Stranger Fruit

Question of the week

As Janet and RPM have noted, the mothership has initiated an “Ask A ScienceBlogger” feature – a weekly question that us SBers will (briefly) tackle. This week the question is “if you could cause one invention from the last hundred years never to have been made at all, which would it be, and why?”

Like Janet, my first impulse was to answer “cell phones” and (also like Janet) I then realized that it wasn’t the phones but the idiots who use them (loudly) in public or when they should be concentrating on something else (driving, child care, listening to people …). RPM’s answer – nuclear weapons – is good, but an argument could possibly be made that they have stopped conflicts (I don’t necessarily agree, but that was at least Leo Szillard’s original impetus). I though of television (that sucker of souls) and, frankly, the internet (I think it’s killed the ability of many of the young ‘uns to read, critically analyze, and express themselves, and has resulted in tendencies to instant gratification). Below the fold, you will find my final answer – one word, no justification required.



  1. #1 Roman Werpachowski
    May 6, 2006

    Tell it to countries which have a long land border with a an aggressive neighbour.

  2. #2 ocmpoma
    May 6, 2006

    “Tell it to countries which have a long land border with a an aggressive neighbour.”

    Your proposed use for landmines – border defense – is wide of the mark. Land mines are a strategic weapon, not a tactical one. They were designed to be deployed not to prevent an enemy from crossing into a territory, like a fence. Rather, landmines are intended to expose the enemy to attack by forcing them to delay, clearing a path through the minefield which bottlenecks their movement, or bypass the area altogether, which forces them to use a path more advantageous to the landmine deployer.
    In other words, not only are landmines not intended to prevent border crossings – they couldn’t. Any country sufficiently worried about an invading army to want to deploy landmines against them is facing an enemy that has the capability of bypassing them.
    In short, your defense of them is misguided.

  3. #3 Roman Werpachowski
    May 6, 2006

    Crossing a border laid with landmines is harder than crossing a border which has no landmines. Enough for me. Anything which will make it harder for the Russians to cross Bug and enter Poland is good for Poland 😉

  4. #4 Ebonmuse
    May 6, 2006

    The real problem with landmines is that they are indiscriminate. A fence, say, with barbed wire and machine guns is easy for civilians and neutral parties to steer clear of; a landmine kills anyone who steps on it, and because they are by nature hidden, people who are not party to the conflict cannot avoid them. Worse, landmines are nearly impossible to remove after the cessation of hostilities, and can still be maiming and killing innocent people decades later.

  5. #5 Roman Werpachowski
    May 6, 2006

    If the mines are laid by a normal state, than the maps with the locations of the minefields are stored and can be later used to remove the mines.

  6. #6 Ebonmuse
    May 6, 2006

    Unless you’re proposing mapping the locations of mines down to the inch, which I doubt any state that has laid mines has ever done, even with a map de-mining a swath of land is an incredibly difficult, slow and dangerous job. Mines are explosive devices, you realize – they’re not meant to be removed. If memory serves, the international organizations attempting to de-mine land can clear a few square meters per day on a good day.

  7. #7 mythusmage
    May 6, 2006

    Not an invention, a patent. Specifically, patenting DNA sequences. Treat them like you would game mechanics and mathematical formulas.

  8. #8 Roman Werpachowski
    May 7, 2006

    1. Insert into each mine a cryptographic device which disables the mine when a signal is sent with the password. Each mine has its own password (set by the manufacturer). They can be as long as you wish. Send a signal. Presto — you have a field of dead mines.

    2. Insert a clock. After a year after production, the mine is dead and the clock needs to be “reset” by radio transmission.

    You can do it when you want it. There is no way a country like South Korea will give up landmines. Also Poland, for that matter.

  9. #9 Roman Werpachowski
    May 7, 2006

    If memory serves, the international organizations attempting to de-mine land can clear a few square meters per day on a good day.

    This would mean they clean one-two mine a day. Impossibly few. Look, directly after WW II, in 1945, Poland was de-mined by Soviet and Polish (communist) armies. Somehow, they managed to it faster without today’s technology.

    It’s probably:
    1. more than few square meters per day
    2. not a question of technological impossibility, but of the amount of money set for this purpose.

  10. #10 pseudolus
    May 7, 2006

    Yeah, and Dr. Gatling thought he would prevent all wars with his invention, too. How’s that working for us?

  11. #11 Roman Werpachowski
    May 7, 2006

    Yeah, and Dr. Gatling thought he would prevent all wars with his invention, too.

    He didn’t. So?

  12. #12 Charlie Quimby
    May 8, 2006

    I posted a comment on this answer over at Living the Scientific life, but see you’ve provided more context.

    Ocmpoma is right and so is Roman W. Weapon systems ultimately get used any way they can prove effective, and with land mines, it’s an either/or. If the enemy knows they will be slowed and attacked at a vulnerable place, they try to figure out a way around that. And the other side figures a counter to that. And so on. Theoretically, any weapon can be gotten around, but practically it will add to the deterrent effect.

    Mine technology was huge area of development in the 1980s when the West was figuring out how to deal with the threat of Soviet tanks pouring through the Fulda Gap. I knew guys who did nothing but work on this stuff, and I assure you it was more complex than this discussion will ever get into.

  13. #13 Roman Werpachowski
    May 9, 2006

    As Rwanda shows, you can slaughter children with machettes. Attributing an ethical value to technology is more often than not dubious.

  14. #14 Sean Storrs
    May 11, 2006

    Incidents of child abuse, domestic violence, property crime and identity theft can often be traced back to one root cause: crystal meth. In lieu of hard numbers, you can take a hard look at the human toll this particular invention of ours is taking by visiting

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