Tuesday, December 30, 2008


And a very brief history of the US hydrogen bomb effort

How the Soviets got the H-bomb by 1955 has always been something of a mystery. Although they had top-notch scientists like Andrei Sakharov working for them, they still got almost exactly the same design as the Americans in just 4 years. Nobody denies Sakharov's tremendous contributions to the H-bomb effort. And yet the question lingers whether espionage helped H-bomb design just as it had helped Soviet A-bomb design, most famously through Klaus Fuchs's efforts.

Now a new book due to be released in January claims that the authors have uncovered a spy who gave details about the H-bomb design to the Soviets. "The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and Its Proliferation" is co-authored by Thomas Reed, a former weapons designer who worked at Los Alamos for many years. Among other things the book discusses Chinese support of Pakistan's nuclear program. The authors would not name the spy since he is now purportedly dead. Historians who have weighed in don't find the idea entirely implausible; after all it is hard to believe that security would have been so tight so as to completely preclude espionage. In addition even after Fuchs was apprehended, the Soviets still had a web of spies and sympathizers spread throughout the US that even as of now is not completely deciphered.

It is worthwhile at this point to recapitulate some of the US H-bomb history:

1942: Edward Teller, the 'father of the hydrogen bomb', builds upon a suggestion by Enrico Fermi and proposes the first design for a thermonuclear weapon. This is during a secret conference at Berkeley organized by Robert Oppenheimer that's supposed to explore the feasibility of a fission weapon, not a fusion device. Teller's basic idea is to use the extreme temperatures arising from an atomic bomb to ignite a cylinder of deuterium or tritium at one end, with the unproven assumption that the fusion fuel will ignite and continue to burn, thus producing a tremendous explosion equivalent to millions of tons of TNT. The H-bomb distracts the participants enough for them to speculate on its workings, but atomic bomb design (necessary for initiating a fusion reaction anyway) is wisely given priority. The as yet speculative thermonuclear weapon is christened "The Super". The Manhattan Project is kicked off. Throughout the war Teller goes off on his own H-bomb trajectory, often contributing to flared tempers and inadequate expertise at Los Alamos.

1946: After the war, Teller who is still obsessed with the weapon convenes a short, top secret conference. Klaus Fuchs is one of the participants. The conference concludes, mostly based on Teller's optimistic assessment, that The Super is feasible. At the end of the conference, Teller submits an overly optimistic report much to the chagrin of Robert Serber, an accomplished physicist who had been Oppenheimer's principal assistant at Los Alamos. Fuchs transmits the information from this conference to the Soviets.

August 1949: The Soviets detonate their first atomic bomb. Everyone is shocked, perhaps unnecessarily so. A high-level committee headed by Oppenheimer convenes in October on Halloween and debates H-bomb development. The almost unanimous opinion is that the H-bomb is not a tactical weapon of war but a weapon of genocide and therefore its development should not be undertaken. Priority should be given instead to the development of better, tactical fission weapons.

December 1949-January 1950: Edward Teller, spurred on by the Soviet A-bomb, starts recruiting scientists to join him at Los Alamos to work on the Super. Hans Bethe initially agrees, then after a chat with Oppenheimer and Victor Weiskopf, declines. Teller blames his change of mind on Oppenheimer. Later Bethe decides to work at Los Alamos only as a consultant, mainly because he wants to prove that The Super won't be feasible.

During this time, Stanislaw Ulam and Cornelius Everett at Los Alamos embark on a set of tedious calculations to investigate the feasibility of The Super. The result is decidedly pessimistic. The Super would need much more tritium, an extremely rare and expensive isotope, to initiate burning. Even if tritium is added the probability of successful propagation is extremely low. Teller's dream is dead in the water. Fermi, one of Teller's role models, confirms the bad news.

January-February 1950: Even as Ulam's calculations give a fit to Teller, Klaus Fuchs confesses his espionage. The country gradually starts descending into a state of paranoia. Against the advice of many experts, President Harry Truman initiates a crash program to build the H-bomb. Incidentally his announcement comes before that about Fuchs. And it comes absurdly even as Ulam and others have proven that Teller's Super would not work.

1950: Throughout 1950 the options for the Super keep on looking bleaker. In June the Korean War begins, fueling more feeling of paranoia. Teller's mood blackens. At one point after Ulam reports his latest set of calculations, Teller is said to be "pale with fury"

December 1950-January 1951: Ulam makes a breakthrough. He realizes that separating the fission weapon and fusion fuel and using the extreme pressures generated by the fission weapon will cause compression of the fusion fuel, thus dramatically increasing the odds of thermonuclear burning. Ulam floats the idea to Teller who enthusiastically espouses it and also crucially realizes that radiation from the fission "primary" would do an efficient job of compressing and sparking off fusion in the fusion "secondary". The idea is so elegant that Oppenheimer calls it 'technically sweet' and now supports the program. Bethe agrees to work on the device because suddenly everyone thinks that the Soviets will now not be long in discovering it. Later, Teller makes significant efforts to discredit Ulam's role in the invention. But the Teller-Ulam design becomes the basis for almost every hydrogen bomb in the arsenals of the world's nuclear powers.

1951-1952: Work proceeds on a thermonuclear weapon. In November 1952 the world's first hydrogen bomb, Ivy Mike, explodes with a force equivalent to 650 Hiroshima type bombs. Mankind has finally invented a device that comes closest to being a weapon for complete annihilation of nations.

So that is where matters stood in 1952. That gives the spy a window of two years or so to transmit the information. It's instructive to note that after Fuchs was outed, Oppenheimer actually hoped that he had told the Soviets about the H-bomb design from the 1946 conference, since that design had been shown to fail and would have led the Soviets on a wild goose chase. However the initial thoughts that Bethe, Oppenheimer and others had about the Soviets discovering the Teller-Ulam mechanism soon don't look unfounded to me. There were experts who thought that the idea of using compression and radiation to ignite and burn the thermonuclear fuel would occur to anyone who had thought hard and long about these matters. Niels Bohr thought that a bright high-school student would have thought about it, but that's probably going a little too far. The truth could well be in between, with both original thought and espionage playing a role. In any case the new book promises fresh fodder for atomic aficionados and I have pre-ordered it.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008


A high-school educated truck driver uncovers the classified details of the first atomic bombs with unlimited verve and imagination

The details and specifications of the first two atomic bombs developed by humanity- Little Boy and Fat Man- are still secret. While a lot of material about nuclear weapons has been declassified, the specs for the first bombs dropped on Hiroshima are still considered out of reach, and probably absurdly so. Even after other countries have built countless nuclear weapons like Little Boy and Fat Man and vastly improved ones, the original bomb design details remain under a shroud of secrecy.

Now, a truck driver with a high school diploma has uncovered these details in excruciating detail. His work has been lauded by prominent historians including Richard Rhodes. His fascinating story is recounted in the December 15 New Yorker. John Coster-Mullen, with the "Coster" in his name curiously being the last name of his wife, has gone to simple but extraordinary lengths to get detailed information on the design of the first two nuclear weapons. He has succeeded to a degree that no professional scientist or historian has before, and which no national laboratory scientist will admit.

Coster-Mullen's story proves that to make significant headway in a problem you don't have to be very smart or highly-educated. All you need is the patience to stick with a topic and keep on drilling deep into it. Coster-Mullen has worked with this single purpose for the last fifteen years or so, and has exploited almost every publicly available source to put together the details of Little Boy and Fat Man. These include museum exhibits around the world, scores of books written about nuclear weapons, thousands of documents declassified in the last fifty years, and testimonies and interviews with everyone from top scientists to machinists who worked on the bombs. The most important asset that Coster-Mullen brings to bear on the problem is unremitting determination and pure old common sense.

Consider the instance where he looked at an old and commonly seen photograph of two scientists carting the core explosive 'physics package' for the device exploded in the first atomic bomb test- Trinity- into a sedan. Coster-Mullen simply looked at the height of the sedan doors, figured out which model it was (a 1942 Plymouth) went into a car museum to measure the height and width, and then by simple proportionality deduced the size of the box the men were carrying. In another instance, he deduced the length of a crucial plug used for Little Boy from the account of the number of turns needed to screw it in. His general approach is to patch together material from a variety of sources and then connect the dots using simple deductive logic. While there are still unresolved questions about the designs, he has put together an extraordinary amount of detail. This is classic detective work at its best. The culmination of this work is Atom Bombs, a book about the detailed designs of the first atomic weapons that Mullen is selling on Amazon for 50$.

Again, Coster-Mullen has nothing more than a high school diploma and works as a truck driver and part-time photographer. His example eminently indicates that what is needed for success is an iron will to uncover something, and knowing where to look for the data. Read the entire article- it's fascinating.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008


As a book-hungry graduate student whose money is a precious commodity, it's not surprising that I am loathe to walk into Borders and buy a brand new book. If the book is older I would rather haunt used book stores, comb through the hundreds of sometimes boring titles, and pick the one gem ensconced among them which others' eyes have not noticed. Needless to say, this gnaws away at another one of a graduate student's precious commodity- time.

However, another option is Amazon's used books service. I was hesitant to use this but was finally egged on to try out a few titles. My conditions were simple: spines should be intact, and there should be absolutely no underlining or highlighting inside. The rules are pretty simple too: go for sellers offering books whose condition is marked "very good" or better, who have at least a 97% rating and who have been selling at least for a year or so. Most importantly, buy ex-library books if they are available; the seller will usually indicate this explicitly. These books get you the biggest bang for your buck. They are usually wrapped in plastic with the tender loving care characteristic of many public libraries, their dust jackets are usually firm and intact, and they may have some library stamps on the first page or on the sides.

But if these simple rules are satisfied, then ex-lib books can be better than even brand new books. Consider that hardbacks usually cost no less than 18-20$. So if I do end up buying new books, I buy paperbacks whenever they are available. Paperbacks cost between 10-15$. Now consider ex-lib books which I have gotten for about 3$ on average. Even with the shipping it comes to 7-8$. A well-protected hardcover ex-lib book warmly clasped with a plastic-covered dust jacket beats a brand new paperback even if the hardcover is a few years older.

Until now I have had a great experience ordering these ex-lib hardcovers from Amazon. Starting about six months ago, I have already ordered about 30 of these and have been satisfied 99% of the time. There may have been one or two which looked none the worse for wear, but in their defence, they were selling for 20 cents apiece. There's a limit to what you can expect.

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008


This poll result from a recent Science article should make any reasonable, rational person shudder

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Copyright: Science, 2008

Neglecting the rather pleasantly heartening observation that the 'backward' Kazakhs are more enlightened than their fellow Muslims, the fact delineated in the article that there apparently are virtually no Young-Earth creationists is hardly soothing in light of these results. After taking a look at this, is it surprising that the 'moderate' Muslims are not stepping forward in large throngs to condemn their fellow Muslims' killing of innocents? The problem is not of moderates versus extremists. The problem is of mindsets that fan irrational behaviour based on rejection of world-views which are bolstered by mountains of evidence. The question we have to ask, not just of Muslims but also Christians, Jews and other deeply religious people, is whether they will truly be able to condemn their fellow religious travelers' acts of terrorism based on a reasoned and rational response? They may possibly do it for reasons of pragmatism, perhaps reasons related to political expediency or perhaps related to survival itself. But that is still a quite different stance from condemning such acts because they are as far from reason as we can imagine. Believing in evolution is not necessary for deploring these acts. But I think that a world-view as firmly grounded in reason and evidence as evolution can be a convenient yardstick to map out the general mentality of a population. Of course such surveys turn up disconcerting results in the most advanced country in the world too, namely the United States. Christians are no less ignorant than Muslims. But even in secular countries like Turkey, the Muslims seem to beat the Christians in terms of sheer numbers.

The concept of the moderate Muslim is dealt another blow by polls taken in the Muslim world regarding suicide terrorism. As Sam Harris documents in his book The End of Faith, polls regularly show that 20% of people even in Turkey answer "Yes" when asked "Is suicide bombing in defence of Islam ever justified". Given the population of Turkey, this is a huge number in terms of absolutes. Are we to believe that 14 million Turkish Muslims are Jihadi fundamentalists? That would stretch the imagination of even the most paranoid person. Indeed, probably 13.8 million out of these 14 million call themselves 'moderate' Muslims and live peaceful and pious lives. And yet they readily agree that suicide terrorism in the service of Islam can be justified at least under some circumstances. The proportion of such people in other Muslim countries is unspeakably high. There is a genuine problem here that transcends political, educational and socio-economic disparities.

Now it's also true that there is a substantial proportion of the population cited as "not having thought about evolution". To me it seems that members of this population would be of two kinds; those who basically just don't think about the topic and think it's irrelevant to their lives, and those who have given it some thought and are genuinely undecided about it. One may then think that the latter group stands a good chance of emerging as the next faction of progressive, moderate Muslims who would institute reform. But how can this happen? This latter group is going to be a weak-voiced minority in a majority that won't allow them to get an influential platform for their views. Much has been said about how Islam can only be reformed "from the inside". While this statement will always ring true, what exactly would be the source of this inside reform? It's not that there is suddenly an influential springboard which will serve as a political or social vehicle for transformation. For example, a moderate Muslim who believes in evolution and stresses its acceptance is probably not going to be elected to high public office, just like in the United States. Even if he wants to spread his message, how will he do it? The schools are mostly religious ones, with few secular ones that are going to take on the task of solidly educating their students about evolution. Even if the schools wanted to do it, there would be a pronounced backlash from many parents. Thus society itself would be largely hostile or passive to such a moderate Muslim's views.

As Harris says, the progressive position is also perceived as being theologically bankrupt; after all they are trying to argue against Muslims who are more devoutly following the Holy Book and therefore have already assumed the high ground. We have seen what has happened to progressive and secular Muslims like Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Such enlightened Muslims are simply not in a position to stay in their respective Muslim countries and bring about reform from inside; in fact they have already been condemned by many of their fellow Muslims. Their stories would clearly discourage any potential progressive recruit from treading the same kind of path. So to me it seems that the safest strategy for a so-called progressive and moderate Muslim would be to either silently suffer and tacitly accept the trappings of his culture and society, or to completely break out and defect to more secular countries, in which case his role in own country becomes meaningless. It's a catch 22 situation in which moderates have to either accept the opinion of the majority, or become pariahs. In this light, I don't see a large-scale revival, let alone revolution, spearheaded by moderate and progressive Muslims anytime soon.

The point again is simple; as long as people have more or less blind and unquestionable faith in their Holy Book, as long as they more or less worship their favourite Invisible Man in the Sky, the distinction between moderate and extremist is bound to turn cosmetic. Moderates who may despise the details of the execution of the fundamentalists' actions may nevertheless at least tacitly agree with their stated goals. Even moderate Muslims (or Christians and Jews for that matter) would think that the world would be a better place if everyone in it was Muslim. And as long as this attitude persists, we cannot rid the world of religious fundamentalists.

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Saturday, December 20, 2008


The New York Times has a pretty interesting article on how, compared to the US, Indian markets and banks bore only a fraction of the damage from the global financial crisis. The NYT journalist interviews many key players, including the head of the Yes Bank Rana Kapoor. Kapoor cites many reasons why Indians averted the crisis much better than the Americans. Early regulation was one of the traditional measures, RBI head Reddy essentially being the anti-Greenspan is cited as the other one. Sometimes it's only a question of applying the brakes early or late. The US is being forced to apply the brakes late, when much damage has been done. Regulation is not always bad it seems. Here's what Chandra Kochhar, the CTO of ICICI had to say:
“In India, we never had anything close to the subprime loan,” said Chandra Kochhar, the chief financial officer of India’s largest private bank, Icici. (A few days after I spoke to her, Ms. Kochhar was named the bank’s new chief executive, in a move that had long been anticipated.) “All lending to individuals is based on their income. That is a big difference between your banking system and ours.” She continued: “Indian banks are not levered like American banks. Capital ratios are 12 and 13 percent, instead of 7 or 8 percent. All those exotic structures like C.D.O. and securitizations are a very tiny part of our banking system. So a lot of the temptations didn’t exist.”
But what really struck me was a paragraph that talked about how traditional Indian psychology was partly responsible for averting the crisis. The argument is that Indians compared to Americans have traditionally not been fans of credit and credit cards. This relative aversion to credit stopped them from trying to live far beyond their means:
Part of the reason is cultural. Indians are simply not as comfortable with credit as Americans. “A lot of Indians, when you push them, will say that if you spend more than you earn you will get in trouble,” an Indian consultant told me. “Americans spent more than they earned.”

Mr. Deepak Parekh (HDFC CEO) said, “Savings are important. Joint families exist. When one son moves out, the family helps them. So you don’t borrow so much from the bank.” Even mortgage loans tend to have down payments in India that are a third of the purchase price, a far cry from the United States, where 20 percent is the new norm. (Let’s not even think about what they used to be.)
I can personally vouch for this mentality, as I am sure (and I hope) many from my background and generation will. My father has always taught me to view credit cards with suspicion. Even after coming to the US, every few months he asks me to make sure I am not being tempted to to use my cards too much. Perhaps some may have despised such brakes that their parents try to apply on them, but I personally welcome his admonition as a way for me to watch my spending. Whenever it's possible I consistently use my debit card and avoid using my credit cards. Perhaps this mentality will make it harder for me to become a victim of such crises. My father does not use credit cards almost at all. I use them a little when it's necessary. But I am not sure about the next generation who are more likely to accept credit cards as a right and obvious and basic need, and not as a luxury or emergency measure.

However, I thought about this a little more and realised that this is not really a brand new Indian idea at all, is it? It's traditional all right. In fact it's the epitome of "traditional". Then I remembered where I have consistently seen it; it has been enumerated in this source, most famously by this historical figure. In one instance he says:
But discipline is not for him
Who no due measure keeps
In eating or in fasting, or
Too much or too little sleeps.

Due measure kept in food and sport
And needful works, due measure
In sleep and waking, Arjun, sets
An end to all displeasure
This is Canto 6, Verses 16 &17 from Arthur Ryder's 1929 translation.

Moderation has been the key to much of our philosophy and way of life. Perhaps it's time to remember some old, forgotten verses.

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Saturday, December 13, 2008


If one might believe that the ladies on The View should pontificate on evolution at all, then this quote from Elizabeth Hasselbeck should be heard. The topic of evolution comes up, and Elizabeth Hasselbeck quips that because when she sees cool handbags or shoes she asks which Italian designer designed them, so she also thinks that when she sees a person, she believes that he or she must have been designed too.

Clearly, whoever designed Elizabeth Hasslebeck could have done a better job; presumably She was too busy making her attractive. But there is a simple, honest way in which Hasselbeck could remedy her bad design and inject some order into it: read Ken Miller's Finding Darwin's God, still the clearest rebuttal to intelligent design and the old argument-from-complexity that she believes is evidence for God. Thank you.

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Friday, December 12, 2008


I don't know how many heard of the ludicrous tale that is being woven around a Christmas nativity scene in the Washington State capitol. In short, someone put up a little exhibit illustrating the baby Jesus Christ (born from a virgin mother of course)as part of the Christmas celebrations in the state capitol. After a couple of days, atheists put up an atheist sign which basically said that religion is senseless and that there is no God and there are natural causes for everything etc. etc. The sign was then duly stolen by someone and later reinstalled.

I personally think that there was no need for atheists to do this; there are much better ways in which they can make their point. At the same time the Catholic League went off on its own deluded trajectory. But anyway...as was expected after this, an entire troupe of ranting loons, pious evangelicals and people with their own agendas have essentially lined up with their own signs. The implication is clear; if you respect Christianity and atheism and give them a platform, why not respect every other worldview out there? Foremost among the loons were members of the viciously anti-American, anti-gay, anti-Catholic, anti-Muslim, anti-virtually everything Westboro Baptist Church who brought a sign saying "Santa Claus will take you to Hell". Let them put it up I say!

But the creme de la creme was a Festivus pole that someone brought to the capitol and demanded that they be allowed to put it up. That's right. Festivus. The fictional annual holiday invented in a famous Seinfeld episode. My jaw muscles are really hurting from all the laughing.

This is what happens when you mix church and state. Everybody wants to be heard then. I personally am still on the side of the FSM. The capitol should be draped in his noodly appendages.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008


The Bayh-Dole Act passed in the US in 1980 provided universities and academic scientists with ownership of their patents and inventions and led to significant wealth creation in the public research sector. An Indian bill modeled on this act is due to be put up for passage in 2009. This bill could reenergize the Indian research enterprise and potentially be the turning point for India's flagging scientific institutions. As in other such endeavors, it promises fond and cautious hope for Indian scientists, and more than a smidgeon of prudence...

...Read the rest of the entry on my Desipundit blog

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008


When was the last time that the US had a Nobel prize winning scientist as Energy Secretary? It seems that Steven Chu, winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics is a possible candidate for Energy Secretary. Seems like the country could do with some hard-headed scientific sense in an Energy Secretary in a time of real energy crisis. Chu won the prize for the very important technique of cooling atoms with lasers. Chu is a leader of a DOE lab (Lawrence Berkeley) and also a proponent of nuclear which would make the choice better. (link: Sovietologist)


Sunday, December 07, 2008


A friend of mine is visiting Delhi after a long time, and he indicated that he might make an excursion into Paratha Gali in Chandni Chowk. Memories flooded back instantly...I had visited this glorious place almost twenty years ago and the smells and sights are still vivid. Not surprisingly, I found a video on Paratha Gali that someone posted. Serving more than 25 varieties of unique parathas and unbelievably large mugs of lassi, this place satisfies your palette as only Delhi the food paradise can. However I do take umbrage at calling a well-made paratha a "glorified roti"!

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Thursday, December 04, 2008


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Molecules of Murder: Criminal Molecules and Classic Cases
By John Emsley
Royal Society of Chemistry, 2008

In this highly engaging, detailed and morbidly fascinating slim volume, chemist John Emsley narrates the stories of those who made use of science for killing their fellow beings through deadly means. Emsley recounts the use of famous chemicals used as poisons in famous and some not-so-famous murder cases.He tells us ten stories in ten chapters, each devoted to a specific poison and specific murder case in which it was used. The cases are fascinating for science buffs because of the scientific background about the poisons, and for others for the ingenious thinking that went both into the murders and the detective work involved in solving them.

The stories span a range of countries, periods and motives for murder. They feature famous victims such as former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko as well as lesser-known victims whose killing was also equally deadly and well-planned. Each story has comprehensive details on the personal or political background of the victims and murderers and their times, as well as detailed background on the poisons themselves, including their history, chemical and biological characteristics, use and availability and actual administration to the victims. During this process, Emsley uncovers a range of diabolical and murderous characters who each had their own motives, personal or political, for causing the death of one or several persons.

While the famous murders like Litvinenko's from polonium and Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov's from ricin are told in fascinating detail, so are the murders involving relatively low-profile and yet deadly poisons like adrenaline, diamorphine and atropine. Emsley also covers murders that used the standard and deadly poisons carbon monoxide and cyanide. Many of these chemicals are relatively easily accessible and that makes their use more difficult to control. Particular chilling is the case of Kristen Gilbert, a nurse who used adrenaline to kill her patients essentially by giving them fatal heart attacks. The story is made more grim by the fact that Gilbert was a nurse who was supposed to be a giver of life, and that adrenaline which is a substance produced naturally by the body is a very clever choice for a poison since its levels rapidly fade and it's hard to detect it as a foreign poison.

The first and last chapters dealing with the Litvinenko and Markov murders from polonium and ricin merit special attention because of their high-profile political nature and the rather exotic identity of the poisons used. Markov was murdered by an agent aided by the KGB while standing on a bridge on the Thames River in London. The murder weapon used was most unlikely; an umbrella with a tip containing a pellet with an extremely tiny amount of ricin which was injected into Markov's thigh by an 'accidental' jab which he hardly felt. Ricin is one of the most toxic substances known to man, and within three days Markov had died a painful and inexplicable death. The murder was well-planned and ingenious. Emsley who himself was involved in this case as a scientific expert gives a fascinating description of the rather simple but ingenious forensic work that went into ascertaining the amount of poison used, which made it possible to eliminate many well-known poisons.

The Litvinenko case is still fresh in everyone's mind. Litvinenko was a former agent of the FSB (the successor of the KGB) who accused prominent Russian politicians and businessmen of nefariously bringing Vladimir Putin to power. His murder also took place in London in a cafe with another unlikely poison- tea laced with radioactive polonium 210. The fact that he could not be saved in spite of 50 years of knowledge about radioactive substances and their effects on biological systems indicates how we can still miss the 'obvious'. It took a long time before polonium 210 emerged as a suspected poison, and this apparently is the first case when this rather well-known substance was used for assassinating a political target. The source was almost certainly a nuclear reactor or some other facility in Russia. While the attempt was successful, the choice of poison was less than perfect since the polonium left a trail of radioactive hot spots literally leading from one location to another. While this combined with Litvinenko's extensive testimony before his death made it possible to finally uncover the suspect, as of now the man is enjoying political immunity in Russia, a fact that may give some credence to the suspicion that Putin may somehow have known about Litvinenko's murder.

These and other morbid cases Emsley narrates with details about the science, chemical history and detective work as well as the politics, personal and social history of the victims and murderers that should keep anyone engaged. For science fans, it is important reading about how science can be used to do harm, and for others, at the very least it is a fascinating set of detective stories that should keep them glued to their chairs. The one problem I had with the book was its format; the font could have been more attractive and the illustrations should have been interspersed within the text instead of curiously being stitched together at the end. But these are minor shortcomings of an otherwise fascinating and lucid book.

I can only end by saying that in this period of paranoia about terrorist acts, it may not be a good idea to read this book in the airport security line.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008


A short holiday break and a rather protracted bout of the flu have kept me from blogging. So I will link to an article of mine that just got published in the magazine of the Chemical Society of (IIT Delhi. The article is written for the layman and talks about the importance of realizing that most molecules of practical interest, such as drugs, have multiple conformations (flexible structures). While the powerful technique of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) spectroscopy has traditionally been used to probe this flexibility, NMR alone cannot provide knowledge of these multiple structures. The article mentions why.

In the article, I describe NAMFIS (NMR Analysis of Molecular Flexibility In Solution), a joint computational-NMR approach partially developed and applied in our lab, which can derive a thermodynamic population for flexible molecules in aqueous solutions such as blood. This information can be very useful for deducing, for example, the protein-bound structure of a drug. Such knowledge can aid in modifying the structure of the molecule to make it into a better therapeutic, since most drugs act in the body by binding to key proteins involved in disease. More detail in the article. Comments, criticism and questions are of course always welcome.

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