Thursday, September 27, 2007


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Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons
By Joseph Cirincione
Columbia University Press, 2007

As of this time, the United States has 10,000 nuclear weapons and has roughly half of them on a 15 minute alert. Russia has more than 15,000. Other countries around the world have thousands. Together, this destructive force can destroy our planet many hundred times over. Those who lived through the Cold War would find this scenario all too familiar and at the same time surreal. At a time when nuclear terrorism is causing paranoia in the world, this situation sounds nothing less than fantastic and unbelievable. If we pass this age with the preservation of our sanity, future generations will no doubt look back and wonder and ask; how did we get to this stage? What happened?

In this smart, succint and well-informed book, Joseph Cirincione, one of America's foremost WMD experts gives us a peek into the past, present and future of nuclear weapons. He tells us how a race against the Nazis- later proven to be non-existent- gave rise to the great power unleashed from within the atom by brilliant scientists. He briefly but thoughtfully captures the spirit of those times, and gives understandable and simple descriptions of the basic science behind the two main designs of atomic weapons. He also pays due attention to a lesser-known fact- the petitions that were unsuccessfully circulated by some scientists to try to stop the bombs from being used in Japan, efforts that failed in the face of political ambitions.

After this exposition, Cirincione launches into an account of the arms race during the Cold War. From reading this description, we realise that atomic bombs are much more a product of political paranoia and strategizing than sound science and policy decisions. While it is legitimate to understand the urgency that gripped the US during the Cold War in the face of a frightening foe, it is now quite certain that hawks in the US government urged the development of more atomic bombs and hydrogen bombs under the guise of having a ready arsenal for instant annihilation, while at least in the earlier stages of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was never interested in and indeed cowered away from fighting the US. In Khrushchev's words, Stalin "trembled and quivered" at the thought of a war with the US. All those fears of World War 3 were unjustified. Unfortunately, those fears gave rise to a burgeoning fleet of ever more deadly and efficient nuclear weapons in the US. This served as the perfect excuse for the Soviets, who then were given carte blanche to develop their own weapons.

Some numbers are instructive, and almost heartbreakingly convey how close the US was to negotiating arms treaties and stopping the growth of the nuclear monster that spwned all future problems and generations. The Soviets conducted their first test in the middle of 1949. At this point, the US had a couple of hundred atomic bombs, while the Russians essentially had none. This would have been a perfect time to try to bring about a test-ban treaty, that would have made any further development of nuclear weapons very difficult in the USSR, while guaranteeing the US a fleet of bombs adequate for deterrence. This belief is cemented by looking at the current arsenals of Britain and France; both of them have around 200-400 weapons, and they have always considered them sufficient for deterrence. In fact, right at the end of World War 2, General Leslie Groves who was the head of the Manhattan Project had drawn up a list of major Soviet cities that could be targets for atomic weapons, and concluded that about 200 bombs of the crude Hiroshima/Nagasaki type would be sufficient to destroy them. In 1950, the US had bombs with much improved efficiency, and even fewer would have been sufficient for deterrence. Unfortunately, hawks in the US such as Edward Teller pressed for more weapons. The anti-Communist McCarthy period convinced political leaders including Truman that more bombs must be developed to deter Russia. A great chance for securing peace was lost.

The rest is history; the US launched into H-bomb development and eschewed early possible test bans, thus giving the Russians the perfect chance and excuse to develop both fission bombs and hydrogen bombs. The strategic edge that the US had was rapidly lost and the Soviets caught up, because the law of diminishing marginal utility applies perfectly to nuclear weapons, and further testing and development helped the Soviets who were behind much more than the US who was already ahead. During the 1950s, as test ban treaties were constantly forestalled, the Russians made up for the atomic deficiency that they had in 1949. By the end of the 50s, they not only had many atomic bombs, but a delivery system (exemplified by Sputnik) that could potentially launch a missile carrying a thermonuclear warhead. The advantage that the US had was lost forever, and after this, Russia always would have thousands of nuclear weapons that would compete with the US for mutually assured destruction. However, it was only in the 1980s that the Russian stockpile exceeded that of the US. The stockpile of both powers reached grotesque proportions with tens of thousands of weapons, a number that went way beyond deterrence or any other rational doctrine, factually sufficient to destroy the whole earth thousands of times over. This was nothing short of insanity, whose fruits will be far reaching indeed.

Cirincione expertly gives accounts of these developments. He also gives an account of the various treaties that far-sighted members of the scientific community and government managed to implement, including most importantly the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, that prohibited nuclear testing underwater, on ground, and in the atmosphere. Probably the most important weapons treaty was the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signed by Lyndon Johnson. It is probably the one that promises the most hope for general weapons reductions around the globe. The one good thing that Richard Nixon did was the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the SALT treaty of the 1970s. After this, various US presidents and Russian premiers did their part in trying to implement treaties.
Probably the biggest failure in this regard was Ronald Reagan, who with his espousal of "Star Wars" and arms growth, aggravated the arms race more than any other president in history, but also financially bled the Russian economy. A new book on the arms race by that most authoritative nuclear historian Richard Rhodes is coming out in October, in which he describes how the young neo-conservatives Rumsefeld, Perle, and Wolfowitz convinced Reagan to not accept negotiations for arms reductions. The evil in the Bush administration has deep and insidious roots.

But it is really in analysing the reasons why states may or may not acquire nuclear weapons that Cirincione shines. Interestingly, the same reasons that may propel nations to possess nuclear weapons may convince them to give them up. In case of Britain and France for example, national prestige definitely played a role in weapons development; both proud nations wanted in some part to redeem the historic role that had played in the world over past centuries. Prestige and patriotism fuelled by the BJP was also a reason for India's nuclear tests in 1998. But the same reasons also encouraged South Africa and South Korea to give up weapons development; both throught they would set a model example in front of the world. The most common reason touted for possessing nuclear weapons, security, can also be a reason to not have them. Some states like South Korea and Brazil think that they appear much less antagonistic when they don't have these weapons. Countries certainly can also abandon such programs because they fear military aggression and political instability. In case of states like Iran, the situation clearly is different. In fact, promise of military assistance from the US can be important in convincing such countries to give up their own programs, like it did for Germany and South Korea. Security on the other hand clearly played a role in the Indian and Pakistani nuclear weapons programs. Economic reasons constitute yet another major reason for weapons building. Countries may decide to abandon nuclear weapons in the face of fear of economic sanctions, as Libya did for example. One hopes that North Korea will be such a case. However, the case of India is also interesting in this context. It is now known that Homi Bhabha, the Indian nuclear architect, greatly downplayed the cost of building reactors and bombs, that encouraged the Indian government to provide funding and facilities for nuclear development.

The point that Cirincione makes on the basis of these myriad examples of countries that have either pursued or abandoned nuclear programs because of various reasons based on security, prestige, economics or politics, is that using sticks and carrots, nations can be induced to give up their nuclear ambitions. Clearly some nations need to give them up more than others, and this is something that needs to be understood.

Finally, Cirincione talks about the future; how the world can become a safe place in spite of there being nuclear weapons. In the matter of nuclear proliferation, there have been two camps and I have talked about them in detail in a past post; those who think that a little nuclear proliferation could actually increase security by deterrence, and those who think that only minimising nuclear arsenals and discouraging nations from obtaining them will make for a safe world. Cirincione makes it clear right at the beginning that he belongs to the second camp. For him, the goal is to reduce nuclear proliferation. He also importantly argues that, in the current scenarios of possible nuclear terrorism, stopping proliferation would be the most fruitful way forward.

Cirincione suggests cogent strategies to break through the pall of nuclear destruction. First and foremost, he has prescriptions for the US to lend credence to its suggestions to stop nuclear proliferation. It's simple. With 10,000 bombs, America clearly has a menace safely stashed in its backyard. In such a situation, any lesson denouncing nuclear proliferation that it tries to impart to the world is going to naturally sound hypocritical. On the other hand, I personally would be orders of magnitude more comfortable seeing nuclear weapons in the hands of the US rather than Pakistan or Brazil or many other countries. But it is at the same time completely disconcerting to have a country which along with Russia has been the biggest progenitor of the gargantuan killing power that straddles the world today trying to tell other countries to not have any nuclear weapons. Clearly, the US needs to still drastically scale down its nuclear stockpile. It then needs to let the UN and the IAEA decide nuclear policy. It needs to ratify the CTBT before it can set an example before other nations.

But the real repurcussions of measures needed to stop nuclear proliferation go deep, and remind us that individual problems cannot be divorced from general policy and especially foreign policy. Unfortunately, with George Bush's foreign policy, almost any recommendation that the US makes is likely to be pooh poohed. The US has to improve its image as a safeguarder of peace and also as a nation that truly desires peace. It and other countries will have to offer a healthy combination of carrots and sticks to other countries to relinquish their nuclear ambitions. The NPT should be modified and enforced and its tenets extended in whatever way possible to other countries. It is obvious that for any such action, wounds will have to be healed, to foster cooperation between the US and other nations.

At the same time, it is key to allow any country to adopt electricity from nuclear power if it so chooses, and nothing should come in the way of such development. Nuclear power promises to be a saviour in this era of declining fossil fuels, and only a system of international control can make nuclear material for peaceful applications available to all countries. No country should be able to have a unilateral say in such a system, and no special lobbies should be allowed to have a say in its workings. The crumbling and ineffectual structures of the UN and IAEA need to be revived and if necessary to be recast into a new organisation.

The most crucial issue of today's nuclear era is that of nuclear terrorism. Deterrence does not work for terrorist groups who clandestinely acquire nuclear material and then post a deadly package to another nation without a return address. While this problem is a particularly recalcitrant one and again goes much beyond its immediate features, its resolution crucially depends on securing nuclear material in states. Russia for example lost a considerable amount of nuclear material at the end of the Cold War that may be in terrorist hands. International cooperation advocated by Cirincione is necessary for working together to secure such material. Countries like Pakistan and Iran which are likely to funnel nuclear material into the hands of terrorists need to be marked and kept under constant watch. Every country needs to contribute funds to such an effort.

When I think about the problem of nuclear weapons, I am constantly fascinated, amused, as well as frustrated by how far its repurcussions go. The future of nuclear weapons seems to be intimately tied to the destiny of countries and to the vagaries of human nature. Their existence was conceived by collective human brilliance, and their future will depend on collective human wisdom. This future is deviously intertwined with the rise and fall of governments and civilizations. To secure such a future, we all have to work together. Perhaps a hundred years into the future, our descendents may think of nuclear weapons as a historical accident that passed. For that time, even the awareness that nuclear weapons are tied to national and human destiny will keep us alerted and go a long way.

Till then, we will be always standing on the shoulders of bombs, and gravestones of lost ideals and failed policies, but perhaps also under clouds of optimism and hope.


Tuesday, September 25, 2007


The economist Bjorn Lomborg appeared on Bill Maher last Friday. As some may know, Lomborg is one of the more well-known global warming skeptics in the world, and became persona non grata in many scientific and policy circles after publishing his controversial book The Skeptical Environmentalist in which he spoke spiritedly against global warming.

Now Lomborg has come out with another book disarmingly titled "Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming". As in his earlier book, Lomborg's basic thesis is not that man-made climate change is unreal, but that there are more pertinent problems to solve in the world, and one has to think about the issues in a rounded manner before deciding where to spend money to cause the optimum effect.

I think his way of thinking is legitimate, but I don't agree with it. However, I think Maher and Rushdie probably castigated him a bit too much after the interview. At least in the interview, it did not seem that Lomborg was actually denying global warming, but was trying to ask that all the effects of climate change, positive and negative, should be evaluated as a sum total. In fact, he even admits that the bad effects of climate change may outweigh the good ones. Clearly, Lomborg is a very smart and articulate guy, and I don't think he is dumb enough to just negate global warming.

But what I find most disingenuous in Lomborg's argument is his assertion that all that money spent on climate change could be more productively channeled into more pertinent problems, like AIDS, poverty, and infectious diseases. What I want to say is this; you want to look for a source from which to funnel unproductive funds into these problems?? Please think of the war in Iraq. Or think of the myriad other ways in which governments and especially the US government spend taxpayers' money. If you want to spend money on these undoubtedly important problems, why pick on climate change to do it? At the very least it's disingenuous and ignores other massive sinks of crucial money in the world, and in reality it is a travesty because you want to sap funds from something that's obviously critical for future generations.

On a related optimistic note, more people from various countries now seem to think that climate change overall is bad and that humans are contributing to it.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007


I am having a fantastic time in London. Details later, but what struck me the most was the incredibly encouraging friendliness, helpfulness, and most importantly open-mindedness of everyone we met. A large group of people whom we met consisted of doctors and clinicians who are directly involved with cancer patients. I was surprised and very happy to see that these people, with little to no experience with organic synthesis or molecular modeling, were extremely open to collaboration including both these disciplines.

This is exactly the kind of culture we need to see to fight cancer and other ailments, where everyone from doctors to modelers to synthesists to materials scientists and engineers seamlessly work together and are open to collaboration. Also, nobody but a doctor can truly understand what impact a new treatment can have on a disease. One of the doctors we met had just seen a patient, a young lady not more than 35. He told us that he did not expect her to live much longer. Faced with morbid scenarios like this on a regular basis, it should not be surprising if doctors are willing to try anything and everything to make a new treatment available to patients. And yet it is rare to find people having an untrammeled vision of collaboration, which made our experience a truly pleasant and encouraging one.

This sort of reminds me in a different sense of that saying which says that strangers are simply family members who we have yet to meet.


Thursday, September 13, 2007


As an anglophile, I am excessively excited about starting on a trip to London tomorrow evening. I am travelling with my advisor, and only hope that we don't sit next to each other on the flight...just kidding; I am sure that my advisor would be one of the few advisors who don't make for an awkward conversation partner on a plane. Plus, this is one of the few times that I would get to make sure that he listens (or at least pretends to listen) to my boring talk about career aspirations (or the lack thereof), the beneficial effects of crystal meth (knowledge gained purely through armchair cogitation), the droll charm of 1950s textbooks, petty rivalries between staid Nobelists, and family values in the cultural strongholds of Pune. But most importantly, he has agreed to review my manuscript on the flight! At last, after months of playing cat and mouse, I have him cornered.

While we will be there for a business trip to meet with our collaborators at Imperial College in London, I am of course going to take every opportunity to explore the place where everything from stones on sidewalks to statues to fountains to tailoring shops has sometime seen the presence of Darwin, Nelson, and Shakespeare. For any history lover, London would be a cornucopia, and while I know I won't be able to get enough of it in one week, I hope to hungrily mop up whatever I can.

Also, my friends there have promised me to get me drunk in some exquisite English pub. Ther are Germans studying in Britain, so I can hardly doubt their ability to imbibe unheard of quantities of ethanol (I knew it was a mistake to offer one of them a treat to drink "as much as he wanted" when he was here...). But in any case, since I don't drink and they are honourable men, I am sure they will be content to let me contemplate the composition of 400 year old English pub table wood. And I do hope they bring their wives along to keep them from going overboard. Behind ever pub man, there is a woman, to catch him when he falls back.


Wednesday, September 12, 2007


I cannot but help feel suspicious as a gut reaction, when I see a book named "The Most Noble Adventure: The Marshall Plan and the Time When America Helped Save Europe". In general, the whole "America saves X" ilk makes me squirm and take a good look. The above is the name of a new book about the Marshall Plan by Greg Behrman.

I haven't read the book, but it seems to have got glowing reviews. Reviewers also say that it may help inject some pro-US sentiment in European countries by pointing out the good that the US has done in past days. Well, considering what the Bush administration has done, any action of the US except Vietnam may sound good...but that's a different issue.

Everybody knows that the Marshall Plan was a plan to essentially give economic aid to European nations to help them rise from the destruction and poverty engendered by the Second World War. The plan was probably one of the better things that the US has done, but I think that calling it "The most noble adventure" is hagiographical, belies the facts, and misleads the public.

The plan was conceived among other people by George Kennan. Kennan was a famous US diplomat, best known for a telegram that he sent from Moscow at the beginning of 1946, revealing the true character of Soviet Russia to American leaders. Kennan understood the inside workings of Soviet leadership and accurately guaged that the Soviets would not back down in the face of a generous and weak-sounding adversary, but would do so in the face of an adversary who acts like he means business (although later, Americans also often misunderstood Soviet intentions, with tragic effects; Vietnam being the biggest tragedy). He was the architect of the "containment" policy followed by the US towards the Soviets, until Henry Kissinger's "detente" came around much later. In fact, Kennan's telegram from Moscow is considered as one of the starting points of the Cold War, when American leaders realised what the Soviets were made out of. Even though Kennan turned out to be one of the most influential American political philosophers of the twentieth century, he saw the policy he had so much initiated and influenced turned on its head, and he fell out of favour from later inside Washington circles. His recommendations which were supposed to be mainly political, diplomatic, and propagandist, were turned militaristic by later American leaders. Kennan died in 2005 at the age of 101.

But because Kennan also saw that the Soviets would back down only by getting intimidated, he understood the importance of covert action, intelligence gathering, and harnessing insurance against a possible Soviet attack. To this end, and this does not seem to be well-known, he was one of the architects of covert operation strategy in the CIA. With others, he also conceived the Marshall plan and the Truman doctrine. The Truman doctrine sent aid in the form of money, weapons, and materiel to many countries, most notably Greece. Its explicit aim was to subdue communism.

In reality, all three were part of a single vision of making friends, through hook or crook throughout Europe, distributing aid and buying off politicians, newspaper men, union leaders, and agents in European countries with largesse, and preventing these countries from going Communist. All this was aimed at having people on the side of the US in case the Soviets turned overly belligerent in Europe.

In light of this, it should come as no surprise that the Marshall Plan was far from philanthropic. It probably would be more accurate to say that philanthrophy was a happy side-effect of the plan. It bought off large numbers of people of all colours and backgrounds in Europe and turned them into pro-US allies and propaganda generators. It made sure that there would be plenty of pro-capitalist leaders in Marshall aid countries to sway elections, manipulate public opinion, break up communist strikes, and side with the US in case of an attempted communist takeover.

The CIA was an important beneficiary of the plan. Countries which received Marshall aid were supposed to keep aside an equivalent sum in the form of their own currency. A part of this sum was supposed to be used by the CIA, with no questions asked. Through the Marshall Plan, CIA had a conduit to exercise their covert operations throughout Europe. What the CIA did with these funds is quite despicable in many cases. I will leave a discussion of that for some other time, but for now, suffice it to say that Marshall Plan-bought foreign capital was designed to help the CIA in its sordid deeds. In spite of this, the CIA often botched up its operations and indirectly killed thousands of foreign agents through its incompetence.

Now of course, you can argue that preventing communist takeover and safeguarding national interests is what any country would have done, and so did the US. But whether and to what extent this is right or wrong is not the point here. The point is that the Marshall Plan was not some kind of generous philanthropy aimed for America to "save Europe". It was, like any other national interest action, calculated to preserve US supremacy, presence, and interests in Europe. It had good side-effects, but it should be seen for what it was designed to do, that's all. This simple truth should be understood.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Curcumin, the active yellow constituent of turmeric, has been a mainstay of Indian medicine, food, and culture for centuries. But now, after several years of neglect, it is becoming one of the big success stories of how Western medicine can draw on ancient Eastern knowledge...

Read the rest of the post on Desipundit...

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Friday, September 07, 2007


Imagine that you are a prosperous citizen living in a well-furnished home, with an endearing family and a secure source of income. There's just one tiny hitch in your close to perfect life- a wasp nest that's about fifty meters from your home in a tree. You don't like the wasps (and you presume, neither do they want to be your friend). You would rather have them be your friend, die, or at the optimum, mind their own business.

But most importantly, you don't want them attacking you. You don't care how inherently nasty they are, what they think of you, or what the condition of their nest is. You don't care how much they fight among themselves while foraging for food. You don't even care what kind of fantasies they weave in their waspy brains about attacking you. Perhaps you may even care a little or a lot about one or more of these things. Maybe you even care about stealing some of the material from their nest for your own ends. But the most important thing, way beyond all these things, that you care about, is them attacking you. Your primary purpose is to make sure the wasps don't attack you. All other concerns are secondary.

The problem with the Bush administration and the Iraq war is that they made other concerns primary, and in the process, vastly increased the chance of the wasps attacking them. This is as unpatriotic and criminal as it can get. I find this analogy interesting even if not exactly accurate, because I believe it puts to rest all the nonsense about "preserving honor" and "patriotism" that is hurled at people like Ron Paul, who are trying to make the point that by staying there, Americans actually increase the chances of Islamic fundamentalists attacking them, which should be the primary set of actions that the US should guard against. The critics' barbed arrows are nothing more than rhetoric, but most importantly they create a straw man. Nobody including Ron Paul is saying that Americans should be fearful of the wasps. Nobody is saying that the wasps are nice entities. Not attacking the wasps is not a sign of cowardice. It is only a way of minding your own business, and making sure that your primary concern, that of defending your home from wasps, is served. But by implying that not disturbing the wasps is a sign of cowardice, the detractors (like Mike Huckabee) clearly erect a strawman. Bereaved parents buy this strawman and shove it down their throat. They don't understand. Nobody likes the wasps. But that's no reason for deliberately stirring their nest or hanging around in there.

To imply that those who don't want to stir the wasp nest either are afraid of the wasps or actually like them is a straw man travesty. I don't want the damn wasps to get into my home and that's the reason I don't stir up their nest, and any fool who is trying to rise above the dirt should realise that that cannot imply by default that I am afraid of them. Another point to note is that a few wasps are going to attack my home anyway and I want to guard against that. All I am doing by not stirring their nest is preventing the situation from escalating.

Now we can easily grasp the magnitude of how much the Bush administration has undermined the primary purpose of preventing the wasps from attacking their homes. After all this, can any accusations of criminal actions be seriously called into question?

Thursday, September 06, 2007


In the republican debate yesterday, Ron Paul was nothing less than brilliant. In my opinion, there is absolutely nobody in this country, republican or democrat, who can deliver such cogent and absolutely on-the-mark arguments for national security and against the war in Iraq, arguments which are also informed by a mature understanding of US history, that I find absolutely wanting in every other politician. When Paul was challenged by the weasly and cowardly Chris Wallace who wanted to score cheap points, his reply was thundering, almost prophetic-sounding. And just hear his simple argument about how it is the responsibility of airlines to protect their passengers and prevent 9/11 type attacks, and how delegating it to them rather than the government and allowing their officials to possess guns could have possibly prevented 9/11. Just watch him.

Unfortunately, people in this country are still swayed by rhetoric, and abstract feel-good notions such as "honor" and "freedom", both of which ironically they are rapidly losing. I think that Iraq unfortunately is becoming a big emotional prestige point for parents who have lost their sons and daughters in the failed conflict; they will just not accept that their children died in vain (and that too due to no fault of theirs) and more alarmingly, now keep thinking that the only way their children's sacrifices can be justified is if the US stays in Iraq. They are also misled into thinking, as one bereaved mother was, that the US is actually going to become more safe if they continue fighting there. This is a notion that seriously needs to be dispelled because it is a path straight towards devastation.

Ron Paul is probably the only person who understands this thoroughly and has the guts to say it aloud in public. Given his very clear libertarian stance, I can almost bet that he is also pro-abortion and pro-gay marriage, both of which are fundamentally issues about individual freedom and rights. But given the currents of irrational thought and puritanical nonsense widespread in the nation, it is not surprising that he does not say it publicly. It is the unfortunate destiny of this country that he will almost certainly not be nominated as the republican candidate.

Addendum: As much as I immensely admire Paul's stand on the war, I find his opposition to abortion and gay marriage bizarre and disconcerting (notwithstanding the fact that he may be taking these stances only for pleasing his republican electorate), and I also find him in danger of running afoul of his libertarian principles in these matters. For example, he says that the libertarian approach towards banning abortion is sensible because you are respecting the right of the foetus. Even if we buy this argument (which is tenuous at most for a month old foetus), what about the right of the mother to choose? What does the libertarian ethic say about that? I also don't agree with his absolutist sounding positions on gun control (quite apart from letting airline officials carrying them). As for stem cell research, he cleverly skirts the discussion towards taxpayer dollars. The point is, and I have said this before, I don't agree with a libertarian approach to anything and everything, but in some matters, it hits the nail on the head.

The real problem of course is that there is not a single candidate, Republican or Democrat, who I find ideal to be President. I wish we had technology that could pick the good qualities from each candidate and create a chimerical president.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007


"The trouble began last November, when Salti and another graduate student, Oktay Aydogdu, underwent oral examinations for their PhDs. Although both had an extensive list of publications in gravitational physics, they struggled to answer even basic, high-school-level questions, according to Özgür Sarioğlu, an associate professor at METU. “They didn’t know fundamental stuff like newtonian mechanics,” he says. Suspicious, one of Sarioğlu’s colleagues, Ayşe Karasu, began to look through the duo’s publication record. Using Google, she quickly turned up a paper from which it seemed the students had lifted several lengthy sections. By mid-February, faculty members had identified dozens of articles on arXiv that they say seemed to be partly or completely plagiarized."
Even sadder:
"Katepalli Sreenivasan, director of the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy, which has a programme of collaboration with physicists from the developing world, agrees. “There are some cultures in which plagiarism is not even regarded as deplorable", he says.
The scale of the plagiarism also seems to be huge; 70 papers in all penned by 15 authors. Peter Woit has a list of all the journals and articles.

When it comes to plagiarism, I always have some thoughts:

1. A lot of researchers who publish low-level or relatively less important work are tempted to plagiarise because they feel fairly sure that very few people, if any, will check their work since it's not high profile. Consider a researcher at some obscure Turkish university. He knows that he is not going to win a Nobel Prize. But he thinks that he can slip one (or many) through, and then by sheer number of publications, can get a tenured position in some Turkish university and have job security for the rest of his life. If inexcusable, it's not that hard to understand the temptation and the logic behind such thinking. The dilemma of detecting such plagiarism is really a riddle of the age of information explosion. Who has the time to plough through the thousands of articles published every day, especially if only 1% of them are non-trivial?

The real burden here is on the referees and the journal editors, and a large share of the blame does belong to them. But even there, I can sympathize with the scores of fact checkers who, deluged with so many papers that are keeping them away from their real work, simply have to take a few pieces at face value. Nobody can confirm everything he or she receives. Unless there is some glaring discrepancy, there is usually no need for a referee or editor to check and triple check every single fact. There must be some space for trust and faith in paper submission and evaluation. However, there are also some papers that do have glaring discrpancies and holes, which still manage to get past the editors and referees. In such cases, the blame does belong on their shoulders.

2. On the other hand, that makes me find the antics of people like Hendrik Schon astonishing. How can they think they can get away with publishing so many groundbreaking-sounding papers in such high profile journals, when dozens of researchers will pounce on them and scrutinize them and try to duplicate the results?


Tuesday, September 04, 2007


If you can possibly believe that George Bush can actually be articulate and have a good sense of humour, then hear his introduction for the presentation of National Medals of Science to the 2004 laureates...well, at least most of it anyway.

But no, wait, it's his speechwriters.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

FREEMAN DYSON: Vignettes in Science-1

Read the entry on Desipundit...