Tuesday, July 31, 2007


I am reading the mind-blowing (no pun) book The Chemistry of Mind-Altering Drugs: History, Pharmacology and Cultural Context by Daniel Perrine. The book takes us through a whirlwind journey through the chemical structures, biological activity, social and historical significance, economics, neurowizardry, and politics associated with mind-altering drugs. It recounts fascinating tales of countless artists, scientists and common folk who experimented with these firecrackers and states verbatim their fantastic experiences and journeys into phantasmagoria. Caffeine, morphine, cocaine, heroin, marijuana, benzodiazapenes, LSD, barbiturates, amphetamines, ephedrine...they are all here. If you are a chemist or pharmacologist, you will find the details of the chemistry, synthesis, and interactions of these things with the brain fascinating, along with the other details. If a non-chemist, the other aspects should still be enough to keep you sunk in your chair on long evenings. After going through this stuff, all I can say is I cannot wait to lay my hands on some of these treats...

But one of the things that especially caught my interest was a discussion of "addiction scales" for various substances. Firstly, defining how addictive a substance is is a topic in its own right, and it's not easy to define "degree of addictiveness" if you will. But assuming that there are some reasonable criteria for defining addiction (ease of habit forming, difficulty of cutting one loose from the habit, probability of recurrence, withdrawal symptoms etc.), it comes somewhat as a surprise that it's nicotine which is number one on the list, the most addictive substance. Not cocaine, not heroin, but something legally used by millons everyday. A few more "mind-altering" surprises also await us:

1. As noted above, the most addictive substance is not controlled and is available over the counter
2. Cocaine and heroin, both highly controlled substances with criminal associations, are slightly more addictive than tea or coffee
3. Marijuana is consistently ranked less addictive than alcohol. So is mescaline from the peyote cactus.
4. Alcohol is the most addictive substance of all according to many criteria, and surely more so than marijuana

Now of course this does not mean that I might as well nonchalantly get a shot of heroin everyday instead of quaffing my giant mug of coffee. But these results tell us first and foremost how much the political restrictions and social perceptions on drug use are misguided and uninformed by rational study. Alcohol is many times more potent, habit forming, toxic, and fraught with undesirable and dangerous side-effects compared to marijuana, including in its propensity to cause road accidents. And yet pot is illegal while alcohol is a coveted legal commodity with high-culture connotations. Alcohol consumption also has so many more social problems associated with it precisely because it is also a social activity, and yet smoking marijuana even in a private setting is prohibited (or simply possessing it is prohibited...or whatever these crazy drug laws are...I can never remember).

What the government is doing by prohibiting marijuana is not saving lives or preventing crime. The fact that it has not forbidden alcohol clearly shows that that's not its primary goal. I seriously cannot understand what the primary goal in prohibiting marijuana is; it seems to be triggered by a mixture of pseudopious religious sentiments, anecdotal evidence, and knee-jerk social constraints (If someone consumes drugs, no matter what amount and what kind, he must be a completely wayward and purposeless subhuman by default). In any case, what the government is doing is to close up the drug market to competition, so that prices go up, transactions become closeted and riskier, and the business becomes riddled with dangers, crime lords and street gangs. If anything, many of these drug laws blatantly promote violence and crime. The production of these drugs can also not be curtailed. Amphetamines can be made from ephedrine (a common cough syrup constituent) by almost any amateur chemist. Kitchen chemistry can likewise be used for producing various grades of several other controlled substances.

The other point is that there are so many other things we encounter in life (violent video games? probably not) which are "addictive" and whose effects can be deemed as potentially harmful. Alcohol is probably the most egregiously neglected of these. What about addiction to car driving? Addiction to drinking coke? Addicting to sitting in roller coasters? Addiction to white-water rafting? Are these activities really free of danger to oneself and others? Obviously not. At the very least, consumption of mind-altering substances as a pleasure-providing activity similar to these other pursuits should be given due consideration in discussion. As the book also notes, food, chocolate, jogging, violence, God (surely so), exercise, sex and television also are addictive for certain individuals and come with the baggage of deleterious effects. For some reasons, we as a society have accepted these vices as legitimate and respectable. Clearly, though, in more than one sense, we are as addicted as anyone can be.

What the government needs to do is to have a realistic appraisal of the effects of various drugs. Naturally, alcohol is more dangerous than nicotine in terms of social behaviour, but nicotine can be much more dangerous in terms of personal and secondary health effects. Cocaine and heroin can be dangerous, but probably not as much as alcohol if used in tiny amounts privately. Acid trips caused by LSD likewise cause no harm if they consist of someone dancing in his or her room and writhing on the bed. And marijuana may be the most misunderstood brain-affecting substance ever, with every criterion of addiction for it ranking it on par with caffeine as the least addictive and dangerous substance. Legalize some of these drugs in a restricted manner and it may actually become much easier to keep track of who bought what and did what. Far from encouraging crime, it will likely restrict and surely make it easier to track and control it. Currently, most of the legislation on drugs has come less from rational debate and study and more from biases that have pushed the issue wholesale under the carpet and furiously pounded on it. After all, all these substances used to be consumed as medicines in diluted form by native tribes in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America. Clearly, they were wiser than we are (and in other contexts too)

Restricting many of these substances with a blank check is prosecuting what are famously called victimless crimes. But it also shows ignorance of sound scientific understanding of the effects, chemistry, production, and economics of drug use. Drug use, like religion, seems to be a topic on which the very notion of serious and reasoned debate is considered taboo. Government officials need to first have their own minds altered, before they pass legislation on these "mind-altering" substances.

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Monday, July 23, 2007


For two years or so now, I have been keeping a chemistry blog, although I have started regularly updating it only in the last year or so. I was lucky to discover a profusion of other chemistry blogs after that, and it's been my great pleasure to keep in touch with the fine folks who write them, comment on their musings, and be inspired to write my own posts partly because of their posts. There is a wide smattering of the scientific populace among them. This involves graduate students and postdocs both from Ivy League schools as well as other fine ones, experienced industry scientists mainly from pharmaceutical industries but also from other industries, and in general people from a dozen different countries around the world. Probably the most famous chemistry blog, which probably started the chemistry blogging phenomenon and now has attained a cult status, was Tenderbutton, a blog by Dylan Stiles, a graduate student at Stanford. His posts were a mixture of technical chemistry, chemistry gossip (which chemists enjoy as much as anyone else, or probably even more), and completely wacky posts (like the time when he analysed the earwax from his ear using chemical methods)

These chemistry blogs often serve as morale boosters. The thing is, inspite of how exciting science is, the everyday life of a scientist and especially a graduate student can get quite routine. Although there's always something unexpected at the end, a lot of science is no different from routine, if important, clerical work, although scientists don't always like admitting this. Even though being a scientist is one of those few careers that never involve falling into the danger of becoming a 9-to-5 job, doing everyday science can and does get boring sometimes. It is at times that you need to be reminded that science is a lot of fun. You also need to be reminded that you are not alone, that there is an entire community out there from every country that faces exactly the same things you do. And you need to be reminded why you chose to do science in the first place, about the pleasure of finding things out, and the satisfaction and security of seeking and finding rationality among madness. These chemistry bogs have occassionally served all these functions for me and they have given me a sense of community, as I am sure they have many others.

The chemistry blog has also of course enabled me to keep in touch with what's "hot" and current in the field. It's largely due to these blogs that I have gotten a taste of the practical aspects of science, especially in the pharmaceutical industry. Some of the blogs out there are great distillers of the gist of published papers, and one can get the highlights from them without slogging through 20-page technical papers, dozens of relevant ones of which are published every day. Some relate mainly to the cultural and social aspects of chemistry and science. Others are consistently and wickedly funny and outrageous. One blog is obssesed with compiling "Top ten" lists of chemists, including everything from "Top ten chemist moustaches" to "Top ten musical connotations for chemistry". Because of my interest in history, I particularly enjoy this one. Many blogs spare no pretense in gossiping about chemists; admittedly many of these are rightly anonymous. Once again, you get to know what's new, and that keeps you interested. The blog has also enabled me to make some professional connections with scientists in academia and industry, and it's always a pleasure to hear from them. Given my interests, I myself try to maintain a mixture of different aspects of chemistry on the blog; technical, cultural, and historical.

A couple of points of difference between my general and chemistry blogs, especially with respect to the comments. On the whole, I got the feeling right at the beginning that the comments on my chemistry blog were much more critical than ones on my general blog. And why not! Unlike my general blog, many people who read my chemistry blogs care less about my writing skills, and more about the points that I am making. Scientists by nature should be skeptical, and skepticism is one of the bedrocks of science. This skepticism which shone through the comments galled me at first, but then made me realise how much more valuable it was, rather than comments which simply appreciated my posts. Of course, it's the same for my general blog too, and only skepticism can fuel debate, but it's even more important in science, and skeptical commenters (some overtly more so than others!) have always kept me extra-careful about the words I use, and scratching my head about ambiguous (or wrong!) statements that I might have made. So I highly appreciate all these skeptical commenters. Naturally, I also appreciate the appreciative ones, and I would miss them if they totally disappeared!
In fact, it's more for the comments than the posts that chemistry blogging (and all blogging) is exciting. The dialogue is mostly civil if testy, but sometimes things can get a little out of hand. On the other hand, I always muse about the instant and worldwide publicity that unfortunate controversial chemists (and students) get on blogs; make one mistake in your paper and you are bound to end up on hundreds of chemistry blogs within a few days. Sometimes I wonder if such notoriety is deserved, but then that's the burden we have to carry in the age of the internet.

All in all, it is a pleasure and a continuing educational experience to "chemblog". For some reason, I have not noticed as many blogs on the other sciences out there. I would surely like to see that happen (I would like to think that it's because chemists are more social than many other scientists, but not only does this thought unnecessarily sound self-important, but I am pretty sure it's wrong; neuroscientists, rocket scientists, and nanotechnologists would likely be much more social than chemists!)


Thursday, July 19, 2007


I am not a big fan of unfounded optimism based on raw hope, especially in the kind of world that we seem to be living in, where reason is routinely given short shrift, and where decisions seem mandated by politics, emotions, and most importantly, by the loud voice of people wallowing in faith. However, the more I look at history, the more optimistic I seem to get...

Read the rest of the entry on Desipundit...

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


It is interesting how even now, when someone says he or she is an atheist, even friends who are not atheists say that they "respect his opinion" and that he is "entitled to his opinion". I keep getting miffed that atheism is regarded as just another position on matters. But of course this is strange. Do sensible people recognise people who don't believe that Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK alone as having their own position on the matter. Do people recognise people who believe that the Holocaust never happened as being entitled to their own well-defined opinion? And why don't they do this? Because of a little something called lack of good evidence. I remember how Dr. Shreeram Lagoo, the well-known actor was always touted as an atheist, but more as making some kind of fashion statement, as if he was a quaint old atheist among a society of Hindus, Muslims, Christians and what not. Of course, Hindus usually don't take atheism seriously, but even they simply bin atheists as having their own worldview, just as conservatives and liberals slot each other into people with differing world views.

To some extent, this binning is not surprising, since human beings like to label each other for the sake of convenience. But atheism is different because unlike any political or religious sect, it is not founded on any system of beliefs, but on a lack of belief. Naturally, there are always some beliefs that everyone has, but atheists' beliefs are not based on any other axiom about the world, except on the premise that one usually should not believe something for which there is no good evidence. As I mentioned in an earlier post, this system of 'beliefs' is no different than the system that we all without exception observe in order to believe elementary facts about the world, such that the train will be late by half an hour, or that your spouse is not cheating on you. In some ways, even the world "atheist" is puzzling, because as Noam Chomsky memorably said, "I don't call myself an atheist because I am not sure what it is exactly that I am not supposed to believe in".

I think that along with their writings against religion, atheists (there we go again) need to also constantly make this point clear, that they don't belong to any particular sect at all, and theirs is not another point of view. For the above mentioned reasons, being called an atheist or being told that I like to read "atheist literature" sometimes sounds almost insulting to me.


Tuesday, July 17, 2007


My grandmother passed away yesterday. She was 90 and in a hospital and was sinking for the last couple of days. The day before she passed away, I got the phone number of the hospital so that I could talk to her, especially because it was her birthday. Sadly, she passed away before I could call her in the morning. She probably wouldn't have heard me, and she definitely could not speak in the last few days, but talking to her would have belonged to that class of symbolic things that we humans do, even if we know that they don't really register in real life. I just wanted to say take care, happy birthday, and that I am doing fine here, ten thousand miles away. It was sad that she passed away on her birthday.

We didn't have a very big apartment earlier, so she shared a room with me for 23 years, and was often gracious enough to let me have my privacy by sitting outside in the living room. She could often be difficult, but grandparents seem to be that special breed of people who almost always seem to be special for us in some way, all the ups and downs in our relationship notwithstanding. I fought with her many times, and was also mean to not a few times. Now, in some moments, I think I could take all that back, but then I realise that it is probably these imperfections that make those memories more valuable to us. She watched over the house and over me and my sister whenever my parents were out. A couple of times, she gave some kids who were troubdling me to tears, a sound lesson in good behaviour that they wouldn't forget. She could ramble on and on about things that would bore us to death, but the significant point is that strangely, for some reason we always listened to those ramblings.

My grandmother was very intelligent and sharp. Until a year or two ago, while I struggled to perform multiplications and subtractions in my head, she could rattle off answers like a maths prodigy. Multiplication tables were second nature to her...all her life, all the way upto 30. I don't know if she was happy with her life. I would like to think she was, although being a girl in a small town in 1930s or 40s Maharashtra, she could not make the most of her talents and intelligence. Her father was a lawyer who believed in good education for his daughter. She got married early (but at 18, relatively late by the day's standards). Both my grandmother's and grandfather's family were not very well-off, and they had to strive and struggle to make do, especially in the early days. My grandfather was a highly respected doctor in the small town of Ratnagiri, and a very kind, intelligent and liberal person. But he was among the youngest living in a big joint family of probably twenty people. Since my grandmother was a new and young daughter-in-law, she was often made to "know her place" in the hierarchy of the household, especially among the older women. I am not implying that she was ill-treated, but 30s or 40s Ratnagiri was not very progressive, and even though our household must surely have counted as one of the most liberal households in the town, some things were taken for granted.

In the 80s, my grandfather had his foot amputated because of an infection, and the two of them moved to Pune into our house. My grandfather passed away only two years after this; unfortunately I was a kid and my memories of him are vague, if endearing (everyday before I went to school, he used to tie my shoelaces, telling me some story). My grandmother was very active till the early 90s, when she suffered two epileptic fits and became confined to the house. For many years after that, she bore the unfortunate experience of having a perfectly sound and sharp mind in an unsound body. No wonder that in the last few years, she genuinely wished for death. Since I don't believe in afterlife and so on, to say that she is at peace now would be meaningless, but we are surely at peace, even if a sad and pensive one, seeing that she did not have to suffer too much.

All my life till I myself pass on, all my memories of "home" will be connected, in one way or another, to memories of my grandmother.


Friday, July 13, 2007


China's former head of food and drug regulation, Zheng Xiaoyu, has been executed for accepting gifts worth almost a million dollars and thus compromising drug safety. What Xiaoyu did was despicable, no doubt, but the fact that he was sentenced directly to death and executed in less than a month just makes me get a chilling feeling. Every country is free to dispense its own brand of justice, but the fact this can happen so quickly without an appeal or bail just does not sound right. Can we remotely imagine the former FDA head to be be sentenced to death and executed within a month for such malpractices? In fact, there's no single developed country where I can imagine this happening. Of course I can also not imagine this in India, but I don't even imagine it happening in Pakistan. The only countries where I can think of something like this being so swiftly implemented are of the likes of Saudi Arabia and Iran. That this apparently regularly happens in a country which promises to be the next potential superpower leaves me squirming and uncomfortable...without a doubt.


Thursday, July 12, 2007


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Stephen Walker- Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima

There are several great and insightful books written about the bomb (with Richard Rhodes's book being the gold standard), and one is always prone to wonder if there could be anything new on the topic. However, no book, for lack of space, can cover all aspects of this momentous and defining time in history. Stephen Walker's Countdown To Hiroshima is the best account I have seen yet of the personal perspectives of some of the men and women who worked on the bomb. Walker sometimes gives an almost minute-by-minute description of events as a chapter. For example, shortly before the bombing, one chapter is titled "One hour to Hiroshima". The next chapter actually is "45 seconds to Hiroshima", with a riveting description of the dropping and explosion of the bomb almost by the second.

Even among the people who Walker portrays, many of whom were ordinary people who became extraordinary, he especially focuses on two sets of pivotal actors; the men who organised the first atomic bomb detonation in the hot desert of New Mexico on an eerie, black morning, and later and most importantly, the remarkable small group of men who flew the planes that dropped the bomb and changed history. But Walker also considerably focuses on the men and women who finally bore the terrifying relentless of this fever pitch- the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and their leaders.

It was through this book that I got to know about the monumental challenges that the bombers and their commanders faced, and the obssessive yet essentially security that enveloped the whole operation. Walker begins with a riveting account of Trinity, the first atomic bomb test. He focuses on Don Hornig, a young physicist whose job was to safeguard the bomb before the test. The test was conducted in the desert haunts of New Mexico during the black haze of dawn. Everybody had nerves of steel in the moments leading to the test. Nobel laureates worked together with technicians and construction workers. Nothing could be left to chance. Robert Oppenheimer flitted in and out of the scenes, his body racked by a cough worked up by years of compulsive chain-smoking. Everybody worried about his health; he had been almost physically present at every step leading to the bomb in the last four years.
Don Hornig's job was to babysit the bomb on top of a tower where it was supposed to be detonated. Walker paints vivid and apocalyptic sounding accounts of the rain that suddenly turned the desert into muck, the thunder that growled as if in retaliation for some sin that the scientists were committing, and the flashes of lightning that actually threatened to detonate the bomb. The bomb was almost a religious experience for some. Walker takes us to the top of the tower with Don Hornig, sitting beside that black nebulous object amid lightning and thunder inside a makeshift tent. It was only a few minutes before the detonation that Hornig was ordered to step down from the tower. The rest is history. A new force was born in the next few minutes, brighter than than the sun, that has nonetheless cast humanity into a suicidal straitjacket ever since.

The people of Hiroshima of course did not know anything about this. They were gearing up to fight to the last man, woman, and child. The depiction of life in the city is stark. Rationing was strictly enforced, and everybody was supposed to do the backbreaking work necessary to defend their homeland, age and physical condition notwithstanding. Walker focuses on a few sets of people whose lives, either shattered or tragically cut short, he traces in the last few days before August 6. There are the two sisters, one of them sick, who have to come down from their home in the hills everyday to pick grass for eating. There is the doctor who has already been sickened by the war and envelops himself into a drunken stupor the night before. There are the lovers who hold hands in the garden of Hiroshima on the night before, confident that the war can end soon and they can get married. The bomb has the capacity to change everything into nothing, all this imagery, all the stuff which is the raw material for stories and civilization.

It is also interesting to read the political deliberations that went on in the Japanese and US governments. Walker has had access to newly declassified documents, and from them, one gets the painful sense of lost opportunity that could have made things so much more different. For one thing, many Japanese ministers and leaders wanted to negotiate with the US through the Soviet Union for surrender, with the singular condition that they could keep their emperor. There were others though who subscribed to the standard Japanese tradition of considering the thought of surrender as the most revolting and cowardly thing they could possibly do. Our brave soldiers have died in the thousands defending Okinawa, Guadalcanal, Iwo Jima. We should not let their sacrifice be for nothing. We will train our teenage girls to fight to their last breath, with bamboo spears in the absence of all other weapons...One can only remotely imagine the nightmare that would have been precipitated if it become necessary for the Allies to storm the beaches of Japan.

But even more than the Japanese, the Allies lost a chance not only to avoid getting a blot on the escutcheon of their history, but also to preserve their hard won nuclear knowledge and preserve the lead for a little while more in the arms race. It is now clear that Truman and others consistently ignored entertaining the thought of letting the Japanese surrender by keeping their emperor. They did not do this with the wilful intention of killing innocent Japanese, but as I have written before, they were too preoccupied with possible Allied casualties, and more tellingly with the diplomatic potential of the bomb, to contemplate conditional Japanese surrender. Truman's secretary of state Henry Stimson had visited and studied Japan and knew of the strong commitment to culture, emperor, and traditions that the Japanese exemplified. Truman chose instead to focus on the looming Soviet threat. The atomic bomb would be the perfect preemptive weapon.
History would indeed have been very different if Truman had considered letting the Japanese keep their emperor and surrender without the bomb, something to which they would likely have agreed sooner or later. That he did not in some ways paved the way for the next fifty years of nuclear enslavement, a trend that continues to the present day.

But the main part of the book really concerns men about whom relatively less has been written. These were the men who commandeered the planes that dropped the bombs. Walker's book will put to rest any illusions that dropping the bomb was as easy as uploading it onto a standard bomber and then simply releasing it at the opportune moment. Dropping the bomb involved choosing the best bomber pilots in the air-force, training them for almost a year at a top-secret base in Utah, acclimatizing them to the rigors of living and traning in the South Pacific, and finally making sure that they preserve the nerves to carry out their mission. To lead such a band of handpicked and hardened pilots, technicians, bombers, and crew would need a remarkable air-force commander. Fortunately, Colonel Paul Tibbets was just the man for the mission.

Probably the most amusing anecdote in the book concerns the grilling that Tibbets received before they could make sure he was the perfect man for the mission. Experience and skill was not an issue; Tibbets had been one of the best bomber pilots in Europe. But to lead and organise such a secret mission, it would take much more than just skill. They wanted to look for rock solid resolve, courage, and also honesty, so that the man would never compromise the utmost secrecy of the project. To gauge these qualities, they asked Tibbets if he had ever been arrested. There was one occasion when Tibbets had been arrested for being in intimate association with a women in the back of a car on a Florida beach. The officials waited for his answer. If Tibbets lied, he would have been out of the show right away. Tibbets spoke the truth, and changed his life for all of history to read about.

In Wendover, Utah, Tibbets assembled a crew of handpicked men who would accompany him on the flight. They trained for a year in specially modified B-29 bombers, day after day, making pass after pass in the air, till they would get it perfect and drop with fatigue. Life in Wendover did not come without perks. To make sure they stayed happy and honest, Tibbets's men were given carte blanche to behave almost any way they wanted. Alcohol was generously supplied in infinite quantities. Living quarters were such that generals would not get them. Affairs with local girls were hushed up with bribery and cajoling. The men could not be distracted from their goal, which in large part involved a single manuever, to learn to bank at an angle of 60 degrees and fly away as fast as they could. This was for an important reason on which their lives depended; the bomb's shockwave would rapidly reach them, and this impossible pass in the air was about the only way they could get away from it safely without having their plane flattened like a tin can. But they did learn how to do the pass, after practising it literally thousands of times, until they could do it blindfolded.

From Wendover, the team flew to Tinian Island, one of the hard won, sun baked South Pacific islands that the Allies had captured the previous year. In the sweltering year-round heat, the island had been turned into an engineering marvel, the largest airforce base in the world until then, with the largest possible runways one could imagine. The few Japanese who had escaped into the overlooking hills watched with frightened faces and wide eyes. The giant B-29s that bombed Japan day and night lined up like hundreds of mosquitoes or pirhanas, and like zombies, got off the runway, dropped their cartload of bombs on Japan relentlessly, and came back for more before taking off again. The operation was harsh and obssesive, because it was commandeered by the harshest and most obssesive man in the armed forces- Curtis LeMay. LeMay had only one mission, to bomb Japan back to the stone age until it surrendered. There was absolutely no concern in his mind about civilian deaths or their numbers. Indeed, LeMay probably annihilated more cities and people than either "Butcher" Harris (commander of the RAF who ordered the Hamburg and Dresden bombing raids) or Hermann Goering (commander of the Luftwaffe). It is one of the ironies of history that by the time the atomic bomb crew was ready to drop their payload, Japan was a smouldering heap in which many times more people had been killed than would die in the atomic bombings.

Walker also gives a good sense of the immense secrecy surrounding the project. None of the bomber crew except Tibbets actually knew what kind of bomb they were going to drop. Nobody else on the whole of Tinian Island except the general commander knew what the crew was there for. The assembly of the bombs took place in remote buildings on the island. The buildings were guarded around the clock with dozens of military police (who also did not know what was going on inside). The secrecy was enforced without exception; there were shoot-on-sight orders for anyone who ventured close to the bulidings, generals included. The uranium and plutonium bombs promptly made their way after the test to Tinian, one on a ship guarded by men willing to pay with their lives, and the other one by plane. With the bomb sat specialists recruited by Oppenheimer for their realiability and nerves, specially inducted into the army for the mission. One of them was Deke Parsons, whose job was to "arm" the bomb in flight. Walker conveys the immense difficulty of this seemingly simple task. The bombs could not be armed before they were loaded on because there was actually a danger that they could detonate prematurely by electrical discharges or impact. Once on board, they had to be armed quickly, in an extremely cramped space amid turbulence and constant movement. The arming was complex, with many pins to be inserted, removed, and turned. The casing was rough. Parson, like a man possessed, practised arming the bomb in the 100 degree heat for hours when the plane was on the ground, until his hand was bleeding from the effort. Once up in the sky, failure could not possibly be contemplated.

On Tinian as in Wendover, the quirky crew, men of all shapes, sizes, and inclinations and personalities, were treated like kings. The treatment oddly resembled that given to condemned men before they are executed. They were treated to fine gourmet food specially made by the chef, gallons of booze, air-conditioned quarters, movies in their own theater. Jealous and curious inquirers were quickly shooed away at gunpoint. Even if the men did not know their exact mission till the last moment, they knew that it carried the risk of capture or easy destruction. To make sure the weather was right for bombing and to serve as a cover against anti-aircraft fire, two other planes would lead the plane with the bomb. Taking off itself was no simple operation. With the increased load, the plans could easy tumble down and crash on the runway, ending the mission, the lives of the crew, and possibly detonating the bomb and the entire island before it all even began. It was hard to imagine anyone in the world except Tibbets and his crew pulling it off at that point.

On the day of reckoning, Deke Parson finally told them the nature of the "gadget" that armed guards had been safeguarding with their life for so long, and which they were supposed to deliver that day. He still did not tell them the mechanism by which the gadget operated. Before the crew took off, they posed for historic photographs. Just before take off and after coming back, they would become some of the most unlikely rock stars of the century. Tibbets's mother went down in history. Her proud son named his plane after her- Enola Gay.

After take off, things went smoothly. But a measure of how much attention to detail had to be still paid is illustrated by a fascinating fact recounted by Walker. The bomb was exquisitely designed to be detonated at a particular height above the ground, where it would cause the most destruction. To achieve this, it had built inside, a precise set of radar antennas that were activated sequentially. Each radar antenna would send signals vertically to the ground as the bomb was falling, and judge the height from the reflected signal. The timing circuitry was programmed to detonate the bomb at the precise height as indicated by the antenna. But there was a problem. If Japanese radio transmitters broadcast anything at the particular radar frequency, the bomb could be activated and possibly detonate in flight. To circumvent this deadly and bizarre possibility, one man was recruited for the express purpose of scanning radar frequencies emitted by Japanese transmitters. Space on the Enola Gay was exclusive to say the least. The radar scanner was finally installed in the only remaining space- beside the toilet.
As the bomb falls, Walker's riveting, almost second-by-second account of what was happening inside it and inside the plane creates a bizarre contrast; a clinical and sanitized description of bomb and flight physics, as if almost divorced from the very much human impact that was going to be created in ten seconds.

If one can call anything associated with the conception of such a terrible weapon as perfect, then everything in the mission went perfectly. The weather cleared up soon, but not before Hiroshima was consigned to fate at the last moment; the initial intended target was Kokura. It was the bad weather over Kokura that sealed Hiroshima's fate. Apart from this, the mission went smoothly, with no Japanese antiaircraft fire, and perfect detonation and destruction of a beautiful city. As they watched the burgeoning mushroom cloud with astonishment, the crew of the Enola Gay exemplified the ambivalence about the bomb that everyone has felt since then. For some, it was simply a job to be done. For others, it was a vision that would rob them of sleep throughout their lives. After coming back, the men were in a surreal mood, not having slept in days. They were hounded by the media and declared heroes. Everyone was satisfied and happy, including General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project in Washington, but admittedly excluding Robert Oppenheimer.

In Hiroshima of course, the story was different. Walker gives a sobering narration of the destruction of the city. These stories have been recounted in detail in dozens of books, including John Hersey's famous Hiroshima and Rhodes's book. There was the drunken and disturbed doctor, who was saved from the brink of death because he had to attend an early morning house call on a house on a nearby hill. When he started walking back to the city, dazed, the sky a fantastic hue of colours in the background, he saw people looking like zombies ascending the hill towards him. Many of them uttered animal-like screams and fell down motionless. They were human beings, charred black by the heat, bones sticking out, desperately looking for water, and a way to survive. The man who had spent the earlier night with his lover in the garden never saw her again. The sister whose twin was sick did not see her either. The soldier who was on duty a short distance away saw two huddled figures, his wife and child, blackened and fused together on the road near his house. All he did was pick the bones up, to bury them later. Many of these survivors must have died of radiation poisoning later. The few surviving photographs of the time depict a snapshot of misery and things that the human mind can do, tales for generations to come.

Paul Tibbets is still alive. To this day, he has never regretted dropping the bomb.

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Sunday, July 01, 2007


Michael's Moore's Sicko is not a movie. It's an experience. And a shared one at that. For instance, the loud laughter and smirk of every person in the theater directed at President's Bush statement about "Too many OBGYNs cannot practice their...love of women" underlines the humour as well as common understanding of dismal reality that's endemic in many aspects of the running of this country today.

Moore does a really great job in depicting the inadequacies of the health care system in the US. There have been many reviews from diverse quarters about the remarkable accuracy and comprehensiveness of his documentary. Of course, he cherry-picks a little, but who does not? I also have a slight objection about dismissing some of his narrations and examples as anecdotal, because in some cases, even a single story really strikes deep at some outrageous aspects of the US healthcare system, like the story of the man who had to pay 60,000$ for attaching one of his fingers, or like the woman who could not get coverage after she was knocked out in a car accident because the driver of the ambulance carrying her to hospital was not "pre-approved".

The list of qualifiers in insurance company plans is daunting indeed, and more often than not one finds out only after being in a serious accident or having a serious health issue that he or she was not covered. Some aspects of standard insurance plans are galling in the simplest ways; for example, why does my university health insurance plan not cover dental and opthalmological treatments? Aren't these organs an important part of my body? And why should the dentist charge my friend 600$ just for a dental examination? Doesn't this start to feel a little insulting after a while? Sometimes sheer numbers speak a lot, and while one is accomodating about differences in costs, some of the costs for relatively simple treatments in the US are astronomical and unbelievable indeed.

Moore also documents well-known aspects of health care systems in France, Britain, and Canada. While one can debate about advances or sophisticated treatments, it is surely true that simple operations and therapies are cheap or many times free in these countries. Moore also interviews people about other things that should matter in daily lives; like being on extended paid leave when one is sick, or generally having an extended leave period every year, like they have in France. In this context, Bill Maher's superb article about how many Americans have a knee-jerk reflex reaction against everything French comes to mind. As Moore asks, why is there so much instinctive anti-French sentiment in the US? Is it because the government is afraid that Americans may actually like the French?

Another knee-jerk reaction that many Americans, and increasingly people in other parts of the world have, is against everything government. Sometimes the very suggestion that perhaps a service could be handled by the government or that government could put controls on some aspect of private ownership is greeted by denouncing that action- and that person- as "socialist". This is a very dangerous path to tread, because no system is perfect, no matter how good it is. One of the things I loved about the movie was that Moore makes us aware of the many good and essential services that the government already runs in the US, and in the other parts of the world; education, law and order, firefighting, and the postal service to name a few. And privatisation is certainly not necessarily the answer to having these efficient services. Economist Kaushik Basu for example has recounted how, as an answer to private players such as FedEx, the US postal service reinvented and modernised itself to stay efficient and competitive. There is no doubt that these federal US services, without private interference, are some of the best in the world, and nobody ever seems to want to delegate firefighting to the private sector, so that they can first take a look to see if the homeowners whose house is on fire are "pre-approved" to have the fire put out. The point is that government works pretty well in many countries and is essential in some large-scale services, and it is also a truism that specific individuals and administrations have botched up the working of government. Here the people too are to blame, because they just don't demand more transperancy and accountability from the government. To denounce government in a single punch line is to neglect many aspects of current federal systems, and to believe that one system will really solve all our problems. We need to always keep a watch on government to ensure that they don't interefere too much in our lives, but then we also need to keep a watch on private corporations with certain regulatory frameworks, unless of course people are going to again shout "Socalist". In general, both governments and corporations need to be afraid of the people, a scenario seldom seen.

If there is one filmmaker who can make a significant point with the most outrageous technique, it's Moore. This is apparent when he takes a bunch of 9/11 rescure workers first to Guantanomo, where Al-Qaeda operatives are getting fine health-care, and then to Cuba where these workers get actually treated for very low cost. This has been cited again as cherry-picking; I am sure not everyone will always receive the finest health-care in Cuba, but Moore wants to make the general point here about the escalating costs of similar treatments in the US, a point that is right on target.

Part of the problem of course is the lobbying by corporations that goes on in Washington, which Moore recounts. Most prominent are the oil, pharmaceutical, food, and healthcare lobbies (not to separately mention the corn lobby). This is a tricky problem, because not having lobbying also does not help. But the original function of lobbyists was to serve as a mediator of information and understanding between government and corporations. This role largely seems to have been abandoned, and lobbyists are now paid massive amounts by corporations to essentially sell their corporation to the government. The simple lure of fantastic amounts of money is usually sufficent to sway opinions, and bills, orchestrated by powerful forces in the government.

Interestingly, the problem is not with corporations per se, if you want to look at it that way. Corporations' goal is to maximise profit, that's just how they work. One can in fact, in this context, criticise the government for not having enough regulatory controls to make sure that they don't add gratuitous qualifiers for putting someone on their insurance plan. It seems that only in a healthy relationship between government and the private sector can the health care problem be well-addressed. Unlike Moore, I don't think that insurance companies should be completely eliminated as the middle man between doctors and patients; the world has just become too complex a place for that. But it is also ridiculous that a doctor first needs to call insurance company and talk to them to make sure the patient is "pre-approved" for treating even a simple ailment such as a broken bone.

The healthcare situation, and its solution, are maddeningly complex. Wisely, Moore does not suggest solutions, except more government participation. But he still does a very important job, because millions of Americans are confused and distraught about their health care situation and options, and it would bode well to become aware of the acute problem America faces in this respect, which becomes apparent especially when compared to other developed nations. Moore also does a fine job of dispelling the myth that free or cheap healthcare is necessarily of poor quality, and that government doctors have poor lifestyles. Also, the quality of healthcare in the US itself is sometimes overrated, as I myself have heard from relatives and friends.

In the end, the problem is larger. Healthcare is a problem that would very likely be solved by a fruitful alliance of government and the private sector (but admittedly not the Bush government). To perceive such a solution, it is very important to get rid of biases, both in favour of laissez faire capitalism as well as towards massive government involvement. Now is a good time to get rid of catchall catchphrases such as "Government is the problem" or "Government is the solution". It is important, especially in a capitalist country like the US, to teach the beneficial role that government plays, especially in schools. Americans and other people need to stop slapping on labels on policies and individuals. The slightest government controls have to be stopped getting labeled as socialist and inherently detrimental. Making profit by itself is of course not bad (saying that is rightly construed as socialism) but realising that profit-making compels corporations to act a certain way and makes it necessary for all of us- not just government- to make sure that they don't wriggle out of compromises by lobbying and casually paying huge fines, is something essential.

Michael Moore's film can be seen as a comedy. But at the end, perhaps half of the people in the theater had a tear in their eye. Maybe they also were simply asking "Why should I pay five thousand bucks to make sure that me or my child gets good treatment in a simple emergency? Why should I have to suffer a massive financial loss just because some old condition that I had which should not have mattered, suddenly made me ineligible for insurance? Why could I not suffer an injury and simply walk into a hospital and then walk out a few days later with a feeling of actually having been cared for, rather than a feeling of having been financially appraised, evaluated, and summarily asked to pay a large amount of money because I did not read some fine print sometime? In additon to the trauma of my accident, do I deserve this additional mental trauma?". It was likely that every person in the theater had one or more of these questions, either because of their own experience or that of someone close to them.

Whether you believe in government action or more corporate solutions, one thing is for sure; there are fundamental problems with the health care system in the United States. There is a large discrepancy in this situation, and the way that everyone thinks the US is and should be. This issue goes beyond partisan politics. Until it's resolved, I, and many others like me, will believe in God just for hoping that we never fall seriously ill in the US.

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