Project X

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This article describes the secret weapon of mass destruction invented and described in Ayn Rand's novel, Atlas Shrugged. For other uses of the phrase, see Project X (disambiguation).

Project X (2018-20), in Ayn Rand's novel Atlas Shrugged, was a project of the State Science Institute, completed in the last year of the strike of the men of the mind called by John Galt. It was, quite simply, a weapon of mass destruction and was intended as an instrument of totalitarian control. Instead it became the trigger for the final collapse of the socialistic society that the United States of America had then become.

Project X also was a type of the perversion of science by unscrupulous and power-hungry government authorities, and was also a metaphor for the unintended consequences of the use of taxpayer's money to fund scientific research.

Spoiler warning
This article contains important plot information

Contents

Background

Project X, also known as Project Xylophone, grew out of the earlier work by Robert Stadler, PhD, who became Director of the State Science Institute in 2004, shortly before the beginning of John Galt's famous strike. Robert Stadler had done pioneering work in the physics of sound, and particularly in ultrasonic sound, presumably while he was Chairman of the Physics Department at the Patrick Henry University (not to be confused with the real-life Patrick Henry College). The nature of Robert Stadler's work is never explained in the narrative, but recent real-life work in acoustical science has resulted in a device capable of delivering a coherent "beam" of ultrasonic sound.[1] Perhaps Dr. Stadler had developed such a device, called a saser (an obvious play on the word laser), in the hope of using it to produce what would, in the time setting of the novel, have become the first-ever automatic digital computer.

When Dr. Stadler came to the State Science Institute as its Director, he continued his work on sound and essentially placed all of it in the public domain. (Note that the Copyright Act of 1973 provides that the work product of any government agency is in the public domain in the United States.)

The Xylophone

The instrument known as the Xylophone used Robert Stadler's principles of sonic physics, but in a manner that he never intended. Under the direction of Dr. Floyd Ferris, the Associate Director (and in fact the actual director), the State Science Institute built an instrument capable of pulverizing any structure, from a trestle strut to a building, within a hundred miles. This was no means of communication or information storage. This was, quite simply, a weapon.

The novel never names the precise location of Project X. It does, however, give identifiable landmarks along the circumference of the Xylophone's area of effectiveness:

The center of this region lies in or near the town of Dunkertown, Iowa, slightly north of east of Waterloo, Iowa. Mr. Thompson gave the name Harmony City to the project campus and the lands surrounding it.

In the last year of the strike (2019), the Xylophone was completed. That the instrument had no greater range than a hundred miles was due entirely to the refusal by Henry Rearden to fulfill a peremptory order for Rearden Metal to use to build the Xylophone. The builders presumably had to use ordinary steel, supplied by the Associated Steel Company, owned by Orren Boyle. This fact might also have caused a crucial delay in the building of the project, because Associated Steel was notoriously unreliable in the fulfillment of its orders.

The demonstration

On June 29, 2019, the State Science Institute held a public demonstration of the instrument that they now named the Thompson Harmonizer (named for the character identified only as Mr. Thompson, the Head of State). In that demonstration, a tethered goat, a wooden shack, and a mocked-up railroad trestle were all flattened within seconds.

Robert Stadler attended the demonstration, and, as incredible as this might seem, had no idea even of what Project X was, much less the destruction of which it was capable, prior to the actual demonstration. After it was done, Dr. Stadler asked Dr. Ferris, "Who invented that ghastly thing?" Ferris, unperturbed, credited Stadler himself, and reminded Stadler that his own work on sonic physics was at the heart of the design of the Xylophone.

Then, before Stadler could protest further, Ferris handed him a prepared speech to deliver. This speech began with this absurd claim:

I am proud that my years of work in the service of science have brought me the honor of placing into the hands of our great leader, Mr. Thompson, a new instrument with an incalculable potential for a civilizing and liberating influence upon the mind of man.

Floyd Ferris told Stadler, on that occasion, that the government planned to build more Thompson Harmonizers within Megalopolis USA and within 100 miles of every large city, to keep the people in line. But the economy literally could not support the building of any other Xylophone. So the one Xylophone in Dunkertown, Iowa, now known as Harmony City, would remain the only one. And in less than a year and a month, a struggle for control would destroy it and the entire region under its influence.

The triggering

On February 22, 2019, John Galt was arrested. The government held Galt in the penthouse of the Wayne-Falkland Hotel for about a week while they attempted to persuade him to take the post of "Economic Dictator" of the country. They then attempted to force Galt to participate in a radio-television simulcast program to announce a new "plan for peace and prosperity" with his name on it. Instead of cooperating, Galt showed the entire country that someone was aiming a gun at him, and then said, "Get...out of my way."

Robert Stadler did not remain in New York to watch that program. Instead, after a humiliating scene with Galt (at Galt's demand), he drove directly to Harmony City, intending to seize control of the Xylophone and rule the area of its influence as his private feudal domain.

But when he arrived, he found the Project site already occupied by a gang of thugs, led by Cuffy Meigs, who was probably the most militant, and the most corrupt, of all the Washington, DC insiders. Meigs boasted that he, as the leader of the "Friends of the People," was now in charge, and that he and his men could care for the Xylophone without help. Stadler, incredulous, struggled with Meigs, on the level of physical violence, for control of the Xylophone. In the process, Meigs pulled one of its levers.

This one lever pull triggered the Xylophone at full gain. The result was the utter destruction of the Project site and the flattening of every house and every building within the Xylophone's range. The most crucial object that was destroyed was the Taggart Bridge, a railroad bridge over the Mississippi River. The western half of the bridge, and the first six cars of a passenger train that was crossing it at the time, all disappeared.

The narrative states that Robert Stadler died slowly and in agony on the Project site, and was the last man to die.


Spoilers end here.


Scientific basis

The Xylophone is aptly named, because its purpose is to destroy things by using ultrasonic sound. The novel makes no effort to describe the actual technique involved. Basically, using sound to pulverize an object is an extreme application of a technique, often called sonication, that is used in dentistry to remove tartar from teeth and occasionally to remove calcium deposits from dentures. But this technique typically requires a heavier-than-air intermediary substance, typically water.

No real-life investigator has ever attempted to duplicate the Xylophone or to build anything like it. However, scientists at the University of Nottingham have built a device capable of producing a beam of coherent sound in the range of terahertz (trillions of vibrations per second).[1] The project scientists call their device a "saser," a play on laser, a device for producing coherent light. The Nottingham group hopes to use their device as an instrument of harmless imaging, for medical or security purposes (i.e., anti-terrorist screening in public venues). They also talk hopefully of using their device to produce computers with very high-speed internal clocks. But just as lasers have always been theoretically capable of burning or cutting if the light is powerful enough, the "saser" could deliver an ultrasonic beam capable of pulverizing an object, just as a dentist's sonicator pulverizes calcium deposits on teeth or dentures.

The most recent use of sound as a weapon occurred in the Iraq theater, where soldiers often used Long Range Acoustical Devices, or LRADs, to direct an ear-splitting sound at an unruly crowd or an approaching attacker.[2] About a year later, a cruise ship used an LRAD-like device to repel pirates.[3] The most recent documented use of the LRAD occurred on United States soil, in September of 2009. Specifically, the police of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania used LRADs to disperse a crowd of demonstrators at the "Group of 20 Summit." That act has provoked great controversy, charges of excessive use of force, and comparisons to the Gestapo and stormtroopers of Nazi Germany during the Second World War.[4]

This is not the same as using sound to pulverize an object. The worst physical hazard that the LRAD could present to an overexposed subject is permanent hearing loss. The possible psychological harm to an exposed subject might be impossible to assess or predict.

The use of sound, especially in the ultrasonic range, as a weapon is a common theme in science fiction. For example, in the Star Trek episode "The Way to Eden," a group of galactic drop-outs gerry-rig an ultrasonic broadcaster to incapacitate the crew of USS Enterprise (NCC-1701) long enough to allow the drop-outs to disembark, and then to reactivate at a level that could kill. No contemporary acoustical expert has ever suggested that a man could die from overexposure to sound or ultrasound at any given pitch. However, that was before the invention of the "saser" at the University of Nottingham.

Typology

Ayn Rand did not believe that the government had any business funding scientific research, basic or applied. She used her Project X account partly as a plot device to explain the destruction of a key bridge, but primarily to express her fear that government-funded research will always lend itself to the construction of instruments of tyranny, and was therefore something to be strictly forbidden in a sound society.

Indeed, John Galt weighs in on this very subject:

[T]he damned and the guiltiest among you are the men who had the capacity to know, yet chose to blank out reality, the men who were willing to sell their intelligence into cynical servitude to force: the contemptible breed of those mystics of science who profess a devotion to some sort of "pure knowledge"—the purity consisting of their claim that such knowledge has no practical purpuse on this earth—who reserve their logic for inanimate matter, but believe that the subject of dealing with men requires and deserves no rationality, who scorn money and sell their souls in exchange for a laboratory supplied by loot. And since there is no such thing as "non-practical knowledge" or any sort of "disinterested" action, since they scorn the use of their science for the purpose and profit of life, they deliver their science to the service of death, to the only practical purpose it can ever have for looters: to inventing weapons of coercion and destruction. They, the intellects who seek escape from moral values, they are the damned on this earth, theirs is the guilt beyond forgiveness.

Nor was Miss Rand the only author to express such a fear. The motion picture Atlantis includes a short dialogue in which a character who invented a wide-area space-heating device saw that device re-engineered to be a weapon, a result that he found not merely distasteful but despicable.

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 University of Nottingham. "A Sonic Boom In The World Of Lasers." ScienceDaily 18 June 2009. 18 June 2009 <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090617123652.htm>.
  2. "Troops in Iraq Get High-tech Noisemaker," Associated Press, March 3, 2004. <http://www.military.com/NewsContent/0,13319,FL_noise_030304,00.html?ESRC=eb.nl>
  3. Pain, John, "Cruise ship attacked by pirates used sonic weapon," USA Today, November 7, 2005.<http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/techinnovations/2005-11-07-cruise-blast_x.htm>
  4. King T, "The Criminal Behavior of G-20 Police in Pittsburgh," Salem-News.com, 1 October 2009. Accessed 6 October 2009.
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