Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization

First Edition

© 1975-1979, 2008 Robert A. Freitas Jr. All Rights Reserved.

Robert A. Freitas Jr., Xenology: An Introduction to the Scientific Study of Extraterrestrial Life, Intelligence, and Civilization, First Edition, Xenology Research Institute, Sacramento, CA, 1979; http://www.xenology.info/Xeno.htm


18.5  Particulate Radiative Weaponry

How does particulate radiation affect the human organism? One most unusual effect relates to visual sensations caused by the passage of fast-moving particles through the retina. It has been reported that about 10% of all relativistic nitrogen nuclei shot through a human eyeball are perceived as tiny streaks of light in the visual field.473 High energy muons and pions have been found to cause a similar phenomenon, appearing as a crescent-shaped flash as large as one-half the entire field of view.529

But by and large, the biological effects of particulate radiation are quite straightforward. Any particle bearing an electric charge (protons, electrons) and having a reasonably high kinetic energy will interact strongly with the orbital electrons in any physical medium it passes through. Charged particles lose energy to orbital electrons bit by bit as they pass, unlike photons which divest all their energy in a single blast. Neutral particles like the neutron cannot interact electromagnetically with matter, and zip right past the orbital electrons. All their energy is transferred in a single collision with an atomic nucleus -- which absorbs them and recoils violently.

We call high-energy charged particles directly ionizing radiation, whereas photons of very high energy and neutrons of all energies are referred to as indirectly ionizing radiation. Slow moving charged particles and low-energy photons are known collectively as nonionizing radiation.

Which of the particles in the "nuclear particle zoo" are germane to our study? At last count, well over 200 different particles had been discovered. Let us briefly consider just a few of them.

We've already mentioned the proton (positive charge) and the neutron (neutral) -- the constituents of atomic nuclei -- and electrons (negative charge). Each of these has its antiparticle. An antiparticle is the "opposite" of a particle, in the sense that when the two come together they are observed to undergo annihilation (mutual destruction) and release large quantities of energy.

The anti-electron, the first antiparticle to be discovered, was given a special name -- the positron. The positron-electron annihilation reaction is very specific; positrons would presumably be stable in a universe with out electrons.681

The proton and neutron each have their anti counterparts. However, they are slightly less specific in their reactions. An antiproton will annihilate both a neutron and a proton; likewise, the antineutron annihilates both neutrons and protons.681

Pions are particles which come in three varieties -- positive, neutral, and negatively charged. They are produced via proton-antiproton and neutron-antineutron reactions, and also in cases where protons or neutrons collide with nucleons in normal matter. But pions are unstable, decaying to muons and electrons in very brief times. Muons exist in positive and negative forms and are also unstable, decaying in about two microseconds to electrons and other particles. Let us turn now to applications.

The most common form of electron transfer in our everyday lives is via electricity. Can this be used as a weapon? Dr. John Cover, a scientist in Newport Beach, has developed a device he calls a taser. The taser passes a jolt of electricity at 50,000 volts (but very low current) through the body, temporarily freezing the skeletal muscles with few lasting effects. This "stun gun" is being manufactured and marketed under the trade name Taser Public Defender by Advanced Chemical Technology, a Los Angeles firm.

But this device gets the energy to the human target by firing tiny darts attached to ten meter threadlike wires. Surely there must be a better way!

The alien attackers may be capable of actually throwing thunderbolts at us, those powerful instruments of Zeus' arbitrary whim. One of the larger artificial lightning machines was the one built for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Its output reportedly exceeded ten million volts at about 200 kilojoules per bolt. This is sufficient to jump more than ten meters through dry air. Voltages of more than twenty million volts are commercially available today.

Natural lightning is even more impressive. Discharges from so-called "positive giants" pass energies in excess of several billion joules, at hundreds of millions of volts electrical potential. The cores of such strokes momentarily reach temperatures of up to 30,000 °C, several times hotter than the solar photosphere. Its quite possible that hovering alien spacecraft could use a weapon of this kind to destroy houses, vehicles, or even crowds or single individuals. A tight beam of ionizing radiation might precede the bolt to the ground, ionizing an easy conduction path in air straight to the target. It would be difficult to operate a hand-held device of this kind, such as a lightning bolt rifle, as it would be virtually impossible for the attacker to avoid being shocked himself.

Of course, there are other forms of lightning. Of particular interest is the phenomenon known as ball lightning. After decades of controversy, it is now generally accepted that these fiery balls of electrical energy-kugelblitz -- do exist. They are described as being anywhere from one centimeter to one meter in diameter, in colors ranging from white and blue to red and yellow.459 The plasma globes can be spherical or elliptical in shape.466 Lifetimes are typically about five seconds, but occasionally a kugeiblitz has been seen to remain intact for more than a minute. Their demise occurs in one of two ways -- silently (fast or slow), or explosively with a loud pop -- and they generally travel at about 4 meters per second, either vertically611 or horizontally.459

How much energy do they contain? One 20 centimeter kugeiblitz fell into a small barrel of water, causing it to boil for several minutes.549 Another plasma ball was seen entering a heavy oak piling, which shattered violently moments later. The ball was estimated to contain an energy of 100 kilojoules.610 Energy densities have been variously estimated from 20 megajoules per cubic meter611 up to 100 megajoules per cubic meter.505 One author has speculated that persons standing within a meter or two of a large lightning ball might well be exposed to radiation sufficient to cause radionecrosis, although the balls are rarely reported to emit heat.505

Since ball lightning requires no ionized path and appears to be self-sustaining, it should be possible for ETs to wield portable kugeiblitz projectors. A person directly hit with one of these plasma balls could suffer severe radiation burns, electrocution, and traumatic shock. There is a small problem with aiming accuracy, as the motions of the glowing balls are frequently erratic. However, there have been many reports of ball lightning actually "chasing" people, apparently attracted to a small accumulated net charge.466 Aim may in fact be a nonproblem after all.

Electrons can be utilized more directly in space. A beam of electrons could be fired at the hull of an alien spacecraft, embedding negative charges throughout its bulk. The craft might then be grappled electrostatically -- a tractor beam of sorts. Unfortunately, the forces generated are quite weak over normal operational distances, and the skin charge would be easy to neutralize by the aliens themselves.

More reasonable, perhaps, are the torch weapons. The muon torch is a prime example. Muons are very inert mesons, so inert that they comprise about 80% of the cosmic rays at sea level and have been detected in mines, hundreds of meters beneath solid rock.681 The depth of penetration depends almost solely upon the initial energy of the beam of particles -- the higher the energy, the farther they go. But muons decay after 2.2 microseconds. We can arrange the beam energy so that, after the muons have traveled, say, one kilometer, the decay time has elapsed. One kilometer from the source, then, the particles in the beam will suddenly decay, releasing their energy with almost pinpoint accuracy. Range can be adjusted on the muon torch by merely adjusting the energy of the beam.

Charged pions can also provide us with a torch effect. However, since charged pions decay in only 0.03 microseconds, to get the same range pions must be accelerated to energies about ten thousand times higher than muons (Table 18.3). But the pion torch is superior for one simple reason. When the muon decays, most of the energy thus liberated is carried away by neutrinos and is effectively lost. But when the pion decays, its full rest mass energy of 139 MeV is delivered to the target. If the aliens have constructed a pion torch capable of delivering a pion current of one milliampere -- not inconceivable using modern human technology -- the weapon would have a power at the target of about 150 kilowatts.*


Table 18.3 Range of the Charged-Pion Torch in Vacuum
Pion Energy
Pion Energy
   1 MeV
1 meter
 10 GeV
550 meters
  10 MeV
 3 meters
100 GeV
5.4 Kilometers
100 MeV
10 meters
  1 TeV
54 Kilometers
   1 GeV
60 meters
10 TeV
540 Kilometers


The problem with charged particle torches in general is that there’s an obvious defense available. Electrostatic screens around an enemy ship in space would repell the pions as easily as electrons are deflected in a TV picture tube. Only if torch weapons aren’t expected would the torchers have a fighting chance for success.

Neutral pions are available too, of course, and would be quite undeflectable by any electrical field. There would be no elegant defense against a neutral pion torch. There’s just one catch. The neutral pion decays in 10-15 seconds. To achieve the same range as a charged pion torch, energies must be some seven orders of magnitude greater. Even at the terrific energy of 1000 TeV, at least three orders of magnitude above the capacity of the largest accelerator on Earth, the neutral pions would have a range in vacuum of only 2.2 meters.

We have not yet exhausted the list of nonphotonic radiative weapons. It has long been believed by many nuclear physicists that whole atoms of antiparticles could be built up -- into anti-atoms. An atom of antimatter would have a negatively charged nucleus surrounded by a cloud of positrons. Recent research has revealed the first synthesis of the anti-helium-3 nucleus,487 and the antideuteron (anti-deuterium nucleus) has been known for a decade. It is not inconceivable that ETs may be able to fashion macroscopic chunks of pure antimatter, stored temporarily in some kind of (perhaps) magnetic confinement vessel. A mere 64 grams of antimatter, released on the surface of this planet, would provide an explosive yield of one megaton -- the approximate energy requirement to utterly destroy a city of one million inhabitants.573


Figure 18.3 The Starship Enterprise fires its phasers.


Other applications for antimatter may be imagined. A cloud of anti-plasma released at an enemy vessel in space could cause severe structural weakening of the hull, as in the original-series Star Trek adventure "Balance of Terror" and other science fiction tales.607 Another possibility is the use of antiparticle beams to slice up chunks of ordinary matter. A beam of anti-protons, for instance, would cut right through a distant spacecraft. Not only would the ship be physically riven in two, but fierce radiation accompanying the annihilation reactions would undoubtedly prove quite deadly to the occupants.

Aliens would be smart enough not to choose antiprotons for this purpose, however, as these are susceptible to electrostatic defenses. ETs would use antineutrons instead. Or they may use other forms of beam weapons that we not yet imagined (Figure 18.3).


* Note also that the pion decay cloud could be materialized inside the enemy ship, incinerating everything within but leaving the hull intact.


Last updated on 6 December 2008