Science in Fiction – EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse)
Affects on Electronics
I’ve seen movies and TV shows where EMPs were used, and frequently, they like to use it as a plot device to temporarily disable the electronics in an area. Ocean’s 11 knocked out an area of Las Vegas for 30 seconds. Leverage had an EMP gun that could take out electronics for 30 minutes.
But here’s the problem with that — an EMP fries electronics. They are permanently damaged by the pulse. Older electronics might be able to survive, but modern electronics cannot without protection. As we’ve become more advanced, circuits have become smaller and more fragile, less capable of handling the rapidly alternating currents of an EMP. It’s why lightning is so deadly to our gadgets.
To understand what an EMP does, imagine an epileptic looking at a strobe light. The light flashes, spazzing out the person’s brain and causing it to misfire rapidly. With an EMP, the pulse triggers an electrical charge to alternate through a circuit. This charge alternates so fast that the circuit burns out. Permanent damage.
Creating an EMP
Primarily, EMPs in the way we think of them are caused by nuclear bombs, and that’s about it. There are many types of EMPs coming from a wide variety of sources, like lightning and electrostatic discharge, but these don’t create the more widespread effects an author might be looking for.
There are two types of EMPs caused by nuclear bombs: NEMP (nuclear EMP) and HEMP (high altitude EMP). The primary difference between the two is location of detonation. NEMPs are detonated on the ground, while HEMPs are detonated hundreds of kilometers above the Earth’s surface. Basically, an HEMP would be what was used in the events in the TV show Dark Angel. In fact, to my knowledge, that show is one of the most accurate depictions of the results of an EMP I’ve been able to find. The only thing I’ve ever questioned about the events in that show were the government’s lack of reaction to the incident, or preparedness for that matter.