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Chat with the Globe's Gareth Cook

On Friday, Sept. 6, Globe science writer Gareth Cook talked with Boston.com readers about the role of science and technology in fighting the war on terror.

Gareth Cook (Moderator)
Gareth Cook (Moderator)
Gareth Cook (Moderator)
Ok, we seem to be online. Sorry everyone. I am here to talk about science, technology and 9/11 (or any of my stories, really). Any questions/thoughts?
What impact do you see from the internet/hackers in the new wave of 911
Gareth Cook (Moderator)
It is an area of real concern, especially that terrorist might try to bring down communications systems as a part of a more conventional attack, to make the situation more confused, and hinder the response. How likely is it? I have no idea.
If there are chemical precursors or toxins that have few legitimate uses, why can we not restrict their distribution?
Gareth Cook (Moderator)
The problem is actually that most of the chemical precursors do have other legitimate uses. An order of chemicals used to make fire retardants might also be used for nerve agents. The smart way to handle this is not to ban all chemicals that could be used in nerve agents, but to make at least one ingredient of all known nerve agents difficult to get -- the same way other controlled substances are. This would be do-able, but has not been done.
What is the status of the recognition of remains at Ground Zero, as far as what percentage of remains have been indentified. Also, was this considered the biggest single forensic investigation ever?
Gareth Cook (Moderator)
This was the single biggest forensic investigation ever. I don't actually know the answer to the question -- how many have they identified. I seem to think that it was going a lot slower than they were hoping for, but I just don't know.
Maybe we should be worried about stuff being delivered in steel shipping containers. If I wanted to send a bomb from offshore to the usa, that would be the delivery system of choice, not an ICBM. Only Russia woudl consider the rocket route. If China or Iraq or a terrorist group were to send us a bomb as a first strike, they would use a steel box, right? We need better radiographic or other means to screen these things.
Gareth Cook (Moderator)
You are right about that. It is a truly daunting problem, if you just think about how many things come into the country every single day. There is an interesting story in today's Globe, on the front of the City & Region section, about scanning the containers. We certainly have a long way to go, though.
Gareth Cook (Moderator)
If "TJI?" is still out there, we just deleted your question by accident. Please post again if you still have a question.
Is there any science in the works that could somehow "clean up" or neutralize radiation in the event of a dirty bomb?
Gareth Cook (Moderator)
This is a good question. Radiation can't really be neutralized, it has to be taken away until it decays below dangerous levels. This is what really worries people about a dirty bomb -- that it would be so hard to clean anything up. The national labs are working on various ways to clean surfaces, but if the soil is radiactive, it probably just needs to be carted off...
There is way too much effort focussed on airplane and poison-cloud threats; not enough on a nuke-in-a-box type surprise.
Gareth Cook (Moderator)
That is certainly an argument that I have heard -- I think there may be something in the new issue of The New Republic that makes exactly that point.
unrelated question to science, but did you graduate from cathedral high school in springfield
Gareth Cook (Moderator)
No, I went to high school in Poughkeepsie, NY.
Gareth Cook (Moderator)
is there an international component to this scientific war on terrorism? during world war 2, the brightest minds from all over the world gathered in los alamos to work on the bomb. is anything comparable being done now, or are americans largely in this alone?
Gareth Cook (Moderator)
A very interesting question. I am sure that a lot of work is being done in other countries, though that was outside the scope of my story. In a sense, though, the scientific effort in the U.S. is itself an international effort because so many foriegners come to our shores to do science. Early on, there was a lot of concern that this represented a security threat. But, as cooler heads prevailed, it became clear that with a few obvious safeguards, the foreign scientists are a source of great strength. We beat Hitler to the bomb using German scientists. What an American story.
That New Republic article was excellent. It argued that Congress and the White House are moving way too slow on nuclear security.
Gareth Cook (Moderator)
Oh, good. I figured that someone out there had read it. The writer of that story -- a Mr. Crowley -- used to toil in his younger days at the Boston Phoenix, where he once wrote a story on the threats Boston faced from terrorists. At the time, it seemed paranoid; now it seems oddly prescient.
Do we have antidotes available in case of a chemical attack?
Gareth Cook (Moderator)
It really depends on the chemical. For a lot of chemicals, it is a matter of cleaning the person and getting them to any reasonable hospital. For nerve agents it is pretty hard to help, unless the dose is very low, because they kill so quickly.
It aggravates me how no one paid much attention to what would have happened if United Flight 93 had made its way to Washington, DC. I always hear rumors that the White House has anti-aircraft missles. A. Is that true b. Even if you shoto it down over D.C. you're still killing hundreds of people, right?
Gareth Cook (Moderator)
Yes, that is one of those things that just gets dropped, because doing something about it would be so difficult. The White House is said that there is a plan, but with so much traffic so close to the building, it is really an impossibility. I remember, well after 9/11, that a civilian plan had lost its way and wandered right over the WH. The scrambled jets, which intercepted it -- well after it had flown over and was on its way. The only viable solution, in my mind, would be to declare a no fly zone. But that would mean shutting down National Airport...
most of your story dealt with defensive measures against terrorist attacks. do you know of anything interesting that's being developed offensively? how would scientists help us to win a war against, say, iraq (ugh)?
Gareth Cook (Moderator)
Oh, I am sure that is the case, though, as you say, I didn't spend as much time on it. This is a much more conventional area of work, and also a more classified one. There was, remember, that "thermobaric" bomb that they came out with, which can really ruin your day if you are in a cave.
But Gareth: why do we care? WHY DO WE CARE NOW?
Gareth Cook (Moderator)
I participated in a chat yesterday on gardening. i had to leave, however, before my question was answered due to a work meeting. any chance I can read a transcript of this chat session???
Gareth Cook (Moderator)
Dial 617 929-7900, ask for Seth. You should do it now -- I see him...
I agree with TJI? The TNR piece was sweet.
I have an eerie feeling, and I don't know why but I am almost certain the next terrorist attack will be in Boston. Does the BPD have a plan against an attack and how does the geography of Boston (Charles, Harbor) help or hurt our chances?
Gareth Cook (Moderator)
Yes, I think we all have all had that eerie feeling from time to time. Lax security at Logan certainly contributed to the last attack, though I have not myself looked into the local situation. That was covered in the first installment of the Globe's series, though.
Gareth Cook (Moderator)
Ok, everyone, thank you for logging in, and sorry for all the questions we couldn't get to today. Have a good day -- and, hey, let's be careful out there.
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