July 2, 2001

Republican (and physicist) Vern Ehlers on the National Missile Defense: An Essay

[cue Star Trek theme by Jerry Goldsmith]

Personal Log. Stardate 06-23-2001, 1400 hours.

Congressman Vern Ehlers is the U.S. House Representative for Michigan's Third District. As the Republican candidate in the 2000 elections, he won reelection handily in a heavily Republican district. Vern Ehlers also holds a Ph.D. in nuclear physics, and is the very first research physicist ever elected to the U.S. Congress.

I saw a potential contrast with Congressman Ehlers that I found...fascinating. As a Republican and as a physicist, Congressman Ehlers had a foot in each of two opposing camps on the matter of the National Missile Defense. (I'm reminded now of the original Star Trek episode "The Enemy Within" with the two opposing Kirks.) I had a rare chance to boldly go where no one had gone before: to seek out this strange new contrast in Congressman Ehlers personally.

Grand Rapids is the largest city in Michigan's Third District, and is also my hometown. The Grand Rapids Museum Center held an exhibit called Star Trek Federation Science. (This essay had this theme for a reason.) As part of the exhibition, Congressman Ehlers would give a public lecture on "The Universe of Star Trek: Fiction versus Reality."

Museum staff probably hoped that people would find resistance to such a pop- culture-inspired exhibition futile. (Heck, I came from Chicago to see it, but not for the pop culture.) And maybe along the way, museumgoers might learn that resistance is actually voltage over electric current.

I arrived by shuttlecraft (actually, my sister's Saturn) to the museum a little early for the talk, so I walked around the museum a bit. The gift shop unsurprisingly was assimilated by Star Trek kitsch, including cardboard cutouts of all your favorite Star Trek personalities.

The talk would be held on the second floor in the Meijer Theater. The kitsch parade continued inside. Congressman Ehlers wore a yellow tie bedecked with different mathematical and physics formulae. Congressman Ehlers was introduced by a museum staffperson who wore a maroon Starfleet regulation admiral's uniform as seen in Star Treks II, III, and IV.

Congressman Ehlers first asked all of us in the theater (probably about 25 people) to come to the front of the theater. He would summarize as much of the history of physics as he could in about 30 minutes--Newton's laws, general and special relativity, gravity, energy, quantum theory, unified field theory. Then he gave some examples of how our current knowledge of physics prevents or greatly hinders some real-life applications of Star Trek technology.

Then came Q and A. Some questions came up before one person had broken the ice for me by asking about science education standards and government policy. Then I raised my hand:

"On another matter of science and policy, I was wondering if you could comment on the National Missile Defense. On the one hand, you have Ted Postol from MIT; Scientific American which just last month editorialized against it. On the other, you have the current presidential administration; Donald Rumsfeld who testified before Congress earlier this week; companies like Raytheon, Boeing, McDonnell Douglas. What's your take on the whole matter?"

I was most impressed with Congressman Ehlers' answer. I paraphrase it below as closely to his words as I can remember them. Any misattributions to Congressman Ehlers are my fault and my fault alone.

"I have opposed the National Missile Defense. It's only come up in Congress twice so far. But the main problem is that the National Missile Defense is like someone in the back of the theater with a gun who fires a bullet at you. You defend yourself with a gun of your own where you fire your gun in such a way that the bullet from your gun meets the bullet from their gun in midair. There's nothing in physics that says that this can't happen, but whether it's likely to happen is another matter.

"If someone were to fire a missile at the United States, we could do a lot about it. For one, we would know where the launch took place because of the flash of the launch and the seismic disruption coming from the launch. By knowing where the missile launched, we would what country or even person launched it and counter that country or person. We would know where the missile was heading by charting the missile's path and perhaps even try to prevent it from reaching its target in midflight.

"It would harder to trace an attack that took place offshore. A bomb could just be brought in by cargo boat and could evade inspection. It's harder to bring a nuclear weapon across the border through Mexico because of a minimum mass requirement for nuclear weapons and that size would be hard to hide from the border patrol. Which is why one threat has to do with chemical and biological weapons, which are easier to hide.

"I'm against the National Missile Defense, but I'm in the minority on this matter. Even some Democrats have voiced support for the National Missile Defense, which has a cost of about $80 billion dollars. I think that money could be better spent on things like health and education."

After questions ended, I approached Congressman Ehlers, thanking him for his answer and saying that I came from Chicago to attend his talk. Though Congressman Ehlers and I may not agree on everything, I found his response to my question highly logical. I would then embark by foot on my Voyage Home.