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.


Energy, Climate, and Security
Oct 12 and Oct 14, 2015

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.


More to explore:

Nuclear Energy and Nuclear Proliferation
Oct 19 and Oct 21, 2015

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.


The Iran Nuclear Crisis
Oct 26

Guest Lecture: Ambassador Seyed Hossein Mousavian

Seyed Hossein Mousavian is a Research Scholar at Princeton’s Program on Science and Global Security. He is a former diplomat who served as Iran’s Ambassador to Germany (1990–1997), head of the Foreign Relations Committee of Iran’s National Security Council (1997–2005), and as spokesman for Iran in its nuclear negotiations with the European Union (2003–2005). He has taught at Islamic Azad University (Tehran), served as Vice President of Iran’s official Center for Strategic Research (Tehran) and was the editor in chief of the Tehran Times. Mousavian earned a PhD in international relations from the University of Kent in the United Kingdom His research focuses on options for resolving the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program through diplomacy and improving US-Iran relations.


Note: Given the pace of current developments, the Iran reading may be replaced with a more recent one prior to the guest lecture with Ambassador Mousavian.


Delivery Systems and Ballistic Missiles
Nov 9 and Nov 11, 2015

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.


  • Dietrich Schroeer, “Intercontintental Ballistic Missiles,” Chapter 6 in Science, Technology and the Nuclear Arms Race, Wiley & Sons, New York, 1984. (BB)
  • SKIM: Lynn Davis and Warner R. Schilling, “All You Ever Wanted to Know about MIRV and ICBM Calculations but Were Not Cleared to Ask,” Journal of Conflict Resolution, 17 (2), June 1973, pp. 207–242 (online).

Nuclear Strategy, Deterrence, and Arms Control
Nov 16, 2015

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.


  • 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)
  • Carol Cohn, “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 12 (4), 1987, pp. 687–718. (BB)
  • Jeffrey Knopf, “The Fourth Wave in Deterrence Research,” Contemporary Security Policy, 31 (1), April 2010, pp. 1–33. (BB)

Nov 18, Nov 23, and Nov 30, 2015

Arms-control agreements are meaningful only insofar as they also include provisions to demonstrate compliance with the agreement through a set of agreed reporting and verification provisions. In this unit, we will explore the political and technical challenges of verification in the context of arms control, with a particular emphasis on the role of satellites and the potential of social media, which may provide fundamentally new ways to detect or report non-compliance with treaty obligations.

Verification 1: Satellites
Nov 18, 2015

Satellites were first developed and deployed by the superpowers during the Cold War for threat assessment and war planning. When the first arms-control treaties were negotiated in the early 1970s, however, they (also) became a critical tool to enable verification of these agreements without the need for onsite inspections. Many countries and now also private companies operate satellites today, and they have begun to sell imagery of unprecedented quality, sometimes on a first-come first-serve basis. In this session, we will discuss why satellites are where they are, determine the resolution limits of the imagery that can be obtained with them, and explore what future roles satellites could play given than “quasi real-time imagery for everyone” may soon become a reality.


Verification 2: New Media, Big Data, and Crowdsourcing
Nov 23, 2015

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:

Verification 3: TBD
Nov 30, 2015

We are likely to use this slot to wrap up the discussion of the preceding topics; time permitting, we will get started on the cyberwarfare module.

The Future
Dec 2, Dec 7, and Dec 9 2015

In this unit, we will explore (often more qualitatively than quantitatively) emerging technologies and their possible ramifications for global security.

The Future 1: Cyberwarfare
Dec 2, 2015

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 Whitehouse 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.

Guest Lecture: Ed Skoudis

Ed Skoudis is the founder of Counter Hack, an organization that designs, builds, and operates popular “infosec challenges” and simulations including CyberCity, NetWars, Cyber Quests, and Cyber Foundations. As director of the CyberCity project, Ed oversees the development of missions that help train “cyber warriors” in how to defend the kinetic assets of a physical, miniaturized city. Ed’s expertise includes hacker attacks and defenses, incident response, and malware analysis, with over fifteen years of experience in information security. Adapted from:

Readings: (to be reduced)

  • 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) Listen also to the interview: “Richard Clarke on the Growing ‘Cyberwar’ Threat,” Fresh Air, National Public Radio, April 19, 2010.
  • G. Conti, M. Weigand, E. Skoudis, D. Raymond, T. Cook, and T. Arnold, Towards a Cyber Leader Course Modeled on Army Ranger School, Small Wars Journal, April 2014.
  • 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.
  • Thomas Rid, “Cyber War Will Not Take Place,” Journal of Strategic Studies, 35 (1), February 2012, pp. 5–32.
  • Erik Gartzke, “The Myth of Cyberwar,” International Security, 38 (2), Fall 2013, pp. 41–74.

The Future 2: Neuroscience and Neuroweapons
Dec 7, 2015

Guest lecture: Ahmed El Hady

Ahmed El Hady holds a PhD from the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self Organization (Germany), where he worked on a joint project between the Max Planck Institute for Experimental Medicine, the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self Organization, and the Max Planck Institute for Biophysics funded by the Bernstein focus for Neurotechnology. El Hady is currently a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Postdoctoral Fellow in the group of Professor Carlos Brody at the Princeton Neuroscience Institute. See also:


  • Michael Tennison and Jonathan Moreno, “Neuroscience, Ethics, and National Security: The State of the Art,” PLoS Biology, 10 (3), March 2012. (BB)
  • Jonathan Moreno, “Mind Wars: Brain Science and the Military,” Monash Bioethics Review, 31 (2), 2013. (BB)
  • Jean Levasseur-Moreau, Jerome Brunelin, and Shirley Fecteau, “Non-invasive Brain Stimulation Can Induce Paradoxical Facilitation. Are these Neuroenhancements Transferable and Meaningful to Security Services?,” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7, August 2013. (BB)

The Future 3: Autonomous Weapons and Superintelligence
Dec 9, 2015

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or “drones,” are playing an increasingly important (and controversial) role in modern warfare. They are now routinely used for surveillance missions, where they overcome some of the shortcomings of satellites, but drones have increasingly also been used for strike missions, especially by the U.S. military since 2002. Targeting and firing decisions still involve human operators, but there is an ongoing debate about taking humans “out of the loop” to further improve the military performance of this weapon system. This trend could eventually lead to fully autonomous weapons, which, once activated, would select and engage targets without further intervention by a human operator. Autonomous weapon systems would rely on advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence to draw conclusions about whether to engage a target. Some experts consider this development inevitable; others consider it highly problematic and see autonomous weapons as violating principles of humanity. Looking further ahead, and currently in the realm of science fiction, there may be autonomous systems that match or exceed human-level intelligence and achieve what some call “superintelligence.” If such systems should be developed at all and, if they are, how to ensure that they remain benevolent once they exist, has been considered one of the “most momentous questions that our species will ever confront.” In this unit, we will explore the security implications of these (possible) developments.


More to explore:

  • Good Kill, directed by Andrew Niccol, 102 minutes, 2014. (BB)

Team Presentations
Dec 14 and Dec 16, 2015