From Nuclear Weapons to Cyberwarfare

Science and Global Security: From Nuclear Weapons to Cyberwarfare
Princeton University, Fall 2015

Course listing on Princeton’s Office of the Registrar site

Course Blog

Doodle poll with blog schedule

Advances in science and technology over the past century have created many unprecedented and still unresolved global security challenges for policy makers and the public. The invention of nuclear weapons during World War II led Einstein to conclude that “the unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking.” Security concerns and government-sponsored research programs later combined to shape the Cold War arms race between the United States and Soviet Union. Many military and technical innovations resulted; these include precision-guided intercontinental ballistic missiles, spy satellites, and the global positioning system (GPS), but also the modern electronic computer and computer networks, which became the basis for the internet. Recent developments in biotechnology and digital communication and control raise the prospect of possible new kinds of warfare.

This course will provide students with a basic technical understanding of some of the critical technologies that are relevant to national and global security and will equip students with the skills to better assess the challenge of developing effective policies to manage such technologies. Case studies will inter alia include nuclear weapons and their proliferation, delivery systems for weapons of mass destruction, biotechnology and biosecurity, new media and crowdsourcing, autonomous weapons, superintelligence, and cyberwarfare.

Setting the Stage: Science and Technology in the “Atomic Era”
1 Nuclear Weapons
2 Biological Weapons and Biotechnology
3 Energy, Climate, and Security
4 Nuclear Energy and Nuclear Proliferation
5a Delivery Systems
5b Nuclear Strategy, Deterrence, and Arms Control
6 Verification
7 The Future
8 Simulation / Team Presentations

While the emphasis of this course will be on the security challenges posed by many of these technologies, it will also explore the application of science to arms control and disarmament. Examples covered in class will include the potential of open-source satellite imagery, which has been effectively used for crowd-sourcing purposes, and internet-enabled approaches to encouraging anonymous reporting.


Weekly readings, regular blog posts or comments; five problem sets (mostly in the first half of the semester); midterm exam in class; team projects and presentations (in the second half of the semester); and final exam.

Problem sets are due Wednesday before class. Late submissions are not accepted, but the lowest score (including “0” for non-submission) will not count toward the final grade. Students can (and are encouraged to) work together on problem sets in groups of up to three students. Students submit separate problem sets and draft individual answers to all questions (i.e., no verbatim copies). When working in groups, list names of the other team members on the first page.


No prerequisites


20% : Problem sets
15% : Midterm exam (in class)
15% : Team projects
25% : Final exam (closed book)
10% : Blog posts and comments
15% : Class/precept participation


We will not work with dedicated textbook; most readings and media required for this course are available online, either directly (with open-access) or through Princeton University. All other readings are or will be available on Blackboard; these are marked with (BB) below.

Weekly Schedule and Readings

Setting the Stage: Science and Technology in the “Atomic Era”
Sep 16, 2015

Advances in science and technology have always played an important role in shaping the nature of warfare, but a fundamentally new dimension emerged with the invention of nuclear weapons in the 1940s and, as the nuclear arsenals expanded, the respective capability for nearly-instant global devastation. Since the end of Cold War, many global security challenges have evolved, but –as President Obama pointed out in 2009– “in a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up.” New technologies are now emerging that could again transform the conditions of global security. These developments can be disruptive (as with the invention of nuclear weapons) or gradual as with the increasing significance of cyberwarfare or autonomous weapons. The dual-use nature of many relevant technologies further highlights the complexity of sound policy-making. To set the stage for the topics and issues covered this semester, we will briefly explore the different types of security threats today, the perception and prioritization of relevant risks, and the resulting challenges for effective policy making.


More to explore:

Here and below, “more to explore” readings and videos are not required!

Nuclear Weapons
Sep 21, Sep 23, and Sep 28, 2015

Shortly after the discovery of nuclear fission in the late 1930s, it became clear that the process could, in principle, unfold in an explosive chain reaction and release large amounts of energy. At the time, it was unknown, however, just how hard it would be to make the fissile material (highly enriched uranium or plutonium) needed for a nuclear weapon. During World War II, the U.S. Manhattan project demonstrated the technical basis of large-scale fissile material production (including the feasibility of operating nuclear reactors) and led to the development and use of the first nuclear weapons in 1945. The Soviet Union demonstrated its nuclear capability in 1949, and military planners on both sides began to integrate these weapons into their war-fighting arsenals. The emerging arms race between the superpowers further escalated in scale with the invention of the hydrogen bomb, which would increase the yield of nuclear weapons several-hundred fold. The destructive effects of nuclear weapons remain unparalleled; they involve air blast, heat, and nuclear radiation.

Nuclear Weapons 1: Principles (Sep. 21). In this unit, we explore the principles of nuclear fission and the concept of a nuclear chain reaction, estimate the time scale of the processes involved, and determine the amount of energy released in a nuclear explosion. We can then also estimate the so-called critical mass and the approximate amount of material needed to make a nuclear bomb.


  • Kosta Tsipis, The Physics of a Nuclear Explosion, Chapter 2 in Arsenal: Understanding Weapons in the Nuclear Age, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1983. (BB)
  • Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb, Hill and Wang, 2012, pp. 39–61. (Excerpts on BB)

More to explore:

Nuclear Weapons 2: Effects (Sep. 23). What happens if the energy equivalent of 20,000 tons of high explosive is released within one millionth of a second in a volume of one cubic foot? In this session, we will examine the effects of nuclear explosions, which involve air blast, heat, and nuclear radiation, and discuss the consequences of regional and global nuclear war.


  • Kosta Tsipis, Blast, Heat, and Radiation, Chapter 4 in Nuclear Almanac: Confronting the Atom in War and Peace, Addison-Wesley, Reading, Massachusetts, 1984. (BB)
  • Alternatively: Leo Sartori, Effects of Nuclear Weapons, Physics Today, March 1983. (BB)



  • The House in the Middle, Federal Civil Defense Administration, 12 minutes, 1954.
  • Isao Hashimoto, 1945–1998, Multimedia Artwork, 14 minutes, 2003.
  • White Light, Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Documentary directed by Steven Okazaki, 86 minutes, 2007. (BB)

More to explore:

Nuclear Weapons 3: Acquisition (Sep. 28). How hard is it to make a nuclear weapon? Harold Agnew, director of Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1970 to 1979, once said: “Those who say that building a nuclear weapon is easy, they are very wrong, but those who say that building a crude device is very difficult are even more wrong.” Today, it is widely acknowledged that the production of the nuclear explosive material remains the most significant technical hurdle in the process of making a (simple) nuclear weapon or explosive device. In this unit, we will explore the technologies and infrastructure needed to make plutonium or highly enriched uranium in quantities that are sufficient for a weapons program.


  • H. A. Feiveson, A. Glaser, Z. Mian, and F. von Hippel, Production, Uses, and Stocks of Fissile Materials, Chapter 2 in Unmaking the Bomb: A Fissile Material Approach to Nuclear Disarmament and Nonproliferation, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2014. (BB)
  • Peter Zimmerman and Jeffrey Lewis, The Bomb in the Backyard, Foreign Policy, 16 October 2009. (BB)

Biological Weapons, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism
Sep 30, Oct 5, and Oct 7, 2015

The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) bears a superficial similarity to the NPT, but in fact differs greatly in scope and monitoring. The traditional concern over biological weapons was with state programs; this has now been supplemented by both the threat of terrorist use and, perhaps most disturbingly, the extraordinary growth of biotechnology that places increasing potential power for dangerous biological modifications in the hands of the technically competent.

Biological (and Chemical) Weapons (Sep. 30). In this first session, we will introduce the fundamental principles and effects of biological and chemical weapons. In particular, we will also characterize the similarities and differences between the different types of weapons of mass destruction (nuclear, biological, chemical) and how these weapons are (or can be) captured in arms control regimes.


  • Jeanne Guillemin, “Introduction” and “Biological Agents and Disease Transmission,” in Biological Weapons: From the Invention of State-Sponsored Programs to Contemporary Bioterrorism, Columbia University Press, 2006, pp. 1–39. (BB)
  • Edwin D. Kilbourne, “Plagues and Pandemics: Past, Present, and Future,” in Nick Bostrom and Milan Cirkovic, eds., Global Catastrophic Risks, Oxford University Press, 2008, pp. 287–307. (BB)


  • Contagion, directed by Steven Soderbergh, 106 minutes, 2011. (BB)

More to explore:

The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC or, more often, just BWC), available at

Biological Weapons and Dynamics of Infectious Diseases (Oct. 5). The effects of biological weapons can be greatly amplified if the disease caused by the agent is contagious and leads to an epidemic in the targeted population. In this session, we will develop a simple mathematical model to describe the dynamics of infectious diseases (“SIR model”). This will enable us to assess the effects of a disease outbreak and the effectiveness of different control options.


  • P. Munz, I. Hudea, R. J. Smith, “When Zombies Attack: Mathematical Modeling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection,” J. M. Tchuenche and C. Chiyaka (eds.), Infectious Disease Modeling Research Progress, Nova Science Publishers, Inc., 2009. (BB)

Video game:

More to explore:

  • R. M. Anderson and R. M. May, Infectious Diseases of Humans: Dynamics and Control, Oxford University Press, 1991.

Biotechnology, Biosecurity, and Bioterrorism (Oct. 7). Especially since the 2001 anthrax-letter attacks (following 9/11), concerns over the possible development and use of biological weapons has shifted from state-sponsored programs to efforts that a non-state actor might be able to launch. In this unit, we will examine how recent advances in biotechnology, especially the growing capabilities to sequence and synthesize DNA (including the DNA of pathogens) exacerbate these concerns, ask how the scientific community can or should conduct “experiments of concern,” and explore strategies to mitigate some of the present and emerging security risks.


  • “Science of Synthetic Biology,” Chapter 2 in New Directions: The Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies, Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, December 2010, available at
  • Heidi Ledford, CRISPR, The Disruptor, Nature, 522, 4 June 2015, pp. 20–24.
  • John Bohannon, Biologists Devise Invasion Plan for Mutations, Science, 347 (6228), 20 March 2015, pp. 1300.
  • Ali Nouri and Christopher F. Chyba, “Biotechnology and Biosecurity,” in Nick Bostrom and Milan Cirkovic, eds., Global Catastrophic Risks, Oxford University Press, 2008, pp. 450–480. (BB)

More to explore:

  • Biotechnology Research in an Age of Terrorism, Committee on Research Standards and Practices to Prevent the Destructive Application of Biotechnology, National Research Council, Washington, DC, 2004, Executive Summary and Chapter 1 (“Introduction”), pp. 1–40. (BB)
  • Globalization, Biosecurity, and the Future of the Life Sciences, Committee on Advances in Technology and the Prevention of Their Application to Next Generation Biowarfare Threats, National Research Council, Washington, DC, 2006.
  • Meredith L. Patterson, A Biopunk Manifesto, January 2010.
  • Ali Nouri and Christopher F. Chyba, “Proliferation-resistant Biotechnology: An Approach to Improve Biological Security,” Nature Biotechnology, 27 (3), 2009, pp. 234–236.
  • Duncan J. Watts, “Epidemics and Failures,” Chapter 6 in Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age, Norton & Company, February 2004.
  • Richard Danzig et al., Aum Shinrikyo: Insights Into How Terrorists Develop Biological and Chemical Weapons, Center for a New American Security, Washington, DC, July 2011.