Jeremy Bernstein’s books include Plutonium: A History of the World’s Most Dangerous Element and Nuclear Weapons: What You Need to Know. His latest book is A Palette of Particles. (November 2013)
Confronting the Bomb: Pakistani and Indian Scientists Speak Out edited by Pervez Hoodbhoy, with a preface by John Polyani
Peddling Peril: How the Secret Nuclear Trade Arms America’s Enemies by David Albright
The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing edited by Richard Dawkins
Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea by Jeffrey T. Richelson
Pascal Paoli: Père de la patrie corse by Antoine-Marie Graziani
Younghusband: The Last Great Imperial Adventurer by Patrick French
Force of Nature: The Life of Linus Pauling by Thomas Hager
Marie Curie: A Life by Susan Quinn
A Mind Always in Motion: The Autobiography of Emilio Segrè by Emilio Segrè
Niels Bohr’s Times, In Physics, Philosophy, and Polity by Abraham Pais
The Joy of Insight: Passions of a Physicist by Victor Weisskopf
Land’s Polaroid: A Company and the Man Who Invented It by Peter C. Wensberg
The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder
To anyone who has been following the Iranian nuclear program, it was almost a forgone conclusion that negotiations with Iran would hit a road block when it came to the so-called IR-40 heavy water reactor located in Arak.
I was a jazz fan but had never seen Paul Desmond in person. His song “Take Five” had become the anthem of the Dave Brubeck quartet. It has a very unusual 5/4 rhythm and Desmond’s alto saxophone solo stays in your mind forever.
I ride my bike past Lance Armstrong’s house here in Aspen almost every day. It is a simple semi-detached affair that is much more modest than many of the houses in this neighborhood. It would not occur to me to knock on the door. He has reported that in the decade he’s been living part time here that someone he didn’t know has knocked on his door only once. He did once pass me on his bike. He gave a friendly wave.
On January 11, an Iranian nuclear scientist named Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan was assassinated by the detonation of a magnetized bomb attached to his car in Tehran. The Iranian government has blamed the Israelis and the United States and there has been a call for revenge. But even more important than this disturbing attack may be what we are now learning about the current state of Iran’s nuclear program. Iranians are now able to produce their own scientists and engineers rather than having them trained elsewhere. They also claim they have enough enrichment capacity themselves to produce what they need. Where does that leave us?
Astronauts aboard the International Space Station said this week that human activity on the station may soon be suspended, because the Russian rockets that are now the only way to transport astronauts and cargo there are no longer reliable. While many people view the prospect of the astronauts ending their work at the space station as an extraordinary loss, I am not among them. I think that the station was a hundred billion dollar folly and the sooner it is abandoned the better.
I have written about the Iranian nuclear program in various fora and each time it is like hitting the third rail. It still amazes me. The problem is that no one knows for sure what’s happening, and the Iranians are happy to keep it this way so you have to guess.
With everything that is happening in the Middle East and North Africa, it seems that the matter of the Iranian nuclear program has been put on the back burner. Of course the Israelis, for whom Iran’s nuclear program is matter of existential importance, have continued to monitor the situation closely. Netanyahu made that very clear on his most recent American visit. I think one can assume that the Israelis will not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. But I want to discuss the basis of their concern.
Abbottabad was, from its founding, an important military cantonment where the British stationed part of their Nepalese Ghurka force. Like other Indian hill towns such as Darjeeling, it acquired a British flavor which it still had when I visited it in the fall of 1969.
In news coverage of the unfolding disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, two themes have been particularly prominent.
I am neither an oceanographer nor a hydrodynamicist, but I have learned a little about the physics of tsunamis that I would like to share.
If any further proof is needed of Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi’s mental instability it is provided by WikiLeaks dispatches from US diplomats in Tripoli in November and December of 2009. At issue was some nearly loose nuclear material, a Russian plane, and a lone security guard—a footnote in the WikiLeaks scandal that many may have missed. But first, a little background.
The current turmoil in Egypt and the prospect of the collapse of Hosni Mubarak’s regime apart from everything else raise questions about the country’s nuclear program and where it might be headed.
The only time I have visited Calcutta was in September 1988. I was on my way to Bhutan to go trekking and our group assembled in Calcutta for the flight to Paro, Bhutan’s only airport. I was glad for this stopover because I wanted to visit the South Park Street Cemetery, which was established under the British Raj in 1767. The sons of Captain Cook and Charles Dickens are buried there, along with William Thackeray’s father Raymond. I was looking for the grave of William Jones, a late-eighteenth-century genius and polymath.
I arrived in Pakistan in late September 1969, three weeks after setting out from Chamonix with my climbing friend Claude Jaccoux and his wife in a Land Rover Dormobile. We had driven across Turkey, Iran, and Afghanistan, and now I was supposed to take up a visiting professorship at the University of Islamabad. But there were unexpected developments.
When still in my early teens I decided that over the course of time I would see the ten highest mountains in the world. It did not occur to me that I would climb any of them, but I thought I could surely see them and even get to their bases. In 1967, I went to Nepal and managed to see seven of them; I even made it to the base of a couple, including Everest. But I missed Kanchenjunga, the third highest, which is in the far east of the country on the border with the Indian state of Sikkim. I also hadn’t seen K2, the second highest, which is on the border of Pakistan and China; or Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest, which is in the Pakistani Himalayas. To see these two I would have to get to Pakistan.
Iran has announced that it has completed—with Russian help—its long planned Bushehr reactor, an event it has marked by an elaborate dedication ceremony and claims of victory against its western enemies. But questions remain about Bushehr’s strategic importance—and whether the West should be worried about it.
When I was in high school I decided that I wanted to be a radio announcer. I found out that if you went to Radio City there were studio tours and you could even watch some of the programs in process. I took the tour a couple of times and then decided that it might be possible simply to walk past the people at the entrance looking as if I knew where I was going and wander around the studios unescorted. Indeed this is what I did.
If you think about it, deterrence is an odd concept. It implies explicit or implicit negotiations between the deterrer and the deterree. How is one to know when deterrence has been successful? It is easier to know that it has not been when one is attacked.
In the early 1960s, I wrote an appreciative essay for The New Yorker about the science fiction of Arthur Clarke. Not long after I got a letter from Clarke written from Sri Lanka where he lived. He told me that he was coming to New York in a few weeks and wanted to meet me. When we met, I asked him the purpose of his visit. His answer totally astonished me. “I am working on the son of Dr. Strangelove,” is what he said. The film had just come out and the first time I saw it I was so impressed that I sat through it a second time. “Stanley,” he said referring to Kubrick, “is a remarkable man. You should meet him.”
With the renewed interest in nuclear weapons I have been struck by how few people there still are who have seen one explode. There are a few survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and there are a small number who witnessed some of the above ground test explosions. But the last American above-ground test was in 1962 and the last above-ground test by any country was conducted by the Chinese in 1980. This means that the Indians, Pakistanis, Israelis—to say nothing of the Iranians and North Koreans—have never seen a nuclear explosion. In the main, this is a very good thing: the fallout from such a test is a real health hazard. But there is a downside. We have lost the experience of watching a nuclear explosion—perhaps the most powerful lesson about nuclear bombs there is.
Iran’s civilian research reactor in Tehran, the Tehran Research Reactor, has been much in the news lately. It has an interesting past and perhaps an interesting future. In March of 1974 the Shah of Iran declared that Iran’s goal would be the construction of some twenty power reactors to provide electricity for the country. The Tehran reactor, known as the TRR, was to be used for training students. There is little doubt that the Shah’s goal was to make nuclear weapons. Indeed, after he was overthrown in 1979, the Supreme Leader, the Ayatollah Khomeini, who said he believed that nuclear weapons were un-Islamic, dismantled most of the program. One of the survivors was the TRR. In recent weeks, Iran has claimed that its existence—and need for nuclear fuel—justifies pursuing uranium enrichment to higher levels, ostensibly for peaceful use. Many have doubted that claim, and now the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has given official weight to those doubts. In its new report, the IAEA for the first time states outright what I outlined in November, that Iran’s enrichment activities may be related to “the development of a nuclear payload for a missile.” To understand why, it is worth considering the history of the TRR.
When I was about eleven my father gave me James Ramsey Ullman’s book High Conquest. This was Ullman’s romantic and occasionally inaccurate account of the history of mountain climbing, published in 1941. I was fascinated by the fact that Everest, the highest mountain in the world, had not yet been climbed. But what made the most impression on me were the Mountains of the Moon, a range on the border between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo—then the Belgian Congo. I was struck by how difficult they were to access, and by the fact that although they were on the equator, they were covered with snow. Two officers in Henry Stanley’s 1887 expedition to East Africa were the first Europeans to see them; Stanley named the range “Ruwenzori,” an anglicized version of the Rukonjo name “Rwenjura” meaning “hill of rain.”
Some time in the early 1950’s the late Paul Samuelson received a post card from L.J. “Jimmie” Savage, a noted mathematical statistician. It was one of several he had sent out at about the same time. Savage’s post card to Samuelson, and probably the others, said that it was essential that Samuelson read Théorie de la Spéculation, the Ph.D. thesis of the French mathematician Louis Jean Baptiste Alphonse Bachelier. Samuelson had never heard of Bachelier so he did not know that the thesis had first been published in 1900. Reading the thesis changed the course of Samuelson’s work. He improved Bachelier’s mathematics and used it to study the prices of warrants—options to buy, at a future date, stock issued by a company. These methods were passed on to his students. But for some of them, Bachelier’s ideas provided inspiration for a theory of financial engineering—the use of complex mathematical models to make risky investments that, taken to extremes (which Samuelson himself never did), nearly caused the collapse of our financial system in the fall of 2008.
In the fall of 1967 with two French friends I trekked from Kathmandu to the base of Mount Everest. At that time, climbing was forbidden in Nepal and the trekking business was in its infancy. During the thirty-seven days we were on our trek we saw less than a handful of other westerners and the ones we saw were in Nepal on official business. The high point of our trek in every sense was our climb of a small hillock named Kala Patthar. It was a grassy knoll whose summit was at 18,200 feet—about 800 feet above what had been the British base camp for Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s climb of Everest in 1953. From this summit one has a fantastic view of Everest and neighboring peaks, such as Nuptse and Lhotse. In fact, during a reconaissance mission with Hillary and others in 1951, the British climber Eric Shipton used vantage points on the ridge that Kala Patthar is part of to plot the route that Hillary’s team took in their ascent two years later.
To western officials who have spent months trying to slow down Iran’s nuclear program, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s announcement of plans to build ten new uranium enrichment plants is deeply unsettling. But the real worry may be the nuclear facilities already in existence. In mid-November, the Russian Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko announced that, for “technical reasons,” the Russians will not finish this year the reactor they are constructing for the Iranians at Bushehr on the Persian Gulf. Since the reasons were not given, one may speculate that, despite Russian denials, this is a message of displeasure sent to the Iranians.