Friday, June 30, 2006


The JASONS: The Secret History of Science's Postwar Elite- Ann Finkbeiner

The title of this post is a decoy. If I were asked to name a top secret group of elite government scientific advisors, I would name it The Masons. Except for its ominous overtones, the irrelevant name would be a perfect cover for such a group's identity. But the scientists who advised the US government beginning in the 1950s were even more smart. They came up with an even sillier name- The JASONS, which stands for July-August-September-October-November.

The name is not completely irrelevant, because these were the months during which these scientists came together at some undisclosed location (often the sunny environs of La Jolla, Calif), brainstormed wild and wooly ideas of every ilk related to defense, and actually got paid for that. In this book, Ann Finkbeiner tells us the entertaining story of that group, how it originated, evolved, its utility, and its trials and tribulations.

The JASONS was a secret group of government science advisors drawn from academia, that was formed in 1958 amid fears that after Sputnik, the Soviets would bury the United States under a rain of thermonuclear weapons. In order to predict such advances and to make sure that the US was the one to come up with the more cutting edge ideas in the future, a group of eminent like minded scientists, including Charles Townes (inventor of the laser) and John Wheeler (coiner of the word 'black hole' and Richard Feynman's supervisor) among others, formed JASON. Its members were drawn from the topmost cadre of academic scientists, mostly physicists at that time, and called away from their routine research for a few weeks every year, to think of every possible contraption and defense system that could make due contributions to cold war antagonism. JASON would have many sponsors, most notably and not surprisingly the department of defense, and later DARPA. Also not surprisingly, most of what they did would always remain classified.
There was an inherent advantage in having a group of external scientists as advisors; they would do what they best like to do, namely debate ideas, shoot them down, and most importantly, present objective judgements without any axe to grind. And they mostly did. In addition, JASON provided a family like atmosphere for scientists from round the country to come together. Their wives, who were mostly housewives, could come together and gossip, their kids could play together, and since almost everyone knew everyone else, there would be an unprecedented atmosphere of bon homie between them, which would reinforce interaction.

Finkbeiner relates the idiosyncratic personalities that made up JASON. They were a diverse lot, mostly from ivy league schools, mostly physicists, with some common characteristics. All of them were brilliant, all of them would fearlessly tackle problems in both pure and applied science and stride across diverse fields, and all of them wanted to apply their knowledge to government problems. Many were proteges of the demigods of physics; Oppenheimer, Teller, and Bethe to name a few. The JASONs' erudition was unquestioned; during its fifty year tenure, fourteen JASONs have won Nobel prizes. If you want a group of genius government scientific advisors, you could not get better people than these. Freeman Dyson (with whom I had the honour to correspond) worked with Oppenheimer, Bethe and Feynman, and is one of the foremost scientist-humanists of the twentieth century. Richard Garwin, protege of Enrico Fermi, worked on the hydrogen bomb and was the leading expert on scientific matters related to defense. You really could not ask for a more brilliant and more responsible group of scientists, and the government got what it asked in every way.

Among the projects that JASON ubiquitously worked on were two grand and all pervading cold war problems; missile defense, and nuclear test ban treaties. Many of the JASONS were architects of the Limited Test Ban treaty of 1963. After the cold war, JASONs worked to implement the CTBT. During the Vietnman War, they protested the vast and convoluted bombing campaign based on detached, objective thinking and evidence. Their major contribution was to persuade Robert McNamara to endorse cessation of the bombing, on the grounds that it would only serve to further unify the enemy.

Finkbeiner also relates the problems that are imminent when objective scientific advice clashes with government interests. She talks about situations when JASONs' advice was sidelined or manipulated. But that's the whole point of having such a group; it's the only one which does not have an axe to grind, that won't put political interests above sound advice. Needless to say, such a relationship can often be uncomfortable, especially for the sponsors. In spite of this, JASON's advice was often heeded and carefully considered, if not actually put into practice.

One of the entertaining sections of the book talks about the kind of projects the JASONs worked on. This part is inherently fragmentary, as most of JASON's studies were classified. Missile defense and nuclear test ban treaties were universal projects. Among the more exotic projects was an effort to try to communicate with submarines using radio waves. Since longer wavelength waves are much less attenuated by water, JASON purported to propose an outlandishly big antenna that would generate these waves with humungous wavelengths. The antenna would literally span continents, would be buried in the ground, and for all its grandiose purpose, would be extraordinarily inefficient in getting messages across. But since this was the cold war, and paranoia was the order of the day, nobody was concerned about how outrageous projects could be, as long as they could trump the Soviets. Luckily, the project was scrapped later; apparently, not enough Soviet submarines were now around to warrant such technology.

Probably the most controversial project JASON worked on was the implementation of electronic sensors to sweep and detect activity in the Ho Chi Minh trail, a convoluted series of passages and jungle routes which were the bloodlines of the North Vietnamese. Their system would have sensors and noisemakers, which would relay activity to a receiver, which could in turn pinpoint the location and nature of trespassers. There were many factors such as tresspasser size and nature (what if it was an elephant?) that the system had to take into account. JASON's design was exceedingly successful and even implemented once. But the sheer tenacity of the North Vietnamese meant that no such system could finally thwart them. Nor could any amount of bombing. JASON and McNamara learnt this early on, Johnson and Nixon much later. That was a good instance of the relative ineffectualness of JASON in changing government policy.
Much later and more relevant to current issues, JASON worked on a more prosaic but revealing application of the electronic barrier; to detect movement of illegal immigrants across the Mexican border. As Dyson says, it was astounding to see how many times the sensors beeped. In this case too the sensors finally failed, but as Finkbeiner says tongue in cheek, only because there were just too many immigrants.

Their work during the Vietnman era also cast public aspersions on JASONs. In an atmosphere that had become vehemently anti war and extremely touchy about anyone helping the government to carry on its deeds, JASONs were perceived as the devils of science, who would use their knowledge to bring about the death of millions. Actually that was not the case, and the JASONs had simply tried to give advice which they thought would end the war quickly. But that did not appease the public, and they were relentlessly hounded and maligned. Many JASONs got out of JASON after the war, saying that it was not worth it. Among these was Steven Weinberg, the physicist who won the Nobel prize for his seminal contributions to particle physics.
JASONS also worked on climate studies, and in the early 1970s, came up with models to show that the earth was indeed warming. But due to the lack of experimental data and accuracy of the models, climatologists did not take them too seriously, and it goes without saying that the government did not at all.

One of JASON's projects turned out to be a major contribution to science; adaptive optics, which was a technology for making mirrors adapt their curvature to correct for atmospheric turbulence and diffusive effects. Originally designed for detecting spy satellites and similar objects, adaptive optics was a major breakthrough for astronomers to detect stellar objects.

Finkbeiner talks about many policy issues and shifts in JASON, about who should join (and who should leave), what kind of projects should be worked on, and what kind of advice based on their studies should JASON give the government. She recounts the rifts caused in JASON by many factors. After the 1980s, biology and not physics became the mainstay of research, and so JASON had to acquire new skills and recruit new scientists. Finkbeiner recounts the amusing efforts of old timer physicists trying to adapt themselves to the biologist's messy world.
Moving to a picturesque beach for summer and fall also became difficult, as unlike before, most JASON wives were now working, and it was not possible for them to move with their husbands for such a long time. Tha family like atmosphere in JASON began to crumble. JASONs themselves became relatively alienated from each other because of the diversity of the projects, and because of the different clearances that some but not other JASONS had, which restricted interpersonal discussions. But most JASONs stayed put as the intellectual experiences were always untrammeled and unforgettable, and the interaction was highly stimulating.

The 1990s again saw paradigm shifts in JASON of the kind noted above, as the cold war came to an end. Finkbeiner narrates JASON's admirable efforts to draft reports for the CTBT. As is well known, the US congress did not ratify it even after Clinton's endorsement.

After September 2001, JASON was asked to increasingly move to studies of terrorism and biological warfare. The question is, who was listening to them?
As early as 1970s, JASON had gotten into trouble because of the government's increasingly stuborn attitude to put political interests above sane action. One of the projects that JASON recommended against was building a supersonic plane, which later manifested into Concorde. JASON clearly recommended that the project not be undertaken because of concerns about noise pollution. The administration did not take kindly to this, and accused a senior JASON, Richard Garwin, of leaking JASON's views to congress.

If the relationship between science and government had always been delicate, with the coming of the Bush administration, it downright soured, although JASON still stayed put. In typical bureaucratic fashion, and in an unprecedented act, the government actually recommended three experts to JASON. This was completely against JASON's methodology, as right from the first, it was designed to act as a self-governing body who would recruit its own members. In fact, that was precisely why it would be a free thinking, frank and honest, objective source of advice for the government, without any government constraints. When JASON claimed that the recomendees' credentials were not good enough, DARPA actually withdrew support for JASON and they had to seek it elsewhere. This act clearly marks the trampling of unbiased advice in favour of favouritism.

As the ages have progressed, JASON has had to adapt and change. But it's very nature is too tantalizing for scientists to never want to be part of it. JASON is every scientist's dream; a place where he (or she- very few women were part of JASON, and those who were did admirable work) could absorb new ideas like a sponge, spar ideas with the very best, shoot ideas down, and give advice purely based on objective evidence. There always have been JASONs who were actually members of the president's scientific committee and other government panels, but many others, like the eminent Freeman Dyson, always prefered to be the actual doers and recomenders so that they could stay out and stay unconstrained.

Finkbeiner has written a breezy, conversational, and entertaining book. I got to know about many scientists who were part of JASON, names which I had vaguely heard before in other contexts. She does not much highlight the inherent dilemmas in the whole game of objective scientists working for the government, but the implications are clear. One of the lacunas in the book is that the scientific discussions are terse and sound incomplete. But given the nature of the work that JASON has done, most of their research has been classsified. Many members declined to be interviewed because they did not want to be identified, and did not want to talk about secret work. Some of them agreed to be interviewed only if they could be identified as Prof. X or Prof. Y. Many stopped speaking midway, if they could not recall if what they were going to say was classified or not. Given this incomplete access to information, Finkbeiner does a pretty good job with the science.

What's the future of JASON, or as JASONs themselves asked, 'Whither JASON?'.

I believe that no other time needs JASONS as now, precisely because the current administration is wary and outright antagonistic of any objective advice, scientific or otherwise. Groups like JASON, essential for a good and functioning democracy by way of its honest opinions, are being actively suppressed by the Bush administration. As Chris Mooney more than illustrated in The Republican War on Science for example, not only is this administration neglecting and rejecting sound scientific advice, but it's actually manipulating that advice, and appointing its own spin doctors to present that advice in a politically convenient form to the media and the people. Whether it is climate change or nuclear tests and new weapons, or contraception and food production, the administration has taken a big step back into the past in every instance. Just like it was in the 50s and 60s, it is appointing scientifically ignorant, personal interest lobbyists as intermediaries between science and the people.

Unbiased scientific advice about important problems can be seen as a bedrock of sound democracy, and the Bush administration has blasted holes in this bedrock one after the other. Now is the time when scientists must seek every channel to make their opinion heard, to boldly talk even in the face of persecution. Now is the time when scientists must inform the public as soon as they can, through unofficial channels if necessary. Now is the time when scientists must protest against the administration's active abuse and misuse of science in every social and political avenue. Now is the time when we need not one, but a hundred JASONs.


This is a really neat piece of research; the kind of work that is simple but ingenious, which gets published in top journals (Science in this case). Researchers in Germany and Switzerland found out that ants have a built in 'pedometer' that helps them to actually count the number of steps taken when they leave home, so that they can make it back safely. This phenomenon was investigated by the disarmingly simple technique of shortening the ants' legs in one case, and lengthening them using stiilts in another.

The objects of the study were Saharan desert ants, which forage for food over long distances in a zigzag manner, but then have the uncanny ability to come straight home once they have found it, taking the direct route rather than the original circuitous one.

"To investigate, scientists from the University of Ulm, Germany, and the University of Zurich, Switzerland, set some ants off on a foraging trip along a tunnel, but once they had reached the food their legs were manipulated to either make them longer by adding stilts, or shorter by partially amputating them.
The ants were then returned to the same spot to begin their homeward-bound journey. However, the researchers discovered the ants with longer legs overshot the nest entrance, while those with the shortened legs undershot it."

Edward Wilson would be pleased. Do read.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006


Derek Lowe at 'In the Pipeline' recounts the typical woes of grad student life. also does it pretty well. Still, there's no substitute for actual experience. I am no ideal PhD. student, in fact far from it, but let me say this to prospective PhD. students; doing a PhD. is no easy ball game. And I am not saying this because it needs exemplary qualities that PhD. students usually have, but precisely because it needs exemplary qualities that they usually don't have and need to somehow procure out of their inner resources and out of thin air.

Most importantly, there are two companions, surely not mutually exclusive, that are going to be your constant fellow travellers for whatever time it takes for you to eke your way through research, committees, and defenses- frustration and repetition.
More than intelligence, what you seem to need for a PhD. is an ability to always be terribly interested in what may seem to be the most simple, inconsequential, tedious, and godforsaken activity. Put simply, this is called perseverance. But in a PhD., nothing is simple.
Even if what you are doing may be the most mundane thing which generations have worked on, you have to cling to it as if it were the most important thing in life. Now sometimes, there actually are things whose trite exterior hides some very interesting inside, but unfortunately and more often than not, you are faced with something that screams of banality and will do so forever. But astonishingly, it's these most boring and banal activites that turn out to be paramount for your end product. What a cruel game nature plays with us.

As Derek glumly puts it, and as I cannot say it any better:

"...The biggest factor was the work. It was a strain. I like variety up here in my head, and this was the first time I'd ever had to do the same thing, think about the same thing, day after day (and night after night). It brought on, eventually, the mental equivalent of a leg cramp - I know for sure that I was in a much crabbier mood during my grad school years than I was afterwards, and I'm sure that it was largely because I was venting off some of the pressure. My project had the usual twists and turns, which during one point just about had me tearing my hair in frustration, but the real problem was that there was no escape from it."

No escape from it. That's the punchline. He also says quite rightly, that in the first place, there is no holiday as such, and even when you are taking time off, you cannot help but keep thinking about that damned simulation which you have been spending the last three months on without any success. You don't even know if it's going to work in the next one month, one year, or ten years, and yet you are sure you don't want do become a cobweb mobbed PhD. veteran by hanging around for ten years. Desperate situation. Catch 22. What do you do??

As if this were not enough, your work environment and daily routine is replete with things that seem to be designed with the express purpose of plunging you into depression. As Derek says, the last thing you want to see at 3 a.m. after running an unsuccessful reaction for the 25th time, is a dimly lit medieval looking room called the 'student lounge'. We have one of those on the first floor. Except that I have never, ever, seen any student in it.

Why don't academic departments make their halls and classes and labs look more interesting? The prestigious Whitehead Institute at MIT was designed to make researchers feel cheerful, and more importantly, make them feel wanted. The Laboratory of Molecular Biology at Cambridge is also known to be constructed with its researchers' psyche in mind. Both places have been beehives of biological innovation, and have churned out Nobel laureates out of woodwork. I seriously feel that university officials sometimes forget that the denizens of their departments are ordinary human beings, and like the children in Darfur and Somalia, they too need love, appreciation, and food.

Make people feel that their efforts in tackling the recalcitrant, boring tedium which makes them cry, is actually appreciated and rewarded. How about a nice departmental cafeteria which serves different cuisines? How about a mini amusement park, where scientists can vent their frustration by climbing jungle jims? How about scooters or skateboards in the hallway, free for anyone to use and get from one place to another, thereby enlightening that everyday little ride to the NMR room/stockroom/seminar room? At the least, how about putting in more windows in labs and making the walls more colourful? Remember how those MRI machines for small children are decorated with stuffed toys and animal and star stickers? I want something like that around my desk.
All these simple changes will inject a sense of simple inspiration and cheer among students, and encourage interaction. Otherwise, the only time I meet people in my department is about four times a year, at those terrible annual departmental events where they serve raw barbeque chicken and carrot pieces with cheese dip.
I hear that Google in California is well known for providing such colourful environs. If the heftily paid Googlers are also pampered, then we lowly PhD. students, whose life is full of itsy bitsy stipends and uncertain research, deserve much more.

The most harrowing aspect of graduate school is the clockwork attrition. It is the sheer tedium of every daily activity, the constant repitition of reactions, simulations, and experiments that guarantee no results. Even the smells in the microwave room down the hallway have become so familiar to me, that fatigue engendred by boredom envelops me when I step into it. I understand that science does involve mostly clerical work fraught with no returns, sometimes for a lifetime, but the difference between simply agreeing to that and experiencing that first hand is like the difference between reading the description of a nuclear test and actually witnessing one live.

As Derek says, the best advice a graduate student can get is "Get out as soon as possible with a degree". But that's like telling someone, "Climb Mt. Everest as fast as you can, to avoid the vicissitudes of the weather".

Since daily scientific research promises no variety of life, the least that can be done, is to introduce variety in other aspects of student existence by doing something like the aforementioned things. Till then, it's the attitude that counts. Yeah, I know that...

I am glad I at least have the Mexican place across the road. No really.

Monday, June 26, 2006


Rationale for smoking cigarettes while working in the lab- hydrogen cyanide can combine with tobacco to produce a foul smelling compound that can be an early warning for cyanide exposure.

Drawbacks- a dozen other things can combine with cigarettes and explode.

But who cares. We always plan for the worst and hope for the best, don't we? Must rush and remind my experimentalist friends of this fact. As for me, I can generate as much CN- as I want and be blissfully safe from it...

Update: My cigarette loving friend from Mexico has just admitted that he does not see much of an advantage in saving himself from cyanide poisoning, at the risk of dying from lung cancer or third degree burns. He would rather not smoke cigarettes near his apparatus. People are getting wiser. I am happy.

This has got to be the ultimate fetish combination of (hold your breath) for Hitler and love for Cats.

The blog exclusively devoted to a discussion and showcasing of cats that look like Hitler

Thursday, June 22, 2006


J. Robert Oppenheimer- A Life
By Abraham Pais and Robert P. Crease

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(Image from J. Robert Oppenheimer- by Hans Bethe)

The eternal question first: is there a need for another Oppenheimer biography? So much about him has been written in the primary and secondary sources, especially in the last few years following his one hundredth birth anniversay, that it seems that nothing could be added to this considerable mountain of literature. But this one is different, because it's written by a man who wrote what many consider to be the definitive biography of Albert Einstein. He knew Einstein well. He was a man who was himself a first rate physicist, who knew and worked with the greatest theoretical physicsts of the century- Dirac, Oppenheimer, Bohr and Feynman to name a few. Most importantly, he was Oppenheimer's neighbour and close colleague for more than twenty years in Princeton. If Abraham Pais chooses to write a book on Robert Oppenheimer, it deserves to be given a serious look.

That said, it's clear that this is not a biography of Oppenheimer as such. David Cassidy and Sherwin & Bird have done the job fairly well. But the phrase "fairly well" itself indicates that even they have not managed to construct the perfect evocation of this enigma. Oppenheimer had probably the most complex personality of any scientist of the twentieth century. It is not just his greatness as a scientist and citizen but his ability to project an image larger than life to the audience, and his ability to inject just enough ambiguity in his behaviour and words to keep people mesmerized and guessing, that still makes him a fascinating personality for a biography.

That is why the Oppenheimer conundrum never dies. What kind of man was he? What exactly was the 'true' Oppenheimer? Can we ever know him? He remains engrossing because the question "What kind of a man was Robert Oppenheimer" always remains very hard to answer. It remains difficult to pass any final judgement on him but because of his stature and personality, one cannot stop wondering (At least I cannot). That's why books continue to be written about him, in an attempt to remove this doubt from the mind of his admirers as well as his critics. Unfortunately, for all his fame and eminence, the father of the atomic bomb was a surprisingly private person all his life. Even a Pais or a Freeman Dyson would be unable to proceed after an extent to unravel his persona. On the other hand, everyone who knew him had their own unique perception of him, and it's instructive for us to try to gain insight into this unique perception, this time through the eyes of Abraham Pais. The book is also a fitting monument to Pais himself, because he unfortunately died midway through the writing.

In the introduction, Pais gives a very fitting analogy to Oppenheimer- people's perception of New York City. He says that there are people who fall in love with the city without really understanding it, and then there are people who hate it, but they too don't understand it. Common to both people is an extreme perception without real understanding. Their gut instinct is justified to some extent, but the object of their adulation or loathing remains ambiguously understood. Such was Oppenheimer. There was the majority, who were dazzled by his mind and erudition. And then there were those who were put off by what they saw as theatrical exaggeration and high-handedness, and who perceived him as an aloof aesthete.

All through his life, people around him perceived Oppie with such an ambivalence. Most people he interacted with in his life, especially his students, were stricken by his dazzling catholicity, his astoundingly versatile and deep interests, and his stunningly fast mind. His students even emulated him. It was especially this last quality that made him such an extraordinary presence. Whether it was science, poetry, politics, or philosophy, he was widely acknowledged to have the uncanny ability to listen to complex problems from various fields, and then criticise and summarize them in a few minutes better than anyone around him could. This is precisely what made him a great leader of the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos. I am always fascinated to read descriptions of him by Nobel Laureates, some of the greatest physicists of the century, that coming from less experienced men would have sounded like hero worship. Even the unflapabble Nobelist Hans Bethe who was not given to exaggeration, said that Oppenheimer was "intellectually superior" to everyone around him. The group of men and women that he collected around him at Los Alamos consisted of the premier scientists of the century; including Bethe, Fermi, Bohr, Feynman, Teller, and a dozen other future Nobel Prize winners. Yet, even among this group of the brightest of the bright stars, Oppenheimer was considered a genius and an extraordinary man. Nobody around him could bring such a versatile, quick, and insightful mind to bear on the thorniest of problems.

This quality of jumping to the right conclusion earlier than anyone else also made him a prophet who saw into the future more presciently than all others. At Los Alamos, while everyone was busy building the bomb, it was Oppenheimer and Niels Bohr who first saw how nuclear weapons could make future wars impossible, but who also saw that ignorance of this fact and lack of safeguards of international controls on atomic energy could pave the way toward catastrophe. Today, when we live with so many problems of atomic energy and nuclear terrorism and proliferation, it is remarkable to see how they were predicted by Oppenheimer, and it is heartbreaking to see how we did not resolve them at an early stage when we could have, until it was too late.

However, this very quality of seeing into the future more insightfully than anyone else and suggesting prudent action also made him powerful enemies in the government who put political benefits above everything else, even national interest. They saw in Oppenheimer a velvet tongued icon who had dangerously influential powers of persuasion. They did not like his arrogance, the studied ambiguity of his words which they thought was high-handed, and his drive to bring transparence into matters of national security. With his quickness of mind, Oppenheimer could lose patience with lesser mortals, and then sting them with biting sarcasm or wit. Needless to say, government officials don't take to such an attitude very kindly, especially when it comes from scientists.

Pais says that the problem with Oppenheimer is unique, and does not have to do with his stature as a physicist. He says that it is easy to write biographies of Einstein and Bohr, arguably the two most eminent physicists of the century, because inspite of their qualities, they were at their core, simple and good men who were liked by almost all. One cannot say anything like that about Oppenheimer. He was a man who had outstanding scientific gifts and achieved great things, yet never lived up to the expectations demanded by the magnitude of those gifts. He was a man who played a pivotal role in many key events, yet all his life, he was steeped in self doubt and unhappiness. And of course, he was a man who was both hated and loved, and misunderstood.
When he was a precocious youngster, he said that he wanted to be "a man who was good at many things, and yet saw the world through a tear-stained countenance". As he must have been aware, he more than achieved this goal.

Pais's book then, is not a full length biography of the father of the atomic bomb (and it should not be judged as being one), but his own perception of the man, based primarily on his own experience with him at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton where Oppenheimer was director for almost twenty years, but also on anecdotes that common colleagues and friends recounted. The book is also peppered with anecdotes and vignettes of other physicists who Pais knew, many of them famous ones in their own right. This makes the book interesting for any historian of physics.
Pais makes it clear that he never hero worshipped Oppenheimer; rather, he saw him as a flawed great man, a tragic hero.

Most of the early chapters of the book are short pieces about Oppenheimer's childhood, his precocity, and his experiences in Europe, where he learnt the revolutionary quantum mechanics from its masters. Pais talks at length about Oppenheimer's role as a teacher and researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, his interests in left wing and liberal politics during depression times, and his personality in those days. As has been frequently recounted by his students, the California days were exceptional experiences for all of them, when their lives were enmeshed with the master's habits and interests, which ranged from French poetry to reading the Gita in the original.

A note about Oppenheimer's research during that period which serves to illustrate his personality: It is widely acknowledged that Oppenheimer was immensely talented and that he did important research. His papers predicting what were later called black holes were considered classics, and some think he would have received a Nobel prize had he lived to see his predictions validated. But many also think that Oppenheimer did not quite live upto the expectation that his gifts demanded, and since then, historians and physicists alike have debated why this was so. Oppenheimer's friend, Nobel Laureate Isidor Rabi who knew him better than anyone else, probably provides the best explanation, namely that Oppenheimer was simply interested in too many things to focus on a single topic. More importantly, Rabi thought that although Oppenheimer was exceptionally confident, he still lacked the audacious nerve to consistently explore the unknown to its utmost extent, a common trait in the most famous scientists. Perhaps this was a result of his mystical and philosophical outlook towards life, indeed a quality which irritated some of his colleagues. As Rabi says, he understood the existing body of physics better than probably anyone else, but at the very frontiers, he hesitated to step into new territory. Interestingly, Rabi thinks that Oppenheimer should have consulted the Talmud rather than the Gita, to gain a more practical perspective on life.
This hesitant attitude also could illustrate his life long quality of self-doubt, which kept him from always going boldly forward. For example, he did not consider his work on black holes to be a major contribution at all. All this could again be attributed to his astoundingly quick mind; the problem was that when presented with a problem or situation, Oppenheimer could instantly grasp not just the strong but also the weak points of that problem, and such an ambivalent view could keep him from striding on with complete nonchalance towards the goal. When you are doing research, it is best not to be informed of the drawbacks of your approach or of the field right at the beginning, because then you might lose faith and not give the endeavor your best. Because of his insight, Oppenheimer often understood the drawbacks of a field to his own detriment. His cynicism about quantum electrodynamics is a good example.

In Pais's opinion, Oppenheimer's most important professional contribution was the creation of his school of modern theoretical physics, which was the first and the best such school in the United States. He brought the European style and standards of research to America, and set the standard for many other such schools after his own. Because of his style, interests, and charismatic personality, he influenced many generations of students who carried his style with them to their universities in turn. Almost every top theoretical physicist who was educated in the US in the 1930s either did his PhD. or postdoc with Oppenheimer. Pais thinks highly of Oppenheimer's work during this time.

Pais does not talk much about the most important part of Oppenheimer's life- his time as director of the atomic bomb project. This is understandable; firstly, this story has been told in many places quite eloquently (the all-time top of the list being Rhodes's The Making of the Atomic Bomb). Secondly, Pais focuses on his personal interactions with Oppenheimer which might provide insight; he was not in the United States and at Los Alamos during the war, and in fact did not know Oppenheimer then (In fact, he barely escaped going to the Nazi extermination camps- check link).

After the war, Oppenheimer emerged as the top government scientist and advisor in the United States and became a household name, probably the most famous scientist in the world after Einstein. After Nazism, Communism was the next major threat to the US. But Oppenheimer realised that this was not the time to adopt an overly hawkish attitude. The major point was that the US should preserve its monopoly on atomic weapons by insisting on test bans and implementing an international system of control. He tried hard through the Atomic Energy Commission to instill this spirit in the government. Belligerent anti-Soviet army and government officials found such a reconciliatory stance unacceptable. The air force wanted nuclear weapons in its own custody, and was preparing for nuclear war. Paranoia began sweeping the nation, and Senator Joseph McCarthy found this paranoia a fertile atmosphere to engender hatred and deep fear of Americans with Communist leanings. When the Soviets detonated their first atomic bomb in August 1949, influential scientists in the government began to push Truman for authorizing a crash program for a hydrogen bomb, even though it was based on an idealistic model. Oppenheimer's committee opposed the program on the basis of technical and moral grounds, but mainly technical ones. At that time, the US had a 200:1 advantage in nuclear weapons. Initiating hyrogen bomb development would only accelerate a dangerous arms race. As Oppenheimer presciently saw, the US could not hope to obtain any advantage after both it and the Soviets had built a certain number of nuclear weapons. As he put it in his typically succint manner, "Our twenty thousandth bomb would not, in any deep strategic sense, offset their two thousandth one". Put even more simply, both twenty thousand as well as two thousand bombs are enough for deterrence as well as destruction, and so the US would not have an advantage at that point. But while the US had two hundred and the Soviets had just one weapon, the US had a distinct advantage which it could retain only if it stopped further weapons development, including the hydrogen bomb and nuclear testing, so that it could force the other side to do the same.

Unfortunately, hawks in the government saw it differently. For them, the only answer to nuclear testing was more nuclear testing, no matter that it did not give your side much benefit at this early stage, while providing handsome returns for the other side. More importantly, these hawks saw Oppenheimer as a dangerous man whose undue influence was endangering national security (quite ironical, considering that it was their fiercely bellicose attitude that was doing this). The new Republican government was also prone to be less tolerant of liberals. The Communist scare provided a very conducive atmosphere to these men, including physicist Edward Teller, to contemplate ousting Oppenheimer from his position of power. Foremost among these was Lewis Strauss, an influential banker and member of the Atomic Energy Commission, who had Eisenhower's ears.

Unfortunately, Oppenheimer's past came to haunt him. In 1943, while he was being questioned for the atomic bomb project, he had equivocated about a friend's Communist associations. The FBI and Strauss pounced upon this information and used it to smear his character, in spite of the fact that the FBI had had this information in its possesion for ten years and still had not thought it to be inflammatory enough for denying the physicist his security clearance. This information, coupled with Oppenheimer's past leftist leanings (although he was never a member of the Communist party himself) gave them an opportunity to declare Oppenheimer a security risk and demand either his resignation, or a trial in which his loyalty would be questioned.

Sadly, Pais passed away before the section covering Oppenheimer's trial, and the rest of the book is written, equally eloquently (more eloquently actually), by Robert Crease, who has penned the excellent The Second Creation.

Oppenheimer's trial is a classic and enduring example of how the government suppreses dissent and freedom of expression under the pretext of protecting national security. In case of Oppenheimer, the trial was pitted against him in almost every aspect. Almost all the proceedings were unfair and biased. Most importantly, information from wiretaps in Oppenheimer's house and phone was available to the prosecution, which he and his attorney never saw before or then. Whenever a delicate matter came up, it was declared to be classified and his attorney was asked to leave the room. In the absence of vital information to which he had no access, the usually eloquent and sharp tongued Oppenheimer became tongue tied and hesitant in the face of relentless cross questioning which repeatedly led him to contradict himself. It is a harrowing reminder of those times that under any other circumstances, such a skewed trial based on information obtained illegally would not have been allowed. In any case, the evil machinations of Strauss and his associates worked; although no information was found that would actually declare Oppenheimer as disloyal, he was branded as a security risk, and his clearance was suspended indefinitely. Strauss also did not want Oppenheimer to become a martyr, and the trial was rigged up to expose him as a flawed and morally inconsistent character. I am quite sure that now, after all the information has been declassified, we view Oppenheimer as being more of a martyr than Lewis Strauss would ever have liked.

The interesting point is that Crease and some other historians (notably Priscilla McMillan) have brought up Oppenheimer's case as an analogy of what is in danger of happening today in the United States. Just like then, freedom is being suppresed in the name of national security and 'patriotism'. This can include almost anything said which does not conform to 'official policy'.
In Oppenheimer's case, his past soul searching and interest in communism was abused and used against him in a pernicious manner. It did not matter that in the 1930s, communism was scarcely viewed as an evil philosophy. The depression at least temporarily had trampled many people's faith in the current system, and many many intellectuals in that period got interested in left wandering and communist philosophy. In spite of this, Oppenheimer was never a card carrying communist, and in fact quickly became disillusioned with communism in the late 30s, when he heard about Stalin's purges and his brutal suppresion of dissent. During the war, he was the director of the government laboratory that produced the weapon that ended the war, and after the war, he was as much against communism as any other patriotic American. The fact that his past associations could be used against him in spite of all these facts illustrates to just what extent the government can create an atmosphere of fear and distrust, and then use it in the most outrageous and justified manner to indict someone of just about any crime.
Just like then, covertly obtained information can be used today to implicate someone and bias his trial. We don't know if and to what extent this is actually happening, but all the elements are there, including the hyped up atmopshere of terrorism, and the Oppenheimer case provides a vivid reminder of what the results can be. I concur. We must always remember what Edmund Murrow quite simply said- "Dissent should not be equated with disloyalty"

Pais has an interesting piece on Oppenheimer's language. Many of his associates have acknowledged that Oppenheimer had the best command over language of anyone they had ever come across. He was a man of many tongues, and had a natural flair for diction and foreign languages. His knowledge about the humanities and arts was astoundingly wide as well as deep, and he could augment his arguments with reference to the great works of poetry, literature, history and philosophy. His speech was flawless and effortless. His students say that he was the only man they had met, who actually spoke in complete sentences. Everyone who heard him was mesmerised by his words.
Yet, Pais says that Oppenheimer's speeches, though eloquent, never made the subject matter completely clear. Many times, this was deliberate, and he would utter one of his Delphic utterances borrowed from some historical or obscure source that would keep the listener guessing. But Pais also thinks that Oppenheimer translated the ambiguity in his thought to the ambiguity in his speech.
I have read Oppenheimer's talks transcribed into books, and I agree with Pais. While the overall experience leaves you quite fascinated, while the sentence constructions are simple and yet unlike anything you have ever seen, in the end, you are not quite satisfied or have not quite understood what he exactly wants to say. However, Pais thinks that this is precisely the reason why Oppenheimer's ambiguity makes his words insightful- because each reader or listener can interpret them the way he wants. On technical matters though, there is no doubt that Oppenheimer would beautifully sum up something in a few words, what others would take a few paragraphs for. The sheer economy and effectiveness of his words is brilliant. He even invented his own phrases- "inspiriting" is an Oppenheimerism that infected Pais in his writing.

After his trial, Oppenheimer retreated to a simpler way of life. Narrations of his tenure as director of the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study are the high points of Pais's book, because Pais got to observe Oppenheimer almost on a daily basis. Pais quite vividly describes Oppenheimer's personality in dealing with the institute. As had always been his nature, he could be unduly considerate and cuttingly indifferent or abrasive in turns. But he always communicated to those around him, an extraordinary sense of the age of science and world affairs that they were living in. At Princeton, he ran an institute that featured the greatest mathematicians and physicists of the century, including John von Neumann, Kurt Godel, Freeman Dyson, Oscar Morgenstern, and Einstein himself. He turned the institute into a mecca of theoretical physics, and instituted fellowships for bright young people from all over the world. He tried to bring natural and social scientists together. He gave discourses on physics, and on the relation of science to society. He was highly revered as the quintessential scientist-citizen and philosopher. To the end of his life, he continued to explore the dilemma of man and the forces which he can harness, and their potential for good and bad.

Pais has written a compassionate book that gives many insights into this complex man's character that have not been revealed in other places. Still, one can never get the wholesome feeling that he has understood Oppenheimer. He was a man who was tormented by his actions, yet orchestrated world shattering events. He was a man on whom ambivalence was writ large: he had great scientific gifts and yet did not fulfil their complete potential (in fact, Pais thinks that this was really his greatest tragedy which he felt deeply), he had high integrity and compassion, yet equivocated about moral decisions, he was exceedingly influential in government circles, yet could not have the shrewd acumen that impresses power brokers (and it was better that he did not in fact have it). He was a man who saw into the future better than anyone else, and predicted the permanent problems that the discovery of atomic energy and its military applications would breed, including many current dilemmas. And he saw the solutions to those problems crumbling before his eyes because of government misunderstandings and interests. Those who knew him, whether they admired him or despised him, all agreed that he was an exceptional man.
That he was one of the most brilliant men of the century is irrefutable, possesing a wide ranging brilliance seldom seen in history. As one of his students best put it, "This man was unbelievable. He always gave you the answer before you had time to formulate the question".
Pais paints a balanced portrait of this complex man who lived in complex times.

I can honestly say that I have read every biography of Oppenheimer published so far, as well as most of the secondary reference material on him. I doubt that any unusually interesting book on him can be published after this, partly because almost all that can be dug up about him has been dug up, and partly because almost all of his associates and students are now dead.

But Robert Oppenheimer will always remain an enigma. I believe that it's because the public (including me) is always fascinated by flawed heroes rather than perfect ones. It's the apparent oxymoron of the phrase that begs explanation and perpetually draws us to such characters. We are always more fascinated by people who climbed the summit of power and toppled from it, either due to their own or others' orchestrations, than people who have stayed at the summit of power. For us, it's always the men who were contradictions, who had opposing qualities, who engaged in complementary actions in their life, who hold sway. In Oppenheimer's case, the legend lives on and the questions endure particularly because he was so brilliant and could have consistently achieved greatness, yet fell short of it in some respects.
Because of the times he lived in, his unique personality and gifts and his actions, he will always stand as being emblematic of the dilemma of the use of science, and indeed of the existence with technology that we share. He was the figurehead of the political and social side of science...and its first casualty. His life illustrates a number of trends, and he was the prime participant in many of them; the development of 'big science' in the United States including the founding of modern theoretical physics, the harnessing of science for human conflict, the role of science in politics and society, the conflict of science and morality, the role of government in scientific matters and vice versa, and the problems created by the application of science to practical affairs. Oppenheimer is really an enigma because he represents all of these issues, and these issues themselves are enigmas, that will remain enigmatic until we continue to think and act in this world. As Pais said, taken together with the times he lived in, J. Robert Oppenheimer was without a doubt one of the most remarkable human beings of the twentieth century, and we are all living in his legacy.


In their basically juvenile "Which city is the rudest?" survey, Readers Digest resorted to the outlandish scheme of looking at skewed and highly context dependent mores of behaviour. Is it surprising that Asian cities turned out to be the "rudest"??
What I find equally dubious is that New York city turned out to be the "most courteous".

As anyone can easily guage and as people have vociferously argued, politeness is highly context dependent, and the magazine followed codes of conduct which are largely restricted to, or at least proliferated by, Western civilization. As Amit has noted, if Sakal or an Asian service, magazine, or paper had done the survey and put in questions of their liking, almost every city in the US may have topped the list of cities that gall.
What about tribes in Africa which show their politeness by rubbing noses or smearing your face with gum? The more the gum on your face, the more you are honoured and liked. What would RD think about that?

I feel sad. I thrived on Readers Digest as a kid. We regularly subscribed to RD since the early 70s. We had a stock of literally hundreds of issues dating back to the fifties that occupied two bookshelves. I absorbed almost every one of those issues like a sponge. We bought books from them at the then prohibitive prices of almost a thousand rupees each. RD forms an endearing part of my childhood, especially the Book Sections.

But a couple of years ago, we canceled our subscription. The quality is just not what it used to be. RD used to pride itself on featuring articles that would appeal to every ilk of human society, from the rocket scientist to the housewife to the plumber. Now, the articles' quality is so poor and the content frequently so tepid (like this survey), that it appeals to nobody. I agree that an information explosion of the kind that RD's founders would not have imagined in their wildest dreams has taken place with the advent of the internet. But my point is that even then, if RD had just consistently kept up its past quality, it would still have endured. Sadly, it hasn't.

Sunday, June 18, 2006


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Reference: Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, 2006, Vol. 49, No. 14

Note how Georgia and Washington are the only states to get catapulted from <10% to 20-24%. Another incentive for me to finish my PhD. and escape from the state with an abundance of the dark side of the meat as fast as I can.

The other day, someone asked me to truthfully say how frequently I eat fast food of the insidious type (namely burgers, fries, and their lofty fatkin).
The answer is, once every three or four months, and that too only to break the monotonous drudgery of Maggi Noodles and Curds-Rice with Bedekar Mango Pickle (those who are raising eyebrows...we can negotiate a non-disclosure deal later, but I am speaking the truth about the frequency). And from what I am reading in the engaging The Omnivore's Dilemma, I think that it's going to be a long long time, if at all, before I touch those Chicken Nuggets again.


This Ig Nobel Prize gem missed my attention before...

Polar Biology presents...*drum rolls*....the secrets of Penguinnnn Pooooooh!

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God forbid them from becoming interested in elephants.
[Hat Tip: Everyday Scientist]

Saturday, June 17, 2006


We are finally filing a patent for a compound on which we have been working since May 2005 or so...or rather, on which our collaborators at Imperial College in London have been working on. That is one of the downsides of computational chemistry (or upside actually). You design compounds on your computer that will target some protein implicated in a disease. That process takes perhaps a couple of weeks at the beginning. After which you fling your designer drug in the experimentalists' face. It's them who then have to keep the midnight oil burning for months; first to come up with a decent strategy to synthesize your molecule, and then give it to the biologists, who in turn take a few more months to test it in cell assays. By the time the compound shows activity, the next ice-age very well might have come and gone. Then you work on some more modifications during the interglacial, after which the experimentalists lock themselves up for one more extended round of geological time. Clinical trials and other events are way off into the next evolution of the Universe after the big crunch.
This is not intended as a put down to the experimentalists, but actually an appreciation of the lengths they have to go to in order to get some results. Also, the computational side of things is not always so easy or so quick, but on a relative basis, it can usually be less lengthier than the experimental side, and also less labour-intensive.

But that's why I decided to do computational chemistry; so that I would have to worry only about the thinking and leave the actual doing to everybody else who works at the bench. It would have been the perfect realisation of my indolence. Alas! I found out that even in computational chemistry, I am not spared the tribulations of learning programs, evaluating data, and actually typing on the keyboard, not to mention walking light years across campus to talk shop with the biologists. So much for the ennui for couch rumination.

I am tempted to say that we are filing a patent for a drug but how premature that statement would be is well summed up in this post by a Pfizer chemist:

"Another surprise is when people find out that I've been doing this since 1989 without getting any drug on the market. I think that some folks are just being polite when I tell that that this isn't unusual, thinking to themselves that I must be some kind of hack. But the general public has, as far as I've been able to see, a very exaggerated idea of how quick and easy it is to find a drug. When I say that if I found a wonderful new compound tomorrow that it might be on the market in about 2015, they think I'm delusional. I wish I were."

Another quote I found also applies to us lowly lab dwellers which the general populace could keep in mind:

"When I meet people with no particular scientific background and they find out what I do for a living, it seems that there are several things that they're usually surprised about. For one thing, many people seem to think that doctors discover new drugs. Some of them don't even think about the drug companies or their role - and if they do, they imagine a lot of doctors working there. Actually, as my readers in the industry can confirm, the only time that physicians really get involved is when the drug is headed into the clinic and dosing in humans. There's not an M.D. in sight while we're validating drug targets, screening compounds, and working to fix their selectivity and activity. (And there's that noisy subset that think that all drugs are discovered in NIH-funded academic labs, but we'll leave that one alone for now)."

In any case, the one thing that keeps cropping up an annoying number of times in such endeavors is luck. We were lucky that 4 out of 10 of our molecules showed activity; it could easily have been none. The whole process was exacerbated by the unfortunate death of one of our collaborators. It is revealing to what pernicious extent you must go to to get your hands on a new molecule that may or may not, probably may not, become a new drug.

The new compound is intended for women whose breast cancer is resistant to the standard treatment of Tamoxifen®, and it turns out there is a considerable number of these.
I hope this one does not end up as the ghost of a molecule past.

Obviously I cannot draw the structure of the molecule here, because then I would have to kill this blog to protect the secret.

Friday, June 16, 2006


A few months ago, on its 125th anniversary, Science came up with a list of 25 important questions that it thinks will be key to mankind's survival, knowledge, and experience. Forgot to put up the list then. Here it is. For anyone who sends in a solution, there is an early bird prize of one steady-state Universe

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Some of these questions are what we might consider 'practical', for example those of organ differentiation and regeneration, or about the limits of computing. Others have profound social and philosophical significance, such as that of extraterrestrial intelligence (The practical benefits of such a discovery are dubious; what if the aliens turn out to be like those in Independence Day?).
Some should help to signal the end of religious dogma; but that is a meaningless point, because they have already found satisfactory if not complete answers that should do this job, and yet it has not happened. There is no reason why religious leaders would like to give up their jobs and influence simply because they have been proved wrong.
Some others may simply be unanswerable- can we unify the laws of physics? Can we prove that such questions are unanswerable??

Then there are those questions, such as 'What can replace cheap oil- and when?' which may or may not get answered, depending on the whims of human beings. In fact, what the answer is to that question is a pointless matter. The question should really be rephrased as 'Is the replacement of cheap oil in the interests of corporations and politicians?'. That is a much more profound question to answer.

In any case, all of them without exception promise untold truckloads of week-long (and weekend) fun for scientists, students and postdocs, and they promise to keep the minds of government, citizens and military officials up and running, something that is on the decline these days. We can also hope that we don't choose the easy way of answering these questions; by blowing ourselves up in a nuclear holocaust/dying in the throes of global warming/getting knocked out by a mutated, manmade superbug.
So I would like to add one question: 'Can we rise above ourselves?'

Let's roll!

Note: The complete list contains 125 questions of general importance. Out of those, these 25 have been picked out as the most important ones, and have been expounded upon in greater detail.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


I know that scientists, and especially chemists, are not exactly perceived as handsome hunks who ooze sex appeal, to say the least. We do have a public image problem, and it is about as hard for us to shake off the nerd epithet as it is for politicians to shake off their image of being dishonest. We do think that a little bit of ostentatious publicity and a few photo-ops won't do us any harm.

But this is probably carrying it a bit too far. The dame at Sexy Science seems to be obsessed with ranking well-known upcoming chemists on a hotness scale, with Habanero, Aji Long, and Pequin peppers indicating the degree of hotness, along with a few photos thrown in that would seem more at home in Calvin Klein and Axe deodorant catalogues. It turns out that some chemists do actually work out.

Well, a little showbiz never hurt anyone, least of all Fluorous Phase Technology Chemists. I am all for this. It's high time we revealed our true selves to the world.
Way to go girl!

Monday, June 12, 2006


It's diffficult to say whether the cat is more foolhardy/insanely brave or the bear is more cowardly/insanely delusional
Two thumbs up for Jack the Cat in any case. Commendable.
I want him.


Bedrich Smetana's Die Moldau has been one of the most evocative pieces of music I have listened to. The piece exudes very clear imagery; a river, soothing at times, playful and dancing at others. To me, the piece also seems special, because I can perceive a genuine love and affection for the river that is structured in the notes.
Especially the opening pipes, and the middle change of note, is vivid and effective. The somewhat melancholy main theme played by oboes and first violins is exceptional, and has a sweeping continuity which I just love. The whole drama builds up to a grand fortissimo near the end.

However, I was not aware that you could actually construe a whole series of events taking place alongside the river, from the time it begins as two small streams, upto its meandering bend when it enters Prague.
This site gives a very succcint and engaging description of the events which the transitions in the piece signify; these include a group of hunters hunting, a peasant wedding celebration, and then the vast vista of Prague. As the site mentions, Smetana was a nationalist and drew inspiration from folk music and style, so it should not be suprising that the notes signify such folk celebrations and events.
Take a look.

Saturday, June 10, 2006


The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate Renewed
A debate between Kenneth Waltz (left) and Scott Sagan

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Sometimes it’s not a question of whether the glass is half-full or half-empty, of whether you are an optimist or pessimist. What matters are the consequences of that perception.

Kenneth Waltz (Columbia) and Scott Sagan (Stanford) stand on opposite sides of the fence, perceive the glass differently, and also the consequences of its state of existence. On the subject of nuclear proliferation, they are polarized on opposite sides. Both want the same general consequence, a world in which we don’t have to live in a perpetual state of fear. But both also have distinct and separate visions of the consequences that would arise, if the powers that are and the powers that will be, allow things to continue one way or the other. They have voiced their concerns in other places, in speeches and books and articles, but this book provides a common debate platform for them to discuss our nuclear predicament in a way that is accessible to the layman, and in a form from which the intelligent layman can draw his own conclusions.

Waltz’s outlook is ‘more may be better’. He wants to actually encourage nuclear proliferation, so that states maintain peace by deterrence, an age-old Cold War strategy of course. He thinks that once everyone has these weapons, there will be no imbalance of threat and annihilation. Everyone will have equal opportunity for destruction of their enemy’s nation, and equal fear of retribution. Stalemate or not, this course of events will lead to sustained peace.

Sagan on the other hands appeals to another age-old tendency, that of humans to err repeatedly. He thinks that with the inherent uncertainties and follies of human beings and the complex organizations and governments they run, no country will be safe from accident, error and misunderstanding, and greed, all of which beset sovereignties. Uncertain circumstances will lead to accidents; then, if everyone has nuclear weapons, we will willfully blow ourselves to kingdom come in a frenzied Armageddon. His position is clear. He thinks ‘more may be worse’.

One of the important parts of the book involves the confrontation between India and Pakistan, and the role that nuclear weapons can play in it. This discussion constitutes a major portion of the volume, and in fact one of the main reasons why the book was revised in 2003 was to discuss this state of affairs in the wake of the two nations’ 1998 nuclear tests. Since this discussion is based on the same general points that Scott and Sagan make throughout the book, I will focus on it and summarize it against the backdrop of their basic mindsets. Then, assuming I am an intelligent layman, I will try to say what’s brewing in my own mind.

* Nuclear weapons in South Asia:

* Sagan- ‘More may be worse’:

Sagan is fearful of nuclear confrontation in South Asia. India and Pakistan have always had a tumultuous relationship, leading to the loss of the lives of about 60,000 soldiers in bloody conflicts spawning five decades. In spite of negotiations, a coherent plan for achieving peace still does not seem to be on the horizon. We have fought four wars with our neighbor, including the latest one when both them and us possessed nuclear weapons. Sagan points out that Pakistan has predominantly had a military leadership. Even during the time when civilan leadership did reside in Islamabad, the President has often not been accurately briefed by his generals about their agenda. In the Kargil war itself, Nawaz Sharif was quite unaware of the exact nature of the actions that his troops were taking in the high ranges of the Himalayas. This of course does not exculpate Sharif from having encouraged aggression against India, but it does point to the kinks present in the Pakistani hierarchy. What this translates into in terms of nuclear conflict is that decisions may well not be coordinated between leaders in the Pakistani government and military. Because of this lack of coordination, control inevitably becomes tenuous, insubordination is easier to carry out and harder to detect, and accidents can take place by virtue of miscommunication or deliberate sabotage. Such accidents may give the Pakistani defence forces a manufactured excuse to engage in nuclear aggression against India. The fact that India and Pakistan are neighbours does not help to mitigate tensions. Many Indian and Pakistani missiles currently in the arsenal can easily span the short distance between Delhi and Islamabad.
In case of India, Sagan is a tad more generous. We have enjoyed a very stable democracy, and unlike Pakistan, controls over the manufacture, development, and deployment of nukes in our country are predominantly civilian. Even though, there still has been a divide between military and executive branches in our country, in terms of goals envisaged and decisions taken. To illustrate this, Sagan points to the ‘Brasstacks’ exercise undertaken during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure in the late 1980s. Indian troops engaged in a massive buildup and military exercise near the Pakistani border in Rajasthan. To this day, the exact purpose of that exercise remains shrouded in mystery. However, many from the Indian front ranks, including the then chief of Army staff General Sundarji, have been crystal clear about the purpose; to provoke Pakistan into a similar response, and then possibly use that excuse to engage in military operations against it. One goal in such a conflict would have been to bomb Pakistani nuclear facilities that enriched uranium. Sagan’s message is that even in such a supposedly stable and sensible democracy like India, the reins of power are not always secure, and deliberate or accidental miscommunication can thwart even the most sincere attempts to maintain peace.
According to Sagan’s assessment, nuclear weapons in India and Pakistan have hardly contributed to assured deterrence. The Kargil war is but one case in point. The mini-domino effect is clear; to balance the threat of looming, economically and militarily more powerful India, Pakistan would never back off from its nuclear development. India in turn would always perceive a threat from the proportionally more powerful China, and that would ensure that its breeders and missile cones are up and running. Missile development has always been a constant for our country’s defence establishment. Even when we had missiles that could easily reach major cities in Pakistan, we continued to develop missiles that would extend our military ability to Beijing.

One of the recurring themes in Sagan’s arguments is that of ‘normal accidents’. Any engineer who has designed a complex power plant knows that when it comes to complicated systems, accidents are normal. No matter how tight the control in such organizations, there are some problems which nobody can foresee due to the sheer overbearing complexity of the infrastructure. A defence establishment, with its convoluted hierarchy of generals, civilians, and politicians and with its continuous flexibility in response to international and national affairs, is a fiendishly complex system. Since nobody can prevent accidents from happening in such a system, the only thing can be done is to try to set up the system in such a way that the consequences of that accident will be minimized. In no other arena of policy is this paradigm more important than in nuclear matters. The scenarios are all too familiar; what if Indian intelligence detects activity near a Pakistani nuclear installation that would suggest a nuclear strike on our soil? What if this information was based on assessment of activities that were actually benign? What if the perceived activity had only been an accident? Can we afford to misconstrue something like that? What if we decide to launch a preventive/preemptive strike against Pakistan? What if Pakistan exaggerated the magnitude of our action and responded in kind? Sagan thinks that in order to prevent such an unfortunate conglomeration of events and responses, it’s better not to have nuclear weapons, so that the effect of such a catastrophe can at least be vastly less destructive. Even in India itself, Sagan cites a shocking example of negligence that I was unaware of; in 2001, when the Indian defence minister was inspecting the Milan missile facility in Hyderabad, one missile that was still live accidentally got turned on. Fortunately, it was ‘only’ a 2 km range missile, but it flew off the top of the building, went through the body of a man in the process and killed him, and landed some distance away. Even if this example is impressive, I think that it is a banal example, because such accidents can happen with almost any military equipment that has nothing to do with missiles or nuclear weapons.
One of the problems with both the Indian and Pakistani arsenals, as Sagan points out, is that they lack well-trained personnel as well as Permissive Action Links (PALs), locks which cannot be unlocked without proper authorization.

This brings us to a related issue of great importance- nuclear terrorism. Sagan thinks that shoddy stockpiling of nukes by states makes their theft by terrorists vastly more possible. A case in point is the large number of nukes from the former Soviet Union, many of which are believed to have been ‘cannibalized’ and then sold in the black market. I will have more to say about nuclear terrorism later.

To illustrate all his points, Sagan cites a number of instances during the Cold War, including of course the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the US and the Soviet Union came to the brink of war due to sheer misunderstanding. Sagan also warns that in spite of these comparisons, every nuclear nation is unique, and it is precisely because of this uniqueness that India and Pakistan’s nuclear situation is unpredictable, and the knot of nuclear war becomes more probable. New countries can simply not be trusted with nuclear weapons. In a nutshell, they are complex organizations run by complex human beings operating in complex cultural, military, and political environments, and precedent shows that the handling of the nuclear tinderbox cannot be entrusted to such nations.

* Waltz- ‘More may be better’:

Interestingly, Waltz also cites more or less similar historical precedents to draw exactly the opposite conclusions! This is where we begin to see the peculiar nature of history, where one can almost always draw conclusions that are favourable to one’s viewpoint. Sure, there were confrontations between the US and the Soviets when nuclear weapons were going to be deployed. But were they actually deployed?? Sure, nuclear weapons could have been used by India and Pakistan, most notably during Kargil. But were they??
First of all, Waltz says that the development of nuclear weapons by Pakistan was almost inevitable. Once India developed nukes, Pakistan could not cool its heels. Benazir Bhutto made this clear; that given India’s military and economic strength, Pakistan would have developed nuclear weapons anyway even if India had not developed them, simply to correct the imbalance. One can make a similar argument that India developed them because China did…and ad infinitum, until all one can do in my opinion is blame Otto Hahn and Strassman for discovering nuclear fission! So here, Waltz seems to say that irrespective of what either he or Sagan thinks, the development of nuclear arsenals is almost a reflex action, in a world where every country feels naturally threatened by its neighbours.
The main framework that Waltz builds to augment his arguments is that of neorealism. We deal with what happened, not with phantasmagorical war games and theoretic constructs. This is unlike the organizational theory that Sagan brings to bear upon the problem. After all, for all the discussion about uncertainties in complex organizations, the fact that the world has been nuclear war free since World War 2, even though there were several potential vistas for such deployments, is a fact that merits attention. Waltz’s major point is that even though nuclear weapons engender complex environments, by virtue of their ubiquitous destructive power, the decision-making that they force is decidedly simple. The response of states to nuclear acquisition will be predictable and sound. Nobody wants a powerful neighbour who has nukes and who can call the shots. Nobody wants to wage war against a neighbour who has nukes, knowing well that the sword of death lies midway over the necks of both. Deterrence may be an old concept, but it seems to be a concept for all times. Waltz thinks that reactions to nuclear weapons stockpiling, by a nation as well as it’s neighbours, are going to be relatively predictable and standard, not surprisingly reflecting the common goals of survival and development that any sovereignty would aspire to, unless there’s a madman at the helm.
As far as the argument from history is concerned, Waltz points out the several non-nuclear confrontations that have occurred between nations, including the Israel-Palestine conflict and skirmishes between China and Russia during the cold war. Both these are instructive because unlike the Soviet Union and the US, these states did border each other like India and Pakistan and still did not use nuclear weapons against each other, and so one can skirt Sagan’s fears that distance may create unforeseen problems between India and Pakistan, which did not exist between the two traditional cold war adversaries.

About the issue of nuclear terrorism, Waltz points out that many terrorists are not as irrational as we think. They have long-term objectives that they would not always sacrifice for the purpose of causing a big bang. They fear if not their lives, then certainly their organizations and goals, and would refrain from rash actions that would jeopardize their terrorist-military complex.

To sum up, like Sagan, Waltz draws on history, points to the discrepancy between complex nuclear scenarios and simple responses to them, and points to the fact that in spite of the extensive game-theoretic brainstorming carried out in the Rand corporation and the Pentagon, one cannot escape the fact the nuclear states have not fought each other until now with nuclear weapons. Q.E.D.

* Bringing in the verdict:

This is where I swoop in John Casti style, and pen my own opinions about the debate. As is evident, this is a complex debate, and my responses to it will also be fairly complex and distinctly non-partisan. I find myself agreeing with Waltz in some cases, with Sagan in others, with both in yet others, and with none of them in a few aspects.

The problem with history is that it offers a tempting glimpse, but no clear factual reality, of what could have been. This makes it very difficult to judge it as being encouraging or full of despair. For example, consider the simple question; how peaceful has been the world’s history in the latter half of the twentieth century? Well, it depends on how we see it. We can point to the most destructive war in history and say that no war of comparable magnitude has followed in its wake. Or we could point to Kashmir, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Rwanda, and Bosnia, and say that we have been no better off than we were at the end of the Great War, when Woodrow Wilson christened it as a ‘war to end all wars’. Which view of history is the ‘correct’ one? The optimistic one or the pessimistic one? It’s hard to say, obviously.

A similar problem exists with an evaluation of nuclear weapons and their role in international geopolitics and relations. The scientists who built nuclear weapons were full of hope about these weapons, thinking that they would make future wars impossible. No doubt that they were pitting their hopes on an early perception of deterrence. In 1946, a remarkable report named the Acheson-Lilienthal report, whose words were largely penned by Robert Oppenheimer, called for international control of atomic energy. The report contained a revolutionary and audacious proposal, that atomic energy should be made equally available to every nation, so that every nation could have it at its disposal. However, nations who wanted to enrich nuclear material or build bombs could do it only at their risk, because of the knowledge that every other nation possessed the same technology and so potentially could retaliate in exactly the same way. Richard Rhodes provides a nice analogy; it was like a gun that had been disassembled and kept on a table within equal reach of everyone else. Anyone who wanted to use the gun on the others could do so only at the risk of his own existence. In its original form, the proposal called for international control. With hindsight, one can say that it espoused what we today call nuclear proliferation, although in a much more promising incarnation. Not surprisingly, it was too radical for the times, and it also was presented in a much more modified and unsparing form to the Russians, who promptly rejected it. But that proposal predated the whole philosophy of deterrence, which its progenitors had hoped would prevent future conflict.

Unfortunately, fear of nuclear retaliation has certainly not prevented future wars; in fact, one can argue that it has infused a sense of aplomb and audacity in antagonist states, because they know that their adversary dare not contemplate nuclear aggression no matter what they do. However, I do agree with Waltz’s assessment that nuclear weapons have made states wary in general and they do have mitigated the scope of the extent to which countries would wage war. Again, history does not tell us what would have happened had the historical tape run again exactly the way it did, except for the presence of nuclear weapons, and so we can only speculate, but we can speculate with some reason. I personally do believe that the brutality of conventional warfare may be limited if the two adversaries possess nuclear weapons.

The fact that nobody has ever used nuclear weapons since World War 2 is unfortunately not a completely reassuring fact. We know this because there is a clear record of more than one case when leaders did come extremely and realistically close to using these weapons. Again, the Cuban Missile Crisis is the archetypal example. A conference in Cuba in the 1990s revealed that the Soviets had an absurd number of nuclear warheads in Cuba- about 200. It should be noted that there are those who think that 200 nukes will be more than sufficient to destroy all the major cities of the US. During the cold war, such a macabre deployment by both sides would in fact have put the US at a disadvantage, because there was a much higher urban population density in the US than the USSR. During the Korean War, the US actually deployed nukes on the Pacific islands, the only time since WW2 it has done such a thing. During the 1973 Arab-Israel war, Israel nukes were purportedly up and ready on warplanes. With such a track record, it is difficult to believe that the world was always in an overwhelmingly comfortable and safe position when it came to using nuclear weapons. Again, one might argue about what actually happened, but one unique quality that distinguishes us after all, is the evaluation of future possibilities based on past possibilities, a quality that has repeatedly helped us to be circumspect and plan for long-term contingencies. I agree with Sagan there, that just because something never has been, there is no guarantee that it will never be. The record is impressive, but as the old adage goes, there is many a slip between the cup and the lip.

However, if I were to think about the limited issue of India and Pakistan, I believe that a nuclear confrontation seems extremely unlikely. Now in this particular case, history does provide some promise I think. Terrorist infiltration notwithstanding, there has been no evidence that Pakistan seriously tried to deploy nuclear weapons against India. This is in spite of the fact that the foundations of governments in Pakistan have been quite shaky. There have been coups, murders, and political instability in general. But no Pakistani general or commander in chief has dared to thrust the depraved possibility of nuclear warfare on his own country. In future conflicts, deterrence could be seen to keep on working. Again, one might argue otherwise, but there would be good reason to believe that even conflicts instigated by Pakistan would be kept in check because of not just Indian nuclear retaliation, but even because of the great power of India’s conventional forces. So in the limited case of India and Pakistan, yes, I do believe that nuclear weapons will help keep the peace.

Coming to the issue of accidents, I do agree with Sagan, that ‘normal accidents’ will always be quite common in complex systems. However, there have been and always will be technical advancements that will prevent such accidents. The simple installation of a hotline between the Kremlin and the White House assured that Khrushchev and Kennedy would keep in touch during vital moments and crises, and could prevent catastrophes arising from misunderstandings and false alarms. Better security, PALs, and well-trained personnel are really simple measures that will go a long away in averting apocalypse. I believe that the US should make a concerted effort in providing these facilities and services to India and Pakistan. For better or for worse, its vast nuclear arsenal produced as its byproducts, sophisticated detection technologies, safeguards, and training protocols, and it’s only fair that the US make these available for the world to use. Accidents always happen and we have lived with them, and they are always preventable. We faced accidents in the past, but learnt to avert them, and even if it won’t be easy, I think we can do the same in the future. That’s a much more general point which I think we can take care of.

I am quite taken by Waltz’s general belief that complex nuclear situations engender simple realities. The old and somewhat discounted framework of behaviorism may help us here. No matter how complicated human beings may be, each one of us responds to incentives and punishment, and each one of us has his weaknesses. I do believe that statesmen in any nation would instinctively try to preserve their objectives and the health of their country, in one way or the other. It does not matter if the nation is totalitarian or democratic. In fact, history has proved that punitive and affirmative incentives have worked even better for dictators than for democratic leaders. I would think that such incentives would be even more important for North Korea and Iran. After all, the leaders of both countries have worked hard to institute their hold on and respect in the population, whether by benevolent or malevolent means. Both leaders want power, have egos, and want to preserve their power, not just for themselves, but also for their future generations. Both leaders want to see an enduring influence of their political philosophies in their nations. Even assuming that they don’t care whether their countries progress or not, they won’t engage in policies that will hamper their own progress. Opening their country to nuclear attack is not one of these policies. Under such circumstances, it would be folly for them to pursue belligerent policies and especially to inflict any kind of nuclear aggression against another nation, especially when the other nation also possesses nukes. Iran may be pursuing nuclear enrichment, but that seems more like a defiant nationalistic policy that is actually whipping up public support and patriotic fervor. Deliberate, armed nuclear aggression is a completely different kettle of fish.

So I agree with Waltz to a large extent about the constancy of human nature. In the end, every leader of every kind is going to think about his survival. That would mean that there would be no ambiguity to the wariness of statesmen in sharing a common heritage of self-preservation and in limiting or eliminating nuclear belligerence.

All this is assuming that human beings are rational…

Which brings me to the question of nuclear terrorism

One of the senior officials who attended the 1990s Cuba conference was Robert McNamara, defense secretary during the missile crisis of 1962 and the Vietnam War. Confronting a pugnacious Castro, McNamara learnt that not only did the Soviets have almost two hundred nuclear warheads installed in Cuba, but also that Castro had strongly recommended their use against the US to Khrushchev, well knowing that the result would likely be total annihilation of his country. McNamara was aghast. For all the discussion above about rational leaders wanting to preserve their sovereignties, Castro’s policy turned out to be completely irrational. He did not care whether Cuba was destroyed. He was willing to become a martyr for his grand philosophy and dream, no matter how deluded they would have seemed to an outsider.

This is exactly what Jihadi terrorists are willing to do. The Acheson-Lilienthal report could not have predicted the danger of nuclear terrorism. That is because it did not predict the absolutely absurd number of nuclear weapons that the USSR and US would ultimately stockpile. It also did not predict the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the fact that this collapse would suddenly make hundreds of ‘loose’ nukes freely available for a short time. Many studies estimate that terrorists could have easily salvaged a hundred or so nukes in the short period of anarchy following the end of the Cold War. Terrorists could easily buy material from these devices and build their own bombs. They could easily build 10-kiloton bombs and smuggle them into the United States. They could even more easily build radioactive dirty bombs. Graham Allison has lucidly discussed the catastrophic pall of nuclear terrorism, and I have already talked at length about this and his book here.

When I first read about the Acheson-Lilienthal report long back as well as about Waltz’s stance more recently, my first question always was, “What about nuclear terrorism?” The problem is clear. Statesmen may have a lot to lose by engaging in nuclear conflict. But what do terrorists who have grand visions of martyrdom and virgin laden heaven have to lose? What do those who believe they are on a holy mission have to lose? For them, such kind of horrendous violence is in fact the perfect way to achieve their glorious goals. They don’t care about political motives, and they don’t care about diplomacy. They may care a little bit if they are state supported terrorists. But what about those who consider themselves messengers of god, unfettered by worldly considerations, politics, personal gains, or the continuation even of a self-centered life? For them, death itself is the ultimate form of life.

Waltz’s argument becomes a little shaky when we consider nuclear terrorism. If acquisition of nuclear weapons were limited to leaders, all the arguments about rational self-preservation would apply. But how will they apply to terrorists who are so deluded that their actions cannot fit into any rational framework? How can the importance of self-preservation apply to those for whom self-destruction is the noblest goal? Sagan is on strong ground when he argues that nuclear proliferation to states makes nuclear terrorism much more possible. Waltz’s arguments about terrorists also being long-term goals oriented and thereby being reluctant to expose themselves to sudden actions and risks may in fact usually be the case. There is reason to believe that even terrorist organizations run like corporate networks, with their own interests in staying alive and fighting. For those with long-term goals, self-preservation may be an important objective, but what about those who set out on holy crusades? All logic is lost upon such mortals, and they won’t stop at anything to inflict maximum damage. For all our purposes, their behaviour is completely irrational. Also, it does not matter that 9/11 type incidents are instigated only rarely. As Allison has noted, one detonation of a 10-kiloton bomb in Manhattan would result in a scenario too horrendous and sickening to imagine. One can only shudder at the thought of terrorists with 200 loose nukes, contemplating Jihads. Ominously, Allison wonders that a terrorist nuclear attack has already not occurred on US soil, at least with a dirty bomb.

In any case, Sagan’s viewpoint is simple; the more the number of nuclear states, the more the outlets for terrorists to acquire nukes. Whatever Waltz and similar minded people say about statesmen, that logic cannot apply to terrorists, because their thinking is bound to be illogical and even more unpredictable. Also, the problem with nuclear weapons is that even a minimalist and rare scenario is quite horrible to imagine, and one would want to prevent it at all costs. This is a complicated matter and it’s hard to see a clear way out of it. Again, heightened security may be the only palliative for now.

Interestingly, there are good grounds for hope even in this scenario, again based on historical evidence. Consider the fact that loose nukes have been available for 25 years now, and yet there has been no nuclear terrorist attack. More hope comes from an assessment of the use of chemical weapons, which are in a class by themselves, since they are much easier to manufacture than either nuclear or biological weapons. Sagan correctly cites the deadly 1995 Tokyo subway attack with Sarin that was orchestrated by the Aum Shinrikyo cult, but that is still one of the exceptional examples. Countries have always possessed cheaply deployable chemical weapons, and yet the instances of large-scale mass attacks on civilian populations have been non-existent, and ‘small-scale’ attacks (like the Tokyo attack and Saddam’s gas attacks on the Kurds) have been rare. I am reading Jonathan Tucker’s comprehensive history of chemical warfare, and find it surprising that in World War 2, even the nonchalant mass-murderer Nazis did not use a single drop of the lethal and horrifying Tabun (similar to Sarin) on the allies, even though they had the distinct advantage of being the only ones to posses the weapons at the time. Historical anecdotes seem to side with Waltz. All these instances indicate that even terrorists using nuclear weapons may not be an obvious and ominous conclusion. In any case, new protocols for security would make the possession, transportation, and use of nukes by rogue terrorists much less likely.

So what do I think about this, finally? Being a pacifist, I would ideally like to see nuclear weapons disappear from the face of the earth. But in that respect, I am a realist like Waltz. I know and believe that we will always have to live with nuclear weapons. It is a product of our Faustian bargain for knowledge that we cannot rid ourselves of. Although it is difficult to pass a final value judgment, I would say that if we could take care of the nuclear terrorism problem, and if we could set good standards of security for loose as well as secure nukes, then Waltz’s stance may be a sober and realistic one. The real long-term problem with that, however, is that deterrence is not really a solution as such; it does not actually solve the problem, but only sweeps it under the rug. Countries that are deterring each other have a tense and uncomfortable relationship, and the peace that exists between them is a rather imposed form of peace. Such nations could find it hard to be true allies. But even if this is the case, if we have to live with nuclear weapons, then we may live this way rather than live in an atmosphere of overt distrust and aggression. I also believe that nuclear neighbours would limit conventional conflict, unless an irrational ‘holy missionary’ happens to be the steward of one of those nations. However, we have already lived with that possibility, and I don’t see how we cannot live with it in the future, no matter that it is an uncomfortable one.

Sagan’s views of nuclear terrorism are better taken, and we will always have to be careful about nuclear weapons getting into their hands. In any case, terrorism has nothing to do with nuclear weapons, but is surely the product of forces beyond those of war, involving politics, poverty, and social upheavals and disturbances. The problem of nuclear terrorism boils down to the problem of terrorism itself, and that problem is one which we will face long after the missile cones have rusted and the fins have become unhinged.

In the end, like it usually is with such matters, what are going to really solve the problem are dialogue, transparency, and constant efforts to achieve the middle ground, no matter how untenable it may look. What we look forward to in this era of nuclear mistrust, is really Niels Bohr’s ‘open world’…