Jeremy Bernstein’s books include Plutonium: A History of the World’s Most Dangerous Element , Nuclear Weapons: What You Need to Know and A Palette of Particles. His latest book is Nuclear Iran (October, 2014).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 …
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.
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 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?
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. My latest post about Iran’s progress toward making a bomb provoked the usual ire from some quarters of the Internet.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Because of its strategic location on the Persian Gulf, the Iranian city of Bushehr has been an important seaport for centuries. In the eighteenth century, the British East India Company had a trading post at what they called Bushire, and until 1913 the British agent for the Persian Gulf was stationed there. It is only in recent decades, however, that Bushehr has become known for its nuclear industry. Now, 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.