From Nuclear Weapons to Cyberwarfare

Science and Global Security: From Nuclear Weapons to Cyberwarfare
Princeton University, Spring 2014

Course listing on Princeton’s Office of the Registrar site

Course Blog


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, and cyberwarfare.

Setting the Stage: Science and Technology in the “Atomic Era”
1 History, Design, and Effects of Nuclear Weapons
2 Delivery Systems
3 Nuclear Strategy, Arms Control, and Verification
4 Nuclear Energy and Nuclear Proliferation
5a Biological and Chemical Weapons
5b Biotechnology, Biosecurity, and Bioterrorism
6 New Media, Big Data, and Crowdsourcing
7 Cyberwarfare
8 Simulation

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 capability to detect clandestine nuclear tests for treaty verification, technologies that can help detect illicit shipments of nuclear materials, 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; eight (weekly) problem sets; take-home midterm; three-hour final exam.

Problem sets are due Thursdays before class. Late submissions are not accepted, but the lowest score (including “0” for non-submission) will not count towards 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


30% : Problem sets
10% : Midterm exam (take-home)
15% : Class/precept participation
35% : Final exam (closed book)
10% : Blog posts and comments


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.

One useful manuscript is: David Hafemeister, Physics of Societal Issues: Calculations on National Security, Environment, and Energy, Springer, Berlin, 2007; as the title suggests, the book covers topics that go beyond the scope of this course. The text is available online via Princeton University at and can also be purchased at a highly discounted price from that website.

Weekly Schedule and Readings

Setting the Stage: Science and Technology in the “Atomic Era”
Feb 4, 2014

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. 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 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!

Unit 1: History, Design, and Effects of Nuclear Weapons
Feb 6, Feb 11, and Feb 13, 2014

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. Since the 1980s, independent experts began to emphasize the potential climatic consequences of nuclear war (“nuclear winter”); more recently, it was shown that the impact on climate of nuclear explosions can be relevant even for nuclear war on a regional scale. This week, we will develop the tools to qualitatively and quantitatively describe and assess the distinct effects of nuclear explosions and the consequences of regional and global nuclear war.


  • David Hafemeister, Physics of Societal Issues: Calculations on National Security, Environment, and Energy, Springer, Berlin, 2007, Chapter 1 (“Nuclear Weapons”).
  • Leo Sartori, “Effects of Nuclear Weapons,” Physics Today, March 1983. (BB)


Pick one:

More to explore:

Unit 2: Ballistic Missiles, Missile Defense, and Nuclear Strategy
Feb 18 and Feb 20, 2014

The importance of a delivery system for nuclear weapons has been recognized from the very beginning. In his famous 1939 letter to President Roosevelt, Einstein assumed that nuclear weapons would be powerful but gigantic and speculated that bombs would therefore have to be “carried by boat” and “might very well prove to be too heavy for transportation by air.” Nuclear warheads turned out much smaller, and delivery became possible not only by aircraft but also by ballistic missiles. The invention of the intercontinental ballistic missile equipped with guidance systems in the late 1950s and the development of de-facto invulnerable submarine-launched missiles critically shaped nuclear postures during the Cold War. The spread of missile technology continues to be a challenge for the nuclear nonproliferation regime. This week, we will review the basic phenomena and constraints underlying the delivery of warheads over intercontinental distances and the implications for nuclear strategy.


Unit 3: Nuclear Strategy, Arms Control, and Verification
Feb 25 and Feb 27, 2014

As the Cold War arms race accelerated in the 1950s, military planners in the United States and elsewhere began to develop and then refine the concept of nuclear deterrence, which included massive retaliation, flexible response, and mutual assured destruction (based on a “secure second-strike capability”). Along the way, the superpowers also began to embrace (nuclear) arms control, which is based on the shared understanding that it can be preferable for all parties not to engage in costly and potentially destabilizing arms races. Arms control regulates, limits, reduces, or prohibits particular classes of weapons and has remained a critical tool to support global security to the present day. Arms-control agreements are often enshrined in treaties, which usually require verification mechanisms to confirm compliance. In this unit, we will examine the basic concepts of nuclear strategy and arms control. We will also examine, the contributions that established and emerging technologies can play in treaty verification.

Pick one:

  • Alexander L. George and Richard Smoke, Deterrence in American Foreign Policy, Theory and Practice, Columbia University Press, New York, 1974, Chapter 1. (BB)
  • Thomas M. Nichols, “Nuclear Strategy, 1950–1990: The Search for Meaning,” Chapter 1 in No Use: Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2014. (BB)


More to explore:

Unit 4a: Energy, Climate, and Security
Mar 4, 2014

Human economic activities including agriculture, transport, and power production from fossil fuels have led to a rise in the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases, which increases the heat balance of the earth and threatens to destabilize the global climate system. Drought, flooding, severe storms, and temperature rise can lead to famine, human migration, and resource scarcity — enhancing occurrence of violence and human conflict, and forcing us to redefine traditional conceptions of security. Since 1992, over 190 UN member governments have committed to collectively prevent “dangerous anthropogenic interference” with the global climate system. However, substantive international efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions are hobbled by the costs of action and incentives for individual countries to free ride — a collective action problem of global proportions. We will examine the security consequences of a changing climate, alongside a range of possible solutions, some of which (nuclear power and solar radiation management) could themselves become serious threats to security if not managed properly.


Unit 4b: Nuclear Energy and Nuclear Proliferation
Mar 6, Mar 11, and Mar 13, 2014

A basic understanding of nuclear reactor and fuel-cycle technologies will be important in allowing us to appreciate the differences between various technical and non-technical choices for civilian nuclear-energy use. To a large extent, these choices also determine the proliferation risks associated with nuclear power. Since the 1970s, many countries have abandoned nuclear weapon programs, but some others have emerged, and concerns about the nature of nuclear activities, sometimes part of civilian nuclear power program, persist. This week, we will explore the fundamentals of various nuclear technologies and examine the strategies that have been proposed or implemented to prevent the diversion of civilian nuclear power programs for military purposes. To complement this discussion, we will explore and assess some relevant case studies.



  • A is for Atom, Television feature by Adam Curtis, BBC, 2011, 56 minutes.

Midterm Wrap-up
Mar 25, 2014

Unit 5: Biological Weapons, Biotechnology, Biosecurity, and Bioterrorism
Mar 27, Apr 1, Apr 3, and Apr 8, 2014

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. Efforts to address this last problem remain largely inchoate.

Readings for Week 1:

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

Video Game:

Readings for Week 2:

Unit 6: New Media, Big Data, and Crowdsourcing
Apr 10 and Apr 15, 2014

We are living in a connected age, in which a growing fraction of the global population has access to a cell phone, the internet, and often both. At the same time, the amount of data stored and shared digitally is increasing dramatically; this data now includes near real-time information about activities and events shared via social networks. As a result, it has become increasingly difficult to keep things secret, which has many implications for privacy that go beyond the scope of this course—but the ability to mine open-source data also has the potential to enable new forms of societal verification and empower individuals to report non-compliance. This week, we will explore the opportunities and pitfalls of new media, big data, and crowdsourcing for global security applications, including monitoring and verification.


More to explore:

Unit 7: Cyberwarfare
Apr 17, Apr 22, and (part of) Apr 24, 2014

The discovery in mid 2010 of “Stuxnet,” a sophisticated computer worm developed by the United States and Israel to destroy uranium enrichment equipment in Iran brought into international focus the emerging strategic capabilities of cyber attacks, including the possibility of “kinetic military action. In mid 2011, the White House released its own cyber-strategy, declaring that “when warranted, the United States will respond to hostile acts in cyberspace as we would to any other threat to our country.” Many other countries are actively expanding their cyber capabilities. This week we will explore the fundamental elements of cyberwarfare, as far as they can be identified and anticipated today; consider the similarities and differences between cyberwarfare and “physical” warfare; and examine if and how traditional security concepts (including crisis stability, attribution, escalatory control, and minimization of collateral damage) and strategies apply to cyberwarfare.


  • Richard A. Clarke, Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It, Ecco, 2010, Chapters 3 and 6 (“The Battlespace” and “How Offensive?”). (BB)
  • James P. Farwell and Rafal Rohozinski, The New Reality of Cyber War, Survival, 54 (4), August/September 2012, pp. 107–120.
  • Gary McGraw, Cyber War is Inevitable (Unless We Build Security In), Journal of Strategic Studies, 36 (1), February 2013, pp. 109–119.

Also read one of these skeptical readings:

More to explore (not required):

Unit 8: Simulation
Apr 24, Apr 29, and May 1, 2014

In this simulation, we will divide up the class in different teams with the task of negotiating a “comprehensive solution” for the Iran nuclear crisis. Students should prioritize their readings depending on the country or group they represent.