Friday, November 30, 2007


Just when you think you have heard from all the evangelical, anti-atheist lobby, there suddenly comes to your attention a new candidate who has been groomed to speak against atheism. However, you would think that he at least does it with some more reasoning and some less rhetoric than Ravi Zacharias.

I had never heard of Zacharias till an acquaintance alerted me to his upcoming talk at IISc. (Bangalore) in December. Zacharias is an Indian Hindu who converted, and has given talks at "many prestigious institutions including Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and the UN General Assembly", as if his appearances at these places by themselves make him infallible and worth listening to. Zacharias has written books against atheism, and the reviews of his books suggest the kind of obvious fallacies and cherry-picking he indulges in. But it would not be fair to judge someone based on second-hand knowledge, so I saw some of his videos on YouTube and they appalled me to be frank. There are many there, but here's one that's particularly galling.

Zacharias appalled me not just because of his aggressive, soulful rendition against atheism, but because of his remarkable ignorance about atheism and his nauseating and judicious cherry-picking of examples that apparently serve to "disprove" atheism in his opinion. Zacharias also has that kind of persona that religious leaders have, so unfortunately his ineffectual and straw-man arguments seem to enrapture an already compassionate audience. Here is another set of videos of a talk he gave at Penn State and the ensuing questions. Seriously, it's the fawning audience of thousands which buys into his rhetoric that's scarier than Zacharias himself, whose image is projected on a huge screen behind.

There are several fallacies that Zacharias repeatedly commits, but there are some that are so spectacularly misguided that they are worth representing. First, he talks about some talk that he gave where there was a student with two of his atheist friends. After the talk, the students asked his atheist friends why they did not ask the questions they had prepared for Zacharias. The atheists supposedly answered that Zacharias's points were so persuasive that they simply couldn't counter them. So what does this prove? That atheism is wrong? Or that those two students simply lacked the logic and knowledge to counter Zacharias's ingeniously specious arguments? (As many arguments about faith are). Zacharias's enunciation of half-truths is despicable. Zacharias seems to take their inability to counter his points and their still reiterating their lack of belief in God as proof that even atheism is based on faith, a common strategy used by religious people these days when they know they cannot beat atheism on its own territory.

In another case at the Penn State talk, Zacharias talks about a speech he gave to atheists in Russia. At the end of the talk, a man asked him, "Just what are you asserting"? Zacharias retorted, "Just what are you denying?". His point is that atheists don't even know what they are denying, so their "beliefs" about the lack of God are as much based on "faith" as anyone else's. Actually, the answer to Zacharias's question is simple. Atheists are denying any existence of a supernatural deity who performs supernatural acts. But there is a reason for the question. The question "Just what exactly are you asserting?" actually means to ask, "There are so many Gods and so many religious explanations for so many things in the world. There is no consistent religious worldview shared by everyone in the world. So just exactly what is it that you are asserting when you say 'God' when the word has so many diverse and in some cases, contradictory, meanings?". Again, Zacharias cleverly skirts the question and impresses the audience with what he thinks is a diabolically clever counterquestion, which ironically should trump faith, not atheism.

Zacharias is trying to make a very common kind of allegation against atheism as noted above. And I think we will see this allegation increasingly, given the fact that atheists are being more outspoken. What would be the best way for people of faith to debunk atheism? It's pretty clear that if religious people can brand atheism as being akin to religion, as being based on faith and belief as much as religion is, then it would serve as a first nail in atheism's coffin in their opinion. Zacharias's emphasis continually seems to be on proving that in the end, atheism is as much about belief and faith as anything else. He seems to ignore the simple but important fact that most atheists would be willing to accept the existence of God if provided with due evidence. We cannot reiterate this enough number of times; atheism is a lack of faith, it's not "faith in a lack of faith" as Zacharias and others would have everyone believe. And you know what, I am pretty sure Zacharias knows this. What gets my goat about these people is that they seem to be smart people who would know such things, but still insist otherwise for asserting their faith. As Richard Feynman says, it's dishonest people, not honest fools, that really aggravate us.

Zacharias also keeps on gratuitously neglecting the simple concept of burden of proof. I mean, really, how hard is it to understand that the burden of proof is on the person making the positive assertion? Zacharias keeps on trotting out ad nauseum the assertion that "science has not disproved the existence of God'. Apparently, Zacharias has already freed himself from the burden of proving the existence of God.

And lastly, Zacharias just like others cannot seem to help flog the many-times-dead horse; that atheism and immorality are in some way related. Right from arguments that evolution and the lack of purpose somehow mean that there is no possible reference frame of morality for atheists, to regurgitating the tired old nonsense about Stalin and Pol Pot being atheists, people of faith just cannot stop spouting this nonexistent connection between atheism and immorality. Zacharias as others have done, conveniently neglects the moral travesties in the Bible and other holy books, and also conveiniently neglects the countless moral things that atheists have done. Frankly for me, this connection between atheisms and immorality or religion and immorality is a connection that's after a certain extent neither here nor there, but atheists have to argue about that connection only because of religious people's allegations that immorality and atheism are connected.

In the end, Zacharias uses techniques that any charismatic religious leader worth his or her salt does; use rhetoric and elegant language to sway people, erect as many fallacies and straw men as possible to confuse the audience, cherry-pick away to glory, constantly generalise on the basis of individual incidences, make non-existent connections, and after assuming false premises, use the most impeccable internal logic to draw reasonable-sounding conclusions. It's deplorable. Zacharias needs to be severely reprimanded. And it would be nice if bloggers could expose his hollow arguments and strident rhetoric. In the end, Zacharias is nothing more than a polemical preacher.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2007


A couple of weeks ago, The Economist published a series of articles detailing the rise of religion at various places in the world. While all that was said in those articles was depressing by any standard, there was one particular article on India whose title I found a little irritating; according to The Economist, India was the "most religious country in the world". Later, I also heard this phrase enunciated in some other references, and it again struck me as strange. The Western media in my opinion has rarely demonstrated a mature and insighftul understanding of Indian culture, let alone the Hindu religion, but this belief about India being the "most religious country in the world" seems to persist like a stain of turmeric on a smart white shirt.

Let me give The Economist the benefit of doubt and assume that they simply meant that India with its billion plus population and with most of them Hindus, by sheer number can be called the most religious country in the world. But in other places, the epithet did not simply seem to relate to number. To me it seemed to be a polite euphemism for saying that India is the most superstitious country in the world. Even now, images of India in the minds of Westerners inevitably include those of sadhus, tantriks, astrology, horoscope-matching, "red dots on women's foreheads" and a multitude of other things which may or may not have to do with superstition, which nonethless are dumped into the common category of superstition by the Western press. Somehow India with its myriad gods, festivals, and festival-related elements of culture gives that impression.

But is this impression really true? First let us admit that some famous Indians don't seem to exactly help dispelling our image as a superstitious country. Holding yagnas before cricket matches and people marrying trees doesn't exactly conjure images of India as a progressive nation. But is the situation really limited to India? And is it really not prevalent in other countries?

Let's consider another country half a world away, founded on secular principles, forged in the furnace of democratic thought and freedom and ostensibly the most technologically advanced country in the world today. In this country:

45% people believe that God created the earth as it looks today about 10,000 years ago
37% believe that while evolution did happen, it was orchestrated by God
52% believe in Astrology
22% believe that aliens have landed on earth at some point in the past
33% believe that dinosaurs and humans lived simultaneously on Earth
67% genuinely think they had a bonafide psychic experience sometime in their life
35% believe in ghosts

(Source: Michael Shermer, "Why people believe weird things", Freeman, 2002)

Now perhaps we can ask the question again; which is the most superstitious country in the world? Which is the most religious country in the world?

I do agree that the influence of such opinions of people as listed above has been largely kept out of the political sphere quite effectively in the US. But given the current atmosphere, I see no guarantee of this continuing to happen. Also, my thoughts are really a response to people who are either simply ignorant or who try to distance themselves by announcing Third World countries as especially religious or superstitious. But to me this conclusion is by no means assured; at the very least it depends on how you look at the issue. By many standards and especially if we include the influence of religion on political discourse and action, I think that in the developed world, it is clear that the United States is the most religious country around.

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When I was in college, there was a cohort among us science-minded folks who looked down upon popular science that was then being popularised by scientists like Jayant Narlikar. With more than a hint of egotism, they used to shun "scipop" as they called it as being the bastard son of "real" science. I always used to disagree with these friends of mine, perhaps because I myself was interested in popular science since the beginning. But somewhere I used to find myself wanting to agree with their contention that what we were supposed to do was real science, macho science, and that we should not pay attention to this dumbed down version of science, wimpy science.

Also when I was in college, the real academic stars among students were those who excelled in mathematics and physics. Chemistry was somewhere in between. Those who studied biology were seen to lack the intellectual zing and brilliance that these other mathematically oriented folks had. The mathies; they were the ones considered the brainy child geniuses. Maths and physics, these were the "hard" sciences. Biology was a "soft" science. And we needn't have even gotten started on the social sciences like psychology.

What's common between these two above attitudes? They are both lopsided and in the end, just wrong.

Now Michael Shermer, a favourite author of mine and editor of Skeptic Magazine has written an excellent piece in Scientific American that demolishes both these myths; that popular science is somehow less respectable than technical science and that biology and the social sciences are "soft". I agree with him and have some thoughts of my own.

First of all, while it is true that doing creative research in mathematics or physics is quite hard, at least the variables that define a system are constrained by the researcher. One can have very fixed assumptions and axioms. In biology or psychology on the other hand, it is often difficult to even define the variables, let alone constrain them. In fact it is usually impossible to constrain them in the real world. Physics, for all its usefulness, many times involves multiple assumptions about "ideal systems" that need to be radically modfied when approaching real-world problems. It is of course very important to have results from these ideal systems, but the point is that applying them to a real life system is if anything as hard as the conception of the approach. And it gets harder as you move from cells to bodies to human societies. So the epithet of "hard sciences" for more mathematically based sciences is really a misnomer. This notably is not taking away anything from these sciences as being the foundations of most scientific research, but it's just an acknowledgement that their application to "higher" levels requires non-reductionist and novel techniques that are as hard as their own.

As an aside, this should also demolish any thoughts people might have about the reasons for there being more women in the biological sciences. Clearly, any attempts to correlate this fact with their intelligence is nonsense. If anything, women might be more successful in the biological sciences because they are better at having an overall view of things.

And so it is also for popular science. While there is a lot of mediocre or average popular science out there, its is very difficult to write an impeccable popular science book; one in which the science is simplified but not oversimplified, crystal clear but not naively presented, catchy but not too informal or flippant, rigorous yet accessible. There are very few examples of such writing. I would suggest almost anything written by Richard Dawkins, Philip Ball, Brian Greene, Stephen Jay Gould and my favourite popular science book of all time, John Casti's Paradigms Lost. Writing supremely readable popular science is as difficult, if in a different way, as doing challenging research.

But there is a quite different and extremely important reason why popular science should be hailed right now. The dark forces of ignorance, religion-inspired politics and general intolerance are making science even more confusing and inaccessible to an already scientifically-challenged public. It is the utmost need of the day for more science writers to come forward and write enlightening and eloquent science. For this reason, popular science now has become as important in my opinion as the best of scientific research. Without conveying science well, it will languish even more in the shadows, and we would be deprived of the one thread of rationality which can save us.

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Sunday, November 25, 2007


The moment I see someone who has won the Templeton Prize say something about science and religion, I raise my eyebrows. I have never really understood the point of the prize which has been awarded for "progress in science and religion". One of my all time favourite scientists and authors, Freeman Dyson, has received it and to this day I don't know exactly why. Maybe it's because Dyson has spoken in conciliatory terms about science and religion, although he like others has in my mind not managed to give a clear reason why and how the two can be reconciled. Richard Dawkins has perhaps rightly criticised the prize as "a large sum of money given to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion" (The God Delusion)

Now physicist Paul Davies has written an inconsequential piece in the NYT. Davies is a physicist who has written some very good books on popular physics. Like Dyson he has received the Templeton, and so when I saw an article about "faith" in science by him, my "skeptic antenna" started beeping. It turns out my doubts were not unjustified.

Davies seems to be trotting out a common argument used by scientists who want to reconcile science and faith. Their argument is that at at its core, even science is based on faith. In this particular case, Davies talks about the constants of the universe and the laws of physics, and the fact that scientists assume that these laws and nature itself are ordered in a rational and intellegible way. Scientists assume that the universe ultimately behaves in a particular way, and this should be taken as an indication of faith. Moreover, there is no current explanation for why the laws of physics are the way they are, why say the speed of light is what it is. Since scientists don't have an explanation for these facts, they too accept these laws on the basis of faith, without any explanation. But Davies goes so far as to compare this "faith" with religious faith when he says
"Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence...In other words, the (scientific) laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency. The specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research. But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus."
Well, what can I say but that Davies simply does not seem to understand the difference between degrees of faith, something that I have talked about before. First of all, in one way everything is based on faith. Every single thought that we come up with or infer is ultimately based on some assumption. Even a complete lack of faith signifies a kind of faith. So to say that ultimately everything is based on faith is a meaningless statement which says nothing useful. Secondly, the kind of "faith" that scientists put in the ultimate laws of the universe and the kind of faith that religious people demonstrate in say, believing the virgin birth cannot remotely be compared. In one case, scientists are believing in something based on the consistency with which it applies to testable explanations of the universe. They have good reason to believe the laws of physics because these laws have helped them to discover so many facets of reality. In the second case, what religious people are believing is complete nonsense conjured up by a human being that has absolutely no connection to reality.

What I find appalling is that Davies is enunciating a half-truth without elaborating the very real and significant differences between scientific "faith" and religious blind faith. In addition, he does not seem to realise that in the end, everything is based on faith if you choose to define it so, but that significantly does not make all kinds of "faith" equivalent. But I find his piece especially disconcerting because he is giving an invitation to religious people to open fire on science once again and seethe with indignation at how in their mind, when everybody is criticising their blind faith, even science is based on faith. Davies is doing a disservice to the scientific community and should have known better than to pen this piece of naivete. I am disappointed.

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Saturday, November 24, 2007


I finally watched Jesus Camp yesterday, what I can only describe as a first class mental rape of children. In a summer camp in North Dakota, Pentacostal minister Becky Fisher uses the most devoutly impeccable internal logic to indoctrinate children with fundamentalist religion. The children become 9-year-old preachers, bless and converse with a cutout of George Bush, learn about the sanctity of life from a growling demagogue-like preacher, sing songs about Jesus and life in front of the Supreme Court in the middle of a freezing day in Washington D.C., and writhe on the floor and cry profusely when they pray to Christ. They induct themselves into the Army of Christ, worship the Christian Flag along with the US flag, and of course make fun of evolution. They are mentored by the growling pro-life preacher, combative overweight Becky Fisher and creepy pastor Ted Haggard (who is now "using tools to embrace his heterosexual side").

But who are the biggest culprits here? Not the children certainly. And not really Becky Fisher, kooky as she may be. The real culprits are the parents, who home-school their children and indoctrinate them with religion, rally them against science and evolution and fill their minds with intolerance against homosexuality and abortion. Richard Dawkins says that bringing up a child in a particular religion when they can't think for themselves and decide is tantamount to child abuse. This is child molestation and exploitation of the worst kind.

I would not be writing about Jesus Camp if it simply indicated a small misguided cult of people who mentally abuse kids and revel in bigotry every summer. As everyone who reads this blog knows, the opinions of this cult to a large extent reflect those of 40 million evangelicals in the United States who can swing the election and change the face of this country possibly forever. They can, and they are changing it.

What can secularists do against such indoctrination? Secularism and atheism by their very nature don't indoctrinate. I attended a megachurch last Sunday on the insistence of my friend. It was in an upper-class part of town. Almost all the cars in the parking lot were BMWs, Mercedes and Lexuses. The church must be getting millions from these wealthy patrons. I found the experience interesting, and a tad unsettling to say the least. The church essentially was a huge auditorium with a seating capacity of 3000. One could tell that the hall was overfilled, since people were standing at the back. The entire one hour service was one big rock concert. The preachers were dressed in leather jackets, the orchestration and production and choreography of the event were superb and slick. It was like attending a Broadway show for free; who wouldn't like it? The huge stage was flanked by two equally huge high-def TV screens, where images of the performers were interspersed with images of crosses, Jesus and rivers and valleys. The music was loud and the strobe lighting was unnerving and enveloped you with that kind of surreal miasma that you experience in a disco. At one point, there was a baptism in which a young starry-eyed woman was dipped into a tank of shimmering water. There were some very clever special effects, with an uncannily real-looking image of the pastor projected at one point on the stage; after a while, the real human being walked out from behind the screen and had a conversation with his virtual counterpart. I could not but help think of the mass hysterical atmosphere manufactured in public gatherings that puts the audience into a kind of stupor in which they will all believe improbable things encouraged by thousands of others believing them. As Oscar Wilde said, religion is essentially that set of opinions which survives.

Clearly, this was religious marketing at its best, designed to attract, groom and enrapture the next generation of young religious people. Religion in the US is as much a part of the free market economy as women's hair products. What can secularists do to fight such indoctrination? It's simply too overwhelming in its sights and sounds. As I mentioned before, secularists are not going to have such indoctrination of their own, where they try to preach their ideas as if they were a religion.

I don't know the answer to this question and I even doubt if anything can be done at all; this reinforces what we can all see as an increasing downward spiral of this country into ignorance fuelled by the consummate marriage of religion and politics. But one answer lurked surprisingly in that disturbing movie Jesus Camp. The movie has all these activities at the camp interspersed with a Christian radio commentator who is extremely pained and disturbed by what he sees as the corruption and radicalised politicising of religion. He implores Becky Fisher in an interview to reconsider the fundamentalist nature of her activities. Naturally, she does not back down.

But I realised that it is people like him that secularists want on their side. And this is one of the problems that I see with the kind of outspoken atheism that Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens espouse. It's not a question of whether they are right or wrong. Of course they are, and it's really great that they wrote these books. The question is whether theirs is the most practical approach. If their writings serve to mobilise people who are on the fence and "almost" atheists, well and good, and I don't doubt they will. But it won't be in our best interests to alienate moderate Christians who think evangelical Christianity is corrupting their faith. We need them on our side for a very simple reason; they are the ones who can fight the extremists on their own turf. They can quote from scripture. They can lament that Jesus Christ would have sternly disapproved of the extremists' methods and scold them. The extremists are much more likely if at all to listen to these moderate Christians. We do absolutely need people like Dawkins and Hitchens. But we also need more moderate secularists who can befriend moderate Christians, even if they don't agree with their faith.

However, no matter what happens in the future, the current scenario is depressing by any standards. The fact that the kind of extremism depicted in Jesus Camp is embraced by enough religious people to be taken seriously itself says everything. I always think that two factors are going to lead to this country's downfall when it comes; the marriage of politics and fundamentalist religion, and the indifference to growing environmental problems. I only ponder which one of the two factors is more important and I have to say that these days I find the former one much more plausible, although I am sure my opinion will oscillate. We can all hope that none of these factors lead to the demise of America. But none of us currently have good reason to think otherwise. Jesus Camp simply fortifies such a belief.

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007


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I disagree. For me, the ratio should include Food raised to the 3rd or 4th power and distance probably as the square root. I don't remember distance ever keeping me away from free food to that extent. I especially remember a seminar when they had a lunch meeting with the speaker where everybody was supposed to discuss a paper by her over lunch, having preread it and brought it along. Me and my friend were the only ones who did not even have the paper with us, let alone read it. Shameless perhaps, but an organic necessity for graduate students.


Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Chetan alerted me to this video of Milton Friedman where the stalwart economist introduces libertarian ideas and basically counters every matter advocating government intervention that the questioner puts in front of him.

At one point, the questioner asks him if having the FDA around does not prevent tragedies like the Thalidomide tragedy, where it was the FDA that kept a drug with devastating effects away from the US market on the grounds of insufficient testing. Friedman's answer is not surprising to those who are familiar with libertarianism; he says that it is in the interests of the FDA to delay the approval of drugs for fear of backlash from ill-approved drugs. The solution? Again predictable; let the companies themselves do the testing. They won't dare to get a drug with harmful side-effects into the market because then their share-holders will be displeased and they might even go bankrupt from all that class action legislation.

Does this actually work? When I told this second argument to a veteran in the drug industry who has many years of experience with both the business and science of making drugs, without batting an eyelid he answered, "That simply does not happen. For companies, most out-of-court settlements constitute a fraction of the profit they make from drugs. For a company, bringing a product with a side-effect on the market does not carry a very great risk, because any cost they may have to pay in the form of fines or court settlements usually is much lesser than the profit which they make". Plus, exactly why are shareholders going to bring down the company? Surely not because of morality. Did shareholders stop buying Union Carbide products because of Bhopal? They only care what the shares look like. For a giant drug company, a temporary setback does not affect the long-term value of their shares. Even if such a company loses a few customers temporarily, it can gain many more customers in the future.

So Friedman's contention that customers will regulate the company (or rather, that the free market will regulate itself) may work in principle, but it is hard to imagine it working in practice. And there are examples in the real world where it has not worked. And not just with drug companies. Let's take companies which have extensively polluted the environment. Have these companies stopped their practices because of litigation? No, in most cases they have simply paid the fine and moved on with the same practices. That's the point; for companies, everything is a business decision, and many times paying punitive damages is much less expensive than changing manufacturing practices or testing drugs extensively.

This is the problem I have with some of these libertarian ideas; while I agree on many points with libertarians, to me their solutions often sound theoretical and many times generalised, with real-life examples providing plenty of counterexamples. Now when you point out these counterexamples, they will say "Yes, but you wouldn't have had these counterexamples in a perfect, libertarian world" But that's the point; the world is not perfect, even if we should continue to strive to make it so. In the real world, not everyone has property rights to shield themselves from corporate malpractices. Many people simply don't have the financial and political muscle to go to court against corporations. I always cite the example of Pacific Islanders facing sea-level rise from climate change. How many oil companies will they sue and how? And will the oil companies change their practices even then? The problem I have with some libertarian views is that they are extreme; they assume that government in any and every form is evil in any and every time, and that it is anethema to even think of any degree of government regulation. With governments of the kind that we have in India, I can sympathize with their viewpoint. But isn't there a second perspective here? Until their perfect libertarian world materialises, sometimes to me government regulation seems like the only option, even if it may be a necessary evil. We should certainly strive to give everyone property rights, but until that can happen we need to have some way of preventing catastrophe and disasters. Moreover, there are bad government agencies and good government agencies. Wouldn't a moderate standpoint be to advocate increasing the efficiency of some government agencies rather than simply doing away with them? Why doesn's anyone talk about improving systems rather than advocating getting rid of them by default?

I feel sad because libertarians often take an extreme stance and espouse a catch-all viewpoint. There is one fundamental rule of debate or analysis; don't adopt an extreme viewpoint, because then you automatically open yourself up to criticism. But in this case, I would go a step further and say that with their extreme viewpoints, libertarians force others who agree with much of what they say to become their critics.

P.S. The really galling question is, what do you do if government itself is more evil than anyone else? That's a tough nut to crack. Who do the people turn to then?

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"As news of the success by two research teams spread by e-mail, scientists seemed almost giddy at the likelihood that their field, which for its entire life has been at the center of so much debate, may suddenly become like other areas of biomedical science: appreciated, eligible for federal funding and wide open for new waves of discovery."
Wow. I have said this many times before; no matter how much egghead Presidents and religious bigots suppress scientific research, science moves on. It may trudge or even falter sometime, but it will progress. Of that one thing we can be sure.

Now, researchers have come up with a method to use 4 genes to induce skin cells to transform into stem cells through a retroviral vector. I am yet to read the two reports in Science and Cell in detail (here and here) but the news for now sounds like a real breakthroughs; even the White House dispensed their insipid bleatings about it. George Bush will probably say, "See, that's why I vetoed two stem-cell research bills, to foster such creative research. And they call me the "anti-science President"...what are they, stupid?" But to hell with him for now. I always knew there could be a way around this, and now here it seems to be. Made the front page of the New York Times. More details later.

Links via email from Patrix



...common people provide hope that sense exists in the world. I don't approve of their methods, but at least this proves that religion has not blinded everyone. It did blind his wife which is appalling.

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As it is with other important issues, the debate about nuclear power has always been mainly political and not technical. Along with the added benefits of nuclear energy and the drastically reduced risks of this energy source compared with conventional sources of energy, the problem of nuclear waste which has been the biggest bee in everyone's bonnet has also been largely technically solved. The problem has been political; politicians and reactionary anti-nuclear environmentalists comparing nuclear power and nuclear weapons in the same breath and dissuading the nation from adopting the single most important source of power that can solve our energy crisis. Thus the pro-nuclear scientists and citizens who were arguing on technical grounds- a sound and honest strategy- nonetheless failed to see the political arguments that they would have to combat in order to get their message across. This is gradually changing now, and pro-nuclear citizens are also pointing out special interest and political strawmen in the anti-nuclear energy arguments. But there is still a long way to go in educating the general citizenry for whom the word "nuclear" is deeply rooted in fear and untrustworthiness.

I have just received my copy of a new book by Gwyneth Cravens, Power to Save the World: The Truth about Nuclear Energy, which makes a passionate yet reasoned plea for nuclear energy. Cravens is a journalist who was previously part of the anti-nuclear movement. As she researched the topic however, she realised that almost all her fears about nuclear energy were misfounded or exaggerated. Touring various nuclear sites in the country, she reached the conclusion that nuclear energy is the single best solution for combating our global energy crisis. I will review the book as soon as I finish.

But I realised that this issue also relates to the issue of proliferation I was talking about in the last post. The idealist position advocates a little proliferation everywhere. A much safer and more rewarding view would be to advocate giving technology for nuclear power to energy-hungry nations. Not weapons but technology. In fact this was the central point suggested by the report filed by Robert Oppenheimer and others (The Acheson-Lilienthal report) after the end of World War 2. In its new incarnation, it seems it is being rewritten by a group that George Schultz and Senator Sam Nunn have set up. Sam Nunn is one of the world's foremost experts and a longtime advocate of non-proliferation.

Details of the group's report and plan have not yet been made public. But in a recent lecture recorded by CSPAN, historian Richard Rhodes said that Nunn has a plan in mind wherein every country in the world would have nuclear technology, but would be at least one year away from making a nuclear weapon. This is a sound and significant plan and sounds very similar in spirit to the Acheson-Lilienthal plan. Let an international body give countries nuclear material and technology, but only that which can be used for generating nuclear power. For example, material provided should be Uranium enriched only to reactor grade (4% U-235) as well as reactor grade Plutonium. Both these materials need to be significantly processed (Uranium to greater than 90% U-235) in order to make them weapons grade. In case of reactor grade Plutonium, the only way it can be used in a bomb is to use relatively large amounts of it. Any such diversion of material for weapons and the technological infrastructure needed to process it can be easily detected by a system of international monitoring, where countries have to keep detailed records of what goes in and comes out.

But for such a development to take place, countries first have to embrace nuclear energy as a solution to their energy problems. At some point or the other, every country in the world, whether fundamentalist or democratic, whether capitalist or socialist, is going to need a novel source of energy to replace fossil fuels, the deleterious effects from which affect everybody. It is only when they see great promise in nuclear power can they become amenable and even eager to partake of nuclear energy without wanting to build nuclear weapons.

Thus, the idealist position of providing nuclear technology to all nations in my opinion is intimately related to the desire of all nations to want that technology in the first place. Thus, the case for nuclear energy should become a mainstay of the case for non-proliferation of the kind that policy makers are trying to advocate. It is only by including the beneficial effects of nuclear energy in their proposals, that proponents of non-proliferation will make it easier for other countries to want to accept nuclear energy and give up nuclear weapons.

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Monday, November 19, 2007


One of the central questions debated among nuclear policy thinkers- perhaps the central question- is whether the world will be a safer place by allowing a little nuclear proliferation or by aiming for complete disarmament. This is essentially a debate between realists and idealists the way I see it. The idealist approach is not wrong. But the realist approach may be more feasible.

The realists say that nuclear weapons are here to stay. But they put great faith in the concept of deterrence and contend that if every nation in the world has a few nuclear weapons, all of them will be deterred and the threat of nuclear war will actually reduce. The realists also think that the potential threat from nuclear weapons can also limit the extent of conventional warfare.

The realist way of thinking is not new. After the Second World War, Robert Oppenheimer, AEC Chairman David Lilienthal and Secretary of State Dean Acheson convened meetings to discuss and propose a daring plan called the Acheson-Lilienthal plan. Their report started out by saying that nuclear technology can be obtained and used by anyone, no matter how much the United States would like to think of it as a secret. In such a scenario, it is better to provide the know-how to states and then have an international body keeping an official watch on these states so that such a situation is much safer than states developing such technology clandestinely. The existence of an international nuclear energy watchdog who kept a check on all states was key to the proposal.

The plan looked radical then; it would unfortunately be viewed as radical now. Naturally given the antagonistic political atmosphere of the times, the plan was not accepted without a great deal of modification by the administration and not surprisingly, promptly rejected by the Soviets.

The idealist way of thinking says that no matter if the realistic position works to some extent, it has fundamental flaws. The first flaw is that even if the probability of a nuclear war is extremely low, what if a madman decides to use his weapons? The very existence of nuclear weapons means that we will have to face the consequences of them being used, even if the probability of such a use is low. Secondly, the distribution of nuclear weapons does not exactly solve the problem, but pushes it under the rug. The peace such a situation entails can only be an uncertain, strained peace.

I have always been in two minds when it comes to this debate. I agree to a large extent that nuclear weapons are here to stay, and that it better to have an states possess them and then have an international body keep an official watch on them, rather than to have states clandestinely develop them. Right now, about 30 countries have the material and technology to build a crude nuclear bomb virtually with their bare hands. This knowledge cannot be taken away from them. I also think the realist position is strengthened by the existence of something that the original realists did not have to consider- nuclear terrorism. In the light of this plausible catastrophe, it becomes even more important to stop states from developing nuclear technology clandestinely and passing it to terrorists. We have seen several instances of such proliferation involving Iran, North Korea and especially Pakistan. Pakistani scientists have been known to have briefed Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri on WMDs. A. Q. Khan's nuclear black market is well-known. From the realist point of view, it is far better to have nuclear material accounted for and officially distributed and tracked to stop it from falling into terrorist hands. The problem with the realist plan is that it depends on an unbiased system of international cooperation where countries don't browbeat or lobby the international body to advance their interests. As we know from the examples of the UN and the IAEA, this seldom happens and more often than not such a policy results in the existence of certain nations who wield even bigger influence than the international body on key matters. Realism will also, just like the idealistic scenario described below, need the US and Russia to largely dismantle their nuclear fleet to level the playing field.

On the other hand, the idealistic position if it can be realised sounds blissful indeed. A world free of nuclear weapons. The idealists have a point when they say that only a world free of these weapons would have gotten completely rid of the possibility of them being used, no matter how small. Also, the idealistic scenario is not completely idealistic. After all, many countries have renounced their nuclear programs for various reasons. They have felt comfortable with their conventional forces, have decided to send out positive messages to other nations, have prospered in trade with nations that otherwise would not trade with them, and have obtained reassurances that the nuclear powers will help them out in case of an imagined emergency. The idealistic position seems to call the realistic position of assuming that nuclear weapons are going to be inevitable into serious doubt. The idealistic position also seems to minimize the risk of nuclear terrorism.

For the idealist position to succeed, many problems would have to be solved. Treaties, viewed as unrealistic by many and condescendingly rejected by others, will have to be enforced. Countries will have to become much more cooperative. The illusion that only by having more nuclear weapons than your neighbor would make you safe needs to disappear. Most importantly, the two countries which have the largest numbers of weapons, the US and Russia, need to start on an expedited program of dismantling them. This program needs to have the urgency of the arms reductions programs in the late 80s. Such programs should aim to bring down the number of weapons on each side to perhaps a thousand, a goal that seems very far from the tens of thousands of weapons currently in their arsenals.

But the idealist position is on the table precisely because for many it does not sound idealistic. Former Secretary of State George Schulz and Senator Sam Nunn are drafting a radical proposal, perhaps similar to the Acheson-Lilienthal plan, to rid the world of nuclear weapons. The proposal necessarily needs to have a crash program for reducing US and Russian arsenals down in a few years. Then only will it gain enough weightage to dictate what to do in the rest of the world.

In the short term, the realist proposal seems to be feasible. Unfortunately, it will completely defeat the idealistic proposal of having a weapons-free world. I wish we could in fact implement the idealist plan. It might even be feasible to a limited sense. I think events in the next few years will dictate if it seems feasible or not. As of now, I am leaning more towards the realistic plan. In any case, international cooperation will be necessary, and the discussion of conditions for this to happen goes much beyond the limited issue of nuclear proliferation.

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Friday, November 16, 2007


Ethanol, the much reviled yet irresistible satanic temptation that has plagued the human world for centuries, can actually be a giver of life in some situations...

Read the rest of the entry on Desipundit...

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Thursday, November 15, 2007


After two days of making a thin pretense at maintaining a low profile, the thick-skinned toad that is Prakash Karat has again raised his warts and started making noises about the nuclear deal. How can this man be involved in what his party is doing in Nandigram and sleep at night? No amount of literary criticism can guage the depths of moral depravity and hypocrisy in such people. The Nandigram debacle is classic communist repression at its most pernicious, and yet the people of Bengal allow this government to continue? This is the time when every citizen of the country should revolt against these monsters. Invoke simple justice, or if you really need a political cause, invoke the rapes of women in Nandigram, or invoke the miserable treatment of minorities. All of these are resoundingly valid in this situation. As Amit Varma has pointed out, lack of property rights to millions of poor people in our country is translating into a moral travesty second to none in the annals of our history. I really feel stunned with this scenario; with both the despicable insects in the government as well as the favour-seeking industrialist hogs who stuff their pockets with cash being pitted against the people, who is going to help them? It is at such times that I come close to supporting armed revolution against the government. Why don't those lakhs of farmers whose land has been taken and whose kin have commited suicide march on Parliament with sticks and stones if necessary? At this point, I get the feeling that only physical threats of violence is going to make the government change their horrendous and outdated laws. We have set new records for hidebound selfishness and cruelty. Nobody in our government is trustworthy...nobody. What is going to happen to us at this rate?

Oh, and I take back that statement about Karat being a toad. Don't want to insult toads. Seriously.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Over the last two semesters, I attended four dinners on climate change and policy organised by our university, with the last one held yesterday. The speakers were quite stimulating and focused on different aspects of the issue; beginnning with the science, the psychology of inertia against climate change, the health impacts of climate change including those on mental health, the legal issues involved in climate change legislation, the thrust by (a frustratingly low number of) corporations towards sustainable technologies, and the possible uniting of people of faith and those who do not have religious faith in fighting climate change as a common cause. There was also a session on alternative technologies. The participants were all lively, articulate and intelligent and it was fun and informative to meet such a diverse group. And of course the food was delicious, in spite of being organic...

Especially thought-provoking were the speakers who focused on health effects, analysed human psychology, and the mingling of faith and lack of faith in fighting climate change. It was argued by a psychologist that our preoccupation with "more" is more a function of a desire to boost our status and one-up our neighbor than to achieve self-satisfaction. In fact self-satisfaction never comes because there is always "more" to be had. People usually acquire more not because they want more, but because they want more than their neighbor has. After discussing this point, one interesting conclusion was that if we could make being green cool and sexy and status-building, then people could automatically strive to become green as a status symbol. Arnold Schwarznegger is right when he says that the problem with the environmental movement is that it lacks sex appeal. Instead of thinking "Having a Lexus makes me look sexy and high-status", what if people start thinking "I am green. I drive a hybrid. I use low wattage fluorescent lightbulbs. My carbon footprint is lesser than my neighbors'. Isn't that really cool and sexy?". Admittedly if such a sea change in social attitude takes place, then people could indeed become greener, if still for selfish and egocentric reasons. This certainly sounds encouraging, but first of all it should not be just another fad that dies down after a few years. Secondly, we don't have too much time to ponder the implementation of such social experiments.

The speaker who talked about health effects was Dr. Howard Frumkin. He works for the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) which is the nation's main public health organisation and action platform. One interesting thing which I was not aware of was that the CDC now has started including climate change experts among its officials. And why not. After all, if climate change can have massive and widespread health effects, it is an urgent public health matter. In fact, the public health effects of climate change are already visible as millions are affected because of droughts (Georgia: check) and food shortages, hurricanes and uneven rainfall. Probably the effects because of heat waves will be the most pernicious. But the public health effects of climate change go farther; these events can also lead to wars and conflict, mental attrition leading to huge productivity losses, and loss of goodwill everywhere. Indeed, the current conflict in Darfur has been called by some as the first climate-change induced conflict. The ethnic cleansing in Rwanda has also been cited by Jared Diamond as being partly due to scarce resource allocation. There are no easy solutions to combat these effects. But cooperation is going to be a big part of any efforts. The speaker stressed the idea of co-benefits; how having a "buddy system" during a heat wave for example enables people to help themselves by helping others, save energy, and most importantly, build social capital, a key aspect of any collective action against climate change. In the end, the idea of co-benefits was exemplified by the simple photo of a 1950s mom walking her children to school. There are so many benefits inherent in such a simple action; getting exercise, reducing carbon footprints, preventing depression, ecnouraging greenery in your neighbourhood, and building social capital by interacting with people. The talk was very inspiring, and it's pretty obvious that public health effects of climate change are going to be tremendous, and sticking together is going to be a key part of survival and progress.

The speaker who talked about how people of faith and otherwise can merge together in this common cause was also very thought-provoking. I think it makes sense; as much as I know evolution is true, I would be quite ready to shake the hand of a young earth creationist if he or she thinks that conserving our planet is dictated by his or her faith. After all the basic point is compelling; even if we differ on how we got here, as long as we can agree that saving what we have is of overarching importance, we can leave aside our differences and work together to fight this planetary crisis. As much as I dislike religious faith, nobody can disagree that even now it is one of the most potent forces for rallying people together for a common cause. Famed biologist and humanist Edward Wilson has made this point clearly in his wonderful book "The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth"; saving the planet can likely be the most powerful common theme ever for bringing every kind of faithful and those without faith together. This is a clarion call to those with faith; this issue is more urgent and important than any one of those issues on the political stage which you see as being important to your faith right now. And it can very well be the only issue that will decide your very fate, but which also can unite everyone.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007


The NYT has a story about a Soviet spy named George Koval- bred largely in the United States and therefore wholly American in appearance and manners- who passed atomic secrets from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the place where perhaps the most difficult part of the bomb work, separating and purifying uranium 235, took place.

I would be quite interested in knowing the veracity and value of the information Koval passed along. Suffice it here to say that while spies in the atomic bomb project certainly helped, their importance has been highly inflated in the public imagination. Stalin was a paranoid man, and almost always had his people double-check the information from the spies just to make sure it had not been supplied by double agents.

Moreoever, the most famous spies known to the public, the Rosenbergs, passed information to the Soviets that they obtained through David Greenglass, Ethel Rosenberg's brother who was only a mechanic at Los Alamos. Although he happened to work on an important part of the bomb, the information he could pass was decidedly limited given his low rank. The Rosenbergs are probably more firmly rooted in people's minds because they were the only spies to be executed, and the sentence also seemed excessively harsh because Ethel had two small children. This punishment also seems gratuitous and excessive to many, including myself, given the fact that the main spy Klaus Fuchs got only 14 years in a British prison.

Link through Nanopolitan

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"The researchers also found that they could alter the aggressive behaviour of their rats by manipulating the serotonin system. They gave the rats S-15535, a compound that binds exclusively to a neuron 'autoreceptor' that acts to dampen the serotonin system. This autoreceptor is called 5-HT1a. Binding to it seems to bring serotonin levels in the rats back to normal.

When even very low doses of S-15535 were used to bind to the receptors, de Boer found that both the serotonin and the violence of the pathologically aggressive rats returned to normal levels. The much more limited violence of naturally low-aggression rats could also be brought back to normal by the compound — but only by using higher doses. The compound seems to work by ‘fixing’ the serotonin breaking system, which becomes dysfunctional in the super-aggressive rats, says de Boer.
Hmm...drugs calming down violent who is going to convince Ann Coulter to enroll in the trial?


Monday, November 12, 2007


Religious people have always shot themselves in the foot by trying to find "scientific" justifications and explanations for their beliefs. It would seem that after so many rebuttals to creation "science", one would have seen stern rebukes being expressed by religious people themselves against their "science oriented" brethren. The best way for religion to get itself into trouble is to expose itself to scientific analysis. But no, it seems that there is no dearth of favour-seeking servile religious loons who want to keep on promoting "scientific" explanations for their beliefs. Here's the latest one, Dinesh D'Souza who says
"Our mistake has always been to resort to the Bible when debating atheists...what we need to do is fight them on their own turf, by invoking science and reason"
The Lord hath delivered them into our hands indeed. And for a moment, let me say this not as a scientist but by stepping into the shoes of a devout religious person; D'Souza, you are making a big and serious mistake here. Once you enter scientific territory, you are going to open up yourself to every possible broadside and blow that you had never asked for. In addition, if I were a religious person, I would be extremely insulted that religion has to use science to justify itself. Not only is this manuever a fatal one, it is also condescending to faith. For what would faith be if it takes the help of reason to justify its existence? D'Souza is putting the wrong foot forward, and we can all now watch while he is chewed up with alacrity by those who have used reason only to defend science.

How cheerfully the atheist seems to grin
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little religios in,
With gently smiling jaws...



...and ten answers

Even better and comprehensive is How to talk to a climate skeptic by Coby Beck

Previous posts related to global warming and climate change: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10


Sunday, November 11, 2007


When I read the title "Surviving WWI: Veterans' stories" on a BBC newspiece, I thought there surely was a typo and they meant World War 2. But no. I will be damned; here they are, the last veterans of the Great War, aged 111, 109, 107 and 106. Unbelievable stuff.


Saturday, November 10, 2007


In my review of Richard Rhodes's new book, I had mentioned his lengthy discussion of the key Reykjavik summit, where great opportunities for nuclear arms reduction were lost largely due to the obdurate refusal of Ronald Reagan and his hardline advisors (Perle, Nitze) in agreeing to forgo the grandiose dream of Star Wars. I found the BBC news report for that day, October 12, 1986, which has a reasonably good video on the failed negotiations.

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Thursday, November 08, 2007


This echoes my sentiments perfectly:
"There are lots of things I don't understand -- say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat's last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I'm interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it. Now Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Kristeva, etc. --- even Foucault, whom I knew and liked, and who was somewhat different from the rest --- write things that I also don't understand, but (1) and (2) don't hold: no one who says they do understand can explain it to me and I haven't a clue as to how to proceed to overcome my failures. That leaves one of two possibilities: (a) some new advance in intellectual life has been made, perhaps some sudden genetic mutation, which has created a form of "theory" that is beyond quantum theory, topology, etc., in depth and profundity; or (b) ... I won't spell it out."- Noam Chomsky
Postmodernists positively irk me (like they did a few days ago) when they contend that science is "just another way of knowing the world" and that other ways of "knowing" the world have equal validity. For them scientific truth holds no overwhelming importance, because it is as much a product of culture as anything else.

Fine, I say. Next time you get a bacterial infection, don't take antibiotics because they constitute just one particular approach of looking at the world advocated by one particular school of thought. After all, the fact that antibiotics kill bacteria does not constitute "truth", right? Instead, just pray, or visit shamans, or rub lotion all over your body.

See you later if you stay alive.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007


How a debate with two friends about creationism turned into a defense of science itself...

Read the rest of the entry on Desipundit...

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A gunman has shot seven others in a tragic Finnish school shooting. For once the perpetrator was "captured" alive. Apparently he posted a YouTube video of himself before the shooting:
"The video shows a picture of a building by a lake and two photos of a young man holding a gun. Going by the username Sturmgeist89, the person who posted the video calls himself a "social Darwinist" who would "eliminate all who I see unfit". "Sturmgeist" means storm spirit in German."
Clearly we need to stop teaching Darwinian evolution in schools; that's the kind of freaks it engenders. Clearly we also should stop practising capitalism; in a socialist society Paris Hilton would never have had the kind of wealth she has to splatter herself all over the press.


Tuesday, November 06, 2007


Even if the Indo-US nuclear deal is failing, it should not mean India's nuclear power generation should also instantly fail. We could have a robust power generation capability for at least a few years more, but only if we don't divert uranium into weapons building. We already have a minimum credible deterrent, and any such further activity will undermine our electricity generation and possibly engender insecurity and instability in an important part of the world...

Read the rest of the entry on Desipundit...

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Monday, November 05, 2007


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Part of the reason I made the trip to London in September was a single goal; to stand at a particular traffic light near the British Museum and take a photo of myself standing there. Later when I told people about the reason, most thought it was silly, and perhaps it was. But all of us have a romanticised impression of certain people, places and events in our mind which other people could find silly. In this particular case, the person, place and event involved were profound even if little known to the general public. In fact this light was so important for me that I had made up my mind to visit London once in my lifetime for the sole purpose of standing at the light, if not for anything else. What was so special about this traffic light?

It was 1933. Adolf Hitler had come to power in January, The Depression was raging and the future looked bleak to many. On the morning of September 12, 1933, on a miserable, wet, quintessentially English autumn day, at the intersection where Russell Square meets Southampton Row, Leó Szilárd waited irritably at a traffic light waiting for it to change from red to green. He had just attended a lecture by the great English physicist Ernest Rutherford. Rutherford, known to many as the father of nuclear physics, was discussing the newly prophesied release of energy from atoms, most notably by science-fiction pioneer H G Wells in his book The World Set Free. In his baritone voice, Rutherford, acknowledged master of the atomic domain, dismissed this fanciful idea as nonsense. Any thought of releasing the energy locked in atoms, he said, was "moonshine".

Szilárd was irritated by this flippant repudiation. Accomplished as he was, how could even the great Lord Rutherford know what the future held in store? Szilárd, peripatetic Hungarian genius, imperious habitué of hotel lobbies, soothsayer without peer among scientists, had himself thought deeply about nuclear matters before, most often during his extended morning bathtub ablutions. Now waiting for the light to change, Szilárd pondered Rutherford's words...I will let the acclaimed nuclear historian Richard Rhodes do the talking here. It was the riveting description of this event in Rhodes's magnificent book that engraved it in my mind like nothing else:
"In London, where Southampton Row passes Russell Square, across from the British Museum in Bloomsbury, Leo Szilard waited irritably one gray Depression morning for the stoplight to change. A trace of rain had fallen during the night; Tuesday, September 12, 1933, dawned cool, humid and dull. Drizzling rain would begin again in early afternoon. When Szilard told the story later he never mentioned his destination that morning. He may have had none; he often walked to think. In any case another destination intervened. The stoplight changed to green. Szilard stepped off the curb. As he crossed the street time cracked open before him and he saw a way to the future, death into the world and all our woes, the shape of things to come"
Time cracked open indeed. What Szilard realised as he stepped off that curb, was that if we found an element that when bombarded by one neutron would release two neutrons, it could lead to a chain reaction that could possibly release vast amounts of energy. Leo Szilárd had discovered the nuclear chain reaction long before anyone else, six years before the discovery of nuclear fission and any inkling that anyone could have had about the release of atomic energy, let alone the woeful apocalyptic future that would await the world because of it.

I first read Rhodes's book in 2000. The book begins with this story. The description is so riveting, the tale so profound and evocative, the person so singular and the implications so prophetic, that I resolved to visit Szilárd's traffic light, my traffic light, even if I had to once make a trip to London for just that. Since then, the event has been etched in my mind like words in red hot steel. Seven years later I got a chance.

The traffic light itself is completely non-descript, standing among dozens of other non-descript lights. We almost missed it; as I mused aloud about my great disappointment to my friend in a cafe and wished I had a map, a Spanish tourist sitting at the next table saved my life and procured one. The intersection was there. We had missed it by a block. Back we went and indeed there it was, with not an indication that a famous and prophetic physicist had seen into the future at that light some 75 years ago.

As it turned out at the time, Szilárd's choice for the element he was thinking about turned out to be wrong. Nuclear fission would be discovered only six years later in Germany after a series of close misses in Italy and France. But Leo Szilárd went down in history as the man who saw death before anyone else, a glimpse into mankind's Faustian pact with fate, the shape of things to come.

Ironically, when the first atomic bomb test was conducted in the New Mexico desert in the deathly stillness of the morning, in the midst of war and hope, the flash was so bright that it would have been seen reflected off the moon. It was, literally, "moonshine". The rest is history.

But I lived one of my dreams that day at that traffic light in London. Szilárd's traffic light. My traffic light.

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Saturday, November 03, 2007


Nuclear terrorism forms an important part of the armamentarium of one of the Bush administration's favourite pastimes- threat inflation. While it is true that the potential damage that terrorists could cause with even a 1 kT nuclear weapon is tremendous (Times Square NYC, noon on a weekday), there are many very realistic obstacles they need to overcome before they can acquire, process, build, transport and use any kind of a nuclear weapon.

The more realistic fear that governments and the public have is about dirty bombs, explosives packaged together with low-tech dispersive radioactive material that would largely circumvent the need to achieve the myriad steps needed to be in charge of a bonafide atomic device.

Writing in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Sonia Ben Ouagrham-Gormley challenges two assumptions made by proponents of a nuclear terrorist attack scenario: access to knowledge and the existence of a nuclear black market (exemplified by black market czar Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan). Gormley correctly tackles the myth of easy access to nuclear material and knowledge and identifies the slip between the cup and the lip- from knowledge to working product.

She also questions the ease of facilitation of trade in the nuclear black market and doubts the existence of a dedicated clientele, an essential feature of any black market. The clientele should also have the understanding and sophistication to purchase and process nuclear material (In the early days of Al Qaeda, Bin Laden was had when someone sold him mercuric oxide as yellowcake).

Lastly, she questions the nature of materials that have been implicated in nuclear smuggling until now, most of which included depleted uranium and isotopes like Osmium 167, too ineffectual in a dirty bomb, let alone a weapon.

But I think she is missing out on three other important isotopes which are widespread products of research reactors, large scale reactors as well as medical research reactors- Iodine 131, Cesium 137 and Strontium 90. Out of these, Iodine 131 can be absorbed by the thyroid gland and leads to thyroid cancer, but its effects can be thwarted rather easily by ingesting tablets made of normal non-radioactive iodine, provided such tablets are easily available (the slow dissemination of these tablets was partly responsible for the large number of deaths from Chernobyl). Cs 137 and Sr 90 pose more serious problems, and I would think that more than anything else they would be choice materials for a dirty bomb. Both isotopes seem to strike the golden mean for radioactive lethality, possessing half-lives of 30 years and 28 years respectively; long enough to compare to a human life span, and short enough to be intensely radioactive. Moreoever, both elements chemically resemble two key elements in the human body. Cs 137 behaves somewhat like potassium and distributes throughout body fluids and compartments, whereas Sr 90 resembles calcium and deposits in bones, greatly increasing the risk of bone cancer. Both elements if ingested in reasonable amounts will pose almost irreparable risk and cause permanent damage.

I certainly don't think one should be immediately paranoid about these isotopes, but it is clear that if they wanted to, terrorists could steal them from multiple sources. I would think that any perceived scenario involving terrorists and dirty bombs should include discussion of these three isotopes, which because of their ease of access and purity are in some ways much more lethal than uranium or plutonium.


Friday, November 02, 2007


It’s not everyday that you get to have a relaxed, inspirational and informal almost one-on-one chat for an hour with a Nobel Prize winner. Yet that was what it was today morning...

Read the rest of the entry on Desipundit...

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