Month: May 2018

Verification Goes Virtual

On a recent Tuesday, visitors to the United Nations Office at Geneva were greeted by a strange sight—a seasoned diplomat in a business suit, shuffling across the building’s vast marble lobby, face engulfed in a giant virtual reality headset. A cluster of diplomats hovered nearby, watching their colleague swipe the air with VR touch controllers and awaiting their turn. These weren’t just any diplomats. They were an international team of experts tasked by the UN with examining the role of verification in advancing nuclear disarmament. And they weren’t playing “Minecraft” or “Star Trek: Bridge Crew.” Rather, they were busy verifying that the warheads they were seeing through the VR headset were authentic nuclear weapons.

“Most of the diplomats had never experienced VR,” explains Tamara Patton, a PhD student in science, technology, and environmental policy at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and a lead member of the Princeton Nuclear Futures Lab team that created the VR simulation. Neither had the handful of UN officers who poked their heads out of doorways and came to try it, too. Some of the officers and diplomats described the experience as “amazing.” Others suddenly saw for themselves the promise of VR as a space where the international community might make progress in ways it hasn’t been able to before.


Disarmament verification—the process of establishing and ensuring that all weapons-grade nuclear materials are accounted for when a country dismantles its nuclear weapons—is tricky business. There is almost nothing more secret and sensitive than the details of a nuclear weapons program, which makes it highly complex to establish verification procedures that both the host country and inspectors can trust. It’s no surprise, then, that there are currently no agreed-upon processes for verifying the dismantlement of a single nuclear weapon, let alone a whole nuclear program. But for a world without nuclear weapons to be possible—and future treaties aimed at disarmament to be viable—we need them.


To address the challenges of disarmament verification, though, you first have to know what they are—which, given the high levels of national security involved, is itself a challenge. “We can’t say, ‘Ah, this is what some weapon states are worried about,’ because we often don’t know,” says Alex Glaser, associate professor at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Princeton and director of the Nuclear Futures Lab. “Either we haven’t asked them what they worry about, there’s been no opportunity to tell us, or they have not yet thought through some of these issues.”

Until now, the best way to answer these questions has been through live exercises—elaborate in-person events, like the US and UK’s “Exercise Letterpress” and the UK-Norway Initiative, that simulate the inspection of a mock nuclear weapons complex or the dismantlement of a faux nuclear weapon. While these exercises always create new insights, says Patton, they’re both pricey and resource intensive. “Live exercises are valuable to our community, but they can take a lot of time to plan and execute, and they’re difficult to adapt, especially when you run into a part of any proposed verification system that doesn’t work and you might want to try something better.”

Hence the gaggle of diplomats gathered in the UN lobby. Virtual reality offers a new pathway for exploring the challenges of verification and experimenting with how they might be overcome. “We can do this in a virtual facility at a small fraction of the cost,” says Glaser. The Princeton team’s groundbreaking work to “develop full-motion VR to design and simulate new arms-control treaty verification approaches” is being funded through a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, a founding member of the N Square funder collaborative.

For Patton, the project represents an exciting next step in her efforts to bring a new level of interactivity to the nonproliferation and disarmament space. As an undergrad at the University of Washington, she had taken a series of courses funded by the National Nuclear Security Administration to attract more talent to the nuclear field. Her first course was taught by Ambassador Thomas Graham, who helped negotiate the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty between the US and then USSR. “After that, I was hooked for life,” Patton says. But it wasn’t until serving as a research assistant at the US Naval Postgraduate School’s Common Operational Research Environment Laboratory and Remote Sensing Center, where she developed new techniques for creating 3D models of buildings and landscapes based on satellite imagery, that she found her calling—working at “the very tiny area of overlap between the worlds of arms control and digital art.”

At the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, she started applying her 3D modeling skills to nuclear problems. “I was interested in how we could adapt open source and other geospatial analysis tools for our challenges in this field,” says Patton, 29. At the Vienna Center, she started bringing the environments she was creating to life, designing an interactive verification experience in a dismantlement facility that could be run from a desktop computer. “Suddenly, we could look at verification questions from the inside out.”

In 2015, Patton started talking to Glaser about deepening her work. It was good timing. Virtual reality headsets were improving—“People were starting to be able to use them and not be nauseous,” says Patton—and using VR for verification was starting to become a real possibility. “I always thought this was an exciting approach,” Glaser explains. “When Tamara decided to come here, we started thinking about where we could take this.” They were still tossing around ideas when the MacArthur Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York put out an RFP for “projects aimed at reducing nuclear risk through innovative and solutions-oriented approaches.”

In creating the VR simulation they ran in Geneva, the team tackled a host of design and developmental challenges—from constructing the virtual facilities and virtual verification technologies to working out simple things like how players would speak to one another or navigate between buildings. Ultimately, they presented three verification scenarios. In one, the diplomats, acting as inspectors, could randomly select a warhead from a nuclear submarine, watch it get loaded into a container, then use a radiation detector with an “information barrier” to acquire the warhead’s unique fingerprint. In another scenario, the diplomats found themselves staring at a 3D model of the thermonuclear weapon—dubbed the Peanut—recently tested by North Korea. “This was what most diplomats liked a lot—seeing a 3D model of a weapon that before was only seen in these pictures,” says Moritz Kütt, a postdoctoral research associate with the Princeton Nuclear Futures team who played “host” during the simulation.


The Geneva event was a demo, not a serious exercise. Nevertheless, the team has already received useful feedback that it will use to tweak the VR environment. “This is one of the reasons that we saw VR as a really big opportunity,” says Patton. “We have this extra level of flexibility. When someone finds something they really like or don’t like, or we find a break in a chain of custody or discover evasion strategies in the process of working through an exercise, we can change it.” And starting with a notional facility designed to be as simple as possible can invite deeper engagement. “Participants might say, ‘If we add a door here, we can do X, Y, and Z, and it becomes much more realistic and plausible.’ In that way, they help co-design facilities that work best for everyone,” says Glaser. The more that experts engage with the VR environment, the better and more realistic it can become. And their ability to join simulations from a distance means that an even wider community of experts can get involved. “That’s one of its big plusses,” says Glaser. “It’s not an exclusive experience. Everyone can participate.”

There is a second part to the MacArthur grant, and it embraces this same principle—that in a world marked by rising nuclear risk, everyone needs a way to get involved. Through the grant, the Princeton team saw an opportunity to use VR as a means for engaging not just the nuclear expert community but the broader public as well. Working in partnership with Games for Change (G4C), a nonprofit that helps create and distribute social impact games, the team is helping to develop VR experiences designed to mobilize public awareness and more vocal political will around nuclear risk. “It’s about understanding what the medium is good at and why a VR experience is special and different from a game or a billboard,” says Susanna Pollack, president of Games for Change and a key N Square partner (the N Square team introduced Patton and Glaser to Pollack). “We need to create an experience that draws participants in rather than alienating them with imagery or something that’s overwhelming and depressing, where the proximity is immediate but not directly on top of you.”

On June 30, at the G4C Festival in New York City, Pollack will announce which development studio the team has chosen to partner with on the project. Meanwhile, with a growing network of connections made in Geneva and elsewhere, Patton and Glaser are working toward their first “virtual” live exercise this fall—a comprehensive inspection where participants develop agreements and protocols and then execute them in VR.

Of course, they would be the first to admit that VR is not an end in itself. “Ultimately you have to make progress in the real world,” Glaser says. But it is not a stretch to imagine how a growing comfort with approaching and addressing disarmament verification challenges through VR can help pave the way toward new treaties being negotiated. We’re not there yet,” says Glaser. “But we’re really just starting now.”

story thumbnail photo: Michael Schoeppner

Impact Stories: Laicie Heeley and ‘Things That Go Boom’

At first glance, you might mistake Laicie Heeley for a classic policy wonk. A fellow with Stimson Center’s Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense program, Heeley is a well-regarded expert on nuclear weapons proliferation in Iran and North Korea, as well as US defense budgeting and strategy. Before joining Stimson, she served as policy director at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and held positions at the Counter Terrorist Finance Organization and Global Green USA, where her research focused on nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons in addition to the financing and structure of terrorist organizations. Yep. It’s a CV that screams “defense analyst” and little else.

But Heeley isn’t your garden variety foreign affairs professional. Her resume doesn’t tell you that she’s also a former rodeo queen. Or that she’s the daughter of Oregonian hippies and yearns to open a bakery. Or that for years she has poured her intellect into her day job but her heart into her lifestyles blog, A Thousand Threads. Or that what she really wanted, more than anything, was to find a way to marry these two sides of herself—to bring entrepreneurial thinking and a natural storytelling style to the nuclear policy space. “I knew there was a more engaging and accessible way to talk about the issues I work on,” says Heeley. “But nobody was doing that.”

Through relationships forged through the Innovators Network, Heeley now has a podcast on Public Radio International designed to make nuclear issues—and nuclear urgency—an accessible topic. And she’s a semi-regular voice in PRI’s “The World,” considered public radio’s “premier daily global news program.”


It happened by connecting the dots. In 2016, after attending a few N Square events, Heeley had a revelation. “I realized that N Square was doing something extremely different,” she recalls. “They were breaking down the walls that I had built up for what was possible.” Soon after, she accepted an invitation to attend PopTech as a member of a small delegation of nuclear experts assembled by N Square. The group stayed together in private homes rather than hotels so they could hang out informally, share meals, and establish deeper connections. Heeley hadn’t met many of the other experts she was suddenly bunking with, and found the opportunity invaluable. “We talked about what we were experiencing, and shared and bounced ideas off each other,” Heeley says.

At PopTech, Heeley also networked with experts totally outside her field who pushed her thinking in new directions. “For the first time in my career, the ability to really brainstorm beyond the nuclear space was available to me,” recalls Heeley. These experiences sparked a big idea for Heeley: producing a “This American Life”-like podcast series focused on sharing “cool stories” about nuclear innovators and innovations with a broader public. The idea gained even more momentum after Heeley met Elizabeth Talerman, CEO of Nucleus and Innovators Network member, at the Disruptive Futures summit in Santa Fe in December 2016. Heeley attended the summit as part of a highly diverse cohort—comprising filmmakers, humanitarians, cyber experts, and others—again organized by N Square. Talerman’s research and presentation on the need to communicate nuclear issues in more accessible and connected ways hit home for Heeley. “It was everything that I already understood but couldn’t articulate,” she says.


Soon, Heeley started thinking about her work very differently—and feeling new urgency to share nuclear innovation stories with non-nuclear audiences in ways that inspired stronger public interest. “There are a lot of smart people working on this but we don’t know how to talk to anyone but ourselves,” admits Heeley. She credits the Innovators Network for helping her identify ways to communicate her work differently, and with different audiences in mind. “What this community needs is someone to tell us, ‘You’re all talking to each other in your secret language, and that’s why you’re not moving the ball on these issues.’”

After Heeley proposed her podcast idea, N Square connected her with Public Radio International (PRI), an N Square partner whose new corporate strategy focuses on cultivating the network effect. PRI CEO Alissa Miller, who learned about N Square by attending a TED luncheon in 2016, had signaled an interest in closer collaboration, saying she sees PRI’s job as “building bridges in a fractured society.” With that in mind, N Square facilitated a meeting with Kathy Merritt, then PRI’s VP for content strategy and development. Merritt, a 30-year veteran in radio, is responsible for identifying and acquiring diverse new talent and supporting PRI’s productions to increase audience and impact.

Merritt loved Heeley’s proposal and—with N Square, Ploughshares Fund, and others on board as funders—agreed to pilot “Things That Go Boom” and test its potential to inspire millions to feel more connected to nuclear issues. The series debuted at the beginning of 2018 and proved an almost instant success. Within weeks, the podcast had been downloaded more than 230,000 times and made iTunes’s “New and Noteworthy” list. Pilot episodes covered stories about nuclear false alarms, deterrence theory as interpreted by an 11-year-old boy, how Nancy Sinatra’s hit “These Boots Were Made for Walking” became a military anthem, and—in acknowledgment of another Innovators Network member—how Tom Weis, professor at Rhode Island School of Design, is training industrial design students to use their skills to reduce nuclear threats.

The show has hit a chord with listeners. “A nice kickoff to understanding the logic of stumbling into a nuclear war nobody wants,” said one listener about the first episode. And it manages to do just what Heeley had long envisioned. “‘Things That Go Boom’ explores national security and foreign policy in a way that doesn’t make you want to gouge out your eyes,” reads a memo released jointly by PRI and Heeley. “You don’t have to be an expert to tune in. Just grab a cup of whatever you like and pull up a seat.”

The Improbable Historian

When Alex Wellerstein first posted NUKEMAP to the internet in 2012, he didn’t think much would happen. Now a historian of nuclear weapons at Stevens Institute of Technology, Wellerstein had invented the tool—which lets users tinker with dropping more than two dozen kinds of nuclear bombs on any location, including their own neighborhood—back in his college days, as a way to help him visualize the scale and impact of nuclear detonations. “I’m terrible with numbers, just really, awfully bad,” says Wellerstein, 36. “I can’t visualize them at all. A bomb destroying two square miles? I have no innate ability to picture what that means.”

But he knew code. So he threw together a program using MapQuest and slapped on a crude interface. The tool was clunky, but useful—an updated version of the “circles of death” diagrams that were used to visualize nuclear weapons effects in the Cold War. But it wasn’t until years later, when he was a postdoctoral fellow at the American Institute of Physics, that he thought about making it public. “I’d been looking at Cold War maps of where the US thought the Soviet Union might attack, and I thought it would be a neat thing to digitize,” he says. So he dusted off his old code and put it on Google Maps. Then he wrote NUKEMAP in all caps and tossed it out to the internet.

NUKEMAP got 10,000 hits within a week. Wellerstein thought that was great. He blogged about it. Inexplicably, his blog post got picked up by a UK tabloid. “They wrote about how NUKEMAP was this amazing viral hit, which was totally false,” Wellerstein explains. “But from there, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Wellerstein scurried to add more features to the site to make it worthy of such demand: a casualty estimator, a mushroom-cloud dimensions calculator, and a fallout model showing how far radioactive contamination might go. Since then, NUKEMAP users have set off 149.8 million detonations on the site, which gets 15,000 views on a slow day.

Alex Wellerstein

“The reality is that the NUKEMAP’s creation is one of these uninteresting stories where you remember a piece of old code on a Thursday for no reason and rewrite it over the weekend and it takes off a week later in a way you never would have expected,” summarizes Wellerstein. “It’s an utterly unlikely outcome.”

In some ways, Wellerstein’s whole career has been unlikely. Growing up in Stockton, California, in the late 80s and early 90s, he had no particular job trajectory in mind. “I knew I wanted to do interesting things, but what does that mean?” says Wellerstein. Then he went to Berkeley, and two things happened. First, he took an American history course that proved transformative. His high schooler’s view of history as a list of dates and political moments to memorize was replaced with a feeling that the stories we tell about the past deeply shape our understanding of the present and the possible future.

Second, he started nosing around Berkeley’s archives. Drawn to the study of the history of science and technology, Wellerstein began working closely with historian of physics Cathryn Carson on the early history of the nuclear age. Then he stumbled on something surprising: evidence of deep connections between the left-leaning university and the development of nuclear weapons. “Berkeley was still at that time the primary contractor for the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore National Labs,” says Wellerstein. “It was all sort of hidden in plain sight.” He went on to write two undergraduate theses: one on history of compulsory sterilization in California, and a second on the University of California and the management of nuclear weapons. He became hooked on the work of historical research, taking the detective work of the archive and piecing it into a new story about the past.

“I never in a million years would have guessed that this is what I would do with my life,” reflects Wellerstein, who went from Berkeley to Harvard for a PhD. “It’s improbable that anyone would be a historian of science, frankly. There are not that many jobs. Nobody even knows what it is.” Also improbable: that Wellerstein would become one of a dozen or so historians of science in the world who focus primarily on nuclear weapons, and, within that, the only one focused on nuclear secrecy—an area he says is less understood than most aspects of the bomb. “It’s this whole history that most people weren’t really thinking about after the Cold War ended, and yet was incredibly interesting and incredibly rich and still relevant,” says Wellerstein, who compulsively collects declassified FBI files on weapons designers, and has a computer dedicated to scraping the CIA’s websites for declassified PDFs and turning them into a searchable database. “You can just keep digging and there is always more to find. I still haven’t gotten close to exhausting it.”


More improbability followed. There was NUKEMAP and the UK tabloid, of course. Then there was Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog, which he also launched as a postdoc. In academia, writing for popular audiences is a highly uncommon practice capable of obliterating your tenure and job chances. Against all advice, Wellerstein blogged anyway. “I wanted an academic job, but I was more interested in being somebody whose expertise in the field is seen as useful for a broader conversation,” explains Wellerstein, who also sells nuclear-themed t-shirts and mugs through the blog. “I started it as a way to raise a flag and say, ‘Hey everybody, I work on this topic and I’ve found all sorts of neat things. Here is my stuff.’ I had the idea that if I got really good at that, there might be an institution willing to support this work.”

There was. Restricted Data drew attention—and lecture invitations. One came from Stevens Institute of Technology, an institution that tends to welcome scholars who do nontraditional work and, against all odds, also had a job opening. (About 10 tenure-track jobs in the history of science come available in the US each year, often with more than 100 applicants for each job.) Wellerstein, who hadn’t applied anywhere else, got the position. Then, as he describes it, “the Matthew effect of accumulated advantage kicked in, and everything snowballed.” One interesting opportunity led to another, from working as a historical advisor to the nuclear-themed television show Manhattan to being invited to write for The New Yorker’s science blog. “I get to spend all of my time doing things that I find interesting at my own direction while being able to pay the rent,” he says. “The whole thing feels kind of ridiculous sometimes.”

Now, Wellerstein has set out to create on purpose what he created years ago with NUKEMAP by accident—modern tools for communicating nuclear risk that gain wide cultural resonance. For years, Wellerstein has nurtured an interest in Cold War-era Civil Defense, the almost hokey public programs rolled out in the 1950s and 1960s to help prepare everyday Americans for nuclear attack. In academia, Wellerstein says, Civil Defense is mostly just mocked. “Films like Duck and Cover are easy to make fun of, and some of the pamphlets about how to be in your fallout shelter make it look like this is just something you do on a Sunday afternoon, reading a magazine while nuclear war is happening outside.”

But the more he studied Civil Defense, the less smug he felt. “’Duck and cover’ is pretty sound advice for the threat situation of 1952, if you’re imagining not very many bombs, only of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki range, and you’re living a bit out from ground zero,” he says. After talking to people who had crouched under plenty of desks during that era, he started to think that Civil Defense had a strong upside. “Essentially everyone I’ve met who did those drills says that they made the threat feel real—and that’s exactly the feeling that is missing today,” says Wellerstein. “One of our problems with nuclear policy in this country is that most people feel totally disconnected from it, and that makes it very hard to make it a political issue or to get support for a law or for reform. If you had more people feeling like their futures and lives and livelihoods were directly invested in those questions, you could potentially translate that into political action.”

In 2017, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation—two of N Square’s founding funders—put out an RFP for “projects aimed at reducing nuclear risk through innovative and solutions-oriented approaches.” Wellerstein submitted a proposal for what he dubbed Reinventing Civil Defense, a two-year multidisciplinary effort to explore how to bring the threats posed by nuclear weapons back into popular consciousness through a reimagined public education strategy. Wellerstein—along with two of his colleagues at Stevens, Kristyn Karl, a political psychologist who does experiments in risk perception, and Julie Pullen, an oceanographer who has predicted how weapons fallout might disburse in coastal cities—won one of 11 grants awarded. The project also has a set of outside advisors, several of whom, like Wellerstein, are members of the N Square Innovators Network.

Wellerstein doesn’t see the prospect of rekindling Civil Defense as remotely farfetched, especially given the sharp rise of public and government interest in nuclear disaster response in the wake of North Korea’s missile testing. If anything, he thinks that ditching the Cold War-era Civil Defense is what led to the present-day predicament of nuclear threat feeling more remote than real. But one thing is certain: the new iteration he’s aiming for will not look quite like the old one. Rather than pamphlets and films, Wellerstein and his colleagues are exploring the development of virtual reality games, apps, graphic novels, and other digital products and tools geared toward a modern audience. “The big question,” says Wellerstein, “is what would nonpartisan, non-delusional Civil Defense look like for the 21st century?”

NUKEMAP may offer some clues. Ample research suggests that the kind of active learning that NUKEMAP offers—where learners interact with information and come to their own insights—creates deeper engagement and understanding. Approaches to Civil Defense that enable individuals to “discover” something on their own might work similarly well. Some educators have started using NUKEMAP to tell a story about what happens when a bomb goes off, creating a kind of emotional resonance that a circle on a map might not otherwise—and drawing focus to the magnitude of the lived effects of nuclear bombs. And a NUKEMAP-based presentation Wellerstein likes to give to help students grasp the difference in scale between the Hiroshima bomb and the first hydrogen bomb has similar impact. “Everyone gasps,” says Wellerstein. “If you can get a 19-year-old to audibly gasp at something in a lecture, then you’ve done something powerful.”


Turning what to many seems like a remote and theoretical threat—that a nuclear weapon would be deployed in our lifetime—into a felt reality worth preparing for won’t be easy, of course. But history offers hope. “The history of public health is full of examples of how a bunch of academic-type people hacked the culture on a major scale,” Wellerstein says. That older people sneeze into their hands while younger ones sneeze into their elbow, he explains, is entirely learned behavior. “Public health essentially rebuilt the infrastructure and the way in which people thought. It did this by teaching children in particular new, embodied practices—like how to sneeze and how to drink water—that made them act as if they live in a world in which there are germs and viruses, even if they can’t be seen. This was the translation of theoretical knowledge into really practical knowledge. I take a lot of inspiration from that sort of thing.”

That nuclear threats have become near-daily headline news these days makes Reinventing Civil Defense particularly timely. “I try not to get worried about things, but I feel like the chances of something really awful occurring are higher than most people are willing to admit—certainly higher than they have been in my conscious lifetime.” It’s not total annihilation that worries him, though. “It’s the United States putting aside this legacy of norms that have built up—never easily, never uncontestably—over decades, things like non-nuclear use, a stockpile that goes down but doesn’t go up, the cessation of nuclear testing,” Wellerstein explains. “If those things change, then it becomes very hard to know what the future might be, and most of the possibilities are not positive.”

Wellerstein says that many people are skeptical when they hear about his hopes for Reinventing Civil Defense. But once he explains the concept, they think it sounds interesting, maybe even promising. That’s good, he says. “But it’s also a little disturbing to me that, for many people, it’s starting to seem like a great idea. That’s maybe as much of a sign of where we are as a world as anything else. ”

Open Source Sleuth

If you want to know more about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, you should talk to Melissa Hanham. A senior research associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Hanham spends her days scrutinizing open source data—from satellite images and seismic readings to social media—to uncover new details about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. And she usually finds them. Her keen sleuthing abilities have made her a leading expert on North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction procurement and proliferation networks—as well as a sought-out beta tester for new technologies designed to make the previously unseen visible. And did we mention she’s only 37 years old? In this interview, Hanham, an active member of the N Square Innovators Network, talks about the nature of her work, shares her vision for every day citizens acting as nuclear threat sensors, and reveals her thoughts on the future of nuclear weapons.

Q  How do you describe what you do?

A  I usually say that I study North Korea. If people really press, then I say I study weapons of mass destruction and how they spread. And that’s much more true, because it’s a diverse network of proliferation chains all over the world that helps make North Korea’s program go.

Q  How did you get into this work?

A  When I was about nine, I was watching the news with my dad and saw the Tiananmen Square protests. I saw a man standing in front of a tank, trying to block it from moving forward. Eventually he climbed on top to stop its progress. I don’t know what happened to “tank man,” as he came to be known, but it probably wasn’t good. Anyway, my dad explained what was going on, and I remember feeling a strong sense of injustice and a desire to prevent conflict. Those feelings stuck with me.

I studied international affairs in college, then started looking for a job in conflict resolution. My mother, being one of those power mothers, wanted to help my career. She’s a really smart lady, a biologist by training, but she didn’t quite get what I was studying and what conflict resolution was. She said she knew someone who knew someone who was influential in international relations. It turned out to be Richard Perle, one of the architects of the Iraq War, sometimes known as the Prince of Darkness. I rolled my eyes at her and was like, “Um, Mom, this guy’s never going to listen to me. He’s never going to give me career advice.” But she pestered me, so I gave her my resume, which listed things like that I had a minor in “women, gender, and sexuality” and had interned for a Democratic congressman.

I never expected to hear back from him, but I did. He was very polite and very forthright, but he wasn’t encouraging. He said, “Conflict resolution has doubtful use in the real world.” I realized right then that the people I had to reach weren’t liberal hippies. The people I had to reach were the Richard Perles. And the Richard Perles of the world would never take me seriously if I focused my career on conflict resolution. I would always be in this sort of sidelined category.

Q  So what did you do next?

A  I headed to Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs to study international security with a capital S. It was there that I studied some of the most serious and I would say traditional approaches to nuclear war. I learned about Realism. I took it very seriously. After Columbia, I joined International Crisis Group, an NGO that does research on conflict situations, at their field office in Seoul and later Beijing. Living in Seoul was really interesting, because it was very close to a potential conflict. But the South Koreans are stoic; they don’t get nearly as agitated about this prospect as people do in the West.


Q  Were you there in 2006 when North Korea tested its first nuclear device?

A  Yes—and it was another turning point in my life. Our office got so many calls from the press that our phone system crashed. But I remember looking out the window at noon and seeing people streaming out of their offices to eat lunch, just as they did every day, as if nothing unusual had happened. It was surreal. In the days following, I had to write a report about the incident. I speak Mandarin, so I looked up press accounts to see the official reactions from different countries in the region. But the thing I found really, really fascinating was: what did they explode? I remember acting like a detective, taking all the little bits of open source information that were available to identify the location of the explosion, to understand previous nuclear tests, and to piece together what it was that they had exploded. I found it deeply intellectually satisfying. It’s still my favorite thing to do—puzzle together pieces of open source information in order to understand what’s happening or how something works.

Q  Open source technologies were pretty primitive back then. How much could you actually sleuth out?

A  Well, Google Earth had just become available. It was not widely known in the policy community yet but it was like magic to me. I could find where the explosion took place, and I could understand the landscape and the topography. I could also look up wind patterns. After that first explosion, a small amount of what are called radionuclides escaped the tunnel where they did the test. Over the next few days, different sensors in South Korea and the US put out little bits of information about what was released. I could look up how the US and China and Russia and India and Pakistan had done their nuclear tests and make some safe guesses. In this case, I thought it was probably some kind of gun-type implosion device, because that’s generally where most countries start. There was a big debate at the time about whether the device had fizzled. Most people just assumed that it had, but later the debate got much richer when people started considering whether North Korea had intentionally built a small warhead, and that it was always meant to be small.

Q  Would you have focused your career on North Korea had that detonation not happened?

A  I don’t know. Originally I was focused more on China. But North Korea became a niche where I could specialize and excel, so I kept going. It’s rare for me anymore to look for a secondary source. Almost everything I do is an original source, and that to me is so powerful. It’s like doing puzzles. You have to be really disciplined. You have to make sure that you’re not finding what you think you’re going to find. And then you have to know the limitations of the tools. You need to understand that there are error bars around doing something like taking a measurement from a photo when you don’t know its origin. It may have a different focal length or the image may have been doctored in Photoshop. There are lots of caveats.

Q  Nowadays, when North Korea conducts a nuclear or missile test, how do you find out about it?

A  Typically it will happen early in the morning there, which is late afternoon or early evening in California. Most of the time I find out about it on Twitter. If it’s a nuclear test, then the very first thing I look at is seismic data. Underground nuclear testing often presents just like a small earthquake. I can look at the US meteorological service, at Japanese and Korean and Chinese seismic systems, and at what the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty Organization puts out as well. I actually have an alert set up on my phone to let me know whenever there is an earthquake in the part of the province of North Korea where they do their nuclear testing. But I still find out on Twitter first, usually.

If it’s a missile test, I look for information about where it was launched, how far it went, and how high it went—and from there I can make a good guess about what kind of missile it was. If it’s an intermediate or intercontinental ballistic missile, we might get a good sense of the acceleration and range. Most of North Korea’s missiles are road mobile, so they can be launched from anywhere. But they have some favorite places, and we remember those places. If the missile test was successful, we’ll usually get images the next day in state media. We might see a photograph, especially if Kim Jong-un was there, and he usually is these days. Then we’ll get photographs of them preparing for the launch and doing a launch. We may even get a video.

If there are photographs, we can confirm the missile type and whether we’ve seen it before. We can take measurements inside the photographs. It’s a bit tedious, and you have to be pretty careful, because a photograph is a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional thing. But at the end of the day what you’re really doing is counting pixels. We can learn the length of something or its diameter. That’s important for missiles, because it can tell us how big the engine is and how big the fuel and oxidizer tanks are, if it’s a liquid fuel missile. If it’s a solid fuel missile, it tells us how big the motor is. And, of course, we want to measure for how big the warhead is. If we have a video, then we can measure how far the missile has advanced on each frame of the video. Once I have the acceleration, we can make good guesses about the thrust.

Q  Of all the kinds of open source information available to you, what’s most useful?

A  I think of open source as any kind of information that’s not classified or secret—so, in a way, everyone in our field is doing open source research by grabbing a library book. But the tools that are making a big difference in my research are the ones that have transitioned from being only available to governments, and only certain governments, to being consumable by the public. Satellite imagery is probably the best example. It used to be that only the Soviet Union and the US had satellites that could take images of Earth from space. And now it’s not just that more countries can do it, but that companies can do it as well. It’s still expensive, but it’s much, much less expensive than it used to be. Back in the ‘90s one image would cost thousands and thousands of dollars, and now it’s hundreds and hundreds. It creates a more level playing field. And it gives academia and civil society the opportunity to analyze the narrative that is being generated—say, about whether a certain country possesses weapons of mass destruction—and to look for compelling evidence about whether it’s true. That being said, I don’t think you should ever use a single source of information. The trick is to combine many types.

Q  Countries that have or want nuclear capabilities usually have some ability and certainly a strong desire to hide their proliferation activity. How much is visible and how much isn’t?

A  A lot is visible. Nuclear weapons programs are incredibly complicated and expensive, and you can definitely hide them some of the time. But you can’t hide them all of the time and you can’t hide them from everyone. Having open source researchers not just inside intelligence agencies but also in civil society means there are more people looking, and it increases the cost of having a secret or illicit kind of program. And our ability to detect change or identify objects—which is how we find much of this activity—continues to improve. Most of the time, when I’m looking at satellite images, I’m looking to see if something has changed. Did this cooling stack have steam coming out of it, or did it stop? Did the cars move? Did the gates open and close? When we think of satellite imagery, mostly what we see is light from the sun that is reflected as red, green, or blue into our eyeballs. And we see it that way because that’s what our eyes, our sort of homemade sensors, can see. But there are many more bands of light that our eyes can’t see that still can give us important information. I can use tools to process different wavelengths of light. Near infrared light can help me see healthy vegetation. Environmental and agricultural groups have been using this information for years to understand crop health and deforestation. But its original discovery was in the military to look for camouflage or to see when a missile has burned or disrupted the vegetation.


Meanwhile, there are more sensors in the commercial sector than ever before. We are starting to get access to hyperspectral information and radar now, though it remains expensive and there are few people in the open source world trained to use it. Synthetic aperture radar from Airbus’s Terra-SAR-X sensor means I can “see” without the benefit of sunlight. Clouds, fog, and night are no longer obstacles. Occasionally we can even see through a roof. We also have the rise of constellations of sensors and video from space. Companies like Planet now take images of nearly every place on earth every single day.

We also have new tools to analyze visual data. We are starting to use machine learning to understand and detect surface to air missiles around the world, for example. As a human I can do that, and I can be very systematic. But I would still be searching slowly across terrain for the specific pattern. And every day I would have many, many more images to search through. So it’s really powerful to know that soon machine learning will help us identify more and more objects.

Q  These capabilities seem especially important in the case of North Korea, given how idiosyncratic their nuclear program is.

A  That’s one reason why North Korea continually gets underestimated. They’re not doing it the way other countries did it. We keep trying to measure them with that same ruler, and when we do that it always seems like they’re coming up short. But they’re not. They’re just doing it differently. It may not be the most efficient or accurate way of producing a nuclear weapons program, but they’re getting it done. And they’re doing it despite sanctions, despite trade interruptions, despite their ships being boarded. They are using a vast and really crafty network of individuals and front companies all over the world to get the data, the design information, and the materials they need. They’ve done such a good job that they’ve got much of the manufacturing capability in the country already at this point—and it makes sanctions and export controls even more difficult, because there’s not much left to keep out.

Q  What about all those North Korean propaganda photos? Can you “see inside” them to tell whether they’re real?

A  Part of what North Korea desperately wants is for us to believe they have these weapons as deterrents—a way to ensure we don’t attack them. We always took North Korea’s photos with a grain of salt, but we could not effectively determine all the ways their photographs might have been falsified to mislead us. Now we have access to software called Tungstene that does some of that. Essentially, it is a series of mathematical algorithms that can be run over a photo file. Some are focused on how the photo compresses or how the light or noise flows through the photo. If someone has changed parts of the photograph and not the other parts, it’ll leave some mathematical traces. The software can’t tell us what was changed or why it was changed, but it will tell us this quadrant is not the same as these other quadrants of the photo. But it’s up to a human to puzzle out what is expected noise and what was introduced through alteration.

Q  Does North Korea know about your work?

A  Yes. North Korea also has active chemical and biological weapons programs, and in 2015 I wrote about a facility called the Pyongyang Biotech Institute, which Kim Jong-un had visited. North Korea announced that it was going to make organic pesticides, but all the equipment inside was dual use: it could be used for civilian programs to make biopesticides but it could also be used to make the bacteria that causes the disease anthrax. After that, KCNA, North Korea state-run media, called me out as riffraff and a trickster. Drawing attention to that facility seemed to annoy them more than what I’ve found about their nuclear weapons. But we are on their radar. The IP addresses at Middlebury are blocked from North Korean websites, but we still find ways. We’re trying to get a handle on how often we get cyberattacks and where they’re coming from, but I am definitely feeling it. I do not believe the thing I do is secret or should be secret. But something creeping into our academic field is intimidation through cyberattack. I don’t even like talking about it because I don’t want to invite more attacks, but I suspect a lot of researchers are dealing with it—or maybe don’t even know that they are dealing with it.


Q  At CNS you work with a team, so collaboration is basically built into your job description. But what’s your read on what collaboration looks within the larger weapons research analyst world?

A  It’s tough. There is a limited amount of funding in this space. I mean, you really can’t hug what we do. Peace is warm and fuzzy. But nuclear death? Not so much. So we’re all competing for the same funding, and that breeds a kind of competitiveness that can choke collaboration. I’ve also had ideas taken, which makes me reluctant to be as public with them. But my natural inclination, my spirit, is always to collaborate. Part of the reason I like working at CNS so much is that I’m not doing this by myself. I’m doing it with more than a dozen other people who can help me, even just by letting me bounce ideas off them. And more ideas make for more complete understanding. It’s not possible for one person to understand all the interdisciplinary pieces of any one thing. Almost everyone at CNS speaks two languages, and we have regional expertise from all over the world. We also have two physicists and a biologist on staff, plus lawyers and diplomats, and I can reach out to experts on all sorts of things in order to better understand a phenomenon I’m seeing or the place I’m looking at. The only challenge is the logistics of consuming all those ideas and weighting them appropriately in order to come to an understanding.

Q  Collaboration also seems challenging in a field that has some resistance to innovation and to working in new ways.

A  Nuclear weapons were almost mythical. There are a lot of very strong feelings about them that have been engrained for decades. The old guard is not ready for new people to enter. And on some level I get that. I don’t know that I fear and respect nuclear weapons the same way that someone who grew up in the ‘50s, ‘60s, or ‘70s does. I never ducked and covered, and I never worked in a national lab. I never held a piece of plutonium. That new people are pushing their way into the field and that they may not hold the same regard for original things doesn’t sit well with everyone. But I think broadening the pool of people who work on this is always a good idea.

Q  All these technologies you’re using—and that are continuing to emerge—for detecting and monitoring nuclear weapons seem way more sophisticated than the weapons themselves.

A  Nuclear weapons are not new technology anymore. They are not cutting edge in any way. Many states keep these weapons because they feel it ensures strategic stability and the status quo. But other weapons are being developed that either reduce the ability of a nuclear weapon to carry out its mission or offer a similar level of destruction. Hypersonic weapons, biological weapons, satellites, artificial intelligence, and cyberattacks are displacing nuclear weapons as the end-all and be-all of weaponry, because they either undermine the weapon or compete with it.

Q  You train and work with a lot of Millennials. Do they bring different perspective to this work? What can we expect from this younger generation as they take on this mythical territory?

A  The biggest challenge is having them know and care about nuclear weapons. They’ve heard of them. They’ve maybe seen them in movies. They know that they make very big explosions. But what terrifies me the most is when people talk about nuclear weapons as though they were just very large conventional weapons, which they are not. The young people I come in contact with, though, are self-selecting because they’ve chosen to study this at Middlebury. They’ve already chosen to care about weapons of mass destruction. Once they recognize what nuclear weapons are and what it means to have them increase in number or spread to new countries, then you have a really powerful ally. Millennials have grown up with technology and they’re very visual, so they can learn and move through this kind of information quickly. And because they don’t have the experience or the history that older generations have with nuclear weapons, they can bring a new kind of perspective.

Q  In 2016, CNS launched Geo4Nonpro—an experiment in harnessing the wisdom of the crowd to interpret the kinds of satellite images of known or suspected WMD sites that you comb through every day. What did you find?

A  We invited experts from around the world—science and technology experts, as well as experts in certain policy areas or regions—to interpret and annotate satellite images of areas where weapons of mass destruction are to be found. What we really wanted to know was: are we missing something? Would individual experts or the crowd as a whole see things that we don’t? We also wanted to test out the feasibility of creating a public platform for WMD verification. Every month we’d post batches of images of known or suspected WMD sites that posed questions or a challenge that might be answered by a human more easily than by a machine-learning algorithm. After a year, we compared how the CNS team did relative to the experts who participated.

We found some interesting things. The experts were more interested in sites that were in the news than ones that were not. This maps to what we know about crowdsourcing, which is that people are more willing to engage with things that are both relevant and familiar. We also noticed that most of their analysis focused on identifying objects rather than figuring out their meaning. In other words, they were accurate with their pins but not deeply analytical. Right now we’re taking the lessons learned from our first year and using it to tweak our approach. I think the main takeaways are that it was a good idea, but it would be better with better design. I am really happy to be launching a 2.0 version this year. I think people will find it much easier to use, and we will start sharing more kinds of data. Stay tuned.

Q  What’s the relationship between government and civil society when it comes to detonation detecting? How does the work you do relate to or dovetail with what government analysts are interpreting and assessing? 

A  Truthfully, I don’t know. The flow of information is one way. I am a Canadian citizen, and I can’t just call up a US intelligence agency and ask. But I do see some ways that civil society can be really useful. Having an open source debate in civil society can test out hypotheses and introduce new perspectives. I will never have the same exquisite capabilities or sheer number of resources of a government, but I can work nimbly and collaborate comparatively easily. Intelligence work is very interdisciplinary. Sometimes I need access to a physicist, a truck driver, a sheep herder—and the connected nature of social media means I can get their perspective. Breaking down silos of information can be really helpful. Open source research is available to the public and to governments, so it can be tested and shared across borders.

There are ethical considerations that we are still navigating. I hope that I never inadvertently harm someone by publishing my results. I hope that I never help North Korea troubleshoot a missile. These are things I worry about. Government analysts are tightly regulated. We are not. There is a lot of responsibility that comes with this research but it is not codified yet.

To me the most powerful part of open source is that you can create a more informed citizenry. Everyone has a stake in this. Nuclear war can be an extinction-level event. If this work gets done in the posts of Reddit or on the fringes of book clubs, so be it. You don’t like my data? You don’t trust my methods? Then show me your work. Let’s figure it out together. We’re no longer in a world where this gets decided in whispers and top secret documents, and we need all the help we can get. Maybe a skeptic will use some of the free software I use to verify what I’ve done to see if I make sense or not. I hope so. It’s better for everyone.


Q  You’ve spoken before about a future in which not just experts but regular citizens act almost as nuclear threat sensors, contributing in their own ways to what we know about the presence and even the intention around nuclear weapons. How do we get there?

A  I think we grow the existing capacity. If we start, at a very young age, cultivating critical thinking skills and a desire to learn and grow and meet others and accept that two pieces of information can coexist or that people can disagree, I think we can make a really powerful human sensor network. We’re used to relying on information to come from above, and then for us to learn it. But the way we acquire information is changing. It’s becoming much more dispersed. It’s not vetted by an editorial board or an elected official or a declassified intelligence brief. All of these primary sources—in the form of pictures and text and satellite images and video—are coming to us directly. But we need the critical thinking skills and the background information to understand what we’re seeing and to make sense of it. It can be really powerful to have hundreds, thousands, millions, or even billions of people looking at a problem together. We’re already seeing that in biology. But it will only work if we have the skills to do it together and the trust in one another.

Q  What’s your plausible best-case scenario for North Korea?

A  That the US and North Korea deter each other in the short term. There will be a period of very tense standoffs. But over time—unfortunately, a great deal of time—we will be able to negotiate a peaceful disarmament and resolution of the standoff. I don’t think nondemocratic societies can last forever, but North Korea has lasted far longer than anyone expected. I think in time that trade, culture, and exposure to the outside world will be pacifying, and that there is a place for North Korea in the world, maybe even as a unified Korea. But none of that will happen at the barrel of a gun. The most dangerous scenarios—a sudden collapse, a nuclear explosion, a misunderstanding or accident—those are the kinds of things that may happen if we push too hard too fast.

Q  Do you think the world will ever be rid of nuclear weapons?

A  My personal opinion is that nuclear weapons have outlived their utility and they are now more dangerous than they are useful. Keeping them safe and secure is enormously expensive, and their capabilities do not match national security goals anymore. I think probably we will be able to disarm. But there will always be a group that wants to have a nuclear weapon and we cannot erase the technology. And because we cannot unlearn it, we’re going to have to get ready for very complex and very difficult monitoring and verification environments. So, I think disarmament is possible—but not soon, unfortunately. I think I’m going to spend my entire life trying to come up with verification and monitoring capabilities so that eventually we can get to a place where states will agree to disarm and go to zero—and then remain at zero.

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