He Changed History

Press Information Department/Reuters
Pakistan’s top nuclear physicist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, with President Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad on February 4, 2004, the day he confessed on television to having sold nuclear technology to other countries, including North Korea, Libya, and Iran
The physicist and Nobel laureate Hans Bethe once remarked that Klaus Fuchs was one of the few people who actually changed the course of human history. The German-born Fuchs was part of the British delegation at Los Alamos during World War II, and he worked with Bethe, who had himself emigrated from Germany, via England, to the United States in the 1930s. Fuchs was spying for the Soviet Union and managed to transmit to the Russians detailed plans for the plutonium bomb that destroyed Nagasaki. On August 29, 1949, the Russians successfully tested an exact copy of that weapon. Fuchs’s information had saved them many years of work.*

This test was what motivated President Truman to announce five months later that the US was initiating a crash program to build a more powerful weapon, a hydrogen bomb. But Fuchs had also transmitted Edward Teller’s design for a hydrogen bomb to the Russians in 1946. This persuaded them that they too should begin working on a hydrogen bomb, and Truman’s announcement made them absolutely determined to have one. We can thank Fuchs for the race to build the hydrogen bomb—more evidence for Bethe’s judgment about him. But Bethe, who died in 2005, lived long enough to see how another nuclear physicist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, also changed history.

Khan was born in 1936 in Bhopal, India. Following the partition the family moved to the newly created state of West Pakistan. Khan took his undergraduate degree in metallurgy from the D.J. Sindh College of Science in 1960. He then pursued graduate studies in Europe, taking his Ph.D. from the Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium, after spending four years studying metallurgy in Holland—always metallurgy. I have never been able to determine precisely what his scientific competence is, but he is clearly a gifted linguist. During his studies he learned German and Dutch. In 1972, the year he received his Ph.D., he got a job in the Dutch offices of URENCO, a newly formed international consortium dedicated to manufacturing centrifuge technology that joined together enterprises in Britain, Germany, and Holland. Khan became the interpreter of technical and highly classified documents between German and Dutch.

In 1974, the Indian government tested its first nuclear device—the Smiling Buddha—and Pakistan became desperate to have its own bomb. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was then prime minister of Pakistan, said he would build a bomb even if it meant that the population would have to eat grass. Khan, living in Holland, may not have known of this, but he decided that he was in a position to help if there was a Pakistani attempt to build a bomb.…

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