Archive for March 2008

Expelled! No nuance allowed

March 28, 2008

I was reminded of the title of Ben Stein’s ludicrous new movie on creationism when I came across BBC’s recalling the Three Mile Island which took place on this day in 1979. The reporting makes it clear how reporters sweetly shy away from any subtleties or scientific nuance, which unfortunately turn out to be details that matter. I do understand that almost everyone was more ignorant or fearful of anything in nuclear in 1979 and to be fair the BBC does note later that nobody died from the accident, but what strikes me is how they used the blanket-word “radiation” so many times in the article without in any way qualifying what it means. This is quite similar to the irrational gut reaction many people have when they hear the word. To recapitulate:

1. “Radiation” bathes us from head to toe throughout our life. Background radiation is hundreds of times more than any radiation accrued from living near a nuclear reaction. It’s even more than radiation possibly escaped from a nuclear reaction in an accident if the reactor has a containment structure.

2. There is no proof that low-level “radiation” causes cancer; in fact there is proof that it may be generally good for life. Plus, almost everybody who reports such studies fails to consider the relative risks from “radiation” compared to other causes. As the well-known scientist James Lovelock notes in his The Revenge of Gaia (2006), it is misleading to say that 40,000 extra people will die earlier because of some radiation. The question is, how much earlier? As he says, if people are going to die on an average a week earlier because of some radiation, compare that to hundreds of thousands that would die instantaneously if the giant dam they live next to bursts open? How many people die years earlier because of heart disease? How many lives are prematurely cut short because of road accidents? Yet we pristinely accept these risks in daily life. People have no problem living near dams on the Yangtze when the risk they pose is much higher than that from “radiation”.

3. And of course, the simple scientific error of not noting what the radiation consists of is commonplace. Every college kid knows that radiation can consist of many different particles- alphas, betas, gammas, neutrons- that each have a vastly different effect on living tissue. Plus, the isotope that emits the radiation is crucial; uranium is vastly preferable to strontium. But strontium has a smaller half life….and so on.

In case of TMI, it was immensely bad timing since the accident was preceded by the scare-mongering movie The China Syndrome starring Jane Fonda, a well-known irrational anti-nuclear spokesman. In it, the reactor core is feared to be melting away through the earth to China, a preposterous scenario even by fictional Hollywood standards. (although some of the Amazon reviewers don’t seem to get this) The point is, it is pure fear-mongering to kick around words like “radiation” and “radioactive steam”. Sadly, the scenario has not changed too much, and I doubt if most people will do a much more responsible job of reporting such an accident if it happens today. I feel miffed in thinking that a similar accident today will essentially impact the public’s perception of nuclear energy almost the same as TMI. I do hope I am wrong. But then, the media has a proven track record of not caring about subtlety and nuance when reporting on science (or many other things for that matter). Unfortunately, they are the “respectable” sources who reach the most people and who most people rely on for their daily dose of “reality”.

The Gate

March 25, 2008

There it was, completely nondescript. Nobody could ever tell what the room was used for more than half a century ago. But then I thought that that sounded apt; after all, nobody was supposed to know in the first place what went on in there. To that extent, it perfectly served its intended purpose. An unexceptional but heavy iron gate right next to it probably was the only object that possibly enforced the gravity of the situation.

I looked around and saw the usual tourists ambling along and taking photos of the road on which it was located, of the plaza just a block away with its numerous Indian craftsmen peddling their pretty artistic wares on the road, and of the impressive church that seemed like an anomaly among the low-lying, colorful adobe stores and restaurants. Nobody was taking photos of the door and the small room inside, and there wasn’t any reason why anybody should have. What was so special about it? It blended perfectly into its surroundings. The room hosted a shop that sold pretty dresses, bed-sheets and candles. It was right next to a well-known local restaurant and a winery. The entire set of shops and restaurants resided along a contiguous structure under one roof, with a courtyard inside with clear signs that the buildings had seen many such evenings; a sign located inside the courtyard indicated that the buildings were constructed in the early 1600s, sometime when this small town was one among many provincial seats of the vast Spanish Empire then straddling the globe.

The place was so nondescript that in 1943 and 1944, many young men missed it and walked straight past by. These were young men from diverse backgrounds. Many had been picked right out of universities for their particular talents. They were from every part of the country, from Princeton to Berkeley, from Chicago to New York. They were men and women of different dispositions, religious sentiments or the lack thereof, married or single, with an average age of 25 years. Many of them spoke English with a heavy accent. But all of them had one thing in common; all had been asked to report to 109 East Palace Avenue in downtown Santa Fe, where I was now standing. None of them knew what would happen next. All they had been asked to do was to take a train to Lamy and report to 109 East Palace. There, they would be given further instructions by Dorothy McKibben. She would send them to a place that no one had ever heard of.

Dorothy McKibben herself had never wildly guessed that she would be at 109 East Palace. A remarkably plucky, courageous and determined woman, she had come to Santa Fe in the 1920s stricken with TB. At that time, the clear air and bright sunlight were deemed to be salutary for TB patients, and many affected by the terrible ailment came to the historic town with the expectation that the disease would either break them or make them. It did make Dorothy, who had already lost two sisters to TB. But fate had more in store for the Smith college graduate. She fell in love and married a former World War 1 soldier who got stricken with Hodgkin’s disease, then an incurable condition. He died, and the grief-stricken Dorothy with her baby son decided to come to her beloved Santa Fe again to spend the rest of her days. There, she seamlessly blended into the town life and became close friends with most of the townsfolk. When World War 2 began, she lost her job as an accountant at an Indian trading company due to personnel shortage. She had been offered another job and was seriously considering to take it, when a friend of hers asked her whether she would be interested in working for the government as a secretary. The job would pay a little better, and it would last at least as long as the war.

Dorothy was summoned to the Hotel La Fonda, a couple of blocks from East Palace, to discuss the job with her friend. There in the lobby she was still undecided about it, when a man in a porkpie hat and the bluest eyes she had ever seen ambled over and talked to her about it for a few minutes. She was astonished when she found herself accepting the job after 10 minutes of talking to the man. That was probably not surprising. J. Robert Oppenheimer had that effect on everyone, whether janitor or Nobel laureate; his powers of persuasion were legendary. The job he offered Dorothy was supposed to be top-secret and she could not tell anyone about it. She would be an important person for a very important government project. It would be run out of 109 East Palace. It would be Dorothy’s job to manage personnel.

But over time, her job description expanded. She became much more than a secretary. She would be secretary, personnel manager, mother goose for depressed souls, officiator of marriages and agony aunt for couples in love, friend and confidant of some of the most brilliant minds of the century, and in the end, gentle but firm and efficient supervisor for the front office of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, a place that did not exist on the map. Dorothy McKibben became the gatekeeper of the atomic bomb. For three years, she ran the front end of the most secret scientific project in history from 109 East Palace, from inside that small room in front of which I stood. It was her job to guide the brilliant and clueless young men and women to Los Alamos after they arrived in Santa Fe, often dazed and lost, not knowing where to go. Everyone- and everything including material- without exception who worked on the bomb passed through the doors of 109 East Palace, because it was Dorothy’s job to issue them the secret passes that would open the gates of the secret lab high up in the mountains.

It would also be her job to make sure the project remained secret in Santa Fe. To this end, she would always be careful never to address anyone as “Professor” or “Doctor” or even mention the word “scientist”. With the deluge of European accents from world-famous European √©migr√© scientists that flooded the town, it was hard to do this to say the least. But Dorothy managed it very efficiently. Her calm demeanor and absolute dedication won her the respect and endearment of Oppenheimer and his band of prima donnas, along with a dozen top military officials not known for exuding warmth. 109 East Palace and her home became focal points for social occasions, where famous scientists could let off steam and spill their frustrations about living in an inaccessible, cloistered, alternately freezing and scorching place that nobody knew about. Even if she was not officially told, by the end, Dorothy became aware of what was going on in the mountains through her close association with the thousands that worked there. Her home and 109 became places where scientists and their spouses could find some solace from the tortuous implications of what they were doing. Domestic spats, complaints about living conditions, strained relationships, baby epidemics, shopping troubles and gossip about other scientists’ wives were all directed towards Dorothy’s sympathetic ear.

Now, as I stood in front of the small enclosure, my mind wandered back evocatively more than half a century to what went on there. For the first few weeks in 1943, Oppenheimer worked out of 109 East Palace with Dorothy. As he chain smoked and pondered the stark reality of what he was making, his dazzlingly erudite mind must have straddled enormous moral and philosophical dilemmas. Enrico Fermi would visit the project and make calls to Los Alamos from this small room; later he moved permanently to the secret lab. He would stand there, twirling a pencil in his hands while he offered advice on some obscure calculation, his eyes twinkling, sometimes staring quizzically at Dorothy as if he expected her to pipe in with a clever suggestion. Prankster Richard Feynman would have certainly stepped foot in there more than once. He would have engaged in his usual tomfoolery while all the time shouldering a tragic burden as his wife lay dying in a sanitarium in Albuquerque. The wise and great Niels Bohr who, wresting with this unusual paradox of creating a weapon so powerful that it might abrogate war, visited Dorothy several times and endeared himself to her. The steadfast Hans Bethe, the volatile Edward Teller, the intrepid Otto Frisch who worked out nuclear fission with his aunt Lise Meitner, even the spy Klaus Fuchs, all had to pass through the gates of 109 East Palace on their way to Los Alamos. With these extraordinary souls, Dorothy undertook a journey that nobody would ever forget, a journey that would change history and the future. A journey that fundamentally changed the nature of man’s animosity towards his fellow human beings.

But then I was suddenly jolted back to reality. I had been standing in front of 109 East Palace for almost an hour. It was dark and the day was ticking to an end. I became painfully aware of the cold, biting, clear air of New Mexico. High up in the mountains, the ponderosas must have been casting silhouettes, shadows that Robert Oppenheimer must have retreated to in moments of quiet introspection. Around me, the tourists had started dwindling. The shop owner closed the room and lit up the pretty dresses in the windows with a soft, glowing light. I took some more photos and started walking back to my hotel. Beside 109, 111 beamed with restaurant visitors engaged in casual and lively banter.

At that moment, 109 East Palace looked like 111’s and the other rooms’ poor cousin. But it occupies a unique and special place in history of singular value, one that should be commemorated at that spot but sadly is not. It is a testament to a remarkable woman, a remarkable group of men and women, and a truly remarkable time that changed our world. Legendary names- Oppenheimer, Bohr, Fermi, Bethe, Rabi, Teller, Feynman to name only a few- passed through that door. All of them sincerely believed that their work would save the world, a world gone half mad in the throes of inhumanity. Their fond hope was that the weapon they were creating would be so terrifying that it would, in Bohr’s words, propel humanity into a completely new situation that could not be resolved by war. The implications of their work woefully turned out to be more complicated. But one thing was for sure. Among other things, none of them would ever forget 109 East Palace.

Neither will I.

Space: The Violent Frontier?

March 9, 2008

A couple of days ago, the US sent up a missile to blow up a “rogue” satellite. China had also done the same thing a year or so ago. These actions seem like ominous preludes to a possible arms race in space, the last thing the world wants.

In the latest issue of Pragati, Adityanjee has an article that exhorts India to develop its own ASAT (anti-satellite) system in response to these actions by the US and China. While developing such a system might be good insurance and a future bargaining chip, the first and most important thing we all need to do is keeping pushing for an international treaty to ban weapons in space. Not only will a failure to do this lead to a possible new Cold War, but it can also render space inhospitable for peaceful technologies, an event that will be disastrous for countries that currently use satellites for weather forecasting and precipitation for example.

Mike Moore, who is a previous editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, has written a new book on the history and current status of attempts by the US to weaponise and militarise space. As in many other cases, the US- no friend of treaties for quite some time now- is unique in having vetoed and blocked attempts to forge international treaties to ban weapons in space. This is probably not too surprising considering the attempts by the US since the 19060s (when they were developing a purported system to oust Chinese ballistic missiles) to the 1980s (age of the infamous Star Wars) to the 2000s (the Bush administration’s obsession with National Missile Defense). True to other traditions, the US has constantly underscored its sovereign right to exceptionalism when the rest of the world thinks otherwise. The US satellite blowup comes close on the heels of renewed efforts of China and Russia to push for an international treaty to ban space weapons.

In his book, Moore documents how President Eisenhower made spirited efforts to stop an arms race in space. However, every administration since the Reagan administration has vetoed attempts by other space-faring countries to negotiate such treaties. The Pentagon’s love affair with GPS-guided precision weapons in the 90s fueled ambitions to weaponise space. Again, it’s the US that is leading the world into a dangerous era and is interested in unilaterally pursuing belligerent aims. It seems to be still living in Cold War mode. As Moore says, China and Russia (and presumably India) have many more important problems to tackle and spend money on than building a space weapons capability. However, they can, and will, build this capability if they see the US constantly trying to do so.

The US in fact has a golden opportunity right now to preserve its superiority in weapons technology. The situation reminds me of the early days of the arms race, when an exceptional opportunity to preserve the US superiority over Russia in nuclear arms was lost because of politicking by right wing hawks and threat inflation specialists. After that, Russia soon caught up and it was too late. Similarly, now is the time for the US to talk to other nations and sign a space-weapons ban, thus preserving and possibly sealing its current technological advantage.

One of the central points of missile defense that I have often made in other posts, is that it is almost assuredly going to fail against ballistic missiles, a point which should have been emphasized in the Pragati article. This points needs to be constantly emphasized because like some annoying virus, it keeps infecting and enamoring the minds of US and world officials in every successive administration, in spite of its proven lack of feasibility. Shooting down ballistic missiles realistically has always been a pipe dream harboured by zealous government officials, and the fallibility of this has been demonstrated time and time again by distinguished scientists and other officials. Any attempt to build an anti-ballistic missile system is a huge waste of money, time and talent, and as an added insidious side-effect, it breeds hostility in other nations, something that has already happened because of the US National Missile Defense system. Missile defense should rankle the hearts of democracy and peace-lovers, libertarians and economic conservatives.

Shooting down satellites is another matter, and unfortunately easier than shooting down ballistic missiles. But as Moore points out in his book, one of the many effects of such an exchange will be an amplification of debris in low-earth orbit, debris that will likely make it impossible to use satellites for peaceful purposes, including missions to other planets in the solar system. And of course, it will add perhaps irreversibly to the hubris-laden image that the US has in the world right now.

Every attempt should be made by all space-faring countries to push for an international treaty banning any kind of weapons in space. But sadly, it’s the US again that is posing the biggest impediment to the forging of such a consensus. The next President should make it a priority to sign such a treaty, and Obama has indicated that he might be interested. Any attempt by the US to develop a space weapons capability will lead to a dangerous arms race with Russia, China, India and others, involving huge expenditures and wasted efforts. It will contribute to an already deeply dividing feeling of international resentment and animosity. But perhaps most importantly, it will send out a signal that space, that ultimate refuge that is supposed to be the equal sovereign right of every human being on the planet, can be belligerently conquered and manipulated by a few nations. After that, everything will be up for grabs.