The Week In Radio: The think tank for unthinkable thoughts

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The Independent Culture

On Sunday night, I turned on my radio to hear a man with an American accent talking about a plan to defend the US from missile attack by bolting 10,000 rocket engines to the ground, thrusters facing the rising sun. At the first glimmer of a nuclear-missile attack, the engines would all be ignited at once, their combined thrust pushing against the Earth's rotation enough to pause it, with the result that the missiles would all land well to the east of their targets.

The drawbacks to this idea are obvious: all those rockets would generate prodigious heat, and there is a distinct possibility that, rather than pausing the Earth, their force would loose North America from its moorings, leading to cataclysmic earthquakes, tsunamis and eruptions; the ICBMs might be a gentler option. But still, the ambition! It's up there with Archimedes and his Earth-moving lever.

As it turned out, what I was hearing was RAND: All Your Tomorrows Today, a Radio 3 feature about the RAND Corporation of California, the original think-tank, which, since the 1940s, has been looking for new ways of thinking about the challenges facing the US or "imposing the higher powers of mankind on the most insoluble problems".

RAND's influence on the late 20th century is hard to measure, but generally agreed to be large: its first publication was on the possibility of "an experimental, world-circling spaceship" 10 years before sputnik and its thinkers have been credited with inventing game theory and much of the technology and ideas underlying the internet.

Its origins were military it was founded by the US Air Force and was soon busy planning for nuclear war (game theory was a way of predicting the behaviour of players of the nuclear game). Key figures included Herman Kahn, who contemplated possible results of different kinds of nuclear war: his book On Thermonuclear War was condemned by Scientific American as a "how to" book on mass murder, and passages from it inspired dialogue in Kubrick's Dr Strangelove. Kahn complained that when he said that an outcome involving five million deaths was better than one involving 500 million, he was accused of saying that five million deaths don't matter; whereas he thought the difference between five and 500 million mattered enormously.

The phrase "thinking the unthinkable" was closely associated with RAND, and as thinkers of the unthinkable will attest from Archimedes, stabbed by that Roman soldier, to Frank Field MP the job doesn't make you popular. It was never that freaky (the Atlas rocket idea was never taken seriously), but in the Vietnam era, RAND became emblematic of American neoimperialism, a supposed secret state.

The programme was written and presented by Ken Hollings, who three years ago did a splendid short feature on Radio 3, Connecting, about "phone phreaks" 1970s pioneers of computer hacking. Here, he seemed to push towards RAND being a kind of underground, alternative culture, though in truth it is a very public arm of the establishment. But Mark Burman produced brilliantly, undercutting the apocalyptic narrative with ethereal and melancholy Beach Boys harmonies, and it lived up to my first impression of something surprising.