Vindication comes to scientist 60 years later

  • Published
  • By Susan A. Romano
  • Air Force Technical Applications Center Public Affairs
Although not that long ago, it's somewhat difficult to imagine a world without global positioning systems, Google Earth or the Internet.

It's harder still to visualize a 21st century scientific research laboratory without super computers, high definition microscopes or fully-digitized equipment.

Yet, without all those significant technological advances and capabilities at his fingertips, in 1953 one scientist was able to accurately pinpoint the location of a secretly detonated thermonuclear weapon by the Soviets within 10 kilometers.

By modern-day standards, that kind of precision seems plausible and not all that astounding, especially when you consider that today's laser-guided munitions can be delivered with acute accuracy. But when you factor in that one man had pioneered a number of techniques to measure the arrival time of seismic and infrasound signals, analyze incoming waveform data, and then mathematically calculate the location of the explosion - all without the use of the aforementioned GPS, super-computers and World Wide Web - it makes for one amazing scientific feat.

Enter Dr. Carl Romney, a geophysicist whose professional career was dedicated to the field of seismic detection of nuclear explosions. Romney was the assistant technical director of geophysics at the then highly-classified Air Force Office of Atomic Energy-One or AFOAT-1.
Their mission was to detect any foreign nuclear weapons tests and, to the best of their ability, determine the characteristics of the weapon.

In 1959, the Air Force deactivated AFOAT-1, and Romney went on to serve as the assistant technical director of the Air Force Technical Applications Center, which was created the same year to operate the Atomic Energy Detection System.

To accomplish that mission, Romney and his co-workers used data from the AEDS, a network of sensors deployed to friendly countries around the world that could sense underground or underwater disturbances.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Romney was investigating the possibility of using seismic and infrasound equipment to more accurately pinpoint and identify the locations of foreign nuclear tests and determine their respective magnitudes and characteristics.

Much of his work was shrouded in secrecy, as was most of the early years of the atomic age. On Aug. 12, 1953, when the Soviets tested their first thermonuclear weapon it became known as 'Joe-4' - Romney and his fellow scientists from AFOAT-1 mathematically calculated the location of the explosion.

He firmly believed the timing and the waveform data he collected were particularly precise, and based on that collected data, he was confident he pinpointed the geographic area of detonation within 10 kilometers.

Despite his confidence, skill and demonstrated expertise, many in the scientific community doubted his conclusion and couldn't stand behind him and his prediction.

However, the U.S. government - all the way up to the White House - was very concerned about the Soviets' actions, and the president authorized an over flight of the highly secretive U-2 to conduct aerial photography of the suspected detonation area. The flight was successful, but because of the classified nature of the U-2 and its capabilities at the time, Romney wasn't told if his coordinates coincided with what the U-2 had collected.

The only 'revealing' information the pilot gave Romney was a single, cryptic sentence: "The test was exactly where he expected it to be."

For decades, the inability to know for sure if his conclusion was correct nagged at the geophysicist, mostly because he felt in his heart of hearts that his techniques, seismic data and infrasound signals should have yielded a location within 10 kilometers of its detonation.

Nevertheless, Romney went on to forge an extremely successful career, becoming a key contributor to the 1958 Geneva Conventions, being appointed deputy director for the Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency, and later serving as the director of the Center for Seismic Studies.

It wasn't until 2012 when Romney was contacted by AFTAC to discuss his role in developing many of the provisions of current nuclear testing treaties due to their historical significance that he finally found what he was looking for. Romney graciously provided AFTAC with a plethora of information and filled in many gaps that existed in AFTAC's oral and written history.

Upon the conclusion of his interview, Romney was asked if there was anything AFTAC could do to repay his courtesy. Without missing a beat, the scientist quickly asked, "Can you tell me if my calculation of the Soviet Joe-4 test location was within 10 km of ground zero?"

Because of Romney's tremendous and significant contributions to his nation and the atomic age, AFTAC management took his request and made it a priority to get him an answer. David Merker, director of the U.S. National Data Center, put his analysts to work to gather as much information as they could, declassify it if necessary, and provide Romney an answer to a question that had occupied his mind for nearly six decades.

When Merker's analysts finished collecting the data from the 1953 event, they were amazed to see that Romney's calculations were remarkably spot-on - his geographic conclusion was exactly 10.34 kilometers from ground zero.

"It is never too late to recognize a true American patriot and innovator," said Merker. "It is especially rewarding when we can solve a problem that Dr. Romney has been carrying on his shoulders for the past 60 years. It is an incredible testament to his scientific knowledge and skills."

There is a post script to this story. Dr. Romney, who will be 90 years old in June, still has a burning interest in the world of seismology and nuclear treaty monitoring, and routinely keeps in touch with members of AFTAC.

Recently, when Malaysian Air Flight M370 disappeared March 8, 2014, many experts thought the flight might have crashed somewhere in the Indian Ocean. Some renowned seismologists - Romney included - immediately thought that hydro-acoustic equipment positioned in the geographic area might have been able to detect a sudden wave of activity had the airliner impacted the ocean at a high velocity.

Although crises such as the missing airliner do not fall under AFTAC's specific mission taskings and assigned responsibilities, the international community reached out to the center because of its unparalleled skill and expertise in the field of seismic and hydro-acoustic data analysis.

Romney offered his insight to Merker's seismic experts from the USNDC, who had already analyzed data from the region in an effort to assist Malaysia and the other nations that were participating in the search and recovery of the missing passenger jet.

"Carl is such an extraordinary scientist and patriot, and despite what the calendar might say his age is, he is still constantly at work - thinking, analyzing and evaluating," said Merker. "Because of his continued curiosity, he prompted me to ask my staff to see if there was any activity that showed signs or potential for being related to the Malaysian Air disappearance. It remains a mystery to us, and to the world."