, but that’s his story). The moment the interview started, the years fell away, and Jerry would go into full flow as a natural storyteller.

The story that led us to Jerry was ‘Project Thor’. In the 1950’s he’d worked as a weapons designer for Boeing, coming up with new concepts to push the limits of technology. Project Thor certainly did that. Jerry’s big idea was a network of satellites equipped with tungsten rods that they could drop from orbit, causing devastation wherever they landed. Fire from heaven. Real-life thunderbolts.

It was a brilliant idea. The rods would require no propulsion. A simple guidance system could put them on target. As a weapon, it was impossible to defend against – too fast to intercept, and no amount of concrete would stop a metal rod falling from space. It also had the advantage of being clean, without the lingering radioactivity of nukes.

Project Thor was picked up for development by the USAF, but eventually abandoned because the cost of carrying the tungsten rods into orbit by rocket was too great. But clever ideas never completely go away. Rocket technology has improved massively since the ‘50s, and in 2011, the USAF budget earmarked a hundred million dollars for orbital weapons development. Was this the rebirth of Project Thor?

Where does sci-fi end, and reality begin? You never knew with Jerry, and that's why I loved his work.

 

*The dubious libertarian politics were not visible to me as a teen, but it’s still a really excellent first contact novel

Nuclear Waste Is Stored In Kitty Litter by Gregory Chivers

waste.PNG

I find this fact both terrifying and faintly comforting at the same time. The terror comes from the emotional need to have some super special magic material keeping the nasty stuff contained. Adamantium would be ideal, if it existed.

The comfort comes from thinking through the process that must have led to the decision to use kitty litter. Imagine being the engineer with the plan to build the first nuclear power stations. You need sign off from the President, or the Secretary for Energy (Or someone important, you get the idea), and one of his advisers asks you “What are you going to do with the waste?“. You have to give the honest answer -pack it in kitty litter, put in in a barrel, and bury the barrels in an abandoned salt mine (super dry, so no chance of radioactivity spreading through water). Everyone must have been aware of the potential for humiliation if anything went wrong, but on something this important, pragmatism is everything.

By and large, kitty litter works pretty well, just don't go organic on this one. Organic kitty litter uses wheat (rather than clay) to absorb moisture. If you pack it in with decaying nuclear waste, you're effectively building a dirty bomb. This is what happens…

https://www.businessinsider.com/kitty-litter-nuclear-waste-accident-2016-8?r=UK&IR=T