Jeremy Bernstein’s new book, A Bouquet of Numbers and Other Scientific Offerings, will be published in August.
 (May 2016).

The Iran Deal: Myth and Reality

Arak heavy water nuclear facilities, Iran, January 15, 2011

Enough time has passed since the deal regarding Iran’s nuclear program that one can begin to make a rational assessment about how successful it has been at limiting Iran’s nuclear capacity and bringing its program under international oversight. My view is that the deal has been more successful than I expected, although there are flaws.

The Trump Bomb

I recently offered to tutor Donald Trump on nuclear matters. To put things clearly, I went on his website and in the place where you could send comments, I began mine by saying that on these things he did not seem to know his ass from a wheel. I felt that as a person who seems to like straight talk he might appreciate my candor.

North Korea’s Mystery Bomb

A map of seismic waves from North Korea’s nuclear test, Korea Meteorological Administration, Seoul, South Korea, January 6, 2016

On January 6, North Korea detonated a nuclear device with a yield larger than that of any previous North Korean test, but the kind of bomb tested remains a mystery. Most likely, the bomb was a “boosted device.” This is a very serious matter because these weapons, while having an enhanced yield, can be made light enough to fit on rockets, which the North Koreans have in abundance.

Einstein: Right and Wrong

Among the cosmological phenomena that the theory of relativity successfully predicted was one that Einstein could never accept: the existence of black holes. In fact, in the late 1930s he wrote a paper that purported to show that black holes were impossible. A referee rejected this paper, concluding that it contained mistakes—something that at first made Einstein quite angry until he realized that the referee was right.

Which Iran Deal?

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, with a picture of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Tehran,  June 13, 2015

Listening to the American and Iranian presidents, One has the impression they are living in alternate universes. In Obama’s universe, Iran has agreed to stop work on centrifuges and vastly reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium. In Rouhani’s universe, being able to keep 6,000 centrifuges is a major victory, work on new centrifuges will proceed, and uranium will continue to be enriched.

A New Future for Iranian Physics?

A satellite image of the Fordow nuclear facility in Iran, January 30, 2013

One of the most interesting parts of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action reached between the P5+1 countries and Iran has to do with the enrichment facility at Fordow. According to the plan, the facility is to be wholly converted to peaceful purposes. But the important thing to know about Fordow is its underground location.

Los Alamos Declassified

Los Alamos main gate, opened April 20, 1943 when the University of California signed a contract with the United States Army Corps of Engineers to operate a secret laboratory in the mountains of northern New Mexico

I entered Harvard in the fall of 1947. Within a year I started to know members of the physics department. By the time I left Cambridge ten years later I knew them all. A number of them had been at Los Alamos during the war and had essential parts in building the bomb. But none of them ever said anything about it, at least not to me.

A Nuclear Ukraine

Soldiers preparing to destroy a ballistic SS-19 nuclear missile in Vakulenchuk, Ukraine, December 24, 1997

Watching the crisis in Ukraine unfold, it is easy to forget how much worse it could have been. In 1991 Ukraine had the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world. Many of these weapons were stored in the Crimea. What might have happened if Ukraine had not disarmed?

Iran’s Plutonium Game

The IR-40 heavy water reactor, Arak, Iran

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. The “40” here refers to the projected power output of forty megawatts of thermal power. It is hard to imagine generating much electricity from a forty-megawatt reactor. Whatever the IR-40’s intended use, it is not to produce electric power. What it does produce is plutonium—something that is useful for making a bomb.

Pakistan and India: The Nuclear Threat

The nuclear power plant at Trombay, India, 1966
Homi Jehangir Bhabha, the scientist largely responsible for India’s atom bomb, was born in Bombay on October 30, 1909. He came from a Parsi family closely associated with the Tatas, one of the richest families in India. His father was a British-educated lawyer for the Tatas and his paternal aunt …

Mesmerized by Brubeck and Desmond

Dave Brubeck (right) and Paul Desmond in the 1940s

One winter a lanky fellow with glasses appeared. I took him for a fellow academic and when I introduced myself he said, “Paul Desmond.” 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. We went to a local jazz club where there were some Jamaican kids playing. Desmond couldn’t resist and asked to borrow a saxophone. The kids had no idea who he was but I explained that he was pretty good. When he began to play they were mesmerized.

No Joy in Aspen

Lance Armstrong at the Power of Four Mountain Bike Race in Aspen, Colorado, August 25, 2012

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.

Iran: The Scientists & the Bomb

The shrouded body of assassinated chemistry expert Mostafa Ahmadi Roshan, who had been a director of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility, Tehran, January 13, 2012

On January 11, an Iranian nuclear scientist named Mostafa Ahmdi 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?

Let’s Bring the Astronauts Home

The International Space Station in an image taken by an Expedition 27 crew member from the Soyuz TMA-20 (May 23, 2011)

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.

Iran and the Bomb: Another View

The Tehran Research Reactor

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. My latest post about Iran’s progress toward making a bomb provoked the usual ire from some quarters of the Internet.

Iran and the Bomb: An Update

The reactor building at the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant as the first fuel is loaded, August 21, 2010

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.

That ‘Sweet Abbottabad Air’

Children looking out over the compound of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, May 3, 2011

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.

Japan’s Radiation Scare: The Good News and the Bad

A storage pool for spent nuclear fuel. The blue color is caused by Cerenkov radation, produced when electrons from the radioactive decay are moving faster than the speed of light in water.

In news coverage of the unfolding disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, two themes have been particularly prominent. One is the paramount problem of potentially lethal radiation being released from the stricken reactors to a large area of Japan and beyond. Even now, new reports of radiation continue to surface. The second—with implications for nuclear facilities around the world—is the vulnerable design of the plant’s six reactors and their storage pools for nuclear waste, all of which were at risk of losing their cooling water and could have caught fire in the days after the earthquake. Often missing in this discussion, however, is an analysis of the particular kind of radiation that has been detected and what it may reveal about the accident.

Tsunamis: A Primer

Energy propagation pattern of the March 11, 2011 tsunami

For those who saw video footage of it, the tsunami that hit Japan’s north coast on Friday and then moved inland with overpowering force was a terrifying sight. Three days later, this wall of water, generated by a magnitude 8.9 earthquake offshore, is blamed for thousands of deaths and untold destruction in Japan. 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.

Nuclear Madness in Tripoli

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. Almost from the moment he assumed power in 1969, Qaddafi was interested in acquiring nuclear weapons. He tried to buy them from China; and when that failed he tried to build them himself. In the 1990s he bought an entire turnkey nuclear weapons program from the Pakistani proliferator A.Q. Khan, including centrifuges and designs for a nuclear weapon. It is believed he gave up the entire program in 2003 in a grand bargain with the United States that eventually restored Libya’s diplomatic status and allowed US companies to do business with the oil-rich country.

ElBaradei and Egypt’s Nuclear Future

Mohamed ElBaradei addresses the crowd in Tahrir Square, Cairo, January 30, 2011

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. This is particularly interesting since a leading candidate to head the new opposition appears to be Mohammed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), who has been critical of the Egyptian program in the past.

Chess & Sanskrit: Persian Jones in Old Calcutta

Thomas Daniell: Houses on the Chowringhee Road, looking north, Calcutta, 1787

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.

From Baltistan to the Hindu Kush: A Road Trip, Continued

Pakistan, 1963

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.

From Chamonix to Islamabad: A Road Trip

Travellers in the Lake District, Kandahar, 1969

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.