Wednesday, June 25, 2008


On "popular demand" I am listing the books I got from Powell's Bookstore in Portland. Since I was on a tight schedule I unfortunately could tour only three or four sections; inevitably I settled on the ones related to science and had to miss out on my other big interest which is history. The great merit of Powell's lies in the concomitant shelving of rare and used copies along with the new ones in the same rows. In spite of the time constraints I got some classics; some old friends, some new acquaintances:

1. Atoms in the Family; My Life with Enrico Fermi- Laura Fermi. From a practical standpoint, Fermi was perhaps the greatest physicist of the twentieth century. No branch of modern physics failed to be touched by his golden touch. Even among geniuses he was regarded as a giant. And yet this remarkably humble and brilliant man was also rather private. Who better than his wife Laura to give us an intimate glimpse into his private personality. They met as very young people during a football match. Laura describes her husband's meteoric rise in the world of physics, his establishment of an outstanding school of physics in Rome, his comically rational and scientific approach towards everyday matters. She then describes the Fermis' plan to emigrate to the US even as the clouds of Fascism gathered in Europe. Fermi's preeminent position as the world's foremost authority in nuclear physics made him a special participant in the Manhattan Project. Laura also describes the many brilliant scientists whom she met, as well as endearing stories about adjusting to life in America. There was nobody in the world of physics who was respected as much as Enrico Fermi, and Laura lucidly gives us a glimpse of the everyday qualities- extraordinary patience, strength of character, dedication, discipline, humility- that made him who he was.
This is a valuable and affectionate account written with fondness and clarity, absolutely worth reading.

2. Evolution: The Triumph of an Idea- Carl Zimmer's book on evolution which I am just about to finish is one of the finest I have read on the subject. Impeccably comprehensive and filled with a sense of wonder at Darwin's triumphant idea and life's diversity, Zimmer lucidly traces every aspect of the subject; from accounts of Darwin's life to the early origins of life, the explosion of multicellular life, the evolution of higher animals, an outstanding chapter on extinctions and their pivotal role in evolution, and finally the evolution of the biology, culture and psychology of the peculiar creature called Homo sapiens. A roller-coaster story through the creation and metamorphosis of life, more wondrous than any religious or fantasy tale.

3. The Life It Brings: Jeremy Bernstein- Bernstein is a veteran physicist and writer who has penned volumes on Oppenheimer, Hans Bethe and nuclear weapons. This is his short and readable autobiography, sprinkled liberally with accounts of encounters with famous physicists who were colleagues, friends and teachers.

4. A Brief Tour of Human Consciousness- Vilayanur Ramachandran. His "Phantoms in the Brain" was enthralling, his research and prose are fascinating. Now the noted neuroscientist takes on perhaps the greatest mystery of the human brain- the making and manifestation of the "I"

5. Programming the Universe- Seth Lloyd. Is the entire universe a quantum computer with its own collapsible wavefunction? Read this book to find out. Also includes a poignant account of the work and death of Heinz Pagels, a brilliant physicist who met with a tragic untimely end.

6. The Cartoon Guide to Statistics- Finally, a book that brings the "dismal science" to life. I have to say that even for some advanced concepts, this is one of the best books I have found on the subject. Won't bore you one bit with its cute cartoon figures and stories. Its discussion of Bayesian probability is an exceedingly endearing one, starting with Chevalier De Mere gambling away his shirt because of ignorance of conditional probability...

7. Coulson's Valence- Charles Coulson. Non-chemists and physicists may not be familiar with this one, but this classic first published in the 1940s was the first to make quantum mechanics and chemistry familiar to chemists in a semi-technical, using appropriate mathematics wherever necessary but not too much. Crystal clear and memorable prose as only the British can deliver. I am extremely lucky to have found a first edition.

8. Asterix the Gladiator- Yes, the doughty Gauls are still alive on the shelves! I was so happy to see this series still around. Unfortunately prices are still steep with 10$ a volume, but I am going to start building my collection with this one which is my favourite.

9. Stalin and the Bomb- David Holloway's extraordinary and meticulously researched account of the Soviet bomb project, starting with the discovery of fission and its impact on Soviet physicists and ending with the first Soviet thermonuclear test, this book will remain the most authoritative account of the Soviet Union's tryst with atomic energy.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


A man who epitomized one of those essential qualities of sound science; eternal skepticism, and a congenital aversion to sacred cows



Whenever I rail and rant against the extreme right, I am often asked why I don't reserve the same kind of derision for the extreme left. My answer is simple. Of course I find the extreme left as crazy as the extreme right. But in my personal opinion, firstly the extreme left is not as widespread among mainstream politicians as the extreme right, and secondly and more importantly, I believe that the extreme right has a much bigger capacity to cause real harm than the extreme left.

For example, what's the extreme left going to do? Allow gay marriage in every state? Allow unbridled abortion in every state? Put up a gay atheist as a presidential candidate? Turn the United States into a socialist economy? That's never going to happen in this religious and capitalist nation, even if some of these actions are favourable ones. But what's the extreme right going to do? Allow creationism and prayer in every school? Try to ban not just gay marriage but homosexuality itself in every state? Try to stamp out creative capitalism and instead allow favoritism and rampant capitalism? Well, not only are they trying to do all this but they have come close to doing all this quite a few times. Especially the religious fundamentalism that's on the rise here is going to keep on fueling the ambitions and abilities of the extreme right.

Clearly both the extreme right and the extreme left can cause untold harm in theory, but the extreme right has the actual capacity and mainstream personnel to do it in practice, has done it before, and will always preserve that capacity in the future. I believe that's the nature of this country. That's why I don't worry as much about the extreme left as the extreme right.

Labels: , ,

Monday, June 23, 2008


I have always liked John McCain, even before he was running for President. Maybe it was just the feeling that he is among the few old-school Barry Goldwater Republicans still around. Unfortunately I still wouldn't vote for him if I could, mainly because I think it's high time that this country stepped out from the shadows of the current neoconservative republicanism, which McCain can do little to swiftly quell. The problem is that even if McCain is fairly moderate, he may be forced to pander to a very conservative voter base and thus end up enforcing right-wing policies. As just one example, I have no doubt that he will appoint conservative judges to the Supreme Court who will overturn Roe v Wade in a heartbeat, or at least hand over decisions over abortion to states, which will still be pretty much the same thing. Any such policy threatens to divide an already-bitter populace.

However, my respect cannot help but increase for the man when it comes to energy policy. McCain has often spoken of reducing energy dependence, and now he seems to seriously plan on doing something about it. I was extremely gratified when he spoke of constructing 45 new nuclear reactors till 2030 to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and reduce foreign oil dependence. He said,
"Across Europe there are 197 reactors in operation, and nations including France and Belgium derive more than half their electricity from nuclear power. And if all of these nations can find a way to carry out great goals in energy policy, then I assure you that the United States is more than equal to the challenge"
At last, a Republican who praises France for a change. It should be noted that no new nuclear reactor has been constructed in the country since the 1970s, and the greatest cost in commissioning new reactors still resides in their extremely long licensing times. Nuclear power, by the way, is not heavily subsidized, no matter what the environmentalists say.

Almost no Democrat I know, including Al Gore and unfortunately also Obama, has volubly spoken in favor of nuclear power or has demonstrated strong leanings towards alternative energy (except renewables, and we all know the problems with those). Now McCain has also announced a 300 million $ prize for a battery of the future that would be environment-friendly and highly efficient. He said
"In the quest for alternatives to oil, our government has thrown around enough money subsidizing special interests and excusing failure. From now on, we will encourage heroic efforts in engineering, and we will reward the greatest success," McCain said in a speech at Fresno State University."
It is heartening to know that McCain is thinking in the right direction. On the other hand, his policies and rhetoric about Iran are highly misguided. He should understand that if enough attention is paid to energy and nuclear power, Iranian oil would not be a necessity. Leave Iran alone. Focus on energy policy at home. It's good to see that he is at least partly doing that. Meanwhile I am still waiting for Obama to endorse nuclear power.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, June 16, 2008


The Atomic Bazaar: The Rise of the Nuclear Poor
By William Langewiesche
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007

Interest in the Pakistani nuclear marketeer A Q Khan has reemerged recently with news of his rather inane denial of his activities and about the relaxing of restrictions on his movements. Yesterday there was a piece of news suggesting that Khan might have sold blueprints for an advanced nuclear weapon to an international smuggling ring. Incidentally I just finished William Langewiesche's rather disturbing book The Atomic Bazaar, the majority of which is devoted to Khan's life, times and deeds.

The book is disturbing because its premise is simple; that nations who choose to get nuclear weapons will get them under any circumstances. This is not only because nuclear weapons provide unparalleled leverage in foreign policy and the greatest bang for your buck, but also because it's not at all easy for other nations to stop nuclear proliferation. This is because of a complex web of reasons that encompass political problems, economic necessities and personal grudges and perceptions. Note that we are not talking here about whether countries have incentives to acquire nukes in the first place. They may or may not and some have and others haven't, as has been documented lucidly in Joseph Cirincione's Bomb Scare. What Langewiesche is saying is that assuming that a country does have such incentives, it's very difficult to stop it from building such weapons. While the fact that this is technologically not too difficult has been demonstrated before, Langewiesche also sheds valuable insight on other reasons why this may be easy.

Langewische describes Khan and concomitantly Pakistan's nuclear weapons programs as a typical case of such proliferation. Many facts conspired to make both Khan's and Pakistan's success possible. What is galling in case of Pakistan is that countries such as the US turned a blind eye to the weapons program because of other geopolitical interests that were deemed more important, as sometimes they unfortunately well may be.

Langewiesche traces Khan's development as a nuclear proliferator from his early days working for the European nuclear consortium URENCO in Holland. Khan started out as a metallurgical engineer having no connection to nuclear issues. His speciality was machine parts of the kind that are used in centrifuges. He largely joined URENCO because that was the best job he could find at the time, and also because he had married a Dutch woman. It was an unfortunate coincidence of fate that he ended up working for a company that manufactured centrifuges for uranium enrichment. By all accounts Khan was not a brilliant or exceptional scientist, but a sincere and hard-working individual. He was affable and liked by his co-workers.

Khan's interest in nuclear energy developed simultaneously and ominously with political developments in Southeast Asia. Ever since India had launched its nuclear energy program, Pakistan had wanted to build a nuclear weapon. India and Pakistan had gone to war in 1965 and India had won that conflict. Right after this event prominent Pakistani politicians started making noises about wanting nukes. Foremost among these was Zulfikar Bhutto, later Pakistan's prime minister. Famously and rather inanely, he said that the Pakistanis would develop nuclear weapons even if they had to eat grass. India's 1971 war with Pakistan in which Pakistan suffered a crushing defeat further and greatly reinforced Pakistan's convictions about acquiring them.

It is to be noted here that this set of decisions puts to rest a commonly held myth about the driving force for Pakistan's nuclear program. It emphatically was not developed only in response to India's program, although the Indian program certainly expedited its urgent manifestation. Pakistan almost certainly would have developed nuclear weapons even if India had no nukes right up to the present. This was because it was quite clear to Pakistan that it could never win against India's vastly larger conventional forces, a point driven home after Pakistan's defeat in 1971. This is emblematic of one of the fundamental reasons why nuclear weapons are so alluring; they can substitute many times for the lack of advantage in conventional forces that a country has and quite cheaply at that, and since most developing and underdeveloped countries lack large conventional forces, this reason alone could be instrumental in their nuclear weapons development, as was the case with Pakistan.

India's nuclear weapons test in 1974 sealed Pakistan's decision to proceed with the program. Long before Prime Minister Bhutto had heard of A Q Khan, he had convened a meeting of Pakistani scientists to embark on a nuclear program. The preliminary thrust was in the development of a plutonium-based weapon and reactors were constructed with American and Chinese help whose secret purpose was to transform Pakistan's generous reserves of uranium into plutonium.

In Holland, Khan was quietly observing these developments and seething with rage at Pakistan's humiliating 1971 defeat. What I find upsetting was his religious fundamentalist resentment for the "Hindu bomb" and an overweaning ambition to answer with an "Islamic bomb". In fact Pakistan, as the first Islamic nuclear actor, has been a role model for countries like Iran, a perception that's hard to erode from the minds of many fundamentalist Muslim citizens around the world.

Since Khan was in the centrifuge business, he quickly saw that he could contribute to the Pakistani program. Boldly he scheduled a meeting with Prime Minister Bhutto himself who he quickly convinced. Bhutto decided to play it safe for the moment and instituted a parallel uranium enrichment program essentially in competition with the plutonium program which was under the auspices of the Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission.

What happened next is disconcerting and points to the kinks in systems for keeping nuclear proliferation at bay. For one thing, security at URENCO was rather lax, with employees free to appropriate spare centrifuge parts. Khan casually took blueprints and parts home and noted information about them in Urdu, aided by his wife. Even when an alert co-worker who was a friend became suspicious, Khan quite brazenly continued his activities. It was only when the co-worker talked to the Dutch authorities that URENCO began to investigate Khan. Even then they could come up with no substantial evidence against him. And by 1975 Khan left for Pakistan for good, armed with enough information to jump-start a uranium enrichment unit in his home country.

The next disturbing part of the story is how Khan slowly built up his nuclear empire in the next few years. One problem with stopping nuclear proliferation is that, apart from nuclear material itself, most other equipment used for building either nuclear reactors or weapons is dual-purpose. Most of the parts needed for building centrifuges can be bought from companies making machine tools or parts. You can put a ball bearing in a juice blender or you can install it in a uranium enrichment centrifuge; it's a fundamental aspect of technology. Khan banked on this fuzzy nature of the nuclear market and placed orders for parts from European companies that had no explicit nuclear connections. Over the years, he formed a network of trusted suppliers that could ship him large and readymade orders of equipment. He himself set up companies in Dubai and Malaysia that were false fronts for backdoor equipment transfer. Most of the companies he dealt with could be vaguely suspected of taking part in nuclear proliferation but their dual-use capacity made them part of a gray market, hard to explicitly label as black, and hard to garner strong evidence against. Many businessmen and officials in Europe were complicit in these transactions; their true numbers and identity may never be known. Khan deftly exploited this fundamental gap in manufacturing and legislation and finally set up a vast network of uranium centrifuges. Pakistan started churning out its first batches of weapons-grade U-235 in the early 80s.

Perhaps the most galling part of the whole story is how the United States did not and in fact could not stop Khan and Pakistan even when they knew about their activities. Through the 1970s there were some American agents and journalists (most notably Mark Hibbs) who knew about Khan's shenanigans. They managed to convince the US government to keep a tighter watch on US companies who might correspond with Khan. Strict laws did stop US companies from doing this. But in Europe it was much more difficult. For one thing European laws and policies were not as strict as those in the US. But more importantly, and I find this point crucial, European governments were cynical of US efforts to curb proliferation when the US itself possessed upward of 20,000 nuclear weapons. It was again about credibility, the same factor that's keeping countries such as Iran today from taking the US seriously about stopping nuclear proliferation. Khan himself despised the five nuclear powers from preaching non-proliferation when they themselves were continuing to build vast arsenals.

In the 1980s, Khan started essentially running his nuclear material pipeline in a reverse direction, looking around for customers who wanted the same kind of technology. There were eminently many who jumped at the opportunity to buy a readymade nuclear plant or even better, a small nuclear bomb shipped directly to their doorstep. As we know now, North Korea, Iran and Libya were all eager customers of Khan. In turn they paid Pakistan not only in cash, but in complementary technology, like the North Korean missile technology that's now installed in Pakistan's missiles. Khan personally gained an enormous amount too; he now was one of the most respected men in the country, he spent lavish sums on palatial mansions, fleets of the latest cars, and on charity. He took pleasure, as many politicians in corrupt countries do, in building luxurious houses in places where construction was formally banned by law. He dined with the prime minister and held parties for Pakistan's most affluent at his houses.

A lot of this was known to the US, but by this time, they needed Pakistan's help in fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Reagan, Bush and Clinton all turned a blind eye towards Pakistan's nuclear arsenal because they wanted Pakistan as an ally in fighting their enemies, a mantle they inherited from their predecessors, a favored policy pursued for almost 50 years in the interests of geopolitical strategy. Some agents were asked to keep quiet, others were transferred to other cases. The consequences are there now for everybody to see- a monster that was nurtured in the form of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and a black market of nuclear proliferation that has been unprecedented in its scope. Today the US essentially continues its financial and political policy towards Pakistan while the country continues to provide a safe haven for fundamentalists and terrorist training camps.

The trends continue and the whole story seems to have a strange and ominous air of inevitability to it. Iran seems to signify the same convictions in acquiring nukes as Pakistan did, and it seems difficult to make the Iranians change their course. After all, the nuclear strategy worked well with North Korea and the Bush saber-rattling has been much more moderate towards that country. Iran has a good lesson to learn there.

We can sum up four principal reasons quoted by Langwiesche that lead to the rise of the "nuclear poor":
1. The age-old incentive especially for poor countries to acquire relatively cheap nuclear weapons that will provide the biggest bang for their buck and quickly make up for the lack of an advantage in conventional forces.
2. The gray nature of the nuclear market and the dissonance among international trade laws that allows proliferators to cleverly skirt regulation and acquire much needed nuclear material.
3. The personal relations and rivalries that prevent countries from cooperating and fighting the proliferation genie together; the European inertia about not heeding the US's urgent warnings to heel in their corporations is a good example.
4. As a related and very important point, the geopolitical interests that sometimes inevitably bind a nation's hands and make it difficult or impossible for it to enforce strict policies to stop proliferation. In this case, the US deemed its relationship with and support for Pakistan so important that it turned a blind eye to Khan's activities.

So what is the solution to stop the nuclear poor from flourishing? For one thing, as I noted earlier, the nuclear poor will get their hands on a nuclear weapon only if they want to. What we need to to is to convince them that they would genuinely be much better off without nuclear weapons. For that, and this point really cannot be reiterated enough, the nuclear powers of the world and especially the US must have credibility. As of now, the US has the least amount of credibility among all the powers. In the current scenario it's inevitably going to be extremely difficult to convince Iran or any other country to disarm. If he does get elected, the new President Obama will hopefully bring about drastic reductions in the current arsenal, while I don't see the new President McCain doing so.
It is a very simple element of foreign policy that a country's safety can only lie in the safety of its enemies, a principle that the US has largely neglected in the last eight years. Whether it's Iran or North Korea, it is a simple fact of human nature that they are are not going to feel secure if they continue to see the US saber-rattling and engaged in messianic rhetoric.

Secondly, there can sometimes be very simple incentives for countries to give up the idea of nuclear weapons. The country that led to the fall of Khan, Libya, is a shining example. Khan was almost about to deliver a readymade weapon to Libya's doorstep when Quadaffi realized that here was his chance to gain significant political leverage as well as financial benefits from announcing the existence of this secret atomic bazaar and to give up his nuclear ambitions. If a country truly realizes that its security and self-interest lies in not possessing nukes, it could give up its nuclear ambitions in a heartbeat.

All hope should not be lost. If nations decide to build nuclear weapons, then it's disturbingly possible for them to do so. But much can be gained if we can work together to convince everyone that the best kind of nuclear weapon is not just one which is never used, but one that's never had.

Note: As a commentator pointed out, the most exhaustive treatment of Khan's doings is detailed in the fascinating Deception: Pakistan, the United States, and the Secret Trade in Nuclear Weapons. This book especially talks about Richard Barlow, an intelligence analyst who was dismissed from the CIA when he tried to expose the US administration's appeasement of Pakistan. He was especially galled when the US sealed a contract to sell nuclear-capable aircraft to Pakistan in spite of a Congressional law forbidding the sale of such equipment. Mr. Barlow was almost instantly fired, and the book depressingly finds him living in a trailer, still trying to collect his pension. This is of course not the first time that the US government acted like it was above and beyond Congress and the people. And also not the first time that true patriots have been treated as scum and a danger to the country.
In any case, while I highly recommend this book, the level of detail in the 600 page volume might be a little too much for those who want to get a quick summary of Khan's life and times.

Labels: , ,


George Will is one of the sharpest political minds in the country. In this otherwise brilliant and quick witted exchange with the equally sharp Colbert, there is one quip from Will that I take umbrage to. When asked what's the difference between liberals and conservatives, he says that conservatives value freedom more than anything else while liberals would bring about equality by sacrificing some freedom.

So let's think about all this freedom that conservatives value so much. Conservatives instituted the patriot act, conservatives approved indefinite detainment of citizens on tenuous grounds, conservatives advocate the war in Iraq, conservatives advocate the building of new nuclear weapons, conservatives are roiling up foreign policy while ignoring border protection at home, conservatives want to curb gary marriage and personal choice over abortion. Heck, conservatives don't even advocate a fair free market by obscenely subsidizing oil and corn for example.

A grand bunch of freedom-lovers conservatives are! Every one of the above actions and policies undermine freedom and national security. Now one might say that liberals have also supported some of the above policies and that not all conservatives support this action, but the point is that Will is setting up a false premise here. However, Will is an old-school conservative and I think we can give him the benefit of doubt by assuming that by "conservatives", he is referring to the old guard of conservative Republicans like Barry Goldwater.

If Will is really talking about those historical conservatives, then his point is well-taken. But that's the whole problem; that that brand of Goldwater conservatism has almost gone extinct. What world is Will living in? Those honorable conservatives have been replaced by rabid, freedom-hating neo-conservatives who pay nothing more than lip service to freedom. These neocons have long since dragged the good old conservative name into the mud. And so, even if he did not perhaps mean to, Will's definitions simply don't apply to today's 'conservatives'. If conservatives were really freedom-lovers, America would not have found itself in the mess it is in.

[link: Gaurav]

Labels: ,

Monday, June 09, 2008


I am lounging around in Seattle, WA after a fantastic excursion to Protland, OR. This is one of those moments when I am truly glad to be away from Atlanta. Simple reason- Right now, Seattle is 54 degrees. Atlanta, 97 degrees. Even if this place is cloudy, I prefer it any day to that monstrous heat. This is the first time in 5 years that I am seeing so many 90 degree+ days back home. Hello to my friends there. Hope you had fun playing volleyball at the department picnic...

Monday, June 02, 2008


I am off to a conference in Portland, OR and while I have heard many tales of its beauty, about the only thing I am looking forward to even more than the conference and place is the delicious-looking and famous Powell's Books store, supposed to be the largest in the world. Unfortunately and sadly it seems I will miss Fup the technical store cat who passed away at the ripe old age of 19 last year.

Right now I am licking my lips reading the store description, and later in the evening will be on my way to buy an extra duffel bag that can hold at least a dozen books. Although this does not bode well for moving time after my PhD.; the last time I counted I had three hundred something books stashed in bookshelves, on the carpet and on chairs in my little rented bedroom. Oh, well.