Sunday, January 27, 2013

Latvian Day at the Vienna Philharmonic

In art as in science there is no delight without the detail...

(V. Nabokov,
from the Translator's Introduction to
Eugene Onegin)

The curious coincidence of a concert by the great orchestra unusually featuring two superlative Latvian musicians was good reason to travel to Salzburg on a recent Saturday morning for a concert of the Vienna Philharmonic in the venerable Grosses Festspielhaus.

The program

The the theme of the program on this summer day was summer itself:

ANTON WEBERN - Im Sommerwind

HECTOR BERLIOZ - Les Nuits d'été

JOHANNES BRAHMS - Symphonie Nr. 2 D-Dur op. 73

The Webern is a tone poem about summer, written in his pre-12-tone days, the Berlioz songs are summer songs, and while the Brahms symphony is not explicitly about summer (Brahms didn't do themes) it was written in the summer resort of Poertschach on the Woerthersee in Austria and as you can hear in this fragment from the third movement of the symphony has a delightful light summer feeling.

The artists

The orchestra was conducted on this day by the eminent Latvian conductor Mariss Jansons. The highlight of the concert, however, was the appearance the beautiful and immensely likable Latvian mezzo-soprano, Elīna Garanča, doing the Berlioz songs. Recordings of Garanca's performance of the Berlioz songs, recorded on August 24, 2008, the day after the performance I attended are, fortunately, available on YouTube at this link. In a match the piece "La Spectre da la Rose," one of the six songs in the Berlioz cycle, Garanca wore a beautiful silk gown with a print of pale, dusty roses on a cream-colored background. A witty touch.

Garanca video

And this from Norma

The reviews: from "breathless ecstacy" to "unueberbietbares Wohlbefinden"

Two rave reviews of the Berlioz performance are amusing in the way that the one is done in the style of enthusiastic American excess and the other in the style of pedantic Austrian obscurantism.

"Ms. Garanča sang with smoky, sultry, sensuous tones. She seemed to enjoy every phrase, and every French syllable. Technically, she was very, very secure...I myself think the
final song, "L'île inconnue," should have some breathless ecstasy. Ms.
Garanča made it unfold like a beautiful, plush carpet."

Jay Nordlinger, NEW YORK SUN

?Wenn Elina Garancèas "La Spectre de la rose" sich entfalten
lässt, mit geradezu unendlichem Atem, samtig und voller Bouquet! "Dieser zarte Duft ist meine Seele" – das glaubt man ihr aufs Wort. Leicht spannt diese Sängerin die Melodiebögen, die sich wie selbstverständlich entfalten. Auch da haben die Philharmoniker und Jansons alles getan, um unüberbietbares Wohlbefinden auszulösen.

Reinhard Kriechbaum, WIENER ZEITUNG

The floral print silk gown worn by Elina displayed pale, dusty red roses on a light cream-colored background, a print pattern which, though beautiful in her gown, is commonly seen in other fabrics and settings, including, oddly enough, the floral print on the sofas in the living room of my daughter's house in California.


Not surprisingly, given the 11 a.m. Saturday morning time of the concert, the orchestra members looked a bit sleepy and rumpled, as though they had no time that morning to groom themselves or press their black coat and striped trouser uniforms. The orchestra is evidently better heard up close but seen from a distance.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Laptop Searches

Laptop Searches -- The Disastrous End to the Arnold Case and the Disappointing New Start by the Obama Administration

The Arnold case

In April, 2008, I commented on the Ninth Circuit's decision in United States v. Arnold holding, in effect, that laptops may be searched at the U.S. border even though the customs agent has no reasonable suspicion that the traveler in question has illegal data stored on the device. See, this link. (In this context, "laptop" includes iPhones, Blackberries, iPods, conventional mobile phones, memory sticks, external hard drives, CD's, digital cameras, and all other digital devices capable of storing information.)

Arnold thereupon petitioned the U. S. Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari, that is for review of the Ninth Circuit's decision, there being no appeal as of right to the Supreme Court in such a case.

On February 23 of this year Arnold's legal counsel was notified by the Supreme Court that Arnold's petition for a writ of certiorari had been denied. Two days later Michael Arnold committed suicide. See the Declaration of Marilyn E. Bednarski in support of her motion to de-publish the Ninth Circuit decision following Mr. Arnold's death (the motion was denied).

The case and Mr. Arnold's life thereby came to an end, but the regrettable law created by the Ninth Circuit in Mr. Arnold's case lives on and is now the leading opinion in the law of border searches of laptops. As a result, at the U.S. border the Fourth Amendment prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures, the former rule of reasonable suspicion, and all other rules regulating or restraining the suspicions, curiosities, prejudices and whimsies of customs agents are nullified and the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) service and its companion agency, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) branch, may search whatever laptops they please, whenever they please and for whatever reasons they please, or for no reason at all. It is open season on your laptop at the U.S. border.

In this context it is well to remember what the CBP itself says on its website about how it decides who to search:
Please be aware, some of CBP's biggest seizures have come from inspections of "respectable looking" people, such as grandmothers, corporate executives, college professors, etc. Everyone is subject to a CBP inspection when they arrive in the U.S.
If our grandmothers are at risk of having their laptops searched, then so are the rest of us.

The Feinberg Senate Committee Hearings

On June 25, 2008, the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights of the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, held a hearing on "Laptop Searches and Other Violation of Privacy Faced by Americans Returning from Overseas Travel."

A balanced panel of witnesses said predictable things pro and con about the CBP's border laptop search policies and practices, few of the committee members bothered to attend the hearing and the Department of Homeland Security, under whose umbrella the CBP and the ICE reside, boycotted the hearing altogether and refused to send a witness. It was well that Senator Feingold held the hearing and it may have served to raise the level of public consciousness about the issue, but the hearing itself was a non-event.

The New York Times Editorial

Following the Feingold committee hearing, on July 10, 2008, the New York Times published an important editorial captioned "The Government and Your Laptop."

The Times noted the policy of the Department of Homeland Security to routinely search laptops and had this scathing comment: These out-of-control searches trample the privacy rights of Americans, and Congress should rein them in.

The Times correctly perceived that a search of a laptop is fundamentally different from a search of a suitcase: [b]ecause of the enormous amount of private information people keep on their laptops, the searches are more akin to rifling through someone’s home and reading every letter, financial record and personal journal. Those of us who use laptops every hour of every day in our professional and private lives know exactly what the Times editorial board meant by this observation.

The Times went on to note the Arnold decision, which it characterized as "disappointing," and recommended that Congress enact legislation imposing a mandatory standard requiring that the CBP have "... a reasonable suspicion about the specific person being searched" before a laptop search is allowed.

As will be seen in the next chapter of this comment, the Times' appeal for a "reasonable suspicion" has not been heard by the Obama Department of Homeland Security.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Unconvincing Execution of Elias Syriani

I reported on November 19, 2005, on the sad, sad execution in North Carolina of Elias Syriani. Syriani had killed his wife in a rage and had been convicted and sentenced to death. The couple's four children, after years of understandable estrangement from their father, in due course reconciled with him and came to know and love him. As his execution date approached the children did everything possible to persuade the Governor of North Carolina, Mike Easley, to commute the sentence. They hired legal counsel, they met with Easley, and they took their appeal public with a dramatic appearance on the Larry King show. All to no avail -- Easley turned them down with a brief, cold, heartless statement that he could find "no convincing reason" to commute the death sentence. The decision was bad enough, but Easley's reliance on such a vacuous non-reason made it all the more gratuitously painful to the Syriani children. He might at least have had the decency to explain why the love of the man's four children and their desperate need to have their father stay alive for their sake was not a convincing reason.

Linda Booker, a North Carolina based filmmaker, has now produced, directed and released a moving documentary on the case entitled Love Lived on Death Row. The production was supported in part by the Southern Documentary Fund, a non-profit organization supporting documentary film projects about the American south. It documents a tense and tearful set of interviews, before and after the execution, with the Syriani children, their extraordinary lawyers, Henderson Hill and Russell Sizemore, Meg Eggleston, a woman who befriended Syriani and took up his cause, and Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun, the author of Dead Man Walking, a nationally prominent advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. Unfortunately but predictably Mike Easley declined to be interviewed and to give the family and indeed the country the benefit of his view on why in this unique and compelling case this terrible execution had to go forward for no convincing reason. The trailer for the film appears above and can also be viewed on the film's website.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Black Comedy at the Vatican

Bishop Richard Nelson Williamson

In one of the nuttiest acts to emanate from the Vatican in recent years the German pope has rehabilitated, rescued from excommunication and restored to Catholic hierarchical legitimacy a Holocaust denier. What next? Will the pope host Saturday Night Live?

The pope is of course his "holiness" Pope Benedict the Sixteenth, born in Bavaria 81 years ago, the former Archbishop of Munich. At the depth of the Holocaust he was sixteen years old...old enough, one would think. The Bishop is Richard Nelson Williamson, born in England and now 68 years old. He was of course a child during the Holocaust. He evidently remains a child, but an exceptionally malicious one.

The Bishop was excommunicated on July 1, 1988, by the head of the Congregation of Bishops in the Vatican. Pope John Paul II reaffirmed the excommunication the following day. In the following years the bishop went around like a loose cannon on the Catholic deck doing crazy things like ordaining a group of excommunicated Polish priests. But he owes his infamy not to that -- who really cares if a pack of unaccredited priests are running loose in the Polish countryside? -- but to his frequent and loud denial of the Holocaust.

In an extraordinary, too-good-to-be-true bit of timing Williamson reaffirmed his Holocaust denial in the most emphatic possible terms in an interview by Ali Fagan for Swedish public television conducted in Germany at Zaitzkofen Castle near Regensburg in November of 2008. A scant two months later, on January 21, 2009, the German pope "remitted" (the technical term) Williamson's excommunication. The Swedish television station saw its opening and released the Williamson interview the same day. A storm of outrage gathered and broke over the Vatican. Having none, the Vatican and the pope have been unable to offer a sensible explanation for this bit of unprovoked madness. The Vatican Secretariat of State now claims that Williamson's Holocaust denials were "unknown to the Holy Father at the time he revoked the excommunication." In other words, the pope is in the same position as an investor in the Bernie Madoff fund -- he simply did not do his own due diligence but relied instead on the assurances of others that the guy was OK. It is thus not a question of malice but of papal competency.

For the reader who has not read and marveled at the actual Swedish TV interview of Williamson I have posted it below. It is well worth viewing. Regard his dress: the neat white collar, the tasteful red piping and red buttons on his black tunic, the stunning scarlet cumberbund, the beautiful silver necklace with its jeweled cross nicely looped from the third button so as to be easily visible on TV. Regard his movie star good looks and carefully coiffed silver hair. Every bit of a man of distinction and high achievement. Or not? Note as you view it the so-earnest scientific logic of his argument: Jews could not have been gassed at Auschwitz because the doors on the gas chambers there do not fit tightly and the cyanide would therefore have leaked out and killed the Nazi's working in the chamber. Q.E.D.

Note next the below-the-belt shot that the Jews have simply exploited the Holocaust and used it to shame the Germans into paying them billions of euros. Finally, and best (or worst) of all, note the sly snide smile on his face as he brings to the Swedish interviewer's attention the fact that his statements are criminal under German law, where the interview is being conducted, and he therefore hopes the interviewer will not turn him in. How cute he is. How he loves his role as the anti-semitic provacateur! One can only hope the prosecutor in Regensburg is preparing charges and will patiently wait until Williamson can be found in a country with an extradition treaty with Germany.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

White Liberation in Action

Shortly after I posted my White Liberation Day comment immediately below, this comment appeared in Jack Cafferty's blog on the CNN website and it so beautifully illustrates my point that I want to pass it along here. The question put by Cafferty was whether the Inauguration of Barack Obama is too extravagent, to which this woman replied as follows:

Dawn from Sellersville, Pennsylvania writes:
Extravagant yes, but well worth the effort. This is a glorious event I never thought would come to pass. As a black woman, I’ve noticed since the morning after the election there has been a subtle change in our society. People actually speak to each other. I can’t tell you how many people make a point to have eye contact and say good morning or good afternoon. The message that is being sent is a new beginning for our great country. The world is envious and I am proud.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Obama's Election -- A Day of White Liberation

A Comment on Martin Luther King Day

I have a take on Barack Obama's election that I have not seen otherwise expressed, at least not in this form: his election is a liberating event for white Americans. As Chris Matthew said, "we are better than we thought we were." We may have known it all along, but Obama's election made us feel it in a new way.

By "white Americans" I mean all white Americans who are fundamentally fair-minded and feel goodwill toward others, however imperfectly those feelings are expressed. I exclude and rule out from my comment those white Americans who for reasons of mental illness, mental retardation, religious intolerance or a debilitating sense of inferiority are psychically locked into incurable racism. We simply need to draw a virtual fence around that sad subset of the population and do whatever damage control is necessary to limit the harm they can do to others.

I had the good fortune to be raised in a family environment in which we were made to understand that all men are equal and were not permitted to use the word "Nigger." This teaching was understated and assumed, never hammered in. It was part of the elementary rules of conduct which came down to us from our middle-western White Anglo Saxon Protestant and largely Republican party tradition. It was part of the air we breathed. I would like to think, and I do think, that most white Americans have similar values, however suppressed they might be.

From this perspective the election of Barack Obama is a hugely liberating event for white Americans, a tremendous relief, a load off our backs. Racism, discrimination and inequality are terrible psychic burdens to white Americans, whether we realize it or not. I am no racist: I do not like racism, I do not need it, I do not want it, I do not wish to perpetrate it, it weighs me down, it distorts my relation to others and it depresses me. Yet, despite my own views and values I am acutely conscious of the racism, discrimination and injustice which African-Americans suffer, and I feel guilty on account of it.

Obama's candidacy gave we white Americans an unusual opportunity to show in the most public and momentous way that our happiness does not depend on white supremacy, that we are perfectly happy, indeed delighted, to support and choose an African-American as our president. I cannot speak for the impact of the election upon African-Americans, but I can attest that white Americans also shed tears of joy on election night. Tears of joy and relief, I should add. And, what is astonishing is that white Americans two and one-half months later still shed tears when they recall how they felt on election night.

The election has demonstrably moved us away from the historical model of a bi-racial society, with whites on top and everyone else underneath. And we white Americans supported, helped finance and voted for the death of that model. We know full well that America is in fact a multi-racial society, and we know we are fortunate that it is. Obama's election somehow brings that fact into the sunlight and shows our overdue and explicit recognition of the de-facto multi-racial society in which we live. Looking the other way, I hope that African-Americans will over time come to realize how strongly white Americans supported Barack Obama and how badly they wanted -- how badly they needed -- him to win.

Of course there is still a long way to go, but the game has changed. Thank Heaven! What a fine tribute to Martin Luther King today.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

What Am I Missing About Hillary and the Cabinet?

The report that Hillary is under consideration to be appointed Secretary of State has me perplexed. Isn't she predestined to be the Secretary of Health and Human Services? Isn't this her hour to lead the move to national health care that she herself did so much to launch in the early 90's?

Why Secretary of State? Is she really qualified for that post? I mean, on the merits of her education, experience, character and intellect? I wonder. And what about Bill? The one cabinet position most vulnerable to damage from his erratic and occasionally reckless behavior is precisely Secretary of State.

It is a fine idea to put her in the cabinet. The Department of Health and Human Services would make far more sense.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Der Spiegel says Guten Tag to President Obama

The World President

This week's cover on Germany's leading news magazine speaks loudly for the stunning impact Barack Obama's election has had around the world. It exceeds all past experience and all recent expectations. An American living long term in Germany must appreciate the irony of Der Spiegel trying to get on board with our new U.S. president.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Der Spiegel Says Auf Wiedersehen to Bush

No comment necesssary

Monday, October 27, 2008

Lise Meitner -- a Remembrance on the 40th Anniversary of Her Death

"She is our Marie Curie"

Albert Einstein

High praise from a high authority. And Einstein knew whereof he spoke. He knew both women personally and he knew their work.

Today, October 27, 2008, marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Lise Meitner. She became in her lifetime, and still ranks as, one of Germany's greatest physicists...better said, one of the world's great physicists. She played a key role, perhaps the pivotal role, in the discovery of nuclear fission in 1938 and 1939, and in so doing became known for a time as the Mother of the Nuclear Age and, sometimes, the Mother of the Atomic Bomb. She was asked to come to the U.S. and work on the Manhattan Project, but she refused because she considered it a perversion of her science. She died in 1968 in Cambridge, England, just a few days short of her 90th birthday.

Meitner was born in Vienna on either November 7 or November 17, 1878 -- no one seems sure. She was ethnically Jewish but was baptized a protestant in 1908 and remained one throughout the rest of her life. In 1906 she became only the second woman to receive a doctorate in physics from the University 0f Vienna. There was little future for a woman physicist in Austria, so in 1907 she departed for Berlin, then the vital center of German physics. She began by attending lectures by, and then serving as assistant to, the great Max Planck, but was soon introduced to a young chemist by the name of Otto Hahn. They hit if off and began a collaboration in radioactivity, she doing the physics and he doing the chemistry, that endured off and on until July 1938 when she was forced to flee from Nazi Germany. Even then it continued in correspondence and one secret meeting in Copenhagen until January 1939.

What is remarkable to an observer in the current age, looking back upon the dark ages of gender equality, is how irresistibly Meitner seems to have bubbled to the surface of the physics community in Berlin and indeed in all Europe notwithstanding the pervasive prejudice of most of the men in that community against women in science. She endured professional and personal obstacles to her career of the most absurd and inexcusable variety: for example, when she began working with Hahn she was required by Emil Fischer, the director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry, to work only in a basement room with a separate entrance, no toilet facilities and no access to the laboratories upstairs. Worse yet, for many years she had to work without pay and without academic status because the Prussian university and research institute system had no places for women. This photo of Lise at the Summer Physics Colloquium at Niels Bohr's Physics Institute in Copenhagen in 1935 illustrates what she was up against (Max Born and Werner Heisenberg are with her in the front row):

Although her official academic status was lowly, Meitner's brilliance was evidently widely recognized and she inexorably became one of the elite physicists in Europe. Just consider the list of some of the physicists with whom she had professional and sometimes personal relationships: Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Max von Laue, Wolfgang Pauli, James Franck, Neils Bohr, Max Born, Erwin Schroedinger, Werner Heisenberg, James Chadwick, Enrico Fermi, Irene Curie.

The embedded backwardness of turn-of-the-century Prussian civilization gradually gave way through the 20's to more egalitarian values and in 1926 Lise became the first woman physics professor in Germany. She was by then so advanced in her standing in the scientific community that the requirement of an Habilitation thesis was waived -- she had already written and published more than 40 papers.

A Daring Harrowing Flight from Nazi Germany

Although Meitner lived and worked exclusively in Berlin from from 1907 until 1938 she remained an Austrian citizen until March 1938 when Hitler annexed Austria and all Austrians became Germans whether they liked it or not. By early 1938 it was clear that Lise's position as an ethnic Jew, notwithstanding that she was in practice a Lutheran, was becoming fatal to her career and her personal safety. Alarm for her safety spread among her colleagues across Europe until finally two Dutchmen, Dirk Coster and Adriaan Fokker, both of them physicists, devised a daring and dangerous plan for her escape from Germany. Meitner had, of course, no valid passport for travel and had no permission to leave Germany. Her Austrian passport was useless after the Anschluss and she had not been issued a German passport. It was therefore entirely illegal for her to depart Germany with no intention of returning.

On the morning of Wednesday July 13, 1938, Meitner was driven to the train station in Berlin by Paul Rosebaud, editor of Der Naturwissenschaften. She was in a state of terror and almost backed out at the last moment. The plan was for her to board a lightly traveled train bound for Groningen in Holland which would cross the Dutch-German border at the small resort town of Nieuweschwans. It was the northernmost border rail crossing between Germany and Holland. When she boarded the train she had the clothes on her back, a small suitcase, 10 marks in her purse, and a diamond ring in her pocket (given to her at the last moment by Hahn to be used in case of an emergency).

By pre-arrangement, Dirk Coster was waiting on board the train for her and and pretended to greet her with surprise, as though he had not expected to see her. This was part of the escape plan. Coster was himself at that moment present in Nazi Germany helping a prominent Jewish scientist illegally leave the country, and in so doing he acted with great heroism and at peril to himself. The train pulled out and the tense and terrifying journey proceeded. With the help of local contacts on the Dutch side of the border the resourceful Dirk Coster had arranged with the Dutch border patrol that Meitner would not be asked for her passport or otherwise prevented from entering Holland. This was a very considerable piece of work on Coster's part. The plan worked and Coster and Meitner crossed over into Holland without incident and traveled on to Groningen. It was an incredible adventure for the mild-mannered and intense 59 year-old physicist, one she would rather have done without.

In due course Meitner left Holland, moved on to Stockholm and took up a position in a new nuclear physics institute sponsored by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and run by a very male-chauvinistic Nobel Laureate by the name of Manne Siegbahn. The relationship with Siegbahn proved to be an unhappy one, he was ever unfriendly and unhelpful to her, and she never really felt at home in Sweden. She nevertheless spent the next 22 years of her life there, eventually becoming a Swedish citizen. In 1960 at the age of 81 she moved to Cambridge, England, to be near her nephew, Otto Robert Frisch, and his family. She died there on October 27, 1968.

The Sad Case of the Deutsches Museum

The Deutsches Museum in Munich is thought by many to be the leading science museum in Germany, and maybe it is. It has, however, like many German institutions, had some difficulty coming to terms with its own history. The museum's treatment of Lise Meitner is illustrative.

What you see in the photo above is an exhibit to be found today in the Chemistry section of the Deutsches Museum. It is captioned:

The Experimental Apparatus with which the Team of Otto Hahn, Lise Meitner and Fritz Strassmann Discovered Nuclear Fission in 1938
It was not always so. From 1953 to 1990 the exhibit, which is a composite of devices used by Meitner and Hahn in three separate rooms of the institute and not a single work table, was designated in the museum as:

Work Table of Otto Hahn

The signs on the wall next to the exhibit originally made no mention of Lise Meitner. Charlotte Kerner has explained in her current article about Meitner in Die Zeit that Hahn himself organized the original museum exhibit. This may explain why the original treatment of the exhibit referred only to Hahn and not to Meitner. In 1989, in response to pressure from knowledgeable historians of science, among them Ruth Lewin Sime, the distinguished American biographer of Lise Meitner, the exhibit was re-titled and the accompanying description was revised and updated (with text by Sime). Welcome corrections to be sure, but 37 years overdue from an institution that should have, and must in fact have, known better. Such institutional lassitude over such an extended period is a stain on the scholarly reputation of the museum.

One would think that the museum having been thus brought to account in 1989 would have taken steps to assure that all of its public faces would be corrected. If so, one would be wrong. The museum continues today to present on its website an account of the so-called work table at odds with the true history of the devices on the table and with the updated description within the museum itself. In particular, the website contains three egregious misstatements: for one, the website asserts that the devices shown in the exhibit were assembled and organized by Otto Hahn when in fact they were put together by Meitner herself. A knowledgeable observer can plainly see these devices are those of the physicist not the chemist.

For another, Lise Meitner is characterized on the website as a "Mitarbeiterin" of Hahn. This term in German connotes "assistant" or "junior partner" not "colleague" or "full partner." When the devices displayed on the exhibit table were employed in 1938 in the experiments leading to the splitting of the uranium nucleus Meitner was a world-renowned physicist with her own research institute and staff separate from that of Hahn and was no one's "Mitarbeiterin."

The website continues to err by claiming that Hahn did not participate in the German effort during WW II to develop an atomic bomb ("Hahn am deutschen Atomprojekt nicht beteiligt war..."). As Professor Sime has pointed out, "the opposite is true."

Curiously, although the museum director and his staff are well aware of these errors and know that the website is out of step with the museum exhibit itself, they persist in maintaining the website in its present form.

As it happens, the Deutsches Museum is even now in the process of producing a scholarly history of itself during the Nazi era. This would be an excellent occasion for the museum to make amends for its past mistreatment of Lise Meitner and bring its website properly up to date.

The 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry -- Five Swedes Get it Wrong

The end result of the combined experimental and theoretical efforts of Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn from 1934 through early 1939 was to split the atom, discover and describe the process of nuclear fission and launch the nuclear age. It counts as one of mankind's great scientific achievements and would richly deserve the ultimate prize for achievements in physics and chemistry. The Nobel Prize would count as that ultimate prize if only it were what the public thinks it is, namely, a prize awarded by a qualified panel of certified experts adjudicating the merits of scientific work in an atmosphere free of scientific, political, racial and gender prejudice and pressure. This definition, unfortunately, does not apply to the Nobel Prize.

The Nobel Prizes for Physics and Chemistry (and perhaps for all other fields as well) are dispensed by a small panel of Swedish persons meeting behind closed doors who may or may not be qualified to judge what they are judging and who often bring to bear upon their judgments all imaginable forms of prejudice, incompetence, whimsy and small-mindedness. To take just one example -- Albert Einstein was nominated ten times, all in vain, for the Nobel Prize in Physics before finally receiving it on the eleventh go-around in 1921 -- sixteen years after his discovery of special relativity in 1905 and six years after his discovery of general relativity in 1915. Almost every man, woman and child on the planet knew by the mid-teens that Einstein was one of the scientific giants of human history. Though few understood it, the language of relativity had become part of everyday conversation in all corners of the globe. After the solar eclipse observations by Eddington in 1919, confirming that light bends going around the sun, Einstein was practically deified. Nevertheless, it took the five Swedes on the physics committee until 1921 to catch up. One of the reasons given by one of the five, by the way, was that relativity was about philosophy not science! Five Swedes off the street locked in a room with a bottle of acquavit could have done better.

With this in mind it will come as no surprise to the reader that Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn did not share a Nobel Prize. On the contrary, Otto Hahn alone was awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry "in reward for his discovery of the fission heavy atomic nuclei." (From the Presentation Speech of Professor A. Westgren, Chairman of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, given on December 10, 1944.) Hahn was not permitted to leave Germany in 1944 to receive the prize and so did not actually receive it until 1946.

Beginning in the early 1930's Enrico Fermi in Italy had been experimenting with the bombardment of nuclei of various elements on the periodic table with neutrons. In 1934 Lise Meitner wished to undertake a project at her institute in Berlin to replicate, clarify and extend Fermi's work. She needed the assistance of chemist so invited Otto Hahn to join her in the project, and he agreed to do so. Over the space of the next four years the two of them, with the added participation of an analytical chemist named Fritz Strassmann, carried out a series of experiments in which they bombarded nuclei, uranium nuclei in particular, with neutrons, using the devices now exhibited by the Deutsches Museum. Meitner inspired the project and according to Strassmann was its intellectual leader.

The project and the experimental neutron bombardment work of Meitner, Hahn and Strassmann continued into the first half of 1938. As we have seen, Meitner was forced to flee for her safety in July of 1938. That left Hahn and Strassmann behind in Berlin to carry on the work, using, of course, the devices and instruments Meitner necessarily left behind when she fled. From her new post in Sweden, however, Meitner continued to direct the experimental work of Hahn and Strassmann through correspondence. In our present era of instant Internet communication it comes as a bit of a surprise surprise to learn how fast and efficient was the postal service in Germany and Sweden in 1938. Letters posted in Berlin were often delivered in Stockholm within one or two days. Through written correspondence Lise could thus closely direct and follow the experiments in Berlin, and Otto could quickly report his results to her.

In addition to their correspondence, Meitner and Hahn had one secret meeting in Copenhagen in November 1938. He went there to deliver a lecture and she quietly came over from Stockholm. They met in private and did not disclose the meeting to their friends. He told her of some strange results he was getting as the result of neutron bombardment of uranium, using increasingly sophisticated and exact methods. The results were such that neither of them could believe in their accuracy, and Meitner instructed him to go back to Berlin and do it over again with even greater care. In hindsight we can recognize that the results in question, which troubled them so, showed that the neutron bombardments were splitting the uranium nuclei.

Hahn and Strassmann continued this line of experimentation for the remainder of November and on into December. Hahn bore down hard and his methods became increasingly clever and refined. He was a talented chemist and he knew they were on the verge of an exciting discovery (without knowing what it was), he was under constant pressure from Meitner and they both knew that others, notably Curie and Savitch in Paris, were working along similar lines. Meitner and Hahn naturally wanted to get there first. Scientific research, it turns out, is a highly competitive field in which the players are interested not only in the discovery of truth but also in winning the race and enjoying the glory and rewards which come to the victor. Ego vies with intellect for primacy in scientific work.

As the experimental work continued into December it resolved itself into a puzzle over the persistent presence of barium in the dish containing the substances resulting from the neutron bombardment of uranium. Hahn, Meitner and everyone else working in the field expected the neutron bombarment of uranium to result in neutrons being captured in the uranium nucleus, thus adding to its weight and resulting in a new and heavier element, a so-called transuranium element. In this schema barium had no place. Barium (element 56) is a lighter not a heavier element than uranium (element 92). Common sense tells you that you cannot add weight to uranium and get a lighter element as a result. You must necessarily get a heavier element. Where, then, was all this barium coming from?

Hahn and Strassmann knew that some of the barium was coming from the barium chloride they themselves had introduced into the mixture to serve as a carrier agent in aid of the experiment. This was an accepted chemistry technique. The two chemists did not think for a moment that any of their barium was resulting from the neutron bombardment process. To the contrary, they believed that the resulting substance must some kind of isotope of radium. Therefore they concentrated on the attempt to separate out the "resulting substance" from the barium carrier. Hahn and Strassmann tried a series of ingenious and refined methods of accomplishing this separation, but every one of them failed and they were left time and again with a bowl full of barium. It is easy for the observer today to say, "So be it. Your bombardment of uranium has evidently produced barium. Now go to work and figure out why." But this was not Hahn's mind-set. He believed, as did most every other chemist and physicist on earth, that the laws of physics do not permit barium to result from neutron bombardment of uranium. It simply cannot happen. This was why Lise told him in Copenhagen in November to go home and try it again. He did, and the result was the same.

This left Hahn in a dilemma: the facts of the experiments told him one thing, but his mind told him another. Should he publish the results of his experiments, even though he was not sure of them and could not explain them, or should he wait until Meitner could get up to speed and provide an explanation?

The timing of events now becomes critical. On Monday, December 19,Hahn wrote to Meitner describing his results: "Our radium isotopes act like barium...Perhaps you can suggest some fantastic explanation. We understand that it really can't break up into barium.... So try to think of some other possibility." She received that letter in Stockholm on Wednesday, December 21, and replied immediately saying it was "difficult to accept....but not impossible." She also informed Hahn that she would be leaving on Friday, December 23, for the village of Kungalv in the Swedish countryside for a week's vacation. She did not in that letter attempt an explanation of the barium.

On the same day that Meitner received and replied to his letter (Wednesday, December 21), Hahn and Strassmann completed one final test -- they subjected the mystery substance to a process of beta decay, which produced the element lanthanum rather than actinium, which in turn meant that the substance in question was not a radium isotope but was barium. Otto decided at this point to publish, without waiting for further input from Lise. He thereupon contacted Paul Rosebaud at Der Naturwissenschaften and told him he had an important paper for the next edition. Rosebaud bumped another article to make space and offered to print Hahn's article in the January 6, 1939, edition of the journal.

This was a fateful decision by Hahn at a critical moment in the history of science. On the one hand, he was really not ready in his own mind to accept the results of the experiments, i.e., that he had produced barium. He had doubts. On the other hand, he knew his results were important, or might be, however strange, and he wanted to get into print before Curie and Savitch did so. He was evidently not willing to wait until Lise could come aboard and provide the needed explanation. His haste to publish and his taste for glory overcame his uncertainty about his results and his loyalty to Lise. We can mark this moment as the point at which Hahn decided to become a Bonze (German for "big man").

Otto wrote to Meitner again that evening (Wednesday), lamely asserting (knowing he was about to push off without her), "We cannot hush up the results even though they may be absurd in physical terms. You can see that you will be performing a good deed [if you can provide an explanation]." "A good deed?" What kind of condescending expression was that? He promised to send her a manuscript copy of the article he was about to write.

Hahn completed his write up the next day, Thursday, December 22, and delivered it personally to Rosebaud that evening. The article, as we know, bore the names of Hahn and Strassmann but not of Meitner. Later that evening Hahn mailed a copy to Meitner, addressed to her in Stockholm because he had not yet seen her letter advising him she was leaving for Kungalv.

In retrospect it is fair to criticize Hahn's rush to publish. The article was, after all, not truly ready for publication (see below). Did he have any reason to think Curie and Savitch were really so close behind? Was it not in fact the beginning of the Christmas holiday season when most everyone can be expected to slack off in any event? Did he not have a moral obligation to Lise, who had been driven out of her home and her laboratory by the Nazi's, and who had in fact inspired and directed the project which had led to the barium results, to wait at least a few days for her to receive his article and work out the theoretical explanation of what had happened? The addition of such an explanation would have made the paper far more professional and scholarly. These questions continue to overhang Hahn's legacy.

Let us consider, then, the Hahn-Strassmann article which was published by Rosebaud on January 6, 1939. On the face of it it is an awkward, incomplete and hesitant piece of work. Hahn pulled his punches and stepped back from the conclusions that were implied by the experimental results. He apparently lacked the courage of his own convictions, making his rush to publish look all the more nakedly opportunistic.

The article begins with the title,

"Ueber den Nachweis und das Verhalten der bei der Bestrahlung des Urans mittels Neutronen entstehenden Erdalkalimetalle"

("On the Detection and Behavior of Alkaline Earth Elements Derived from the Neutron-Irradiation of Uranium").

It should better have read "Barium" rather than "Alkaline Earth Elements." The entire course of experiment had been about the baffling presence of barium. Why not say as much? Bear in mind he later received a Nobel Prize precisely because he had produced barium.

The article then proceeds in a hesitant, subjunctive mood: "we ought to...," "we should...," "there could be...," and weakest of all, "we cannot bring take such a drastic step." The facts reported in the article point squarely to barium, i.e., to the splitting of the uranium nucleus, but Hahn lacked sufficient confidence (or courage) to say it. The article cries out for the theoretical explanation that Lise Meitner could have given.

The article concludes on this limpid note:

Als Chemiker muessten wir aus den kurz dargelegtenVersuchen das oben gebrachte Schema eigentlich unbenennen und statt Ra, Ac, Th die Symbole Ba, La, Ce einsetzen. Als der Physik in gewisser Weise nahestehende “Kernchemiker” koennen wir uns zu diesem, allen bisherigen Erfahrungen der Kernphysik widersprechenden, Sprung noch nicht entschliessen. Es koennten doch noch vielleicht eine Reihe selstsamer Zufaelle unsere Ergebnisse vorgetaeuscht haben.

As chemists we should restate the above-mentioned scheme resulting from our briefly-described experiment and instead of Ra [radium], Ac[actinium], Th[thorium] insert the symbols Ba [barium], La [lanthanum], Ce[cerium]. As “nuclear chemists” working close to the field of physics we are not ready to take this step, which contradicts all previous experience of nuclear physics. It could perhaps be that an unusual series of coincidences has falsified our results.
Believe it or not this cautious article, this blatant hedging of his bet, this steadfast refusal to say, "we have split the atom," won the Nobel Prize for Hahn. Other factors may have entered in, but this was the springboard to the prize.

The explanation Hahn craved and could not himself give was in fact given by Lise Meitner and her nephew Otto Robert Frisch 2 days after Hahn completed and submitted his article. Meitner and Frisch met in Kungalv for their Christmas holiday week, and on the morning of December 24, Christmas eve day, began to discuss Otto Hahn's letter of December 19. They had not yet even received and read his letter of December 21 or the manuscript copy of his article. The December 19 letter sufficed, however, to show Meitner and Frisch that Hahn had apparently split a uranium nucleus.

On that December 24 morning, in a scene that might have come out of a Hollywood movie, Frisch put on his new cross-country skis and Lise put on her hiking boots and the two of them set out on a tour through the snowy Kungalv countryside. As they progressed along the trail they tried to make sense of what Hahn had reported. How was it possible to form barium out of uranium? As their conversation gained momentum their tour lost momentum and they sat down on a log along the trail. Lise pulled out some scraps of paper from her bag and they began to calculate and draw diagrams.

In a short time the two of them had taken a giant step: using the metaphor proposed by Niels Bohr which suggests that an atomic nucleus is like a drop of water they asked, what if that drop should pull or be pulled apart into two separate drops? It happens easily with water when shaken. Could it happen to a nucleus when hit and de-stabilized by a neutron? Suppose it did and the two drops were pushed apart by the mutual repulsion of their respective collections of protons. Frisch, a better draftsman than Meitner, diagrammed how it might look. They realized, however, that it would take enormous energy to push the fragments apart, so Meitner, a better calculator than Frisch, began to calculate. She concluded that it would take 200 million electron volts to push the two nuclear fragments apart. Now where might that energy come from? Was such energy available in the nucleus? Meitner remembered some earlier numbers concerning the mass defects of nuclei and calculated that when a nucleus splits in two it loses one-fifth the mass of a proton. Then in a beautiful application of Einstein's equation E = mc² she calculated that loss of the mass of one-fifth of a proton would generate approximately 200 million electron volts of energy, just enough to push the two drops of the nucleus apart. It all fit together. It must have been a thrilling moment for the two of them.

Meitner and Frisch thus had derived the theoretical explanation of Hahn's and Strassmann's experimental results precisely three days after Meitner received Hahn's letter of December 19 and two days following the submission of Hahn's article to Der Naturwissenschaften. As they sat in Kungalv continuing to discuss their conclusions they did not know that Hahn's article was due to be published on January 6. Unlike Hahn, they did not rush to publish.

Among other reasons, Frisch wanted first to take their results back to Copenhagen and discuss them with Niels Bohr. He did so on January 3. In a scene one would die to have witnessed, Bohr slapped his forehead and exclaimed, "Oh what idiots we have all been! Oh but this is wonderful! This is just as it must be!" On that same day Meitner received the revised proofs of Hahn's article and wrote to him acknowledging that she was now certain that he had split the uranium nucleus and produced barium. Three days later, on Friday, January 6, 1939, Meitner and Frisch worked out the outline of their paper on the telephone and Frisch thereupon drafted it. Ironically, this draft of the Meitner-Frisch paper explaining the result was written on the same day that the Hahn-Strassmann paper was published reporting the result. So close yet so far.

In the course of the next week, the week beginning January 9, Frisch constructed and conducted an experiment designed to test the conclusions he and Meitner had reached by searching for telltale nuclear fragments that would indicate the nucleus had split. He began his measurements on that Friday, January 13. The results showed the anticipated fragments and confirmed the theoretical model he and Meitner had developed.

In the immediate aftermath of his experiment Frisch had a chance conversation with one William A. Arnold who was a visiting biologist from the Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, California. Frisch asked Arnold what biologists call it when cells divide. Arnold said "binary fission." Frisch dropped the "binary" and adopted the "fission," thus arriving at the name by which the process of splitting the nucleus has ever since been known, "nuclear fission." Thanks to a Californian.

Meitner and Frisch now had a theory, experimental confirmation of the theory and a new name for the process explained by the theory. Unlike Hahn they had not precipitously rushed to publish, and as a result they had a more satisfying article to present. Meitner and Frisch again conferred by telephone and agreed on the final form of their paper. In addition, Frisch separately wrote up the results of his experiment. Frisch finished the drafting of both papers on Monday, January 16, and mailed them to the journal Nature in London the following morning. The Meitner-Frisch paper, "Disintegration of Uranium by Neutrons: a New Type of Nuclear Reaction," wherein the name "nuclear fission" appeared for the first time in print, was published in Nature on February 11, 1939, just 36 days after the publication of Hahn's and Strassmann's paper.

I have spelled out these dates in order to illustrate the essential unity of the combined work of Meitner, Frisch, Hahn and Strassmann. They did their work in same time frame and would have done it in the same location had not the Nazis driven Meitner out of Berlin. All of their efforts were directed at the same subject and their work was complementary. Hahn and Strassmann produced the physical results in the laboratory but could not explain them. Indeed, they doubted them. Meitner and Frisch took over the results and created the theoretical framework which explained them and in so doing laid the foundation for the nuclear age. Had Hahn acted with a little bit more courtesy, consideration and collegiality their combined work would have been presented and published in a unified article and science would have been the better for it. Instead, Hahn jumped the gun and in retrospect made himself seem crassly opportunistic. He acted not in the interests of science, but in his own interest.

From this complex mix of experimental and theoretical work by four German scientists five errant Swedes plucked out Hahn alone for recognition and gave him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. From the date his paper was prematurely published, January 6, 1939, until the end of his life Hahn played the Bonze and sought recognition to the exclusion of his three colleagues, especially of Lise Meitner. If the five Swedes wished to honor him alone he was fine with that. He did, in fairness, give a nod, however minimal, in Meitner's direction in his Nobel Lecture of December 13, 1946, but later on when, as a laureate, he was entitled to participate in the Nobel Prize process he did not do what a man with better character would have done -- press for an award of the physics prize to Lise.

(The records of the Nobel Prize deliberations by the Royal Swedish Academy of Science are kept closed for 50 years following an award. The records of the award to Hahn were opened to scholars in 1996 and were the subject of an extensive article reviewing the process by Elizabeth Crawford, Ruth Lewin Sime and Mark Walker, "A Nobel Tale of Postwar Injustice," Physics Today, Volume 50, Issue 9, 26 - 32 (1997). )

Looking back now 40 years after her death, Lise Meitner's reputation has grown and continues to grow, while Hahn's reputation remains tarnished by the one-sided award of the Nobel Prize and his opportunistic and selfish conduct before and after the award. Unjust though the denial of the Nobel Prize was, Lise Meitner has been honored in many, many other ways: numerous German schools and streets bear her name; element 109 in the periodic table is called "meitnerium;" both Germany and Austria have issued Lise Meitner stamps;

a crater on Venus has been named for her;

likewise a crater on the moon; she received the Max Planck Medal (with Hahn), the Otto Hahn Prize (!) and the Enrico Fermi Award (with Hahn and Strassmann); and in 1946, the year Hahn received the Nobel Prize, she was named Woman of the Year in the U.S. by the Women's National Press Club and was seated next to Harry S Truman, President of the United States, at the award banquet.

(MTNR 8/2/1, Courtesy of Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge)

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Oscar Wilde Calls the Debate

Oscar Wilde, who was born this day -- October 16 -- 144 years ago, called it:

A well-tied tie is the first serious step in life.

I knew the course the debate would take as soon as I saw the ties the candidates wore.

Obama wore the same tie he wore in his acceptance speech in Denver. It does not suit him. He doesn't do red. It was a poor choice. His performance was likewise poor, at least during the first half of the debate. Fortunately, he eventually settled down and slipped into his professorial mode, solid but somewhat dull. Playing safe, making no serious mistakes, taking few risks and reaching only one high point -- his moving and courageous statement about abortion.

McCain, on the other hand, who desperately needs some color, but apparently doesn't know it, had the bad judgment to show up in a colorless blue-gray striped banker's tie -- well-tied, I admit, but unimportant and unsuited to the occasion. McCain needed to shine, but did not. He stayed on his message, such as it is, aimed at his hard core conservative constituency. He stayed in character, grim though it is, as a humorless, up-tight, bad-tempered, grouchy and mean SOB. After the selection of Sarah Palin it is almost pointless to say anything more about McCain's poor judgment, but it surpasses all understanding that he continues to swing and miss. For example:

  • Hammering on Joe the Plumber, as though anyone, including Joe himself, gives a damn. Joe admitted later that he is not even registered to vote. And the press discovered Joe is not Joe, is not a licensed plumber and is in fact a numbskull.
  • Absurdly comparing Obama, once again, to Herbert Hoover.
  • Pointlessly citing nuclear submarines as somehow relevant to ending our dependence on foreign oil.
  • Asserting he has no litmus test for choosing Supreme Court judges, but in the next breath admitting that he would consider a judge who was favorable to Roe v. Wade as unqualified.
  • Continuing to talk about Bill Ayers even though the overwhelming evidence of the public opinion polls shows that it is hurting him not helping him.
  • Artlessly using the phrase "I am not President Bush," apparently not remembering, or remembering but not understanding, that this is a derivative of the deadly quip Lloyd Bentsen used against the witless Dan Quayle in their vice-presidential debate: "You're no Jack Kennedy." The phrase works to diminish not enhance the person targeted by it.
  • Failing to maintain his composure when Obama was speaking by allowing himself to be shown on camera rolling his eyes, contorting his face and looking like a jerk not entirely in control of himself.
  • To his credit, slight though it is, he restrained himself from mentioning Pastor Wright. That was the high point of his performance.
The CNN poll taken immediately following the debate had it 58% for Obama and 31% for McCain. I was frankly surprised at that. I would not have been surprised had it been a wash, with each cancelling the other out and no clear winner declared. Fifty eight to thirty one, however, is a staggering victory. It positions Obama perfectly and tells him just what to do for the next 19 days. It leaves McCain with nowhere to go from here.

Hold your breath.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Monday Morning -- 22 Days Until the Election


Good news from the Colley Rankings -- the electoral college vote tracking site at What matters is not public opinion per se but electoral college votes. The Colley Rankings attempt to predict electoral college votes using a statistical method which looks at the median of recent polls in the respective states. Throughout much of September Obama has held the lead, but it was slim -- 273 to 265. In the last four days, however, Obama's lead has increased significantly to 311 to 227. A big move and an important one at this late date. At the same time, the Washington Post ABC poll today shows Obama has opened a 10 point (53-43) lead in its public opinion poll, and CNN has it 49-41.


John McCain stood to the rear looking painfully embarrassed as Sarah Palin introduced him at a rally in Virginia today, then stepped up and give a forgettable, trivial, plain vanilla campaign pep talk rather than the much anticipated turnaround speech that his campaign has promised. Typical of the lame and pointless content of the speech was the attempt at criticizing Obama for, of all things, insisting upon "safe nuclear power." "All he needs to do is to go to the naval base and look at our nuclear carriers and the brave men and women who are defending freedom around the globe," said McCain. Say what? Doesn't anyone on his staff read this stuff before he delivers it? Never mind McCain's absurd mimicking of Martin Luther King with the steady repetition of his "I have a plan" rhetorical figure. Who is writing this stuff? Are competent speechwriters really so hard to find? And it got more bizarre, consider this line about Obama and his supporters, "My friends, we've got them right where we want them!" This brilliant claim was delivered on a day when Obama was up 10 points in the polls.


Christopher Buckley

Christopher, the son of William F. Buckley, founder of the right wing journal National Review, who describes himself as a conservative/libertarian, has issued a powerful and welcome endorsement of Obama from the right :

I’ve read Obama’s books, and they are first-rate. He is that rara avis, the politician who writes his own books. Imagine....

But having a first-class temperament and a first-class intellect, President Obama will (I pray, secularly) surely understand that traditional left-politics aren’t going to get us out of this pit we’ve dug for ourselves. If he raises taxes and throws up tariff walls and opens the coffers of the DNC to bribe-money from the special interest groups against whom he has (somewhat disingenuously) railed during the campaign trail, then he will almost certainly reap a whirlwind that will make Katrina look like a balmy summer zephyr.

Obama has in him—I think, despite his sometimes airy-fairy “We are the people we have been waiting for” silly rhetoric—the potential to be a good, perhaps even great leader. He is, it seems clear enough, what the historical moment seems to be calling for.


While McCain flounders and struggles to find something worth saying and then to find a way to say it Obama and his campaign are growing tighter and smoother. His speech on the economy this morning in Toledo was masterful. He laid down a rational and detailed set of proposals to attempt to protect people suffering in the current downturn and begin to repair the economy. To his credit, he did not hesitate to warn people that they have to stop living beyond their means with home equity loans and credit card debt and start saving. It is clear that he is indeed a gifted speaker and intellect and that his confidence is running high. From a professional campaign management point of view he is peaking perfectly. He sails into the Wednesday night debate in a powerful position, having McCain on the ropes, knowing what to expect from him and knowing what to do to respond to it. This debate should be one of the great moments in American presidential election history.


It came as no surprise. It was long expected. It was in almost everyone's view well deserved. Today Paul Krugman, Princeton professor and New York Times columnist, was awarded the Nobel Prize for economics. The talk of Krugman as a potential Secretary of the Treasury in the Obama administration accelerated.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Tribute to Russell from Campo Tencia

A video tribute to Russell Towle of Dutch Flat, California, who died untimely on August 7, delivered from the summit of the Campo Tencia in the Tessin in Switzerland on Sunday, August 10, 2008.

Friday, July 18, 2008

A Loose Cannon at Ben-Gurion University

The mind-set illustrated by this cartoon -- that Iran will surely drop a nuclear bomb on Israel as soon as it can produce one -- lives on, unfortunately. I have written on this subject in an earlier post.

The New York Times today (July 18, 2007) published an Op-Ed piece by one Bennie Morris, a maverick academic at Ben-Gurion University, entitled "Using Bombs to Stave Off War." The gist of the piece is that Israel must get on with it and bomb Iran's nuclear facilities using conventional, non-nuclear weapons. Morris predicts that Israel will in fact do so within the next four to seven months. The rationale is that unless Israel does so there will certainly be nuclear war between Israel and Iran, "either through a subsequent pre-emptive Israeli nuclear strike or a nuclear exchange shortly after Iran gets the bomb." The four to seven month time frame is designed to assure that it happens during the waning days of the Bush administration which "ensures that Israel will have support from a lame-duck White House."

Morris' argument proceeds in steps introduced by statements such as "Every intelligence agency in the world believes," "everyone knows that," "Western intelligence agencies agree" .... All this self-evident information "leaves the world with only one option if it wishes to halt Iran’s march toward nuclear weaponry: the military option, meaning an aerial assault by either the United States or Israel."

The best outcome of this recommendation, in Morris' view, is that Iran will come to its senses and give up its nuclear ambitions. Morris does not, however, believe that will happen, so he staunchly accepts that this is but a prelude to the eventual nuclear war between Israel and Iran. Iran is, of course (as everyone knows), undeterrable because it is ruled by fundamentalist muslims: "Thus an Israeli nuclear strike to prevent the Iranians from taking the final steps toward getting the bomb is probable."

Bennie Morris

As if this eccentric Op-Ed piece were not evidence enough that Morris is a very odd duck, his academic career is further illustration. Initially he was regarded as an Israeli who was sympathetic to the Palestinians. He even refused to do military service in the West Bank. Over the years he has come so far from that starting point that he has actually argued in favor of ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. In the 2004 interview in Haaretz wherein he made this statement he was described by the interviewer (Ari Shavit) as follows:
But sitting in his armchair in his Jerusalem apartment, he does not don the mantle of the cautious academic. Far from it: Morris spews out his words, rapidly and energetically, sometimes spilling over into English. He doesn’t think twice before firing off the sharpest, most shocking statements, which are anything but politically correct. He describes horrific war crimes offhandedly, paints apocalyptic visions with a smile on his lips. He gives the observer the feeling that this agitated individual, who with his own hands opened the Zionist Pandora’s box, is still having difficulty coping with what he found in it...

It thus appears that Bennie Morris is only an isolated crank and is not here sending out an authorized feeler on behalf of the Israeli government. That is comforting. We can nevertheless wish that the New York Times had done deeper due diligence on Morris before publishing his reckless piece. We can also recommend to the Academic Senate of Ben-Gurion University that it is time to tighten up their academic standards.

As Morris himself acknowledges in his Op-Ed piece Israel is a nuclear power (a fact Israel itself has never officially admitted.) He fails to acknowledge, however, that by most estimates Israel has between 150 and 200 nuclear weapons, supported by aircraft, missile and submarine delivery capabilities. Against this arsenal are we really to believe that Iran is going to send the first bomb off its assembly line to Israel and suffer the civilization-ending consequences?

Monday, July 07, 2008

How are the Candidates REALLY Doing?

The Colley Rankings

Two rocket scientists from Princeton, astrophysicists actually, have a taken a statistical technique they use in their work and applied it to the race between Barack Obama and John McCain. The results are shown on a fascinating page on Colley's website entitled "Electoral Scoreboard 2008" in which they take the median of available poll results in all states and track the progress of the race between Barack Obama and John McCain over time and show the current number of electoral votes in favor of each candidate. The method is explained in detail on their site.

As of July 2 they show Obama with 317 electoral votes and McCain with 221.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

The 74th Anniversary of the Death of Madame Curie

Marie Curie deep in conversation with Henri Poincare
while Albert Einstein looks on (ca. 1924)

Marie Curie, born Maria Sklodowska, died at 66 of aplastic anemia on July 4, 1934, in the Sancellemoz sanatorium in Passy, France, just a short distance from Mont Blanc. July 4 of this year is thus the 74th anniversary of her death. There are scarcely enough superlatives to do justice to the greatest and most remarkable woman who ever lived, as least so far as we in the west can judge, and so far as we have historical records to consult.

I have written an earlier post about Madame Curie recalling the unmatched highlights of her scientific career: two Nobel Prizes, one in Physics in 1903 (the same year she received her PhD!) with her husband Pierre and Henri Becquerel for discovering radioactivity, and the other, hers alone, in 1911 in Chemistry for the discoveries of radium and polonium. To this date no other scientist has received two Nobels in the natural sciences. These facts of her life are of course well known.

There are other less well-known but fascinating aspects of her life:

  • In WW I she invented the mobile x-ray lab by outfitting 20 vehicles with x-ray equipment, building 200 stationary x-ray units, training 150 x-ray technicians and taking to the battlefield with her daughter Irene, sometimes driving the mobile x-ray vans herself, and in all making possible the x-ray treatment of over one million soldiers during the course of the war. Here she is at the wheel of one of her Renault mobile x-ray vans:

  • Her native tongue was Polish, her adopted language was French, and altogether she spoke five languages.
  • She suffered from stage fright and was generally terrified when she had to speak in public, which was often.
  • She suffered from tinnitus.
  • She loved to play Scrabble, actually "Letters," an ancestor of Scrabble, similarly involving the drawing of letters from a sack and the formation of words with them.
  • She was an accomplished athlete who did hiking, skiing, skating, cycling and swimming. She was especially proud of her swimming ability and was extremely competitive, forever measuring herself against other swimmers in the group, mostly men, gathered at L'Arcouest in Brittany, the country retreat of much of the faculty of the Sorbonne:
    She implacably counted the distances covered by her adversaries, and, without ever openly proposing a race, she put herself in training to break the records of speed and distance held by the university teaching body...At more than fifty years of age, she was one of the best swimmers of her generation." (from Curie, Eve, Madame Curie 316 (Da Capo Press 2d ed. 2001))
  • She loved fast cars and was proud of her Ford, which she considered to be a sporting vehicle.
  • After the tragic death of her husband Pierre Marie had a notorious love affair with a married man, Paul Langevin, a physicist at the Sorbonne who had done his Ph.D. under Pierre Curie and was the doctoral advisor of Marie's daughter Irene. Their affair was a sensation. Langevin's wife Jeanne discovered the affair and told Marie to leave France or die. Marie threatened suicide if Paul would not leave Jeanne. Jeanne stole Marie's love letters from Paul's desk and released them to the press on the same day that Marie received word she had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry! An angry crowd gathered in front of Marie's house and threw stones at her windows. A right-wing journalist insulted Langevin in print and Langevin challenged him to a duel. The duel did not happen because when it came time to square off the journalist refused to fire because he did not want to kill one of France's finest minds. In the wake of the scandal the Nobel committee, severely underestimating who they were dealing with, asked Marie not to come to Sweden to receive the prize. That only made her angry. She wrote back declaring, rightly, that her discovery of radium and polonium had nothing to do with her private life and thereupon embarked for Sweden to receive her prize from King Gustaf. The denouement of this bizarre affair was that Langevin in due course went back to his wife, took yet another mistress but then fathered an illegitimate child by one of his students, Elaine, following which he appealed to Marie to find Elaine a job. And she did. (Goldsmith, Barbara, Obsessive Genius 165-76 (Atlas Books 2005))
Marie Curie's scientific achievements were larger than life and her life itself was almost larger than life. She knew genius, greatness, fame, tragedy, love, pain, humiliation, recognition, athletic achievement, illness, family warmth, universal admiration and the transcendent thrill of making at least three of the greatest scientific discoveries in the history of mankind.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Ted Sorensen on Barack Obama

Ted's moving endorsement of Barack Obama perfectly expresses the resonance that so many of us feel with JFK and RFK and which has motivated those of us who came to political maturity with the election of JFK in 1960 to come back in to the political arena and so enthusiastically support Senator Obama in this election. I would add to the remarks of Ted Sorensen that the Obama campaign displays the kind of high level competence, skill and intelligence we have not seen in American presidential campaigns since those of JFK in 1960 and RFK in 1968.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Dorothy Parker Remembered

You Might as
Well Live

Dorothy Parker died on this day, June 7, in 1967. She was one of the wittiest, cleverest, quickest, wildest, hardest-drinking American writers of the 20th century. We have heard a lot about able and powerful women in this primary season. Dorothy was larger than life on the American literary and media scene in her own time, remembered especially for her leading role in the Algonquin Round Table, a witty circle of domineering and savage-tongued men hanging out regularly at the famous New York hotel. She more than held her own in that high-energy company.

It is always fun to read and re-read Dorothy Parker, so here are a few of my personal favorites:


Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,
A medley of extemporanea;
And love is a thing that can never go wrong;
And I am Marie of Roumania

Unfortunate Coincidence

By the time you swear you're his,
Shivering and sighing,
And he vows his passion is
Infinite, undying --
Lady, make a note of this:
One of you is lying.


Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful:
You might as well live.

A little-known but intriguing fact about Dorothy is that she left her estate (or at least a big part of it) to Martin Luther King, Jr.