Skip to main content

Chapter 5: The Great British Nuke Off

Cue, Nicky: Great, thank you very much. So this, these are both Northern Monks, are they?
Kyle: I’ll take this one…
Nicky: Yeah. Cheers.
Kyle: Cheers.

Alright. We’ve heard from the victims of Havana Syndrome. From the medical researchers. From the national security insiders. From the politicians.

And the level of disagreement is – startling, isn’t it? No-one can seem to agree on what the hell is going on.

And now we’re hitting some hard physics concepts. Microwaves. Radio frequency radiation. I need someone with the expertise to clear these concepts up… someone with a fresh perspective.

And here I have a stroke of luck, because I know just the guy.

Cue, Nicky: Oh, wait, and I forgot, I forgot, um, you gotta introduce yourself.
Cue Kyle: I gotta intro– Oh, I, so I’m Kyle Major.

Kyle and I were in the same household bubble during the pandemic – he lived in the flat upstairs. Right now, we’re sat at the window table in a little craft beer shop at the end of our street.

Cue, Nicky: Yeah. This is good.This is like, I dunno what this is. This is English IPA, I think

Kyle is the smartest person I know. He’s a physicist specializing in something called “quantum opto-mechanics” – essentially, radiation and sound and how they interact.

Cue, Kyle: So, uh, that’s, that’s my day-to-day job, but you’ve got me here to, to do something else, which I’m not really sure about yet…”

[cue, music]

First, I run Kyle through the details of where we’ve got in our investigation so far.

We’ve got the list of hypotheses down now. In my head, I’m splitting them into two overarching categories. The first category is labeled “not an attack.”

Featured in this category is the Bobs’ theory. That this can all be explained away as a response to stress or something mundane like that – maybe even cricket noises.

Which all got turbocharged; turned into a mass psychogenic episode by rumors, and the power of suggestion, a chaotic government response, widespread press coverage, and all that stuff.

Then there’s the second category. The scary one. The one labeled “attack.”

That the victims were hit with some kind of directed energy. Even some kind of weapon.

But if that’s the case, what would it look like? How much power would it need? How big would it be? I want to find a way to test this theory. Demonstrate it. Separate the possible from the impossible.

So – I’ve come to Kyle with an ominous request.

Cue, Nicky: … Can you build me a weapon?
Kyle: So, first off, under absolutely no circumstances am I building you a weapon

but we could make a device of some kind…
[Both laugh]
Nicky: I’m doing the Bunny ears, a “device.”
Kyle: Yeah.

Kyle: So I guess what you’re saying is, like, how feasible is it to build something that will use sound or electromagnetic radiation to direct at something quite far away?
Nicky: Yeah.

Kyle: It’s gonna be a little bit dangerous.

Nicky: Can, can we do it? Is it…?
Kyle: Yeah, we could do it.
Nicky: Are you, are you up for it?
Kyle: Yeah. Okay …
[Both laugh]

I’m gonna regret this. [Laughs]

From Project Brazen and PRX… This is THE SOUND.

I’m Nicky Woolf.

Chapter Five: The Great British Nuke-Off.


First, we need to go over some basics.

Kyle: So we’re talking about two things, we’re talking about light and sound …

Both of those things move in waves. Imagine ripples on the surface of a pool when someone dives in. The distance between each ripple is the wavelength, and how quickly they’re shaking is the frequency.

With sound – those waves are made up of moving air molecules. Pulses of high and low pressure in the air. Higher frequency sound you hear as a higher pitch.

But Kyle agrees with pretty much everyone we’ve spoken to: that a sonic weapon just doesn’t fit with what happened in Havana.

Cue, Kyle: It just requires so much energy to use sound waves in this way.

Light, on the other hand, that’s made up of electromagnetic radiation. That includes light we can see: radiation at frequencies the human eye can pick up. But that’s just a small part of the spectrum.

It’s all still EM radiation, but at higher frequencies, the energy is invisible. This is where you find what’s been variously described to us as…

Cue, Relman: …pulsed radio frequency energy…
Cue, Linda: …microwave type radiation…
Cue, Beatrice: …radiofrequency radiation…

…which – to be clear – all mean the same thing:

[mini-BEAT, musical cue or something]

Cue, Nicky: … Let’s talk microwaves, shall we?

Obviously there’s a whole lot more to the science here than I’ve just described.

But we don’t need to go into quantum mechanics or anything like that, because, for our purposes, the important question is a simple one.

Cue, Nicky: Like what would it have to be for microwaves to be doing this?
Kyle: So the thing about microwaves is that the… ’cause it’s at such a high frequency, most of it’s gonna be deposited as heat.

That’s exactly what a kitchen microwave does to cook your food. And, according to Beatrice Golomb’s theory, that heat transfer is what’s behind both the sound – and the brain injuries.

In theory, microwave radiation seems to match up with what Karen Coats (and most of the other victims) describe – a tightly located beam in which they heard the sound.

Compared to sound waves, Kyle says…

Cue, Kyle: Microwaves, they’re much easier to direct. You can make something that you point in one direction and it goes in that direction.

That’s the theory, anyway. But I want to put it to the test.

Cue, Nicky: How’s this gonna work?

Cue, Kyle: We can build a device that will generate microwaves and direct them to a place that’s far away.

Kyle sips his beer and thinks for a moment.

Cue, Kyle: We can definitely see how easy it is to build.Whether or not this is the thing that’s causing the effects you describe? I don’t know, but we can prove the physics of it and say that this is possible to build.


After our chat, Kyle gets straight to work.

It takes a little while, though. Bit by bit, over the course of several weeks, the device takes shape.

Some components, like the dish, you can buy online. Other parts, that aren’t commercially available, Kyle has to fabricate himself… from scratch, using a 3D printer.

The most important component is the magnetron – the thing that turns electricity into microwave radiation. Kyle had to cannibalize several kitchen microwaves to get these.

And it’s not just building the thing. There are also forms to fill out. We need to make sure, apart from anything else, that what we’re doing… is legal. That takes paperwork. Governments don’t usually encourage civilians to build their own directed-energy devices.

We persevere, though. And at last… we get the green light.

It’s science time, baby.

[long BEAT and musical sting bringing us into the field test]

Nicky: Yeah, what are you doing now, Kyle?
Kyle: Uh, so I’m just, uh, sealing off all the holes with, with foil tape, to make sure that things don’t leak everywhere. Ideally I would do everything with nice, specifically-designed metallic waveguide and everything, but we’re, uh, using an existing waveguide. So having to kind of fudge it a little bit.

It’s finally test day. The sun is shining. And Kyle and I have driven the device out to a field somewhere north of London.

Today, we’re going to put it through its paces.

Nicky: Well, it does say, um, on the microwave. It says, “Warning microwave energy. Do not remove this cover.”
Kyle: Yeah. So the thing that’s driving this is, is like a kilo volt. It’s the, the same voltage of, like, big overhead power lines. So if you get zapped, you know, you could hurt yourself …um, which is why the cover is on the microwave so that you can’t touch it.
Nicky: Me specifically.
Kyle: [Laughs] you specifically…

The device is in the middle of the field, perched on a tripod. It’s a large round dish – about three-and-a-half feet across, slightly larger than a satellite TV dish. A cylinder extends about a foot from the middle of the dish, ending in a flared cone.

Kyle: So, you, imagine it a bit like a flower where the, the dish is the petals and then the bit sticking out is like the stamen, like sticking up in the middle of the flower and that stamen, the bit that’s sticking up is, is a waveguide.

If this is a ray gun – which, for legal reasons, it is absolutely not – the waveguide would be the barrel.

Well… in theory anyway. This is the first time we’ve tried it out.

Kyle: So I’ve had to kind of modify things a little bit to get it to work. The level of RF engineering is not as it would be if you were designing this from scratch if you had lots of time and money.

So we’ve kind of modified existing things. So it might be that it’s not quite designed for the correct frequency, and so there’s a chance that it will, uh, kind of just fry itself to bits.

We’ve got a little table set up directly in front of the device, on which we’ve put a selection of targets that we hope will react to the microwaves.

Nicky: …we have. A jam donut in a porcelain bowl … We’ve got an egg in a cup to to ese if we can cook that and we’ll crack it open at the end of the experiment.

… Um, and then we have some Mr Kipling’s exceedingly good Bramley apple pies. Uh, dunno if the brand will allow us to, we’ll try that with, uh, we’ve got some famous brand apple pies.
Kyle: Other brands are available.
Nicky: Other brands are available.

As you can probably hear, we’re getting pretty excited here.

Kyle: We’ve also got a, a RF meter, so this will read out what strength of waves we’re actually seeing.

The RF – radio frequency – meter is what we’re really looking at. It’ll tell us if we’re successfully pushing microwaves out.

Kyle: Okay. I’m, I’m pretty close. Alright. I think I’m ready to go.
Nicky: Hello and welcome to the great British Nuke-Off.


Kyle: Okay. Right. Start with 10 seconds, say?
Nicky: Yeah.
Kyle: See what happens?

So here we are, in the middle of this muddy field, with this strange looking device aimed at some food on a plastic picnic table. None of us really know what to expect.

What we’re looking for is that RF meter to move. We want to see a meaningful jump. And of course we also want some kind of visible reaction from the things on the table. I’m obsessively watching the egg like it’s about to hatch.

So… first fire.
Kyle: All right. Ready? Yeah.
Moment of truth.
Nicky: Let’s do it.
Kyle: . 3, 2, 1…

Kyle: …go.
[microwave noise]

Time seems to stand still.

Nicky: Can we see there?
Kyle: Do we see anything?

Nothing on the test table visibly boils, which is a slight anticlimax. But the device doesn’t explode, which is good. No injuries are reported so far.

Emboldened, we decide to go for longer. 30 seconds this time.

Kyle: Let me plug it in. Okay, microwave on.
Nicky: Tell me when you’re ready.
Kyle: Okay, I’m ready.
Nicky: 3, 2, 1.

Kyle holds the RF detector, taped to the end of a long stick, out in front of the dish. We’re peering at it, trying to see the numbers on the tiny screen.

As soon as I hit power, the detector goes nuts.

Kyle: Oh, it’s reading there.
Nicky: Yeah?
Kyle: Yeah.

Our baseline reading was naught point naught one five microwatts.

Nicky: Yeah, what numbers are you at?
Kyle: Got a hundred and … 120.

This is a massive, massive jump. We’ve gone from a tenth of a microwatt to more than 100. That’s four orders of magnitude. Or, to put it another way: eight thousand times our baseline reading.

Kyle moves the detector out of the direct line of the dish and the reading drops off sharply.

Nicky: What’s the drop off?

Kyle: Still getting 50…about a metre away?

[beeping sound]

Nicky: That’s 30 seconds.
Kyle: Okay, okay. So it’s still getting like 50 to 70, like out here, about a meter and a half away.

That means that we’re not just spewing microwaves all over the place – we’ve made a beam! … Kind of.

Kyle: It’s a lot more than baseline. Like, it’s definitely doing something.
Nicky: Yeah. We’re projecting microwaves.
Kyle: It’s just not as much power.
Nicky: Yeah.

Maybe it’s not a death ray… but it is a directed beam. That’s important.

Kyle: So, we’re detecting the waves. They’re definitely coming out of the magnetron, reflecting off the dish and going some meters away.

The fact that we can, even in a small way, direct these microwaves in something like a focused line – that’s exactly what we needed to demonstrate.

We’ve done what we came here to do, but the job feels unfinished. We both still want to cook that goddamned egg.

Nicky: We just need, need more power.
Kyle: We need more power.
Nicky: So let’s get more power.

So … we push the dials to the max.

Kyle: Full power. Alright, ready?

Nicky: Yeah. Let’s do it.
Kyle: 3, 2, 1, go.
[microwave noise]

Then suddenly it stops.

Kyle: Whoa. Did you hear that?

We can smell something burning. Kyle inspects the machinery.

Kyle: That’s that. That’s the magnetron.

It’s giving off a lot of heat from the back, so we power down for a bit.

Kyle thinks the magnetron might be sparking – getting microwaves reflected back into itself and overloading.

Kyle: It doesn’t look like anything’s happened.

But something clearly has. We try again, but the burning smell comes back. The detector’s not picking anything up any more.

It’s fried.


So, we didn’t cook our apple pie. At the end, I pick the egg up, and squeeze it hopefully. Crack it open. It is resolutely unboiled.

Nicky: So we’ve shown that it does transmit.
Kyle: Yeah.
Nicky: We just need, need more power.
Kyle: We need more power.
Kyle and I are a bit downcast immediately afterwards. We hoped that this tech would be more demonstrative. That we’d actually see or feel it operate in some flashy way.

But, cold breakfast notwithstanding, our experiment succeeded. We showed that it’s possible to build something that will transmit microwaves at a distance. And we built it in weeks. From off-the-shelf parts. Something that fits in the back of a car.

Cue, Kyle : I’m limited in power, you know, but if you didn’t have those limitations and if you could just build a bigger power supply, you could essentially just send as much power as you wanted.

So this can be done, even with our limited resources.

Now, driving home with Kyle, the implications of this start to dawn on us both. They’re… pretty sobering.

Kyle: If you were a, I dunno, very large corporation or maybe a nation? You could dedicate much more time to this and get better and better, more powerful devices. I don’t see any reason why you can’t do it.

So let’s say we entertain the idea that a nation or company could build something like this. And they could do a lot better than Kyle and I.

Would they, though? What would that even look like?

We’ll go into that after the break.


We’re back.

[Leimbach video intro music plays underneath]

Right here? This is where Pandora’s Box opens.

Cue, Leimbach: … we have to get over what is known as the fear of the new.
And the latest generation of directed energy … It is safe, it is effective, it is silent and invisible.

This is an internal video that the US Defense Department produced in the early twenty teens. It’s all about the future of warfare, and especially unusual new kinds of tech.

Cue, Leimbach: I believe the real future for non-lethal weapons technology with regard to intermediate force capabilities truly is directed energy.

The voice you’re hearing is the video’s presenter, Colonel Wendell Leimbach, explaining how these new technologies fit into today’s US military strategy.

Cue, Leimbach: Another technology that is incredibly useful in the modern realm with regard to directed energy is microwave energy …

[glitch into BEAT]

The DoD call this stuff “intermediate force capabilities.” That’s military-speak for non-lethal weaponry.

Cue, Leimbach: When we do find that we run into adversaries or challenging situations that don’t necessarily call for lethality … that is where intermediate force capabilities can be particularly helpful.

The video is nuts. It’s interspersed with warzone B-roll… and American football highlights. I mean – take a moment for this line.

Cue, Leimbach: Interestingly though, we actually spend the vast majority of our time engaging around the world without actually killing and destroying people.

I mean… what the star-spangled fuck, y’all.

The video is explicit: he’s talking about microwaves. Leimbach calls them the future of warfare. These are devices that can incapacitate an enemy without a bullet. Even without soldiers.

It turns out, microwaves have long been a part of combat and espionage. It’s a thriving part of the military-industrial complex.


So… what sort of devices are we talking about? Well there’s tons of examples – even some which have been deployed actively for years already.

There’s active denial technology.

Cue, announcer: … DoD’s active denial technology … will produce a focused beam of directed energy to provide our troops a non-lethal option to stop, deter and turn back suspicious individuals with minimal risk of injury …

“Active denial” is more DoD jargon. Let’s be clear: it’s a weapon. It fires a beam of directed RF radiation that heats your skin like leftover pizza.

And the only real difference between this and what me and Kyle built is where it sits in the electromagnetic spectrum. [And, uh, power]

Cue, announcer: Active denial technology uses radio frequency millimeter waves at a frequency of 95 gigahertz … traveling at the speed of light.

These are smaller waves than microwaves, coming at higher frequency. Waves that can’t go through solid objects the way microwaves can. Instead, they cause an intense burning sensation on the skin.

Cue, reporter: … very high frequency radio beam that penetrates the skin to a depth of one 64th of an inch, which is just deep enough to hit the nerves, and it creates this instant sensation of heat …And the second you do get out of the way, the pain goes away …

This technology has been around for ages as a crowd control device. There’s even a segment on 60 Minutes from back in 2008 where a reporter agrees to briefly have it turned on them.

Cue, anchor: “You have to feel the ray gun to believe it and there’s only one way to do that… Engage. Engage … To me it felt like scalding water…”

We know the Active Denial System can hit people as far as half a mile away. And that was fifteen years ago. The full range of abilities for newer models is classified.

Then there’s stuff like the THOR drone defense system.

Cue, anchor: Now, thanks to a group of researchers at Kirtland Air Force base … there’s an easy way to kill drones, threatening our military forces…

It looks similar to the Active Denial System… but this one can actually disable a drone in the sky.

Cue, researcher: We create a counter-electronic effect and we target the drones … we implement a hard kill in those drones and drop them outta the sky … Thor was created quickly for a high=powered microwave system … only taking them 18 months…
*fades under*


The reality is there’s tons of shit like this out in the world. I could sit here and list them all day.

To be clear… some of these devices are meant to disrupt tech. Some of them, also, to intercept communications. They’re not all specifically designed to harm people.

But these are just a small fraction of countless microwave projects out there. And there are more in development. In January 2023, the US Army announced a new 66-million dollar contract for a third-generation anti-drone microwave system called Leonidas.

All these companies are bragging about the millions of dollars the Pentagon has given them to develop weaponized microwaves. And the field is moving so fast that half of these projects are out of date by the time they have a prototype.

But how does this all relate to the symptoms reported in Havana? This was one of Kyle’s questions too. Well, let’s take stock.

There’s one person who I thought might be able to talk about this world with authority – and that’s Jim Giordano, the neuroscientist who helped the State Department with its initial investigation. Remember his speciality?

Cue, Giordano: I’d been known in the field for a couple of decades with regard to my work in what is now being referred to as neuroweapons.

He’s also in a position to know lots of stuff that civilians don’t get to hear about.

Cue, Giordano: Presently I’m holding a secret clearance and I’m qualified for top secret and compartmentalized clearance…

Giordano looked into microwaves when he investigated the Havana outbreak.

He knew what microwaves can do, and recognised that the symptoms were consistent.

Cue, Giordano: Microwave energy disrupts the electrochemical activity of the communication capacity of brain cells and thereby disrupts what brain cells do functionally – thought, emotion, behaviors, motor effect, equilibrium, coordination, and so forth.

At first, he says, he semi-dismissed the idea.

Cue, Giordano: … because at that time, 2017, it was not well known whether or not the state of the science … would allow relative scalability of these devices … to such an extent that they could be used in these ways …

But, he says, he came to realise this view was entirely outdated.

Cue, Giordano: … It also came to our attention that a number of research groups worldwide were working in these types of microwave technology, … what then came to our knowledge in 2018, early 2019 was that the available state of that technology was such that this was now an operationalizable entity.

In other words, it was ready for, quote, field use…

We know microwave devices can be built. We know the Frey Effect would be a clue as to their use.

And we know there’s a thriving directed-energy industry selling this stuff. And not just in the United States…

Cue, Giordano: China is very overt and very explicit that they’re utilizing these forms of sonic energy and microwave energy in various types of occupational industrial testing.
… and more recently Russia…

But the microwave devices we’ve seen, the anti-drone and crowd control type devices, are big, brute force tools. More like sledgehammers than scalpels.

Is there a type of microwave weapon out there that can cause the specific symptom profile that the victims in Havana experienced?

That means something capable of not just causing the headaches, nausea, hearing and vision impairments, cognitive problems, even brain damage and all that – but also do it in this precisely targeted way?

So I figure I might as well ask Giordano straight out.

Cue, Nicky: Uh, just to get straight to the point of it, I guess, does the US have devices that can do this?

Cue, Giordano: Yes.

[long, impactful BEAT]

There is, of course, a cap on what we can learn without classified clearance or some deep source willing to spill their guts. We’ve come close a couple of times on that front. But this is a small and secretive world.

We tried to interview the director of the Pentagon’s Directed Energy Program… that’s a thing that exists. But they declined and deferred us to another office.

My producer and I dropped a couple hundred bucks on tickets to a directed energy conference in DC full of national security folk. But the organizers revoked our tickets when they found out we were press.

So we went through patent applications instead. There’s plenty of really freaky stuff in there, but one project, funded by the Marine Corps, stopped me in my tracks.

They wanted a handheld device that could emit pulsed microwaves at a human target. The patent has diagrams of the brain and inner ear. The description reads:

“The present invention … utilizes beamed electromagnetic RF energy…
to interrupt the normal process of human hearing, equilibrium and other senses to produce complete disorientation and confusion.”

The head of the company that filed the patent declined a request for a formal interview. But they did tell us they built a prototype and even started tests on animals. And… they said their funding dried up before they could finish development… because the Marine Corps moved on to a similar project… with a bigger company.


What all of this has convinced me of… is that there are devices out there that can do this. That can do what was reported in Havana and elsewhere.

And more are likely to join the new battlefield. The 2023 National Defense Authorization Act – the largest defense spending bill in history – increased the Pentagon’s budget for this kind of advanced tech… by $85 million dollars.

[stronger beat]

It’s quite startling to think about. That the technology behind what happened in Havana… could potentially be all around us.

But even if it is… Is there really some actor out there, a nation or group, which would be both well-resourced enough to have these devices and crazy enough to point one at American spies and diplomats… and pull the trigger?


Next time on THE SOUND:

Cue, Marc: “I think this is an act of war on our personnel, and we have to figure out who did this…”

Cue Schumaker: …I’ve had some friends who have died from some very strange diseases out of Moscow…

Cue, Marc: And, you know, it’s something that happened there that certainly changed my life…

Cue, Shane: “This, this looks like the Russians, it sounds like the Russians, it seems like something they would do…”

THE SOUND is a production of Project Brazen in partnership with PRX. You can follow the show on Apple, Spotify… wherever you get your podcasts… to stay up to date on new episodes.

Do leave us a rating and review, it really does help people find the show.

Unlock bonus content and immersive, ad-free listening by subscribing to Brazen+ on Apple Podcasts. Subscribing will get you access to premium audio quality and exclusive reporting, including extended interviews from the show.

THE SOUND was produced by Goat Rodeo.

Lead producer is Max Johnston.

The show was reported and written by me – Nicky Woolf – and Max Johnston.

Executive producers for Project Brazen are Bradley Hope, Tom Wright and Nicholas Brennan.

Senior Producers for Goat Rodeo are Ian Enright & Megan Nadolski.

Mixing and engineering by Rebecca Seidel.

Additional production by Jonathan O’Sullivan.

Original score by the fabulous Attacca Quartet.

Additional music from Max Johnston, Ian Enright, Rebecca Seidel and Blue Dot Sessions.

Editorial and Production assistance at Goat Rodeo from Isabelle Kerby-McGowan, Cara Shillenn, Jay Venables and Megan Nadolski.

At Project Brazen, Mariangel Gonzales (Mah-ree-un-hell), Megan Dean, Susie Armitage (Arm-eh-tedge), Francesca Gilardi Quadrio Curzio, Salber Lee, Lucy Woods, Siddhartha Mahanta, and Neha Wadekar.

Our producer in Havana is Boris Crespo.

Ryan Ho is series creative director. Cover art designed by Julien Pradier (Pra-dee-yay).

Series video production by Javier Labrador, Andrija Klaric, Giulia Franchi, Emily Chao and Nicholas Brennan.

Special thanks to Kyle Major… Jake Levy and Imperial College London for their help with our device test.

And thanks to Indiebeer… our local pub… for hosting me and Kyle’s Chat.

And to Jan and Colin Edmonds for letting us irradiate their field.